Slow walks back are not encouraged in today’s 31-team NHL. Contrary to the St. Louis Blues’ unprecedented turnaround last season, a stunning reversal from midseason chumps to springtime champs, poor starts in October are generally punished by quick and disappointing endings.
Last seen shoveling their splintered souls into a Garden dustbin on June 12, the Bruins will open the 2019-20 season Thursday night in Dallas. With their roster barely changed from only 113 days earlier, they’ll be eyeing a return to the Stanley Cup Final, albeit minus the crushing Game 7 loss that had the Blues high-stepping the big silver trophy down Causeway Street.
It was a bad, dispiriting ending for the Bruins, and now they start anew, well aware it’s time to forget June and pick up the beat in October.
“It didn’t end that night,” said Sean Kuraly, the club’s highly energized fourth-line center. “The loss didn’t end . . . it wasn’t over that night. It hurt. And you still think about it. It’s a better feeling now, knowing we are working toward getting away from that feeling. Whereas all summer, you could work out all you want, and it just hung there. I never ended a season with a worse feeling.”
Still with goaltending and depth down the middle as their strong suits, the Black and Gold will be challenged to repeat as Cup finalists for what would be only the fourth time in franchise history (and first since 1977 and ’78). They have never rebounded by winning a title the year after losing in the Cup Final, although in 2013-14, following a failed championship matchup with the Blackhawks, they rolled up a 117-point bounty in the regular season before bowing out in Round 2 of the playoffs.
This time around, their offense again led by top-liners Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, a trio that combined for 260 points last season, the Bruins will return to a stouter, likely even more competitive Eastern Conference.
The high-powered Lightning will be looking to avenge their startling first-round knockout of last spring. The cross-state Panthers, with a new coach (Joel Quenneville) and an elite goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky, ex- of the Blue Jackets), appear to be postseason shoo-ins. The Maple Leafs again also should be a force in the Atlantic Division, and the Canadiens, who just missed the cut with 96 points last season, have Shea Weber in the lineup from the start, all but guaranteed to bolster what was Les Glorieux’s inglorious power play last season.
In the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals, Penguins and Islanders are money, with the Rangers and Flyers poised to get their hands on their wallets.
All in all, lots of able and eager competition for only eight playoff spots, leaving the Bruins little or no opportunity to nurse a hangover or think they can ease into the hockey autobahn.
“We’re looking forward,” said Bergeron, who waited until Saturday to play in his only preseason tuneup, his training hindered slightly by a niggling groin injury. “I think the positive is that you can write the future and look forward to that. I’m really proud of what the guys have accomplished, especially when you look from afar, take time to think about everything.”
He embraces the challenge, said the 34-year-old center, when reminded of what a tough climb back it could be after such an emotionally draining finish last spring.
“There’s always things you can learn from, good or bad,” said Bergeron, who celebrated his 1,000th career game last season. “You learn more in tougher situations, I think that’s life in general. It’s a different challenge, a new challenge — and you have to cherish that and be thankful to play a game that we love.”
In the offseason, general manager Don Sweeney was not compelled to alter a hand that dealt 64 wins (15 in the playoffs) last season. He added only stocking stuffers Brett Ritchie and Par Lindholm, a couple of experienced, low-budget, bottom-six forwards, as replacements for free agent departees Marcus Johansson (Buffalo) and Noel Acciari (Florida).
On Thursday, Sweeney also signed veteran Alex Petrovic to a two-way deal, and the 6-foot-4-inch blue liner, in Boston this fall on a tryout basis, will open the season parked in AHL Providence as insurance. The rest of the D corps remains intact, although the season will begin with Kevan Miller (knee) and John Moore (shoulder) still in rehab mode.
Had the broad-shouldered Miller not been sidelined for the 2019 playoffs, it’s quite possible the talk this week would center on whether the Bruins dare dream of the first back-to-back Cups in franchise history. Such are the thin margins of win and lose in today’s Original 31. Safe to say the Blues would have been less zealous with their forecheck and heavy hits on the Bruins’ rear wall had Miller been on the case.
Overall, it is a proven, experienced Bruins roster, one dotted with 10 players on track for July 1 free agency, fully capable of another long run. Not withstanding, of course, the standard variables at play.
“I think we have a very good group,” said the pugnacious Marchand, who piled up a career-high 100 points (and 64 assists) last season. “We’ve only lost a couple of guys and brought new players in, so you know, we should be a good team again. But there’s so much that goes into that — we have to be healthy, we need guys to continue to perform, have seasons like last year, and we need good goaltending, good calls . . . again, so much goes into it.”
Bruce Cassidy, recently awarded with a contract extension and entering his third full season as coach, entered the weekend still contemplating the final configuration of lines 2-4. Some of his tinkering is a factor of the club’s strength down the middle, with Bergeron, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle, and Kuraly pivoting the lines.
Add in the fact that Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are viewed by Cassidy as a pair of No. 1 goaltenders, and it made for a training camp that had little wiggle room for Providence kids to land full-time varsity work.
“We’re just trying to pick up where we left off,” noted Cassidy. “We want to get back to playing good, solid hockey.”
From a style standpoint, like the roster competition, little is expected to change. Cassidy’s mantra, since taking over, has emphasized a mobile defensive corps able to help trigger quick rushes up ice. Once in the offensive zone, the aim has been to work the puck down low and maintain it there, force shots. If there is a change to come in 2019-20, Cassidy recently hinted, it could be to have the defensemen engage more in the offense once the puck is over the blue line. The maturing, more confident likes of Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk would be the keys to developing a more low-to-high attack.
“I think teams started closing off the low stuff against us,” noted Cassidy. “How are we going to generate offense from there, stretch ’em out, so the puck ends up back in our forwards’ hands? We feel they are our best threats, so that’s why we like to [keep the puck] low. We became a better team along the O-zone blue line in the second half of the year, so we can build off some of that.”
In part because of the salary cap, successful teams generally keep their best talent intact, GMs often extending top young talent on long-term deals of up to eight years. Sweeney retained key restricted free agents Danton Heinen, McAvoy, and Carlo this summer, though with relatively short-term deals of two and three years. Now entering his fifth year as GM, Sweeney has a roster he believes capable of another strong run.
The Bruins now get to put behind them what Kuraly recalled as “the despair” of last season’s finish.
“We know we can play really good hockey,” he said, pondering what it takes to finish the job. “To get back there, we just have to keep it simple. No one has to try to do too much. I think where we feel really comfortable is that no one feels like they need to overreach their abilities. We’ve proved that we can win a Stanley Cup because we were there. This team needs no more from me than all I can do. That’s a good feeling. I look in front of me and I see a lot of good hockey players. I look behind me and see a lot of good hockey players. Every guy in here knows they don’t have to do more.”