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Bruins getting lift from rookies while injuries mount

Younger players will be in spotlight during Thanksgiving Showdown against Penguins

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- They are lined up in a row: Peter Cehlarik, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Rob O'Gara. They are names that were supposed to be here, in the dressing room at the Boston Bruins practice facility, but not yet. Not so many of them. Not all at once.

But that option -- waiting -- is no longer a luxury the Bruins have. There are too many injuries, too many missing bodies this season. With half the roster out at any given time, from forwards David Backes to David Krejci, Brad Marchand to Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Spooner, to defensemen Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid, to goalie Tuukka Rask, the Bruins have become far more reliant on rookies than any team would prefer.

And while it's not always perfect, there is a glimmer of hope for the future in the sometimes eventful now.

"You're blending in more and some days you're seeing it work really well for us," coach Bruce Cassidy said, mentioning the Bruins' 3-1 win against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday, when all three goals were scored by rookies (Cehlarik, DeBrusk, and Heinen). "The other night, without them do we win the game? Who knows? But other nights it's been a challenge."

Video: BOS@SJS: DeBrusk's impressive breakaway marker

Because it's just not just that the Bruins have had so many rookies in and out of the lineup this season. It's that they are relying on rookies night in and night out, on their top lines and in their top defensive pairings. They have been tested over and over, with another test coming against the reigning Stanley Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in the 2017 Discover NHL Thanksgiving Showdown on Friday (1 p.m. ET; NBC).

This was all part of the plan. Sort of.

"We were hoping to create [internal competition] in the summer," Cassidy said, citing Anders Bjork, Heinen, DeBrusk, Kenny Agostino and Zach Senyshyn - all forwards -- as candidates for that competition. "It started that way and then with all of the injuries, now it's not internal to beyond the team, it's internally to who gets to play up and play the minutes because they're all in the lineup."

They have made the transition, all in a bunch. And they have relied on each other to make that transition, with groups of them living together, counting on each other. Defenseman Charlie McAvoy, the one guaranteed rookie to make the team out of training camp after his performance as a pinch hitter the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, is rooming with Bjork, who is now also injured. Heinen, DeBrusk and Sean Kuraly also share an apartment. Agostino and Senyshyn are currently with Providence in the American Hockey League.

"I think maybe the young guys have gotten a little closer because we've been a group, going through the same things," McAvoy, 19, said. "It's nice when you have other people you can lean on that are feeling the same things that you're feeling, going through the same experiences.

Video: BOS@LAK: McAvoy beats Quick with nifty backhander

"I think we've come together and we've gotten pretty close over the first couple months here. I anticipate us becoming even closer as we go here."

Which is good, for them, and for the future of the Bruins, which has come quickly.

When the Bruins parted ways with former general manager Peter Chiarelli, now the GM of the Edmonton Oilers, part of the criticism of his time in Boston was a lack of draft picks that panned out. There was little in the system, little promise, even though the team had won a Stanley Cup and made a Stanley Cup Final in his time there.

But now some of those picks are blossoming, with Cehlarik, a third-round pick (No. 90) in the 2013 NHL Draft, Heinen, taken in the fourth round (No. 116) in the 2014 NHL Draft, and Bjork, a 2014 fifth-round pick (No. 146), all making impacts. Add to that picks that came out of the drafts since Don Sweeney became GM in May of 2015, like DeBrusk, the No. 14 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft and McAvoy, No. 14 in the 2016 NHL Draft, and there is hope. (And that doesn't even count 2014 first-round pick David Pastrnak (No. 25) and 2015 second-round pick Brandon Carlo (No. 37), both of whom are now established NHL players.)

Video: BOS@SJS: Cehlarik pots rebound for his first NHL goal

"I think this is something that the management has talked about for a while is that you have the Stanley Cup champions in here, so you have the guys that have been here and won before, and then you have the younger group of guys like myself and DeBrusk (age 21), Bjork (21), Heinen (22), you can go on," McAvoy said. "I think the direction this organization is going is something anyone can be excited about."

So, yes, the Bruins got young and got young fast, by necessity.

"We're hoping we're more dynamic, up-tempo team," Cassidy said. "We've added skill to the lineup. We feel it's more skill with the DeBrusk, Bjork, Peter's now in that mix, Charlie, obviously. So if you blend that with [David] Backes, [Bergeron], [Zdeno Chara ], McQuaid, [Kevan] Miller, the whole Bruins hard-to-play-against with the new way the game's going, that's how we'd like to be."

It's a mix, he said, of brawn and finesse. It's a mix of the team's past and its future.

And as for that game on Saturday, that day when, at the end of a difficult three-game West Coast swing, the Bruins rookies were the ones that pulled it out, that pulled the team up, that sent it home triumphant, that could be a turning point.

"Maybe this trip was the beginning of seeing [progress]," Cassidy said. "I don't want to speculate, but it could be. You always look back during the year at times where you go, wow, that was a defining moment where the team went north or the team goes south.

"We're hoping that's a defining moment for these younger guys, a tough environment, they did well. Hopefully it's a precursor to good things coming. I'm an optimist. That's the way I'm going to look at it."

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