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Ryan Spooner pushing through Bruins’ logjam at center

DEC 09, 2015 : Ryan Spooner #51 of the Boston Bruins watches the puck during the NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on December 9, 2015 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Philippe Bouchard/Icon Sportswire)
(Philippe Bouchard/Icon Sportswire)

The Boston Bruins have had a logjam at center for several seasons now. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are both on lengthy, big-money contracts and are cornerstone pieces for the Bruins. That makes the top-six virtually impossible to crack for young pivots like Ryan Spooner barring an injury.

Boston is in that situation now though, with Krejci on the shelf on a week-to-week basis with an upper-body injury.

Replacing a player of Krejci’s caliber is never easy. He’s an essential cog for the Bruins and one of the craftiest setup men in the NHL. No forward on the team averages more time on ice than Krejci, and Boston wasn’t the same team without him last year.

They went 16-13-6 while averaging 2.4 goals per game while he was out in 2014-15. With Krejci in the lineup, the Bruins were notably better in all areas, going 25-14-8 while averaging 2.75 goals scored per contest. Those are some big skates to fill, and it’s not the first time Spooner has been called on to replace an injured Krejci.

When he missed the final 24 games of 2014-15, it was Spooner that the Bruins recalled from the AHL to take the roster spot. Spooner was given Krejci’s linemates — Milan Lucic and David Pastrnak — and the line was outstanding offensively. They weren’t called on to be a top-six line with Krejci on the shelf, however.

Head coach Claude Julien was able to protect this trio because of the Chris Kelly-Carl Soderberg-Loui Eriksson line. Those three players are outstanding two-way options, and they were essentially utilized as the second line when Krejci was injured. That left Spooner, Lucic and Pastrnak with more favorable matchups and less defensive responsibility.

Julien doesn’t have that option this time year, as Soderberg is in Colorado and Kelly is out for the rest of the regular season at least. It wasn’t hard to sell Spooner as Krejci’s replacement last year, but he simply wasn’t given the same responsibilities. That won’t be the case this season, and Spooner will have real top-six minutes doled out to him.

He hasn’t had to deal with tough matchups to this point, as Julien as done everything in his power to shelter Spooner on the third line. When you have Bergeron and Krejci to roll out against the opposition’s top players, it makes sense to protect your bottom-six. Now that Krejci will be out for an extended period of time, it’s Spooner’s chance to show that he’s capable of centering a second line at the NHL level.

The former second-round pick has been brought along slowly by the Bruins. He received his first taste of NHL action through four games in 2012-13 and has split the last two campaigns between the NHL and AHL, serving as one of the first players on-call in the case of an injury on the main roster.

This is his first full season with the Bruins, and this is his first true opportunity he’s had to play big minutes. Spooner only has one game under his belt as a second-line pivot, but the early returns are good.

He registered two assists against the Ottawa Senators on December 29, helping the Bruins to a decisive 7-3 victory. More importantly, he was able to take on some responsibility on the penalty kill and showed a ton of poise on the power play.

It’s clear that the offensive ability is there with Spooner. He’s quietly on pace to break 50 points this season and could hit the 20-goal mark, depending on how long Krejci ends up being on the IR for. The point totals are even more impressive when you consider that Spooner has barely averaged 14 minutes of ice time this season. He logged 17:02 against Ottawa, played more than five minutes on the power play and won more than half of his faceoffs.

There will likely be some bumps as the 23-year-old adjusts to his new level of competition, but he’s been able to learn from two of the best centers in the world in Krejci and Bergeron. Where he may have been nervous about the challenge a year ago, Spooner says that he’s looking forward to seeing what he can do with the opportunity.

He spoke to gathered media about that ahead of the Senators game, and Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com captured these comments:

“In the past I’d get a call in Providence and have to come up here, and I guess there would be nerves. Now I’ve played like 90 games or something here, and I’m used to all this stuff. I’m excited for it.”

Ottawa isn’t a bad team, and Spooner answered the call in his first contest as Boston’s No. 2 center. If the Bruins are going to continue to battle for a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, they’ll need him to continue to produce on the power play while keeping things tight defensively.

So far, so good.

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