With next season’s schedule in hand, and training camp but two months on the Brighton horizon, it’s time to ponder five pressing questions facing the Bruins before they begin pursuit of the franchise’s seventh Stanley Cup title.
1. Whither Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci?
General manager Don Sweeney, last heard from on July 13, sounded hopeful that both veteran centers could return.
The 30-somethings first had to make sure, noted Sweeney, that they still wanted to continue (or resume) their NHL careers. Both could fill critical roles again, despite their advanced age in an increasingly younger man’s league.
Ever since, it has been AARP radio silence over on Causeway Street, other than Wednesday’s announcement that former Black and Gold draftee John Gruden was hired to be one of new coach Jim Montgomery’s assistants.
Presuming both Bergeron and Krejci want back, it will take some mathematical wizardry for Sweeney to fit them under a cap that Thursday, per puckpedia.com, only showed a modest $3.1 million in available spending money.
Sweeney has some wiggle room, with $15.625 million he’ll be able to move off the books for roughly the first two months while Charlie McAvoy (shoulder) and Brad Marchand (hips) sit out after recent surgeries. But that financial shell game ends approximately Dec. 1 — 22 games into the season — with the expected return of the franchise defenseman and elite scoring winger.
Possible remedies: a trade or two leading up to Dec. 1, or what now is known as the Tampa Resolution — finding other battered bodies to move to the long-term injured reserve list for as long as necessary to keep Bergeron and/or Krejci gainfully employed under the $82.5 million ceiling.
Meanwhile, Bergeron will celebrate his 37th birthday on Sunday. Krejci, 13-plus months removed from his most recent NHL shift, turned 36 in April. Both are luxury flights, but with huge hours on their engines.
2. The look of the October-November lineup?
Even if Bergeron and Krejci are aboard, Montgomery will have his own shell game to manage with Marchand and McAvoy on the mend.
Jake DeBrusk, presuming he is not dealt, could return to his preferred left wing location and pair with Bergeron on the top line. That possibly would move David Pastrnak back with Bergeron, although it’s more likely “Pasta” remains at the No. 2 right wing spot and rides with Krejci.
In the latter scenario, DeBrusk could remain at No. 1 right wing, allowing Taylor Hall to move up to the left side for a Hall-Bergeron-DeBrusk combo. If Sweeney can fit Pavel Zacha under the cap, the stage then would be set for an all-Czech trio of Zacha-Krejci-Pastrnak.
In back, Montgomery’s greater challenge will be to spackle over the huge first-pairing hole in the wall caused by McAvoy’s absence. For now, it looks like Hampus Lindholm on the left, paired with Brandon Carlo or Connor Clifton, subject to opponent, score, and time on the clock any given night. No one’s making up McAvoy’s minutes and all-situation versatility.
Absent a kid stepping in from AHL Providence, this training camp would be an ideal time for Jakub Zboril (a left shot) to load up on reps on the right side. If he can prove competent over there, or at least adequate, that might allow Montgomery to spot in Carlo and Clifton, as needed, with Lindholm.
All in all, an interesting first two months, and possibly painful if, say, both Bergeron and Krejci opt not to sign.
3. Is there a No. 1 in the house?
Goaltending, always a contender’s biggest potential bugaboo, appears to be a strength. Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman provided reliable backstopping — and entertaining postgame man hugs— in their first season as a tandem.
Given the compromised back end while McAvoy is out, there will be more pressure on both goaltenders. The franchise’s approach under Sweeney — in the GM’s chair since 2015 — has been to limit the top guy (previously Tuukka Rask) to 55-60 games.
Don’t be surprised if that pace is skewed in the early going if Ullmark or Swayman can flash a hot hand. Each had those moments last season, encouraging Bruce Cassidy to go with one over the other for stretches, and it was Swayman who ended up with the bulk of the Carolina series.
If history plays a role, Swayman could be the go-to guy in the early going. It took a few weeks last season, Ullmark’s first here, for the Swedish stopper to get his game in synch. Swayman, sharper off the hop last October, has the added incentive of playing for his second contract, one that could triple or quadruple his pay if he posts No. 1 numbers.
It’s goaltending, folks, and it’s always a factor. Often when you think it’s not.
4. Will a kid emerge?
The underlying narrative that came with the Montgomery hire was that team president Cam Neely and Sweeney expected Cassidy to plumb more out of the kiddie pipeline — particularly college and junior prospects.
So now Montgomery is on the clock, charged with getting more from the likes of Trent Frederic, Jack Studnicka, and whatever WannaB catches his eye beginning with training camp.
The prized candidate is Fabian Lysell, who has legit speed, scoring sense, and skill, but realistically needs another season or more to build his body.
The best talent to emerge under Cassidy’s watch was Pastrnak, who grew to be one of the game’s top 5-6 scoring wingers. Swings and misses included Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen, Ryan Donato, Karson Kuhlman, among many more. One of those who finally emerged, Frank Vatrano (now a Duck), was dealt away only a year into Cassidy’s watch when some of the other pipeline’s bright objects appeared shinier.
Wins and losses ultimately should determine a coach’s fate. Cassidy coached the club to 245 wins in 399 games and posted a sensational .672 winning percentage, only to be sent packing because the kids weren’t good enough. Which should tell Montgomery there’s an invisible asterisk hanging over the wins.
5. Who’s the tough guy?
Sweeney has attempted to address his club’s moxie quotient with a persistent “team toughness” mantra. It hasn’t worked, painful in a town that has a fan base that still lusts over the intimidation factor.
A big chunk of that left town when Zdeno Chara’s deal was not extended after 2019-20. The last of it departed when Kevan Miller was forced to retire.
It’s not here with this group. Not even close. If it was hard on Neely to see the talent pipeline reduced to a trickle, it must have made his eyes bleed some nights to see how cozy and comfy opponents felt the last couple seasons.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.