In this space, we believe in the fickle bounces of the frozen biscuit, which is to say that anything can happen in this sport.
The Bruins could ride a rejuvenated Tuukka Rask and a duck boat’s worth of lucky goals to the Stanley Cup in 2021. Hope springs eternal. You never know.
But as team president Cam Neely acknowledged this past week, this is a gut-check offseason for the local hockey club. He knows the work of the weeks ahead, before the draft (Oct. 6 and 7) and the opening of free agency (Oct. 9), involves taking “a hard look at our roster and our organization and [seeing] where we should be going for this next year or two.”
“Can we compete for the Stanley Cup?” Neely asked. “And if everyone feels we can compete for the Stanley Cup, what do we have to do to get back to that final twosome and have a legitimate shot to win?”
The realistic answer: The Bruins' days as a “legitimate shot” team could very well be over.
The core is aging out. The prospect pool is comparatively shallow. Losing Torey Krug is going to hurt. The free agent market isn’t deep. Barring a groundshaking effort from the supporting cast, Boston could very well recede into the sizable pack of NHL also-rans.
Because of age and mileage, the Bruins' 2011 holdovers are in decline. Patrice Bergeron is still a top-flight center, but he is 35 with a wonky groin. David Krejci remains productive at 34, but his days of carrying a line are numbered. Zdeno Chara, 43, is useful in a limited role. Brad Marchand, 32, is one of the best left wings in the game, but how many elite years does he have left?
Then there’s Rask, 33, who was equal parts Vezina candidate and question mark this season.
Three Finals and one Cup is an outstanding decade, certainly Boston’s best since the 1970s, and an even more remarkable feat in a salary-cap world. The Hall of Fame-caliber and HOF-adjacent players who made it happen are not going to be the primary producers for another Cup run. Nothing lasts forever.
To give this core a pleasant ride into the sunset, the Bruins badly need those waiting in the wings to take over. That would mean:
▪ Jake DeBrusk becomes the 35-40-goal man the club thinks he can be.
▪ Anders Bjork and Ondrej Kase prove themselves to be more than speedy third-liners.
▪ Jack Studnicka becomes a legitimate top-six center within two years.
That’s a lot to ask, particularly in short order. It also leaves out the defense, which needs Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon or Jakub Zboril to step in and contribute, and the goaltending, where everyone’s a little too green.
Were the Bruins at their best in the bubble? No. Overreacting to one playoff series doesn’t help a management team, particularly when the leadup to the Bruins' five-game dismissal by the Lightning was so complicated by the circumstances of the pandemic.
The late arrivals of David Pastrnak and Kase to camp, the early departure of Rask, the lack of cohesion between the Bruins and trade deadline pickups Kase and Nick Ritchie; all of it stems from the pause, and how the principals navigated the restart.
So the Bruins should be eager to see what Rask, Kase, and Ritchie have in store for 2020-21, and should assume Pastrnak, 24, is up for another 50-goal chase. If he’s complacent, the Bruins are in deep trouble. They should expect Bergeron and Krejci to decline. Chara, if brought back, should see the bulk of his ice time while defending a lead or killing penalties.
They should also expect to lose Krug, who has made it clear he wants to maximize his earnings.
The Bruins will be a lesser team without Krug’s puck-moving ability, no question. It’s fair to wonder if he will be less effective without Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy as his right-side partners. It’s also fair to wonder if Krug, whose capability as a defender is limited by his size and lack of high-end speed, is worth building a defense around. But some team with cap space will be obliged.
The most obvious fit is Detroit, which could easily sell fans on his playoff experience, production, and local roots. Krug could be the leader the Red Wings desire, replace Filip Hronek as the power-play quarterback, and bring along 19-year-old prospect Moritz Seider, whose game is similar to Carlo’s. Krug played for Wings coach Jeff Blashill in juniors, and grew up a fan of Steve Yzerman, Detroit’s GM.
Montreal needs forward talent, particularly in the middle, but coach Claude Julien could find an offensive spark from Krug, whom he coached for five seasons in Boston. On the back end, the Habs have some $21.4 million tied up in Shea Weber (due $7.86 million per year through 2026), Jeff Petry, Karl Alzner, and Ben Chiarot. The latter three are off the books after 2022.
The Devils are interesting, given they could use Krug on the man-advantage to facilitate P.K. Subban’s heavy one-timers.
Other teams with cap space don’t look as enticing. Buffalo, desperate to build a contender around Jack Eichel, could slot Krug behind Rasmus Dahlin, but would they take PP time off the young Swede’s plate? Would Ottawa do the same to Thomas Chabot? Doubtful. Can the Kings, who have $11 million per year tied up in 30-year-old Drew Doughty through 2027 and a huge hole on the left side, take on another long-term deal?
Calgary could be a player for Krug, given its need for puck-mover. The Flames are also in need of some juice up front. If the Bruins aren’t willing to meet DeBrusk’s price for a second contract — his reps have every right to expect at least $4 million a season, given he ranks 30th in goals per 60 minutes since breaking into the league — maybe they could explore a swap involving Noah Hanifin.
Hanifin, from Norwood and Boston College, is no stranger to the trade block. He has been on Bruins GM Don Sweeney’s radar going back to the 2015 draft (Carolina took him fifth overall, then shipped him to Calgary three years later in a Dougie Hamilton blockbuster). Hanifin, 23, makes $4.95 million against the cap and would bolster Boston’s left side through 2024.
In that kind of deal, the gregarious DeBrusk would be going home to Alberta to take the next step in his career (and would be an instant fan favorite). But the Bruins would then be hunting for the kind of speed and scoring that DeBrusk provides when he’s on. Might be better to let DeBrusk, 23, and Kase, 24, have a full season with Krejci.
The Bruins' most attractive trade chips are the kind of young, relatively inexpensive assets — DeBrusk, on an entry-level deal for the next few weeks; Bjork, Kase, Studnicka, Trent Frederic — that ideally become the next core.
This is not a deep free agent class. Alex Pietrangelo, a bona fide No. 1 defenseman, would look great on the Boston back line. Were he a left shot, the Bruins might consider offering the kind of figure — seven years times $9 million — the Blues captain could command on the open market.
There are few enticing wings. Other than Taylor Hall, it might be inadvisable to commit long term to Evgenii Dadonov, Tyler Toffoli, Mike Hoffman or Vladislav Namestnikov. Ilya Kovalchuk and Justin Williams would be short-term solutions.
Hall, if the Bruins were to lose Krug and jettison DeBrusk, would be a killer No. 2 left wing behind Marchand. But DeBrusk, five years younger and some $4 million to $5 million cheaper, brings some of what Hall does. Or should, anyway.
“It didn’t go the way I expected it to at all,” DeBrusk said of his season, in which he was demoted to the third line in the final weeks. He finished with 19 goals in 65 games, after scoring 27 in 68 as a sophomore. “I had very high expectations for myself coming into this year. There’s lots of ups and downs, so just going through those waves is probably the thing that stands out the most this year.”
Krejci is a believer. “I think his upside is tremendous,” he said of DeBrusk. “He can take games over. He had the one amazing game against Carolina when he scored two goals in the third period. Once he gets going, he’s got great speed. He can finish on breakaways. Not many people have that. He’s just got to find a way to be more consistent … If he does that, he’s going to be a pretty dangerous player in this league every night.”
This UFA class is bereft of top-six centers (Mikael Granlund, Carl Soderberg, Erik Haula, Derek Grant, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza). Charlie Coyle, slotted in as a well-paid No. 3 pivot ($5.25 million annually), will have to pull harder on the rope.
“They’ve won a championship, been to championships, finals appearances, all that,” Coyle said of Bergeron, Krejci, et al. “They’ve done an unbelievable job. But yeah, time is running out, and we need new guys stepping up. I’m definitely in that mix, as well as a few others.”
Offer sheets are rare as is, and the Bruins, bleeding draft picks for several seasons as they try to remain elite, would not be a candidate to use that tool on a restricted free agent such as Pierre-Luc Dubois, Anthony Mantha or Tyler Bertuzzi.
Sweeney has supplemented the roster with short-term free agent additions over the last few seasons. Signing a heavy, inexpensive, left-side defender such as Brenden Dillon might ease the transition of Vaakanainen, Zboril, and/or Lauzon, but is that helping prop open this team’s championship window?
No easy solutions, as Neely conceded.
“We have to look at the regular season we had prior to the pause, [that] was so far different than we played prior to the postseason,” he said. "We also have to recognize the team that beat us and see where we stack up against those elite teams in the league, which I felt we were one of those elite teams this year.
“But, we’re going to start December, January, now we’re talking another four, five months off. How are we going to play? How are we going to react to that? What does that season look like? There are all these questions still unanswered right now.”
Playoff numbers tell the story
A few more stray thoughts on the Bruins:
▪ One of the damning playoff numbers from an analytics perspective: minus-10.96, which was the Bruins' rate of expected goals against actual goals they scored at five on five. Some teams outscore their expected goals numbers. The Islanders and Lightning have. The Stars and Golden Knights have not. Of the 24 teams involved in the restart, one team scored less against expectation than the Bruins. That would be Vegas, which has created more, finished more, and gotten more saves, and has little issue getting pucks and bodies to the net.
▪ To that point: Entering Friday, according to Charting Hockey, skaters had taken 10,171 shots and scored 647 goals in the bubble. They were shooting 8.855 percent, putting 71.84 percent of their attempts on goal, and averaged 36.73 feet distance. The Bruins shot 6.84 percent, were on target 68.83 percent of the time, and were shooting from 37.47 feet.
▪ The Bruins were one of 17 teams that have taken measures to reduce expenditures this offseason, according to TSN. Management requested the coaching staff, helmed by Jack Adams Award winner Bruce Cassidy, forgo their playoff bonuses to avoid cuts in the hockey operations budget. Asked if the Bruins had the cash to be at the cap next season, team president Cam Neely said they “could be, I mean it’s just a matter of do we want to be and where we’re at and what’s going to happen next year? Until we find out really though when are we starting, how many games is the season going to be, that’s going to be a factor in some decisions that we’re going to make. But we may not have that luxury to make those decisions.”
They might not be the only team that feels the COVID-19 crunch.
▪ When GM Don Sweeney says the Bruins are “in a great spot” with their goaltending, he’s not thinking about postseason results. The Bruins' netminding this postseason (which included 29 minutes of Dan Vladar) did not hold up. Entering the weekend, the Bruins were second-worst of the 24 teams involved in the restart in goals saved above expectation. Tuukka Rask, Jaroslav Halak, and Vladar collectively came up with saves at a Mike Smith-Mikko Koskinen level. During the regular season, Rask and Halak were second and fifth, individually.
Losing Tavares didn’t hurt Islanders
The Islanders, in the Cup semifinals for the first time since 1993, are anything but boring. Mathew Barzal is creating multiple chances on nearly every shift, and is such a sublime skater that he stays in the play while floating around on his edges. For high-speed, dynamic skill, he and Brayden Point are the Eastern Conference’s answer to Nathan MacKinnon and Connor McDavid.
The Islanders' rise is more proof of Lou Lamoriello’s managerial acumen and the steady coaching hand of Barry Trotz, who lost a longtime captain from the organization and remained one of the league’s best teams. Of the six teams that had a seat at the John Tavares interview table in June 2018 — the Bruins, Islanders, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Sharks, and Stars — five have made the final four since then. Tavares picked the only team that hasn’t.
Something to give Blues fans a little extra hope if they lose Alex Pietrangelo.
In his days as an NHL agent, new Panthers GM Bill Zito was something of an outsider, in that he never played, and his client base was filled with underdogs such as Tim Thomas and Brian Rafalski. Zito takes over an underachieving team that was shoved out of the play-in round by the Islanders and has a lacking farm system. The playoff roster included just one homegrown draft pick — Riley Stillman — taken since Aaron Ekblad went No. 1 overall in 2014. If $10 million goalie Sergei Bobrovsky doesn’t rebound, it’ll be another long season in Sunrise … Entering the weekend, 85 NHL-contracted players were on loan to teams in Europe, according to the Alliance of European Hockey Clubs. The Bruins had loaned five prospects: Oskar Steen and Victor Berglund (Sweden), Jakub Zboril and Jakub Lauko (Czech Republic), and Robert Lantosi (Slovakia) ... Sweden and the Czech Republic planned to drop the puck this coming week, Finland and Switzerland on Oct. 1. The KHL opened its new season on Sept. 2 … It was nice to see shot speed pop up as one of the NBC broadcast’s bells and whistles. Now, let’s show data such as zone entries, possession time, pass success, rush defense, and shot heat maps. Teams track all that on a proprietary basis. The hockey-viewing public will be richer once the broadcast discusses them regularly … Boston University product Jake Oettinger became the first goalie in 55 years to make his NHL debut in the Stanley Cup semifinals. The last was Bob Champoux with the Red Wings in 1964 … Boston College defenseman Luke McInnis, of Hingham, signed a one-year deal with ECHL Orlando. His father, Marty, is an assistant under Jerry York at BC … It was a productive year for the Gaunce family, of Sudbury, Ontario. Combined, brothers Cameron (Tampa) and Brendan (Boston) scored at better than a point-per-game clip in their NHL call-ups. Unfortunately, Cameron got into three games (1-3—4) and Brendan suited up once (0-1—1) … Garnet “Ace” Bailey and Mark Bavis, who died 19 years ago Friday during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, are not forgotten. Bavis’s loved ones started the Mark Bavis Leadership Foundation (markbavisleadershipfoundation.org/), while Bailey’s began the Ace Bailey Children’s Foundation (AceBailey.org). The latter focuses on the well-being of those at Floating Hospital for Children in Boston. Like many charities, their fund-raising work has been hampered by the pandemic. Please donate if you are able.