WILMINGTON — The Bruins are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, 5 points ahead of ninth-place Florida. Zdeno Chara is recovering from his knee injury and could join the team on its four-game road trip next week to skate and train with his teammates. The Bruins are coming off two efficient efforts against Montreal and Pittsburgh, who are first and second in the East.
“For the amount of injuries, the amount of roster fluctuation we’ve had, I’m relatively satisfied with where we are now,” said general manager Peter Chiarelli. “What I look at when I assess the team and assess the games game-by-game is effort and work ethic.
“The system will eventually come into place and the proper personnel will eventually be in place. The first two things have been good, generally.”
The Bruins did not have the start their GM expected. Even at full health, their players were on different pages. The defense sprung multiple leaks early. They put out a welcome mat in front of the net, an area they’ve traditionally put on lockdown. Tuukka Rask did not play dependably in goal.
Once the defense settled down, the offense went missing. It’s still yet to be found.
Amid the push-and-pull advancement through October and November, multiple bodies went lame. Chris Kelly, out the last two games because of an upper-body injury, has a good chance to play Friday against Winnipeg.
But the Bruins are still without Chara, David Krejci, and Adam McQuaid. McQuaid will not play during the road trip. The availability of Krejci and Chara out West is uncertain.
“When we get all our personnel back, when we have our younger players that are showing stuff, they’ll be better,” Chiarelli said. “They’re pushing harder. We’re going to be good.”
Rask has strung together three good starts. It’s a function of his Vezina-level game returning. It also reflects defensive improvements.
The Bruins are getting better in front. Coverage is tighter. Forwards are collapsing into the slot. Opponents aren’t enjoying the free passage they had in the first month.
“We’ve tightened up a little bit,” coach Claude Julien said. “We talk about protecting the house. We’ve still talked about it these last couple days. When we do that well, we seem to break plays out and we seem to be out of our zone a lot quicker than when we run around on the outside and give them opportunities on the inside, whether it’s the slot or front of the net.
“We’ve gotten a little bit better. Our D’s are doing a better job of boxing out. The front becomes a little tougher for teams to score on. For the most part, a lot of our guys are doing a better job of protecting the house.”
It hasn’t been perfect. The bosses would like the defensemen to be quicker and stronger at boxing out forwards, clearing bodies, and giving their goalies better looks at the puck. Some of this reflects the personnel. Joe Morrow and Torey Krug aren’t ruffians who can throw people around. But it’s also about experience. Boxing out sounds easy, but it requires smart positioning as well as brute strength.
Up front is the greater concern. The Bruins are ranked 21st in offense (2.48 goals per game). Their mediocre breakouts haven’t given them speed into the offensive zone. Krejci’s absence has allowed teams to train their defensive sights on Patrice Bergeron and Carl Soderberg.
Because of their offensive issues, the Bruins will give 18-year-old rookie David Pastrnak a good look. On Thursday, Pastrnak practiced with Bergeron and Brad Marchand for the second straight day. On Friday, the line will see shifts against Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, and ex-Bruin Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg’s top threesome.
Pastrnak will have to be trusted defensively if he wants to create offensively. It hasn’t been a problem in Providence.
“It’s a good testing ground for him, from the physical perspective and smaller ice perspective, and he’s done quite well,” Chiarelli said. “I’ve seen him quite a few times. He’s done quite well. He engages. He engages physically. He’s stripping pucks in harder areas.”
But Pastrnak is just 18. It’s not realistic for the twig-legged rookie to jack up the Bruins’ offense. For that, the Bruins need Krejci to return at full health and play with presence with Milan Lucic. This will allow Soderberg and Loui Eriksson to play as third-liners against third-pairing defensemen, which is a matchup that favors the Bruins on almost every night. They need Chara’s boomer from the point and his net-front jam on the power play.
It still leaves them short a big man on the wing. For that, the Bruins will need to go outside for help.
“Personnel-wise over the last year or two, we’ve lost some heavier players,” Chiarelli said. “That’s been an area where I want to fill in a little bit.
“You’d like to see that style of play come out a little bit. It has. But if there’s an area I’d like to see us improve on the ice or personnel-wise, that’s an area. That’s hard to find.
“I’m talking about heaviness on the puck. I’m talking about compete. I’m talking about not being stripped. That whole collective thought. It’s synonymous with our identity. I’d like us to get that back.”