TAMPA — Help is coming for the Bruins, but if any arrives in the near term, it is likely to come from within.
Defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who practiced with the team in an hour-long skate Wednesday at Amalie Arena, appears to be the closest to a return. But even if he came back from his concussion on Saturday (no guarantee), he’d need time to shake off seven weeks of rust. Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, and Kevan Miller are weeks away.
That’s a major reason team president Cam Neely isn’t itching for the team to make a roster-changing move — that is, if one were available that wouldn’t compromise a roster with a playoff-caliber mix of youth and experience, potential and proven ability, all at fair cost for the current NHL salary structure.
The timing, though, may not be kind. Thursday will be Game No. 28 for the Bruins, who are treading water at 14-9-4 and holding onto the first wild-card spot in the East.
They play seven playoff-position teams in their next 12, beginning Thursday against the NHL-best Lightning (21-7-1). That takes them right up until New Year’s Day, when they face the Chicago Blackhawks, tied for third-fewest points in the NHL (23; 9-14-5 overall), in a Winter Classic matchup that loses steam by the day.
They may be whole again by that point, but if they play .500 hockey until then, where will that leave them? Would a move for a top-six winger or a third-line center, still positions of need, separate them from the also-rans?
“It’s a delicate balance,” Neely said after Wednesday’s practice, “of seeing if there’s a bigger solution that’s not just a Band-Aid, and what does that look like, knowing these guys are coming back.”
The Bruins didn’t expect to use rookie defensemen Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton at all, much less as a pair. They didn’t plan on handing top-six forward minutes to Joakim Nordstrom, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Colby Cave. They didn’t expect to call on 12 defensemen by the 19th game of the season.
“The guys that have stepped in, give them credit,” Neely said. “They’ve competed, they’ve battled, they’ve played OK. So it gives you a better understanding of where we are depth-wise. For the most part, they’ve done OK, but you can maybe see it catching up a little bit with the ice time they’re getting at this level.”
The Bruins hoped 23-and-unders who showed promise last year — McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Anders Bjork, Ryan Donato among them — would continue their upward trend. Giving up on them now would mean doing so early, which is yet another reason Neely isn’t pounding the table for a move.
“We look at where we’re at, where we’d like to be, and our health is certainly an issue, but we recognize that,” he said. “If there’s something we can do, we’d like to do it, but we have to be cautious.”
The ideal fix for any team is from within.
“I think because we’re having trouble scoring, you’re seeing us play a little looser than we should be,” Neely said. “That’s creating problems. We’re giving up more scoring chances than we normally would have.
“I’d like to see us tighten up and manage the puck better and not try to do everything yourself. When you’re an offensive player and you try to create, sometimes you try to create too much and it has an adverse effect.”
He may have been alluding to Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, who have combined for three goals and six assists in the last nine games without their No. 1 center, Bergeron.
“You have to do other things the right way,” said Marchand (7-17—24), who has three even-strength goals. “We can’t worry about winning with four or five goals. We have to win with two. That’s just where we’re at right now. We just have to play well defensively.
“They’re going to go in eventually.”
DeBrusk tries not to think about the personnel losses.
“Teams are coming at us hard,” he said. “They see us without Bergeron, without Chara, and they understand they can have a good night if they’re pressing hard on the forecheck.
“We’ve got to make sure we limit turnovers and play not safe, but smart.”
Coach Bruce Cassidy said both his 25-and-under players (“There are what, 15 of them?”) and his established creators need to remember what made them successful in the last month or so.
“After a game like yesterday [5-0 loss], you get on the bus or the plane, there are probably 10 things you’re [upset] about. You can’t fix them all in one practice.”
He didn’t bag-skate his charges after the 5-0 loss, owing in part to a dense schedule of games. They focused on breakout structure, the power play, and poor gap control against Florida.
Start there, and fix more of it later.
“Young guys, if they overthink the game, they’re going to paralyze themselves,” Cassidy said. “That’s part of the growing-up process of putting things behind you. We’re on to Tampa Bay, in the famous words. For us, they come in very handy.”
Kampfer gets nod
Cassidy said defenseman Steven Kampfer will return to the lineup Thursday, replacing Clifton or Lauzon. Cassidy was “looking at” his forward lines, which on Wednesday had Nordstrom riding on the left side with David Krejci and DeBrusk, Noel Acciari centering Chris Wagner and Donato, and Heinen on the fourth line with Sean Kuraly and David Backes. Forsbacka Karlsson (DNP the last three) may go in, his wheels a plus against the speedy Lightning . . . Tuukka Rask will start in net . . . Cassidy did not hear from the NHL’s department of player safety about Clifton’s hit on Florida forward Nick Bjugstad . . . Acciari spent some of the latter part of practice grimacing after he and John Moore collided behind the net. Acciari was slow to get up, favoring his upper left side, but finished practice and is expected to play Thursday . . . DeBrusk, with seven goals over the last month, is the club’s most consistent producer in that stretch. But he noted he was the first fly-by victim of Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson, who went end-to-end for a top-shelf goal Tuesday. “You don’t see too many goals like that,” DeBrusk said. “It wakes you up.”
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports