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Bruins Integrating Youth into Experienced Lineup

Four rookies make the team's Opening Night roster

by Eric Russo @NHLBruins / BostonBruins.com

BOSTON - When training camp began late last month, Don Sweeney had a short and simple message for the bevy of prospects who were hoping to make a splash: take advantage of the opportunity.

Opportunity. It was a word the Bruins general manager repeated on several occasions over the last few weeks, while hoping it would catch on.

Sweeney made it clear that this edition of the Boston Bruins would not be chosen based solely on experience or past performance. He let everyone in the dressing room know that the best players, regardless of age or contract status, would comprise this year's roster.

"We didn't stand up here in front of anybody and say, 'This player is playing now,'" said Sweeney. "We allowed things to unfold in camp and allowed the players themselves to dictate if they're ready to push and take somebody's job and impact our lineup."

With the way the roster ended up taking shape for the start of the regular season, it is clear that Sweeney meant what he said. And it's even clearer that some of those youngsters were more than happy to take Sweeney up on his offer.

When the Bruins hit the ice in Columbus Thursday night during their season-opening 6-3 win over the Blue Jackets, four players were making their NHL debuts: defensemen Brandon Carlo (he was a plus-5 and registered his first NHL assist) and Rob O'Gara and forwards Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen.

It was the first time the Black & Gold had four players make their debuts on Opening Night since 1985-86 (Alain Cote, Dave Pasin, Kraig Nienhuis, and Michael Thelven).

For Sweeney, who has put an emphasis on player development from the moment he arrived in the Bruins front office in 2006, it was an important milestone.

"They're the lifeline of your hockey club and organization for sustainability of winning," said Sweeney, who began his hockey operations career as the Bruins Director of Player Development.

"You really have to have those players pushing for jobs when you're ready to do that. When [owner] Mr. [Jeremy] Jacobs gives you the wherewithal to sign players for the length of term that Brad [Marchand] has, and our core players, you have to integrate younger players in and around it.

"The scouts do a lot of work in covering a lot of area to identify the players and they're equally as excited as we are - if not more so - when a Brandon Carlo steps forward in camp and takes advantage of an opportunity.

"I think they get a lot of pride out of that and the organization has to continue to find those players. Not just one year, it's every year."

With so much success over the last decade, including a Stanley Cup in 2011 and return trip to the Final in 2013, there has not been much need for roster turnover or an influx of youth.

But with the current structure of the salary cap, the natural aging of the roster, and two straight seasons without a postseason appearance, the roster needed a bit of a jolt.

"We don't give free passes to anybody," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, who is now in his 10th season behind Boston's bench. "[If] they show they can play here, we give them the opportunity. We're patient with them, just like anybody else that makes mistakes.

"We understand they may have less experience, and that's where you've got to work with them. If they show that they're getting it, there are no issues at all. Having those young players, those first year players in our lineup, for me, it's exciting.

"There's new blood. I think it's exciting for the players too. The veterans - they've talked about it. They really feel those guys want to be part of this hockey club and want to blend in."

The common assumption when integrating youth into the lineup is that the team is getting set to rebuild. It can be a sign that an organization may be ready to temporarily sacrifice team success in order to start fresh and build for the future.

But the Bruins brass maintained that they are not putting wins on the back burner. Integrating the youngsters into a lineup with a proven, championship-winning core is vital to becoming a playoff contender once again, according to B's president Cam Neely.

"I think you take a look at our core players and the goaltender we have, it gives you a bit of a leg up to say, 'OK, we've got some players that can compete. If we can backload with some of the younger players to help improve our club, that's what we're going to do," said Neely.

"We feel like we're on the path to do this in a way that's going to give us success for a long period of time.

"I truly feel that we've got some good players that are knocking on the door, or a couple years away, who are going to make an impact for this club, while our core is in a position to play at the level that they're currently playing at."

Bruins winger Brad Marchand, who recently signed an eight-year, $49 million extension, has seen a noticeable uptick in the team's liveliness with so many young players now occupying stalls in the dressing room.

"They just bring a lot of excitement," said Marchand. "They bring a lot of energy…they're like little puppies. Kind of like Pasta [David Pastrnak], he's always buzzing around and excited all the time.

"It's fun to have that young energy around the room; it gives us all a little bit more energy, for sure."

While Czarnik (20 goals, 61 points in 68 games) played a full season with Providence last season, Carlo (seven games), O'Gara (five games), and Heinen (two games) got only a taste of pro hockey after signing entry-level deals late last season. As such, the implementation of the foursome may seem a bit ahead of schedule.

Training camp injuries to veteran defensemen Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller and forward Frank Vatrano certainly contributed to the ascent by opening up some roster spots, but the youngsters nonetheless took hold of the - yes, here comes that word again - opportunity.

"The youth stood out, it popped for me," said CEO of Delware North's Boston Holdings Charlie Jacobs. "The kids, that was a pleasant surprise. I think, among the entire management team, everybody in the group was hoping, but wasn't certain, about what was going to arrive here.

"It was a pleasant surprise to see so many good, young, talented players come in and step up."

Ultimately, in order to sustain success in the National Hockey League, teams must be able to mix in their prospects. And that process is beginning in earnest in Boston and could continue for years to come with the likes of Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon, Zach Senyshyn, and Jakub Zboril still developing in Providence or with their junior teams.

"Now, it comes down to the performance part and if they can handle it," said Sweeney. "It doesn't mean you're going to stay there, but if you can seize a hold of it, then good on you. That means you've probably taken somebody's job as a result of it.

"Our players walk through the door this year, our younger players in particular, feeling like there was an opportunity there. It's not about rewarding them, it's about taking advantage of it."

For the Bruins current quartet of rookies…so far, so good.

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