Bruins 4th Line in Limbo After Demotions

The NHL Preseason is winding down, and each club has given onlookers a dose of what can be expected throughout the 2018-19 campaign. It’s important to remember that teams didn’t play their 18 starting skaters in every game. Exhibition rosters are riddled with prospects and depth players who may not see NHL ice as of October.

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The Boston Bruins fourth line remains a question unanswered. (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s no different for the Boston Bruins. As they ramped up for the 2018-19 season, September gave fans and the media alike the chance to see the team’s wealthy prospect pool in action. It also gave free agent acquisitions, like Jaroslav Halak and John Moore, their first glimpse at life in a Bruins sweater. While success or failure during the preseason doesn’t dictate the regular season’s outcome, it can provide an indication as to what a team’s strengths and weaknesses are as October comes knocking.

It also gives the coaching staff an idea of what is working in terms of line combinations and chemistry. Trends for the Bruins this summer included Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak sticking together on the first line while David Krejci has been playing with Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen. The latter three skaters could very well be Boston’s second line this season, despite some speculation that Pastrnak would move down to the second line in pursuit of more well-rounded production.

But what is still unclear is the team’s bottom-six. A number of prospects have made bids for a starting role among the Bruins’ bottom two lines this summer, including Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson. The 2015 second-round draft pick had some struggles during the preseason which led to his assignment to Providence to start the regular season.

Joining him are fellow forwards Jordan Szwarz and Ryan Fitzgerald, both of whom were also attempting to earn their way into Boston’s opening-night lineup. The poor performances are disappointing, but head coach Bruce Cassidy still has a number of options at his disposal.

Rookie Face-off Woes

The Bruins are known for their two-way game, even after the Claude Julien-era came to a close. The former Boston coach put an emphasis on face-offs, which is why long-time centers like Patrice Bergeron and Krejci tend to win more battles at the dot than they lose. However, this tradition hasn’t carried over to the Bruins’ prospects, just yet.

In Wednesday’s overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings, centers Forsbacka Karlsson and Trent Frederic had their fair share of troubles. The former went 4-for-13 at the dot while Frederic won 40 percent of his 15 face-offs. One of Boston’s biggest battles in camp this summer has been for fourth-line center duties as Sean Kuraly, who took the role on last season, is expected to rise to the third line. That is if David Backes doesn’t take over the job because of poor performances by the up-and-comers, forcing Cassidy’s hand in keeping Kuraly as the team’s fourth-line center.

Taking a closer look, Forsbacka Karlsson failed to win a single draw in the offensive zone on Wednesday, tossing away a number of opportunities for the Bruins to mount an attack. This was especially troublesome during the third period. The team couldn’t get anything going in the final frame, only tossing six pucks on net, which handed the Red Wings all of the game’s momentum as the two teams entered a 3-on-3 overtime. He was subsequently sent packing.

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Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson struggled in the face-off circle for the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While Frederic held his own in the offensive zone, going 4-for-6, he was only able to pick up 33-percent of his draws in Boston’s defensive zone and went 0-for-3 in the neutral zone. That region of the ice haunted the Bruins, especially during the third period, as their transition game dwindled. Frederic, though, wasn’t sent down to the AHL after Wednesday night’s game.

Instead, the 29th-overall pick of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft was sandwiched between Marchand and Pastrnak on the first line for Saturday’s tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers. While no one expects him to usurp Bergeron’s role this season (who missed the entire preseason with a back injury), it gave Frederic the opportunity to show what he is capable of when given two lethal goal-scorers.

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Trent Frederic didn’t impress as the Boston Bruins took on the Philadelphia Flyers in their last preseason game. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Frederic only saw 11:48 in time-on-ice on Saturday, winning 45-percent of his draws. It wasn’t an impressive performance, and as the last forward prospect left standing, Frederic may be voted off the island before opening night. Going up against NHL regulars seemed to put the 20-year-old in his place.

Bruins Bottom-Six Predictions

Of course, there is more to being a center in the NHL than winning face-offs. Offensive production, positioning, and two-way play are just a few of the characteristics team’s look for in that role. Forsbacka Karlsson, who many expected to crack the Bruins’ opening night lineup, has been strong in some of those areas. However, there is a reason up-and-coming centers are often used as wingers, and it’s because of their performance at the dot. It shouldn’t be expected that Forsbacka Karlsson will undergo this transformation, but it is a significant brick in the wall between him and the NHL.

Backes went 9-for-14 in the face-off circle on Wednesday. Many expect him to play on the third line for the majority of the season, but this indicates that he remains a viable option as a centerman. It may not be a bad move, especially when you consider that he has struggled on the wing as a Bruin — a return to his original post might enable Backes to redeem himself. If this is to be the case, Kuraly would likely take control of the fourth line where he had success last season.

David Backes could return to the center position for the Boston Bruins this year. (Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports)

On Kuraly’s wing would be Noel Acciari who has experience as a center — which is just another route the Bruins could take. If Acciari is to center Boston’s fourth line, as he did during Boston’s final preseason game, this would allow Cassidy to skate Kuraly, Backes, and a winger like Heinen, Anders Bjork, or Ryan Donato together, making for a very versatile third line. Acciari was strong in Boston’s final preseason game, racking up minutes on the power play and penalty kill while notching five shots on goal.

While puzzling, all of this is a great problem to have for a hockey club — a number of prospects have been pushing for a starting role this summer while the Bruins have held onto experienced players who are able to take on the duties of a centerman. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out by the time the boys in black and gold take on the Washington Capitals to kick off the regular season. Boston fans and media personalities have varying opinions on what the lineups should look like this season, which all points to something very positive — the Bruins have what feels like an infinite number of combinations that could breed success.