BOSTON (CBS) — There are 15 healthy forwards left in Bruins camp and nine of them are guaranteed spots with one week remaining until the start of the regular season.
With Gregory Campbell apparently out with more than just a “minor mid-core issue” and recently designated as “doubtful” for opening night by coach Claude Julien, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Carl Soderberg are your top three centers. But that fourth spot is still a work in progress.
On the wings, the Bruins will definitely have Milan Lucic, Loui Eriksson, Brad Marchand, Reilly Smith, Daniel Paille and Chris Kelly in some combination, unless Kelly moves to center in Campbell’s usual spot.
Technically, the other six forwards are competing for three spots. However, they’re not all on even terms. As training camp enters its last week, it’s obvious – and I’m certainly not going out on a limb here – that Matt Fraser is a lock to be in the lineup against the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday at TD Garden.
Fraser improved by leaps and bounds last season from his regular-season call-up to his insertion into the playoff lineup. He was one of the Bruins’ best four or five forwards in the second half of the series against the Montreal Canadiens, and he made his mark all while skating on a broken foot. The way the Bruins have used him, in a top-nine role (sometimes even playing with Krejci) tells you all you need to know about how they feel about him. He’s not afraid to pay the price to score a dirty goal when his wicked wrist shot won’t suffice, and his play without the puck has gotten much better.
Of course, he’s not resting on his laurels just because he survived a couple rounds of cuts.
“I think for myself as soon as you kind of start to get complacent, you get comfortable, it’s when you get in trouble,” Fraser said after practice at Thursday. “Coming into camp, you prepare yourself to make the team. You prepare your body and your mind. It’s still, this whole season is still a tryout for me.”
With Fraser a lock in my mind, that leaves two open spots with two preseason games remaining to audition. Kelly could shift down and play center, opening the door for two wings. Jordan Caron, Bobby Robins and Simon Gagne are the wings left. Craig Cunningham can play center or wing and seems like the perfect fit to fill Campbell’s skates.
Based on what’s unfolded at training camp, I still need some more information to make a final decision. I’d want to see if Paille could find chemistry with Soderberg and Fraser. Then Kelly is an obvious fourth-line center option. Caron has been playing like he knows this is his last chance. Gagne’s coming along and he can provide the Bruins with someone who can kill penalties and lend a hand to the power play if there are injuries or the Bruins need a change. If he’s not in the lineup, Gagne seems like a guy that’ll be a boost for team morale.
As great a story and character player he is, I don’t believe Bobby Robins is ready to break camp with the team. Down the road he might be useful, but for now he’s ticketed for Providence in my book. Also, the notion that David Pastrnak was going to make the team just months after getting drafted was farfetched from the start, and his injury (plus the Bruins’ depth) means he should be heading back overseas not long after this weekend.
My bottom six forwards would be either Paille or Caron on the left side of Soderberg and Fraser. The other left wing would then skate with Kelly and Cunningham. Gagne would be my 13th forward if he’d be willing to accept that role when it comes time to make him a signed player instead of a tryout.
Lineups and rosters are always changeable. With guys like Kelly and Cunningham, the Bruins can align things differently depending on the situation. If Eriksson continues to struggle with Lucic and Krejci, it’ll be simple to flip the Swede and Fraser on the left side.
A couple of the Bruins’ goals in making their best roster are to have versatility and to have sound defensive players. And this forward group I just identified would do both those things and still have enough skill and speed to win games.
Here’s a capsule look at my projected forwards:
Milan Lucic – David Krejci – Loui Eriksson
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – Reilly Smith
Daniel Paille – Carl Soderberg – Matt Fraser
Jordan Caron – Chris Kelly – Craig Cunningham
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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