Merrimack native set for another season in NHL with Bruins

Tim Schaller knows the drill. He hears the skates behind him and that’s why he was so determined to report to Boston Bruins training camp late this past week in great shape.

Not even the one-way, one-year contract the Merrimack native signed with the Bruins in the off-season gives the third or fourth-line forward a reason to feel secure.

“It feels good (to have the one-way deal), but at the same time, that’s not any reason to be complacent,” he said. “There’s a bunch of young guns trying to take my spot. I’m very aware of that, but if I play my game, I can keep my spot.”

Schaller, who turns 27 in November, was one of those “young guns” once, first in the Buffalo Sabres organization and last year in his first season with the Bruins, when it was expected he’d go up and down between Providence and Boston. An injury in last year’s training camp halted his progress, so it was thought Schaller would have to really push his way up to the big club.

Guess again. Other injuries had him called up from Providence just prior to the season opener, in which he scored a goal, and he stuck for the season, scoring seven goals with seven assists in 59 regular season games.

As Bruins general manager said on NHL.com, “Our intention is to create a deeper roster from top to bottom. … Players like Sean Kuraly, (Tim) Schaller, (Noel) Acciari, (Anton) Blidh … all took advantage of their opportunity last year.”

And now he starts again. Schaller signed his deal over the summer, and admitted at the end of last season he wasn’t quite sure whether things would work out for a return. They did.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I’ve been working hard this summer. I made a list of things I wanted to accomplish last season, and there’s a lot of things I want to accomplish this season. Hopefully I will get off to a solid start.”

Schaller has the attitude of playing each game as if it’s his last, not being complacent, and proving each day the Bruins were right in bringing him to Boston in the first place to play for his hometown team.

Schaller had his best professional season playing for the team he grew up a fan of in Merrimack. Many others have wilted under that so-called pressure; he thrived in it.

“I had more confidence,” he said. “In past years (when called up by Buffalo), I don’t know if I was really nervous, maybe a little, but I just didn’t play to my full potential.

“But maybe playing for my hometown team – I grew up 45 minutes away – having my family at games made me feeling at ease, seeing my family’s faces every night.

“It was just about home for me, the familiarity, knowing the rivals from when I was a kid, whch games would be the big games. Just knowing everyone had my back.”

Again, many New Englanders playing for the Bruins may have felt too much of a responsibility to family and friends to succeed. Not Schaller.

“All my friends are Bruins fans,” he said. “I couldn’t disappoint them.”

Schaller played in all six games in the Bruins first-round Stanley Cup playoff series lost to Ottawa. It was a revelation for him, his first Stanley Cup action ever. He had a goal and an assist in the series.

“It was incredible,” he said. “The first game was an eye-opener for me.”

Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, who took over for the fired Claude Julien in early February, helped open those eyes after that first game.

“Bruce said I played OK, but I had to be more physical,” Schaller said. “It’s playoff hockey, the intensity is stepped up.

“There’s no reason I can’t play that way, and I intend to take that into the regular season and play like that all the time.”

Schaller says he has two keys: health and consistency.

“Consistency, whether it’s shift by shift or game by game,” he said. “Players who have had great careers in the NHL are very consistent. Mentally, I have to take that approach.”

As for health, that’s another key. Besides the training camp injury, Schaller also got banged up and missed a stretch of games in March, recovering just in time for the playoffs.

“That’s my goal for every season,” he said. “I’ve had a couple f injuries the last couple of seasons. The key is staying healthy.”

Schaller says he wanted to report to camp in top shape to prove to the Bruins that he’s serious about holding on to his job, and playing with intensity day in, day out.

“That’s my goal for every season,” he said. “I’m happy to be back.”