By Joe Chrzanowski | Follow Me on Twitter @jchrz19
The start of free agency saw the Bruins come out of the gate quickly, signing or extending seven players. Forwards: Brendan Gaunce, Par Lindholm, Brett Ritchie, Ryan Fitzgerald…Defensemen: Connor Clifton and Josiah Didier…Goalie: Max Lagace. While none of these players were big-name signings, which was to be expected given the Bruin’s limited cap space and restricted free agents, it was an encouraging sign for the fans of the team.
Over the next three weeks, forward Peter Cehlarik signed a one year deal, forward Danton Heinen inked a two-year extension, and center prospect Pavel Shen signed his ELC. Since then, all has been quiet on Causeway Street, with very little being said about restricted free agents Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo. This is not unusual for the Bruins. Since Sweeney was named GM, they like to keep everything internal and very little leaks out. The only comments on the subject came from Bruin’s President Cam Neely via Joe Haggerty two weeks ago.
What are the chances McAvoy and Carlo sign extensions with the Bruins? @HackswithHaggs breaks it down
— NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSBoston) August 2, 2019
That brings us to the present, and where the Bruins go from here. With the Backes’ contract still on the books, the team does not have the Cap space to acquire any more help at this juncture. So, what you see is what you get as training camp looms.
The only thing that appears certain at this point is that Tuukka Rask and Jaro Halak are the B’s two netminders. In this two-part series, we will take a look at the openings and question marks the Bruins have at forward and on defense heading into the 2019-20 regular season. Part One will deal with the forwards and Part Two the defense.
The Bruins return a Top 4 that was as good as any in the NHL. Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, and Krejci combined for 333 points. Jake DeBrusk had a “decent” sophomore season, and will likely be attached to Krejci’s left side, as he has been for the first two seasons of his career. His 27 goals in 2018-19 were more than acceptable, but it would be nice to see him up his assist and overall point totals, particularly as he was a staple on the PP most of the season.
The only real question mark in the Top 6 is who is going to play to the right of David Krejci. It seems that this has been an issue headed into every season since Nathan Horton left following the 2012-13 season. My first choice to fill one of the Top 6 right-wing positions would be Danton Heinen. I have been a proponent of putting Heinen with Bergeron and Marchand on a more permanent basis for a while now. He showed last season over a 16 game stretch when Pastrnak was injured that he can play and more importantly, produce, in that role, putting up 13 points during that span. This would allow the B’s to put Pastrnak on Krejci’s right-wing, giving him his first legit scoring threat there in years.
The Bottom 6 would appear to have four spots already locked up with Coyle, Kuraly, Wagner, and Nordstrom filling those positions unless something unforeseen happens. That leaves only two openings for a wide variety of candidates.
They include incumbents Karson Kuhlman, Petr Cehlarik, Zach Senyshyn, Ryan Fitzgerald, and Anders Bjork. Newcomers Par Lindholm, Brett Ritchie, Oskar Steen, and possibly Jack Studnicka (although the B’s have consistently maintained they want to keep him at center) round out the group. These players represent a wide variety of styles and experience levels and while all have question marks of one type or another, they give the Bruins the ability to go in a number of different directions.
Three of the contenders, Cehlarik, Lindholm and Ritchie are not waiver exempt, meaning the Bruins risk losing them if they don’t make the team out of camp. Every year this plays a factor around the league in who makes teams initially. Many times more talented players who are waiver exempt end up getting sent down to the AHL, at least to begin the season.
Bruins fans are well acquainted with Cehlarik. The 24-year-old former third-round pick has appeared in 37 NHL games over the last three seasons with mixed results. He has tended to start off quickly and then become less visible as his appearances mount. He’s a big body that uses his size for puck possession but is a below-average skater. The left-shot wing does have the flexibility to play both sides.
Lindholm was a point per game scorer for Skellefteå of the SHL, but it didn’t translate to the NHL with Toronto last season, where he had only 12 points in 61 games. He turns 28 in October and is primarily a center (51% in the dot with 400 attempts). His advanced stats were not great, but in his defense, he had only 30% offensive zone starts.
That brings us to the newly-signed Brett Ritchie. A big, physical scoring wing in his OHL days, who scored 41 for Niagara one year. The offensive side of his game has never manifested itself in the NHL, where he only has 33 career goals in 241 games. If I had to guess, I would say that the B’s see Ritchie as a cheap replacement for what Backes brings (on ice), if they can find a way to move 42.
The next group of guys: Bjork, Kuhlman, Senyshyn, Fitzgerald, Steen, and Studnicka contain my two favorites to get the remaining spots and also my “long shot” candidate. All of these guys are waiver exempt, so they will be susceptible to being “stashed” in Providence to start the season. For that reason, I am going to rule out both Fitzgerald and Studnicka. I would much rather see them playing big minutes in all situations with Providence than watching from the press box in Boston.
My favorite to take the first open spot in the Bruin’s forward lineup this season is Anders Bjork. The 23-year-old graduate of the University of Notre Dame already has 50 NHL games under his belt but has yet to have any tangible impact because of a variety of injuries. Shoulder surgeries have cut short Bjork’s seasons in consecutive years, but perhaps the third time is the charm? Bjork has an NHL-caliber shot, a quick release, excellent skating skills and is a good three-zone player. The only thing he needs to stick in my opinion is a bit of luck and some good health. As a rookie, Bjork put up 3g/6a in his first 16 games (playing with Marchand and Bergeron) before suffering a concussion after a collision with Toronto’s Matt Martin. The Bruin’s staff seems to really like Bjork, so he’s a possibility for Top Six duty again, but personally, I would start him on the third line at left-wing and see what happens.
The other player I see cracking the lineup in October is Minnesota-Duluth’s, Karson Kuhlman. Bruin’s fans are already familiar with him due to his strong play down the stretch and into the playoffs, where he compiled eight points in 19 games. Kuhlman is another player (like Bjork) that possesses plus speed and skating ability and a strong defensive game. I believe he would be a strong complement to Bjork and Coyle at right-wing on the third line. Bruce Cassidy could use a line like that in a variety of situations, including up against the top two lines of opposing teams. Combine that with the confidence he already has in the “fourth line” and it would provide him a great deal of flexibility when matching lines.
A player I’m sure the Bruin’s brass would love to see grab a spot is former first-round pick Zach Senyshyn. Bruin’s fans would likely be relieved as well if he became an NHL regular so they did not have to hear about the 2015 draft any longer. Senyshyn has the size/speed ratio needed to roam the right-wing on the third line. The only issue is that the scoring touch the 6’2″, 200 pound Ottawa product displayed in the OHL (114 goals in 195 games) has yet to manifest itself as a pro in the AHL. His supporters point to his deployment as a third liner and the desire to develop his three-zone game as reasons why he has not scored more. His critics say that a lack of consistency and hockey IQ’s are the culprits. I would love to see Boston start him off in a fourth-line role and let him play his way higher into the lineup. However, it may be a case of musical chairs, where there are too many bodies and not enough seats to go around?
My dark horse candidate for the third-line right-wing position is Swede Oskar Steen. He was a 6th Round Pick (165 overall) in the 2016 draft. He got off to a slow start in his first two seasons with Farjestäd of the SHL. In 2018-19, Steen was given a larger role and ran with it. He finished the season with 17 goals and 20 assists in 46 games. It was good for 10th in scoring in the SHL and he was the only player in the Top 10 under the age of 26 (20 at the time). He also finished with 49 PIM’s (18th) which is impressive for a guy of Steen’s small stature (5’9″, 187-pounds). I had the pleasure of watching him at several of the Bruin’s Development Camps, and in my opinion, he was easily the most skilled forward I saw. He’s quick, explosive, and strong on his skates. Given that skill set and his build, he will definitely garner some comparisons to Marchand. Obviously, he has a long way to go before he ever reaches that level.
I wouldn’t put money on it, but if someone twisted my arm and forced me to put in in writing, this is what my starting lineup would look like for Opening Night at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on Thursday, October 3rd:
There are definitely some question marks in the Bruin’s top nine, but there are also a number of candidates that could fill those holes. The options, competition, and differing styles of the players involved should make for an interesting Camp where roster spots will be on the line.