The NHL boots up again Monday night, following its annual All-Star break, and the final 10 weeks of the regular season will feature the usual taffy pull among the dozen or so clubs that likely will remain chasing playoff berths right up to the midnight hour.
A word of caution: Don’t expect too much change in the power struggle.
Over the last two months, dating to Thanksgiving morning of Nov. 28, the roster of postseason qualifiers barely blinked. Of the 16 clubs that were in playoff position that morning, all but three (the Maple Leafs, Flyers, and Jets) remained on serve Monday, while the Lightning, Blue Jackets, and Flames had shimmied their way into the show. For now.
The Bruins, who won’t be back in action until facing the Jets Friday night in Winnipeg, aren’t fretting about qualifying, despite being sub-.500 in the win column (9 for 23, .391) the last seven weeks.
The Black and Gold have 70 points with 31 games to go. Even if they chip away at a ho-hum .500 rate the rest of the way, they’ll finish with 101 points, all but a lock for a first- or second- place finish in the Atlantic.
Job No. 1 for the Bruins at this point, after rolling up a 29-10-12 mark into the break, is to keep the lineup intact. Easier said than done, of course, in a sport that puts the rank-and-file through an 82-game wood chipper for six months and then starts the clock on a grueling two-month postseason.
Despite being but 1 point behind the Capitals for the top spot in the overall standings, the Bruins could stand to shore up three soft spots if they hope to make it back to the Cup Final.
The points of concern here as the Feb. 24 trade deadline inches closer:
■ Back-end production. Of the club’s 169 goals scored to date, only 21 have been from defensemen, led by five each from Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara, the latter of whom sees power-play time only from his seat at the end of the bench.
Big Z still has one of the league’s biggest, most-feared shots off the point, but Cassidy has followed the “No Z” posture on the power play that Claude Julien assumed late in his tenure behind the Boston bench. Did that usher Julien out of town? No. But it was an unused asset at a time Julien was trying to save his assets.
Despite being blanked on the PP (0 for 15) over the final four games into the break, the Bruins still rank among the top man-up teams in the league. They’ve done it without using the 42-year-old Chara, but Cassidy could find it useful to turn Old Ironsides out into the harbor once in a while, just as a means of rattling opposing goaltenders when their PK hounds bark “Incoming!” as Chara lights one of his cannon shots. Good to keep ’em loose back there.
Of much greater concern, though, is Charlie McAvoy. “Chuckie” leads the Bruins in average ice time (23:14), yet he has not scored a goal in his 48 games. Perhaps you’ve heard?
OK, so the answer is, yes, that is tough to do.
Of the 31 defensemen around the league to top their teams in average ice time, McAvoy stands as the only one yet to score a goal.
McAvoy, 0-17—17 this season, has provided 41.4 percent below the average production of the other 30 clubs’ big-minute blue liners, who went into the break averaging 29 points (rounding off here at 7-22—29).
One of McAvoy’s issues on offense is that he is a reluctant shooter and has been since he debuted, his game wired around looking for a pass, be it finding the late man into the zone or dishing back-door around the net. Even then, solely on an assist basis, he has delivered 22.7 percent below the 30 others who have averaged 22 helpers.
First and foremost, McAvoy has to get greedy back there, think shot-first. Those 30 other big-minute blue liners landed an average 116 shots before the break. McAvoy’s strikes: 71, or 38.8 percent below the average.
McAvoy is an impressive skater, a solid puckhandler, and has an overall game and skill set that make him a would-be franchise defenseman. He has the pedigree. Now he needs to add the points. Doubtful that all comes to him here down the stretch, but he has played 206 NHL games (41 in the postseason), and it’s time for him to show he can seize the offensive role that ultimately defines a franchise D in today’s game.
■ Secondary scoring. Yep, it’s back again this year, the need for David Krejci’s No. 2 line to make some noise. Generalissimo Francisco Franco? Still dead.
On Tuesday, the last game before the break, Cassidy had Krejci pivoting Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork.
Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe it’s another tease. Check back after the next four games vs. the Jets, Wild, Canucks, and Blackhawks — a group that on Monday had only Vancouver among the playoff ranks.
General manager Don Sweeney went out again last February and added Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson among the forward corps. Those two, often working in tandem, clicked in the postseason for 13 goals and 27 points. Without them, no trip to the Cup Final.
If Bjork proves not to be the answer on Krejci’s right side, Cassidy also can try Karson Kuhlman or Danton Heinen. There is also the chance, albeit slim, that Brett Ritchie gets recalled from AHL Providence and gets another look there.
Better chance that Sweeney gets busy in the trade market. Two years ago, he landed the biggest name in the pool, an 11th-hour swap for Rick Nash. Last year, he made an early play to acquire Coyle (since extended to a long-term deal), yielding prospect Ryan Donato, and then made the surprise play for Johansson, previously best known for the concussion he suffered at the hands, or elbow, of Brad Marchand.
Rangers winger Chris Kreider, rumored to be on the move for the last two years, again became the hottest name in play at the All-Star break. Like Coyle, he’s a Bay State kid (Boxford). Also like Coyle, he’s never quite delivered the numbers projected for him.
In that sense, maybe he’s the perfect fit for the No. 2 line. It just never seems to get where it’s expected.
■ Toughness. Hard to believe that it’s 2020 and we’re still talking about this in the softer, gentler, nicey-nice NHL.
And why? Because physical play, real smashmouth playoff hockey, became a point of contention for the Bruins during last spring’s Stanley Cup Final vs. the Blues. They couldn’t match the Blues’ smashing.
In the end, the Bruins did not have Kevan Miller (playoff season lost to a double kneecap fracture), and their X-factor, Chara, had to have his fractured jaw wired up in surgery, just to allow him to play Games, 5, 6, and 7.
Toughness especially will be an issue if the Bruins end up in a meat-and-greet with Washington and its raging bull at wing, Tom Wilson.
The only two guys in Boston’s order capable of dealing with Wilson, and coming out even or better, are Miller and Chara. Miller has yet to play this season, but was finally back on the ice prior to the All-Star break.
Chara needed surgery just before Christmas to clean up an infection around his jaw. He’d take the hit to silence, or contain, Wilson. But it’s a hit that might prove too costly if it were to take Chara out of the lineup.
For all the fan talk that he’s too old and not fast enough for today’s game, Chara remains a key component to the Bruins’ success. If Miller isn’t ready, Big Z remains the one guy in the Boston lineup to keep Wilson under wraps.
Like Chara, some story lines just never grow old.