With Loui Eriksson and Shawn Thornton returning this weekend, and Chris Kelly not far behind, the Bruins forward group is beginning to look like one of the deepest in the NHL. With a full complement of forwards at his disposal, it will be interesting to see how Claude Julien juggles his lines. Until Eriksson, Kelly and Thornton return to the lineup for good, we are left to speculate how things will shake out.
When the season began, Julien was tasked with integrating newcomers Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson into the lineup, while also finding a way to incorporate Carl Soderberg and Reilly Smith in their first full season with the Boston Bruins. Iginla slotted in on the right wing alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic, helping to keep that line firing on all cylinders after the departure of Nathan Horton. Eriksson settled in on the second line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, creating one of the best two-way lines in the NHL. The third line worked itself out, as Chris Kelly quickly developed chemistry with his new wingers, Soderberg and Smith. The “Merlot” line remained unchanged, giving the Bruins some much needed consistency amidst the turnover up front.
Then came the month of December.
Focusing simply on the forwards, the Bruins saw Chris Kelly, Loui Eriksson, Danny Paille, and Carl Soderberg miss time due to injury, while Shawn Thornton was suspended 15 games for an incident against the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Bruins patched the holes with internal options from Providence, giving guys like Jordan Caron, Matt Fraser and Ryan Spooner an opportunity to prove they are ready for the NHL.
In the absence of the injured, Reilly Smith established himself as the right winger on the second line with Bergeron and Marchand, while Ryan Spooner staked claim to the role of third line center. With the success that they’ve achieved in their new roles, the Bruins young forwards have given Claude Julien a lot to think about as he constructs his line combinations.
While streaks and slumps may dictate changes down the road, let’s take a look at what the best line combinations are for the Bruins going forward.
The First Line
Milan Lucic – David Krejci – Jarome Iginla
Since the beginning of the 2010-2011 season, the Bruins have relied upon Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton as their top scoring option. With Horton departing in free agency this summer, the Bruins turned to free agent Jarome Iginla to replace Horton. Although he got off to a slow start (production wise), Iginla has proven to be exactly what the Bruins needed. Ranking second on the team in goals scored, Iginla has given Boston a true goal scorer, while providing a physical presence opposite Milan Lucic. This line has been consistently successful from the get-go, making up three of the top four Bruins in points on the season, and has given Claude Julien no reason to make any changes.
The Second Line
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – Reilly Smith
After trading Tyler Seguin to Dallas this summer, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Bruins had acquired his replacement in Loui Eriksson. Eriksson played a solid two-way game, making him a logical fit with the 2012 Selke Award winner Patrice Bergeron. On opening night, that proved to be correct, as Eriksson was paired with Marchand and Bergeron. This line failed to develop the chemistry that had been expected, so when Eriksson went down with a concussion early in the season, the Bruins took the opportunity to try out different wingers in his spot. The auditions didn’t last long, as Reilly Smith got hot and refused to relinquish the role. Smith has meshed so well on this line, that he has found himself leading the team in goals, while ranking second in points. The addition of Smith has elevated the entire line, helping to pull Brad Marchand out of a dreadful slump and kick-starting the offensive production of Patrice Bergeron. Barring a severe regression from Reilly Smith, coupled with an offensive outburst by Loui Eriksson, this trio should be kept together going forward.
The Third Line
Carl Soderberg – Ryan Spooner – Loui Eriksson
This is where the lines get really interesting. When Chris Kelly suffered a leg injury in December, the Bruins called up center Ryan Spooner, rewarding him for his stellar performance in Providence to date. Spooner stepped in as the third line center and showed why his prospect value was so high. His elite speed has been on display, along with his superb offensive skills, most noticeably his passing ability, turning the third line into a legitimate scoring threat. When Loui Eriksson returned to action this weekend, he joined Soderberg and Spooner on the third line, and instantly generated positive results with his new linemates. In the Bruins 1-0 victory over the San Jose Sharks, Spooner and Eriksson assisted on Soderberg’s goal, which proved to be the eventual game-winner. Between Spooner’s speed and passing, Eriksson’s scoring touch and defensive awareness, and Soderberg’s size and strength, this line is extremely balanced and gives Claude Julien a third line that can play in any situation. If this line stays together, this line would be one of the most dominant third lines in the NHL.
The Fourth Line
Daniel Paille – Chris Kelly – Gregory Campbell
Breaking up the “Merlot” line would be uncharacteristic for Claude Julien, but it would make a valuable fourth line, the best fourth line in hockey. This line would be reminiscent of the 2011 playoffs, where Rich Peverley saw time on the wing with Paille and Campbell, giving Boston the unmatched depth necessary to win a Stanley Cup. All three of the forwards in this group are key members of Boston’s penalty kill unit, which has been among the best in the league for the last few seasons, making this a shutdown line of sorts. Both Kelly and Campbell are reliable at the dot, while all three do a good job using their speed to generate pressure on the forecheck. This version of the fourth line would play a pivotal role in grinding down opponents, making them vulnerable to the offensive attack of the Bruins top lines, while also keeping opponents off the scoreboard. Claude Julien’s loyalty to veterans has been on display for the majority of his tenure as Boston’s head coach, so in all likelihood, Shawn Thornton will be given every opportunity to re-earn his spot on the fourth line. Based on how well Ryan Spooner has performed so far in Boston, Thornton might be facing an uphill battle, and this line could become a reality. If so, the Bruins will be sitting pretty when the playoffs roll around in April.