By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
There's been a rather hyperbolic narrative that's quietly followed the Bruins in spite of their league-best record. Really since the team dropped the 2019 Stanley Cup Final to the Blues, actually.
It's one that suggests that the Bruins are no longer 'tough enough' to handle themselves when the games get rough.
Now, I'd suggest that the Bruins' century-long history as being one of the toughest teams in the league -- and the eternal struggle with the identity politics of that -- will always leave Boston fans thinking their team is not tough enough. Have 12 bashers and six mashers and they'll probably want a 13th and a seventh, respectively. It's in the DNA. But the third period of Thursday's overtime loss to the Blackhawks, which saw John Moore (in his first game back from a six-month recovery from shoulder surgery, nine months if you include how long Moore dealt with the injury) one-punched by Zack Smith when he tried to respond to a hit on David Pastrnak, didn't help dissuade people from this stance.
And you could have looked at that entire incident from two different viewpoints. One: Moore, in his first game after major surgery, should not be the one trying to handle that business. And if Moore's the one having to fight, the B's certainly have issues with the makeup of their roster from a fisticuff standpoint. (The Bruins dealt with similar narratives last year when Brad Marchand and Torey Krug were doing the majority of the B's early-season scrapping.) The second one is that well, somebody has to answer for Pastrnak, who has been getting targeted like crazy, and is not absorbing 6.46 hits per 60 minutes (which currently ranks as the 35th-most among NHL forwards) this season.
Both views would indicate a need for more brutality if you buy on the idea of protection and deterrents.
But the idea of toughness and its place in today's game is not what it was 10 years ago. Or even five years ago for that matter. So I decided to pull a Kyrie Irving on Friday and straight-up ask Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy what 'toughness' meant in 2019.
“I think in the old days it was who can beat the crap out of who, right?” Cassidy began. "I think now it’s a little more who can get to the danger areas, who can block shots on the penalty kill, who can finish their checks clean."
And it didn't take long for Cassidy to point out a specific (and familiar) example of the NHL's new version of "tough."
"Noel Acciari; Good example of modern day tough hockey player," said Cassidy. "He can certainly scrap, but it’s more about what he can do in defensive situations, keeping the puck out of his net, keeping [oppositon] away from the puck. That’s part of it, and that’s the makeup of a player.
“The rules of the game have changed. In the old days you could police the game a little easier in terms of taking care of business if you didn’t like a hit. Nowadays it’s a little more difficult to do that. Probably a good thing in the end [but] that’s open to debate, I guess, to purists."
In other words, the days of your Colton Orrs and Rob Rays skating as lineup fixtures are over. I mean, Boston's last enforcer, Tyler Randell, actually scored six goals in 27 games in 2015-16, but couldn't stick with the NHL roster beyond that 27-game run.
Tough guys need to be more than great face-punchers, and that has as much to do with the increased speed and skill of today's game as it does the rule changes that have greatly benefitted those who skate with speed and skill.
But the biggest issue facing the Bruins right now is the fact that teams are targeting Pastrnak at an obviously higher rate than they have in the past, as previously noted, and that the Bruins have yet to successfully deter the opposition from hitting No. 88.
Cassidy has not run from that reality, either. He acknowledged that it's been a run of three to four games where Pastrnak has taken some hard -- and borderline dirty -- hits (he didn't seem to be a fan of Joel Armia's finish on Pastrnak last Sunday), and that it's something worth watching as the Bruins continue their pre-Christmas run. But he's not ready to call it a tendency.
"Let’s face it: [When] your skill guys get targeted a little more, it’s talked about," Cassidy admitted. "Not only here, but it happens to a lot of different teams; Toronto, you hear a lot about. It’s like, ‘Well they don’t have a lot to take of [business] when people start running [Auston] Matthews.’
"I think we have that in here."
The impossibility of simply grabbing a guy and swinging away has led to teams focusing on the brand of toughness that Cassidy talked about, and there's no doubt that the Bruins have that in bunches; David Backes, Chris Wagner, and even Sean Kuraly are all bottom-sixers who can lay the body on the opposition, and never shy away from a battle. Joakim Nordstrom has never seen a shot he didn't want to block, and Charlie Coyle's learning how to use his powerful, 6-foot-3 frame in Boston. The defense is still led by Zdeno Chara (even at 42, Chara is downright terrifying when you get him angry enough, just ask Evander Kane), and Brandon Carlo has added a noticeably nastier side to his game this season. They even replaced Acciari, who left for a Florida payday, with Brett Ritchie, a player who averaged 14.85 hits per 60 minutes of all-situation play last year, which was the the ninth-best rate among NHL forwards with at least 500 minutes of time on ice.
As a team, the Bruins' 705 hits are the eighth-most in hockey (they're dishing out over 24 hits per contest), they actually have the 11th-most fighting majors (five) and they're allowing the 10th-fewest high-danger scoring chances per game.
If you're looking for toughness in 2019, the Bruins certainly check almost all the boxes (and it's worth wondering if this narrative that they're not tough even exists had the Bruins had a healthy Wagner, Kevan Miller, and jaw-intact Chara against the Blues.)
And they're hanging tough without limiting the effectiveness of a roster that's been the best in the NHL thus far at 20-3-6.
"It’s just you’re limited, like, how many spots can you use to take care of something that may or may not happen?" Cassidy said.
"And are they clean hits, are they dirty, or are they on the line? Because if they’re clean hits, sometimes you gotta just take a number," Cassidy continued. "That’s hockey. You can’t put yourself at a disadvantage over that, some of that is a matter of the player managing his space, and that’s a good thing. I think we disrupt a lot of teams when Chris Wagner is finishing checks against their top guys, and that’s part of our strategy, as long as it’s within the rules. That’s part of hockey."
There's also the fact that settling scores outside the rules actually hurts your team more than it helps, with Cassidy calling back to an incident earlier this season between the Blue Jackets' Kole Sherwood and Calgary's Milan Lucic. (The same Lucic, mind you, that everybody in Boston seems to clamor for when the Bruins lose a fight or battle despite the fact that he's on Calgary's books for the next four years at over $5 million per year with seven goals over his last 107 NHL games and looking completely cooked.)
"He’s trying to police someone bumping into the goalie, and he kinda kept his glove on and popped him, and he gets two games," Cassidy said. "So you gotta be careful how you settle the score, so to speak."
Instead, Cassidy prefers the eye for an eye approach that he believes works for his team.
"I’ve always felt if you hit [the opponents’] skill clean, you’ll settle the score in a hurry," Cassidy offered. "Things will calm down. Typically that’s what we’ve experienced. If someone’s gonna bang Pasta, we go out the next shift and bang Kane or Toews, all of a sudden their guy’s like, ‘OK, you know what, I’m putting my guy in harm’s way.’ It sort of sorts itself out.
"That's policing the game internally, and in the appropriate way, in today's game."
Which is, again, something the Bruins seem well beyond equipped to do when the situation calls for it.
“I don’t have the best answer other than we’re dressing the lineup that we feel will have enough guys in there that will take care of that business," said Cassidy.
And while it may not be in the fashion it has for the last one hundred years, it's one the Bruins will and should take if the goal is to put themselves in the best position to build a legitimate Cup contending roster.