With Bruins training camp set to open on Sunday, here's a look at five questions that need to be answered during Boston's accelerated 10-day preseason before their opener in New Jersey on Jan. 14.
1. Who steps up on defense?
I mean, how else were we going to lead this one off?
There's still plenty of room for optimism for a Bruins team still anchored by an established veteran core, a great tandem in net and a forward corps that should be improved with additions like Craig Smith and the potential contributions of rookies and newcomers like Jack Studnicka and Ondrej Kase.
And yet, if the Bruins want to remain afloat in a competitive East Division and orchestrate another Cup run with the Bergeron crew, Bruce Cassidy and his staff need to find some stability — or perhaps just clarity at this juncture — on their blue line.
With Torey Krug off to St. Louis and Zdeno Chara starting a new chapter in Washington, the Bruins are going to have to replace a pair of stalwarts that logged a combined 2,196 minutes of even strength ice time in 2019-20, to go along with 242 minutes of power play TOI (the lion's share belonging to Krug, of course) and 224 minutes of PK reps (Chara with 217 of those minutes).
Say what you will about whatever warts both Chara and Krug had in their respective games, but from just a pure usage perspective, Cassidy is going to have his hands full in terms of just finding bodies to delegate these reps to, especially when it comes to the taxing defensive shifts that Chara routinely took on — even at this stage of his career.
Even though Matt Grzelcyk stands as the logical next man up as the quarterback of the PP1 unit (with perhaps Charlie McAvoy in line to contend for some of those reps), the primary issue will be who logs the sizable minutes next to Brandon Carlo, who is primed to take on some hefty defensive assignments — both on the PK and at even strength — now that Krug is with the Blues. And with Grzelcyk likely skating next to McAvoy on the top pairing, it's far from a given who will shore up the back end of Boston's blue line on the third pairing.
Now, there are multiple candidates entering camp — whether it be veterans like John Moore and Kevan Miller, youngsters that have already cut their teeth in the NHL ranks in Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton or prospects looking to carve out starting roles at the next level in Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen. Based on Cassidy's comments back in November, don't be surprised if Lauzon is given an extended look next to Carlo to open camp.
“So we’re looking at it — if Zee’s not in, could Lauzon go in and do the job and Jeremy played hard this year? He’s a bigger body — he’s bigger than people think," Cassidy said of Lauzon more than a month before Chara's departure. "He’s about 215 pounds, he plays hard. He’s not 6-9, but he’s a big guy. And he can do some of the things that Zee brings to the table in terms of shutting down good players, playing hard against good players. He’s got some work to do on the penalty kill, obviously, to get to where Zee’s at. But that’s another area that we feel he can help us.”
For now, it would seem as though players like Vaakanainen and Zboril — who will need to clear waivers if he's sent back down to Providence — are going to get every opportunity to try to establish themselves as legitimate NHLers during the 2021 season. How far Boston goes in the coming month very well might hinge on if this new blood is up to the task of keeping Boston's stingy defensive structure intact. No pressure, guys.
Of course, there also stands a possibility that Boston could seek outside help in order to round out its blue line — especially given the number of UFAs still out on the market. Whether it be guaranteed contracts or professional tryout (PTO) deals, don't be surprised if Boston takes a long look at a Ben Hutton or maybe even a Sami Vatanen in an effort to find some regulars on this revamped D corps.
2. How will accelerated camp schedule affect how Boston molds its roster?
For as much as guys like Zboril, Lauzon, Vaakanainen and Clifton will be handed a chance to carve out significant starting roles this season, they better make the most of it — as these young defensemen aren't going to have an extended window to prove their worth before Cassidy and Co. start trimming the roster and assembling lines and pairings for Jan. 14 and beyond.
Due to COVID-19 protocols, there will be no preseason games against other NHL clubs, forcing coaches and the higher-ups to evaluate talent through the lens of intrasquad scrimmages and however many practices Boston is able to sandwich in at Warrior over the next week and a half. With time not on the Bruins' side, every shift, drill and play is going to mean even more for these players when it comes to them staking a claim for consistent minutes on this roster.