Bruins’ Depth Roster Battles Carrying Over From the Preseason

One week into the regular season, the Boston Bruins have seen the roster battles from training camp carry over. The names have started to switch though, with strong starts for Nick Foligno and A.J. Greer, coupled with a slow start by Craig Smith. On the back end, Mike Reilly and Jakub Zboril have failed to firmly steal a spot from each other. Combine these slow starts with the imminent return of Matt Grzelcyk to a top-four position, and the injury to Brandon Carlo and we see the Bruins are no closer to a clear answer than they were a week ago in training camp.

Bruins’ Fourth Line Winger

In camp, Marc McLaughlin seemed to have the advantage to break camp on the fourth line. When he was sent to Providence, the role seemed to fall to Jakub Lauko, another young prospect Bruins’ management was looking at. Both of these young wingers appeared to add an element of speed and skill that Foligno was lacking. Even with these deficiencies, Foligno started the year on the fourth line’s left wing, much to the chagrin of many fans on Twitter. Lauko performed well enough to earn the right wing spot on the fourth line, where he showed the tenacity and speed the coaching staff was hoping for.

Related: Bruins Rookie Spotlight: Jakub Lauko

These wingers, along with the emergence of Greer pushed Trent Frederic to the press box to start the season as a healthy scratch. In Frederic’s return to the lineup, Lauko subbed out, moving Frederic to the third line with Charlie Coyle and Greer, pairing Foligno with Tomas Nosek and Craig Smith. Lauko and Frederic both played well enough to justify regular inclusion in the lineup. Foligno, for that matter, has also regained enough form to continue justifying his spot in the bottom six.

Jack Ahcan Jakub Lauko Boston Bruins
Jack Ahcan and Jakub Lauko celebrate a goal for the Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

While these names have impressed so far, Smith has not. He has tumbled from a staple on the third line with the ability to play up as needed, to now being scratched. His game is based on relentless skating, high shot volume, and aggressive forechecking. None of those characteristics have been present this season so far. As a result, he’s seen his usage drop, including losing his spot on the second power play unit.

Smith is not cut out to be a fourth-line player. His style of play requires regular shifts and regular opportunities to handle the puck and create plays. When he is put in a position that limits his opportunities, like on the fourth line, he will look even worse than he already has this season.

Craig Smith, Boston Bruins
Craig Smith, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

With Brad Marchand returning to practice, he will retake a top-six spot, pushing Taylor Hall back to a line alongside David Krejci and David Pastrnak. Hall’s move will see Pavel Zacha likely drop down to the third line alongside Coyle. Who the other wing on that line will remain to be seen, but Smith has lost his hold on the role.

Bruins’ Third-Pair Defense

The other roster question coming out of camp was the third defensive pair. At the beginning of the season, the Bruins were missing two of their top four defensemen, as Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy were projected to be out until close to American Thanksgiving. Their spots were up for grabs, and the hope was Reilly or Zboril would step up and claim Grzelcyk’s spot. By bringing in Anton Stralman the Bruins banked on his steady presence solidifying the right side while McAvoy recovered. With injuries to Grzelcyk and McAvoy, spots remained open for the taking. Whether Reilly or Zboril would seize the initiative, or if Stralman’s signing from a professional tryout to a full contract could stabilize the back end, someone had to step up. Now that Carlo has been added to the injury list, finding someone to play valuable minutes down the lineup is key.

Reilly started the season looking to continue a strong preseason, where his skating and offensive instincts looked ready to return. Unfortunately, this has not been the case. Often, he has looked shaky and shown the lapses in the defensive zone that hampered his play all last season. His offense has not been enough to overshadow some of these warts and, although he continues to see regular playing time, he is far from guaranteed a place on the team when players return.

Mike Reilly, Boston Bruins
Mike Reilly, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Zboril was another standout during training camp. He has since shown flashes but generally returned to earth. He has provided greater stability in his own zone than Reilly but has still had mishaps of his own. As a younger option who has more versatility, he likely has the upper hand on Reilly, but both players are in danger of finding a spot in the press box once the team regains its health.

Who Do the Bruins Move?

So, with all of these moves up in the air, what should the Bruins do? Let’s start up front, where they must figure out their fourth line. Foligno has been good, but whether that trend is sustainable remains to be seen. Smith is the wild card here. His play has been the worst, but he also has the highest upside of the forwards. The Bruins should look to move Smith for whatever they can get, along with Foligno, hoping that some team will be willing to trade a future late-round draft pick for the veteran. Both options would clear large chunks of salary to prepare for the return of Marchand and McAvoy.

On the back end, Zboril should hold the edge over Reilly. Puck-moving defensemen are not in short supply for the Bruins, with Grzelcyk returning and Jack Ahcan waiting in the wings in Providence. By moving Reilly, the Bruins would be trading from this surplus, and clearing an extra $3 million from the salary cap in the process.

Related: 3 Bruins’ Standouts From the Preseason

The fact that the team has six of eight possible points for the season without their top left wing and two of their top four defensemen is an encouraging sign. With the return of these star players, the Bruins should continue to fight for the top of the Atlantic Division.

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