Three games played, three notches in the win column. With the Bruins starting the season out strong, head coach Bruce Cassidy has not had to shuffle the lines much so far.
The one exception to that rule is the fourth line. Part of the uncertainty surrounding that line stems from the fact that Joakim Nordstrom started the season on injured reserve. Nordstrom was cleared to return by the team’s medical staff. However, Cassidy said earlier this week that Nordstrom needed more practice before he can return to game action.
In Nordstrom’s absence, the fourth line looked slightly different in each of the three games played so far. Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, Par Lindholm and David Backes have all taken turns on the line, although Kuraly and Wagner each played all three games.
Assuming that Nordstrom will in fact be ready to return to the line-up sooner rather than later, the coaching staff will face some tough decisions ahead. The team already has a log-jam of players available for bottom-six roles even before Nordstrom is added to the mix.
The third line made up of Charlie Coyle, Danton Heinen and Brett Ritchie has been productive and impressive. Ritchie was mentioned in the offseason as a candidate for a fourth-line slot. However, preseason roster cuts left the third line right wing position vacant. Ritchie scored the team’s first goal of the season from that spot and has remained there since.
The coaching staff appears to be happy with the current top-six personnel, rightfully so with the team’s perfect start. Assuming that Cassidy will keep Ritchie at 3RW for the time being, that leaves a battle for spots on the fourth line.
Last season, Kuraly, Nordstrom and Wagner were regulars on an extremely successful fourth line, along with Noel Acciari, who now plays for the Florida Panthers. It would stand to reason that those three forwards would be the front-runners for the day-in, day-out fourth line starts.
The problem, and it’s a good problem to have, is that David Backes has played well in the two contests he’s appeared in so far. Backes plays a physical game that blends well with Kuraly’s speed and puck-handling ability, and Wagner’s grittiness. Also, the Bruins are also probably not going to want to sit Backes regularly, given his big contract and leadership skills.
That will likely be bad news for Lindholm, especially when Nordstrom returns to the lineup. Look for a regular rotation of Wagner and Backes to slot in alongside Kuraly and Nordstrom.
If Ritchie’s production falls off, that could open up another option for one of the lesser-used forwards. And, of course, no team can escape the injury bug. The Bruins are fortunate to boast forward depth that could keep the lines strong all season.