Tough Decisions Ahead for Julien and Staff
BOSTON, MA - When the Bruins' home opener on October 3 comes around, Head Coach Claude Julien will have submitted his 23-player opening night roster to the league.
And if the trend during training camp continues, the decisions the B's bench boss and management have to make to get down to that magic number won't get any easier.
"I think it’ll come right down until the end to make those last few calls," Julien told reporters recently. "Because what we’ve got right now, we’ve got a lot of discussions on certain players."
Those discussions are likely revolving around the competition among those looking to crack the third line, or earn a spot on the blueline, with a slew of newcomers and young player impressing throughout camp.
"There’s quite a few guys in the mix. That’s some of the stuff I alluded to [this week] by saying we’re going to have some tough decisions to make at the end," Julien said following the B's 3-2 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on September 23 at TD Garden.
"And there’s no doubt those decisions will be made as a group; upper management, coaches involved, because everybody’s going to have an opinion and going to have to weigh pros and cons and everything else that goes with it."
Julien has always embraced the tough lineup decisions - especially when it's reflective of the depth in the organization. We saw it during the playoffs, with an emergence of young defensemen like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski proving themselves at an elite level.
Now, he'll be faced with the difficult process yet again - though, it will likely remain fluid at the beginning of the season.
In their four preseason games, forwards like Ryan Spooner, Nick Johnson and Reilly Smith have all been making strong cases for themselves, along with Carl Soderberg. Jordan Caron, Matt Fraser and Matt Lindblad also remain in the mix of those fighting for a spot.
The third line style involves "a little bit of everything," as Julien and Chris Kelly would say, blending grit, scoring and a strong two-way game.
For General Manager Peter Chiarelli, the biggest common denominator for a player who's in that mix is "hockey IQ."
Chemistry with Soderberg, Kelly Helping Smith's Case
The line of Chris Kelly centering Carl Soderberg and Reilly Smith strung together two strong preseason showings, against Detroit and Washington. It's earned them the chance - for the time being - to remain together.
With Kelly the mainstay on the third line, and Soderberg combining his strong puck recovery game and the ability to score, it seems as if the only question among the two forwards is who is playing center on the third line, and who is moving to the wing (well, unless Ryan Spooner has something to say about it).
Chiarelli has noticed "prototypical winger traits" in Soderberg's game, like the ability to stretch the D wide and use his strength to play a power forward type of game.
Soderberg also brings his potential for the power play to the B's roster, being able to take pucks hard to the net, serve as a big-body presence down low and be a playmaker.
Smith has helped complement those two with his grit, strong two-way play and "jam," as Julien calls it.
When the winger came into camp, he wasn't considered a "dark horse," having played 37 NHL games with Dallas last season in a bottom-six role.
"I liked that line; they created some stuff again. So, yeah, absolutely I think you’re seeing we’re giving Smith the look on that line," Julien said following the B's 3-2 overtime win over the Caps on September 23. Smith earned the assist on Kelly's OT-winner.
"When we started, we wanted to have a real good look at him and see how he would fit there. And obviously those other guys will be battling to see if they can entertain that position as well. Whether it’s the 13th forward or whether it’s for call-up reasons, I’ve got two games here to play with those situations."
Spooner Battling for Spot
"I think Spoons sees what’s in front of him but what he has to do is control what he can control and that’s his game," said Julien, of centerman Ryan Spooner, who is entering his second year pro, after leading the P-Bruins in scoring in 2012-13 (17-40=57 totals in 59 games).
Spooner has been showcasing his NHL speed and has become a "more involved" player, adding stronger battling and puck pursuit to his high-end offensive game. He hasn't found the back of the net yet this preseason, but has put up two assists.
"You’ve seen teams make room for players when they feel it’s deemed and that they can," added Julien. "So he has to do the best he can here and impress us to a point where he makes us make a tough decision. Right now, that’s what he’s doing and he has to keep doing that."
"Obviously any kind words are good for the confidence and it’s good that he’s taken notice, the things I’ve improved on," Spooner said, of his Coach's positive remarks. "I worked out in the summertime to make sure that I was prepared…and just being strong, practicing a couple of times a week. Just to see that my hard work paid off is good."
The B's prefer Spooner down the middle in his centerman role because of his dynamic game, but if he keeps performing well and proving he can play a consistent two-way game, he may force their hand to try him on the wing, or entertain moving the versatile Chris Kelly to the wing.
Spooner is obviously open to the idea.
"Definitely [would] take some time for me to adjust," he said, on switching to the wing. "But I’ll do what they want me to do and I’ll do whatever they ask."
Newcomer Johnson Opening Eyes
Since the first preseason game in Montreal, Nick Johnson has established that he has an NHL shot.
Albeit not in the regular season, but his three goals on seven shots (plus multiple scoring chances) through four games showed he has a scoring touch. And his instinct to stick up for Adam McQuaid during 'fight night' against the Caps brought out a nod from the Captain.
"Outstanding job by him, a lot of character, that’s exactly what the identity of this team is," Zdeno Chara said of Johnson. "His approach and his reaction to protect his teammate was outstanding, good for us and great for him."
"He’s in the mix. That much I can tell you; he’s in the mix," Julien said following the OT win over the Caps, who gave the forward credit for the mismatched fight. "It's not how many you win; it's how many you show up for."
With 104 NHL games that included a full season with the Minnesota Wild in 2011-12 (he put up eight goals and 18 assists for 26 points), the 27-year-old is the most experienced forward at the NHL level "in the mix."
Described as a smart and efficient player with strong skating by Chiarelli, Johnson has progressed throughout camp but just sticking to his game.
"You go out there, play, have fun, try to get involved with the team, get to know the guys. It’s exciting, it’s a lot at stake," he said. "It’s just a fun process. You can’t think about it too much, you just go play right?"
"Every day you’ve got to hard. Every day could be your last, so that’s the way it is and if you can, embrace that for the season."
Caron, Fraser, Lindblad Still in the Mix
The B's have made a number of cuts throughout camp, in addition to those above, fourth year pro Jordan Caron, newcomer Matt Fraser and signed college free agent Matt Lindblad still remain with the big club.
"We’re watching Jordan as well," said Julien, when asked if Caron was still in the mix. "I think you’ve seen him on the power play in front of the net certain games; he’s killed a little bit for us. We need to see his improvement as well. We have to be able to assess him properly and give him the proper chance."
"But there’s no doubt he’s been with us for more years than some of those other guys so you have an idea of what you’ve got but you still have to give him that opportunity and give him that chance to earn himself a spot."
"I think by next week he’ll be one of the guys that we’re going to be talking about whether he stays or goes."
Caron's gritty style shows his ability to battle hard in front of the net and the corners, and help cause turnovers.
"We know what kind of player he is; he just has to go out there and do that," said Julien.
"I’m ready. It’s my fourth year now, and I’m really, really excited for this year coming up," said Caron. "There’s more room on the lineup than the last few years so I want to put my foot down and take the room that there is."
Matt Fraser has moved around lines a bit during camp, first playing with Carl Soderberg and Craig Cunningham, then in game action with Soderberg and Nick Johnson. Next, he played on the wing with Johnson and Ryan Spooner, and in his most recent game, with Spooner and Caron.
While he hasn't had the same consistency at camp as Smith, Fraser has showcased his quick NHL release on a number of occasions; he just has yet to find the back of the net.
"Matt Fraser is known as a real high-end, skilled player and you can see he has really good skills, shoots the puck well, and so does Smith," Julien said earlier in camp.
"Smith’s got more grit to his game, but also goes hard to the net and can shoot the puck well also. So both of those guys I think are great acquisitions."
Matt Lindblad has elevated his game from rookie camp to Boston's camp, and got his chance centering Merlot wingers Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton against the Caps at TD Garden. He can play on the wing or at his natural center, with a work ethic that could put him on the trajectory for being an "energy guy" and in a Chris Kelly type of role one day.
The first year pro, after finishing up his career at Dartmouth College, brings a high compete level and has started to prove that he can be a viable call-up during the season.
Battle for B's Blueline
While the competition remains heated among the forwards for opening night, the battle on the back end is just as strong.
The blueline battle, though, isn't really full of any surprises.
Three established young defensemen in Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski have all proven themselves at the NHL level, even with limited experience; now, it's about consistency moving forward into the regular season.
Early on in camp, Chiarelli also pinpointed Kevan Miller and Zach Trotman as standouts in the "newcomer category." Trotman was released from Boston's main camp and joined the P-Bruins but Miller still remains with the big club. With a "tough to play against" stay-at-home style, Miller could end up staying with Boston as a depth defenseman.
While no spot is guaranteed, the greater body of work from the trio of Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski puts them ahead in the running. And all bring a burst of puck-moving offense to the B's game.
Krug's power play finesse will help his case.
"He’s got good mobility, he sees the ice well and he finds his players pretty good and he shoots the puck well too. He’s certainly one of those guys that I think is going to improve our power play this year and also when you look at him, the way he moves," Julien has said.
Hamilton brings his own offensive mind to the B's man-advantage with his ability to get shots through and proved during the 2012-13 regular season that he can serve as a top-four D-man, having been paired mostly with Chara and Seidenberg.
With Krug and Bartkowski showing confidence and consistency, some might suggest the 20-year-old would do well with time in Providence.
"My goal is to have him in the NHL," said GM Peter Chiarelli.
Making his own case for a full-time roster spot, Bartkowski came into camp, following his postseason showing, in great shape and with an NHL pro's outlook.
"The way things went for him last year with us, finishing up the season with us, he’s coming in with a lot of confidence. I think right now it’s basically his job to lose, as far as being here with our hockey club," said Julien. "He took it seriously enough to come in the best shape ever and right now the confidence that he’s gained throughout the last part of last year playing with us has certainly helped him."
But the crux of the situation still remains, that, right now (barring likely injury call-ups throughout the season), there are three defensemen for two spots.
As such, Julien will remain cautious in his assessment, knowing that they've all proven themselves.
"He’s in a situation now where, as you know, we got at least three young guys that are going to be battling for a regular spot in the lineup and I certainly wouldn’t say he’s going to be in, or out."
Whenever Julien has to go through the difficult decision-making process, he and the B's brass know that it's not the end-all, be-all. They'll see all of these players with Boston at some point throughout the season, and it's up to them to embrace their opportunities, as they've done at camp so far.
"It’s pretty exciting because, to me, it just gives us that much more depth of players you know that can play," he said.
"So it’s up to them now to stick and to make their spot. Obviously there is a lot of competition there, but it's pretty exciting because there are going to be a lot of options and a lot of tough decisions when the time comes to make those."