When Boston Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli referenced four open forward spots at the start of training camp- including the second-line wing formerly occupied by holdout Reilly Smith- he got our attention. While it’s not the best position to be in, the competition between Bruins prospects Ryan Spooner, Alexander Khokhlachev, Seth Griffith, Matt Fraser, along with veterans Simon Gagne and Ville Leino (both here on a tryout basis) gives us plenty to follow as preseason games commence.
Spooner got off to a quick start in Boston’s preseason opener on Tuesday, scoring the game’s first goal just over a minute into play. After forcing a turnover, Spooner controlled the puck, drove past Montreal defenders and busted a shot through backup netminder Dustin Tokarski, giving the Bruins the early lead. Spooner’s speed, acceleration and elusiveness, which enticed many Bruins fans last year, and seemed to be a missing ingredient in their second round playoff series versus the Montreal Canadiens, was on clear display once again. Unfortunately for Spooner, a few defensive lapses cut into what would have been a phenomenal start to preseason play.
Fraser also performed well, showing off his powerful shot on a power play goal assisted by David Krejci. After another season of high-end AHL success, paired with flashes of greatness from his time in Boston to a fast start at camp, he may have already worked his way into the Bruins lineup.
Griffith, an undersized forward who registered 50 points in 69 games in an impressive first season of professional hockey, is an intriguing prospect to say the least. Maybe the biggest long shot to make the team; Griffith’s ceiling could potentially be the highest. Great vision and hands, some foresee him as a possible Smith replacement if it comes to that- but he must play well in preseason games to give him any legitimate shot of making the big club. The same goes for Khokhlachev, who may be the most talented out of this group and made his preseason debut Wednesday night.
Gagne and Leino have both understandably struggled. Gagne showed flashes of offensive ability in Boston’s preseason opener, but mostly looked like a player returning to game-action for the first time in about a year and a half.
Leino, who many hope can regain his pre-Buffalo form when he scored 50 points in his last season playing for the Flyers, before being grossly overpaid by the Buffalo Sabres only to eventually find himself out of the league, really struggled during training camp practices. He believed game-action would give him a chance to prove he can still play in this league, but on Wednesday it didn’t.
It was the likes of Griffith and Khokhlachev who impressed the most in Boston’s 2-0 shutout victory over the Washington Capitals on Wednesday- their preseason home opener.
Leino’s struggles ensued as he made multiple turnovers at his own blueline- the type of mistake you’d expect from a rookie- and couldn’t capitalize on a number of scoring chances.
Gagne, who showed brief moments of offensive flair, said he felt both better and worse playing in what was his second game in as many nights.
“Basically tonight, I felt a huge difference from last night,” he said. “Legs were a little bit more stiff maybe from playing back to back games, but I think it’s normal from not playing a game in almost a year and a half. A little rusty yesterday, but I felt better today with the puck. Vision wise, more patient with the puck, not as nervous with the puck, taking maybe a little bit more time with it before making a play. I saw a little bit of improvement today from last game. It’s not quite where I want, but at least it’s getting a little better every game and that’s my goal. It’s only game two of preseason and we have five or six more games. So hopefully after those games, I’ll be close to where I want to be.”
Coach Claude Julien offered some postgame praise to the veteran forward as well.
“Well I think people that have watched him closely, he seems to be finding his game more and more,” Julien said. “We talked about that, being out for that long, and to me it was his best game so far. It was nice to see, especially on a back-to-back night, again, not knowing what kind of shape he’s in. But I thought he performed really well, so it was nice to see that from Simon.”
While Khokhlachev and Griffith both stood out with their stickhandling ability and speed, it seems Gagne did the most to impress his coach. Julien’s always preferred reliable veterans to dynamic prospects, as commitment to the system, in his eyes, is key to successful Bruins hockey.
With multiple forward spots available though, one or two of those prospects could still very well make the NHL club right out of camp. Only time will tell.