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The Bruins’ preseason slate has come and gone.
But Jim Montgomery and his coaching staff still have plenty of work to do when it comes to trimming Boston’s roster down to its final 22 or 23 players ahead of Wednesday’s season opener against Chicago.
The Bruins announced one expected roster cut on Friday, sending goalie Brandon Bussi to Providence.
But Boston still has to make a few more moves between now and then in order to balance their books and determine the future for both a crop of promising youngsters and established NHLers currently on the roster bubble.
“We said we were gonna use, not only today, but specifically [Saturday] where we’ll do a little bit of scrimmaging again and special-teams situation before we make final decisions on where we’re headed,” Jim Montgomery said on Friday afternoon. “So nothing’s imminent right now on anybody.”
With more roster cuts on the way, here are five lineup decisions that the Bruins still need to settle before Oct. 11.
It’s not set in stone quite yet, but it’s all but a given that 19-year-old Matthew Poitras will break camp with the Bruins after a stellar preseason run.
The next challenge for the poised pivot and 2022 second-round pick is sticking up in Boston for the entire season. The Bruins can play Poitras in nine total NHL games this season before they need to decide to either keep him for the long haul (and burn the first year of his entry-level contract) or send him back to juniors for the 2023-24 campaign.
But as Boston looks to see if Poitras has the mettle to survive an 82-game gauntlet in the pros, the question remains as to where the rookie is best utilized in Boston’s lineup.
As tempting as it might be to see how a gifted playmaker like Poitras fares when slotting next to some elite-level talent on the wing in Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk, the logical starting point for him is on the third line next to Trent Frederic and Morgan Geekie.
That trio was arguably the strongest forward group on Thursday against the Rangers, with both Frederic and Geekie submitting their best performances of the fall and complimenting Poitras’ play in the O-zone.
“I think last night, the game-winning goal is a perfect example,” Montgomery said of how Frederic’s game can help Poitras. “Freddie’s a load when he’s moving and he’s going north. I think he’s underrated as far as how skilled he is. But he’s a skilled player that can work in behind you, work through you, and he’s got to get below the tops and that’s what he did on that goal.
“He chipped the puck in, he beat the two defensemen himself. Geekie creates the support, we have our offensive triangle that we like in the O-zone early and then he makes a special play and Poitras is patient enough as F3 to stay wide open at the net front.”
It sure would be easier for Poitras if he had players like Marchand to rely on to drive play, night in and night out. But Boston likely wants to see if their top prospect has the means to hold his own further down the lineup first before elevating him on the depth chart.
If Poitras can make it past that nine-game trial, perhaps that opens the door for him to earn a top-six look — potentially creating a domino effect of pushing another strong center in Charlie Coyle back down to his usual spot on the third line.
But such a scenario likely isn’t going to be considered until Poitras proves that he can stick around the whole 2023-24 season with the Bruins.
At this point, the battle for Boston’s fourth-line center role comes down to veteran Patrick Brown or Providence regular Johnny Beecher.
Once considered to be destined for more AHL seasoning, Beecher has dispelled some of that narrative with a strong preseason with Boston.
The fleet-footed forward still carries the expectations of being a former first-round pick, but Beecher’s size (6-foot-3, 216 pounds) and acceleration could make him a menace on the forecheck on a checking line.
When he’s on his game, Beecher draws some parallels to Sean Kuraly — perhaps with a bit less offensive punch and a bit more sandpaper.
But on Friday, it was Brown who was centering Boston’s fourth line alongside one established checking-line forward in Milan Lucic.
Brown, signed by Boston on the first day of free agency, is a solid penalty killer, hits a ton, and is great at faceoffs (56.1 career FO%). But if Boston is looking to inject more dynamic play into that fourth line, Beecher makes a very compelling case next to another speedster in Jakub Lauko.
“You can tell he’s a smart hockey player that understands the details, because as camp has gone on, he’s gotten better,” Montgomery said of Brown on Friday. “I thought he was very effective for us last night.
“And I remember talking to him, maybe it was four days ago and asked him how he thinks it’s coming along. And he’s been saying he’s really been focusing on how we play so he can play faster, and you’re starting to see it.”
Lohrei, much like Poitras, has done a great job this preseason of accelerating his projected developmental timeline and just how long he needs to become a viable NHLer.
A gifted offensive playmaker on the blue line with an imposing frame (6-foot-5, 211 pounds), Lohrei might have the highest ceiling of any Bruins prospect. But he still has plenty to work on as far as his D-zone fundamentals and skating.
Could Boston opt to have him learn on the fly, as was the case with a rookie Brandon Carlo in 2016?
As intriguing as it might be to stick Lohrei next to a Carlo or Charlie McAvoy, the Bruins likely opt to take the safer route here and have the young D-man open the season in Providence.
That might rankle some Bruins fans, but Lohrei is better served beginning the season in a spot where he can log 25+ minutes a night regularly, especially with plenty of power-play reps up for grabs against AHL competition. Even if Lohrei was to bump a player like Derek Forbort out of the lineup, those extended minutes likely won’t be available off the bat.
Unlike Poitras, Lohrei has the luxury of getting called up at any point during the 2023-24 season.
And if Lohrei continues to thrive in Providence and Boston’s D corps displays some cracks (a third pair of Forbort and Kevin Shattenkirk has been shaky so far in preseason play), Lohrei is just a short drive away from NHL reps.
Much like David Pastrnak’s rookie season (25 games in Providence before closing out the year in Boston), Lohrei could follow a similar trajectory in 2023-24.
If Poitras opens the year at 3C, the Bruins likely have a third line in place with him, Geekie, and Frederic.
But Boston still has a few more decisions to make as far as their forward grouping.
Beyond the Beecher/Brown battle at 4C, the Bruins need to find which winger best slots in at 4RW — with the spot coming down to A.J. Greer or Jakub Lauko.
Greer is a good fourth-line foot soldier who injects plenty of energy, but Lauko might have the inside edge due to a higher ceiling and an impressive sample size from last year (seven points, 11 penalties drawn in 23 NHL games).
Boston also needs to decide on who its 13th forward will be. Along with Greer and even Brown, the Bruins have a PTO candidate still in place in Danton Heinen, as well as Jesper Boqvist.
Among that group, Heinen might be the favorite for a reserve role thanks to his versatility, two-way play, and what will assuredly be a very cheap contract if Boston tears up that PTO deal.
Lohrei sure isn’t going to be sticking around as Boston’s 7th D, nor would Boston bump Forbort or Shattenkirk into that role.
This will likely come down to either Jakub Zboril or Ian Mitchell. Even though Zboril has had some rotten injury luck during his time in Boston, Mitchell might get the inside edge here thanks to his cheaper contract.
With cap space at a premium for this Bruins team, those factors need to be considered — especially if it’s the difference between carrying another spare player up on the NHL roster.
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