For the first time in years, no one has a fourth line job to lose on the Boston Bruins.
While players like Curtis Lazar and Trent Frederic are certainly candidates for gigs based on their performance last season, they don’t have an air-tight hold on a role like Sean Kuraly did for much of his time with the Bruins.
Ultimately, there are four serious candidates and two more distant options to fill three jobs. Let’s look at each of their cases.
His preseason debut should’ve been enough to get people excited about what he’s capable of. Nosek is one of the rare offensive-minded fourth-liners, to the point it got him some time on Vegas’ third line last season. Nosek has the early makings of a great pickup.
He’s a steady player and can comfortably center a line but also play just fine on the right wing. His penalty-killing ability helps his case for a nightly roster spot. He should be a lineup regular.
In an ideal world, Frederic would be putting himself in a position to make it impossible for the Bruins to scratch him this season. He hasn’t been great in preseason action, though, which is not what he needed after flaming out late last season. The upside is there for him to be a difference-maker, but he needs to grab hold of his opportunities more often.
The 2018-19 version of Wagner helped make for a real solid fourth line, but he hasn’t really been the same player since. The good thing about Wagner is he either takes hold of a lineup spot by showing those flashes of his old self, or he becomes a nice insurance policy as the 13th forward.
For all his troubles becoming a lineup mainstay, you can’t argue that Kuhlman always injects energy into the lineup when he plays. He is one of the more distant candidates, and it’s tough that he’s not waivers exempt, but it would be nice to see him carve out a role for himself. There’s a lot to like about his game.
If everyone is healthy, then Studnicka will have a tough time earning a job in the middle six. A case could be made to put him on the fourth line, but that only makes sense if he’s centering the unit. However, his game is best suited as a second- or third-line center, and he is better off playing that type of role in Providence then as the fourth-line center or right wing in Boston just for the sake of getting him in the lineup.
Early on in camp, it seemed like Frederic-Nosek-Lazar would be the group on Oct. 16. As of the start of this month, Nosek-Lazar-Wagner seems more likely, but time will tell.
Here are some more notes this week:
— The early returns make it sound like training camp through 10-plus days have been emblematic of Urho Vaakanainen’s pro experience as a whole: Potential is there, but too much inconsistency and mistake-making.
The 2017 first-rounder played the first two preseason games on a pairing with veteran depth defenseman Tyler Lewington. He was far too reticent in the first exhibition contest against the Washington Capitals, which led to some pointed criticism from head coach Bruce Cassidy.
“He needs to be better if he’s going to make our team,” Cassidy said after the game in an exclusive interview with The Boston Globe’s Matt Porter. “He’s going to have to be more assertive all around. He had opportunities to make plays with the puck; they weren’t clean. He didn’t create extra time and space for himself by moving his feet.
“We can tell him and we will tell him, but at the end of the day, this isn’t his first go-round. There is an understanding after a few training camps of where you are and what you need to do. We went through it with the (Jakub) Zborils and (Jeremy) Lauzons. They figured it out, pushed a little harder.”
Two days later against the New York Rangers, he was more assertive. He was moving pucks with more authority and trying to close out plays with more conviction. He finished with a goal.
“I thought against Washington he slapped pucks around a lot, for a guy that’s played games and has a good idea of what to expect,” Cassidy said. “In general, his ability to get to pucks and make an outlet was better. Usually means he’s engaged in the game.”
This is a important camp for Vaakanainen. Defensemen, especially European ones used to playing on a bigger rink, always have a more challenging acclimation period to North American professional hockey. He’s only 22, so by no means is he a lost cause, but the problem is that his path to getting NHL time is getting increasingly thinner.
Matt Grzelcyk, Mike Reilly and Derek Forbort figure to be Boston’s top three left-shot defensemen when healthy. After that, John Moore and Jakub Zboril would be the next men up. The loss of Jeremy Lauzon to Seattle opens things up for Vaakanainen, but then again, Jack Ahcan has looked poised in the NHL. At best, Vaakaninanen right now is Boston’ sixth option on left defense, and he might be the seventh.
— One development worth watching this season: Brandon Carlo’s offensive game.
Last season when healthy, Carlo was far more involved in the offensive zone. He showed more of a willingness to hold the pucks and, at times, pull the trigger. That carried into the preseason, as he uncorked a clapper from just above the dot in the first period of Thursday’s win over the Philadelphia Flyers. It was an awful play by Martin Jones in net, but a goal nonetheless.
“I just shot it towards the net,” Carlo said the next day. “I’d be lying if I said it was aiming it, but overall if you put the pucks on net, good things happen. I want to have a shooter mentality — whether that be from the point or those areas closer to the net.”
Look, Carlo doesn’t have to be Ray Bourque, however he needs to carry the shooting mentality into the season. Torey Krug was such an offensive juggernaut that it didn’t matter that Carlo offered little in the attacking zone. But Carlo is going to get so much more out of Mike Reilly, a gifted puck mover, if he’s willing to be move involved offensively. If not, opposing teams will be able to key in on Reilly and neutralize him knowing they don’t have to worry about Carlo.
— With David Krejci gone, the Bruins have an “A” to hand out this season. Don’t read into it too much during the preseason, as they are handing them out to more veteran players based on who’s playing — Erik Haula and Nosek, for example, already have gotten the “A.”
The prediction here: It will go to either Carlo or Charlie Coyle in the regular season. It probably will be the type of situation like with David Backes where one gets it on the road and another gets it at home. Both players have been alternate captains at different points with the Bruins, but it makes sense for them to split those duties.
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