The Boston Bruins, who finally have all of their forwards available after Chris Kelly’s long-awaited return to game action Tuesday night, are not going to retain their current production pace forever. Amidst current success, they must read into what will work for them for the balance of this winter and into spring.
Their line configurations in Tuesday’s 6-2 lashing of the Florida Panthers, their third straight six-goal outburst, should be suitable for now. By night’s end, Kelly was working on the third line with Loui Eriksson and Carl Soderberg, leaving the currently sizzling top six intact and reuniting the fabled fourth troika of Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton.
As long as each unit continues to concoct its expected share of chances, head coach Claude Julien might as well give the newfangled third line an opportunity to gel. With that said, given the sudden surplus of NHL-caliber forwards and the state of the roster in other positions, there are decisions to make on Jordan Caron and Ryan Spooner.
Kelly’s reinstatement left the Bruins to return Spooner to AHL affiliate Providence. Per Rich Garven of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, head coach Claude Julien conceded that the second-year professional could use a little more refinement in Rhode Island.
Garven quoted Julien as saying that Spooner “…still has some things to work on. We can look at his point production, but at the same time he has no goals” and that “He’s going to work on [his defense] and there’s probably a good chance you’ll see him again this year.”
Spooner’s presence in Providence for at least a month, along with the fast-approaching Olympic break, should have a multifold benefit for the organization. Besides giving the individual valuable development through extra game experience, the arrangement may make a difference in the P-Bruins’ playoff push.
As of Wednesday, Providence is tied with the Hershey Bears for the Eastern Conference’s last Calder Cup tournament berth with 50 points apiece, but Hershey has three games in hand. Despite missing 24 of their 45 games, Spooner is still seventh on the Baby Bs’ leaderboard with 23 points and ought to have added determination this time around.
Come what may, the interim should be a time for the front office to not only monitor Spooner’s progress but also decide whether Caron still has a place in Boston beyond the immediate future.
Upon returning to the lineup, Kelly bumped Caron back to the role of the de facto 13th forward on the Bruins' NHL roster. In turn, Caron resumed watching the action from the press box after seeing action in the previous two games, a stint that had broken a three-week absence from the lineup.
Boston could still stand to pursue a trade for some sort of rented defensive insurance. As stable as it may appear now, it would not hurt to ease the burden on the mix of half-veterans and half-youngsters in the absence of Dennis Seidenberg.
If general manager Peter Chiarelli decides to make such a deal, Caron projects to be the most logical sacrifice with the old change-of-scenery rationale bolstering any possible sale.
Though still only 23 years old, he is in his fourth professional season as a Bruin and still has yet to fit into an active nightly role. His busiest NHL campaign so far has been 2011-12, when he dressed for 48 out of 82 contests. To date, he has played in 25 or fewer in the other three seasons.
Whether it is for the purpose of confirming his expendability, amplifying his marketability or a combination of both, the Bruins had best rotate Caron in the equation once or twice. They will have five more opportunities to do so before the Olympic break. Afterwards, they will have four more games before the March 5 trade deadline.
While there is no perfect way to go about it given the recent top-to-bottom success on offense, the best way to work Caron in and out would be to simultaneously give Eriksson a couple of breathers.
With fellow summer import Reilly Smith’s team-leading 18 goals and 40 points for second, there is little sense in banking on Eriksson crashing the top six. That is, at least not for this season. He can, however, be an enviable depth winger if he is healthy and in full form.
On that note, Eriksson has not only dealt with multiple concussions already this season, but he will also be traveling to Sochi to represent Sweden. With that recent history and a lack of a respite during the Olympic hiatus, it cannot hurt Boston’s cause to preserve him a little more than the other established forward in advance of the homestretch.
To further the advantageous aspect, Eriksson carries a left-handed twig, as does his current linemate Soderberg and Caron. Furthermore, Caron, like Eriksson, is a left-shooting right winger while Paille, who has repeatedly shown an ability to fit in on a higher line, also shoots left-handed.
All of those factors lend a generous quantity of flexibility to accommodate every potential need on the bottom six. The rotation could either entail Caron spelling Eriksson outright or Caron filling in on the fourth line while Paille links up with Kelly and Soderberg.
Beyond the deadline, when the roster is as good as frozen, the most ideal scenario projects to match the arrangement Julien reached as Tuesday’s tilt with the Panthers progressed. That is, continuing to reap the same reliability from the first two lines while fostering a sound formula between Eriksson, Kelly and Soderberg and keeping the Merlot Line intact.
If the Bruins can sustain that configuration for the homestretch and postseason, the only question will revolve around who is the most ideal stand-in. If all goes according to plan, the answer will be a second-wind Spooner, who could still be in line to supplant Kelly as the third-line pivot this summer.
Caron is not the only Boston depth forward auditioning for an extended stay. With two compliance buyouts still at their disposal, the Bruins could find themselves in a position to shed Kelly’s $3 million cap hit if Spooner looks ready to take the next step by season's end.
March, April and any and all subsequent playoff action will be the prime time for the newfangled third troika to make its case. Before that, though, preserving Eriksson for that exact stretch and evaluating the spare strikers’ progress should come first.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com