When the Bruins hit the ice on Friday morning for the first skating sessions of this year’s training camp, they were already at work on some slight changes to the system, especially where the defensemen are concerned.
“I think, yeah, we’re going to make some adjustments, but I don’t think we’re going to be making some major changes,” Chara said afterward. “I think we’re still going to be taking a lot of pride in our defensive side, and we want to improve maybe the pace of the game, and having a four-man attack and so on, but I don’t think we’re going into this huge, major change.”
The changes, Chara said, are a reflection of the way the league tends to evolve. Adjustments, however, are not unique to the Bruins; across the league, each team must adjust, season after season. It is the nature of the NHL.
“I think that it’s pretty natural with the game — it’s heading in a certain direction, and you have to be able to make adjustments,” Chara said. “I think that’s just a part of it — making the adjustments to improve the system, and obviously, the play of the team. I think it’s pretty natural, and every team is trying to do the same thing — looking back and seeing what’s been working for maybe other teams, and what teams were successful maybe in the playoffs with certain systems in place.
“I think everybody in the offseason is trying to make those adjustments, and I think that’s what we are trying to do as well.”
At first, the systemic adjustments will require adjustments from each player, whether he is an offensive defenseman or a stay-at-home type.
But for the stay-at-home types whose bread and butter is their physicality, the adjustments might take a bit more getting used to.
“The game is changing a little bit, and I think there’s always going to be that element of physicality and stuff in the game, but at the same time, you’re seeing the D are being more active and supporting more,” said veteran Adam McQuaid. “So it just kind of seems to be the way things are going.”
Blueliner Joe Morrow played in 15 games with Boston last season, and as he enters his third year with the organization, he has had plenty of time to decipher the Bruins’ system.
As a mobile, speedy D-man, he is excited about this season’s adjustments.
“I would say it’s more of an offensive-minded approach; just kind of push the pace of play, and to show more of a skill level this year rather than the gritty performance and the gritty defensive aspect of things,” he said. “It’s still going to be there, 100 percent — that part’s not going to change at all — but you will see a lot more of the skilled forwards and the skilled defensemen contribute to the offense a lot more this year.”
That, Morrow said, should give him the opportunity to showcase his speed and his scoring touch.
“With my skating ability and the things I can do on the ice, I feel like it will be more effective come game-time,” he said. “The majority of the players on this team skate very well. That’s kind of what they pride themselves on, is the whole conditioning aspect of things and being in shape and being able to produce at a high level and a high pace. So it really should work out.”
The blueliners aren’t the only ones who are eager to implement the new approach.
“We’re going to get more speed into our game, and that’s how I played all my years in Dallas,” said forward Loui Eriksson. “I think it’s a good system, and hopefully, we can figure out and play good as a team with it. It’s going to be a little bit more fun for the forwards to get some more speed, and good for the defensemen. If they can join with us, it will be hard to defend.”
A defensive-minded approach has been a staple of this system since Head Coach Claude Julien took the reins eight years ago. That is not going to change.
But as Julien said, the biggest lesson he has learned as an NHL coach is that it is crucial to continually evolve.
“We’re ready to do some things a little bit different than other teams,” Julien said. “Some may look similar to it, but we feel that getting our players moving a little bit more, with the way the forecheck is, will benefit us. Again, we talked about the four-man attack — we did a good job last year, especially the second half, with being in the zone, with the D’s being involved a little bit more. So we hope to improve on that, but also, more on the breakouts and the rush and make sure we have a few more bodies on the ice here without being reckless.
“It’s about filling those holes, and those areas where you can be an outlet for a pass. So I think it’s about getting used to that. We want guys to kind of figure it out, fill those holes. It doesn’t mean that this guy always has to be there, and this guy has to be there; it’s about making sure you fill those lanes, and no matter who’s in front, you read off that guy and you fill the other lanes.”
The Bruins’ style will still revolve around smart, tough, grind-it-out hockey. It is a system that has been proven to work.
Now, it is simply being upgraded.
“We’re a good hockey team,” said forward David Krejci. “We have to play good defensively, and once we get a puck, we play with a little bit more quicker pace and just use our hockey sense as well. It’s not just about [skating] up and down as fast as you can; you have to be smart, quick and use your hockey sense.”
There is a renewed sense of enthusiasm among the Bruins as the new season approaches. It is equally obvious to those skating and those watching.
Part of that could be attributed to some of the new faces cropping up on the ice.
“The biggest thing is, the big personalities — they left the dressing room, so other guys are stepping up,” Krejci said. “We have new guys coming in; they’re kind of establishing themselves already. They fit in, and you know, Jimmy Hayes — he’s a big guy. He’s pretty funny. So we’re kind of now starting to get to know him. And Matt Beleskey, same thing; Zac Rinaldo … They’re all great guys.
“They’re fitting in. It’s going to be a little bit different, but in a positive way in the dressing room.”
Beleskey, Rinaldo and Hayes have been skating with the Bruins for weeks during informal practices at Ristuccia Arena. Friday marked their first opportunity to get out on the ice in any official capacity with their new team.
“You’ve just got to get out there and play and talk,” Beleskey said. “I think communication’s a huge thing in a game, especially when you’re on the ice. You have to be able to talk to guys off the ice, find out where you want them or where they want you, and it’s time. Hopefully, things jell quickly, but the more you talk and work it over, the quicker it happens.”
Friday also marked their first opportunity to finally get some feedback from their new coaching staff.
“It was good to get out there, especially with the coaches — some little corrections that they had me do,” Rinaldo said. “It’s a learning process for me, with the coaches and stuff like that, but it’s fun. It’s all part of the routine now, so I’m happy to get out on the ice with everybody.”
Beleskey, who was a part of the second grouping, skated with Krejci and David Pastrnak. While it is still too early to read much into the line combinations, Beleskey already likes what he sees from his new teammates.
Krejci, too, was impressed with the newcomer.
“I really like the line,” Krejci said. “So hopefully, we can get some games. We can get some chemistry early on in the preseason. But today was just the first practice.”
Vets & Rookies Blending
With 60 players comprising Boston’s 2015-16 training camp roster, there were three full on-ice sessions on Friday at the Garden, with veterans and rookies alike skating together.
There was 2015 first-rounder Zach Senyshyn skating with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. There was Jake DeBrusk skating with Eriksson and Alex Khokhlachev. There was Brandon Carlo pairing up with Torey Krug.
It made for a beneficial dynamic on the ice — not just for the rookies.
“I tell them to just pick me apart,” Rinaldo said. “Use me; I’m an open book for them. Any questions they have, I tell them to just ask me. I’m not arrogant. … I tell them if they have questions, just ask me.
“Sometimes, I’ll ask them questions because there’s some things I don’t understand. So that’s the relationship I have with not only the younger guys, but everybody.”
Some of the newcomers feel as though they and the rookies are in similar shoes. They’re learning the system, learning new teammates, becoming accustomed to new coaches.
And though they aren’t rookies anymore, they remember what it was like to be one.
“When you’re that young, it makes a big difference, having an older guy come up to you and talk to you,” Beleskey said. “[I try] to make them feel comfortable. Plus, you want to get to know them. You never know; you see guys go down, you never know who’s coming up. It’s nice to see them working hard.”
One of those guys was Senyshyn, who, less than three months after being drafted, found himself skating alongside two of the key members of Boston’s leadership core. Marchand lauded Senyshyn’s speed. Julien lauded his playmaking ability.
For his own part, Senyshyn simply tried to take it all in.
“I’ve really got to commend some of these older guys like Chara and Marchand, Bergeron as well,” he said, “[for] just kind of taking time away from their skate to really take us under their wing. And I think them talking to me, personally, and really helping me through my first skate, gets a little bit of the nerves out of the way. And as I said, [I was] kind of playing with a little more confidence out there when they’re really helping you out.”
All but two of the Bruins rookies who attended the Prospects Challenge continued on to main camp. The opportunity to get two games under their belts prior to this camp was a big help.
“I think it was a really big [help] for me because I got a couple of games and a few practices and stuff like that, so I think it was a huge thing for me,” said Joonas Kemppainen, who is entering his first NHL training camp following a nine-year professional career in Finland. “Obviously, I need to get some [more] games and get used to that smaller rink, but I think it was good to get a couple of games before this training camp so I’m a little bit more ready. So I’m pretty confident.”
For some rookies, the prospects tournament also served as a reminder to play with confidence.
“When you get a few goals or a few points, you’re feeling really good about yourself on the ice, but then again, that’s not how hockey is every night,” said forward Frank Vatrano, who scored three goals in two games at the Prospects Challenge. “Sometimes, the pucks aren’t going your way. So I think just staying positive when things aren’t going your way is what keeps you successful down the road, especially in hockey.”
Added Senyshyn, “Me, personally — I think I’m still a young guy, but I really don’t shy away from anything, really. As I said, [I’m] going into those battles and really fighting with these older guys, and being able to play with a lot of confidence will be when I get my best results.”
Eriksson Eager to Pick Up Where He Left Off
Julien characterized Loui Eriksson’s 2014-15 season best.
“I think what you saw last year is probably more of the Loui Eriksson that everybody’s known before,” Julien said. “We had a tendency to maybe gauge him on his first year, where he suffered two concussions and everything else, but he’s been a good player in this league — there’s no doubt.
“There’s also maybe a better comfort level right now, having been here for a few years. Last year, he was a lot more comfortable than his first year — not having to deal with injuries, plus getting to know his teammates. But he was better. I anticipate him to be good again this year — again, another guy who seems real focused, in great shape and seems really happy and excited to get the season going.”
Concussions jeopardized Eriksson’s first season in Black & Gold. Last year, when he was healthy, he proved that he still has an adept scoring touch, netting 22 goals and 25 assists for 47 points in 81 games. He also proved to be a dominant two-way player, and one who never shies away from the dirty areas of the ice.
All in all, he proved to be an excellent fit in Boston’s lineup. Now, he is eager to carry over last season’s momentum into this one.
“Of course, my first season here wasn’t the best one for me,” Eriksson said. “But last season was much better. I was feeling more like myself, and I was feeling good out there, so hopefully I’ll bring a little but extra this year and try to help even more. So I’m looking forward to it.”
In the 140-plus games Eriksson has played in a Bruins uniform, he has generally bounced around the lineup. He has played a handful of games with both of Boston’s top two centers, but he spent the bulk of last season on a line with Chris Kelly and Carl Soderberg.
Despite the inconsistency, Eriksson still found his scoring touch last season, but this year, he hopes a bit more stability might help him produce even more.
“Hopefully I will find someone to play with for the whole year and find chemistry with someone,” he said. “I’m kind of used to being thrown around. In Dallas, I was thrown around a little bit. The best thing will be to find the line to play with, and hopefully, we can produce and play good.”
Friday’s Practice Lineups
Frank Vatrano — Joonas Kemppainen — Seth Griffith
Jake DeBrusk — Alex Khokhlachev — Loui Eriksson
Chris Kelly — Noel Acciari — Tyler Randell
Anthony Camara — Colby Cave — Max Talbot
Zdeno Chara — Zach Trotman
Torey Krug — Brandon Carlo
Joe Morrow — Kevan Miller
Goalies: Malcolm Subban, Jonas Gustavsson
Matt Beleskey — David Krejci — David Pastrnak
Brandon DeFazio — Austin Czarnik — Brian Ferlin
Zac Rinaldo — Ben Sexton — Anton Blidh
Jesse Gabrielle — Eric Neiley — Zack Phillips
Chris Breen — Colin Miller
Matt Irwin — Chris Casto
Linus Arnesson — Max Iafrate
Goalies: Jeremy Smith, Zane McIntyre
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Zach Senyshyn
Jimmy Hayes — Ryan Spooner — Brett Connolly
Colton Hargrove — Andrew Cherniwchan — Justin Hickman
Jakub Zboril — Adam McQuaid
Jeremy Lauzon — Ben Youds
Tommy Cross — Frankie Simonelli/Max Everson
Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Matt Ginn, Dan Vladar