Bruins

Breaking down what the Bruins’ lineup could look like when healthy

The Bruins are off to a 4-1 start while missing two of their top players in Brad Marchand and Charlie McAvoy.

Jim Montgomery will have some choices to make soon as his Bruins squad is already off to a good start. AP Photo//Steven Senne

The Boston Bruins inched closer to full health with Matt Grzelcyk’s return to the lineup on Thursday following off-season shoulder surgery.

Ideally, they’ll have their full complement of players by Thanksgiving. Brad Marchand inched closer toward returning after taking contact for the first time following his hip operation over the summer.

Charlie McAvoy (shoulder) hasn’t participated in a full on-ice training session, but took his first twirl with his teammates donning a red no-contact before Thursday’s tilt with the Ducks.

Amid the encouraging news on the injury front, the Bruins had a recent setback last Saturday after Brandon Carlo exited the home opener against the Coyotes with an undisclosed upper-body injury.

As they await word on Carlo’s status, the Bruins know they’ll have more reinforcements heading their way. With that in mind, here’s a look at what their lineup could look like if and when they receive a clean bill of health.

Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jake DeBrusk

In one of the more encouraging early-season developments, Jake DeBrusk picked up where he left off from his torrid scoring pace late last season. His ever-growing chemistry with Bergeron through four games makes DeBrusk a top-line keeper for the time being.

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Even if DeBrusk moves back to his strong side wing, Boston’s top six will remain in good hands once Marchand returns.

Taylor Hall-David Krejci-David Pastrnak

While the top six shined through the first few tilts, head coach Jim Montgomery didn’t hesitate to mix things up when the Bruins needed a spark. At times, that meant moving Hall or Zacha with Krejci and Pastrnak. In other instances, Pastrnak found himself taking shifts on the top line, with Bergeron centering and DeBrusk moving back to his strong-side wing.

Hall saw his ice time decrease during Boston’s first loss of the season Tuesday night in Ottawa. The 2010 top overall pick bounced back during Thursday’s win over the Ducks, tallying Boston’s lone markers in regulation and the shootout.

Montgomery could also look at Pavel Zacha reuniting with fellow countrymen Krejci and Pastrnak. The Czech trio showcased initial chemistry in their stints together late in camp and in the season-opener in Washington. But Zacha’s versatility provides Montgomery some flexibility with his forward core, making him an ideal candidate for a third-line role.

Pavel Zacha-Charlie Coyle-Craig Smith

Here we find a little uncertainty on how Montgomery will approach his third trio.

For one, Smith was a healthy scratch in the last two games. Then you add Zacha entering the bottom-six fold upon Marchand’s return. One of Hall or Zacha had to move. The latter struggled to gel with Coyle last season when the Weymouth product began the 2021-22 campaign as the team’s second-line center. Even with a new coaching staff, the Bruins will likely try to trend away from having Hall and Coyle as linemates with a healthy depth chart.

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Given Boston’s cap situation, Smith could find himself on the trade block when Marchand and McAvoy return. His value took a bit of a hit upon his healthy scratch status following last year’s inconsistent campaign. His future could depend on whether Jack Studnicka can bounce back from his rough season debut against Anaheim on Thursday. In that case, Coyle will move from center to right wing if Studnicka somehow makes a case for extensive playing time at the NHL level.

A.J. Greer-Tomas Nosek-Nick Foligno

Foligno already matched his goal total from a disappointing first year in Boston. He won’t necessarily match his production from his days in Ottawa and Columbus, but the ex-Blue Jackets captain remains a vital voice within the tight-knit Boston culture. His blue-collar work ethic and his early signs of a bounce-back year make him a fourth-line keeper for now.

Following stints in the New Jersey and Colorado organizations, Greer entered camp as a bit of a long shot to land a bottom-six spot. He picked up where he left off following a strong camp, notching three goals in the first five games. The former Boston University product has found himself at home after struggling to crack an NHL roster during his first five seasons.

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While Greer found an early-season offensive groove, the centerman of this fourth line hopes to finally break through in the goal column.

Nosek extended his goal drought to 55 straight games Thursday. Yet, even with the troubling offensive slump, the Bruins like Nosek’s intangibles on the fourth line. It’s hard to imagine Montgomery keeping Nosek out of the lineup, given his reliability on faceoffs and stout work on the penalty kill. But ideally, they’ll want the hard-nosed Swede to find the back of the net sooner rather than later.

Hampus Lindholm-Charlie McAvoy

The Bruins leaned on Lindholm heavily early this season as they began the year without McAvoy and Grzlecyk. Carlo’s injury in the second game of the season provided a heavier workload for Lindholm, with the Bruins missing three of their top-four blue-liners against the Panthers and Senators.

Lindholm will receive some much-needed stability upon McAvoy’s return. Albeit in a small sample size given Lindholm’s stints on the injured list late last year, the pair of two-way defensemen provided the Bruins with a dynamic top defensive unit during their time together.

An extended run with the Lindholm-McAvoy pair will only benefit the Bruins. When healthy, Montgomery’s squad may indeed possess one of the best two-way defensive duos in the NHL.

Matt Grzelcyk-Brandon Carlo

Grzlecyk returned ahead of schedule and hardly looked out of place after notching an assist against Anaheim. Of all the defensemen, the former Boston University captain remains the top candidate to reap the benefits of Montgomery’s up-tempo defensive system.

Without Carlo, Grzelcyk will likely find himself moving around the depth chart. He started with Jakub Zboril on the third duo Thursday and ended the night in a top pair role with Lindholm.

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Given Carlo’s injury history, the Bruins may have to look in a different direction for their right-shot option on the second pair. After embarking on the worst year of his young career a year ago, Carlo would love nothing more than to bounce back and become a steady hand on Boston’s back end again whenever he’s cleared to return.

Derek Forbort-Anton Stralman

We end with arguably the toughest projection in an ideal and healthy Bruins lineup: the third defensive pairing.

Like Grzelcyk, Mike Reilly is a prime candidate to benefit from Montgomery’s defensive system. But he remains a potential cap casualty. Even after clearing waivers following the preseason, the Bruins may still get some value for Reilly and his rather friendly $3 million cap hit — albeit with two years remaining on his deal.

That leaves Forbort, Clifton, Anton Stralman and Jakub Zboril as the prime third-pair candidates. Given the building chemistry between Forbort and Clifton since last season, the Bruins may opt for familiarity over upside to round out their defensive pairing.

Even after his rough season debut in Ottawa, Stralman — with his VISA situation behind him — will likely get an extended run on the third defensive unit after inking his one-year deal following camp.

Stralman’s days as a top-four blue-liner remain in the rearview. Even as a stay-at-home option at this point of his career, the 36-year-old won’t hesitate to help offensively when the Bruins call his number.

The Swede also provides another reliable option on the penalty kill, more so than Clifton or Zboril. With that, the Bruins could trot out the Forbort-Stralman pairing at shorthanded and even strength scenarios.

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Are there better potential third pairings throughout the league? Yes. But even under Montgomery’s system, a stay-at-home duo of Forbort and Stralman isn’t necessarily a bad thing as they’ll likely line up against the opposition’s bottom six on most nights.

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