BRIGHTON -- The Bruins are saying all of the right things as training camp commences for the Black and Gold on Thursday morning.
It will be a little different this season for a number of reasons, of course. A handful of key players will be missing with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask and David Pastrnak all participating in the World Cup of Hockey, and the Bruins will be holding their day-to-day practices in a new home at the impressive Warrior Ice Arena practice facility.
So in some ways the Bruins will get to push the refresh button prior to this season in a new home, with some fresh, new faces and a whole different energy to this training camp.
“It’s been a long summer for everyone. I think everybody is excited and ready to go,” said Matt Beleskey, who should be fun to watch this season with another bruising forward in David Backes within the forward ranks. “We’re looking for big things this year. I can tell everybody is excited. It’s been kind of weird without everybody here, but we’re ready to get started.
“It’s been fun watching the World Cup, but you kind of have the feeling like you’ve been killing time waiting for camp to start.”
But that shouldn’t fool anybody out of realizing that many of the same bugaboos still remain with this Bruins group after missing the playoffs each of the last two seasons. Don Sweeney did nothing to upgrade a defensemen group that was flawed and problematic at best, and borderline disastrous at its worst. Naturally the D-men group was bashed early and often for being substandard last season, and the Bruins finished ranked 19th in the league in goals allowed while saddling Tuukka Rask with the worst numbers of his career.
So the returning group is motivated to shut up the critics, and the Bruins are banking on young blue liners to burst up through the ranks and provide upgrades at some point this season. The question is whether the talent is going to be there this time around for a Boston back end that struggled mightily to retrieve pucks, move pucks quickly out of their zone and execute things like tape-to-tape passes out of the defensive zone.
Perhaps 23-year-old Colin Miller develops into that right shot top-4 defenseman that can check off all the boxes for the Black and Gold, or 19-year-old Brandon Carlo is far ahead of Boston’s development plan for him with a game that’s expected to be NHL ready within the next year either way. Or maybe Sweeney gets around to making a trade for an established veteran defenseman like Kevin Shattenkirk or Cam Fowler during training camp to at least give the Bruins something approaching an NHL caliber defensemen group.
Either way, the Bruins front office believes that the defensemen situation will be improved for the Black and Gold this year. That doesn’t necessarily make it true, but one would hope their optimism is based on more than willing it to come into being.
“Basically from April to now everybody is talking about our back end, and not being able to land a top-4 defenseman. We still have an opportunity as far as cap space goes if something shakes free, and I know Don [Sweeney] has been working hard trying to do something,” said Bruins President Cam Neely to CSN NE’s Great American Hockey Show podcast earlier this month. “But I feel like as a group we can do better than we did last year.
“I think Tuukka [Rask] can play better than he did last year. If that happens we should be a better club. It’s going to be a challenge and it’s going to be competitive. But I feel like the changes we’ve made through the organization, and not just in player personnel, that there’s opportunity for our group to improve.”
One thing that should be readily apparent during this training camp is the influx of youthful talent that’s expected to be continuous over the next few seasons. 2015 first round pick Jake DeBrusk and former University of Denver standout Danton Heinen should be flashing their offensive games for open winger spots, and 2015 draft picks Brandon Carlo, Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon will all be pushing to show how close they are to NHL readiness.
The Bruins are a couple of years away from young talents like Charlie McAvoy and Zach Senyshyn joining the fray as well, but the next month of preseason hockey should do plenty to illustrate just how good this group of young players could make Boston a couple of season down the road.
“We need to put the best players on the ice,” said Sweeney. “If [a young player] can pass somebody or the opportunity is there then take hold of it. Because this is really about competition from [rookie camp] on out, and I think we were very specific with that.”
“Is there opportunity for a guy to make a jump? Yeah, there absolutely is…every day. I told [all of the prospects] that the best players are going to play. If they far and away exceed the guys that are here, the incumbents that are here, then they’ll have an opportunity at the end. There are no blockers [for roster spots]. We’re in a situation where we need to get better and I’ve been adamant in saying that. If that [young player] is better [than the veteran] then he’s going to play.”
But this season’s training camp is still about this year’s team first and foremost, and that means keeping Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug, David Krejci, David Backes, Tuukka Rask and David Pastrnak all in one piece until the regular season begins. It also means finding out how Claude Julien and his staff plan to deal with an NHL roster that could have Bergeron, Krejci, Backes, Ryan Spooner, Noel Acciari, Dominic Moore and Riley Nash in a huge surplus of centers down the middle of the ice.
At this point the sheer number of Bruins center-men doesn’t even make sense for the Black and Gold unless there’s a trade planned for one of them over the next few weeks, or Julien and Co. plan to get really creative with their forward group.
On the bright side, these roster questions and unknown scenarios should make things interesting for Bruins fans over the next month. On the not-so-bright-side, so many question marks and unknowns in training camp don’t portend great things when the top NHL teams are pretty locked and loaded right from the start of main training camp.
A little of this and a little of that with no real hopes for NHL dominance has been the sobering reality for the Bruins for each of the last two seasons, and it unfortunately sounds very much like more of the same as camp gets going at their shiny new practice home on Thursday morning.