Talk about a bad night to have a bad game. That 4-1 loss to visiting St. Louis in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final was the prevalent memory of the summer for the Boston Bruins and for fans who believed a winner-take-all home game was just a formality before the city’s third championship parade in less than a year.
Uneasiness was in play, too, as the realization sunk in that the remaining core of the 2011 Cup team is getting old. Zdeno Chara will play another season at age 42, top-line center Patrice Bergeron is 34, No. 2 center David Krejci is 33, and goalie Tuukka Rask – who’s now 0-for-2 in Cup finals as a starter, despite sparkling numbers – is 32. Additional kicks at the can aren’t guaranteed, but the Bruins remain a strong Stanley Cup contender going into this season.
There may have been no better line last season than Brad Marchand (100 points) and David Pastrnak on Bergeron’s wings – all three exceeded 30 goals and 1.2 points per game.
Krejci matched his career-high (set in 2008-09) with 73 points, and his second-year linemate Jake DeBrusk jumped to 27 goals from 16. The next forward on the goal-scoring list, however, was fourth-liner Chris Wagner, with 12. Secondary scoring remains an issue, especially with trade-deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson leaving as a free agent.
The defense corps isn’t a major source of offense, but as 21-year-old Charlie McAvoy ascends – he had 28 points in 54 games last season – the blueline will have another point-producer to complement Torey Krug, who had 53 points last season, including 30 on the power play.
Five defensemen missed at least 14 games to injury in 2018-19, but the Bruins still finished third in goals against. Whether it was a developing player such as Matt Grzelcyk or depth addition Steven Kampfer taking more responsibility, or rookies Connor Clifton and Jeremy Lauzon stepping in to provide relief, the B’s learned a lot about their depth behind the top two pairings of Chara-McAvoy and Krug with Brandon Carlo.
Goaltending and a wealth of responsible 200-foot forwards helped, too. While coach Bruce Cassidy’s system, which emphasizes cutting off opposing rushes early, isn’t as rigid as the system of predecessor Claude Julien, two-way play is demanded, and protection of the slot is a must. The Bruins have become a better transition team as a result.
Rask was a Conn Smythe Trophy candidate in large part because the addition of former No. 1 Jaroslav Halak significantly reduced his workload to 46 regular-season appearances. Taking an occasional backseat to Halak (2.34 goals-against average, .922 save percentage, five shutouts) no doubt motivated Rask. That system will remain in place.
The Bruins rely heavily on a power play (third best in the regular season and No. 1 in the playoffs) that has Krug distributing to the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio and Krejci leading the second unit. Shorthanded goals were a problem, though, as the B’s tied for the most allowed in the league. The penalty-killers sagged to 16th, despite standout forwards such as Marchand and Bergeron (a duo since 2010-11), as well as Wagner, Sean Kuraly and Joakim Nordstrom. Injuries on defense were a factor, with stalwarts Chara and Kevan Miller missing 19 and 43 games, respectively.
Boston places a lot of trust in veteran leaders Chara (captain), Bergeron, Krejci and David Backes (alternates) and long-timers Marchand and Rask. Younger leaders such as Krug are emerging, but there’s growing awareness that the vets don’t have an endless supply of Cup bids left.
After in-season cameos, Clifton and first-year pro Karson Kuhlman raised their profiles with significant playoff contributions. Urho Vaakanainen, drafted 18th overall in 2017, will compete for a job on defense, while Trent Frederic, drafted 29th overall in 2016, is a big, physical option if a depth center is needed.
A lack of scoring depth has hurt the Bruins at the end of two straight post-seasons, so that’s a priority. There has been talk of moving Pastrnak off the top line to balance production, but that still leaves Boston one winger short of a second consistent scoring unit.
Don Sweeney, whose first summer as GM in 2015 was spent wriggling out of inherited cap trouble, spent his fifth summer at the helm navigating another cap crunch. Unable to afford Johansson, Boston struggled to squeeze in key RFAs McAvoy and Carlo. Look for extensions for potential UFAs Krug and Charlie Coyle.
– Mike Loftus
STANLEY CUP ODDS: 20/1
PREDICTION: 3rd in the Atlantic
Boston’s brain trust has maintained a great balancing act of going for glory while still developing youngsters. Jake DeBrusk was key in the playoffs, while defenseman Urho Vaakanainen is on the cusp of NHL duty. Jack Studnicka is close, too. At the 2019 draft, the B’s snagged John Beecher, and it’s all about the physical package with him. He possesses amazing wheels and a great frame. The Michigan commit was a team player on a loaded NTDP squad.
1. Urho Vaakanainen, D
Age 20 Team Providence (AHL)
A fantastic skater who is solid defensively. Got in two NHL games. Will need to practise patience.
Acquired 18th overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
2. Jack Studnicka, C
Age 20 Team Niagara (OHL)
A detail-oriented player who dominated after being returned to junior. Needs to strengthen shot.
Acquired 53rd overall, 2017 NHL ’20-21
3. John Beecher, C
Age 18 Team U.S. NTDP (USHL)
A big man who can skate incredibly well for his size. Played bottom-six role with top-six skills.
Acquired 30th overall, 2019 NHL ’21-22
4. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, C
Age 22 Team Providence (AHL)
Skills and hockey sense are ready for the big club, but his lack of assertiveness is holding him back.
Acquired 45th overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
5. Trent Frederic, C
Age 21 Team Providence (AHL)
Loves to play a physical game and is strong defensively. Turned pro after two NCAA seasons.
Acquired 29th overall, 2016 NHL ’20-21
6. Anders Bjork, LW
Age 23 Team Providence (AHL)
Injuries stalled his opportunity for full-time NHL job. The speedy winger needs to convert on chances.
Acquired 146th overall, 2014 NHL ’19-20
7. Axel Andersson, D
Age 19 Team Sodertalje (Swe.2)
A high IQ player who can move puck well. Has shown good composure in the second-tier league.
Acquired 57th overall, 2018 NHL ’22-23
8. Jakub Zboril, D
Age 22 Team Providence (AHL)
Posted identical stats in two AHL seasons. Needs traction after getting passed by recent ‘D’ picks.
Acquired 13th overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
9. Zach Senyshyn, RW
Age 22 Team Providence (AHL)
Fast and intense winger has been unable to replicate his junior production at pro level.
Acquired 15th overall, 2015 NHL ’20-21
10. Jeremy Swayman, G
Age 20 Team Maine (HE)
Boffo stats in first two NCAA seasons. Positionally sound, competitive and durable.
Acquired 111th overall, 2015 NHL ’21-22