BOSTON (CBS) — We’re still more than a month away from the official start of Bruins training camp, but it’s never too early to start handicapping the battle for the open spot among Boston’s bottom six forwards.
Loui Eriksson is expected to move into the top six. Shawn Thornton has left for the Florida Panthers. Although that seemingly would leave two bottom-six spots open, at this point and time you have to assume that a healthy Chris Kelly will fill a spot until such time that he’s beaten by out by a younger player.
Who has the inside track on the one remaining spot has been a subject for worried Bruins fans all summer. So it’s appropriate that with the release of his top 100 NHL prospects, author Corey Pronman highlights the three lead contenders to be on the Bruins’ varsity and in their lineup when camp breaks and the regular season starts.
Pronman ranks Bruins 2014 first-round pick David Pastrnak at No. 36, center Ryan Spooner at 50 and center Alexander Khokhlachev at 55. To be eligible for the list, players have to have played fewer than 50 NHL games in their career and no more than 25 regular-season games in one season. It’s worth noting that Bruins 2012 first-round pick Malcolm Subban is ranked eighth on the list of top 10 goalie prospects. But Subban isn’t expected to make much headway into the Bruins’ top two spots — currently occupied by Tuukka Rask and Niklas Svedberg — this season.
All three ranked players are coming off strong seasons in 2013-14 and give the Bruins attractive options in their effort to get quicker and more skilled in the bottom six, particularly on the fourth line.
Pronman notes that Pastrnak, who just turned 18 in May, has already played well against men in the Swedish Hockey League-2. The writer also notes that Pastrnak has improved his defense, which should endear himself to Bruins coach Claude Julien. And we saw at development camp in July just how strong a shot Pastrnak has. As a right shot, the 6-foot, 167-pound Pastrnak might have a little bit of an edge on some of his fellow Bruins wingers. The Bruins have never been shy about keeping teenagers in the NHL (Milan Lucic, Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton), especially when they can keep the younger player close to some vets. There would be worse places for a player to start out as an NHLer than on the fourth line next to Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell, or even with Paille and Chris Kelly.
Spooner, 22, played in 23 NHL games last season, so he barely was eligible for Pronman’s list. We all know what the center brings to the rink in terms of speed and shiftiness. We also know that at 5-foot-11, 181 pounds he’s still a little off the mark in terms of strength and willingness to engage. It’s doubtful he’d ever make a successful move out to the wing. So in order for Spooner to win this spot, he’d have to play well enough for the Bruins to want to keep either one or both of Kelly and Campbell on the wing or on the sidelines (or maybe even on another team). When it came time to take the training wheels off Carl Soderberg last season and move him to center, the Bruins had no problem making Kelly a winger. In fact, having a converted center at his side would make life much easier for Spooner. And playing fourth-line minutes would ease his transition and give him a chance to learn about life, on and off the ice, in the NHL with little pressure.
At this early date, I’d expect Spooner to be the favorite for a bottom-six job.
Of course, with a skill set like Khokhlachev’s, my lean toward Spooner could easily shift toward the Russian. Although Providence coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier this summer that Khokhlachev is clearly better at center, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound “Koko” might be a more versatile option that Spooner. Only the 20-year-old Koko’s lack of prior NHL experience probably makes him a close second to Spooner, if this is a three-dog race.
Grinding forwards like Justin Florek, Craig Cunningham and Matt Lindblad are going to try to make this a bigger battle royal. And you can’t forget postseason hero Matt Fraser, whose chemistry with Spooner could force the Bruins into some tougher decisions about moving or sitting a veteran.
If the idea is to add an extra dose of skill to the lineup, though, Pastrnak, Spooner and Khokhlachev are going to have to get the longest looks.
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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