Matthew Poitras' ascent has been the No. 1 storyline for the Boston Bruins during their six-game preseason slate, so it was only fitting that he gave one more excellent performance to cap it all off Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.
The center prospect, who skated primarily on a line with Morgan Geekie and Trent Frederic, scored the game-winning goal early in the third period to power the B's to a 3-1 victory over the New York Rangers. It was Poitras' third goal of the preseason --he tallied two assists as well -- in five games. He also won more than 50 percent of his faceoffs during the preseason.
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It's been a while since the Bruins had a prospect who was a long shot to make the roster but played so well during training camp and the preseason that not only will he make the team, he'll most likely begin the regular season in a top-six role. But that's exactly what we've seen from Poitras over the last few weeks.
Is it impossible to deny Poitras an Opening Night roster spot at this point?
"It certainly looks that way," Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery told reporters after Thursday's game. "He's earned the right to stick around for a while, that's for sure. He just seems to be in the right spots. He has the puck a lot because he's always in the right support position. And when he gets the puck, he's poised with it. He's calm beyond his years with the puck."
Poitras' emergence is literally the best-case scenario for the Bruins. Not many teams lose their top two centers in one offseason, but that's what happened to the B's when Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci both retired over the summer. Pavel Zacha and Charlie Coyle were tabbed as the next men up for those roles, even though Coyle is best suited in a third-line spot where he can impose his will against weaker competition and anchor the checking line.
The Bruins didn't have any center prospects who were expected to play well enough in camp to earn a top-six role. There was optimism and excitement around Poitras, Georgii Merkulov and John Beecher, but no one could have predicted one of them playing so well that a top-six role was a likely outcome of camp.
Finding a top-six center is pretty difficult. Teams are reluctant to trade them given the importance of the position, and when they do become available, the price is often sky-high. Elias Lindholm of the Calgary Flames and Mark Scheifele of the Winnipeg Jets are two potential trade targets for center-needy teams. The Bruins could still target one of these players before the NHL trade deadline in March, but the emergence of Poitras -- assuming he sticks around past the first nine games and continues to play well -- lessens the urgency to acquire a veteran center.
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If Poitras proves to be a legit top-six center at the NHL level -- and it's definitely still an IF -- it would have huge salary cap benefits for Boston, too. Top-six centers are often among the highest-paid players in the league. In fact, eight of 16 highest cap hits for the upcoming season belong to centers. But Poitras, who's entering the first season of his entry-level contract, will make less than $1 million against the cap over the next three campaigns. This kind of savings allows the Bruins to dedicate valuable cap dollars to other positions of need. It's sort of like having a really good quarterback on a rookie contract.
It's important not to get too far ahead of ourselves with Poitras.
Sure, he's enjoyed a fantastic couple of weeks, so much so that B's captain Brad Marchand recently said his game reminds him of Toronto Maple Leafs star Mitch Marner. But Poitras' showing has been just a five-game sample. It's fair to wonder how he'll hold up at 19 years old and 176 pounds when he's playing against NHL-caliber toughness and speed every single night. It's a huge step up from what he has faced in the OHL the past two seasons.
That said, his rapid development is easily one of the best things that's happened to the Bruins over a single preseason in a long time. They were desperate for a young center to step up and show he can play a meaningful NHL role, and a player they drafted just one year ago in the second round answered the bell.
The question is no longer whether he makes the team, it's how long he sticks around. The Bruins will have nine regular season games to decide whether to keep Poitras or send him back to the OHL. He's not eligible for the AHL this season.
Center has been one position that the Bruins have massively failed to draft and develop in during Don Sweeney's tenure as general manager since 2015. They were fortunate to mostly get away with that failure because Bergeron and Krejci played so well for so long. Sooner or later, they needed to hit one on of these players, and Poitras could be the first.