By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — It’s almost time for the Bruins to wrap up training camp 2018.
The Bruins have had one of the weirdest camps, with half their squad spending 10 days in China while one assistant coach and the rest of the players stayed behind to train and play a couple of exhibition games.
There’s one preseason game left, Saturday against Philadelphia at TD Garden, and a handful of cuts left to be made. On the heels of the Bruins’ next-to-last preseason game, a 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit on Wednesday, here are a few observations heading into the weekend:
*It’s great that David Backes lost 10 pounds (although it seems like there were legions of players that reported to camps around the NHL “10 pounds” lighter), but the idea that he’s going to be some stopgap first-line center in Patrice Bergeron’s absence is a little absurd.
The best-case scenario for the Bruins would be if Bergeron is healthy to start the season next Wednesday in Washington. We’ll get a clearer picture of the perennial Selke Trophy contender’s status if he skates with his teammates Friday in practice. But if for some reason Bergeron can’t play, coach Bruce Cassidy is going to have to come up with a better Bergeron replacement plan. Backes centered Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak on Wednesday, and the trio had its moments. But it sounded like it’ll take too long for those three to get the type of chemistry required of a top line.
“There [are] quick plays that need to be quicker,” Backes said after the game. “I think I stole a puck in the corner walked up and if I looked for Marchand or found him a little earlier, I got him for a one-timer in the slot. Instead I take one more step and then I got to throw one into his backhand and they recover defensively. [Need to be] a little bit quicker that way and we got seven days to get there.”
Even a more mobile Backes is better suited to the wing and better suited to a bottom-six role. These are the moments the Bruins’ depth comes in handy. It makes more sense to bump David Krejci into Bergeron’s spot and then bump up each center behind him on the depth chart. Part of Krejci’s strength over his career has been his ability to adjust to different wings, and the Bruins have tested that strength more times than anyone can count. He’s played with Pastrnak before and has spent some time with Marchand on the power play. It’d be easier for a high-skilled Krejci to quickly forge chemistry than it would be for Backes.
Sean Kuraly (if healthy), Noel Acciari and Chris Wagner can then fill in the next three spots and provide sprier legs. If Backes has to shift to center because of an injury, so be it, just let it be in the bottom six on a “north-south” type line, as he likes to call it.
*And no, I didn’t forget about the two rookies, Trent Frederic and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, who are still competing to be one of Boston’s centers. Judging by their inconsistent play and Cassidy’s postgame comments Wednesday – the coach basically listed Bergeron, Krejci, Kuraly, Acciari and Wagner as his top center choices – Frederic and JFK are going to start the season in Providence.
They haven’t been cut yet, but don’t panic when it happens. A couple months or three-quarters of a season will only help them develop, especially if they dominate the AHL the way they should (especially JFK, who’s entering his second pro season). Both players looked solid but didn’t do enough to overtake a veteran, and there aren’t enough injuries to force the Bruins’ hand.
*The same goes for defenseman Urho Vaakanainen, who was the star of the show against the Red Wings with a solid all-around game despite poor ice conditions and having to play on the third pair with Steven Kampfer. We all know about Vaakanainen’s skating and vision, but he showed some edge against Detroit and proved he can take a hit as well as he can throw one.
There’s still room for him to improve, and get stronger, and that’s where some AHL seasoning will do him well. A couple of 30-something AHL vets barreling at him on the forecheck will teach him all the tricks of taking and avoiding big hits on small ice without the Bruins paying the price for any mistakes along the way. By December, he could be the Bruins’ No. 1 call-up option when they needed a left-shot defenseman.