BRIGHTON, Mass. – Ryan Spooner was relieved to find out a couple of days ago that he’d start Bruins training camp at his natural center position. That’s as it should be after the 24-year-old posted 13 goals and 49 points in his first full NHL season.
“I would prefer to play there. If they want to play me on the wing then that’s fine, but I’m happy [Claude] said [he wants to start me at center]. I’m going to be ready to go,” said Spooner, who is entering the final season of a two-way deal with the Bruins. “We talked at the end of the year, and he basically said that at times I was playing well there, and at other times he had to shelter me because I wasn’t, I guess, doing the job. So it’s a challenge for me [to keep the third line center spot] and I’m looking forward to it.
“It’s a sport, you know. At the end of the day if [free agent addition David Backes] is going to take my spot then I’ve got to play wing. There’s nothing I can do about that. He’s good at wing and he’s a center, so I guess we’ll see what happens there.”
The sheltering was absolutely a real thing as Spooner was moved off center at times to make room for people like Joonas Kemppainen, who was one-and-done in the NHL after an offensively inept season for the Black and Gold. Spooner knows that his face-offs must improve from last year’s 42.8 percent success rate, and that he needs better consistency at avoiding “getting hemmed in my own end, that’s not good.”
Spooner’s offensive numbers, however, are exactly the kind of offensive production the B’s were more than happy with from their third-line center position with Carl Soderberg the previous two seasons.
Spooner also added the needed elements of blazing skating speed and PP proficiency (six PP goals and 17 points on the man advantage last season) to a Bruins team that desperately needs both. More than that, however, Spooner is the kind of young talent that the Bruins have squandered far too much of in recent years and the kind of talent that B’s management is now very wary of burning them for years if a trade involving them isn’t a home run.
So, Julien confirmed on Thursday that Spooner would indeed start camp at center, but that many players will have to flexible given Boston’s glut of centers (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Backes, Spooner, Noel Acciari, Dominic Moore and Riley Nash) once all roster players have reported to training camp.
“I think there's a lot that can happen in this training camp. I think a lot of it is, we'll see how Spoons [Ryan Spooner] does at center. We've still got him at center right now. There's no doubt that we have that option of [David] Backes being a strong third-lone center man,” said Claude Julien. “At the same time, you still have Backes as also a pretty strong right winger on your top two lines that you could also use.
“I think there are a lot of things...right now, we've looked at all the different scenarios and we're going to let it play out here in training camp and hopefully have a clear picture by the time we're ready to start.”
But let’s be honest here: Backes looks and sounds like he’s going to be the third-line center for the Bruins. That’s exactly what he signed up for when the 32-year-old bruising pivot signed a five-year deal with Boston. It’s also just as plainly obvious that Spooner isn’t the prototype for a fourth-line center spot on the Bruins, so, at some point, something has to give with so many bodies down the middle of the ice.
Don Sweeney said earlier this week that it’s a good problem to have for the Bruins, but that means at some point it is going to become a problem. It may eventually push Spooner to the wing where Julien tinkered around with him last year and where it would give the Bruins a top-six option if youngsters Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn and Peter Cehlarik aren’t quite ready for prime time.
“It's more than [the face-offs],” said Sweeney of Spooner’s path to improvement. “But you have to start with the puck. When you're not and the other team knows it, especially on the road at times, that becomes a frustrating exercise for coaches. People have talked about the number of centers we've necessarily put on this hockey club and you'll be hard-pressed to find any coaches - and I think one's in Toronto right now [with the World Cup Team Canada] that my last count has about ten or 12 guys that played center.
“It's going to help. It doesn't mean that the ownership, as Ryan [Spooner] would talk about, is any less on him. Because if he can do it and he's more than capable of doing it, than that's growth in his game and he recognizes it. Hopefully he does. That leaves other guys in position. If he doesn't, we have help being able to help take some load off him in that regard. We can support him. I look at that as more of a player, and a player that's still young in some of those areas that can continue to grow. He's more than capable. It's just a matter of working at it.”
Clearly it’s not a matter of talent with Spooner and a little greater mental and physical toughness wouldn’t hurt a player package that already includes speed, playmaking and offensive skill with the puck on his stick.
But this whole situation is also indicative of the way things are being done on Causeway Street these days.
Spooner was never told in the offseason whether to prepare to play wing or center and the signing of Backes caused Sweeney to then make a necessary call to Krejci to let him know that the Bruins weren’t going to be trading him. Of course, that doesn’t take into account that the Bruins couldn’t trade Krejci this summer even if they wanted to as a 30-year-old, high priced center coming off the second hip surgery of his career.
The idea of Backes pushing up with Bergeron and Brad Marchand to form some kind of super-shutdown line late in games is an inviting one and something that could help the Bruins win a few more games next season. But there’s also a concerning pattern of Bruins management making moves without taking full account of their ripple effect on the rest of the roster, whether it’s pushing players out of natural position or creating a logjam at certain positions with no contingency plan to deal off the surplus of centers in this case.
Logic says that the Bruins have to make a move with one of these centers at some point and that Spooner or Krejci would be the logical individuals to be moving on from Boston. But logical assumptions when it comes to the Black and Gold aren’t a very healthy exercise these days, and this center situation, with Spooner right in the thick of it, might play out that over the course of this season.