Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: the Centers

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…well, not really. The 2014-15 NHL campaign was a rough one for the Boston Bruins’ men up the middle.

Patrice Bergeron led the club in scoring with 22 goals and 55 points- the lowest for a non-lockout season since 2009-10 when he and David Krejci both finished with 52 points. It was a step back for Bergeron from his 30 goals and 62 points in 2014, but Krejci’s season was downright miserable.

The 29-year-old missed 35 games and finished with just 7 goals and 31 points in the 47 contests he played after signing a lucrative contract extension that will pay him $43.5 million ($7.25M AAV) for the next six years starting in 2015. This is not to indict the team or player for that deal, but if the Bruins are going to take steps forward, then Krejci is going to have to put the last 12 months behind him and take his game back up to the level he’s capable of.

The good news for the team is that young pivot Ryan Spooner finally broke through after several years of teasing with flashes of his pure speed and offensive skill. He made the club out of camp, but after five games on a very short leash, he was returned to Providence where he battled injuries and up-and-down play until late January when he rounded into form and established himself as a consistent scoring presence. When Krejci went down for another extended absence in late February, Spooner returned to Boston and stayed there, finishing the year with 8 goals (his 1st in the NHL in spot duty the previous two seasons) and 18 points in 29 games (24 if you throw out the first five where he barely played).

Gone is third-liner Carl Soderberg (traded to Colorado for the 2016 pick Boston sent to the Avs for Max Talbot) and fourth line staple Gregory Campbell. Soderberg flashed his big-time ability in spots, but whereas he thrived in his third-line role, he was ineffective when asked to center one of the team’s top-two lines when Krejci was out. Campbell was a good soldier whose declining production and being on the wrong side of 30 made him a free agent departure to Columbus.

Overall, Boston’s 22nd-ranked offense (all the way down from third in 2014) was reflected in the team’s low scoring totals by their centers and the club’s non-playoff finish. Bergeron was steady and dependable, especially when it comes to the other things like faceoffs and defensive zone play, but the lack of production from Krejci and Soderberg, due in part to a dropoff on the wings, all contributed to a down year.

The view from here: Patrice Bergeron, as veteran forward Chris Kelly has often said, is Boston’s “Mr. Everything”- he’s arguably the true face of the franchise. He also turned 30 in July, a remarkable turn of events considering it seems like only yesterday that he was a fresh-faced 18-year-old rookie who made the veteran-laden 2003-04 Bruins out of camp after being the 45th overall selection in Nashville (with a compensation pick the B’s got for losing Bill Guerin to free agency). Since then, Bergeron has won a Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, both a men’s World and World Jr. championship and added three Frank Selke Trophies as the NHL’s top defensive forward. If you looked up “winning” in the Urban Dictionary, you’ll not find Charlie Sheen but Bergeron’s mug looking back at you.

He’s the team’s active points leader with 206 goals and 550 career points in 740 games, all with Boston. He currently sits 12th on the franchise’s all-time scoring list and is just 26 points from moving past Milt Schmidt. Assuming he stays healthy and posts another typical offensive year for him, he could move all the way up to eighth past Terry O’Reilly (606 points). Think of where Bergeron would be  on the scoring ledger had he not lost an entire 82-game season to the 04-05 lockout, another 72 games to the near career-ending hit from behind he took from Flyers defenseman Randy Jones (who?) and then another lockout-shortened half season in 2013.

What makes Bergeron so good is that he’s a complete player. Sure- he doesn’t have the open-ice speed, and to be honest- the Bruins are lucky he wasn’t quicker than he is now at age 17, or else there’s not much of a chance he would have been available for them to draft. Bergeron seriousness and dedication- evident from the very first time I sat down with him for an extended interview at our hotel in Nashville the day after the ’03 draft- is why he not only made the NHL just a few months after turning 18, and ahead of many of the more-heralded 44 picks in front of him, but is a big reason he’s thrived.

Any hopes the B’s have of getting back to being a playoff caliber club starts with him.

Krejci begins the year as the second-ranked active scorer with 409 points in 551 games. When healthy and on top of his game, he’s a cerebral centerman who compensates for his average size and speed with high-end playmaking skills like vision, soft hands and offensive creativity. The Czech product who was a steal at the 64th overall selection in 2004 is quiet off the ice but fiercely driven and competitive as evidenced by his 29 goals and 77 career playoff points, good for ninth all-time for the Bruins (and 11 more than Bergeron has in the postseason).

There isn’t much to add about the previous year’s performance other than to say that the Bruins must get more from him going forward or they’re going to be in trouble. His contract is paying him like a top-level producer, which he has shown he can be in the playoffs, but for a player who has never scored more than 23 goals or 73 points in an entire regular season, it was a generous increase, and for someone who will turn 30 in late April, the Bruins are counting on him taking his production to another level than what we have seen in his previous NHL seasons. Doable? Yes. Likely? That’s an entirely different debate.

Spooner is a speedy, skilled offensive forward who hit his stride after his second call-up late in the year, scoring his first NHL goal in sudden death against New Jersey and playing the best hockey of his young NHL career to finish out the season. At one time the youngest player in Peterborough Petes history to score 30 goals in a season, like Bergeron, he was the 45th overall pick (seven years after PB), slipping in the draft a bit due to a broken collarbone suffered right after the CHL Top Prospects Game in January 2010- dooming him to the “out of sight/out of mind” phenomenon that can occur in a player’s draft season. Although Spooner’s road to the NHL was more down than up, he earned a two-year contract extension and has the inside track to the third line center job when camp opens up in a few weeks. For a kid who appeared done and for whom trade rumors swirled in the first half of last season, he’s back to where the B’s thought he should be.

A player who enters camp with expectations of winning the fourth-line center job is Finnish veteran pro and newcomer Joonas Kemppainen. A member of the SM-Liiga’s championship team Karpat this past spring, Kemppainen has a big, 6-2, 200-pound frame and at age 27 is a mature two-way center who can do all of the little things you need. Although not especially fast, he has a powerful stride and uses his body well along the walls and in front of the net. He doesn’t have high-end puck skills, but he works hard in the trenches and gets his points off of opportunism and hard work. He was brought to development camp in July, but pulled a hamstring while working out at home before the trip, so fans unfortunately weren’t able to see him. He should be fine for camp, but this will be something to monitor and watch going forward.

Alexander Khokhlachev and Zack Phillips will also be vying for NHL jobs this season going into camp, but may have their hands full trying to make a splash with Boston. Koko is ready for NHL duty, but he may need to make a positional switch to the wing in order to do it. He’s not as fast as Spooner is, so splitting him out wide may be a better fit for his style of game and gives the Bruins more of a dynamic option scoring-wise- he’s not an ideal candidate for the duties and responsibilities of a fourth-line pivot, and he’d have to beat out one of the 1-3 centers to make it there, which, given his current body of work to date, is not likely.

Phillips, who was drafted 12 spots ahead of Koko in 2011 by the Wild (and Koko’s pick ended up being Minnesota’s 2nd-round selection- acquired in a trade that sent Chuck Kobasew out west early in 2009-10). He’s a talented offensive player who tallied 95 points in a Memorial Cup-winning campaign his draft year, but has struggled since to live up to the billing of being taken in the top-30. He performed well enough for Providence after being acquired even-up for Jared Knight at the deadline, tallying 11 points in 16 games, but has yet to show that he’s someone who will vie for regular NHL duty, at least as far as this season is concerned. At age 22 (he turns 23 in late Oct.), he has time, so it behooves the Bruins to take a wait-and-see approach.

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: If neither one of Koko or Phillips makes the Boston roster, they’ll be the 1-2 punch in Providence this year (though it stands to reason that Boston’s skilled Russian prospect might balk at another demotion- we shall see, and I’ll cover him in the forthcoming post on the B’s options on the wings as well).

There isn’t a whole lot else to speak of down in the AHL. Providence College captain Noel Acciari is a blue collar prospect as a versatile if not high-end offensive player who plays a rugged two-way game and hits everything in sight. He’s not an NHL option at this point, but has steadily developed at every other level and is a winner, having been a key part of the Friars’ first-ever NCAA title this past spring. He was a solid free agent pickup for the B’s.

Rugged WHL center Justin Hickman, a free agent signed last January after shutting it down for shoulder surgery, may be a diamond-in-the-rough at Providence this year. The former Seattle Thunderbirds captain didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he was starting to get there in his final major junior season until he went under the knife. He skates well for his size, plays a fearless game, and will stick up for teammates. He was still limited (no scrimmage) at development camp, but is expected to be cleared by the start of the season and could become a fan favorite in short order. Fellow WHLer Colby Cave may be another center option in Providence or could be switched to wing. He’s not as physical as Hickman but plays a smart, underrated offensive game as evidenced by the chemistry he showed at Swift Current last season with Jake DeBrusk. We’ll give him more coverage in the wingers section.

Diminutive little buzzsaw Austin Czarnik has the speed and style of game to turn heads in camp as well. Like Acciari, he captained his club- Miami University- and was a nice free agent get last spring. Although tiny by NHL standards (5-9, about 160 pounds), he’s a superb playmaking center with the quick feet and stick to back defenses up and cause problems for would-be checkers. Don’t know what I mean? Check out this highlight vid from the playoffs a few months back:

He’s going to do some good work in Providence and if he can be a forward version of Torey Krug and overcome the size bias, he has the versatility to play on the lower lines and at wing as well (though he’s best in the middle).

Look to the future: The B’s have some intriguing talent in the pipeline, even if there isn’t an elite center among a solid group of players.

Harvard University is eagerly awaiting Ryan Donato, Boston’s second-round selection in 2014 and the son of head coach (and former Bruin) Ted Donato. After starring for four years at Dexter Southfield in Brookline, Donato took his game last spring to the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, where he put up more than a point per game and silenced some of the critics and doubters. Although not blazing fast like his dad, he’s bigger and plays a more dangerous offensive game. He’s a long-term project with a sizable potential payoff.

Not too far away from seeing duty in Boston is current Miami University captain and senior Sean Kuraly, who was acquired in late June along with San Jose’s first-round pick in 2016 for goaltender Martin Jones. Though he hasn’t been overly productive in his NCAA career to date, he has that kind of potential as he enters the new year coming off a 19-goal junior campaign. He’s a heavy player who uses his size and quickness to excel in puck possession and is at his best when creating space for his linemates and taking pucks straight to the net. Don’t be surprised to see the B’s explore bringing him straight to Boston in March or April when his season ends.

Ryan Fitzgerald is entering his junior year at Boston College and will face the team’s newest center prospect, Swedish two-way playmaker Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, who is a freshman at Boston University. The two are similar in that they can both score and play responsible defensive hockey. ‘JFK’ is a little bigger and has the better draft pedigree, but don’t count out the 2013 fourth-rounder who appears to be on the verge of breaking out with some big-time production at the Heights. I’m not sure how that will translate at the pro level, but Fitzgerald’s hockey sense and bloodlines will take him far.

2015 sixth-rounder Cameron Hughes has a lot of skill and grit if not the size- but he’s expected to play a bigger role at the University of Wisconisin this season and is definitely a player to watch as a value selection.

The verdict: Center is the strongest position in Boston currently, even if the position lacks the dynamic scoring and production other teams can boast.

In Krejci, Bergeron and Spooner- if all stay healthy and produce to their potential, you’re looking at a balanced attack that will at least put the wingers in position to finish off plays. This isn’t a sexy group by league-wide standards, but they don’t have to be. Bergeron’s leadership will continue to pay off in the room, while Krejci is the kind of guy motivated by the lost season a year ago. He took the team’s failure to make the playoffs personally, but talk is cheap- it will be interesting to see how he responds and if he can avoid the injury bug, a legitimate concern given his slight frame and the wear and tear on his body.

Kemppainen is the favorite for the bottom line coming out of camp but he’s not a lock. Should he struggle or Koko have a great outing, the coaching staff will be faced with some tough decisions. The standard play is usually to send the waiver-exempt players down and protect those who must be exposed, so we’ll see how things turn out. Chris Kelly has the versatility to play a fourth-line center role if the B’s want to use him there, but given his faceoff strengths, it makes sense to put him on the wing with Spooner on the third line until the youngster can earn more defensive zone faceoff trust from the coaches.

Ultimately, as long as the group stays healthy, the center position will be the least of Boston’s worries, but whether they can be good enough to make up for the rest of the team’s shortcomings remains to be seen.

I’ll be back with the preview on the wingers to include future options like Denver University’s LW Danton Heinen, who might be closer to the show than we realize.

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

One thought on “Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: the Centers

  1. Pingback: Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview : Wingers | scoutingpost

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