By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins’ epic run to the playoffs this season turned out to be something of a mirage. Their excellent regular season, even when facing the Tampa Bay Lightning, turned out to be a false promise. These Bruins looked like legitimate Stanley Cup contenders – but the truth is, the path in front of them is longer than we may have realized.
A serious Cup run could very well come in a year’s time. This team certainly proved that they have enough of a mix of impressive young talent and savvy veterans that, with another year of improvement from the kids and another infusion of fresh blood, the summer of 2019 could find them within a Brad Marchand lick of Lord Stanley’s iconic hardware.
That just wasn’t going to happen this season. And the Bruins’ dominance over Tampa in the regular season sowed enough artificial hope to conceal the sobering reality that the Lightning are simply the better, deeper team – and were always far closer to hoisting the Cup. There’s no shame in falling to the team that could very well be your Stanley Cup champions.
The four-game losing streak to close the door on the Bruins’ playoff run – in which their secondary scoring disappeared, their 5-on-5 game went out the window, and their relative lack of speed and depth couldn’t solve Tampa’s superior defense and bottom-9 forwards – showed not only that the Bruins’ regular season run inflated their true stature in the NHL hierarchy, but that serious reinforcements are still needed in order to get past Tampa.
The Lightning are another team that’s not going anywhere in terms of contention – certainly not next year. And considering the league’s focus on divisional play with the postseason alignment, the B’s will almost definitely need to get past them in order to be booking plane tickets west of the Mississippi in mid-June.
Riding the dominance of a dynamic top trio and cycling through a relentless four-line attack, the Bruins went on a four-month rampage during the regular season, bulldozing just about every opponent in their path. From Nov. 16 to March 10, they went a preposterous 37-8-4 – and it was that particular incarnation of the B’s that looked nigh unbeatable.
No reasonable observer would want to have that run back. It was an unexpected but welcome thrill ride that, unfortunately for Boston, wasn’t as prescient as it seemed at the time. As a result, it’ll be at least another 12 months before the excitement advances past Mother’s Day.
The rudest of the awakenings for the Bruins came on defense. They will certainly need forward help beyond the top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak, but there is enough talent that’s NHL-ready (Jake DeBrusk, Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, Anders Bjork) and that’s coming through the pipeline (Trent Frederic, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson) to suggest that they could get a boost in that department without major moves. On the blue line, there’s not quite as much promise of immediate returns.
Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon remain good defensive prospects in the Bruins’ system, but not to the point that they can step in next season and become legitimate top-4 guys. Of all the Bruins’ offseason needs – and they will have several – a legitimate top-4 blue liner should be at the top. At the very least, a left-shot defenseman who can log big minutes alongside Brandon Carlo and take some of the defensive burden off Zdeno Chara. Even that kind of defenseman, however, will be exceptionally hard to pry from another team or purchase off the free-agent rack.
At the end of the day, the Bruins are essentially mixing and matching a group of third-pairing D-men after Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. Torey Krug earns his paycheck as a power play maestro and high-end scorer on the back end, but he’s best suited as a third-pairing guy on defense. Matt Grzelcyk is a skilled, smart young defender, but also a bit redundant with Krug and similarly limited by his lack of size for the position. Speaking of redundancies, Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid are both ideally sixth/seventh defensemen, as well as they’ve played at times.
The Bruins have little hope of getting through Tampa, let alone making the Cup Final, if they need Krug, Miller, McQuaid, or Grzelcyk to log top-4 minutes against the opposition’s best forwards. It’s certainly a tall task for Don Sweeney to roll out a lineup with a legitimate top-4 defenseman added within the next 2-3 years, without overpaying in a trade or free-agent acquisition – something the Bruins can’t necessarily afford to do this offseason.
It’s unclear how the B’s will figure out that problem, but the team’s surprise success made it a good problem to have. Sweeney and Neely themselves admitted during the season that the Bruins are “ahead of schedule” in their on-the-fly rebuild and still have a “long way to go” before transforming into a real threat against Tampa, or Pittsburgh, or even Washington in the Eastern Conference.
Still, the Bruins also showed that perhaps another year is all they need. Just a few improvements here and there, tweaks and re-calibrations that augment the current roster and make their 2018 run closer to their true identity than the overachievement it turned out to be.
But those improvements, tweaks, and re-calibrations are all pertinent to clawing their way to that next level. As Tampa just showed over the past eight days, the regular season and playoffs are two entirely different species. And the Lightning are clearly closer to striking for the Cup than the Bruins are right now.
That could change as soon as next year. But the nightmarish end to this last series slowly, painfully unplugged the Bruins from a Matrix-like dream world. The reality is that the road to the Cup is longer than the 2017-18 season made it appear.
But there’s still reason for excitement. The road is paved, and the treasure at the end is coming into sight.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at email@example.com.