By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bruins general manager Don Sweeney’s plan for returning his team to relevance involves prospects developing into NHL contributors.
Although it may take a couple of seasons for this plan to come to fruition, a few players at training camp are accelerating the Bruins’ process of getting younger, more dynamic, and maybe even better.
We’re one week away from the Bruins having to make their final roster decisions. Forwards Austin Czarnik, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk and Sean Kuraly, as well as defensemen Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara are still in camp. By most accounts, these players aren’t around just to fill the lineup for the final two preseason games or to gain experience. They’re actually still with the Bruins because they’re contenders for job.
In particular, Czarnik and Heinen up front and the two defensemen are definitely in the mix and have the best shot to beat out veterans for a spot among the 23 players who will start the season in Winnipeg a week from Thursday. If some of these rookies earn their spots and the Bruins adhere to the notion that the best players will play, Boston might go through more than a personnel turnover. They might also take the ice with a new identity.
When you mix Czarnik, Heinen, and even young veteran Ryan Spooner (who may have to move to the wing) into the lineup, the Bruins wouldn’t be as heavy as in years past. Czarnik, who might be a fit as a third-line center, stands 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. Heinen and Spooner are weighing in around 180-185. Sure Matt Beleskey and David Backes would be in the top nine to provide physicality, but there are no Lucics or even Soderbergs in this group. You could actually see players like Dominic Moore and Riley Nash relegated to the fourth line, where they belong. Those guys could sprinkle in when there’s a big faceoff and help out on the penalty kill, but they wouldn’t be asked to chip in as much as Bruins fourth lines or recent vintage.
If you can believe it, the Bruins might actually be leaning more toward skill than grit with their roster configuration.
On the back end, the change may go the other way. O’Gara (6-4), and Carlo (6-5) have the size and physicality. But they’re also able to move, maybe even better than some of the Bruins vets who aren’t as big. If the Bruins have the courage to insert at least one of these kids into their top six, with the right amount of guidance from an experienced player and protection from coach Claude Julien, the Bruins could have a different look and suffer less from the mistakes of someone like Kevan Miller. When the season opens, the Bruins might not be ready to bite the bullet and it might be best if O’Gara and Carlo both get some AHL experience. The learning curve on defense is so much harder than it is for forwards. Nonetheless, the Bruins should have a couple of reinforcements ready to come up from Providence pretty early in the season.
We know the Bruins at some point are going to have to address their lack of a No. 2 defenseman by making a trade. They might also want to fix their size deficiency (relative to what they’re used to having and the way they like to play) through some sort of deal. A trade or two might also help them solve some of these positional battles, especially when you figure they re-signed Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid, Colin Miller and Joe Morrow will have to clear waivers before going to Providence, and the Bruins bothered to bring in Christian Ehrhoff on a tryout. The defense corps is too crowded while not wowing anyone in terms of talent.
Nonetheless, barring a trade, the Bruins at least have options. Some of their youthful players are doing exactly what they wanted them to do and now it’s time to reward the players’ efforts. The Bruins have to sprinkle in at least two or three of these players so they can gain experience and so everyone can know the Bruins are serious about their lineup being a meritocracy. Those two things will combine to create a winning culture for the future even if a little inexperience costs the Bruins a point in the standings here or there. And if the type of youthful players the Bruins have changes their style or identity a little bit, that won’t be the worst thing – it would prove that they’re backing up their words about evolving with the game.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.