The Boston Bruins went into training camp knowing it would be an all-out battle situation for spots on their bottom-6 forward group.
At least they hoped it would be after both third and fourth lines went through long stretches where they weren’t much better than merely okay last season.
Now it’s all been confirmed as a multitude of third- and fourth-line candidates have stepped up with strong performances, including two-goal games from 21-year-old Johnny Beecher and 23-year-old Marc McLaughlin in the Boston Bruins 4-0 exhibition win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday afternoon at TD Garden.
Johnny Beecher gives Boston a 3-0 lead after deflecting a shot from Derek Forbort. pic.twitter.com/1RQEiVsVOQ
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) October 1, 2022
This comes after AJ Greer scored a pair of goals, including the OT winner, in Tuesday night’s home preseason opener, and Oskar Steen chipped in one as well while vying as a young forward seeking out an NHL spot.
Similarly, Jack Studnicka had a strong effort in Tuesday night’s win over the New York Rangers and the B’s appeared to really be on to something with Greer and McLaughlin as his linemates.
Chris Wagner and Nick Foligno have brought their veteran best during the first half of Boston Bruins training camp, and Trent Frederic, Craig Smith and Tomas Nosek all figure to have NHL roster spots at the end barring something unforeseen from happening.
And then there’s Charlie Coyle, who is a lead pipe lock for the third line center spot with a more concrete role than anybody else on either of those two forward lines.
So that’s a minimum of 11 legitimate candidates for six NHL forward roster spots, or seven if the Black and Gold decide to carry an additional extra forward at season’s open. It’s a coach’s conundrum that Jim Montgomery and his staff are actually overjoyed with, since it means multiple bubble players have been shining during the preseason under considerable pressure thanks to internal competition.
That’s a good sign for Boston’s overall forward depth in a season where they will absolutely need it.
“It’s great…we have a lot of good depth up front,” said Montgomery. “Decisions are getting tougher and tougher, and that’s what us as coaches and management are looking to see.”
Given everything that’s happened to this point in the preseason, it’s difficult to see McLaughlin not making the opening night roster. Particularly after the Billerica kid assimilated seamlessly to the NHL speed and game last spring after jumping onto Boston’s roster directly from his time at Boston College, and continues to make smart, detailed plays that make an impact.
🎥 Marc McLaughlin on training camp so far: “I’m just trying to put my best foot forward. Obviously I’m fighting for a spot on this team and I’m just trying to compete as hard as I can every day and show up at the rink.” pic.twitter.com/amtDbAJmPk
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) October 1, 2022
But it’s not that simple, is it?
McLaughlin is still on his entry level contract and doesn’t need waivers to be sent down to the AHL when training camp breaks, and the Boston Bruins no longer have that luxury with guys like Studnicka and Steen as they vie for NHL jobs. One or both could very easily be lost for nothing to other NHL teams if simply left unprotected on the waiver wire over the next 10 days.
It was a reality that Studnicka was keenly aware of earlier this week when asked about the urgency of his training camp performance this season.
“I take it day-by-day. [Waivers as a possibility at the end of camp] is something I’m aware of, I’m not going to lie to you,” said Studnicka. “But I’m trying not to dwell on ‘What if?’ questions. I just show up every day and hopefully things go well.
“Fourth lines create energy for the rest of the team, so I’m just trying to show that. I’m trying to be physical. I’ve learned it’s pretty hard to get a hit on the scoresheet. I’m trying, but it’s pretty hard in this league. I’m trying to throw my weight around as much as I can and be on top of pucks and be on time and create energy.”
The truly difficult decisions will be with guys like 30-year-old Tomas Nosek, who brings little offensively with younger and cheaper options like Studnicka ready to jump in, and with tough veteran options like Wagner and Foligno as they display professionalism and grit on a hockey club that can always use more of each of those things.
“I thought they changed the momentum of the game with some really physical shifts,” said Montgomery of the veteran efforts on Saturday afternoon when the duo combined for 12 registered hits in the game. “Especially [Wagner] and Foligno got involved and I thought they made some really good plays in the third period that led to a 2-on-1. [Foligno] bought time, held it and then sent it off the wall and allowed [Nosek] to get there for the 2-on-1.”
So what does Montgomery look for when he’s judging proven veterans alongside young hopefuls in situations like this with less than two weeks remaining until Oct. 12 when the puck drops for real against the Washington Capitals?
“Obviously you take in the [NHL] resume a bit, but that’s maybe 10 percent. It’s ‘what are you doing right now?’ and you obviously see players get better throughout camp,” said Montgomery. “The NHL vets tend to grow throughout camp. The younger guys don’t have as much leash, and they really need to impress and then keep building throughout camp. So you’re looking for players that continue to grow and make an impression until the end of camp and veterans that continue to rise to the top.”
This humble hockey writer’s stab at what the bottom-6 could look like barring injuries creating open spots in the top-6, a younger unit where speed and some offensive upside could create energy for the Black and Gold?
A third line of Trent Frederic, Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith makes sense barring any preseason deals to theoretically move Smith’s cap $3 million cap hit, and the fourth line could be the boisterous AJ Greer, Jack Studnicka and Marc McLaughlin trio from Tuesday’s victory with Nick Foligno as the 13th forward. The Boston Bruins may opt for Steen over McLaughlin regardless of training camp performance because they don’t want to lose the Swedish winger to waivers, but either way they’d need to figure out what to do with Nosek. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a taker for a serviceable fourth line center in the final year of his contract with a $1.75 million cap hit, but then again, he could very easily just wind up in Providence to start the season as well.
The bottom line is that the Boston Bruins have a wealth of options for forward spots with almost all of them playing full tilt hockey right now, and that’s a good sign for the overall effectiveness of the third and fourth lines once things get going. But it may not be such a good development for veteran players that were hoping to hang onto their NHL gigs at the start of this 2022-23 season.