Boston Bruins Training Camp Preview

By Michael Karlstrom
A very quick breakdown of the few NHL roster spots that will be up for grabs this camp and the main contenders for each spot.

The Boston Bruin situation is a little interesting this season, for the first time in recent memory the biggest news of the off-season wasn’t the deep pockets and short arms of team owner Jeremy Jacobs. Sure, the off-season is turning into camp-time now with the high-profile Jason Allison holdout dominating the news on the team, but in-between the decision not to meet contract demands on 1999 draftees Kyle Wanvig, Martin Grenier, and Seamus Koytk, and the current troubles finding a happy meeting ground to ink a deal with Mr. Allison, the Bruins signed some fairly high-profile and pricey unrestricted free agent help.

Five of Boston’s top six forward spots should be accounted for. This leaves one spot open and no real proven talent locked into taking the spot. Here is the first possible rookie battle to keep an eye on.

If Jason Allison is signed, the spot is his, but if he isn’t the two most likely rookies to compete for the spot will be 2001 Hobey Baker finalist Andy Hilbert, and 2002 NCAA goal scoring leader Lee Goren. Of the two players, Hilbert’s game seems more NHL polished. His combination of grit and skill should serve him well in his attempt to step straight into the NHL without having to serve an AHL apprenticeship. Compared favorably in some circles in style to the way that Chris Drury plays the game, Hilbert may end up resembling Drury in that he could get shifted around in positions and roles too… Hilbert can play center but might be better suited to being a winger. He can play on an offensive line, but will do a good job defensively too.

Lee Goren didn’t really set the world on fire in his quarter season call up, but he wasn’t given a chance to succeed last season. He was stuck on a line with offensively-slumping linemates Andrei Nazarov and Mike Knuble and was given only a shift or two per period to show his stuff. If he made any mistake at all, he didn’t see the ice again all game. Under this environment, Goren kept his game simple. In camp this year, Goren will probably have his hopes for the available scoring line spot and you should see him put out his best effort. Being a couple years oder than Hilbert may give him the edge in taking first shot at filling the role.

If neither rookie can step up, look for veterans PJ Axelsson and Scott Pellerin to fill the hole until something better comes along. if neither Axelsson nor Pellerin are needed for the third line, they will join Rob Zamuner and possibly Mike Knuble and Mikko Eloranta in forming some sort of checking line. Andri Nazarov will easily fend off the challange of rookie Colton Orr to hold onto his enforcor role on the forth line, and there may even still be hope for more from him in a defensive role if he can find his confidance. The remaining two fourth line spots will be filled from among whomever doesn’t end up on the second/third lines under these battles.

The remaining roster spot will probably be awarded to whomever works the hardest in camp… as is the fourteen spot usually awarded by the Bruins to whichever AHL farm hand has been having a good few weeks. My guess for most likely rookies to earn this honor will be Jay Henderson, Jeff Zehr, and Joe Hulbig. My early indications are that both Hullbig and Zehr are going to be in camp… for them to have accepted invites is an indication that they must have at least been given lip service that they will get a fair shot to make the NHL roster this season. Both players come with nice amateur credentials… Jay Henderson is the epitome of energy and hard work. He had a spot won last year in training camp before he got hurt. He probably doesn’t have the talent to stay on the NHL roster all season, but if there is a spot open in camp to fill out the roster, look for Jay Henderson to win that spot.

Between the pipes, if Byron Dafoe is healthy, he is the Bruins goaltender. The Bruins fortunes the last four seasons have been totally correlated to Dafoe’s. When healthy and happy, Dafoe has played as well as any other goaltender in the NHL the last four seasons… and that is ANY goaltender. Unfortunately, Dafoe hasn’t always been healthy or happy. He will be playing for a new UFA contract this season though so look for an inspired campaign provided he does managed to avoid injury. In backup, Boston did not offer Peter Skudra a contract this season to show their faith that John Grahame will bounce back from last season’s off-ice mishaps. The upper potential of Grahame may not be certain, but he has shown that when he is on his game, he can at least be an effective starter for fifteen-twenty games at a time. He looked brilliant in last year’s AHL playoffs. Boston’s goaltending will be good enough to do the job if both guys stay healthy and in good frame of mind. The only questions in camp is who will join Andrew Raycroft in Providence this season.

The biggest questions for the Bruins and the biggest camp battle’s will be deciding who will open the season on the blueline.

The only certainties may be limited to Kyle McLaren and Sean O’Donnell both having spots. Kyle is a stud waiting to happen. A Derian Hatcher type… Kyle just can’t do it all. When he tries, he spreads himself too thin and doesn’t play up to his strengths while being ineffective at aspects of the game he isn’t really suited for. McLaren should stay within himself and concentrate on just playing tough hockey… the acquisition of O’Donnell figures to help. Sean has fashioned out a nice career staying within himself and playing tough. O’Donnell is known for his leadership… hopefully Kyle will be able to learn.

If Hal Gill can still learn than he can finally get the boo-birds off his back too. one of the three-four largest players in the NHL, Gill skates well for someone his size. When he concentrates on going one-on-one with some rival superstar, maybe no NHL d-man this side of Scott Stevens is more effective at shutting someone down. Unfortunately, Gill’s temperament isn’t inclined to be overly aggressive. He can still slow someone down just getting in their way, but to really take the next step, Gill will have to give up his desires to occasionally join the offense, and will have to get meaner in his own zone. Boston is shallow enough on the blueline that Gill will likely be number two on the depth chart just behind Mclaren anyhow… but if he doesn’t shore up his game, look for the Bruins to try to trade him in some sort of upgrade attempt.

The old man on the team is Don Sweeney. Coming off the worst season of his career, the question Sweeney will need to answer this year is whether it was just circumstance that had him slumping last year, or something more terminal? No one works harder to keep themselves in shape then Sweeney… maybe with a new coach, Sweeney will bounce back… Boston sure needs him because he is the fourth and final veteran figuring at all into the Bruins plans on the blueline as the roster stands today.

Jarno Kultanen was an overaged European drafted last season to plug a hole… he certainly played well for the first half of the season. I think the B’s wanted more offense though. Overall, he isn’t really a long term answer, but he has been signed again this year and will provide insurance if the younger kids can’t rise up to take a spot or three.

This fills five of seven d-spots leaving two other spots open.

The three primary ‘kids’ battling for these two spots will be Johnathon Girard, Richard Jackman, and Nicholas Boynton.

Drafted in 1996, Richard Jackman is getting what might be his last real chance to make an NHL team… Boston picked him up in an off-season deal with Dallas hoping he will solidify his d-game with a little show of confidence in him. There is no question that he has offensive talent. If Jackman doesn’t make the team, he will need to be placed on waivers before he can go down to Providence. With this in mind look for him to have an edge in making the team.

Jackman’s edge is the detriment of Johnathon Girard… unquestionably Girard has the talent to be an effect PP specialist in the NHL. He may still be able to bulk up enough and learn defensive decesion-making to the point to be able to handle a regular shift too. Since he would be more valuable as an all-situations player… and since he needs to still work on his d-play to do that… and since he can be returned to Providence, look for Girard to lose the battle with Jackman for the offensive d-man spot on this unit.

There is still one spot open and one kid left to discuss. Nicholas Boynton twice impressed NHL scouts enough to get drafted in the first round. He then contacted adult diabetes which set him back… Boynton does have puck skills, but he didn’t put up big numbers in the AHL because he knew he was there to learn how to make defensive decisions. He applied himself to that degree and learned his lessons well.

Look for Boynton to be one of the real surprises this season… not just of camp but for the entire season.

Of one last additional note, 2001 first rounder Shanone Morrisonn will be in camp and has an outside shot at looking like he belongs… however, don’t expect the Bruins to keep him beyond the ten games or whatever it is that are allowed for auditioning rookies without losing eligibility options… Morrisonn is still a growing boy and will be better served by another year in junior.

Final roster predicted

Bill Guerin/Joe Thornton/Brian Rolston
Martin Lapointe/Andy Hilbert/Sergei Samsonov
PJ Axelsson/Rob Zamuner/Mike Knuble
Andrei Nazarov/Scott Pellerin/Lee Goren
Mikko Eloranta/Jay Henderson

Kyle McLaren/Hal Gill
Don Sweeney/Sean O’Donnell
Richard Jackman/Nicholas Boynton
Jarno Kultanen

Byron Dafoe
John Grahame.

If Allison gets signed, he kicks Hilbert to fourth line and Goren back to Providence to work on his skating.

All-in-all, the Bruins will continue to be a young team… with size throughout the lineup. The key Bruins such as Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov are young and getting better. Byron Dafoe and Kyle McLaren had health issues last season and could have marked improvement this season. Bill Guerin is playing for an UFA contract while Martin Lapointe will be playing to prove he deserved the deal he just got.

There are many reasons to feel optimistic regarding the Bruins fates going into this season… not the least of which will be having the five or six rookies step it up and take the spots open to them here in camp. Boston will obviously be a better team with the Allison situation resolved, but his absence will create opportunities up front. The opportunities on the blueline are obvious. It will be a fun camp to watch in order to see just which kid grabs the bull by the horns and steps up and makes the team.