By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
Well, the Boston Bruins are doing it again.
That’s an ominous statement if there’s ever been one, I know.
But after coming up one win short of a Stanley Cup in 2019, and after finishing a pandemic-shortened 2019-20 as the best team in the league before they were unable to find their game in what was (for them) a 13-game summer restart, the Bruins’ staredown with a ‘brutally honest’ future is upon us. And they’re handling it by… doing the same thing they did the last time around and trying to appease two entirely different philosophies at the same time.
Let’s get this out of the way: Zdeno Chara, at 44 years old by the time the 2021 postseason starts, is not the difference between a Stanley Cup or postseason exit. He helps you get closer to the former, but he’s not the make-or-break piece he was in 2011, 2013, or even 2019. Same for puckmoving dynamo Torey Krug, who moved from Boston to St. Louis on a seven-year deal the Bruins never had an interest in matching.
But the guys you’ve elected to choose over them? They could 100 percent lead you to an even earlier postseason exit. Or prevent you from appearing in the dance at all.
While there’s justified hope that Matt Grzelcyk will blossom with more minutes, he’s jumping from the third to the second pairing. And he, along with his supporting cast, feels unestablished at best.
The 30-year-old John Moore is a consummate professional and has played every role the Bruins have asked of him. Often on short notice, too. But he’s been available in 119 games since coming to Boston. He’s been healthy scratched in 34 of them. 29 percent. Three times out of 10 the Bruins have decided that their best blue line did not feature the man who’s now your next-best veteran on the left side. Or your next-best sure thing. One thing Moore has going for him, however, is previous top-four experience: He played a big role for the New Jersey Devils prior to coming to Boston, and put up a career-best 22 points with the Devils in 2017, and in 2018 averaged a career-high 20:01 along the way to an improbable run to the postseason.
So, he’s just done it before. Just not here. Your faith or doubt depends on which note is more important to you.
Moore will begin the season as Boston’s fourth option on the left side for the third time in as many seasons.
There’s also Jeremy Lauzon, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jakub Zboril.
Lauzon had a strong surge before the pandemic pause, but struggled in the restart, and was scratched seven of Boston’s 10 postseason contests. He’ll begin the season as Boston’s top-pairing d-man on the left opposite Charlie McAvoy. Camp was relatively quiet for the 6-foot-2 Lauzon, but he plays the kind of game where silence is often welcomed. Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has repeatedly talked about Lauzon whenever the loss of Chara was mentioned, which seems like a positive sign when it comes to their belief in his D-zone game.
Down the depth chart, we’ve seen the 23-year-old Zboril for just two NHL games since the B’s made him the 13th overall pick in 2015. And while the hype machine has certainly fired up after what was a strong finish to his 2019-20 in Providence, you’re right to have your doubts. After all, it’s been five years, and Zboril’s 2019-20 was his third full season in the AHL. If he wasn’t making significant strides, there’d be a problem.
The Bruins have stapled Zboril, who requested a trade last year and has had dedication issues brought up in the past, to Kevan Miller this camp. It’s where he’ll begin the season, too, with the Bruins still trying to figure out his complete role, and if it’ll include any time on the power play or penalty kill.
Vaakanainen has logged over 102 minutes of action over seven NHL games since 2018, but if you could tell me anything about those 102 minutes, I’d be amazed. Vaakanainen had a strong camp this time around, and will begin the year on Boston’s taxi squad as a potential backup option if their current plan falls apart. The problem with Vaakanainen is that there’s two guys in front of him in Moore and Connor Clifton, and both players require waivers, so there almost needs to be an injury or COVID breakout for Vaak to get his chance.
There’s promise, sure, but stability? That’s gone.
And with Chara (and Torey Krug) gone, the Bruins are effectively trying to replace a stable 41:30 of left-side, top-four play per night with promise and upside. Whether or not you agree with those players’ ceilings or values as top-four presences, they were the two lefty, top-four defensemen on a team that grabbed a league-best 100 of a possible 140 points last season. Krug quarterbacked the second-best power play in the league, and Chara led the third-best penalty killing group, too. So, thinking simple, internal patchwork is an easy fix for their departures feels like whistling past the graveyard. Maybe even whistling from inside the graveyard.
It may work. The Bruins are going to try like hell to make it work. And this wouldn’t be the first time that offseason worries have been silenced by an 18-skater, team-first system that produces results. The Bruins didn’t bother to replace Rick Nash in 2018 and added just Brett Ritchie and Par Lindholm in 2019 and turned out OK.
The Bruins can also take comfort in the defense’s right-side rocks with Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy.
But this current plan is their most adventurous yet, and the kind of approach that makes growing pains inevitable. Your tolerance for such pains in a 56-game season is lower than it would be in any other season. Especially in this buzzsaw division full of win-now contenders. And it potentially downgrades the Bruins’ ceiling from championship to middle-of-the-pack contenders hoping for a favorable break.
The latter doesn’t make a lot of sense for this franchise given their current situation.
If this is the start of a multi-year project on the backend, then David Krejci and Tuukka Rask (two pending free agents with at least one or two more years of solid hockey left on their blades) shouldn’t be here. They should’ve be sold off to the highest bidder to accelerate the new project’s development. They shouldn’t have signed 31-year-old winger Craig Smith to a three-year deal, and should’ve let Jaroslav Halak walk in free agency. Because by the time these guys on defense are ready, your other core pieces and assets will have aged out, and you’re essentially starting this process all over again, just with forwards and not defensemen.
That said, this wouldn’t be the first time that this front office found a way to keep a closing window open.
Ty Anderson and Matt Dolloff talk about this and the other challenges facing the Boston Bruins in the 2021 season in the newest episode of the Sports Hub Sidelines Podcast…