By By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
The bulk of the Bruins’ roster to start the 2017-18 season is dominated by rookies and veterans 29 or older.
One of the few players that doesn’t fit into either category, however, might have the biggest hand in determining whether the Bruins take the next step toward returning to elite.
Center Ryan Spooner is 25 and entering his third NHL season. He’s working on a one-year contract. If he can center the Bruins’ third line, the Bruins would be one of the deepest in the NHL down the middle with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci ahead of him. If Spooner can’t live up to coach Bruce Cassidy’s standards, well then that would throw the Bruins into flux – possibly relying on more rookies or needing to swing a trade for a veteran to stabilize that line.
With 214 games of NHL experience, Spooner’s training wheels are off and we’re going to learn what he’s made of this season. Cassidy’s ascension was supposed to juice Spooner’s production after people decided former coach Claude Julien was holding the speedster back. Instead, Spooner found himself in Cassidy’s doghouse and sat out the last two games of the Bruins’ first-round playoff loss to Ottawa.
Despite his contract and experience, Spooner wasn’t guaranteed a job in training camp. Cassidy made it clear what he wanted to see from Spooner, often saying, “I don’t want Ryan Spooner to lead our team in hits, it’s not his game, just engage in those battles.”
Spooner took that coaching to heart and even had one preseason game where he was credited with two hits. But he’s going to have to continue his new approach when the season starts against Nashville on Thursday.
“It means they just want me to have ‘hard skill.’ They don’t want me going out there trying to kill guys, they just want me out there just being harder on the puck,” Spooner told CBS Boston recently. “I find for me that when I hit a little bit more it kind of gets me in the game a little bit, so I’ve been trying to do that. So we’ll see.”
“That’s never been my game before,” he continued. “I’m just trying to build another more of a layer to it and if I can finish maybe two or three checks a game, not go looking for it but if the opportunity’s there, I have a chance to do it, I should be doing that, right?”
Spooner has been helped by about 10 pounds of added muscle this year, which has made him more confident in battles, as well as stronger. Spooner’s new approach helped him secure a spot in the opening night lineup right where he expected to be – centering the third line (barring a Bergeron absence because of injury).
“I haven’t scored. But that’s not really part of it,” he said. “I think the most important thing for me is just kind of going out there and showing that I’ve improved at the things they want me to improve at, just show them that I’m willing to do that sort of stuff. Showing that I’m going to accept the challenge and the goals and the points, they’re always going to come, but you kind of work on the smallest part of your game, the work ethic, the scoring chances, the points are going to come.”
Faceoffs are still a bugaboo for Spooner, who may never become anywhere near as proficient as Bergeron and Krejci. Spooner’s been working at that for a long time. But Cassidy can work around Spooner’s deficiency at the dots, often playing him on a line with someone that can pick up the slack like David Backes, Riley Nash or Sean Kuraly. There’s no similar way for Cassidy to make up for it if Spooner decides he doesn’t have the will to fight for a puck in the corner or space around the net.
Considering how important a fast start will be to the Bruins, one would think that if Spooner hadn’t made strides he’d be where he was at the end of the playoffs instead of playing. Cassidy didn’t give Spooner a ringing endorsement Wednesday, but credited the center’s effort this camp.
“Well he’s trying to play more competitive. I think that challenge stemmed from last year. He’s not the only one. We’ve got some players that we want to build up different levels of his game. His happens to be the ability to compete, win more pucks,” Cassidy said. “I think he’s making a legitimate effort to become a more rounded player in that area. So far, so good. We’ll judge it going forward.”
In order to take another step as a team, the Bruins’ depth is going to have to be more about production than just names on a whiteboard. They’ll need to be a four-line team again, and that means the Bruins will need their third line to produce.
It all starts with Spooner playing the way he says he’s committed to playing now that all the circumstances are there for him to thrive. A step back or holding pattern in Spooner’s development could stunt the Bruins’ growth.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.