By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bruins head coach Claude Julien flew in from Toronto, where he’s been helping coach Team Canada at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, to address his players on their first day of training camp Thursday at Warrior Ice Arena.
Among Julien’s messages to the players was a desire to play faster this season in terms of puck movement and execution. Julien had several other messages he relayed to the media, including the fact that Ryan Spooner is going to start camp Friday as a center.
That’s a relief to Spooner. But now it’s up to him to keep a job that could easily go to newcomer David Backes or any number of other free agents that were signed, or even prospects that are looking to be the next Ryan Spooner.
“We talked at the end of the year and he [Julien] basically just said that at times I was playing well there and at times he had to shelter me because I wasn’t doing the job. So it’s definitely a challenge for me and I’m excited for it for sure,” Spooner said after the Bruins had their conditioning testing on Thursday.
Spooner has a challenge he has to meet, but it’s not an all-or-nothing game if general manager Don Sweeney is to be believed. It seems the Bruins recognize the 24-year-old’s offensive gifts may be too valuable to stable if Spooner can’t make it as a center. There could be a scenario where the Bruins’ center-heavy lineup allows Spooner to flaunt his skills without the added responsibilities of playing his natural position.
“Because if he can do it, and he’s more than capable of doing it, then that’s growth in his game and he recognizes it, and hopefully he does,” Sweeney said. “That leaves other guys in position. But, if he doesn’t, we have help to take some load off him in that regard. So, we can support him. I look at that as more of a player and a player that’s still young in some of those areas that he can continue to grow.”
Backes, Riley Nash, Dominic Moore, Austin Czarnik and Colby Cave could all be alternatives to Spooner at center. The Bruins could also make sure to have a wing that can play center, reminiscent of Spooner’s days playing with Chris Kelly, to help both in the defensive zone and on faceoffs.
Spooner had 13 goals and 49 points in 80 games during his first full season in the NHL last year. But he won just 42.8% of his faceoffs. He estimated he got closer to 50 percent later in the season, but the damage was done. Spooner was unable to make up for his shortcomings with production, as he had just one goal in his last 16 games. Despite the rigors of the schedule, Spooner said he was physically fine. He just slumped at the wrong time.
Of course, the best cure for a scoring slump, other than scoring, is making sure the opponent stays off the scoreboard. And that can often start with keeping the puck from the opponent at the faceoff dot. Spooner has never shied away from faceoffs as his weakness. If he improved last season, he still has a long way to go. Part of his improvement might come from added veteran savvy after 136 games at the highest level in the sport.
“I found at the end of the year I tried to cheat a little bit more and that helped a little bit,” Spooner said. “I think you’ve got to talk to the refs and just kind of ask what you can get away with and what you can’t. And I think strength too. If I’m going against a guy that’s 220 pounds, then strength might not be the play for me. But I’ve just got to bear down a little bit.”
Sweeney would love for Spooner to cement his role as the third center. The GM can also envision a world where Spooner’s speed and hands provide the Bruins a boost from the wing. But Spooner’s not big enough or tough enough to be on the wing for the long haul on a successful team.
No matter where he plays, Spooner has to become a reliable two-way player who can produce. He’s provided glimpses of that type of play the past two seasons, but has to become more consistent. An up-to-expectations Spooner makes the Bruins better and/or makes him (or someone else) more tradeable. If everyone plays to their abilities in the Bruins forward corps, something has to give. The Bruins won’t be able to keep Spooner out of position or behind Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci on the depth chart if Spooner makes his case for top-six minutes.
Now it’s up to Spooner to make that case.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.