Once the Ray Bourque era in Boston came to its conclusion, the fans of the Boston Bruins were not used to their hometown team missing the playoffs. Well, the modern era and the turn of the century occurred. That led to numerous disappointing seasons, massive overhauls, and player/coach rotations galore.
Ever since Claude Julien and this core group of players started the nucleus that new fans have come to love, the B’s have been very successful. After what was considered a letdown of a season, the Black and Gold missed the postseason in 2014-15 after making seven-straight trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Preparation for the 2015-16 season has been underway, and it culminates with the beginning of training camp on Sept. 17—official on-ice workouts begin on Sept. 18.
So what should we all keep an open mind about during the three weeks of organized team activities? Here are the five key points to watch for during training camp and the preseason…
1. Who will backup Tuukka Rask?
As if this subject was not beaten to death enough, it still remains the hottest point of discussion for the Black and Gold heading into the 2015-16 season. The backup goaltender position will be heavily contested throughout training camp and into the preseason.
In a previous article, the case was made for Jeremy Smith to be the logical solution assuming that no other external moves were made. The 26-year-old netminder made former first-round pick Malcolm Subban look inferior during their respective stints with the P-Bruins, posting a 9.33 save percentage and a 2.05 goals against average. Although everyone has to go through the motions, look for Smith to back up Tuukka this year.
2. Can Ryan Spooner be an everyday player at the NHL level?
Spooner finally received a shot at playing every night in the NHL last season, and the 23-year-old did not disappoint. Spooner played 29 games, most of which came toward the very end of the Bruins’ season while centering a line that included Milan Lucic and rookie David Pastrnak. He recorded eight goals and 10 assists for 18 total points and a plus-2 rating.
With a new contract extension under his belt, Spooner is almost certain to secure the third-line center position. Honestly, Loui Eriksson and Jimmy Hayes will be ideal candidates for his wingers. Eriksson seemed to play much better when the pressure was off and did not have to produce top-line points; he finished with 22 goals and 25 assists in 2014-15. Hayes will be the big body that every line needs, opening up space for his linemates to create scoring chances. When push comes to shove, it will all come back to Spooner and how well he can play on a nightly basis.
3. What will the line combinations look like?
We just took a brief gander at what the third line might look like come opening night, so what about the top two lines?
Newly acquired Matt Beleskey should step in and provide the slightly improved scoring punch that this team needs. Pastrnak played extremely well last year with David Krejci, so there would be no reason to break up that duo. That leaves Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand with Brett Connolly. That could be an interesting trio if all things end up working out the way they are supposed to. Connolly only played five games with Boston last year, picking up two assists in a bottom-six forward role. If he gets the chance to play with Bergeron, he could thrive.
4. With three guys competing for one spot, who will take advantage?
And now, we come to the defense.
Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Torey Krug, Zach Trotman, and Adam McQuaid are locks to crack the top six come opening night. That leaves Colin Miller, Kevan Miller, and Matt Irwin.
C. Miller as the most upside. The 22-year-old prospect came over to the Bruins in the Lucic trade. He had a solid rookie AHL season with five goals and 17 points in 60 plus games but he came on strong last season and finished with 19 goals and 52 points in 70 games. The 6-foot-1, 173-pounder added 10 more points in 19 AHL playoff games. Miller won both the hardest shot and fastest skater competition at the AHL All-Star Game. That is a very impressive resume.
As for K. Miller, he missed literally half of last year with a shoulder injury. He must work his way back into the lineup and prove that he can remain healthy while still providing that bruising presence on the blue line.
Irwin probably lands on the bottom of the list since he does not bring anything unique to the table. If the Bruins want a shakeup with the defense, they should role with C. Miller…assuming that he performs as well as upper management says he does.
5. Which young standout will make the team?
This final point usually unfolds towards the end of training camp. According to what the team has been saying, Brian Ferlin and Alexander Khokhlachev are the two young guns from Providence that will push the veterans for a chance to make the opening-night roster. Ferlin, who stands 6’2” and shoots right handed, skated in seven games last season and picked up an assist. He plays hard along the boards and will grind out battles.
On the other hand, Khokhlachev is a skilled center who has had a ton of success at the AHL level. He was recently regarded as the top prospect in the organization, so that alone should be enough motivation to work even harder to make the roster.
Since both of these guys have two-way contracts, the player who does not make the roster should be sent down to Providence. They would do no good serving as the extra skater while they could be seasoning up by playing every night in the AHL. With that being said, Max Talbot would be the perfect guy to serve as the 13th forward. His leadership would still be felt, but not necessarily on a consistent basis for the games. Look for Ferlin or “Koko” to be the 12th forward this season, but a fourth line of Chris Kelly alongside Zac Rinaldo and Ferlin would not be the worst option.
Yes, these upcoming three weeks are a grind and often the most grueling part of the season. However, this is what separates the elite teams from the rest. Things will shake out in a matter of weeks. The Bruins open the season at home on Oct. 8 against the Winnipeg Jets.