New Englanders tend to be realistic (pessimistic?) by nature, so while the focus has been on the defense and the potential for gaping lanes that skill teams will find available to them, as the 2016-17 NHL season begins for the Boston Bruins tonight in Columbus, Ohio, there’s some excitement swirling around the big league debuts of four players in the lineup.
Injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller have opened the door for a pair of forwards in Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen, and a defense duo of Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara to get their first taste of NHL action against the Blue Jackets. Bergeron is expected back in the lineup for the weekend action versus Toronto and rookie sensation Auston Matthews, who last night became the only player ever to score four goals in his first NHL game. McQuaid and Miller will be out a little (in the former’s case, a lot for the latter) longer, so we temper the eagerness with which we greet the young rookies with the belief that perhaps half of them have a realistic chance of staying on Boston’s roster for the duration of the season.
In Czarnik, the B’s have a fast and skilled little (emphasis needed) center who was snubbed in the NHL draft, but looks like a pretty savvy pickup after four years at Miami University, the last two of which he wore the captain’s ‘C’. He took a high hit from behind that targeted the head in the final preseason game by Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas (he got a six-game layoff from the NHL’s department of player safety) but cleared the concussion protocol in time to play in his first big league game. Czarnik is a classic little engine that could as a player who always had to overcome size bias to work harder than just about everyone else to hone his skills and three zone game. After a 61-point first year in the AHL, he’s made the initial cut to stick in Boston, and that’s the stuff NHL dreams are truly made of. Czarnik is an exciting buzzsaw of a forward- he zips in and out of lanes and can put the shake n’ bake on less-agile defenders. When the puck is on his stick, he brings a similar kind of playing style to that of Brad Marchand. Note- we’re not saying he is the next Marchand, but you can see it in the way he uses his speed, vision and hands to create and give opponents fits. He’s not the abrasive agitator Marchand is, but Czarnik is a big man trapped in a little man’s body who plays the game with heart and energy. Fans love an underdog, and when coupled with Czarnik’s electrifying offensive element, it’s not hard to understand why so many are jumping on the AC Train.
More was expected of Heinen and he entered training camp as a prohibitive favorite to win a spot with the big club, but he is also a feel-good story. Passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility in 2013, the British Columbia native hit a significant growth spurt and then opened eyes as captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles. The Bruins liked Heinen enough to snatch him in the 2014 draft’s fourth round despite his being an almost complete unknown in NHL draft pubs. The rumor at the time was that several other teams were hoping to steal Heinen later on, not the least of which was none other than the Montreal Canadiens. That story isn’t verified, but damn- it feels good to B’s fans to hear it. Heinen is a thinking fan’s hockey player- he’s not especially fast or dazzling in the way he handles the puck, but he goes to the right spots, moves it to the correct spaces and plays a quietly effective and productive three-zone game. He’s the quintessential Claude Julien-style forward because he’s both intelligent and efficient. If you’re expecting to be entertained by Heinen, you’ll probably wonder what the hype is about, but if you watch the wall work, the way he slices through layers of defenses and puts himself in position to make plays at both ends of the ice, you’ll gain an appreciation for him.
On the defensive side of things, Carlo is a favorite of those B’s fans who religiously follow the NHL draft and Boston’s prospect development system. Picked 37th overall in 2015, he looks like a brilliant pick in hindsight as his natural 6-foot-5-inch size, mobility and reach instantly jump out at you. Back in 1997, a young Hal Gill caught the eye of fans because he was 6-7, and was the biggest cat in the NHL before some guy named Zdeno Chara showed up on Long Island about a year later. The thing about Carlo is that while he’s not quite as tall as Gill, he’s a better skater and has long arms, therefore brings a similar reach. Fans are excited about Carlo because he’s big and fluid and does a real good job of keeping opposing forwards from walking straight to the net…a turnstile he is not. The jury is out on how much offensive hockey sense/creativity Carlo has, but he’s certainly not limited in terms of being able to handle the puck and join the rush. Having said all that, there will be natural growing pains as is with the case with any 19-year-old defenseman, but to the Coloradan’s credit, he impressed a year ago in his first NHL training camp and exhibition season and then carried that forward to make the Boston Bruins before age 20. He’s not a snarly, intimidating beast on the physical side, but he will rub guys out and is sure to be well-liked in the dressing room because he’s got an even-keeled personality.
Last but not least is O’Gara- a TSP personal favorite going back to 2010-11 when he left the Long Island Royals AAA midget program to win a prep championship with the Milton Academy Mustangs. The B’s drafted him with the final selection of the fifth round, and he was described by then-assistant GM Don Sweeney as a “big piece of clay” that required a great deal of molding and shaping. Five years later, the 23-year-old Yale grad might not be a finished product, but he’s close enough and tonight will earn a status no one can take away from him- NHL player. O’Gara is a good skater- it’s less about speed and stride with him than it is fluid and agile footwork, which allows him to pivot and change direction quickly and efficiently. He’s got size and reach…and he can make an effective outlet pass to aid in the transition game. Like Carlo, there are sure to be mistakes and mishaps, but O’Gara is smart and motivated- he’s a quick study and character guy who has been around long enough that he understands the system and is ready to prove himself. It might mean more of an apprenticeship in Providence when other players return, but for now, O’Gara has earned the opportunity and will begin on the second pairing with Torey Krug on the right side (ROG shoots left, so it speaks volumes about the level of trust he’s earned that the Boston coaching staff is fine with him playing his “off” side).
David Backes will skate on a line tonight with Marchand and David Pastrnak if nothing changes between now and puck drop, and with Bergeron out (albeit temporarily), maybe bringing in an experienced veteran center wasn’t such a bad idea after all. David Krejci has a great deal to prove, and with Heinen and Ryan Spooner flanking him, there’s no shortage of offensive creativity on that unit. Spooner’s speed is a welcome addition to the lessened pace of Krejci and Heinen, but the trio provide quite an intriguing matchup on paper. All three of them are or have been centers before, so that’s a line that gives Julien a lot of flexibility and versatility.
Czarnik will likely test his NHL mettle with Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. Beleskey doesn’t have the high-end skill to put up big numbers (and he’d be on the top two lines in any event if that were the case) but he’s gritty and should develop some chemistry with Czarnik. Hayes is the wild card- the B’s desperately need a revival from him this season much like Reilly Smith had with Florida a year ago. It would be foolish to think that Hayes doesn’t want to make it work in Boston, but he’ll have to shrug off the external pressures and get down to the basics by just doing what he does best. He doesn’t have either of his linemates’ wheels, so it will be interesting to see if they have some set plays to leverage Hayes as a trailer into the zone with his soft hands and big shot.
Tim Schaller is back up with Boston with Bergeron out and may get a chance to skate with Noel Acciari and Dominic Moore, but the guess here is that Riley Nash will round out the fourth line. It’s not a nasty unit in terms of abundant physicality, but they’ll all grind it out and bring some veteran smarts to go with Acciari’s exuberance.
Defensively, the Bruins need their veterans- Chara, Krug and John-Michael Liles– to provide some glue for the younger guys- Carlo (Chara), O’Gara (Krug) and Colin Miller (Liles) as they shake out the butterflies and deal with the immense difference in speed, skill and pace from what they are used to. Chiller got enough action in last year, and Joe Morrow is also around to step in should anyone get hurt or falter, but this is an untested bunch and the biggest source of consternation with the 2016-17 Bruins.
Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin were the tandem in Boston’s net the last time the B’s went to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013, so there are no concerns with the talent or experience. They can’t carry a team on their backs, though- so everyone will have to row hard in the same direction. If the talent gap becomes too great, then Sweeney will have to act at some point.
That’s all going to have to wait for the time being, because this is what the B’s are going with to begin the new season.
As the Dropkick Murphys so aptly like to belt out- drop the puck…it’s time to go. (Thanks BruinsBabe176)