The Boston Bruins did not make many off-season moves as they entered the 2022 off-season as a cap team. With very limited wiggle room to add contracts, general manager (GM) Don Sweeney made one trade, sending Erik Haula to the New Jersey Devils for Pavel Zacha. Aside from that, it was bringing back veteran centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci to be the top two centers.
One goal of the Bruins this offseason was to get younger up the middle and they managed to get older. Sooner or later, Bergeron and Krejci are not going to be walking through the doors of Warrior Ice Arena to lead the top six and the center position will have a new look to it. That’s coming in the future and it’s time to look at the present with the approaching 2022-23 season. Here is a look at how the center position battles that will be worth keeping an eye on under first-year coach Jim Montgomery.
Veterans Expected to Fill Top-Three Lines
It’s a no-brainer as to who will be centering the top two lines. Bergeron, who many thought was going to retire at the end of last season, returns on a very team-friendly contract that carries a $2.5 million average annual value (AAV) and another $2.5 million in incentives. At 37 years old, there is no doubt that Bergeron still has a lot left in the tank after scoring 25 goals with 40 assists in 2021-22, while also winning his record fifth Selke Trophy. After spending one year in his home country of the Czech Republic, Krejci returns on a one-year, $1 million AAV deal with another $2 million in performance-based incentives. With both players back in the fold, it solidifies the top two for the upcoming season.
Entering last season, Charlie Coyle started the season as the No. 2 center bend Bergeron, but struggled before being dropped to the third line and Haula filled in his place. Being on the third line is the perfect spot for Coyle, who will carry a $5.25 million AAV this season, which is some serious money for a third-line center. Coyle performed better in that spot and this season could get a boost when Brad Marchand returns in December from his recovery from double-hip surgery this offseason and Zacha gets dropped to his left wing, giving him a talented player on his left side.
Players Battling for Fourth-Line Position
This is where things get interesting for Montgomery. There are multiple ways the former Dallas Stars coach can go.
Last season Tomas Nosek was one of three bottom-six free agent signings by Sweeney and he settled in as the fourth-line center for most of the season. It was an uninspiring season for the former Vegas Golden Knight who had three goals and 17 points with a plus/minus of minus-11. He filled in on the wing at times and was serviceable at the face-off dot, but he can be pushed this camp by some of the young players.
Is this the season that Jack Studnicka finally makes the roster at his natural position at center? He has had some stints in the NHL as a right wing, but he has proven that he is best effective when he is at center. His development has come along with the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL) and he’s been knocking on the door of a full-time spot.
Sweeney has blocked his chance at a roster spot with veteran signings, but Studnicka was brought back on a two-year contract that carries a $762,500 cap hit over the offseason. His deal is a two-way for this season and one-way for 2023-24, which leads you to believe that another season in the AHL might be in the cards for him. That can all change with a strong camp and if the Bruins do want to get younger on the roster, he is the type of player that can be that younger player on a nightly basis.
After signing last spring following his junior season at the University of Michigan, John Beecher gets his first NHL training camp opportunity this season. The 30th overall pick of the 2019 Entry Draft will get a head start with on the season by playing in the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo. He got his feet wet last season in Providence and will be looking to make an impact in camp. He’s looking to not only make a name for himself this season, but also win a spot on the roster.
“Absolutely … I’m here to make an NHL roster,” said Beecher, asked if could see a clear path to securing a varsity job. “That’s been my dream ever since I was a little kid, so whether that’s a couple of weeks or a couple of months from now, all it takes is one injury, a call-up, and give it everything you’ve got to be able to stick. The biggest thing is to keep at it no matter where I’m at this year.” (from ‘Prospects Fabian Lysell and John Beecher are long shots to crack Bruins roster, but they will give it a whirl,’ Boston Globe, Sept. 14, 2022)
A full season in the AHL is the most likely outcome, but a strong camp can go a long way toward fighting for the final center spot. He certainly sounds like he’s ready to make a name for himself.
The Bruins signed Marc McLaughlin last season after his career at Boston College ended and it did not take him long to make an impact in the NHL. In 11 games, he had three goals and provided the bottom six with some needed energy shifts. He played both on the wing and at center, but was primarily a center at BC. With Curtis Lazar leaving in free agency, McLaughlin will get a shot to earn a fourth-line spot at center and on the wing.
Former first-round pick Trent Frederic is another flexible player for Montgomery who can play both on the wing and at center. It was an up and down season in 2021-22 for the former University of Wisconsin standout, but at times it appeared he was turning a corner in the NHL. The Bruins can use his physicality and grit, but he needs to produce sooner or later.
There is not a lot of younger center depth for the future. Studnicka and Beecher might be the most NHL-ready players, but with Nosek having one year remaining on his contract, he is the leading candidate for the final center position. Nosek also has experience on the wing, which could be a move that Montgomery makes to open a spot for a younger player.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.