By: James Swindells | Follow me on Twitter @jimswindells68
Having clinched a playoff spot with their 3-2 matinee victory at TD Garden on Saturday over the Detroit Red Wings, the Boston Bruins look like a team that could and should make a substantial run at a Stanley Cup championship. With NHL playoff hockey scheduled to start April 17th, Bruins’ management, coaching staff, and head coach Jim Montgomery have begun work on a load management plan with roster players.
With trade deadline additions to Boston’s roster, general manager Don Sweeney assembled a roster with a depth he has never been afforded and has an opportunity to build in days off for the veteran core. Sweeney could look to the AHL’s Providence Bruins as a phase in the Bruins’ load management plan. These call-ups will give the Bruins’ top AHL prospects a taste of NHL play and reward veteran players for continuing to work hard and stay prepared in the event of a call-up. These call-ups could also be used as an audition for a future move to Boston in the playoffs based on necessity with injuries or poor play.
So when the rubber hits the road in the playoffs and the Bruins need to look to their affiliate in the “A,” who are the candidates to see action potentially? Here’s a look positionally at where Sweeney and Montgomery could turn in a “break glass in case of emergency” scenario.
As a Bruins fan, things are not trending in the right direction if it gets to this juncture. This is the only place on the Bruins roster where poor play does not warrant a roster move. The two-headed monster of Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman gives the Bruins sufficient depth to account for either goaltender not playing up to expectations. A devastating injury in the playoffs to either Ullmark or Swayman would have opened the door for veteran Keith Kinkaid to step in before the NHL trade deadline. But Kinkaid’s trade to Colorado left the Bruins without a goalie at the AHL level with playoff experience on their résumé.
An emergency call likely goes to Brandon Bussi, who has had an exceptional AHL rookie season. Bussi’s game leans toward ensuring he is positionally sound and, paired with his 6’5″ frame, makes him a formidable opponent for opposing offenses. He excels laterally with his post-to-post movements and has a nose for showstopping saves. As much as I love Bussi’s potential future growth inside the organization, the one place where it need not be accelerated is in the meat grinder of NHL playoff hockey. In preparation for that scenario, Bussi could see some late-season play in Boston if Montgomery decides to limit playtime down the stretch to Ullmark and Swayman.
The blue line is where Boston has more flexibility and depth and is afforded opportunities to explore solutions from within. The addition of Dmitry Orlov at the trade deadline permits Montgomery to cycle through the likes of Connor Clifton, Derek Forbort, and Matt Grzelcyk to build in off days to rest that trio for the upcoming playoffs. If and when Boston clinches the NHL’s President’s Trophy, the odds increase that Montgomery works load management days for Brandon Carlo, Hampus Lindholm, Charlie McAvoy, and Orlov.
McAvoy, Lindholm, Orlov, Carlo, Grzelcyk, Forbort, and Clifton create a steady core to work out which six blue-liners Monty plays, and Jakub Zboril, as the odd man out, and 8th defenceman affords Sweeney roster flexibility that ensures making use of a defenceman from Providence all the more unlikely.
I only see three viable options in this extreme “break glass” scenario. Mike Reilly, Anton Stralman, and Jack Ahcan have previously been used inside the organization and have skill sets that could make them valuable in a worst-case scenario. Reilly (16 games) and Stralman (113 games) have playoff experience, while Ahcan possesses none. Reilly and Ahcan would be considered if a puck-moving offensive-minded defender were needed. The 36-year-old Stralman would be brought on for his intelligent defensive play and good puck movement, not necessarily for offensive numbers, as they have declined in the past few years.
Reilly is the best option of the three as his familiarity with the Bruins system, and his style of play matches the closest to what Montgomery asks of his defensive corps. Ahcan and Stralman could see an NHL call-up regarding load management. Reilly would likely be an emergency call during the playoffs, as his salary cap hit could prevent a recall during the regular season’s stretch run.
The forward group is where a move from Providence will depend on where Taylor Hall and Nick Foligno stand in their timetable in return from injury. Hall and Foligno hope to be ready by the start of the playoffs, and Boston could have 14 rostered forwards before looking toward the AHL. Unless the Bruins resemble a M*A*S*H unit in the playoffs, I think an emergency call to Providence is unlikely. As with his defensive unit, Sweeney has built a depth among his forwards that gives Montgomery a multitude of internal options.
The forward group from Providence could see end-of-season play to give the NHL veterans time off leading up to postseason play. Veterans Chris Wagner and Vinni Lettieri could be rewarded for their hard work in the “A” and see time to help with load management.
John Beecher, Fabian Lysell, and Georgii Merkulov are a trio of prospects who have yet to log time in Boston and, like Wagner and Lettieri, could see time exclusively as workload call-ups and would allow Sweeney and Montgomery to see first-hand where they stand in their development and how their growth translates to the faster-paced game at the NHL level. Like Brandon Bussi, I see no need to have these prospects thrown to the wolves in NHL postseason play.
Joona Koppanen, Jakub Lauko, and Marc McLaughlin are all familiar with the Bruins’ system and had varying degrees of success in previous stints with the big club. McLaughlin struggled early in his rookie AHL season, but his play has been more consistent lately, and his 200-foot game fits into the Bruins’ DNA. The same goes for Koppanen, who has grown into a good defensive forward who excels at the faceoff dot and in PK situations. Lauko, if needed, would be the most likely fit in Montgomery’s system with the ability to make plays with his speed on the forecheck and willingness to put pucks to the net. His game has improved markedly this season after a 2021-22 campaign that saw little go his way.
Unlike previous NHL playoff runs, Boston has a depth to their current roster that was lacking in past attempts to secure the Stanley Cup. Don Sweeney added roster pieces at the trade deadline that strengthened his squad, lessened the chances of turning to players with little to no playoff experience, and left the Bruins vulnerable because they had to turn to a Joe Morrow, Ryan Donato, Jack Studnicka, or Tommy Cross.