WILMINGTON — As Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said Sunday upon the conclusion of his club’s annual development camp, there’s still work to do.
As currently constituted, the Bruins roster features nine legitimate NHL defensemen and a forward corps that could have up to three open spots.
Obviously we’re still two months from the start of training camp and the dynamics could change, but it looks like at least one player who has spent the bulk of his time at a level below the NHL is going to have to graduate to the parent club this fall.
Although the Bruins got some solid playoff performances from Justin Florek and Matt Fraser against the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens, there are two skill players who are a lot more intriguing. It feels like center Ryan Spooner and Alex Khokhlachev have been knocking on the door for years. And this might be their best shot to establish themselves if they make it to camp with the Bruins without being moved to another organization first.
Keeping in mind that Shawn Thornton’s departure could signal the Bruins’ attempt to completely reimagine what a fourth line should be in the NHL in 2014-15, either Spooner or Khokhlachev could wind up ushering a new era for the boys in merlot. Chiarelli even acknowledged the possibility of center Gregory Campbell moving to the wing if necessary.
No one knows Spooner and Khokhlachev better than Providence Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy (who actually might be promoted to the NHL this season as well). While he also acknowledged the chances of Craig Cunningham, Seth Griffith and 2014 first-round pick David Pastrnak making a push for a job at NHL camp in the fall, Cassidy spoke the most over the weekend about Spooner and Khokhlachev because those are the guys people want to know the most about.
In terms of Spooner, who has tantalized the Bruins and their fans with 27 NHL games (he had 11 assists in 23 games last season), Cassidy doesn’t believe a move to the wing would be beneficial because Spooner likes to have the puck so much. Nonetheless, Cassidy thinks the 22-year-old has to consider this as his time to move up, regardless of the role Boston would cast him in.
“He’s a good two-way player. He’s never minus for us through the whole year,” Cassidy said during the Bruins’ annual development camp for non-professional prospects. “He can defend. It’s his willingness to close quicker defending that [Boston coach] Claude [Julien] has relayed to me and we’ve tried to work on him because he certainly has the foot speed to do it. It now becomes the will, so I think he could do it.”
Spooner had 11-35-46 totals and a plus-13 rating in 49 games for the P-Bruins last season. Khokhlachev had 21-36-57 totals and a plus-11 rating in 65 AHL games. He also skated in one pointless (in more ways than one) game with Boston at the end of the regular season.
Khokhlachev might be in the same boat as Spooner in terms of moving to the wing as opposed to playing his natural position of center. But more than anything, Khokhlachev (whom the Bruins once traded in the deal that never happened to get Jarome Iginla from Calgary in 2013) will determine his fall address with his offseason work. With just slight improvements from last year, Khokhlachev could translate his game to the NHL, according to Cassidy.
“The question with him that comes up is: can he separate on the ice? Does he have the foot speed to separate?” Cassidy said. “He’s got to develop more physically, but he gets all his goals going to the net. … So you think, sometimes, of a European player, well it’s more of the flash … he gets to the net. … So obviously that will be a challenge at the [NHL] level, getting to the net against the Charas and Seidenbergs of the world as opposed to the guys in the American League, a little more of a challenge. But he’s got the competitive drive to do it and the nose and the instincts.”
Cassidy can’t exactly be unbiased, but he’s typically a straight-shooter with assessing players he’s coached. And he’s not boasting about either of these players, or the other NHL candidates he has coached, as Iginla’s replacement.
We’ll know more about what Chiarelli thinks of the likes of Spooner, Khokhlachev and others by what he does between now and Sept. 18.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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