In a five-part “Back to The Bruins” series ushering in the start of Boston Bruins training camp, we’ll look at different areas of the roster for the upcoming 2021 NHL season. Today, we continue with a group of young players expected to make an impact this year.
There were scores of Boston Bruins fans and media members calling for significant change to the B’s roster following the disappointing summer playoffs in the Toronto bubble. Those voices clamoring for B’s change are getting their wish.
Youth is going to be served for this season’s Black and Gold amidst a compacted season environment almost perfect to do a soft rebuild of a Bruins roster that’s grown very, very old in parts. The first hints of a youth movement arrived last summer when 21-year-old Jack Studnicka pushed his way into five playoff appearances in the Toronto bubble.
Then the actual offseason arrived, and the Boston Bruins waved goodbye to both Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara from the left side of their defense, all the while voicing the desire to get an extended look at former first round picks Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen along with rugged stay-at-home D-man Jeremy Lauzon. The Bruins defensemen corps is going to have a very young look this season, and they are clearly ready to sink-or-swim with that youthful makeover during the first few months of the season.
“We’re going to do it by committee and allow some of these guys a little bit of trial and error and potentially fail as a result of it. But also succeed as a result of it and not look over their shoulder in any way, shape or form because they have to gain that experience,” said Don Sweeney. “You’re not going to move forward in your career if you’re not put in those situations. Sometimes you fall flat and other times you rise up.”
Sweeney didn’t preclude eventually making a move for a veteran defenseman, similar to their failed pursuit of Oliver Ekman-Larsson this fall, but it’s clear the Bruins want to evaluate their own young players after giving them adequate ice time and opportunity.
They’ll have veterans like Kevan Miller and John Moore waiting in the wings to start, but it’s clear those players will be in the same kind of reserve role the B’s mapped out for 43-year-old Chara before he signed with the Washington Capitals.
“I think it’s really about the coaching and the encouragement aspect of these [young] players getting their bearings and understanding the situations they’re going to be put in. They have to rise up and take that challenge. Some of them have been sitting, percolating, as we say, in the development process and playing all those key integrated minutes in Providence. [They’ve been] getting opportunities up here, but being sheltered at times,” said Sweeney. “They’re hopefully ready to take that ball and run with it. It’s no different than when Brandon Carlo came on the scene. He did not come in with the expectations that he was going to play with Zdeno in a top pair.
“He just emerged to be able to do that. We saw a great sign when he first came in that he was able to skate and cover ice. Charlie McAvoy went down and played four to six games in Providence and we ran into injury problems and threw him into our lineup. I think at some point in time, unless you’re just an heir apparent depending on your profile leading up to it, that most players have to get integrated at some point in time in the National Hockey League. You can move forward. I think we’re in a position, at least with the right side as constituted, to have the experience they have and the minutes that they have previously played, to be able to hopefully counterbalance that. Kevan Miller is a part of that. Connor Clifton is a part of that. These guys have all played yeomen minutes and situations, and they’re excited for the opportunity moving forward.”
And the other hint that some young players are expected to make an NHL impact even beyond the back end? The number changes for three young Bruins players headed into this season: Studnicka is going from No. 68 to the No. 23 that formerly belonged to Chris Kelly, Trent Fredric is going from No. 82 to No. 11 once worn long-time by PJ Axelsson and Lauzon is switching from No. 79 to the No. 55 that Johnny Boychuk wore with honor in Boston during his time with the Black and Gold.
All of these sweater number changes indicate that there are premeditated NHL plans for these three players entering this 2021 season, and that would make sense given the taxi squad situation for the Bruins this year. Perhaps Studnicka has to wait a little bit for his shot at a regular role given that veteran wingers like Nick Ritchie and Anders Bjork are still on Boston’s NHL roster, but there’s every expectation that Frederic could slide into a fourth line role immediately.
Frederic was a punishing force with 148 penalty minutes and nine fights for the Providence Bruins in the AHL last season, so the 22-year-old could be a snarling fourth line element to go along with Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner this season. Like Zboril, Vaakanainen and Lauzon on the back end, it’s really do-or-die time for Frederic to make the jump to the NHL and begin carving out a niche for himself in Boston as a punishing power forward that plays the Boston Bruins style.
One NHL talent evaluator that Boston Hockey Now spoke with last fall believes it’s simply a matter of the former first round pick committing to a fourth line mindset at the NHL level:
“Interesting. I think he’s going through an identity crisis. He probably could be an incredibly effective fourth line center in the NHL if he committed to the things that a fourth line center needs to do: always being on the right side of the puck, being super physical to play against and shutting down the other team’s top lines. But that’s not really his role in Providence.”
There are other young Boston Bruins skaters too like Zach Senyshyn, Jack Ahcan and Nick Wolff that could surprise in training camp or push for a role on this year’s team, of course. But there should be a delicate balance between established core players still prepping for another playoff run and the influx of young talent that’s definitely coming for the Black and Gold.
That’s what we’re all expecting from the Bruins as they introduce some young blood to the NHL roster during this compacted 2021 NHL season.