By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Do we still think the lack of a toughness is the biggest issue facing the Bruins?
Or even close to the biggest issue?
Unless your hopes are that the toughness they acquire will punch a puck into the opposition’s net 25 times this season, I’d certainly hope not.
Over two months into the season, it doesn’t take much to see the B’s No. 1 issue is actually natural goal-scoring talent. And perhaps talent as a whole. Even as we cling to the ‘but injuries!’ lament that carries some weight (at least on the backend), it’s become just plain undeniable that this team can’t score, especially not at even-strength, on a consistent enough basis.
Over their last nine games, the Bruins have scored just 14 goals, and have just one night with at least three goals scored.
I mean, remember that weird-ass David Backes backhander that bounced through traffic and by Jimmy Howard last Saturday night? That’s actually Boston’s only five-on-five goal in the last 210:38 of play. (This is not the first time the Bruins have lived through this kind of streak this season, by the way). They’re also shooting a league-worst 4.62 percent over that 14-in-9 stretch, which is easily their worst spell since Bruce Cassidy took over as the team’s head coach in Feb. 2017.
The only reason this hasn’t been as big of an issue as it should be is because the Bruins have been completely bailed out by their goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask, which has posted an all-situation .926 save percentage over that nine-game stretch. That stands as the league’s fourth-best in the league over that stretch and that’s with factoring in Halak’s recent cold streak, too, with eight goals surrendered on his last 74 shots faced. If not them, it’s Boston’s power play that’s saved the day, with their on-ice and behind-the-bench body language confirming just that with each near-miss when up a man.
Some will say that this is a classic ‘they’re just unlucky and they’re missing key bodies’ stretch.
But I’d have a legitimately hard time arguing that they’re built to score, even upon Bergeron’s eventual return to the lineup.
See, even when the Bruins have been at their best this year, it’s been behind the success of the all-world Bergeron line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak on the wings. This trio has combined for 35 of Boston’s 70 goals, which is an even scarier note when you realize that Bergeron’s missed the last eight games. Behind the Bergeron Line, their second line situation has been as fluid as a broken straw, with Danton Heinen and Joakim Nordstrom constantly flipped back and forth, and their third line remains without anything even partially resembling a season-long fix at center. Or on the right wing. Or left wing.
There’s also no possible way to undersell the negative impact of their top-to-bottom redundant desert of a bottom-six group.
It’s not even debatable.
Look at the Black and Gold’s most common bottom-sixers and you’ll quickly see that this is a six-skater group that’s combined to score eight goals on 211 shots in total (3.8 percent). That group’s top scoring threat (Anders Bjork) is now in Providence, and their second-best scoring threat (Heinen) is completely lost right now. Honestly, the bottom-six isn’t even remotely considered a threat to score (even when zone-time mounts it’s hard to find Grade-A chances) and too often have they needed a wake-up call to provide the game-changing energy they delivered at both ends last year. The Bruins are also dressing six fourth-liners — Noel Acciari, David Backes, Colby Cave, Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, and Nordstrom — in their nightly lineup.
Look at the numbers and you’ll see that Boston’s sixth-most productive forward (Nordstrom) has five points this year. Five!
There’s a lack of depth scoring and then there’s whatever the Bruins have been this season.
This is not a product of injuries, either. It’s not as if Cave moonlighting in Bergeron’s spot has drastically impacted what the Bruins have on lines two through four. Cave is not what Riley Nash was to last year’s team, and there’s a good chance he’s not even on an NHL roster if Bergeron’s healthy. The Bruins have seemingly had chances to fix this with cheap, internal fixes — Lee Stempniak has been skating with the team on stipends for four months now and Jan Kovar spent a month and a half with the Bruins but appears to be leaving town without a contract — but they’ve stayed the course with their grind-time lineup.
This is what the Bruins — for better or worse (it’s certainly the latter) — are right now. By design, even.
In other words, this team has an undeniable talent deficiency, not a ‘toughness’ one.
And in an Atlantic Division that features five of the league’s top 12 scoring teams, that’s a death wish.
While we lose our collective minds over the Bruins being on the wrong end of rough stuff because history and marketing strategies say that it cannot happen at under circumstance, seriously considering adding any sort of toughness a priority over the club’s obvious and not-changing scoring woes would be painfully stupid. It would be the absolute worst way to piss away the financial and roster flexibility this front office has at times protected to absurd lengths.
It’s absolutely as simple as that.
Of course the B’s would love an in-prime Milan Lucic or Nathan Horton. And of course those players and that roster construct are remembered with rose-colored glasses because of the championship that came with it, even though it came almost a decade ago now. Of course you’d want the production of Tom Wilson somewhere in Boston’s top six, so long as it came without the headaches he hands out to unsuspecting players and subsequent suspensions. Or the attitude and swagger of Golden Knights winger Ryan Reaves, but with more offensive pop. But those players are basically unicorns in today’s game, with teams clinging to those talents for dear life until it comes time for their big payday or when the returns become diminishing (see: Lucic, his two goals in his last 72 games dating back to last season, and his immovable contract in Edmonton).
And this front office is now 0-for-3 acquiring that exact kind of player (Backes, Matt Beleskey, and Jimmy Hayes), and are paying almost $8.8 million for it this year between on-roster players, salary retained via trade, and buyout penalties.
Even if the Bruins could find that player, though is this a team that really needs more, grit-and-hit players that have to work three times harder than a skill guy for their goal? That’s simply not a viable strategy, especially when you see where this division — and game as a whole, really — is trending with the likes of the speed-and-skill Maple Leafs, Lightning, and Sabres.
Right now, the Bruins are a team asked to win on stellar goaltending that has to post a .930 or higher every night, perfect special teams play, and on the back of five legitimately game-changing forwards and an undermanned defensive unit.
That’s plenty tough enough, it turns out.