It’s time for Bruins to give their good young players a real look in NHL originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said at the team’s end-of-the-season press conference in May that the organization needed to integrate more young players into the mix.
“We have a really good group of young players that are committed to this organization in some key positions for our organization. We have to grow and foster some younger players that will play some roles,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney also said: “We’ve always said there was going to be some turnover. I was honest about that at the end of the year and realizing that might include some of our younger guys getting an opportunity or bringing in some players that might be looking for second opportunities.”
This is why it was a little strange to see Sweeney go out and sign a bunch of veterans to one- and two-year contracts early in NHL free agency in July.
After watching prospects Matthew Poitras, John Beecher and Mason Lohrei make a strong case to earn an Opening Night roster spot through training camp and the preseason, we’re about to find out if Sweeney was serious about the Bruins getting younger.
Poitras has been a revelation over the last few weeks, so much so that he’s probably going to be a top-six center when the Bruins host the Chicago Blackhawks in the regular season opener next Wednesday. The Bruins badly need a young center to step up in the wake of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci‘s retirements, and Poitras has been up to the task so far.
Poitras scored again in Boston’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals in Tuesday night’s preseason game at TD Garden, giving him two goals and two assists in four games.
But it’s not just the raw stats that are impressive with Poitras. The way he’s battling for pucks, his vision, his excellent playmaking ability, winning above 50 percent on faceoffs, the way he skates out of trouble and creates more space for himself in tight areas, showing good energy and producing offensively on the second night of a back-to-back — important things that are required to succeed at the NHL level and he’s showing them.
It’s fair to wonder how he’ll fare physically against NHL competition at 19 years old and 176 pounds, but there’s absolutely no question that he should start the regular season in Boston.
“I don’t know, but I think I played pretty well, and I’ve done everything I can,” Poitras told reporters after Tuesday’s game when asked about making the team. “I think I made it pretty difficult on them.”
Poitras beginning the regular season with Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk makes a lot of sense. The Bruins are able to give Poitras nine games before having to decide whether to burn the first season of his three-year entry-level contract. If they don’t think he’s ready, the only other option is sending him back to the OHL. He’s not eligible for the AHL this season. After putting up 95 points in the OHL last season, a third year in that league probably isn’t going to benefit him a ton.
Another young center making a strong push for a roster spot is John Beecher — Boston’s 2019 first-round pick. Beecher has good size, can win faceoffs, kills penalties and has more offensive skill than some of the team’s recent fourth-line centers.
Beecher picked up an assist, dished out four hits, tallied four takeaways and played 2:02 of shorthanded ice time against the Capitals. It was the type of gritty effort the B’s need from a bottom-six player.
Beecher has outplayed Patrick Brown so far, but if Poitras makes the team and plays center, that pushes veteran centers Charlie Coyle down to the third line and likely Morgan Geekie to the fourth line. Beecher could potentially play on the wing, too. Either way, he deserves NHL reps early in the season after his performance over the last few weeks. He was drafted four years ago, so it’s time to finally see whether he can really be a part of this team moving forward.
One defenseman who’s made a strong case for a roster spot is top prospect Mason Lohrei. He is so smooth and composed with the puck. He played a team-high 24:40 and spent most of his ice time alongside No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy on the top pairing.
Montgomery, since he arrived before last season, has wanted his defensemen to be aggressive in jumping into the attack and creating scoring chances. Lohrei has the skating ability and playmaking skill to thrive in that kind of role. We saw some of that on his first-period goal versus the Capitals.
“This is the best I’ve seen him jump into the offense, really supporting plays,” Montgomery told reporters postgame when asked about Lohrei. “I really love his goal because that’s the way we want to play. Once we get the puck, we want to transition five guys going.”
It’s possible the Bruins keep Beecher and Lohrei in Providence to begin the regular season, but if that happens, the B’s shouldn’t keep them there long. In Lohrei’s case, he’d probably be the extra defenseman in Boston if he made the team, but whatever NHL reps he can get would be beneficial.
The 2023-24 campaign likely will be a transition year for the Bruins. They need to figure out what they have in several of these young players, and whether some key veterans — Pavel Zacha, Jake DeBrusk, etc. — can step up in increased roles with Bergeron and Krejci gone.
The Bruins have, for many years, plugged roster holes with veterans. That was fine when the team was a legit Stanley Cup contender, like last season. It’s time to re-think that strategy now. The best way to build a perennial contender in a salary cap world is through the draft by integrating good, young players with cheap contracts into the lineup. If Poitras is actually a top-six center, that’s huge for the Bruins because they’ll have an important player making less than $1 million for three seasons. That scenario allows Sweeney to use cap space on other areas of weakness, such as left wing.
After years of bad drafting, the Bruins appear to have turned the corner a bit in that regard. Now it’s time to see if some of these prospects — most notably Poitras, Beecher and Lohrei — can make an NHL impact right now. Sweeney talked about getting more young players into the mix in May. The Bruins need to stick that plan to begin the new season.