There’s only one definite on the Bruins third line at the start of training camp, and it’s the same guy that’s been at the center of that forward group for the last three season, Chris Kelly. The 32-year-old two-way pivot is coming off his worst NHL season after posting three goals and nine points along with a minus-8 in 34 games, and struggled badly until the Stanley Cup Final while working back from a broken right leg.
The low points of last year came with linemates Chris Bourque and Rich Peverley struggling right along with him, so the off year certainly didn’t fall completely into Kelly’s lap. And his game did finally revert back to form in the Stanley Cup Final against the Blackhawks when he was skating with Daniel Paille and Tyler Seguin on either side of him.
With Seguin gone and Paille likely sticking on the fourth line, the Bruins and Kelly will be on the lookout for a few good players to fill out the third line with the right combination of grit and honest-to-goodness skill.
“I hope we do a bit of everything. Obviously our goal is to be a defensively sound line, but also to contribute offensively. When our team is operating well we’re getting offense from all four lines, and taking some of the pressure off the top two lines. But in Claude [Julien’s] system everybody needs to play defense, and we’ll be trying to do that just as we’ve done in the past.”
Kelly will be looking to build off the two goals and three points he pushed through in the final five games of the Cup Final, and he’ll be doing it with a pair of players that win open auditions during training camp.
“Last year was a tough year, but I definitely felt a lot better as the playoff rolled along,” said Kelly. “Especially in the Cup Final I felt like my legs were back to where I wanted them to be, and I had a good offseason with no issues at all.
“I’m excited to get back skating and playing hard, and when you have new linemates it’s a new challenge. I think that’s something we’re all looking forward to.”
Right now he’s skating with Reilly Smith and Jordan Caron as his wingers, and enjoying the play from either side of him. Smith has a little snarl and smarts in his game, and has the skills to score points in a third line role. Caron seemed on his way to securing a third line niche going into last season, but the lockout and injuries derailed his development at the NHL level.
Now both are looking to create some camp chemistry with Kelly, and a group of Carl Soderberg, Matt Fraser and Craig Cunningham are doing the same with the second group of camp skaters.
“[Caron and Smith] have both been skating well. I’ve played with Jordy before, so there is some familiarity there. But with Reilly I’ve been impressed the first two days we’ve skated together,” said Kelly. “I know there’s a lot of competition for the ‘so-called’ third line, but competition is great. I like to put myself in that mix, and putting myself in there to win a spot just like everybody else.
“I know I’ve been in the situation where I was full of energy and working hard every day, and [Caron and Smith] are really in that situation right now. They’ve been making good plays, and making it pretty easy for me.”
He may not get back to the 20-goal campaign of two years ago when he rang up a plus-33 rating, but Kelly is still capable of playing sound defense, winning key face-offs and providing balanced leadership in the dressing room. The vibe in Boston’s room was noticeable when Kelly was injured and absent after breaking his leg against the Ottawa Senators, and that’s a testament to the center’s willingness to speak his mind in a tense dressing room.
“I thought maybe in the [Cup Final] he was much better, I thought he played some of his best hockey then and it seemed like he was finding his game again,” said Julien. “I thought after the injury it really took him a long time to find his game, and he just didn’t seem to be quite the same player. After a while it got in his head and the pressure of not scoring and the expectations and the new contract, and everything else.
All that stuff kind of weighed on him as a player whether you’re a veteran or not you know you’re there you want to be a positive attribute to your team. When he was looking at his plus/minuses and when he was looking at his line not scoring, but getting scored on I think that stuff as a leader kind of weighed on him a little bit. But he was able to overcome that. I thought at least in the last round or in the playoffs he started playing much better so I’m hoping that he’s going to start this year the way he ended last year.”
It’s a good bet Kelly will be much closer to his consistent self this coming season after a routine offseason, training camp and 82-game schedule of regular season games, and his third line will be much closer to productive coming off last year’s dreadful season when it comes to the third line.