Bruce Cassidy likes to tinker with his lineup. Don Sweeney has given him a flexible roster. Given that coach-general manager combination, projecting a limited four-line, three-pair configuration for the Bruins is an unsatisfying exercise for the open-minded among us. They’re probably going to show a bunch of different combinations game by game. What you see on opening night isn’t likely to be what you see in November, to say nothing of playoff time.
A team that was 60 minutes from lifting the Stanley Cup didn’t change much. Forwards Marcus Johansson (Buffalo) and Noel Acciari (Florida) left via free agency, and Sweeney signed four players — forwards Brett Ritchie (Dallas), Par Lindholm (Winnipeg) and Brendan Gaunce (Vancouver) and goalie Maxime Legace (Vegas) — who are unlikely to play significant roles.
We’re not talking our way into a cop-out, though. Since we have little else of news value to report — negotiations with Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo are progressing slowly, though respectfully — here’s a look at what the opening night lineup could look like, with as many factors as reasonably possible considered.
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak
This assumes Bergeron, who ended the year with a groin injury, starts the season on time. Hundred-point man Marchand, as always, is on his left. We’ll keep Pastrnak here for now, maintaining one of the league’s most impactful trios. If Anders Bjork (two left shoulder surgeries in two years) is both healthy and up to the challenge of riding there, it would allow Cassidy to drop Pastrnak to Line 2, boosting the top six as a whole. Danton Heinen could be a fit on the right side, too, though he may be more valuable as a third-liner.
Jake DeBrusk-David Krejci-Karson Kuhlman
DeBrusk is a scoring chance creator, and Krejci is one of the best second-line centers in the league. The right wing job could go to Pastrnak, as noted. Peter Cehlarik could make a push, if he can gain Cassidy’s trust. Third-line center Charlie Coyle might even get a look, if another bottom-six pivot (Trent Frederic?) knocked loudly enough.
For now, we’ll start it the way 2018-19 ended and go with Kuhlman, who could make a jump in his first full season after his spring fling. His ceiling may not be as high as Bjork’s, but he has wheels, works hard and is reliable — he won’t go away easily. One to keep on the back burner: if the rest of Zach Senyshyn’s game catches up to his skating, he’ll become a full-timer.
Danton Heinen-Charlie Coyle-Brett Ritchie
Heinen, a natural left wing, moves back to his strong side with Johansson gone. He also assumes more playmaking duty with Coyle and Ritchie, who can possess, cycle and work the walls and net-front. The Bruins would love it if Ritchie (16 goals for the Stars in 2015-16) finds some of his old touch. If not, he isn’t costing much (one year, $1 million), and the Bruins have plenty of kids to try. Cehlarik must clear waivers to be sent to Providence, so the Bruins will make sure they know what they have before sending him down. AHL standout Ryan Fitzgerald had poor shooting luck last year, but the Bruins believe he’s a good, if undersized, winger. Paul Carey and Chris Wagner could get runs with Coyle, their South Shore pal.
Joakim Nordstrom-Sean Kuraly-Chris Wagner
An effective fourth line loses a physical presence in Acciari, but the Bruins do not lack for depth here. Par Lindholm, a left shot, isn’t as sturdy as Acciari but takes faceoffs, kills penalties and brings more offense; based on the chances he had, his one-goal 2018-19 seems like a fluke. Ritchie can play in an energy role.
David Backes, if he isn’t buried in Providence, could help in limited stretches. Providence agitator Anton Blidh could get in the mix.
Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy
Chara, who turns 43 in March, is still an above-average defender and excellent penalty-killer. His skating continues to decline, but McAvoy’s mobility helps. Matt Grzelcyk can slide in with his old BU partner, McAvoy, to give the Bruins a more dynamic look.
Torey Krug-Brandon Carlo
A lot to like here. Krug is one of the game’s elite distributors and erased doubts about his defense in the postseason. Carlo’s emergence as a shutdown man was one of the driving forces in Boston’s run to Game 7 of the Cup Final.
Matt Grzelcyk-Connor Clifton
Grzelcyk’s all-around game made a huge jump in his second season. The Bruins aren’t sorry to have a promising youngster such as Clifton taking more reps with hard-edged Kevan Miller on the mend.
Lefty John Moore, when healthy, adds more depth and lets top prospect Urho Vaakanainen cook for another season in Providence, if needed.
Would-be Conn Smythe winner. Any haters still out there? Expecting a few to show up if he takes it easy in October. Old habits die hard.
Excellent value at $2.75 million. He’s 34 with a year left on his deal. Rask is 32 and signed for two more.
The time is now for Bruins goalie prospects (Jeremy Swayman, Dan Vladar and Kyle Keyser) to climb the ladder.