Bruins president Cam Neely believes in the 1-2 center combination of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who will be 34 and 33, respectively, when the 2019-20 season opens in about 12 weeks.
Bergeron is expected to recover from this season’s groin trouble and remain an effective No. 1. Neither he nor Krejci, Neely feels, is done producing at an elite level.
“I think David Krejci can still drive a line. He’s such a great playmaker,” Neely said Tuesday. “You need to find the right player to play with a guy like David, someone with a little more speed on the wing.”
A familiar refrain. The Bruins have been looking for a No. 2 right wing for several seasons. This season, coach Bruce Cassidy deployed a different option seemingly every night.
The list of those skating at least 10 minutes at five on five with Krejci and Jake DeBrusk this season, according to Natural Stat Trick, is not a short one: David Pastrnak, Danton Heinen, Joakim Nordstrom, Peter Cehlarik, David Backes, Karson Kuhlman, Charlie Coyle, Ryan Donato, Marcus Johansson, Chris Wagner, Anders Bjork, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Sean Kuraly, Paul Carey, Lee Stempniak, and Noel Acciari.
Some of those players will not be considered for the role this fall. Nordstrom is more suited for the fourth line, as is Backes, now 35. Donato was dealt to Minnesota. Johansson may be lost to free agency. Forsbacka Karlsson is playing in Sweden.
Neely wants a specific player type to complete the line with Krejci, the puck-controlling wizard, and the speedy DeBrusk.
“You need to have someone who’s willing to shoot the puck,” said Neely, who scored 395 goals in his Hall of Fame career and shot 18.4 percent over 13 seasons. “For some reason, nowadays, there are more pass-first guys than there are shooters, which is hard for me to understand, because I was a shooter. All my assists were rebounds.”
The missing piece could be Pastrnak, who was hampered this spring by a thumb injury and scored three times in his final 12 playoff games. He is arguably the Bruins’ most willing shooter (235 shots this season). He was the NHL’s target-shooting champ at the 2019 All-Star festivities, and shot 16.2 percent in the regular season. He scored a career-high 38 goals in 66 games.
Pastrnak mostly rode with Bergeron and Brad Marchand, to leaguewide acclaim. But the numbers show he might be a better fit on the second line.
In a little more than 57 minutes of five-on-five time as a line, according to Natural Stat Trick, DeBrusk-Krejci-Pastrnak had 62.2 percent of shot attempts. With all other wingers, DeBrusk-Krejci were at 55.8 percent. Marchand and Bergeron were around 56 percent with Pastrnak, and the same figure with all other right wingers combined. It stands to reason that an internal solution could work for the top line — Heinen or Kuhlman, Bjork or Jack Studnicka — and Pastrnak could play with Krejci.
Alternately, the Bruins could swing big and package a premium player, such as defenseman Torey Krug (unrestricted free agent in 2020), for a speedy, physical right wing. Johansson, should he return to Boston, could get an extended look there. Bjork, expected to be healthy after a pair of shoulder surgeries, could surprise.
Neither Krejci nor DeBrusk would dislike 82 games of continuity.
“I think it would help,” said DeBrusk, who scored 27 goals after a slow start and had a tough postseason (4-7—11 in 24 games). “This year, I played probably around just under a quarter on the right side, and then moved back to the left side, just trying to find different pieces. Guys did a great job stepping in. It’s not an easy thing to do. You saw it throughout the playoffs. We didn’t really have a set player there.
“I think that has to do with us, as well. If we’re playing well and doing our jobs, I don’t think there’s many changes to be made. But I think it would be nice, for sure.”
It is an organization without a glaring hole, just several areas in need of improvement.
“Obviously I know it’s been talked about at length about another top-six forward, so we’ll see where that ends up,” Neely said. “We’re obviously going to need to have some strong centermen coming through the system, as we talked about with where Krejci and Bergeron are.
“Our back end, I’m pretty comfortable obviously with [Brandon] Carlo, [Charlie] McAvoy. [Matt] Grzelcyk played really well for us this year. Torey had a strong year. You know, obviously Zdeno [Chara] is another year older, but we’ve got a couple good, young lefthanded prospects coming.
“And I think our bottom six was pretty strong this year, so if we can strengthen in the immediate future our top six, you know, that’s something we’d like to try and do. We’ve talked about that for a couple years now.”