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Media Day Notebook: Roster Reduced, Backup Role Still in Question, Sweeney Hopeful Chara Will be Ready for Opener

by Caryn Switaj / Boston Bruins

BOSTON — The Bruins announced another round of roster cuts on Thursday evening, as one final preseason game remains before the Bruins open the regular season in a week on Oct. 8.

The roster now stands at 25 players, including Zdeno Chara, who has been out day-to-day since sustaining an upper-body injury. Apart from Chara, that leaves 14 forwards, seven defenseman and three goaltenders.

Boston started with a training camp roster of 60 players. The latest cuts included forwards Anton Blidh, Alex Khokhlachev and Brian Ferlin, all assigned to the Providence Bruins. Defenseman Tommy Cross was placed on waivers Thursday for the purpose of assignment to Providence.

Chris Breen, Brandon DeFazio and Ben Sexton had all been recalled to play in the second to last preseason game on Wednesday night against the Rangers in New York — they were all reassigned to Providence.

“We made a couple other transactions before practice and we’ll also make a couple — we have not spoken to a couple of the player — right here after practice,” Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney said immediately following the team’s 11:00 a.m. practice on Thursday. “We’ve cut down the roster significantly again.”

Sweeney was addressing reporters during the Bruins’ Media Day press conference, which also included Bruins Owner Jeremy Jacobs, CEO Charlie Jacobs, President Cam Neely and Head Coach Claude Julien.

Now just a few players remain on the bubble of cracking the Bruins’ 23-man roster that will have to be submitted prior to the NHL season opens on Oct. 7. The gritty grinder Tyler Randell is still pushing to carve a role on the B’s fourth line, along with Joonas Kemppainen, Zac Rinaldo and vet Max Talbot.

The Bruins’ top three lines have remained together for most of camp: Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronLoui Eriksson; Matt BeleskeyDavid KrejciDavid Pastrnak; and Jimmy HayesRyan SpoonerBrett Connolly.

On defense, seven players remain with the big club. The injury to Dennis Seidenberg and Chara’s day-to-status have left room for players to emerge during training camp on the back end.

Young players like Zach Trotman, Joe Morrow and Colin Miller are all in the mix, along with Matt Irwin, who has three times the amount of NHL games under his belt as that younger trio. Of the group, only Miller has yet to make his NHL debut.

“We first have to evaluate where Zee comes back into this group,” Sweeney said of decisions to make on the B’s blueline. “We haven’t had that advantage with the few minutes he was able to play. [It’s been] positive news on Dennis so far - it’s early in the recovery process, surgery was a success, that’s exciting to see where he fits in going forward in terms of what we thought about for the first part of the year.”

Sweeney is hopeful that Chara could be ready for the opener on Oct. 8. The defenseman has been ramping up his conditioning and skating workouts with Strength and Conditioning Coach John Whitesides all week. He could be back skating with the group in practice soon.

“We’re afforded the opportunity to give him some time to get to whatever level he’s capable of getting to, make a decision on whether or not that’s where we need to be on opening day and him being a part of it,” said Sweeney. “That’s what we’re planning on. I don’t know what rating or percentage that is as I stand today, but again, clearly I’m hopeful or wishful that [the injury] didn’t happen at all.”

“It’s not things you want to be thinking about, going through training camp, but it happens, and each team has their challenges, whether they come now or come throughout the year, they’re going to be faced with them.”

Chara also sounds optimistic, though he usually talks in general terms when speaking about injuries, especially his own.

“Today was better than it was yesterday,” he said after skating on Thursday. “I’m hoping that tomorrow is better than today, and then tomorrow, I’m hoping I’lll be better again, so really, if it keeps improving, we’ll see where it’s going to be next week, but as of right now, trying to obviously skate on my own and be in a situation where I can jump in with the team.”

Young Defense Emerging

The Captain’s short-term situation, couple with Seidenberg’s eight-week recovery doesn’t have Sweeney feeling like he needs to jump into the trade or the remaining free agent pool right now to acquire a defenseman.

“You can’t plan for injuries. You can hope you have the depth to withstand them in a short period of time and we feel like this training camp has allowed us to look at some players who might be able to fill that,” said Sweeney. “So I don’t find the urgency piece there [to add a defenseman from outside the organization], as I stand today. If we get into a situation where those players aren’t recovering and aren’t able to come back, then yeah, the pressure goes up there.”

The absences of Chara and Seidenberg allowed the young defensemen to get more reps and be put in game situations that challenged them.

“This camp has allowed us to see whether or not we’ve got some players who are able to emerge,” said Sweeney.

“We’ve used this training camp experience without those two players to our advantage to spread the wealth around and spread the minutes around, and we’ve had several players that have acquitted themselves well,” said the GM. “We’ve played all of our younger players up and down — we haven’t just relied on the returnees, so that’s a part of the transition that Claude spoke about and moving forward with some of these guys that we believe can step up as they gain more experience throughout the league, night in and night out.”

“It’s a growing process and we’re committed to allowing these guys to find their way, so to speak, and within the framework. We haven’t changed the identity as to how we’re going to defend. We’ve done a good job throughout training camp up and down our lineup and that’s a testament to the coaches and the way they’re going to approach the game, and our players are buying into it.”

The Bruins entered this season’s training camp wanted to see the youth make a push. From ownership to management, that has been key in the B’s transition to Sweeney as GM.

“I have seen progress, and I think it speaks to our roster this year and players looking at pushing for jobs,” said Neely. “Especially on the back end. And even the forward group we had some kids come in and probably, we had them stay longer because of the way they were pushing for jobs.”

“I think it’s important for us to continue to have those players throughout the organization that are going to push for jobs. It makes the player feel maybe a little less safe, which is always a good thing. And you know, I think competition is key, it really is. You never like seeing anybody get complacent and you know if you have competition coming from below, it’s hard to get complacent.”

Backup Competition Ongoing

The most intriguing competition comes between the pipes, where Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith are still in contention for the backup role behind Tuukka Rask. Both have performed well during camp, and each brings a varying pedigree.

Gustavsson has the leg up on experience, but Smith has proved himself to the Bruins with his work ethic — not only in Providence, but also throughout camp.

“Well, we’re going to go through the rest of the other game [on Friday] and we’re going to sit down as a group,” said Sweeney of the decision yet to be made. “[Goaltending Coach] Bob Essensa’s been working hard, in terms of analyzing from his side of it, as well as we are as a staff. I’m sure Claude will weigh in on where he fits, where we think he fits in, and it’s been a heckuva competition throughout camp. Our young [goalies Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre] played particularly well.”

“Obviously, Gus was thrown a curveball with his first child being born to he and his wife and [he] went off [to Detroit] for a couple days, came back, was able to play [Thursday] night.”

Tuukka Rask is set to start in goal for the final game on Friday in D.C. and is likely to remain in the entire game. The Bruins had that plan all along and will not deviate from it now.

But that decision, along with more decisions to come up front and on defense, will have to come eventually.

“We have a big decision to make,” said Sweeney. “But we feel confident in being able to make that moving forward.”

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