Boston Bruins

By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com

Welcome to the first part of a three-part series previewing the 2018-19 Boston Bruins.

Kicking off the most comprehensive coverage in town, we take a look at a Boston forward group with its share of established veterans and kids looking to take that next step from promising prospect to bonafide superstar.

Brad Marchand celebrates a goal by David Pastrnak during the second period in Game 1 of the first round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden. (Photo Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

THE PLAYERS

Noel Acciari: The 26-year-old banger is coming off a career-year that saw him score 10 goals, tally 11 points, and contribute a staggering 152 hits while averaging 12:55 over his 60-game run. Acciari did this while playing through a sports hernia for almost the entire season, too. And with Tim Schaller off to Vancouver and Sean Kuraly bumped up to the third line, Acciari will look to become the focal point of a Boston fourth line with two newcomers in free agent pickups Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner, which will likely see Acciari move back to center on a full-time basis.

The line was considerably strong in their lone preseason showing against the Flyers last Saturday, and played with a similar reckless abandon that last year’s fourth line carried into each and every shift, much to the delight of Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy and the Garden crowd alike. That probably starts with the solid-bodied Acciari.

David Backes: For all the talk of David Backes being done, it’s probably worth noting that a healthy David Backes was paced for 20 goals and almost 50 points a season ago. Backes himself said to me the other day that he does not anticipate having part of his colon removed or having his leg gashed by a skate blade this season, so that’s a start.

Patrice Bergeron: The good news? Patrice Bergeron is ready to go for the Season Opener. The bad news? He’s beginning his year with a lingering injury for the third season in a row, and the Bruins are seemingly officially entering that ‘Manage This Player’s Regular Season Minutes As Best You Can’ mode of Bergeron’s illustrious career as the game’s top two-way forward. One thing to watch, too: How many defensive-zone draws and work Bergeron gets this season thanks to the offseason departure of Riley Nash. This was more beneficial to Bergeron than I think even they realized.

Anders Bjork: Knocked out for the season on an odd-looking hit with the Ducks’ Francois Beauchemin last season, second-year pro Anders Bjork spent the majority of his summer trying to add weight so that winning battles and fighting through crosschecks would far easier than it was in a stop-and-start 2017-18 season.

So far, so good on that front, even after an obviously limited preseason.

“Like, in the corners and just on battles, I felt a little bit stronger, especially upper-body wise,” Bjork said after his lone preseason game. “I think that helped me in a couple battles. Even though my legs weren’t completely there [Saturday], I think that helped me win a few battles that I wouldn’t have won last year.”

Jake DeBrusk: Among 79 qualifying left wingers with at least 800 even-strength on-ice minutes last year, Jake DeBrusk ranked 23rd in individual scoring chances per 60 minutes, with 8.81. That was a better mark than names such as Jamie Benn, Filip Forsberg, and Johnny Gaudreau. Switch from chances to actual production, too, and DeBrusk ranked 15th among qualifying left wingers, with 2.34 points per 60 minutes. And after a breakout playoff performance, which ended with DeBrusk playing through a sprained AC joint, this feels like the year where No. 74 takes that next step.

Ryan Donato: The B’s are going to begin Ryan Donato’s first full NHL season with the Crimson-turned-Bruin in his natural left wing spot versus the right wing spot they tried to jam him into last year following Rick Nash’s concussion. Honestly, I’ll give this maybe 10 games before he’s flipped back up to the second line. His shot is too good for the third line, and the Bruins have a playmaking center (David Krejci) that’s too gifted not to put to the left of the Scituate Shooter.

Danton Heinen: You’re never going be wowed by anything Danton Heinen does, but you’re also almost never going to worry about him making an egregious mistake in his own end. A player that bounced around all four lines last season (and on both the left and right side, too), Heinen tallied 47 points while also logging at least an hour with three different line combinations. Now, the Bruins are going to rely on Heinen to be the team’s second line right winger, but it’s also entirely possible that he’ll skate on the right side of their first line or left side of their third line. And this isn’t something that you’re necessarily worried about, either, which undoubtedly speaks to the talent of the underrated winger.

David Krejci: David Krejci was not happy with the B’s pursuit of John Tavares, and he was honest about that. That’s because it probably would have meant that Krejci was on the outs (next summer at the very latest). Now comes Krejci’s chance to show the Bruins that he still has plenty left in the tank.

Sean Kuraly: Your third-line center by default, I really do believe that it’s Sean Kuraly’s conditioning that will be the biggest thing that either makes or breaks him as a legitimate third-line center for this team in 2018-19. Consider this: Between the regular season and playoffs a year ago, Riley Nash had 44 games of at least 15 minutes of time on ice. Kuraly? Just eight. And given the way that Kuraly plays — a wildly reckless, hustle-based skating game that comes with limited offensive capabilities because of that speed — that’s going to take one massive adjustment.

“I think it will be more of a feeling out process for me,” Kuraly, who also noted that he wants the puck on his stick more, admitted. “I think [speed] makes me effective, so I like to do as much of that as I can. Be smart and use them when I have to. That will be a learning process and luckily there’s a lot of good players to help me do that.”

Brad Marchand: Over the last three seasons, the 5-foot-9 Marchand ranks third among all NHLers in goals (110) and eighth in points (231). Factor that pace in with the 10 games Marchand’s missed due to three separate suspensions over that time and his totals should read something like 115 goals and 241 points. That’d give him the second-most goals in the league over that span, and put him just two behind Blake Wheeler for the fifth-most points. The only thing that can stop Brad Marchand is indeed Brad Marchand. So here’s to hoping his stick stays inside his mouth this season.

Joakim Nordstrom: The good news for Nordstrom is that he really can’t have worse luck than he did in a two-goals-in-75-games season for the Hurricanes a year ago, as his 2.1 shooting percentage was the worst among qualified NHL forwards. (Perhaps this is not a good time to mention that one of his two goals was an empty-netter.) Now, with all that in mind, Nordstrom looks like he could be one hell of a penalty-killing forward, which the B’s definitely need if they’re to preserve Bergeron and Marchand for an entire season.

David Pastrnak: 40-40-80. Get with it.

Chris Wagner: The Walpole, Mass. native comes to the Bruins after recording the second-most hits (253) among all NHL forwards a season ago. If Joakim Nordstrom is your Riley Nash-like gamble, consider Wagner your Schaller gamble.

Feb 19, 2017; San Jose, CA, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Peter Cehlarik (83) during the third period of the game against the San Jose Sharks at the SAP Center in San Jose. The Boston Bruins defeated the San Jose Sharks in overtime with a score of 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

NEXT IN LINE

You could make the case that Peter Cehlarik‘s preseason should have been enough to earn him an NHL gig, but the Bruins simply have too many bodies on the wings right now. Cehlarik will, however, be the first one called up when the Bruins need legitimate help somewhere besides Line Four, and his ability to finally stick with the Bruins will almost certainly be dependent on his health. After all, that remains the biggest thing with Cehlarik, as coaches and scouts have always been quick to point out that he seems to get hurt with every opportunity or increased role that comes his way.

Despite ample opportunities, young pivots Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Trent Frederic both failed to win jobs out of camp. But the Bruins aren’t exactly burying either talent just yet, and rightfully so. Forsbacka Karlsson is back in Providence, where he’ll have to learn to be more directly involved in every shift (this honestly won’t hurt him, as he was entirely too passive when it came to a camp spot that was his to lose), while Frederic will go through what will be his first full year of professional hockey. It’s in Providence that Frederic will need to gain a more polished offensive touch, especially when it comes to making plays from in tight against bigger defenders. Both could and should get an NHL opportunity if and when the B’s third-line center situation becomes too complicated for Cassidy’s liking.

Two AHL names I would not sleep on? Ryan Fitzgerald and Karson Kuhlman.

Lee Stempniak is currently exploring his opportunities outside the organization, but the training camp invitee could certainly fit a need as the Bruins’ designated 13th or 14th forward. This is something the Bruins loved having with Tommy Wingels and Brian Gionta a season ago, and Stempniak’s play in the preseason should tell you that he could contribute more than those two did, even if it’s on a part-time basis.

And while this may sound crazy, Rick Nash remains an option until he officially retires. Boston’s deadline addition (and playoff dud) last season, Nash remains uncertain about his playing future, but Sweeney has seemingly left the door open for any sort of decision No. 61 may make when the time is right. Part of me wonders if Nash is interested in simply sitting out half the year, staying in shape, and then basically pulling an NHL version of P.J. Brown circa 2008 and seeing which contender has a) an opening for his game, even in a limited role and b) the best chance of winning a Stanley Cup.

Apr 28, 2018; Tampa, FL, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Rick Nash (61) during the second period of game one of the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES

The greatest strength of the Black and Gold’s forward corps still without a doubt comes back to the superhuman line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak. But, what you truly love about this line is the fact that Cassidy could break it up and reassemble it at a moment’s notice without the trio skipping a beat.

This, given the Bruins’ question marks on their second line and some of the offensively-stacked challenges they’ll go up against this year (namely the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning), will be a gigantic asset to the Bruins. I mean, the Marchand-Bergeron duo have proven that they can carry literally anybody with a working brain to 20 goals, and the Krejci-Pastrnak combination might be Boston’s best bet for legitimate balance.

Now, their greatest weakness? Well, besides a failure for any of the four projected candidates for the Bruins’ vacant third-line center job to, y’know, win the third-line center job and make the Riley Nash walkaway look kinda brutal? It has to be within a young forward group coming off what were undeniably impactful first full years within the NHL ranks.

Jake DeBrusk put the Bruins on his back in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs. The versatile Danton Heinen, though cooled down at the end, tallied the second-most points by any Bruins rookie 1997. And Ryan Donato looked like the smartest person Harvard has ever produced thanks to his decision to leave school and join the Bruins for their stretch run.

Now, with extended film on every one of them, comes the possibility of the sophomore slump.

“You hear it a lot from the media, I’d say. That’s probably where I hear it the most,” DeBrusk said when asked about the dreaded sophomore slump that’s claimed better players than he and his teammates. “But, yeah, you’re aware of it. You understand that every year is different, every year is a new year and you still have to bring your best and improve. All of us are in the same boat in that aspect, where we’re trying to establish ourselves now.”

Cassidy, meanwhile, was downright pissed with some of his second-year pros this preseason.

“Puck management, details, stopping and starting on pucks. Some of that, you allow your veteran guys to play through in hope that their habits will come back to them quickly, but we have some guys that are second-year players that are struggling with that right now,” Cassidy said at the end of the preseason. “They need to be reminded that 80-100 games under your belt is good, a good building block, but as Zee [Zdeno Chara] pointed out you want to continue to establish yourself as a true NHLer. And I think our guys need to be reminded of the details of why they were successful last year.

“I think a few of them have gotten away from that, to be honest with you.”

May 4, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Bruins center Ryan Donato (17) gets set for a face-off during the second period in game four of the second round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Tampa Bay Lightning at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

THE X-FACTOR

I feel like this one is pretty obvious: It’s Ryan Donato.

Donato was among the most productive Boston skaters upon his departure from Harvard. His five goals in 12 games were the second-most among all Bruins, trailing David Pastrnak by just two tallies, and his nine points were tied with Patrice Bergeron for the third-most on the team over that span. Donato did this while bouncing line to line, playing all three forward positions — and balancing classes at Harvard. If Donato can deliver similar results, you’re talking about an all-out Calder favorite, and that opportunity should certainly be there, especially with the departure of Rick Nash.

PROJECTED LINES

Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak

Jake DeBrusk – David Krejci – Danton Heinen

Ryan Donato – Sean Kuraly – David Backes

Chris Wagner – Noel Acciari – Joakim Nordstrom

Anders Bjork

Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. He has also been a voting member of the Boston Chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association since 2013. 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 Ty? Follow him on Twitter@_TyAnderson.