How often do NHL teams get to witness training camp battles right before the playoffs? This notion could be one of the few positive wrinkles in the league's Return to Play tournament and the Boston Bruins may be one of the biggest beneficiaries.
As it is, the Bruins will be a favorite to win the Stanley Cup thanks to their excellent combination of talent, experience and depth. And that depth will be on full display in Toronto as coach Bruce Cassidy decides on his lines when the Bruins begin playing their round-robin games as one of the East's top-four seeds.
Part of this development is about necessity, of course. Trade deadline acquisition Ondrej Kase has been mysteriously absent from most team activities and has yet to fly to Toronto from Boston, though he is on the roster. Once he does arrive, he will have to quarantine for four days - so his absence will be extended no matter soon he is deemed 'fit to play' in the parlance of our times.
In Kase's absence comes opportunity, however. Youngsters such as Jack Studnicka and Anders Bjork can both play right wing and if either of them takes off in the first round of the tournament, their coach would be hesitant to yank them in favor of Kase.
"It wouldn't be automatic to put Ondrej in if a young kid was playing well," Cassidy said. "If it's a guy who was with us our whole playoff run last year and the regular season and I know he'll be ready to do his job, it will be a little easier for me to give him his job back because of the trust factor. Ondrej came late - he came at the deadline. And that's not a negative, it's just I don't know the player well enough now. He had only a handful of games to integrate himself in the group. So that would be an interesting one."
It's a good problem to have if it does occur. Studnicka has been a rising star in the organization since he was drafted in the second round back in 2017. This was his first pro season and the natural center dazzled, leading the AHL's Providence Bruins in scoring with 49 points in 60 games while playing in all situations. The youngster's seven shorthanded goals was also tops in the AHL, with no one else tallying more than four.
While Studnicka has already played a couple games for Boston and naturally been through traditional training camps in the past, the opportunity to be around the veteran-laden team in this unique bubble situation has him feeling more confident.
"Definitely every day gets easier," Studnicka said. "In terms of comfort, I'm 100 percent comfortable now in comparison to past times when I would have been nervous or even a little star-struck to share the ice with these guys."
Early on, Studnicka has been on the right winger with center David Krejci and left winger Jake DeBrusk and the kid will have to prove he belongs, because Bjork would be another option for the job, not to mention Kase (who played a bit with Krejci before the season was initially halted).
But it sounds like Kase would have to earn his way back into the lineup and that sort of accountability being asked by Cassidy is commendable. After all, Kase didn't come to Boston cheap. The Anaheim Ducks received a first-round draft pick and a decent defense prospect in Axel Andersson for the speedy and talented Kase, while also taking on David Backes (and 75 percent of his salary) from Boston.
Of course it would be tempting for Cassidy to pop him right back into the lineup once Kase is ready, but if someone else is playing well, it wouldn't send much of a message, would it? For the Bruins, Kase having to fight his way back into the fold would be a great problem to have - and they've got the kids to make it happen.