By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
In a span of 72 hours last week, the Boston Bruins lost the two pieces they simply cannot afford to lose: Captains and No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara (knee) and No. 1 center Patrice Bergeron (shoulder/rib). Or maybe I should rephrase that -- the Bruins lost the two players Bruins general manager Don Sweeney's roster is not built to lose.
Now, it's not outlandish to suggest that most teams are not built to lose their No. 1 center and No. 1 defenseman in the same week. But this is especially true for the Bruins in 2018, due in large part to areas already identified as the club's weak spots, even with Bergeron and Chara (both of whom are slated to miss at least four weeks of play) in action.
That starts in the middle, as the Bruins have had an obviously glaring, year-long weakness at center.
Bergeron and Krejci remain the solid one-two punch they've been for a decade, but the middle of Boston's third line has been a revolving door that Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson is currently trapped inside of to the tune of 11:11 per night. When asked if Forsbacka Karlsson could get a greater role with Bergeron out, Cassidy quickly shot that idea down and told you that Forsbacka Karlsson already has his hands full with the 10 and a half minutes he's logged in back-to-back games. This certainly checks out when you remember that Cassidy's postgame media scrum on Saturday night featured the third-year Bruins coach essentially calling out 'JFK' for not being more assertive with his decision-making, even after No. 23 scored his first NHL goal.
This was never an issue when Riley Nash centered Cassidy's third line.
Nash, of course, was an admirable Bergeron stand-in at various points last season, with five goals and 14 points in 18 games with No. 37 on the shelf and Nash filling in between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Nash is gone, though, by way of a three-year deal signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets this past summer, and the Black and Gold's next best bet at a top-six center fill-in is Joakim Nordstrom (three goals, one assist, and 14:58 per night in 19 games this season).
Nordstrom got the call between Marchand and Jake DeBrusk on Saturday night, and finished with one shot on goal and wins on just two of eight faceoffs in 15:56 of work. He was also tied with Marchand as Boston's worst possession player in the win.
So, early returns would tell you that he is not Bergeron, nor should he be considered a potential long-term solution there.
Also: Let's not forget that there's a good chance that Nordstrom would actually be sitting as the club's healthy scratch had training camp played out the way the Boston front office thought it would with a youngster stealing a center spot and with Ryan Donato being anything but a defensive liability at the NHL level. As you know, neither one of those things happened.
At the same time, it's hard to legitimately harp on Nordstrom (a career bottom-sixer) for not being an all-world, three-zone center. It's just that given the Bruins' roster construct, they, uh, need him to be a hell of a lot closer to one. Fair or not.
Because as the first month and a half season have told you, reinforcements are not only not coming, they're not even there.
On the backend, the Bruins now find themselves trying to replace a 6-foot-9 defenseman with a highway-sweeper reach that logs over 22 minutes a night, will stay on the ice for an entire penalty kill (I think he actually prefers to do it that way at this point in his career), and remains the team's most effective left-side defenseman, even at the age of 41.
In other words, there's no replacing Chara.
Especially when the player you signed to help ease his workload (John Moore) is also on the shelf. Oh, and when almost the entirety of the Boston defense corps -- Brandon Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, and Urho Vaakanainen remain out of commission while Kevan Miller is expected back Wednesday night against the Red Wings -- are also out of action.
In two games without Chara (and Moore and more), it's been the Jeremy Lauzon-Matt Grzelcyk pairing handed the toughest assignments from Cassidy. (Just as we all predicted, I'm sure.) The duo has been dynamic when called upon, all things considered, but it's hardly what the Bruins want to roll with as their top pairing for any sort of extended stretch.
And let's not forget why Moore was brought here in the first place: The Bruins wanted to not only ease Chara's workload, but they viewed both Grzelcyk and Torey Krug as defensemen they wanted to "protect" with easier matchups. There was also an internal belief of sorts that the Bruins could not win -- not when it mattered, at least -- if their defense corps featured both Krug and Grzelcyk in prominent roles. Now they're both featured in exactly that given the Chara injuries, and that will remain the case even when a Miller, Carlo, and McAvoy return, as they're all right shots while Chara is obviously a left.
But where the Bruins will miss both player immensely? The special teams department.
Bergeron has 32 power-play points since the start of last season. That's more than names like Tyler Seguin and Connor McDavid, and Bergeron's become almost unstoppable from the bumper when teams give him even the slightest bit of space.
Over the last two years and when in action, Bergeron has directly factored in over 50 percent of Boston's power-play production (they're 62-for-258 on the man advantage when Bergeron plays), and their efficiency from a chance-generating standpoint alone is downright incredible. In almost 300 minutes in which Bergeron's on the ice and the Bruins are on the power play over the last two seasons, the Bruins are shooting an absurd 19.03 percent (that would stand as the best mark in all of hockey), and averaging 63.3 scoring chances per 60 minutes. In 269 power-play minutes without Bergeron over that same stretch, the Bruins are generating 10 fewer scoring chances per 60 minutes (52 and change), and shooting 12.24 percent.
The Bruins are not exactly loaded with right-shot options that slide in as a solid 'bumper' option -- David Pastrnak is better teeing up Ovechkin-esque one-timers from the point and David Backes' lack of offensive-zone timing does not make him a natural slide-in option for Boston's No. 1 unit -- and that will allow teams to put extra pressure on Marchand and Pastrnak.
And in case you're wondering, the Bruins have been outshot 5-0 in their power-play life without Bergeron this year. Woof.
In their own zone, how the Bruins handle the loss of the Bergeron-Chara punch from their penalty kill is downright fascinating.
The Bruins have been shorthanded for over 111 minutes this season. But they've had either Bergeron or Chara on the ice for all but 40:58 of that 111-minute stretch down a man. In that nearly 41-minute segment, the Bruins have surrendered 45 shots on goal and four goals against. In two full games with Chara down, it's been a heavy dosage of Jeremy Lauzon and Matt Grzelcyk, as Lauzon has handled 10:15 of a possible 14:30 of shorthanded action, while Grzelcyk's logged 8:50. The next closest defenders, Krug and Steven Kampfer, have not eclipsed five minutes of penalty-killing time on ice. Up front, it appears that Noel Acciari will become the Bergeron Impersonator, with 8:41 of shorthanded time on ice in Dallas and Arizona.
It's undoubtedly worth mentioning that the Bruins have killed off all eight penalties against over that span, but it's worth wondering how long that can last (the Bruins surrendered 15 shots in 12:48 of shorthanded time without Bergeron available this past weekend), especially with games against two Top-11 power-play units on deck in Detroit and the Penguins.
Down the two foundational pillars and leaders of their team that's surprisingly hung around the top of the Eastern Conference despite their issues, there's no doubt that the Bruins are in survival mode without Bergeron and Chara available. But it's one that, barring a profound turnaround of on-ice ceilings, is nothing close to sustainable for Cassidy's squad this time around.
Leaving the Bruins to hope that four weeks is just four weeks.
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. Yell at him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.