Belichick weighs in on camp evolution

Belichick weighs in on camp evolution

By Tom E. Curran

FOXBORO - Better, worse; harder, easier - Bill Belichick hates getting into those questions, especially when they refer to things beyond his control.

So when I asked him if it's advantageous to have a 90-player pool to begin training camp or if he'd prefer the previous roster limit of 80, Belichick acted like he smelled something bad.

"I dont know," he huffed. "Look, whatever it is, it is. If its 80, its 80. If its 90, its 90. If its 100, its 100. Well do the best with whatever it is, try to make the most out of it. I dont see it as an advantage-disadvantage. I think you take whatever your opportunities are and you figure out how to make the most of them. If they change, then you take the new set of circumstances and make the best of them."

On one hand, the Patriots have the smallest coaching staff in the league so the "student-teacher" ratio with 90 guys in camp is probably pretty high. But on the other hand, Belichick knows end of the roster guys can, eventually, turn into top of the roster guys. Whether that's Steve Neal, Keenan McCardell, BenJarvus Green-Ellis or Mike Wright, it's not abnormal to see a scrub become valuable. So the more the merrier.

But while Belichick holds his opinion, he did share his experience with the way camp's changed.

"When I started coaching in the NFL, first of all, there really wasnt any offseason program or it was very limited," he explained. "You didnt have the organized OTAs that we have now. When you put in at the beginning of training camp, when you installed your plays, you installed them very thoroughly because it was, Id say, pretty much the first time they were hearing it. Veterans obviously had heard them before but for the benefit of the whole team, you did it in a very thorough way because it was really the first time.

"When we go out here the first day of practice (in 2012), weve already had 13 practices or however many practices we had, granted it was six weeks ago. Theres definitely a level of, from a month of practice, theres some learning and carryover. We might have a couple new guys on the team and all that but Im saying overall theres a lot more lead-in."

Belichick pointed out that the greater camp numbers back in the 70s and 80s was attributable to the fact the draft went on and on. Teams would bring upwards of 60 rookies to camp, Belichick explained. The rookies would have a separate camp for about two weeks, then a few would be retained to go to camp with the rest of the team.

Camp started earlier and ran longer, said Belichick.

"The preparation for the season really was at the beginning of the season, not in the spring and then kind of jumping to the different points. It was a lot different. Is it better or worse? I dont know," he added.

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.