Claude Julien has coached the Boston Bruins since 2007, and has never had to overcome the amount of uncertainty he has this year. After the Bruins missed the playoffs with 96 points last year, both Claude and Peter Chiarelli were in Neely’s crosshairs. Luckily for Claude, Neely only pulled the trigger on Chiarelli and the Bruins entered the Sweeney era.
Most franchises have a vision, but where that vision starts is up to the fundamental structure of the team and their management. Many owners remove themselves from the game as they see it as a business, and not entertainment, allowing the general manager to craft their squad the way they feel will earn best results (or worst if you’re Buffalo’s Tim Murray). In the Bruins case, the vision begins and ends with Cam Neely. He’s been pulling the strings on this Bruins operation for quite some time, and won’t be gone until something drastic happens or he feels like letting go.
Neely’s vision is a god sent for Claude as most general managers that are hired bring along a new team of trusted executives, scouts, and often times a new head coach. A team that they see fit for their vision. Don Sweeney, being an internal hire, is not only another string on Neely’s finger, but doesn’t have experience or connections outside of the Bruins organization to completely overhaul the front office. Though on a short leash, Claude is the head coach to start the 2015/16 season, and what an interesting year it will be for the coaching staff.
The first, and biggest thing on Claude’s plate at the moment is finding chemistry. Lucic, Hamilton, Soderberg, Smith, Paille, Campbell and Bartkowski are out, and Beleskey, Hayes, Irwin and Rinaldo are in.
The only two players that are guaranteed to play together next year are Marchand and Bergeron, the rest of the roster is free game for Claude to play with. The Bruins have pride themselves on being an efficient two-way team that can roll four lines. Nobody is going to be a league leader in any category, except maybe plus minus, simply because the workload is shared. This may no longer be the case, as the Bruins at the moment do not have four NHL caliber lines. Sure they can compete, but don’t expect the bottom six forwards or half of the defensemen to get any heavy minutes, and St. Patrice can’t do it all.
While some people are looking at the current roster and rolling their eyes at the thought of another Stanley Cup, others like myself find it refreshing that we’ll be seeing something different. Claude is no longer allowed to start every season, game and practice with a Lucic-Krejci-(insert big right handed shot here) line. He no longer has to babysit Soderberg on the third line with Eriksson. He no longer has his penalty killing duo of Paille-Campbell. He no longer has his beloved veteran fourth line. He no longer has one of the best defensive corps in the league. Claude no longer has the formula to his prior roster success.
It’s been hard to craft a first, second, third and fourth line because of how balanced this team has been in the past. Luckily for us couch general managers, this won’t be too much of a burden this year. The amount of uncertainty on the wing makes this a difficult process, because ideally, in order to create the most effective lines, players will need to switch wings like Loui Eriksson did when he arrived in Boston (previously a left wing for Dallas).
Marchand and Bergeron are bread and butter.
They will not be separated, leaving a vacancy on the right side. Spooner and Pastrnak found chemistry last year. This combined with Juliens lack of confidence in the kids, and management’s fear of hurting Pasta’s development will land him on the third line with Spoons. All of this, and the assumption that Rinaldo, Kelly, Talbot, Khokhlachev, Griffith and Kemppainen collectively make up the fourth line, leaves the rest a guessing game.
Matt Beleskey is the most interesting person to place on this roster. He had a breakout season last year, scoring 22 goals, though only totaled 33 points. He played second line with skilled forwards Ryan Kesler and Jakub Silfverberg on Anaheim last year. Beleksey is a tenacious, energy player who will not create chances for himself, but rely on the skills of others to set him up. He proved last year that he can put the puck in the net, something the Bruins are itching for. He wouldn’t be utilized on Bergeron’s line well because he would have to switch sides of the ice, and fit the line’s “shutdown” build, something he isn’t suited for. This leaves Krejci’s line, and Spooners line. Keep in mind, Chris Kelly scored 20 goals once upon a time, and is consistently a 20-35 point scorer. Matt Beleskey has broken 30 points once in his career. He would be a great third line player, seemingly perfect on this Bruins team, but would be more productive with a more capable center in Krejci. Beleskey’s career stats take a significant drop off when he’s not playing with skilled players. I hate to use the babysitting example again, but Krejci may need to pair with Beleskey so that $3.8 million can go to work these next five years.
Brett Connolly deserves a shot at top six minutes. His injury was unfortunate last year, as Bruins fans didn’t get to see him play more than a few uncomfortable games at the end of last year. What most people forget is that he was drafted sixth overall in the Seguin draft.
He was picked up before the names of Jeff Skinner, Vladimir Tarasenko, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Jaden Schwartz. No, drafting is not a science. But he never got a significant role in a crowded Tampa Bay, and could blossom into the lethal shooter scouts thought he’d be. He’s a natural sniper with a little edge to his game. I wouldn’t try to mold him into a player he’s not. He’s not the most defensively responsible, but we have enough of those forwards. He does take some bonehead penalties, welcome to the Bruins. I throw him on the top line with Beleskey and Krejci.
Loui Eriksson would be my ideal candidate to play Krejci’s left wing, but as this off-season’s investment Matt Beleskey can’t start at third line minutes. Eriksson also plays defensively sound, is patient, and has a good possession game. For these reasons, I put Eriksson on Bergeron’s right wing. Something many people thought they would see after the Seguin trade was Loui eating at top minutes either finishing for Krejci, or controlling the ice with Bergeron. Concussions threw a wrench in that pipe dream, and Reilly Smith got the job. Now it’s Loui time. I’m still infuriated with all the hate that this man got last year. Babysitting Soderberg, and dragging Kelly along isn’t an easy job. Neither is filling the shoes of Mr. Seguin. This is Loui’s breakout year as a Boston Bruin, just in time for his contract extension.
This leaves Jimmy Hayes. Because of Beleskey’s interesting situation on this roster, someone had to switch from right wing to left wing, and though Loui is a natural left-winger, I’ll be damned if he’s playing third line on this squad. Jimmy Hayes will be the left wing to the Spooner-Pastrnak duo. The kids had success last year with Lucic on their left side. Of anyone on the roster, Hayes has the best chance at replicating that big body presence that can open up the ice for the creativity.
It looks like Chara will be this team rock for the near future. At 38, he is showing signs of slowing down, but is still a top-two defenseman in this league. Despite his ageless shutdown presence, he’s not fresh enough to carry a defensive pairing on his own anymore. The balancing game can’t work with this defensive corps, it’s simply too thin.
Seidenberg has been in the rumor mill for a long time now. There are essentially two camps, one believes that Seidenberg had a tough time last year recovering from his knee injury and that he will bounce back as the shutdown defensemen he proved he can be this year. The other camp believes the 34 year old is worn down, and will only descend from here. I am of the latter camp. Hopefully general managers see him as a rebound candidate, and a useful piece in their vision, someone they’d be willing to deal for and take on the $4 million salary the next few years. If he’s wearing a Bruins sweater come October, look for him on the second pairing with Krug.
Zach Trotman made a case for himself last year. In the midst of all the blue line injuries, he played top minutes with Chara and didn’t look out of place. Note this isn’t the evaluation you want for your top pairing defense, but at the moment it makes the most sense. He plays a different game than Chara. Not as efficient at shutting down opponents, or generating offense when set up in the zone, but he plays a better transitional game. He can execute breakouts, he can spread the ice, and he doesn’t make too many mistakes.
Torey Krug is a bottom pairing defenseman. Plain and simple. He can not compete against teams top lines. I love Torey Krug…on the powerplay. He is a catalyst, a quarterback, and their weapon on the PP1. I am not looking forward to seeing Krug in a top-four role as I don’t believe the undrafted defenseman can keep up. As it goes, he’s my second favorite defenseman, please Claude, don’t make him look silly out there.
I’m not even going to start with McQuaid. I love him as a player, but his contract is atrocious, he’s a bottom pairing guy, and will inevitably spend more time in a suit than a sweater.
Matt Irwin, Kevan Miller, Colin Miller, and Joe Morrow are all going to battle for the ice time here. Depending on which one prevails as the better option for the Bruins depends on what pairing they are on. Kevan Miller paired with Adam McQuaid for example would be a disaster, but he may be better suited for bigger minutes with Chara. I am a huge fan of the Matt Irwin signing, and I’m still confused as to how we got him so cheap, and why the Sharks didn’t want him. He gives up the puck too much, and doesn’t see the ice as fast as some of the others, but he has a phenomenal shot and he can clear out the net. I see him splitting time with Joe Morrow to start the season. Morrow becoming a full time Bruin is a goal this season, and having the surrounding depth allows him to ease his way into the game, and acts as an insurance policy for the Bruins.
The Bruins have yet to declare who their backup goalie will be this year, but it looks to be Jeremy Smith. He has a team friendly cap hit of $600,000, and a grand total of 0 NHL games played. This can only make Don Sweeney look like a genius because on paper it’s a disaster. Claude didn’t have much faith in Svedberg last year, and it looks like Tuukka will be playing a lot of games again this year. The goalie prospect pool of Zane McIntyre, Malcolm Subban and Dan Vladar is the best in the league, but they need time to develop. Malcolm’s stock is sinking by the day, and I see McIntyre as the future. The Bruins should look at packaging Subban with a prospect or pick and getting long term top four defensive help.
This is a tall order for Claude who could be yet another scapegoat for an unhappy Bruins management if this season is a dud. Realistically, this team is one injury away from being a complete disaster. Though this isn’t ideal for the “winner” in Bruins fans, it will be a refreshing change of scenery for everyone. I already purchased an 11 game season pass in anticipation of this new era, new season, and new vision. This year’s recipe is made from scratch, and I can’t wait for the trials, errors, and the eventual success of this team.
I expect the final lineup to look like this:
…may the Atlantic Division have mercy.