By: Patrick Donnelly
The 2018-19 season for the Boston Bruins kicks off Wednesday night in Washington against the Capitals as their Stanley Cup celebration comes to a close with the banner raising ceremony. The Bruins are going to be fighting an uphill battle early on as some key facets of the team are already facing injuries.
First, Patrice Bergeron went through nearly all of training camp without taking contact at practice and missed all of the preseason, although the team says he is ready to go and will suit up Wednesday night after finally being a full-participant at practice on Tuesday. Matt Grzlecyk also dealt with a lower-body injury, but returned to practice this week. So, it looks like he will be suiting up on Wednesday night as well.
The real blow is losing Torey Krug. Krug went down with a left ankle injury in Saturday’s preseason finale against Philadelphia and was later seen in a walking boot. Don Sweeney said on Monday that Krug will miss three weeks and will be re-evaluated after spending time in a walking boot. So the Bruins’ back-end will need to be at its best early and often without one of its key pieces. With that being said, let’s take a look at the (probable) starting lineup for the season-opener, based off of Tuesday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena:
Looking at the forwards:
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Jake DeBrusk – David Krejci – Danton Heinen
Ryan Donato – Sean Kuraly – David Backes
Chris Wagner – Noel Acciari – Joakim Nordstrom
Scratches: Anders Bjork
No surprise there with the best line in all of professional hockey at the top. There was talk over the summer about maybe putting Pastrnak with David Krejci and trying Donato or Heinen on the top line. However, trying to spread the wealth down the lineup has frankly not worked out well at all in the past. So, Bruce Cassidy and company decided to keep the power trio together. There were questions of whether or not Bergeron would be ready to go after suffering back spasms as a result of his recovery from off-season groin surgery, but No. 37 will be ready to go to start the season.
The second line is where things started to get interesting in this forward group. Krejci was a lock at center as was DeBrusk on his left since the two had great chemistry and found success at key times last season, especially during the first round against Toronto in last year’s playoffs. The big question here was who would end up playing on the right side, which really came down to either Danton Heinen or Ryan Donato and it looks like Heinen as won the job.
In my mind, Donato would have been a great fit on that line since he is a pure scorer and has gobs of offensive skill and potential, meaning he would have made the second line an offensive nightmare for other teams’ defensemen. However, the challenge for him would have been be playing his off-wing as a lefty, which can be a tall order for a rookie.
So, Heinen is the safe move here as he has a year of experience under his belt and was able to manage on his off-wing at points last year. Heinen is much more sound in his own end than Donato (which is expected since Donato is such an offensive-minded rookie who only has 12 NHL games played) and is very capable in the offensive end as well.
The third line is where things get even more interesting. We knew David Backes would be there on the right wing, but replacing Riley Nash at center isn’t going to be easy. Also, there was the matter of who would play on the left side. After “losing out” on second line right wing, Ryan Donato will slot in on the left side. The battle for third line center was one of the most interesting points throughout all of camp, and the three main guys vying for it were Sean Kuraly, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson (JFK), and Trent Frederic.
After showing that they both aren’t quite ready for the NHL (even though they’re very close), JFK and Frederic were assigned to Providence as it became clear that Sean Kuraly won the job during the preseason finale. This will be a good opportunity for the 25-year-old Miami University (Ohio) product to showcase his abilities in an elevated role. At times it seems as if some have unfairly locked Kuraly into just being a fourth line center after just his first full year of pro hockey, but after a sample size of games in 2016-17 and a full year last year, Kuraly has shown nothing but progress in that span and has earned this opportunity.
This brings us to the fourth line, another interesting story heading into camp. With the departure of Tim Schaller and with Sean Kuraly moving up to the third line, Noel Acciari was left as the one remaining piece form last season’s fourth unit. However, newcomers Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner look as if they will be able to slot in after Daniel Winnik and Lee Stempniak weren’t signed off of their PTOs (professional tryout offers).
Wagner, who signed for two years at $1.25-million per, posted seven goals and nine assists in 79 games between Anaheim and the Islanders last year. A career fourth-liner Wagner is perfectly fine for this role as he is able to provide physicality, speed, and penalty killing to the bottom-six. As for Nordstrom, he had two goals and five assists in Carolina last season, has been a career bottom-six player, and is strong in his own end of the ice, bringing speed and penalty killing, like Wagner.
As for Anders Bjork, who missed almost all of last season with a shoulder injury after starting on the top line, the 22-year-old was able to return for the preseason finale on Saturday night and looked very impressive, showcasing his speed and skill. However, it doesn’t look like it was enough for him to crack the opening night roster.
The Notre Dame product did take rushes on the fourth line during Tuesday’s practice, but it doesn’t seem like a young skill player like Bjork would be a good fit on the fourth line. So, Don Sweeney faces an interesting decision with Bjork, it won’t do him any good to watch from the ninth floor every night nor will it help his development if he suits up in a fourth line role where he can’t play his style of hockey.
As a result, Sweeney may be forced to send Bjork down to Providence in order for him to play meaningful minutes and play a top-six role that will help his development as there is simply not enough room for him as of right now. If that ends up being the case, don’t be surprised if Sweeney ends up signing Lee Stempniak off of his PTO. Stempniak would be a perfectly fine depth piece as the extra forward and can slot up and down the lineup if needed.
Transitioning to the back-end:
Zdeno Chara – Charlie McAvoy
John Moore – Brandon Carlo
Matt Grzlecyk – Kevan Miller
Scratches: Urho Vaakanainen, Steven Kampfer
After debate about who would be paired with Zdeno Chara, either Charlie McAvoy or Brandon Carlo, Bruce Cassidy decided to stick with what worked last year, putting the sophomore phenom, McAvoy, with the captain this season. Chara had a renaissance year last season, and by all accounts around the team, the 41-year-old might be even better this season.
Originally, Carlo was slated to be paired with Torey Krug and John Moore would suit up alongside Kevan Miller with Matt Grzlecyk and Steven Kampfer as the healthy scratches. However, Krug’s injury put a wrench into all of that, obviously, and Moore will move up with Brandon Carlo. Moore, who signed a 5-year contract worth $2.75-million per-year this summer, is a left-handed, smooth-skating, and hard-hitting top-four defenseman who is reliable on the defensive side of the puck, and has a cannon of a shot.
As for the bottom pairing of Grzlecyk and Miller, those two found a good deal of success last season. Grzlecyk will also be filling Krug’s spot on the top power play unit next to David Pastrnak to start things off. As another result of Krug’s injury, it looks as if Urho Vaakanainen will crack the NHL roster. The 19-year-old Finnish prospect was drafted in the first round (18th overall) by the Bruins in 2017.
Vaakanainen has great vision, is a great skater, and has a fine playmaking ability. The puck-mover showed he has what it takes after a very impressive rookie camp and training camp; it even looked like he’d make his NHL debut this week, but with Grzlecyk healthy, that moment will have to wait. As for Steven Kampfer, who was acquired in the Adam McQuaid deal, he will find himself in the role that Paul Postma found himself in last season as he’ll likely be nothing but a depth piece for this team.
Who’s between the pipes:
Starter: Tuukka Rask
Backup: Jaroslav Halak
Tuukka Rask is your starting goaltender. Period. That is all.
In all seriousness, after a rough start last season, Rask turned things on and was on pace to be a top contender for the Vezina before regressing a little towards the end of the season. Overall, last season was solid for Rask. This year, he will need to be just as good, if not better, especially in the playoffs, as a lot of fans seem to be dubbing this season “Cup or bust,” for the Bruins.
Halak has the potential to be one of the league’s best backups. His starting and fringe-elite days seem to be behind him at this point in his career; he would be a starter on an “okay” team and a backup on a very good team; the Bruins are this very good team.
Halak signed a contract for two years and $2.75-million per this summer with the Bruins. The 33-year-old posted a record of 20-26-6 with a .908 save percentage for a very bad Islanders team last season. At this stage of his career, Halak simply can’t be counted on to be a consistent starting goaltender for a Stanley Cup contender, but, like Anton Khudobin last year, Halak should be able to perform well enough to keep Tuukka Rask honest and on his game as he could be able to start a few games if needed; it worked last year as Khudobin getting a few consecutive starts was the spark Rask needed.
Previewing Wednesday night’s opener in Washington:
The Bruins will start their season at 7:30 against the Washington Capitals in our nation’s capital. Fresh off of their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, Washington will be without pest Tom Wilson, who could be suspended for more than five games as he faces an in-person hearing with the Department of Player Safety on Wednesday morning for a hit to the head that left Oscar Sundqvist of the St. Louis Blues motionless on the ice.
The Bruins have always had a tough time against Washington and Braden Holtby, especially on the road, and Wednesday will be no different as the crowd will be into it from the jump with Washington’s Stanley Cup banner raising ceremony taking place beforehand. Putting Boston’s recent woes against the Caps aside, this game should be an exciting contest and really could go either way by the end of the nigh based off what the lineups will likely be. Fans can watch on NBCSN or listen on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
Outlook on this season:
This Boston Bruins team has loads of potential and could make a deep playoff run, depending on the matchups they draw. The competition in the Atlantic Division will be tough as Tampa Bay, Toronto, Buffalo, and Florida have all gotten better with Tampa and Toronto being the main challenges.
The Bruins’ success this season will be reliant on the young guys entering their second seasons being just as good, if not better, this season as they cannot afford to have sophomore slumps, the top line producing like it always has, Zdeno Chara not falling off of Max Kellerman’s famed “cliff, ” and Tuukka Rask not turning into a pumpkin when the clock strikes midnight. Fans should be excited as the Bruins should be in the mix at the top of the league once again this year. Buckle up, folks. Hockey is back.