Since Claude Julien and Peter Chiarelli took over, they've relied heavily on a talented group of centers, each of which fills a very specific role. It's almost eery how perfectly the Bruins' four centers fit their job descriptions.
David Krejci is the smooth visionary, leading a talented top line. Patrice Bergeron excels as the do-it-all shutdown pivot, mixing his offensive contributions with absurdly strong play throughout the rink. Chris Kelly, for all is warts, is an idea third-line middle man. At the end, Gregory Campbell leads a fourth line that, while frequently overpraised, clearly offers the Bruins more than most fourth lines in recent memory. It's not the most talented group, but that's clearly never been a requisite skill for the Bruins under Chiarelli and Julien.
So when Carl Soderberg arrived in Boston last April, instantly hailed as savior for the Bruins' scoring woes, it wasn't particularly easy to pencil him in anywhere in lineup. Throughout his career in Sweden, Soderberg was, more or less, a top six center. He scored and created goals left and right. Generally, this is never a bad trait for a hockey player. Even as members of this fanbase and traveling media like to hail the Bruins for their "grit" and "toughness," goals are pretty important.
At the moment, Soderberg figures as a third-line left wing beside Chris Kelly and whichever prospect Julien likes the most after these next few weeks of camp. That spot has been something of a carousel the last few seasons. Since Michael Ryder left for Dallas after the 2011 Stanley Cup run, Benoit Pouliot, Chris Bourque and a host of players have passed through the spot. Those two, specifically, seemed better-suited for that role than Soderberg despite lower potential ceilings. Pouiliot, especially, fit with Kelly and then-linemate Rich Peverley, but the Bruins seemed to cross his name out after a few bad late-game penalties during his one season in Boston.
None of us have seen enough of Soderberg to say he is or isn't a good fit for this role. Moreover, an offseason of minor renovations that shook the chemistry of the Bruins' top six may very well mean Julien spends training camp and the first few months of the season finding new combinations. However, it's difficult to see Soderberg supplanting any of the Bruins' current top six from their spots on the depth chart.
In six regular-season games last year, Soderberg picked up a pair of his assists. He was shut out entirely in his two appearances in the playoffs. Eight games is hardly indicative of anything for a player experiencing North American hockey for the first time. The fact that all of the games he played were largely significant made it even harder for Soderberg to ease into any role.
His first training camp and full season with the Bruins will give a better indication. At the moment, he's likely a third-line winger that will see power-play time; just as Bourque did at the beginning of last season. The difference, of course, being that Soderberg seems like a legitimate NHL talent where as Bourque is a career minor leaguer that finally took the hint and headed to Europe this summer.
Ideally, a third line of Soderberg, Kelly and newly healthy Jared Knight makes sense. Still, Knight spent most of last season with nagging hamstring injury that limited him to just 12 games between the ECHL and AHL. A group of talented young forwards primed to take the next step in their career development will make it even harder for Soderberg to solidify himself as the clear options in that spot. And, again, there is the question of Soderberg and his ability to play as a winger.
Further complicating Soderberg's status is the old salary cap. The Bruins are currently a shade over the $64.3 million threshold with Marc Savard's contract likely to be put on long-term injured reserve should the Bruins need the money. Soderberg is under contract for the next two seasons, earning about $1 million each year.
Soderberg's ceiling is such that a $1 million cap hit may look a huge bargain in two year's time. At the moment, though, it's just another piece of his situation that makes it difficult to nail down any potential plan for Bruins management and Soderberg.