A plethora of offseason departures including Riley Nash, Rick Nash and Adam McQuaid, combined with ongoing injury problems — most notably Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy and Kevan Miller — are forcing the Bruins’ hand just 26 games into the 2018-19 season.
Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Danton Heinen have all had their chances to crack Boston’s top-six, yet the stage is too big for the young forwards right now. As the Bruins are finding out, it isn’t as easy as it appears to replace proven veteran talent with promising prospects and have it work right away, no matter how talented they are.
Fair or unfair, the situation has forced head coach Bruce Cassidy’s hand. The Bruins’ youngsters haven’t been producing at the NHL level. Their demotions and scratches from the lineup — and for that matter their assignments to Providence — are all reasons why the quartet only has a combined 12 points (7 goals, 5 assists) this season.
Cassidy made his expectations for the young talent clear following the Bruins’ 4-2 loss to the Red Wings Saturday night. The third-year bench boss is asking a lot from Donato, JFK, Heinen and Bjork as the Bruins battle for playoff positioning in a difficult Atlantic Division.
“If they want to play here, they’re going to get asked a lot. It doesn’t mean we’re going to get it,” Cassidy said. “What we do demand is competitiveness, get better, practice hard every day to get better. They’re going to have their ups and downs. That’s the best way to put it. Hopefully, they’re going to learn from it and realize that it’s a 60-minute game and it’s an 82-game league. So we’ve got to bring it every night.”
Cassidy isn’t afraid to mix things up and keep a short leash on his young players. But how short is that leash?
To put it simply…very. Cassidy will make changes in a heartbeat if a player isn’t producing, regardless of age.
The Bruins bench boss, who’s seen his team tally 70 goals — an average of a mere 2.69 goals per game — isn’t changing lines on a game-by-game basis, but rather period-by-period or shift-by-shift. Boston’s line chemistry has suffered as a result through the first three months of the 2018-19 campaign.
New faces coming into the lineup and frequent assignments to and from Providence has become the norm on Causeway Street. Donato, Bjork, Forsbacka Karlsson, Colby Cave, Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril and Connor Clifton all came up — and returned — from the AHL ranks this year. Forsbacka Karlsson, who started the year in Providence and returned to the minors for a brief, one-game stint on Sunday, will serve as the 13th forward during Boston’s two-game Florida trip beginning Tuesday night.
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“We’ve talked about that with some of the players we’ve sat out that are young,” Cassidy added. “Ryan [Donato] bounced back. He wasn’t great on the walls. These are some of the things people ask, ‘Why is he down there when he can score?’ Well, he’s down there to work on those things. It’s about keeping the puck out of your net as much as getting it in theirs. I thought he did a real good job trying to tone. He scored a goal, he attacked well and played to his strengths, so that’s what we want and we’re going to work him through his weaknesses, deficiencies, you choose your word, and that’s that with him.”
If there’s one positive development out of this, it’s Donato picking up where he left off following his 10-game Providence stint. The former Harvard standout notched a ‘nifty’ shootout clincher against the New York Islanders Thursday night and fired a beautiful wrist shot past Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard two nights later.
Donato’s effort over the last two games prompted a promotion from Cassidy for his new-found scoring ways. The 22-year-old will likely slot in on the second line with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk for the B’s tilt with the Panthers Tuesday night.
“I thought he did a good job on the offensive side of things,” Cassidy noted to reporters about Donato following Monday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena. “Listen, he wants to score every time he’s on the ice. That hasn’t changed. We’re trying to clean up the rest. When you’re up in the lineup, you’re seeing better defenseman. You’re probably playing against most of the time the [other] team’s second line or first line. You have to make sure you’re accountable the other way. We’re going to work with him on that. I liked his compete on the puck, I liked that he shot it [and] I liked that he scored again. We’ll give it a whirl.”
Donato isn’t getting ahead of himself. He knows that he needs to produce to secure his second-line spot in the long run.
“I think so, sometimes. There are things where you work hard and it just doesn’t go your way. Sometimes it is going for guys and sometimes it isn’t and the coaches are going to bump around guys just to make sure they have the best team. So definitely sometimes, I think every player deals with that,” Donato said postgame Saturday. “You know if they aren’t playing their top game then obviously they are going to get bumped down a line or sat for a couple minutes just to make sure they get more emotionally involved.”
There’s no magic remedy to cure the young core’s struggles this season. The Bruins hope the development and experience at the NHL level will help them grow. Getting Bergeron, Chara, McAvoy (who’s closer to returning) and Miller back will also help alleviate some of the burden that Boston’s youngsters are currently carrying.