The Bruins chopped seven from their training camp roster Tuesday, leaving 16 forwards, eight defensemen and three goalies left to skate on the TD Garden ice Wednesday.
The buzz around the press room was that all but a few of the smallest battles were finished. One of Steve Kampfer and Matt Bartkowski figured to land the seventh defenseman spot. One of Chris Clark and Jordan Caron was likely to land the 13th forward spot, and likely see some playing time in rotation with Benoit Pouliot and Shawn Thornton, among possibly others.
Everything, more or less, appeared to be set. Then, coach Claude Julien threw a Corsonian “Not so fast my friend,” out there for us know-it-all scribes to digest.
“It doesn’t mean those guys are only fighting for open spots,” Julien said. “They can be taking somebody else’s spot if we feel like they’re a step ahead of them.”
Julien was asked to expand on that, and pointed to the organization’s recent history of cutting or moving veteran players prior to the start of the season. The Phil Kessel trade is the most notable move, as Kessel was moved on September 18, 2009, for draft picks that turned into Tyler Seguin, Jared Knight and Dougie Hamilton.
“Every year we’ve had guys step in and had guys who were released or sent down,” Julien said. “That’s not going to change. I don’t think the organization, as a whole, wants that to happen. I think we’ve taken pride in giving the players that deserve to be here that opportunity. We’ve tried to stay away from politics of the sport and go with guys who deserve it.”
Julien was asked specifically about the battle for the seventh defensive spot, and alluded to two guys specifically duking it out for that spot, presumably Kampfer and Bartkowski. Julien referred to that battle as, “Pretty even.”
Which means that, if any spots are more open than previously thought, it’s at a forward position.
The squad’s most likely forward alignment will look something like this:
Milan Lucic – David Krejci – Nathan Horton
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – Rich Peverley
Benoit Pouliot – Chris Kelly – Tyler Seguin
Daniel Paille – Gregory Campbell – Shawn Thornton
13th man: Jordan Caron, Chris Clark, Lane MacDermid or Max Sauve
Caron had been receiving rave reviews for the second straight camp from Julien. Today, he referred to the right-winger as having, “His foot in the door more than he has one out.”
The praise suggests Caron is a near lock to at least make the team, and if anybody were to displace a projected starter, it would likely be the 20-year-old who skated in 23 NHL games last year.
The question, then, is which current starter is closest to the bubble? Benoit Pouliot is a potential candidate. The soon-to-be 25-year-old –– his birthday is Thursday –– hasn’t exactly received glowing reviews from Julien.
The coach compared Pouliot’s transition into the Bruins’ system to that of Peverley and Kelly after the pair were acquired in midseason deals last year. Both struggled during the regular season to fit into the Bruins’ D-first style, but hit their respective strides in the postseason and became key contributors.
Julien thinks Pouliot could make that same transition. He also made it obvious that Pouliot has not made that transition yet, and that it may take a while before he’s up to an appropriate speed.
“Sometimes, you need patience,” the coach said. “I know he can skate. I know he can shoot. The rest is going to be up to him to show us that he’s adapting and is going to be a better player. We have to allow him that opportunity. When that opportunity is given and we feel he’s had enough time, then we make those decisions.”
Does that mean Pouliot is in danger of losing his NHL contract? Probably not. But it does sound like the winger is behind the learning curve, and is not currently an ideal fit for a Boston system that requires strict diligence and awareness defensively.
Of course, it’s still possible one of the other contenders could bypass Caron, Pouliot, or perhaps another mystery player on the bubble for a starting gig. In particular, 12-year-veteran Chris Clark could compete for ice time. At 35, Clark has proven this fall that there’s still gas left in his tank, and that he’s not afraid to drive into the corners and play a little bumper car with opponents –– something Julien and his staff value highly.
Add in his veteran presence –– a potentially valuable asset to a team looking to fill Mark Recchi’s seasoned skates –– and general experience, and it’s not unreasonable to think Clark could fit well in the Black and Gold.
There also may be more than just performance to consider. Caron can still be optioned to Providence without penalty. Clark –- who is in camp on a tryout basis –– cannot. Clark didn’t rule out the possibility of playing in the AHL if he doesn’t make the Bruins, but he will likely head where his services are most needed.
In a sport rife with injuries that require depth upon depth, being able to keep Clark and Caron in the system could behoove the B’s.
“All I’m saying right now is the guys who deserve to be here will be here,” Julien said when asked if returning starters could lose their spots. “You guys can come to whatever conclusion you want, but I think right now the spots are open for the guys who deserve to be here. I think I more or less answered that earlier by saying we’ve had guys in the past who have been pushed aside and other guys have taken their spots. So that means yes, right?”