Kelly, Soderberg, Smith cementing 3rd-line roles

Kelly, Soderberg, Smith cementing 3rd-line roles
September 26, 2013, 11:30 am
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The Bruins aren’t making any trumpet blaring announcements or tipping their hand for the regular season, as that doesn’t really serve them in any meaningful way.

But it would appear the Bruins have found the preferred three-forward combo for the third line they’ve been searching for since Benoit Pouliot was shipped out of town two years ago.

Chris Kelly is the lone returning holdover from a trio that combined for 10 goals and a minus-23 as a serious Achilles heel on last year’s hockey club. But Kelly should have much more help this season, and feel as much pressure on his shoulders as he did last season. Carl Soderberg and Reilly Smith have been on either side of Kelly for the last two preseason games, and the trio has been consistently together for almost a week developing chemistry and cohesion.

Claude Julien wasn’t making any guarantees Kelly, Soderberg and Smith would be his third line to start the regular season next week, of course.

But they’ve arguably been Boston’s best line in each of the last two games and made a statement to Boston’s decision makers. They certainly were just that in Detroit last weekend when the Big Swede scored both of Boston’s goals in a 2-0 win over the Red Wings, and they were solid in the OT victory over the Capitals with Kelly potting the game-winning goal in the extra session.

“I think we could swap guys in. We could leave them like that and see how much more we can get out of them,” said Claude Julien in comments defining the word ‘noncommittal.’ “I think it’s a matter of balancing that stuff. We really have to make sure that we give the other guys a good look too to be able to make that decision.”

The other guys still serving as candidates for the third line include Jordan Caron, Ryan Spooner, Nick Johnson, Matt Lindblad and Matt Fraser, but it would appear they’ll all vie to be the spare forward at this point in training camp. Johnson might have the upper hand in a spare forward competition as a seasoned veteran that can perform well in a number of different roles should injuries cause a need.

But all that still remains to be seen.

“There are other guys, the [Jordan] Carons could fit on that line, the [Matt] Frasers could fit on that line," Julien said. "There are other guys – [Nick] Johnson who’s had a pretty good camp. So those are the guys I'm talking about in order to assess their play and that’s where we’re at right now. We were looking at players and some of those players also can be thirteenth forwards, could play on the fourth line or could play in areas where there are injuries.

“So you’ve got to make sure – we’re obviously going to have an extra forward with us this year like we do every year. So you’ve got to be able to know that those guys can fit in to those kinds of lines when needed.”

But getting back to the big guns on that third line, everybody knows what Kelly will bring to the table. Kelly is coming off a disappointing year as well while he struggled on both ends of breaking his leg with three goals and nine points along with a minus-8 in 34 games. That was on the heels of a career 20-goal campaign two years ago that probably unfairly raised the expectations for Kelly’s offensive potential.

Kelly did regain his familiar two-way game during the Stanley Cup Final skating with Daniel Paille and Tyler Seguin, though, and that gives No. 23 something to build on to start this season. The center’s breakthrough seemed to coincide with him finally feeling fully healed from the broken leg suffered when former teammate Chris Neil caught him in the neutral zone.

The other guys will ultimately tell the tale of how good this forward line can be. Soderberg could be special as he gets accustomed to the NHL, his teammates and North American hockey in general. But Soderberg has the skills to be a center in the NHL, and the attributes to be a good two-way power forward capable of bringing needed offense to the third line. He routinely dominated one-on-one battles during drills in training camp while using his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame, and he’s got the size and strength around the net that the Kelly/Peverley/Bourque trio sorely lacked last season.

“When he came over [last year] he hadn’t played for a while. We kind of threw him into the fire, and his conditioning was off. He just hadn’t played,” said Chiarelli. “He’s got a couple of quicker steps now, and he’s barreled around ‘D’ taking the puck to the net. He’s a heavy player in recovering pucks. I like a lot about his game.

“What I’ve seen in Carl is that he can really shoot the puck. For that he might be the guy that we see along the wing. I’ve seen the way he’s beaten ‘D’ going wide and being strong on the puck. For me that is a prototypical winger trait, so he’s got some of the power forward traits.”

Smith was a bit of an unknown after being one of the “other guys” that arrived along with Loui Eriksson in the Tyler Seguin trade. But he’s shown that he’s capable of playing a useful role with the Black and Gold at both ends of the ice, and has been a solid, dogged fore-checker when called upon. The Bruins coaching staff started using Smith on the PK in the last few games paired with Chris Kelly, and that’s a sign they’re serious about installing him into a permanent spot.

“He makes some nifty plays. I like his battle, and he’s a smart, heady player,” said Chiarelli. “He makes good plays in small spaces, he’s got a real good shot and a very good stick picking away pucks on the ‘wrong’ side. He’s very good on the wall. He’s not the biggest guy, but he plays with an edge. He’s got a lot of things that we like.”

The forward line did look a little vulnerable defensively during Monday night’s preseason game against the Capitals when a sustained trip in their own zone led to a goal against. That’s something Julien and the Bruins coaching staff will be watching closely, as the third line also has to be one of those forward groups Boston can use in something of a shutdown role.

But the Soderberg/Kelly/Smith trio should get at least one more appearance together in the last two preseason games against the Winnipeg Jets this week to cement their standing. They probably won’t have to show all that much given the body of work they’ve already put together over the last month, but it never hurts to finish up the preseason in strong fashion.