This Bruins team, the one that lost in six games to the Islanders, would have been crushed by Tampa Bay. They would have been stomped by Vegas or Colorado. But let’s put this Bruins team aside for a moment.
Consider that Bruins team. The one with the overpowering top six forwards and Matt Grzelcyk-Charlie McAvoy pair driving the offense, with a full complement of healthy defensemen, with Tuukka Rask as large as a billboard in net. Was that Bruins team good enough to make a deeper run?
If everything came up Black and Gold, yes. A step below the speed, depth, and talent of the true heavyweights, they would have needed the injuries to strike elsewhere. The Bruins in top gear could keep up with most anyone but needed a few breaks.
They didn’t get many in that second-round series. A compromised Rask wasn’t making bailout stops. Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller weren’t bouncing the Islanders from the defensive zone. They couldn’t even spot in depth blue liners such as Steven Kampfer (reliable) or John Moore (less so). A struggling fourth line lost its driver in Curtis Lazar. Craig Smith looked like he was battling something. Ondrej Kase remains an apparition.
It’s difficult to point to roster construction as the issue after general manager Don Sweeney brought in a high-caliber winger (Taylor Hall), a depth center (Lazar), and a sharp puck-mover (Mike Reilly) for next to nothing at the deadline, and signed free agent Smith to a reasonable deal. The decision to not re-sign Zdeno Chara is not why the Bruins are watching the final two rounds, either. They had just about enough bodies in every department. They just hoped they didn’t have to rely on Jarred Tinordi and Jeremy Lauzon.
So that’s where this franchise is today, at the start of another Cup-less offseason: good enough to go deep if things break the right way, but not a powerhouse. Those with Bourque and Neely jerseys in their closets will hear the ring of familiarity in that.
Quibble if you will with coach Bruce Cassidy’s decision-making: rolling with his lines instead of shaking them up, leaving Trent Frederic on the sidelines while the bottom six got outplayed, using Rask at less than full strength rather than giving Jeremy Swayman a chance. Would any of those moves have made a difference? Would resting Rask for a game or two, knowing the team was structured enough to protect a rookie goaltender, have helped him heal? Maybe. But Cassidy — and Rask himself — felt the No. 1 goalie was well enough to play. It looks like a bad bet after Rask submitted an .897 save percentage in six games against the Islanders.
Islanders coach end Barry Trotz, meanwhile, didn’t have to think too hard about starting Semyon Varlamov (.934 in five games) once Ilya Sorokin lost his touch. Aside from injured Anders Lee and Oliver Wahlstrom, the Islanders reported for duty and carried out their orders.
From here, an optimistic goaltending forecast shows Rask signing a short-term deal (at perhaps $5 million-$6 million per), undergoing repairs on his back, or hips, or whatever issue he had between the shoulders and knees, and taking a gradual onramp to 2021-22. Give Swayman the reps early, and if Rask has found his game by the playoffs, make the call then. Ideally, for the Bruins’ future, Swayman’s training wheels would be ready to come off, and the choice would be clear.
The Bruins should want to bring back everyone in their top six. Signing Hall to a deal somewhere around five years and $6 million AAV is a no-brainer. If David Krejci wants a year at $5 million or so, that might give the Bruins the viewing window they need to determine if Jack Studnicka, Charlie Coyle, or someone outside the organization should play No. 2 center when Krejci is done. If that time is now, a Hall-Studnicka-Smith second line sounds intriguing. As long as the Bruins have Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak powering the No. 1 line and power play, they’ll be in the hunt.
Clearly, the Bruins needed more from their third and fourth units. Jake DeBrusk’s decline has been troubling to watch. A fresh opportunity could do him good, and bring in a helpful secondary piece. Coyle’s playoff game was fits and starts. Nick Ritchie, a restricted free agent, could be an expansion casualty. Kase (restricted free agent) looks like a sunk cost. The Bruins will likely let Sean Kuraly walk, taking a longer look at Frederic (RFA), Jakub Lauko, and other Providence wannabes.
Given the lack of high-quality, left-side defensive options on the free agent market, it could be Reilly redux. However, another team might want to double his expiring, $1.5 million tag. The Bruins would be less inclined, particularly if they think they can get something out of Jakub Zboril or Jack Ahcan as a second-pair complement to Carlo. They will need more NHL-caliber bodies, particularly with Connor Clifton — cheap ($1 million), effective, and signed for two more years — a potential Kraken.
Sweeney must also figure out a new deal for Carlo, who is worth every bit of his $2.85 million cap hit when healthy, and determine whether Miller (UFA) has anything left. The Bruins must leave room for McAvoy (RFA next summer) and Pastrnak (UFA in 2023).
Bringing back everyone, with refreshments from Providence, would be a reasonable offseason plan. It might also be good, but not good enough. Have you heard that story before? Are you tired of it?