By Matt Kalman
So far the Bruins rookies seem NHL-ready.
But the Bruins are going to need depth to fill in when their younger players inevitably struggle because the packed NHL scheduled catches up to them or opponents solve them. When the rookie forwards slump, the Bruins will be glad they hung on to forward Matt Beleskey.
Coming off a three-goal season (in 49 games), Beleskey hasn’t scored in six games this season. Between his lack of production and his “sin” (in the eyes of some) of taking the money when the Bruins offered him a five-year, $19 million contract on July 1, 2015, Beleskey can sometimes turn into a whipping boy and is pointed to as a symptom of the Bruins’ problem.
He may not be living up to the offensive standard he set with Anaheim or to the contract he signed with Boston, but for right now he’s filling the role the Bruins need him to play as a fourth-liner that throws the body and tries to shift momentum during a game.
“I think right now I’m just trying to focus on playing hard and bringing energy,” Beleskey said after a practice this week at Warrior Ice Arena. “I think our line with … is getting that going and hopefully some production comes. Obviously the more minutes you play, the more production is expected. But I just think we’re on the right track, we had a few good chances last game.”
There was almost nothing positive to take from the third period of the Bruins’ 5-4 loss to Buffalo last Saturday, as led by three goals twice and still lost in overtime. But in the third period, when most of the Bruins were panicking and coughing up the puck, the line of Beleskey, Sean Kuraly and Frank Vatrano did the right things – it got the puck deep, it forechecked and hit the Sabres, making sure play stayed in the Buffalo end.
The role that line plays makes it hard to score goals. It’s more about getting bounces than pretty snipes. Even Boston’s beloved Merlot Line had its hot streaks and long droughts back in the day. Beleskey had two hits in the Buffalo game and four in the Vegas game that featured most of the Bruins sleepwalking for 60 minutes. Beleskey’s executing the game plan he’s been given.
“When he’s playing well he’s F1, he’s our first forechecker because he’s willing to finish checks,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s still a part of the game that’s effective for everybody and every team. Some of the new wingers we brought in are more skill guys, they’re not as physical, so we need that. …
“So when he’s on pucks, getting to the net, he’s a good net presence.”
It’s a cliché among players to say they can only control what they can control, but Beleskey really isn’t in charge of his lot on the Bruins’ roster. He’s only two seasons removed from scoring 15 goals in his first Bruins season and last season he was slowed by a major knee injury. When he returned the Bruins were in the midst of adjusting to Cassidy’s faster pace and other system adjustments. Beleskey couldn’t catch up or catch on.
He understood what went wrong, though, and worked on quickening his pace over the summer. His performance in training camp, although unproductive, proved he could be a valuable player even in a limited role. He kills penalties. He could be a factor on the power play if a spot there ever opens up.
For now, he’s bringing work ethic and leadership. He’s already having a positive influence on his linemate Kuraly.
“He’s been definitely a helpful guy for me. I respect the way he plays, the way he thinks the game and we have a lot of similarities,” Kuraly said. “He’s been a huge asset to me being a new guy in the league.”
Beleskey said that as long as the Bruins want him, he wants to be here. He’s a victim of changing circumstances here, where frankly the Bruins’ youth movement is working as general manager Don Sweeney planned. When the Bruins anted up for Beleskey, they were attempting to remain competitive while they began their recharge or rebuild (whatever you want to call it).
Beleskey did his part that first season and now in his third Boston season he’s doing his job again. Sure he’s overpaid for a fourth-liner, but the Bruins have five cheap rookies and a second-year player in their lineup right now. His contract has not hamstrung the Bruins. They’ve been able to continue to make moves and even recently used LTIR with defenseman Adam McQuaid so they can now spend beyond the salary cap if they want to.
He may have been pushed deeper into the supporting cast, but Beleskey hasn’t given up on having a more prominent role as the season unfolds.
“If you don’t play on the power play and you don’t play on the top two lines, you don’t have as good a chance to produce. But there’s a role for an energy line, I think our team needs some energy and some size,” he said. “When we get going we can be effective offensively too.”
That offense might not come until Beleskey gets pushed up the depth chart by a struggling rookie or an injury. Or maybe he’ll manage to crack the second power play. Perhaps it’ll never come, but the Bruins might never need it if they can keep re-filling their top six with young talent. At least with Beleskey the Bruins know they have a player that will do whatever he’s told, do it hard and set an example that those younger players will be able to follow even years after Beleskey is no longer in the Bruins’ plans.