Bruins looking for winner at forward

Bruins looking for winner at forward
September 24, 2013, 2:00 am
Share This Post

It was only fitting that the Bruins coaching staff opted to lump Ryan Spooner, Jordan Caron and Nick Johnson onto the same forward line for Monday night’s preseason game against the Washington Capitals.

Those three forwards are competing with each other for a chance at the spare forward spot on the 22-man NHL roster for the Boston Bruins, and have lasted deep into training camp as others had disappeared around them. Craig Cunningham was another name shipped back to the AHL following Monday night’s game, and that leaves 17 forwards in camp for 13 roster spots.

Ten forward spots are automatically spoken for: Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Jarome Iginla, Loui Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Chris Kelly. It would also appear at this point that Carl Soderberg and Reilly Smith are fairly safe as the other 2/3 of the third line along with Kelly after two straight appearances together against the Red Wings and Capitals.

So Monday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the Capitals was a proving ground with the Bruins coaching staff and management watching, evaluating and ultimately deciding which players make the cut.

“There are quite a few guys in the mix. That’s some of the stuff I alluded to [Monday] morning when I said we’re going to have some tough decisions to make at the end,” said Julien. “There’s no doubt those decisions will be made as a group; upper management, coaches involved, because everybody’s going to have an opinion and going to have to weigh pros and cons and everything else that goes with it.”

Spooner has been the darling of training camp as a 21-year-old that appears to just be coming into his powers at the NHL level. The gifted young center generated seven shots in a little over 16 minutes of ice time on Monday night, and used his speed, smarts and hockey skill to create a number of scoring chances for himself. Even better, Spooner was hustling to fore-check and rotating to cover defensemen in transition once his teammate had pinched into the offensive zone.

Though Spooner faces a stacked group of established centers already on the roster, he has also put together four very good performances during the preseason while showing he’s getting close to a finished NHL product at a precocious young age.

“I play my best hockey when I can skate with the puck, and shoot around the back-check too. Sometimes it’s harder to get going and get speed on the ice, but any chance I get to go with speed it makes [the opposing defenseman] back-off a little bit,” said Spooner. “A lot of D men like to hold up at the blue line, so I think if I use some speed I can chip it by them and be the first one on the puck – or even mostly D-men will just back off, let you take the blue line so that’s kind of what I try to do.”

While Spooner has the electric mix of speed and skill in a young prospect just on the cusp of a promising NHL career, Johnson is a 27-year-old veteran that’s been around the block a few times. The former Wild, Coyotes and Penguins player has logged more than 100 games at the NHL level, and has showed his ability in different forms throughout the preseason.

Johnson potted three goals in the first two preseason games to really put himself on Boston’s radar, and has exhibited a gritty third-liner’s willingness to block shots, fore-check and do whatever it takes. The former Dartmouth College star showed another side on Monday night when he jumped to the defense of Adam McQuaid when he was thrown to the ice by Michael Cajkovski. Johnson isn’t a fighter and didn’t fare very well in the bout, but it was the gesture that caught the eye of the Bruins afterward.

“Outstanding job by [Johnson], a lot of character, that’s exactly what the identity of this team is,” said Zdeno Chara. “His approach and his reaction to protect his teammate was outstanding, good for us and great for him.”

The one real enigma here is Caron. As a 22-year-old former first round pick that’s spent portions of the last three seasons with the Bruins, one would have expected him to have the inside track on a roster spot this fall. But Caron has largely struggled to find consistency in his game, and hasn’t made any kind of dent offensively or defensively for the Black and Gold.

Caron threw the body around a bit on Saturday night in Detroit, and he had a couple of decent plays with Spooner during a lopsided win over the Capitals on Monday night. But Caron doesn’t look like an impact player, and he doesn’t even look like a guy hell bent on winning an NHL job with the Bruins. The Bruins are saying all of the right things about the camp that Caron has put forth, but sometimes it’s a very good thing for a struggling player to have a change of scenery.

“I think we’re watching Jordan [at camp] as well. I think you’ve seen him on the power play in front of the net in certain games; he’s killed [penalties] a little bit for us. We need to see his improvement as well,” said Julien. “We have to be able to assess him properly and give him the proper chance. But there’s no doubt he’s been with us for more years than some of those other guys, so you have an idea of what you’ve got.

“But you still have to give him that opportunity and give him that chance to earn himself a spot. So he’s in the mix as well as you know. I think by next week he’ll be one of the guys that we’re going to be talking about whether he stays or goes.”

All three players worked well together in Monday night’s win over the Capitals even though they’re on their own personal journeys to clinch a roster spot. It’s gone remarkably different for each one of the trio, but they’re all in the same boat now simply looking for a chair to sit in before the training camp music stops next week.

Realistically it will only be good news for one of them when the finalized NHL roster is announced, and it’s up to them to decide who it’s going to be.