By: Patrick Donnelly | Follow me on Twitter @PatDonn12
The Boston Bruins will open up training camp in just over a week on Jan. 3 as the start of the 2020-21 season on Jan. 14 against the New Jersey Devils draws closer. With the departure of Torey Krug (and potentially Zdeno Chara, who knows), the additions of Craig Smith and Greg McKegg, and the injuries to Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, the roster is very much in flux for the start of the season.
I’m not here to speculate on Chara’s future, or whether or not the Bruins will wind up with Mike Hoffman on the roster before the start of the season. Also, as Cam Neely told reporters earlier this week, Marchand and Pastrnak likely will not be available for opening night as they continue to recover from offseason surgeries.
With all that in mind, here are my line predictions for the Bruins on opening night as the roster currently stands:
First Line: Bjork – Bergeron – Studnicka
In a perfect world, Marchand and Pastrnak are healthy, which makes the top line a no-brainer. Alas, nothing is perfect in 2020. Patrice Bergeron has proven he can carry a line, and given the way he seems to make everyone around him better, Anders Bjork and Jack Studnicka should do alright here.
Bjork has played alongside Bergeron before, and looked like he belonged. As for Studnicka, he’s expected to at least compete for a spot in camp, if he’s not already a lock to be on the roster. Who better to learn from than Bergeron as Studnicka starts his full-time NHL career?
Second Line: DeBrusk – Krejci – Kase
I think everyone, including head coach Bruce Cassidy and general manager Don Sweeney, would like to see what this line can do for an extended period of time, considering all we have is the smallest of sample sizes. David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk have proven chemistry together, and Ondrej Kase has the tools to be successful on No. 46’s right side. A motivated DeBrusk and Kase, combined with the known commodity in Krejci, could make this line dangerous.
Third Line: Ritchie – Coyle – Smith
Ideally, you would have Bjork on the left side here, which would make for an insane third unit, but Nick Ritchie seems like a decent candidate to slot in here. In my mind, Boston probably wants to give him an extended look to see if he can at least somewhat figure it out after the debacle that was the 2020 Playoffs, but I’d say he has a short leash.
Craig Smith is the middle-six juggernaut the Bruins needed, who should thrive with Charlie Coyle. Expect Coyle to excel again in this role, especially with someone of Smith’s caliber to his right.
Fourth Line: Frederic – Kuraly – Wagner
Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner need to be better than they were last season. The duo made up two thirds of arguably the league’s best fourth line in 2018-19, but seemed to be always be chasing the puck last season. I’d expect them to be the incumbents until proven otherwise.
Trent Frederic is super intriguing here. After having a 32-point (8g, 24a) breakout season with Providence last year, he is definitely going to earn a look in the bottom-six during training camp. He has the tools, size and style of play to fit this role, and his versatility as a winger and center helps.
First Pair: Grzelcyk – McAvoy
Pairing Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy together could pay off in spades for the Bruins. As I wrote earlier in the fall, Grzelcyk has a track record with McAvoy in the NHL with superb underlying numbers. The pair has proven to be possession masterclass and should be a strong pairing this season.
McAvoy is coming into his own as a franchise, top-pair defenseman and should continue to blossom. He earned Norris Trophy consideration last year, and should at least earn the same consideration again.
Second Pair: Vaakanainen – Carlo
Brandon Carlo has come into his own as one of the best shutdown defensemen in the NHL, and he continues to fly under the radar. The big, smooth-skating stalwart should continue to build on an impressive young career.
To his left is where things get really interesting with this defense core. It’s anyone’s guess as to who fills the role, but I’d like to see Urho Vaakanainen get first crack. The 2017 first-rounder has all the makings of a top-four defenseman. Although he did not have the greatest season last year, the young Finn has been knocking on the door, and may just be ready to go.
Third Pair: Lauzon – Clifton
Jeremy Lauzon has fit in nicely on the third pair in recent seasons, and should continue to grow his game. Connor Clifton’s 2019-20 was marred by injury and inconsistency, but he has proven he can play at the NHL level in the past. If the Bruins want to truly go with a youth movement on defense, this is a solid third pair. Both players bring the mobility, snarl and edge in their games to fit the bill.
Scratches: John Moore, Kevan Miller, Par Lindholm
I suppose there are worse contingency plans for your extra defensemen, although the Bruins are paying Miller and Moore a solid chunk of change to likely be rotational pieces. It remains to be seen what Miller can still contribute at the NHL level as he recovers from multiple knee surgeries, keeping him out of action since April 2019. Lindholm was a solid spark plug last season and his dependable style of play make him a viable option to slot into the lineup if needed.
Goaltenders: Rask – Halak
Tuukka Rask is the starting goaltender, and it’s not really up or debate. Leaving the NHL Bubble for family reasons should not factor into the decision at all for any reasonable human. Rask finished second in Vezina Trophy voting, earned a share of the Jennings Trophy with Halak, led the league in goals-against average (2.12) and finished second in save percentage (.929). He’s still an elite starting netminder.
Jaroslav Halak in his own right has been great for the Bruins, but the 2020 playoffs showed he really is not the type of guy to be able to carry a team anymore. A perfect “1B” goaltender, he will make the perfect compliment to Rask again this season.
There’s still plenty left up in the air too. Karson Kuhlman and McKegg should be in the running for a fourth line or reserve role, while Zach Senyshyn will surely push to find a spot up front. On defense, Jakob Zboril is also expected to be firmly in the mix for one of the two open spots on the left side.
With “taxi squads” in play this year, those guys could easily find their way onto the NHL roster or the opening night lineup between injuries and the ever-present risk of COVID-19. Although, if they do not make the opening night roster and are assigned to the taxi squad, Zboril and Senyshyn would have to clear waivers. Goaltending prospect Dan Vladar could easily find himself as the third netminder on the roster, if the Bruins decide to go that route, or on the taxi squad.
Regardless, everything seems to be in flux as the league and its teams continue to hammer out details leading up to the 2021 season. So, it stands to reason the world will turn upside down as Chara and Hoffman sign with Boston, and these projections end up being wildly wrong.