With two preseason games remaining, the roster battles continue to smolder as fringe players look to cement their spot on the opening night roster for the Boston Bruins. A.J. Greer has seen his stock skyrocket already, while Nick Foligno and Trent Frederic continue to sink following uninspired and ineffective performances. During the lead-up to the season, the injury bug has struck Boston again, this time knocking Taylor Hall out for at least a week, putting the start to his season in jeopardy. Fabian Lysell also took a knock over the weekend, and fans await his return to see if he can break camp with the big club, especially given the hole in the top-six following Hall’s injury.
So, with all these moving parts, I thought it would be fun to provide my input on how the Bruins roster should open the season. Keeping in mind that the organization will have to eventually resolve cap issues to return Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, and the ahead-of-schedule Matt Grzelyck, here are the skaters and goalies I feel should be on the ice (or in the press box but carried on the roster) next Wednesday against the Washington Capitals.
The Bruins’ forward group always figured to be a topic of discussion. Head coach Jim Montgomery has spoken positively about Nick Foligno and the role he can play on the team, along with excitement for working with Trent Frederic, the two names originally slotted into the bottom-two left-wing roles. This meant the only true opening was on the fourth line at right wing and as the extra forward. AJ Greer made sure to blow those assumptions up with a two-game spree against the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers that saw him fight, score two goals, including the overtime winner, provide bone-crunching checks, and essentially secure a spot on the opening night roster. Greer now appears to be a lock to make the roster, meaning previous plans are going to be revisited.
Marc McLaughlin seemed like a safe bet to send to Providence simply because he did not require placement on waivers, but he’s flipped the narrative here as well. His inspired two-way game has shown he belongs in the bottom-six, where he will provide a shutdown role with more offensive flair than some other options. In a team that will be searching for goals from each line, this boost to the fourth line could be vital to McLaughlin making the team.
I would break camp with 13 forwards, using these lines (assuming Taylor Hall remains out to start the year):
|Jake DeBrusk||Patrice Bergeron||Jack Studnicka|
|Pavel Zacha||David Krejci||David Pastrnak|
|A.J. Greer||Charlie Coyle||Craig Smith|
|Trent Frederic||Tomas Nosek||Marc McLaughlin|
|Taylor Hall (injured)||Nick Foligno|
The Bruins have been clarifying some of these roster battles already, placing Oskar Steen on waivers for the purpose of assignment to the AHL. The other notable name I have omitted is Lysell. While he is a natural right wing who could slide into the top line while Hall recovers, I would rather see him find his game at the AHL level before getting called up to Boston. Lysell is an immense talent, and he will be a valuable asset for the Bruins, likely before the end of the season. But he is also only 19, so there’s no need to rush him to the top league in the world. Also, as will become common in this exercise, he does not require waivers, making it more appealing to send him to Providence rather than a player like Studnicka, who would be available to 31 other teams hungry to latch on to a 22-year-old center with offensive potential.
Since he’s been brought up, let’s turn to Studnicka. The natural center is an option for the fourth-line pivot position, but that would be misusing him in my eyes. Studnicka struggled under Bruce Cassidy, partly because of the rigid structure, but also partly because he was often centering lines with less offensively gifted linemates. I think this is the year to find out what the Bruins have in the player and give him an opportunity to play meaningful minutes.
Last season Jake DeBrusk was elevated to the top line with Bergeron and Marchand, and he jumped from an underwhelming third-liner to a top-line talent if anyone is debating whether he’s earned his spot running top-six minutes. Studnicka could be this year’s version of DeBrusk. Give him talented linemates, in this case, Bergeron and DeBrusk, and find out if he can cut it. If Studnicka is struggling by the time Marchand returns in November, send him to the AHL. But don’t relegate your organization’s top center prospect to waivers, where he will leave for nothing.
The defensive choices carried less intrigue than the forward group, simply since the blue line is one step away from being the walking wounded. Two of the top four defensemen the Bruins would have planned to start the season with are out until November. Mike Reilly, who was no sure thing to make the team, had to spend the summer recovering from ankle surgery. Jakub Zboril was working his way back from an ACL injury sustained last December, so although there was hope he would be healthy enough to return, nobody could say for sure.
Given what the team has shown through the first preseason games, here is how I would break camp on the back end.
|Hampus Lindholm||Anton Stralman|
|Mike Reilly||Brandon Carlo|
|Derek Forbort||Connor Clifton|
Obviously, this group all hinges on the Bruins signing Stralman to a contract from his PTO. Given his steady game, especially alongside his countryman Lindholm, I would say this is likely the plan. Stralman’s signing would also give the Bruins three right-handed defensemen rather than turning to Reilly or Zboril to take shifts on their offside.
Zboril has been one of the stars of this preseason and could very easily jump over Mike Reilly for the left side of the second pairing. I have liked Reilly’s jump, as he seems more comfortable playing under Montgomery’s system than he did last year with Cassidy. Having the offensive track record, a healthy Reilly can provide depth and valuable minutes to the back end. Zboril is a weapon I would like to play, but his value is his versatility. Since he is comfortable playing either side, he is an ideal seventh defenseman who can step in, likely for either Reilly or Clifton to push them to secure a full-time role.
The other question would be who to pair with who. Although the Swedish connection between Lindholm and Stralman makes for an intriguing match, there is also something to be said for pairing Stralman’s calming approach with Reilly or Zboril, who may need defensive cover as they look to activate into play. Carlo is perfectly fine at this role, but the goal was for him to take a step and be more engaged offensively this season, a factor that would be much easier alongside Lindholm rather than having to look to cover for Reilly or Zboril.
The Stralman signing would also make the Bruins’ penalty-killing unit look especially potent. With shutdown defenders on the right side in Carlo and Stralman, partnered with Derek Forbort, who has cut a role out for himself as a PK specialist, and Lindholm, a do-it-all top pair defenseman, the penalty kill should once again be an asset.
What this group will look like in November with the return of Grzelcyk and McAvoy will be the real test. Barring another injury, it’s likely Reilly, Zboril, or Clifton will have to be moved to clear cap space for the return of players. Seeing how general manager Don Sweeney manages these players and what return he can get for any of them will be a storyline to keep an eye on, especially as the days march towards Thanksgiving.
This is the easiest group to project. The Bruins know, barring an injury, they will be relying on Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman in net. The only question at this point is, which player starts the opener? My gut would say Ullmark gets the nod in Washington, and Swayman gets the next game — the home opener against the Arizona Coyotes. There is not much rhyme or reason to this pick, other than both players have been exceptional, and both played exactly half of the Bruins’ games last season, so picking up where the rotation left off feels like the most logical idea.
As for why Ullmark starts the opener and Swayman takes the first home game, that is based solely on sentimental value. Ullmark is incredibly valuable to this team, but Swayman is the future, and giving him the home opener and chance to perform in front of the crowd that will be backing him for years to come would be the choice I fought for. Either way, whichever guy starts, the Bruins’ strength should be built from the net. The two names picked will have the least debate between Montgomery and his staff.
Prepare for Opening Night
Whether this is the group, or if there are some minor tweaks, maybe angling for the younger option of Lysell over Wagner or deciding against signing Stralman, the true test will be how the Bruins perform in the regular season. As training camp has progressed, more and more voices from outside New England are jumping on the Bruins bandwagon and picking this to be a competitive team.
Fans will have their first opportunity to see the team in meaningful action on Oct. 12 in Washington, D.C. So, who did I miss on my roster? Let me know how you would lay out the team and what your expectations for the season are in the comments below.
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Vince Reilly covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Vince graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelors in History and Political Science and earned a Masters in Sports Administration from Belmont University. He has worked in the Predators Front Office on Analytics and Operations, with Major League Baseball in Replay, and now with Tufts University as a Director of Hockey Analytics. Vince can always be found with a coffee in hand and he promises his sarcastic tone will always shine through his work.