By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Doesn’t feel good to get pushed around by the bigger, more physical team, does it?
That’s what the 2010-11 Bruins did to the Vancouver Canucks eight years ago, combining their size and edge with brilliant goaltending to pull the Stanley Cup out from under the more skilled team. It could turn out to be the only Cup of the entire run for their veteran core, and ironically, their latest defeat came at the hands of a virtual mirror image of their only championship run.
The St. Louis Blues are not a particularly skilled team offensively. But they are way, way bigger than the Bruins at both forward and defense, and exploited that advantage all the way to a Stanley Cup win in Game 7 on Wednesday night. The Bruins aren’t the cliche “soft”, to be clear. They are tough and can play a physical game. But are they big enough for their skill to get enough space to take over and win it all?
In a league trending toward speed and skill, the Big, Bad Blues just bullied their way to a championship.
That’s not to say that the Bruins need to load up on unskilled hacks. “Size” shouldn’t be misconstrued for goonery. But the Blues, especially on the back end, just proved that size still matters in this NHL. And the Bruins didn’t have enough of it to push through and get a second Cup in nine seasons.
The Bruins’ lack of size is more of a glaring issue on defense than it is on offense. Torey Krug, Matt Grzelcyk, and Connor Clifton are all good, legitimate NHL defensemen that bring a lot to the table with their skating and puck movement. But having all three of them in the lineup, which they did to start the Stanley Cup Final, caught up to them.
Much of the Blues’ success with their forecheck at 5-on-5 was because they sent waves of big forwards into the corners to easily win pucks against their smaller counterparts on the back end. The Blues had exactly one forward under 6 feet (Jaden Schwartz). Most of their forwards weren’t as skilled as the Bruins’ defensemen, but they were certainly bigger and stronger and they exploited it all series.
Take Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly’s goal that gave the Blues that all-important first score in Game 7. It started with O’Reilly and Patrick Maroon overpowering Krug for the puck behind the net. Then Sammy Blais (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) buried one of the Bruins’ toughest, most physical forwards who plays bigger than his size, the 5-foot-10 Noel Acciari. Then O’Reilly outmuscled one of the Bruins’ only defenders with real size, Brandon Carlo, to get into the slot and tip Jay Bouwmeester’s shot through Tuukka Rask.
The goal exposed two unfortunate truths for the Krug-Carlo pairing. Krug is severely undersized for a defenseman and it limits his ability to control his own end, especially over a long playoff run. And while Carlo is good at using his size to position himself against attacking forwards, you’d still like to see more of a physical edge from him.
O’Reilly pushed him around to get to the slot, and now Carlo’s Game 7 will be defined by Oskar Sundqvist smothering him in the image above.
Do the Bruins have any forward on their roster who can do what O’Reilly did to Carlo?
That’s where the size questions continue. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that the Bruins’ best, most consistent forwards in the playoffs – Charlie Coyle (6-foot-3, 220 pounds), Marcus Johansson (6-foot-1 205 pounds), and Sean Kuraly (6-foot-2, 213 pounds) – were also three of their biggest. David Backes (6-foot-3) lacked the speed and skill to be a factor in the series. The former three did not. And yet they constantly had to hunt their way through a redwood forest of big, long Blues defenders. Vince Dunn (6 feet, 203 pounds) is their smallest D-man.
At all times, St. Louis dressed five defenders 6-foot-2 or taller and presented a series-long challenge for the Bruins’ relatively small forward group to navigate the ice on offense.
“They’re all similar defense in a way. Tall, lanky, long reach, good sticks, it makes it tough,” Coyle said after the game. “We knew what to expect going in but they make it tough on you.”
That last thing is the hardest part to accept. The Bruins knew what to expect by Game 7. They ran out of answers.
Now, the only answer is to get bigger, especially on defense.
Yes, the Bruins have two mountainous blue liners in the 7-feet-on-skates Zdeno Chara and the 6-foot-5 Carlo. But those two have drawbacks of their own. Charlie McAvoy (6 feet, 208 pounds) has the skill set to impact the game physically and the upside of a future franchise defenseman; he’s not the issue. The problem comes after those three. They have too many players who can’t hold up against bigger forwards, and it finally caught up to them in the final game of the season.
And the Blues may not have been as much of an outlier as they seem. The Lightning and Capitals’ defense corps also have the size advantage over the Bruins (both have exactly one defenseman under 6 feet). And they have a lot more skill than St. Louis. Their first-round exits masked a harsh reality of this Bruins run: had either of them advanced to take on the B’s in a later round, they would have done the same damn thing.
This should lead to some tough decisions for Don Sweeney this offseason. Does he look to get bigger on the back end? Assuming the Bruins do go all in on McAvoy with a long-term deal, can they afford to keep Krug? Are they really going to roll out the same blue line and expect to beat Tampa and/or Washington in the playoffs, or depend on them to choke again?
Committing to top prospect Urho Vaakanainen at the NHL level would be a step in the right direction. The 2017 first-round pick skates well and excels defensively, and at a solid 6-foot-1 he’s a full four inches taller than both Krug and Grzelcyk. Getting Kevan Miller (6-foot-2) back might help the bottom pair, but he’s not necessarily a difference-maker in the hunt for the Cup.
They could also stand to get bigger at forward, particularly on the right side. And preferably any of their additions would have skill. Size and skill at right wing isn’t easy to find, but it might be necessary to put them over the top. Getting Mark Stone (6-foot-4, 219 pounds) at the deadline might have won them a Cup. It would’ve been a hard decision that required major sacrifices. But it might have won them a Cup.
Sweeney never solved the problem of who to put on David Krejci’s right wing, an issue that lingered for more than an entire calendar year. But maybe the answer is to permanently move David Pastrnak down to his line, assuming Krejci is still the No. 2 center next fall. Perhaps a right wing with more size (like Mark Stone?) would have opened things up more for Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Pastrnak wasn’t going to do that with the way he played throughout these playoffs.
Yes, the NHL is still emphasizing speed and skill over size and physicality. But the Blues at least proved that being big can lead to playing big on the biggest stage. That’s especially true on defense. And until the Bruins grow at that end, they’ll be hard-pressed to touch the Cup again in the near future.
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.