By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
The National Hockey League’s Christmas break is just about over for the Boston Bruins, who will get back to work Thursday night at home against the New Jersey Devils. All in all, it’s been kinda miraculous that the B’s haven’t fallen out of it to this point, given both their own situation on the injury front and the oddly competitive nature of the Atlantic Division.
Down Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins somehow survived, posting a 9-6-1 record, collecting 19 of a possible 32 points. They also did that without Zdeno Chara, too, which makes it all the more insane considering their importance to the roster.
It’s a coaching job that’s featured some of Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy’s best work in his three seasons in Boston.
But enough spoiling here: here’s five assorted thoughts on the B’s to this point…
5. Providence did trick for Ryan Donato
Through the first month of the season, I think a few things were clear; Ryan Donato, despite all the positives of last season and an offseason of training as a right winger, was not ready to skate on Boston’s top six. And Donato was not going to be properly developed as a fourth-liner/power-play specialist. So it was off to Providence he went for a 10-game run.
It’s a move that made a gigantic difference for the Scituate, Mass. native.
Developing in Providence with minutes that allowed him to live through his mistakes, Donato scored five goals and totaled nine points in 10 AHL games. Since his return, he’s scored four goals and tallied six points in 13 games (opposed to the one goal and zero assists he had through the first 11 games of the season). But those totals are really just scratching the surface.
Since his return, Donato has rifled 41 shots on goal over 13 games, or 3.15 per night. Before his demotion to the minors, Donato landed just 12 shots on net through 11 games (1.09 per game). Break it down by ice-time and you’re talking about a 22-year-old Donato that’s now averaging a team-best 14.23 all-situation shots per 60 minutes since his recall, and generating 20.82 all-situation individual scoring chances per 60 minutes. He’s also found a potential fit on a ‘kid line’ with Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson and Danton Heinen, which could go a long way for a B’s team that’s had depth issues all season.
There’s something about bus rides and weekend slates that serve as the perfect reality check, I suppose.
4. Matt Grzelcyk might be Boston’s best defenseman this season
Last week, I did something stupid: I asked Twitter if they would argue with me (of course they would, it’s Twitter). But the tweet was well-intentioned, I swear. I was merely asking Twitter if anybody would argue with me if I said that Matt Grzelcyk has been the Black and Gold’s best defenseman this season. Granted, given the list of lengthy injuries on the Boston backend, that list is short. Taking games played into account, it’s really, probably between Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo, and John Moore.
And of that three, I gotta go Grzelcyk.
Listen, what Carlo does will be forever unappreciated because it’s not flashy. When he’s on, he’s a solid, shutdown defenseman that provides an incredible under-the-radar presence when on the penalty kill. But Grzelcyk has essentially been asked to be a top-pairing defenseman this year, and he hasn’t sunk to the bottom of the Charles.
Ultimately, you’d like to think it’s on a 2A/2B pairing that Grzlecyk makes a killing, but knowing that the 5-foot-9 defender — whose skating game and stick-checking ability is just plain built for today’s game — can hack it in a pinch is gigantic.
3. Leaving Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy with one interesting decision
So here’s the thing about that: the Bruins are expected to get both Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller back within the week. Barring another injury, that math says that somebody on that left side — Chara, Grzelcyk, Moore, and Torey Krug — has to sit out. Chara and Krug seem like obvious passes given their special teams skills, so it’s down to Grzelcyk and the defenseman the Bruins signed for five years this past July. And in case the above point doesn’t spell it out, I do sit Moore here.
Then again, preparing for this team being fully healthy seems like the work of the clinically insane.
Somebody’s probably going to walk into a door or come down with the bird flu.
2. Take your pick: Third-line center or top-six winger
The first step towards legitimate contention for the Bruins? Getting healthy. That appears to be close, too. But from there, it gets interesting, as the Bruins would apparently have two needs: a top-six winger and/or a third-line center.
But what if you can only get one?
Now, the Bruins have obviously loved what the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak trio’s given them over the last two seasons. I mean, how could they not? It’s without a doubt the most effective line in the NHL, and it’s truly carried the Bruins at various points. It was perhaps the team’s only source of offense for the first month and a half of the year, too.
But Cassidy has finally started tinkering with the idea of splitting that line up and going back to ‘the pairs’ formula he went with back in Feb. 2017, with Marchand-Bergeron the pairing on line one, while Pastrnak reunites with David Krejci on line two. If they stick with that, that might put an emphasis on finding a third-line center before the year ends. And the Bruins have been in the hunt for a center this year, it would seem; Charlie Coyle and Kevin Hayes are two names that have been linked to the Bruins, while Jeff Carter and Matt Duchene are veteran names you occasionally hear as potential fits.
But if they decide to reunite 63-37-88 on line one, the focus then becomes getting somebody that can play with the Jake DeBrusk-Krejci combo (and no, if Cassidy’s preferences through the first unofficial half of the year, I don’t think that’s Joakim Nordstrom and/or 2018 Ryan Donato). Rick Nash skated with this combination last year, and had mixed results, proving to be a dominant factor in the regular season before a concussion ended Nash’s regular season and left him as an obvious shell of himself in the postseason (at least when it came to his scoring touch around the net).
Wayne Simmonds of Flyers power-play fame remains the name everybody seems to want, but you have to wonder if the cost would be worth it at this point in Wayne Train’s career, especially with a big pay-day looming in 2019.
Personally, looking at the dynamic of the B’s most likely postseason path (through Tampa Bay and Toronto), I would opt for a player that stabilizes your third line against center depth boasted by both those teams.
1. Jaroslav Halak is your starter
If the playoffs started tomorrow, there’s absolutely zero doubt that Jaroslav Halak is your Game 1 starter.
It really is that simple. I mean, it’s almost 2019 and Halak has straight-up refused to loosen his grip on the B’s starting gig, and it’s really left Cassidy without much of a choice. Through 19 decisions in the Boston net, Halak has 12 wins, a .930 save percentage, and three shutouts. The 12 wins are the 14th-most in hockey, but the .930 ranks as the league’s best save percentage. Halak’s been especially dominant at even-strength, too, with a league-best .942 save percentage there.
Quite simply, Halak is playing at a Vezina level out of the gate.
And Rask has yet to match that. He’s 8-8-2 with a .911 save percentage.
Now, Rask has had his moments where he’s looked like a $7 million goaltender. For example, he was downright fantastic during his first four games back from his leave of absence, with a 2-0-2 record and .944 save percentage, and with Cassidy noting that he looked much more relaxed. But it’s been noticeably difficult for Rask to get on a true heater and rattle off a legitimate point streak or run like he did after his November benching last season.
Sunday’s 32-of-37 performance in Carolina came as the latest setback for Rask, which even featured Cassidy calling his supposed starting goalie out for not practicing how to handle the puck after an ugly sequence.
“[Playing the puck is] not his strength, per se, and it’s not something, I don’t think, he puts a lot of time into to correct sometimes,” Cassidy said (via the Boston Globe). “It is what it is. You reap what you sow, right?”
(My God, was that cold.)
Fortunately for the veteran Rask, though, the playoffs do not start tomorrow, giving him another three months and change to get on a run to match-and-best Halak’s start. But it’s one tall task if No. 41 continues to play like this.