By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
A 2021 NHL season is almost official.
With the sides agreeing to the framework of a 56-game season scheduled to start on Jan. 13 if everything goes off without any further issues, we are officially a Board of Governors vote away from hockey making its long-awaited return. Some logistical questions remain (namely whether or not the league’s Canada-based teams can play in Canada), but the messy part of our long pandemic-fueled nightmare without hockey feels just about over.
This has put the Bruins — coming off a 2019 Stanley Cup Final loss and a Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2019-20 season interrupted by a pandemic and never heard from again, at least in time for the B’s to slow the Cup-winning Lightning down — back to the drawing board in preparation for their 2021 campaign.
And as a team with a few questions that still need answering.
What will this mean for Zdeno Chara?
The big question: Is defenseman Zdeno Chara back for a 15th season with the Bruins? This question has lingered around the Bruins to the point where it’s created legitimate questions as to his future. With legitimate interest from teams outside of Boston, and with the Bruins noting that they’re waiting for Chara to engage and let them know his plans, it’s obvious that Chara is taking his time with this decision and seeing what the 2021 season truly entails.
So, as much as we’d like an answer right now, the truth is that it’s still entirely up in the air.
Now, the feeling here is that if it’s a bubble concept (something recommended to the NHL by Dr. Anthony Fauci), Chara’s probably out. I don’t think that’s of particularly high interest to many (any) players in the National Hockey League, but when you’re a free agent like Chara, it’s easier to decide that you don’t want to be part of that than sucking it up and playing. I also wonder how the 43-year-old Chara looks at the 2021 season if it’s a schedule loaded with three-in-four and back-to-back situations. It’s obvious that a Chara return will come with a reduced role, but when we talk about a reduced role, we’re talking about going from the first pairing to the second pairing, or going from full-time top pair defender to part-time top pair defender. Chara has no interest in being a part-time player who watches every other game from the press box.
And though you’ll have to forgive me for not being sold on the youth movement options on the left side, the Bruins’ current roster construct would indicate that there’s still a place for Chara.
The Bruins have just under $3 million in available cap space, which is more than enough to bring No. 33 back for 2021.
Who will be on B’s ‘taxi squad’ roster?
The thing I’m most curious about with this format is the expansion of the rosters to include a six-player “taxi squad.” Think of it like an expanded practice squad in the NFL, or the “alternate training site” designations in the MLB this past season.
But the rules for this expansion remain a little unclear as of right now.
What we do know is that players on the taxi squad will be paid a full AHL salary, that it must include a third goaltender, and there’s talk that there will be a time limit on how long a player can remain on a taxi squad without playing a game. And players will require waivers if they’re sent from the active roster down to the taxi squad.
I’m curious to see how that impacts players like 2015 first-round picks Jakub Zboril and Zach Senyshyn, two players who will require waivers this year should they fail to make the Bruins out of training camp. Like, are they able to be placed on the taxi squad out of the gate in 2021 or will sending them from training camp to the squad require waivers? The makeup of the squad is an interesting question, too. For example, if you’re the Bruins, and if the AHL begins their season in February as currently planned, do you really want top prospect Jack Studnicka wasting away in this role? Probably not. This is where guys like Greg McKegg come into the picture for the Bruins, you’d think.
It’s a group that seems like a home for the tweener’s tweeners.
Again, this is the tweak I want to know the most about, honestly.
How does Bruce Cassidy handle the lack of a preseason?
If the league can hammer out a yes vote on a 2021 season this weekend, the league’s current plan calls for a Jan. 3 training camp and Jan. 13 start to a 56-game season. One of the problems with that warp speed approach to the campaign is that teams will skip the preseason, instead going right to regular season contests. For a team like the Bruins, without a single set line given their roster shake-up and injuries to both Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, that’s not ideal.
We have some ideas as to where the Bruins will go with their lines — you have to imagine that Ondrej Kase and David Krejci get a look together, and that the Bruins try to see if Craig Smith can make it work with Charlie Coyle — but it’s going to be tricky to judge just how effective those lines can be when you’re working with practices and in-camp scrimmages.
This will also hurt ‘bubble’ players such as Trent Frederic, Studnicka, Zboril, and Senyshyn, all of whom were expected to get legit looks to stick with the Big B’s this season. (But this is also where the ‘taxi squad’ could help, of course.)
Do the Bruins have any opt outs on their hands?
According to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, players will have the option to opt out of the 2021 season if they or somehow in their immediate family is considered high risk. That would certainly apply to Bruins defenseman Steven Kampfer, who opted out of the summer restart in Toronto due to his wife and son both suffering from congenital heart defects. Should a player opt out, it’s believed that his team will have the ability to ‘toll’ their contract for an extra season.
Are the Bruins a top four team in their new division?
A major change with this 2021 season will come with its playoff format, as the top four teams from each division will qualify for the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. So, the question then becomes are the Bruins a top-four team in their new, proposed division?
Slated to skate in what we’ll call U.S. 1, the Bruins will skate in a division featuring the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals. That, if indeed their division, will be the best division in all of hockey based on 2019-20 point percentages, at 59.7 percent.
Off the bat, I want to say yes. The Bruins have lost a bit of their potency off the backend, but the Smith signing addresses a major problem (five-on-five scoring), and their goaltending tandem is still one of the best in the league. The latter may be the big difference in this division, too, as the Penguins traded two-time Cup winner Matt Murray to Ottawa, the Rangers moved on from Henrik Lundqvist for two young guns, and after Lundqvist just opted out of his 2021 with D.C. due to a heart issue.
The Bruins may have the most stable netminding situation for this 56-game run, and that should make a noticeable difference when talking about a potentially truncated season of quick turnarounds.
Of course, that discussion may get a bit messier should the NHL have to find USA-based homes for the seven Canadian teams, which may leave us with same divisions we’ve had for the last seven years.
Listen to Ty Anderson and Matt Dolloff talk about the Bruins and more in the newest episode of the SideLines podcast below.