Anderson: As health returns to Bruins, significant roster move will follow

Ty Anderson
December 06, 2017 - 4:38 pm

Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports

Barring another barrage of injuries, which is certainly not out of the question given this team’s luck this season, the Bruins have a significant roster decision looming.

25 games into their season, the Bruins are just now approaching full health; They’re a Jake DeBrusk (undisclosed, and considered day-to-day, if not probable for Thursday’s game) and one Adam McQuaid (broken fibula, but on track to return as early as next week) away from their optimal lineup. Bruins forward Ryan Spooner, in the lineup for the last five games after missing the previous 14 with a groin injury, appears to have suffered a lower-body setback that could land him back on the injured reserve.

But assuming Spooner’s even somewhat healthy (read as: not on the injured reserve) at some point in the near future, and that the B’s remain incident-free for the next little bit, the Bruins are going to hit a point where there’s just not enough locker room stalls.

In other words, somebody’s gotta go.

In the past, the simple solution would have been to simply reassign a wide-eyed prospect back to Providence and tell him what to work on for his next chance. But, in what’s an undeniable sign of success from the process B’s general manager Don Sweeney committed himself to when taking over for Peter Chiarelli back in 2015, the Bruins don’t have many -- if any -- kids worthy of a demotion to the minors.

DeBrusk, though absent from the last three games due to injury, responded well to his scratching, and has proven to be a capable middle-line winger. Anders Bjork left college to join the Bruins, and it’d be tough to replace his speed on the wing. Matt Grzelcyk, while still learning the NHL game, has provided an extra boost of offense on a limited left side. (He’ll also likely be the victim of the numbers game when McQuaid returns, anyways.) 19-year-old standout Charlie McAvoy isn’t going anywhere ‘cept the stage to accept his 2017-18 Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. And Danton Heinen, once the face of the Boston-to-Providence shuffle, with four different recalls/assignments since the start of last season, has played his way out of that worry.

“Those are discussions internally, but I can’t see Danton being sent down,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy admitted when asked of the roster decisions that await he and general manager Don Sweeney. “He’s playing very well for us. Every other option is probably available to us. We’d have to look at it and go from there, so I don’t want to speak out of turn. But with Heinen, I think he’s played very well and deserves to be in the lineup.”

Those ‘other options’ Cassidy mentioned, at least upon first glance, include the frequently scratched Matt Beleskey and Frank Vatrano, or veteran d-man Paul Postma.

A trio that’s combined for just 448 minutes of time on ice this season (the Bruins have four skaters that have played more than that on their own this season), it’s been increasingly difficult for these players to work their way into the lineup on a consistent basis. Even when they’ve had their chances, it’s been hard to find results to make ‘em stick; Vatrano has just two goals on 29 shots, and Postma has just one assist and has played more than 10 minutes just once in his last six outings. Beleskey, meanwhile, has double zeros, making him one of just four NHL forwards to have skated in at least 14 games without a point this season. The Sabres’ Matt Moulson, waived earlier this week, is one, Scott Wilson (traded to Buffalo this week) is one, and Matt Stajan is the other.

And it’s tough to see more meaningful opportunities coming their way.

“Right now, I think the team is playing well,” said Cassidy. “The other night in Nashville, if you take the whole body of work, I thought we were very good. But when we were bad, we were bad, and there were bad breakdowns. If you can correct those, you have a good lineup out there. You don’t necessarily want to tinker with that. Other guys will have to push their way in, and when they do, [they’ll have to] stay in.”

Cassidy, meanwhile, does not seem to feel as if he needs to learn more about these players -- or anyone on the roster -- before the Bruins make their next roster move.

“It’s not about second chances, necessarily,” Cassidy offered after Wednesday’s practice. “I think every player that’s here has been given an opportunity to play. Some more than others, I get that. But if this is our best lineup, this is our best lineup, and we’ll have to make an appropriate decision when we get to that [roster limit] number.”

But it’s also the perfect blend of ineffectiveness and inactivity that crushes all trade value, meaning that waivers is the likeliest route when it comes to clearing a roster spot.

Of the three, Postma seems like the one the Bruins have the least attachment to, and it would be easy to see him going the way of Matt Irwin circa 2015. But Cassidy has made it known that he would prefer to see a veteran as a seventh D over a young player (he wants developing players to play, not rust as a healthy scratch), which makes that role a little bit more difficult for a Grzelcyk or Rob O’Gara opposed to Postma.

And if put on waivers, it’s hard to imagine a team taking the gamble on Beleskey and the over $10 million he’s owed for the rest of this year and another two seasons. The team Beleskey broke into the league and had his best years with, the Ducks, which would probably be considered the team most likely to claim him, do not have the cap space to make a reunion work. It also seems unlike the B’s to pay a player nearly $4 million to play in the minors. They were clearly unwilling to do this with Jimmy Hayes at nearly half the price, which resulted in an offseason buyout for the Dorchester native this past summer, and it’s hard to imagine that philosophy changing with Beleskey.

It’s also hard to imagine the Bruins putting Beleskey on waivers.

There was a clear commitment between the parties to make this work, and Beleskey has a reputation as a stand-up guy both on and off the ice, which can go a long way in a dressing room featuring more than half a dozen rookies or first-year NHLers. He’s also refused to pout or demand his way into the lineup, and has made nothing public. He understands his unfortunate situation and results to his name, but has refused to let his contract prevent him from putting in extra work with skating and skill coaches. Again, these are things and attitudes that are tough to walk away from when building a culture.

Vatrano, meanwhile, has largely done what’s been asked of him. His forechecking game has improved, and he’s tried to do more of the little things that the Black and Gold need him to do -- throwing his body, forcing turnovers, even fighting -- if he’s not shooting. (Vatrano, mind you, ranks third among B’s regulars in individual shots per 60 minutes of ice-time, sitting behind Sean Kuraly and Patrice Bergeron, with 9.59 shots per 60).

A shoot-first winger with bottom-six pop, it’s just hard to imagine the 23-year-old Vatrano surviving the waiver wire. And a projected failure to sneak Vatrano, who makes less than $800,000 and is under team control as a restricted free agent next summer, through waivers would make it three under-25 talents the Bruins have let walk for nothing in the last six months alone (joining Colin Miller and Malcolm Subban), which is not good, even when considering the B’s treasure trove of youth and current logjam.

The Bruins, of course, have options that go beyond these three names.

But they all end the same and strangely fitting: Even when completely and fully healthy, this team will have to find a way to lose a guy they expected to have on the roster.

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