Typically training camp first-day line combinations are symbolic or meaningless.
Not this year.
With 10 days to prepare for the Boston Bruins’ season-opener in New Jersey on Jan. 14, coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t shy away from the fact that his first-day line combinations Monday were all about building chemistry below his first line and finding a place-holder for David Pastrnak, who’s expected to miss at least the first several weeks of the regular season after offseason hip surgery.
Jack Studnicka got the first chance with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and Cassidy mentioned we could see Anders Bjork there as camp proceeds. But as for Ondrej Kase and newcomer Craig Smith, it appears they’re going to be last resorts on the top line because Cassidy again isn’t considering a world where Pastrnak plays regularly with David Krejci.
Asked about Smith, who practiced with Charlie Coyle and Nick Ritchie on Day One, Cassidy explained:
“I think he’ll fit in well with Coyle because Charlie likes to hang on to the puck and draw people to him. And once he kicks it out, usually there’s a little bit of time and space for a shooter. So it should work out for Smitty very well.
“Now we may move [Smith] around eventually to see if there’s another fit, but with eight days and then going right into the regular season, knowing Pasta’s progressing well, there’s a risk in doing that so that you know he plays with everybody but gets chemistry with no one. So we have to first start him with Charlie because I think that would be a good center iceman for him.”
Any discussion of the Bruins’ line combination has to come with the caveat that with the urgency of a 56-game regular season Cassidy is probably going to be even more inclined to move things around regularly than he has been in the past (if that’s possible). For the Bruins, and every team hoping to compete for a title, patience will be in short supply.
With a long-term contract at his back, and with the Bruins roster nearing an overhaul that already started with the departure of captain Zdeno Chara, Cassidy might be wiser to stick with his training camp plan, even if it might cost Boston a game or two.
Bergeron and Marchand aren’t going to be able to carry this team for many years. They might even have to break up as they move into the late and mid-30s, respectively. Krejci could be on his way out as an unrestricted free agent next offseason. He’s already proven he can succeed if you just give him Jake DeBrusk and a replacement-level right wing.
Seeing what Coyle can do as a future second-line center would be in the Bruins’ best interest. With Smith signed for one more year and Kase a restricted free agent that will be re-signed long-term if he works out well this season, Cassidy has the chance to begin to build a second line that could carry the Bruins through the middle part of this decade.
A world without Krejci could have Coyle and Smith a pair on the second line with either DeBrusk or Bjork on the left side. Or maybe Kase turns out to be Coyle’s right-hand man, if Cassidy gives that combination a chance. Whether it’s Smith or Kase, Coyle should get priority and the other wing should go to Krejci.
Eventually (maybe next season), Studnicka will play his natural center position regularly and he and the Bruins’ prospects on the wing — Jakub Lauko, Curtis Hall, possibly Johnny Beecher (currently a center at Michigan) — will be competing to play with Bergeron and Marchand, or with Bergeron or Marchand. Having a more settled lineup for them to start out within, especially if there’s going to be one less all-world center (Krejci) on the roster, will benefit the Bruins beyond this season.
There’s always a chance Cassidy will like someone on Marchand and Bergeron’s right so much that he’ll scrap his plans and fit Pastrnak in somewhere else. Cassidy’s track record tells us that for however long Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak are Bruins, they’ll be his top line.
At this point and time in the Bruins’ history, that may be for the best because finding Coyle wings that can last beyond this season could be what keeps the Bruins in perennial contention.