By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s been three games and we should have absolutely no idea what to think about the 2021 Boston Bruins.
On one hand, it’s amazing that the Bruins have captured three of a possible six points while scoring just three goals (none of which have come at even strength) over their first three games of the season. On the other, it’s a bit problematic when you consider their opponents and how the quality will only ramp up from here. Digging in on either side at the three-game mark of the season. 56-game campaign or not, seems over-the-top.
So honestly, and again, who the hell knows what to think.
Like any sane person, I’m not ready to make any definitive proclamations about the Bruins less than 200 minutes into the season. We’ve seen these slow starts and scoring struggles before. The Bruins also remain without reigning Rocket Richard winner David Pastrnak, free agent addition Craig Smith is playing at less than 100 percent, and they entered a preseason-less 2021 season with the understanding that they weren’t going to have the full scope of their team’s strengths and weaknesses out of the gate.
This being a work in progress shouldn’t shock anybody.
And there’s still plenty to like from this three-game sample.
The defense, which many people (myself included) thought would be an issue after moving on from Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug and replacing them with internal options, has done its job. Jeremy Lauzon is no Chara, and there’s been a few instances of him getting turned inside out for chances against, but he hasn’t outright drowned with his minutes. And Jakub Zboril, though gifted with offensive-zone starts by the dozen, has looked capable. Bruce Cassidy acknowledged that there was an ‘unknown’ when it came to Zboril, so the fact that he hasn’t straight-up abandoned him for some of the veteran options in the press box feels like a plus for the Bruins.
Charlie McAvoy has been Boston’s the three-zone tone-setter, and Brandon Carlo has been the rock of a Boston penalty kill that’s killed off all 12 of their trips to the box through three games. Matt Grzelcyk’s injury could make things tricky for the Bruins, as a prolonged Grzelcyk absence will throw either John Moore, Connor Clifton, or Urho Vaakanainen (maybe even all three if one fails to stick) back into the mix.
But as a unit, this hasn’t looked like a team trying to replace 41 minutes of left-side top-four play from 2019-20.
When the Bruins have been beat, too, it’s been by garbage goals and pinball-style deflections.
“Big picture you know you’re doing a good job defending when those are the goals that are going in,” Cassidy said after Monday’s loss. “[We’ve] probably had the better chances.”
Up front, the Bruins have found something with Trent Frederic riding with Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner. This trio shut down the Isles’ Mathew Barzal on Monday, and has done their job of both getting under the opposition’s skin and drawing penalties. Anders Bjork has also shown tremendous jump as a bottom-six puck-hound, even if he doesn’t have anything to show for it just yet. And perhaps most important of all: Nick Ritchie has been one of Boston’s most effective five-on-five skaters, leading the team in both shots and individual scoring chances at five-on-five, and he’s done this while splitting time on the second and third line. The preference is for him to skate as a complementary piece that bolsters the team’s secondary scoring and size.
All of these players need to be ‘value add’ for the Bruins given the complexion of this division and its schedule. And given the annual panic over the Bruins’ typically top-heavy offense, seeing legitimate impacts from these bottom-six players at both ends is of obvious value, both now and down the road.
The Bruins have also been saved by their goaltending, which has been downright phenomenal, with the Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak tandem posting the league’s third-best high-danger save percentage through their first three outings of the year. (Pretty sure these guys have already made six or seven ten-bell breakaway saves.)
The bad? It’s real. And you wonder how much it’ll turn when things get back to “normal” for the B’s.
We can credit the Devils’ Mackenzie Blackwood and the Isles’ strong defensive structure for their efforts, sure, but the Boston offense has struggled beyond scoring. Simply creating at even strength has been a nightmare.
Pastrnak will obviously fix a lot of their issues. I mean, we’re talking about a player who accounted for nearly 20 percent of the team’s total even-strength production a season ago. When he returns, he’ll slide right back into his top-line spot alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, and the B’s superhuman first line will be back.
But, as always, it’s below that line where things get iffy for the Bruins.
It took two games for Cassidy to once again abandon the DeBrusk-Krejci combination. This, of course, is after Cassidy didn’t hide his frustration regarding the duo’s inability to get on the same page last year, and after the Bruins fed DeBrusk favorable shifts to zero results in their opening two games. DeBrusk finally looked noticeable and with some pep in his step Monday, but that was with Marchand and Bergeron, so who gets the credit there?
DeBrusk admitted that he’s a slow starter, but this is now his fourth NHL season and the Bruins and DeBrusk are still trying to find the happy medium between No. 74 being a white-hot scorer and a total non-factor.
Kase, meanwhile, is back on the shelf after taking a hit up high from the Devils’ Miles Wood last Saturday.
Kase arrived to the Bruins having missed over 60 games since the start of the 2018 season, and has a history of concussion issues, so this is alarming to say the least. You can’t fix the right-side of the B’s second line, which has been an issue for seven seasons now, from injured reserve. But maybe banking on Kase, who was a late arrival to the postseason bubble last summer due to COVID-19 exposure (it was never made clear whether or not he actually contracted the virus), giving you a healthy season was always overly optimistic at its very best.
The Bruins’ options with Kase out? There’s Jack Studnicka, a center turned wing who was scratched in the second game of the season but looked better on Monday. His leash doesn’t seem to be as long as you’d like for such a role. Then there’s Bjork, who while off to a good start as mentioned, has gone 23 straight games without a goal, and has just three tallies in his last 41 games dating back to Dec. 27, 2019. There’s also Smith, who shoots from all over the ice, and has been one of the game’s most consistent right wings over the last eight years. But taking him away from Charlie Coyle, with whom he’s played since camp began, leaves that third line down its shooter, which it desperately needs to maximize the Coyle line as an overwhelming juggernaut.
So, if DeBrusk and Krejci can’t find their magic, and if Kase isn’t on the ice, the Bruins are in the exact same position they found themselves in at last year’s deadline, and the year before that, and the year before that.
And as noted, that shuffling could put Coyle back into a position where he’s being asked to be the driver, distributor, and finisher on his line. That hurt the Black and Gold’s third line, which nearly powered them to a Stanley Cup in 2019, in both the regular season and postseason a year ago.
That said, their luck seems bound to turn eventually. (Nobody shoots zero percent forever.) And when it does, the Bruins will undoubtedly be a better team. Maybe even as good as the 2020 Presidents’ Trophy winners.
But until we see the signs of that happening, trying to get a read on this team’s ceiling is an exercise in futility.