Brett Ritchie would love to kick-start his career as Boston’s third line right wing.
But maybe he won’t. Maybe Anders Bjork, operating at an early point-a-game clip in Providence, rejoins the varsity with oomph. Maybe David Backes resets his ticking clock and gives the Bruins a full and productive season.
Or perhaps no one emerges at all, and Don Sweeney spends February foraging for reinforcements.
Regardless of who wins the still-open job next to them, Danton Heinen and Charlie Coyle must keep building, because Marcus Johansson is not walking through that door. The Bruins are relying on those two to carry the third line, at least in the near term, to keep things running smoothly.
In October, all teams are auditioning players, some more so than others. The Bruins lead with arguably the league’s most complete first line, and coach Bruce Cassidy is unafraid to use his hard-edged fourth line against anyone. The middle six, meanwhile, was not settled in camp. Since Karson Kuhlman keeps charging next to David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, the hole next to Coyle and Heinen looks like the most significant of an otherwise deep roster.
After losing Johansson to Buffalo on July 1, Boston signed Ritchie, retained Backes and gave Bjork a long look in camp before sending him to the AHL for more seasoning. The long view was that Heinen and Coyle would be able to bring someone along. They have to find their own games first.
Coyle and Heinen, meanwhile, are developing as a pair. They’ve had Ritchie for three games and Backes for two, with one even-strength goal (Ritchie, on opening night in Dallas). Johansson has four points in five games in Buffalo, centering a second line with 40-goal man Jeff Skinner. This is not to knock Sweeney for not coughing up the $4.5 million-times-two years that made Johansson a Sabre; he was set to open his checkbook for Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo, and had Backes’s $6 million under his cap. Johansson would have been a third-line luxury.
But this third line can still be as strong as it was last postseason, when Johansson-Coyle-Heinen outscored their opponents, 10-6, at even strength, and in some games, looked like the best line on the ice in a time of year when having a stout third unit is a prerequisite.
Johansson’s confident playmaking and zone entries were a major reason for their success — he was driving that line — but his absence might help Heinen shine.
Heinen, 24, dipped from 47 points as a rookie, when he played with Backes and Riley Nash, to 34 last year. He was up and down the lineup, playing the left and right side, with veterans and players younger than he (recall the short-lived Schoolboy Line with Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Ryan Donato). In the playoffs, he stood slightly in the background, his playmaking secondary to that of the speedier, flashier, more veteran Johansson, playing a more defensive role. He has shown a bit more confidence early on, scoring a power play goal in Dallas on opening night, when he, Coyle and Ritchie were Boston’s best trio.
“I’m always telling myself to shoot more,” Heinen said. “I think I can do a better job of, when he’s protecting the puck, getting open and maybe pushing off of guys and moving to areas, finding that soft spot a little bit quicker.
“And then, yeah, telling myself to shoot more and getting it away quicker. When [Coyle] protects the puck he’s usually beating his guy. If you can get open or if he can take it to the net, that’s something we definitely want more of. Reps will help.”
That’s the key for he and Coyle, or “Heino and Chuck” in puck parlance. If they are to be a pair Cassidy can rely on, they have to be given the chance to play night-in, night-out. Both have the talent to be 50-point players, and that’s more than good enough for the third line, particularly since they’re responsible elsewhere.
Coyle, 27, got there four years ago in Minnesota, when he followed a 21-21—42 year with an 18-38—56 season, at the end of a run of three 82-game seasons. He played in 66 and 81 games the next two seasons, and doesn’t feel as though he’s peaked.
He was one of Boston’s best forwards in the playoffs (9-7—16), praised by teammates and coaches as the best player in training camp. So far, he has one assist in five games.
“Get a practice in, get some reps in and create chemistry that way, that always helps,” Coyle said. “Sometimes that’s not always the case. With our travel, being on the road, we usually have days off and there’s a pregame skate, and then right to it. You’ve got to turn your brain on, talk a lot off the ice, whoever you’re with, and do those little things. That’s the best way to go about it. The more we get games under our belts, we’ll get more familiar with whoever we’re playing with and their tendencies, I think we’ll gel a little bit better then.”
It should work, in theory. Coyle and Heinen are both building blocks of the middle of this team, smart and skilled enough to carry a lower line together. Soon, it will become the expectation rather than the hope.