By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — As they start such a crucial season after two years without making the playoffs, the Bruins might’ve been quietly hoping for some sort of test of character to speed up their process of bonding as a team.
But they didn’t ask for something the magnitude of what they’re going to endure starting Thursday with the season-opener in Columbus.
The Bruins found out Wednesday they will be without center Patrice Bergeron for at least the game against the Blue Jackets and possibly longer. Bergeron is day to day with a lower-body injury he suffered toward the end of practice on Tuesday, although no one with the Bruins would indicate how the injury happened or anything about the injury beyond the general location.
Bergeron led the Bruins in scoring last season with 68 points and is the starting point for almost everything positive that happens with the Bruins in all three zones and in all types of situations. The bottom line is, he’s impossible to replace. But the Bruins are going to try their best to close the talent gap left by Bergeron’s absence and try to avoid a disastrous start to this season.
“You’re missing one of your better players,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said after practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Wednesday. “So it’s not an easy way to start but it’s a reality. I really feel that it’s an opportunity …. We’ve been talking about having depth, well let’s use that depth right now. And if everybody does their job and we play the way we should, I think we can get through this.”
The easiest part of Julien’s job is finding a stand-in for Bergeron. David Backes, who signed with the Bruins on July 1 partly because of his versatility, took Bergeron’s place at practice and centered Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Backes is a reliable two-way center who makes up for having a little less skill than Bergeron by playing with a physical edge. Backes didn’t get much time (just one practice) to build chemistry with his new linemates, but the strategy really will be for him to just hit Marchand or Pastrnak in stride with passes and then crash the net.
A lot of the Bruins have expressed surprise at Backes’ high level of skill. That’s not a knock on him; it’s just that the Bruins have only seen him play at most twice a year while he was with the Blues. Marchand might enjoy some synergy with someone other than Bergeron, who has been his linemate since 2010.
“He’s a good player,” Marchand said about Backes. “And he plays a hard game, plays well down low. He makes a lot of really good plays in tight. So it will be fun to play with him.”
The problem the Bruins will have is avoiding becoming a one-line team. Backes had been playing right wing with David Krejci and Ryan Spooner. Backes’ shift to Bergeron’s old spot left the Bruins with a practice second line of Krejci between Spooner and rookie Danton Heinen. There’s plenty of speed and skill on that line. But there’s a lack of experience and physicality. And even with Krejci ranking just a notch below Bergeron in terms of playing without the puck, the drop off with the kids on the wings could make this line a major liability.
If Krejci’s line gets hemmed in often, it’s not going to be able to provide secondary scoring. Beyond that line, things really begin to thin out if some players don’t exceed expectations. Frank Vatrano’s injury already had the Bruins scrambling for help on the wing. Now Heinen moves up the depth chart and the Bruins are left hoping Austin Czarnik can not only play well enough to earn minutes but maybe jump-start Jimmy Hayes and mesh with Matt Beleskey. There’s no telling what type of offense the Bruins can expect from a fourth line of Dominic Moore centering Riley Nash and Noel Acciari. And either Moore or Nash might have to move up to help out the second or third line should they become overwhelmed.
This all means that Julien is going to be juggling until Bergeron can come back.
“You’ve got to try to manage it as best as you can and sometimes you’ve got to game by game, who’s playing well that night and who’s got zone time,” Julien said. “So this is where I’ve got to be on top of my game coaching-wise.”
Julien’s line-combining game will be easier if players like Heinen and Czarnik prove they’re as ready for the varsity as Bruins brass seems to think and players like Hayes and Moore can provide some surprise contributions. The early-season schedule’s a little soft too, so the Bruins might be able to look back at their Bergeron-less period as one to build off. Or they might be lamenting his absence as the thing that killed their season before it started.