As far as we can tell, in this time of virtual interviews and games on TV, the Bruins are the feel-good story of the Boston sports scene.
The Patriots? Not lately.
The Red Sox, freshly arrived in Fort Myers? No chance. This looks like a season only a diehard could appreciate.
The Celtics, bobbing along at 15-15 after blowing a 24-point lead to the Pelicans on Sunday? Certainly not feeling good at the moment.
The Bruins woke up Monday at 11-3-2, first in the East Division and tied for third overall in the NHL (.750 points percentage). Clearly, as their highlighter-hued romp through Lake Tahoe showed, they’re enjoying themselves. This season looks just like the past few years: they are seemingly as tight a group as there is in the NHL, and not just in a Peaky Blinders or Neon ’90s sense.
We’re talking about the closeness that comes from continuity. It says here that no local team currently has their stuff together like the B’s. Even after the offseason departures of Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug, it is a group of familiar faces, to fans and each other.
The longest-tenured Boston athlete is new captain Patrice Bergeron, drafted 45th overall in 2003. No player in the NHL has been with his team longer than No. 37, who turned 18 about 10 weeks before he debuted on Oct. 8, 2003. David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, and Brad Marchand had all become Bruins property by the summer of 2006, when Bergeron, then 21, became alternate captain. No current player has worn a letter longer.
In 2008, Bruce Cassidy, an Ottawa-raised Bobby Orr fan, joined the farm team in Providence as an assistant coach. That means Cassidy, who took over the big club in Feb. 2017, has been there every step of the way in the pro careers of Kevan Miller (age 33), Sean Kuraly (28), Matt Grzelcyk (27), and the 13 current Bruins age 25 and under who have not known another NHL franchise. Even veterans like Chris Wagner (Walpole) and Charlie Coyle (Weymouth), teammates on the same Foxborough-based junior club, found their way home after playing for other franchises.
When he replaced Claude Julien four years ago, Cassidy left the dressing room to his leadership group. He had no reason to change the way things were done.
David Backes, Krug, and most significantly, Chara have left. Krejci, an alternate captain since 2013-14, and Marchand (this season wearing the ‘A’ full-time) remain. Brandon Carlo — who donned the injured Krejci’s ‘A’ on Sunday — Charlie McAvoy, and David Pastrnak are learning what example they should set.
The youngest player on the roster, 22-year-old Jack Studnicka, is among those who benefit from the structure. He is in what Cassidy calls a “tutorial position,” learning on the job from Bergeron and Krejci, the centers he may one day replace.
“They’re the ultimate pros, so learning how they prepare to play, practice, just talking to them about their off-ice habits,” Cassidy said. “They’re obviously at different places in their lives, right? Bergy and Krech have young families and Jack clearly doesn’t. I think there’s a lot there that can be learned from those discussions.
“But it’ll be predominantly on-ice, bouncing back from maybe a tough shift or playing against certain types of opponents in the National Hockey League, how good guys’ sticks are — there’s little details of the game at certain positions, rely on each other to get better and get information. Faceoffs, for example. They’re all righties. So, there’s different things there.”
Cassidy did the same with his defensemen in recent years, pairing then-rookies Carlo and McAvoy with Chara, and Grzelcyk with Miller. Would Pastrnak have blossomed as quickly as he has if he wasn’t riding with Bergeron and Marchand? Jake DeBrusk (with Krejci) and former Bruin Danton Heinen (with Backes) broke in with veterans.
Not all teams have that luxury. Only six NHL teams have coaches with longer tenures than Cassidy, and player turnover is even greater. Tampa, with Steven Stamkos serving as the bridge from the Vincent Lecavalier-Martin St. Louis days; Pittsburgh, with its Sidney Crosby-led core; and Washington (Alex Ovechkin-Niklas Backstrom) can say they’re still maintaining the standard their longtime leaders have set.
Even in these times where players are not supposed to see each other outside of the rink, the bonds created here have likely helped newcomers like Nick Ritchie flourish. They were one of the reasons Craig Smith left behind his career with the Predators to come here. That common ground took the internal pressure off Rask, when he left the Toronto playoff bubble for family reasons last August. By all accounts, he was welcomed back for January training camp.
Anything else would be out of character for this group. Old friends do not give each other the cold shoulder. Rask was there with the rest of them Sunday, posing arm in arm at lakeside, wearing faded jeans and a neon windbreaker. After pounding the depleted Flyers, they piled on each other for a team photo, like they had won the Stanley Cup.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Pastrnak said afterward, wearing his ’90s shades at Marchand’s behest. “It was great bonding. We had some fun with the guys getting dressed up and stuff like that. Great win, you know?”