Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy knows what he’s going to get from his first line.
And sure enough, it was the B’s one-two of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand who accounted for the two tallies the B’s put on the board in a 6-2 humbling at the hands of the Rangers on Friday night. But it’s everybody below that team-carrying line that left a lot to be desired, as admitted by the B’s bench boss.
“I expect us to be better, absolutely,” a blunt Cassidy offered after his team’s second straight blowout defeat. “And that’s where I guess I would challenge the group that’s in the in the middle; [Anders] Bjork to [Jake] DeBrusk, to Johnny Moore and [Connor] Clifton who have been out of the lineup, guys have been in the league a little bit. The guys in the middle that have an opportunity that maybe some days go home and say, ‘Jeez, I wish I got more minutes or I had a better chance.’
“Put a little onus on themselves to impact the game, whether it’s offensively, physically or whatever. So I think I think that’s where that group, when they talk to me about, ‘What do I need to do to stay in the lineup or get more minutes?’ You know, [Friday]’s a good example of that where they can push through a little bit, some younger legs, and impact the game a little bit better and I didn’t think we got that either. So that’s where I look internally at our team and and and expect better.”
This isn’t the first time that the Bruins have needed more from this group either.
Beginning with the team’s third-best winger behind Marchand and David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk’s 2021 season has been miserable at best.
The 24-year-old has just one goal on the season, and it was a power-play gimme of a turnover that ended up right on DeBrusk’s blade. DeBrusk has a slow starter before, sure, but this is a new low. One of 309 NHL forwards to play at least 150 minutes of five-on-five play this season, DeBrusk is one of 30 yet to record a five-on-five goal. He’s hardly alone there, obviously, but the problem comes with the fact that DeBrusk has an offensive-zone faceoff percentage of over 73 percent, which trails only the Canucks’ Elias Pettersson (76.16 percent) for the highest percentage among this group. DeBrusk is getting put in more favorable spots than players like Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Patrik Laine, and Nathan MacKinnon.
And he’s done almost nothing with it.
It’s hard to imagine what else the Bruins could possibly try to get DeBrusk’s game going. At a certain point, as Cassidy said, the ‘onus’ goes on the player, and it feels safe to say that DeBrusk is long past due on that front.
Bjork, meanwhile, has basically played without a stick this season. While he’s been utilized as more of a forechecking presence, Bjork’s Friday featured his third straight game without a shot on goal to his name, which is now something that’s happened in 10 of his 18 contests to date. In fact, among that group of 309 forwards with at least 150 minutes of five-on-five play in 2021, Bjork ranks 308th in shots per 60 (2.29) and 303rd in individual expected goals per 60 (0.25). There is one per-60 rate where Bjork ranks in the top 21, however, and that’s in minor penalties taken per 60 minutes.
The B’s either moved on from players or opted not to make moves for certain players because they believed that both Bjork and DeBrusk, who with their new deals account for more than $5.2 million on Boston’s books, would emerge as key contributors for them. That has yet to happen in 2021.
And on the backend, there’s undeniable frustration with the fact that the Bruins clearly can’t rely on veteran John Moore (in year three of a five-year deal that only gets more confusing with each passing season) more than they can NHL newbies like Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril. And that Clifton, who lost his gig last year before regaining it with a strong playoff showing in the Toronto bubble, hasn’t played with the swagger his game has to come with, every night.
“I don’t think it’s too big,” Cassidy said when asked about the opportunity in front of this fill-in defense corps. “They’re NHL players or they’ve been in the American Hockey League. I mean, this is the opportunity they want, right? Vaak’s been down there, Zbori’s been down there, Cliffy’s been on the sidelines. Johnny Moore has been itching to get in. So here it is: Grab it. Play within yourself.
“The messaging has to be better from [the coaching staff] obviously, because there’s been some breakdowns I think have been avoidable.”
And this is where Cassidy finds himself between a rock and a hard place.
He understands the limitations in front of someone like Vaakanainen. Still getting his NHL feet wet, things like what happened on Anders Lee’s goal on Long Island and Chris Kreider’s goal at Madison Square Garden are going to happen. Asking him to be stronger than men in what was just 10th NHL game is unfair. It’s why he’s stressed the idea of simply “coaching him up” as best he can at this moment in time. But you can’t coach muscle mass or veteran know-how onto a frame.
Clifton and Moore, however, should be capable of giving you more.
Since jumping into the lineup five games ago, Moore has been on the ice for seven of the 23 goals surrendered by the Bruins, and five of the 13 allowed during this two-game trip to New York. Now, you can almost live with his decision to give Mat Barzal a little too much time and space because it’s Mat Barzal and he’s an ultra-talented scorer in this league. That’ll happen to Charlie McAvoy at some point, too. But getting clowned by the Devils’ Pavel Zacha on a four-on-four last week and then last night’s statuesque performance on multiple Ranger goals? That just can’t happen at the rate it has.
With 13 goals allowed over the last two games, however, nobody is immune from criticism.
And Cassidy includes himself in that group.
“They got to play better, first of all, and recognize what they can get away with the puck and not,” Cassidy said of his younger defense. “Just too many turnovers, too much reckless play. And we got to do a better job coaching them up, no doubt. So that’s on us.
“By the same token, once they get on the ice, they have to recognize how they can help us win games.”
They’ll get that chance at the same venue and against the same team on Sunday.