BOSTON – Unlike rookie games, NHL training camps these days are usually devoid of actual fights.
And barring Brian McGrattan blowing a gasket in an attempt to really show Shawn Thornton who the toughest man in black and gold is, I wouldn’t expect the Bruins’ 2010 training camp to feature any more grappling than the last couple fall’s camps – which is to say there won’t be any punches thrown.
However, as with every training camp, there will be plenty of positional battles and fights for jobs between today and Oct. 9 when the Bruins open the regular season against Phoenix in Prague.
Here’s a thumbnail look at the seven training camp competitions I’ll be watching closely over the next several weeks:
•Tuukka Rask vs. Tim Thomas
Many think this is already a no-contest bout, but once Thomas is back at full strength and shakes off the rehab rust I really think he can give Rask a run. Head coach Claude Julien has never been one to commit to just one goaltender until the stretch run, and he has loved Thomas’ competitive fire and solid play since taking over the Bruins’ bench. Thomas will be given every chance to take back the No. 1 job, and Rask will have to respond to his first real challenges as a pro – rebounding from last year’s disappointing end and fending off a second goaltender that could legitimately beat him in a battle for the position. Of course, it’ll probably take Thomas some time, once he’s at full strength, to get used to playing with his surgically repaired hip.
•Michael Ryder vs. himself
There can’t be any excuses for the enigmatic winger this season. When last season ended, he admitted maybe his preparation and focus wasn’t in the right place during the regular season. That’s ridiculous. Maybe David Krejci’s struggles, and constantly changing centers, knocked Ryder off course. And maybe some off-ice matters distracted him. But now Ryder is in the last year of his contract and the Bruins need him to produce. That means not only goals, but forechecking and play in front of the net. He has to find it within himself to play with fire and not fall into the blame game. If he doesn’t, he could find himself playing out the string in the AHL or possibly unemployed.
•Marco Sturm vs. his body
The speedy winger just turned 32 and is coming off his second major knee surgery in as many years. For a guy that’s so reliant on his wheels, this could be a crossroads. Not only does Sturm have to get healthy, he either has to return as close as he can to his pre-injury form or find another approach that will make him successful. The Bruins are going to have to do some maneuvering to fit Sturm under the salary cap when he’s healthy, and he has to make all that dealing worth the Bruins’ while. Even when healthy last year, he was inconsistent as ever. It’ll be interesting if almost two years of rehabbing two injuries gets to Sturm, if his aging body suffers any setbacks or if he maybe even come back sooner than the targeted late-November, early-Decembertarget date.
•Blake Wheeler vs. the public
By far, there is no player with a bigger discrepancy in age, experience and production and the amount of venom directed his way from readers of this blog than Wheeler. Maybe it’s because Boston has such a solid crop of would-be young stars (Tyler Seguin, Joe Colborne, etc.) in the pipeline, and the unknown always appears better than the known.
Or maybe it’s because every Boston fan expects a 6-foot-5 forward to be the next Cam Neely. Nonetheless, Wheeler could follow the trend – which has been well-documented by this blog all summer – of other college players who took three years to really hit their groove. Or he could continue to be an offsides machine with a knack for missing the net. If he does find this scoring touch again, will that be enough for the Bruins fans to embrace him? Can Bruins fans tolerate a 25-, 30-goal scorer who doesn’t draw blood once a game? It’s not required that Wheeler win over the Garden faithful, but it would certainly make his life easier. I’m not sure how much he has to give to do to capture hearts, but he’s going to have to find out.
•Wingers vs. wingers to play with Marc Savard
Let’s face it, when Bruins wingers get to training camp they all try to line up next to Savard as badly as they want to get interviewed by Heidi Androl when they play at Los Angeles. Most predict a pair of Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton would work best with Savard. But there’s no doubt Julien is going to try plenty other combinations before settling on his opening-night lines. Maybe Seguin would be a good fit playing alongside the team’s best playmaker and the rugged Lucic. Playing next to Savard might reboot Ryder or Wheeler’s careers. There are a few options and the chance to be on the receiving end of Savard’s dishes will be a coveted opportunity by many all camp long.
*Wingers vs. wingers to play with Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi
It’s doubtful Julien would want to break up this pair of veteran forwards, who formed two thirds of Boston’s best two-way line all last season. This would be Sturm’s spot if healthy. Some have considered Seguin a solid fit here because he could learn under two of Boston’s best leaders. Wheeler finished last season here, and maybe he’s ready for more responsibility. If Julien decides he just wants the most defense possible on this line, he could go back to Daniel Paille. For me, I’d like to see Wheeler get this chance. Maybe the extra responsibility would empower him to truly grow this season.
*Defenseman vs. defenseman to be on the roster
With six NHL defensemen on one-way deals, the Bruins are pretty much set one through six. Julien typically likes to have a seventh guy around for practice and competition when the salary cap allows. As an incumbent, Adam McQuaid seems like the front-runner to be the spare D. But he could get challenged by Jeff Penner, Andrew Bodnarchuk or newcomer Nathan McIver. Beyond just trying to make the team, could one of these players – or even a rookie – make a push to force Matt Hunwick or Andrew Ference out? We won’t know until we see if Hunwick can find his form after an inconsistent sophomore season and see how Ference holds up to the rigors of the game with two surgically repaired groins. I’d expect the top six to stay as is and McQuaid to stick around, at least at the outset of the season.
Let’s get ready to rumble! … For positions, that is.