David Backes is entering his first season with the Bruins. (Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports)
BOSTON – The Bruins wrapped up their exhibition slate Saturday night at TD Garden with a 1-0, OT win over Philadelphia. While final 23-man rosters likely won’t be announced before Monday’s 5 p.m. league deadline, here’s a look at five pressing questions facing the team as the B’s look to snap a two-season skid of missing the postseason.
How much impact will David Backes make on David Krejci’s wing?
When Bruins GM Don Sweeney decided in July to spend his $6 million AAV chip on the 32-year-old Backes instead of the now-departed 31-year-old Loui Eriksson, it was a given that Backes’ performance in 2016-17 would be in the spotlight.
Now that it appears Backes been given the task of jump starting centerman David Krejci from the right wing while grooming young left wing Ryan Spooner, perhaps Backes has even more pressure on him.
The Krejci line needs to produce for Boston to succeed. And while Backes has shed the pressure of the captaincy in St. Louis, he’s added the the weight of being Boston’s marquee addition and now second-line glue guy, all while leaving his natural center position (at least for now) for an ‘all-center’ line of Spooner – Krejci- Backes as the season approaches.
“He’s been great on the ice, but he’s also been great off the ice,” head coach Claude Julien said when asked about Backes’ early impact on the team. “He’s talking to the young kids, helping them out. I hear him on the bench, making sure he’s talking to his linemates all the time and letting them know what’s expected. He’s a real positive influence in our dressing room.”
Backes admitted the newly formed line has potential, but also is dealing with some growing pains.
“Krejci’s so creative and smooth with the puck at times I think I crowd his area,” said Backes. “I need to get away from him and let him make a play through space. We’re learning each other, adapting to positional play. We need to talk more, talk every time we get off the ice, ‘where can I go, where can I help you out?’ [Spooner] has the assets of great speed and skill, I can use my size and Krejci has creativity and ability to distribute. We just all need to get on the same page.”
Can Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak take the next step?
Spooner, who scored the Saturday overtime winner off an assist from Backes in three-on-three action, had nothing but praise for the early advice he’s getting from his new associate, but also admitted he’s had to adjust to his new left wing spot.
“I felt a little bit better [Saturday],” Spooner said. “I watched some tape and found against Montreal [last Tuesday] I was lost in my own end a little bit. Felt like I was drifting to the middle of the ice. Tonight I felt a little bit better, but it’s going to take some time. Backes has been extremely helpful with me. I’ve asked him a lot of questions, and he’s been great. If I can get the puck to the net for him, he’s a big guy, it’s going to work.”
The 24-year-old Spooner is coming off his first full season in the NHL, finishing with 13 goals and 36 helpers over 80-games last season playing primarily at center between Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. With Spooner’s faceoff win-percentage at just 42.8 in 2015-16, perhaps moving him off the pivot is the right call. But, can Spooner score 20-plus goals as a top-six winger in the NHL?
Meanwhile, Pastrnak’s 15 goals over 51-games last season are pretty solid proof he’s more than 20-goal capable if he can stay healthy. Injuries to several body parts (finger, foot, ‘upper-body’) piled up on Pastrnak last year and have him trying to shed an ‘injury-prone’ label.
However, Pastrnak’s scoring ability couple with the prospect of playing all season with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron make Pastrnak an obvious breakout candidate this season.
Boston’s offense last season was a quite respectable 5th best in the NHL at 2.88 goals-per-game, but jumps from Spooner and Pastrnak in the scoring department will ensure it stays among the league’s best despite the loss of Eriksson.
Is the D good enough?
While Boston’s offensive stats last year portrayed a playoff-caliber team, the team’s defensive goals-allowed-per-game mark of 2.78 was 15th in the league, and led to a goal differential of just +8 (consider that they were +84 just two seasons ago).
The defense obviously is the area of most-needed improvement.
John-Michael Liles stuck around after his late February trade from Carolina and 17-games played with the Bruins, and he along with Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, Aadm McQuaid and Kevan Miller figure to be the team’s top-five.
A year ago, Zach Trotman, Matt Irwin and Joe Morrow were in the season-opening lineup (albeit with Chara and Dennis Seidenberg on the shelf) so by comparison this year’s grouping seems more stable.
The 25-year-old Krug also has a new four-year contract, and presents the possibility of a bounce-back season in the goal scoring department after seeing his totals decline from 14 to 12 and just four a year ago.
However, the 39-year-old Zdeno Chara certainly showed his age on a few occasions last year over an 80-game slate, and presents the possibility of even further declining as well.
Competition in training camp between veteran Christian Ehrhoff (in on a pro-tryout agreement), Colin Miller, Morrow, and rookies Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara make for an interesting battle at the bottom of the depth chart.
Julien praised Carlo and O’Gara for their work Saturday night, saying that despite some early nerves they improved as the game went along and made solid decisions. They both figure to be in the mix at some point this season, if not for the upcoming opener.
Goaltender Tuukka Rask also approved of seeing the new blood in the lineup, and also what he described as a more aggressive mindset in the defensive zone.
“O’Gara and Carlo look great even thought they’re young,” said Rask. “That’s a great sign, something you need in the league. Last year when we were watching and waiting, teams started to cycle and guys didn’t know who to take. When you’re jumping quick that creates that aggressiveness and everybody needs to react. It helps everybody be on the same page, and D plays a big part in that.”
With Frank Vatrano out, which young forwards can the team count on to make an impact?
Vatrano’s foot injury that has him in a walking boot and out until at least Christmas was a significant downer for the Bruins’ young forward depth. “We lost a winger that we thought would make significant strides this year,” Julien recently said matter-of-factly. “Even when he comes back he’ll be three months behind.”
With 39 NHL games played last year and eight goals plus an AHL goal-scoring title, Vatrano is still the team’s top hope to inject some young scoring punch down the line.
However, in the short term Vatrano’s injury gives an opportunity for rookies Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen to possibly make the roster and show what they can do.
Czarnik, provided he’s not out for a length of time from a Radko Gudas boading penalty on Saturday, has looked smooth centering Beleskey and Hayes. Last year in Providence, the 5-foot-9 Czarnik was third on the club in points with 61 (20 goals), and brings a playmaker’s skillset.
“I think he’s a real smart player. I think he’s a headsy player. He’s got great hockey sense, great hockey vision,” Julien said. “He’s definitely a player who’s had a great camp, certainly opened a lot of eyes.”
Heinen, who played fourth-line left wing on Saturday on a line with Dominic Moore and Riley Nash, was a 20-goal scorer for Denver University last year but will probably be eased into NHL minutes this season.
Will a system tweak keep the Bruins relevant in a speed league?
As Backes noted after his signing in July, “I don’t think the game’s getting slower.” With speed teams like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay winning the Eastern Conference the past two seasons, is the ‘heavy’ NHL game a dinosaur?
The Bruins appear to have tweaked their style somewhat in camp this season, but will still be relying on their trademark physicality and counter-attack to win.
“If you start to manage the puck in the right way, you can occupy the offensive zone and do a lot of the things that teams that are heavy can do,” said Backes. “Winning every battle that you get into, being able to control the puck once you get it.”
Julien admitted the team had a pack-the-box mentality last year at times on D, and have worked on speeding up the decision making process from the back end.
“We talked about playing a little tighter and closing a little quicker on the puck carrier,” said Julien. “Our team has worked on that since the first day of training camp. We’re a lot quicker closing than we have been, versus letting them have the outside and protecting the middle. Our forwards have to do a real good job of being above theirs so our D have an opportunity to get the puck and make a play.”
“We’re trying to change the way we play a little bit,” new assistant coach Bruce Cassidy told the Patriot Ledger. “Some of the stuff we’re trying to incorporate here, we’ve done a little bit in Providence [the past few seasons]. It’s not reckless hockey, but trying to defend quicker to get pucks back sooner, so that we can get into transition sooner and play with the puck.”