It was one of Claude Julien’s favorite sayings: The Bruins go as David Krejci goes.
A back injury has had Krejci going nowhere for the last 10 games. It is no coincidence the Bruins have gone 3-3-4 with their No. 2 center out of uniform.
Krejci has been skating on his own while his teammates bleed points and slide down in the standings. It is possible he will heal enough to join the team on its West Coast swing, which begins Wednesday in Anaheim. It is a best-case scenario.
The Bruins will be better equipped for battle when Krejci is fit enough to play. Already, with 66 games remaining on their schedule, it may be too late.
Only Buffalo and Florida separate the Bruins from the basement of the Eastern Conference. It is a rotten position to occupy given the approach of Thanksgiving, the threshold teams regularly gauge when projecting the likelihood of postseason qualification. After this date, it becomes harder for non-playoff teams to pull off the trick of banking points and leapfrogging clubs above them.
So the Bruins find themselves in an uncomfortable spot, asking themselves whether improving their playoff chances this year is worth parting with some of their best assets.
The Bruins need help. There are multiple pieces of evidence that make this statement true.
Consider the composition of the No. 2 power-play unit (the scoreless Matt Beleskey, journeyman Jordan Szwarz, semiregular healthy scratch Frank Vatrano), the swollen workloads of Brad Marchand (21:30 of ice time per game, fourth highest among NHL forwards) and Patrice Bergeron (21:28, sixth highest), and the fact that they’re rolling three fourth lines. They are all cries for help from a coach armed with a pair of water guns.
Bruce Cassidy needs grownups like Krejci — experienced, hard men who can deliver consistent, reliable shifts. Otherwise, Cassidy will continue to lean heavily on his lead dogs. Most coaches in his compromised position would do the same.
Players like Krejci come at a cost. General manager Don Sweeney’s so-called friends have one thing on their minds when they offer to help with honey in their voices and knives in their pockets: young, inexpensive, high-end capital. The Bruins are not thin in that category.
The Bruins are big on collegians Ryan Donato, Trent Frederic, and Ryan Lindgren. They like Urho Vaakanainen, the 18-year-old defenseman playing with and against men in Finland. They have plans for Peter Cehlarik, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jeremy Lauzon, who are baking in Providence. Brandon Carlo is only 20. Not all of them may be longtime Bruins employees if Sweeney and his colleagues believe the 2017-18 playoffs is their preferred destination.
It may be, however, that the Bruins’ terrible luck with injuries may not be worth papering over with costly solutions.
This is the first season of the Bruins’ march toward an integration of youth. Five rookies dressed for Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Maple Leafs: Charlie McAvoy, Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen, Sean Kuraly, and Rob O’Gara. Jake DeBrusk would have made six, but he was in the press box, a regular destination for rookies chasing consistency.
Naturally, this is not the year in which the youngsters will be at their best. Their window of peak performance should be around 2020, when recess will no longer be among their priorities. By then, Marchand and David Pastrnak should still be delivering first-line results. Some of the Bruins’ other picks should also be collecting NHL paychecks. To trade one or several of their projected NHLers this year would signal a deviation for Sweeney. But he may have no choice.
The challenges the youngsters experience this year will serve them better for the future than for the present. McAvoy is an exceptional talent. The 19-year-old is seemingly immune to the blips that nearly every young player suffers in the NHL. But his mortal teammates are already learning the brutishness of the league.
DeBrusk was a healthy scratch Saturday. Bjork hasn’t scored a goal in the last 10 games. Heinen hasn’t found the back of the net in eight straight games, although the 22-year-old has been showing more hardness in his game. Carlo, once considered untouchable, is growing less reliable the more time he spends away from Zdeno Chara. O’Gara was on the ice for two of Toronto’s four goals, one night after being a healthy scratch.
These are all expected valleys sprinkled among the peaks expected of practically every kid. But most teams are insulated from these growing pains because they don’t have as many young players going through them at the same time.
Tampa Bay, the league’s best team, has two rookies on its roster. Toronto, No. 2 in the East, initiated its youth movement last year. Even the expansion Golden Knights have only two rookies: former Boston College forward Alex Tuch and Brendan Leipsic.
So Sweeney faces difficult choices. He can add an adult or two swiftly at the cost of young assets. He can wait for Krejci and Ryan Spooner to return while hoping other bodies don’t go down, then assess what he’s got before adding to the roster.
Or the GM can make the toughest call of all: ride it out, retain his prospect capital, and accept the turbulence that could continue this year. It won’t be fun. Rebuilds never are.