BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins would appear not to have any room for defensemen on their roster. Seven defensemen who were fixtures last season are back for 2016-17.
So why are the defense prospects who reported to Warrior Ice Arena for off-ice testing on Thursday even bothering to show up for rookie camp?
"I told them the best players will play. ... There's no blockers from our standpoint," Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said. "We're in a situation where we need to get better. I've been adamant in saying that. If that player's better, he's going to play."
That message from the GM had to be music to the ears of not just the defensemen, but all the Bruins rookies who will continue camp by competing in the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo against rookie teams from the New Jersey Devils on Sunday and the Buffalo Sabres on Monday.
But defense is a major focus for the Bruins this season. Boston ranked 20th in the NHL in goals allowed last season at 2.78 per game. Captain Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, Torey Krug and John-Michael Liles are among the veterans who will return. Colin Miller and Joe Morrow re-signed as restricted free agents after their first full seasons in the League.
There's a solid corps of first-year pros in rookie camp who want to break through. The group is led by Brandon Carlo, a second-round pick (No. 37) in the 2015 NHL Draft who played for Tri-City of the Western Hockey League; Rob O'Gara, a fifth-round pick (No. 151) in 2011 who played at Yale; and Matt Grzelcyk, a third-round pick (No. 85) in the 2012 draft who played at Boston University.
O'Gara (five games) and Carlo (seven games) got a taste of pro hockey last spring when they skated for Providence of the American Hockey League. Aside from those 12 games, the tournament in Buffalo will be their first chance, along with Grzelcyk, to give management an idea of their abilities when training camp begins.
A lifetime of hard work and dreams has come together with Sweeney's proclamation about a merit-based roster to give these players an opportunity of a lifetime. They're excited to begin the competition.
"Nothing comes easy," said O'Gara (6-foot-4, 207 pounds), who had 51 points (14 goals, 37 assists) in 133 games at Yale. "The guys who are in those positions have put themselves there. It's just up to us to work as hard as we can to join them and surpass them, because it's a competition within the team landscape.
"That's just how it is. And it's something that you've got to learn quickly to be successful. I know all [these] guys in [here] are ready to really embrace that opportunity and put their best foot forward, myself included."
O'Gara and Carlo (6-5, 203), who had 65 points (12 goals, 53 assists) in 186 games during three seasons with Tri-City, project in the short-term as stay-at-home types on the blue line. Grzelcyk is the offensive threat of the group, with 95 points (26 goals, 69 assists) in 125 games for BU. It will be tempting for the rookies to want to do something eye-popping with two games to make an impression, but Grzelcyk (5-9, 174) thinks he'll be able to strike the right balance between making his mark and helping the team.
"Obviously I kind of have to show my offensive abilities," Grzelcyk said. "But I think it can kind of get out of hand at times when you try to do stuff too much. That also hinders the team. So I think if you just try to kind of play simple and stick to your game, then eventually your skills will take over."
After competing against one another for several years in development camps, Boston's rookies are eager to be on the same side and play against players in different sweaters. Despite the competition among them for an inside track at a NHL job, they all agree helping the Bruins earn victories in Buffalo will improve everyone's stock.
"I think anyone looks better when your team is winning," Grzelcyk said. "So … that's our main focus, to go there and play as a team, and as long as we're holding each other accountable, I think we'll all be all right."