A successful trade deadline has done wonders for the Bruins.
A league-best 10-2-1 since adding Mike Reilly from the Senators and acquiring Taylor Hall and Curtis Lazar from the Sabres, the Bruins’ efforts culminated in a postseason-clinching victory over the Devils on Monday night, and saved the Bruins the potential anxiety of high-stakes regular-season meetings with the Rangers at TD Garden later this week.
But while the Bruins with weigh the pros and cons of seeding versus resting through the final four games of their insanely-truncated 2021 campaign, they remain a team with more than a few questions that need answering between now and Game 1.
The Bruins are currently unsure if Coyle will finish the year at center or right wing.
I think they have a preference (center), but if it opens up Coyle's offensive game, a move to the wing only makes sense. And the Bruins have been happy with the early returns on the new-look third line with Sean Kuraly between Nick Ritchie on the left and Coyle on the right. Together for over 41 minutes of five-on-five action since the start of last week, the line has outshot the opposition 29-15, generated 17 scoring chances, and outscored opponents 4-1. The line has helped bring Kuraly's offensive game back to life with points in three straight games, while Coyle ended the worst scoring drought of his NHL career.
This line is also similar to what the Bruins had initially hoped for when the season began, too, as the Bruins always envisioned their third line being a 'heavier' line that wears teams downs and allows the Bruins to attack in waves.
Now, again, the Bruins' preference likely involves the big-bodied, puck-possession game of Coyle in the middle. Especially if they look back at what worked for them during their 2019 run to the Stanley Cup Final. But the problem the Bruins run into with that look is that it would likely involve moving a left-shot forward to the right side. The Bruins already tried that with Jake DeBrusk to the right of Ritchie and Coyle, too, and it ended with DeBrusk back in Cassidy's doghouse until injuries struck. If they don't want a left shot on the right side, the Bruins could go with either Karson Kuhlman or Chris Wagner to the right of Ritchie and Coyle, but I'd like to think that we definitely would have seen that combination by now if that was considered to be in their plans for the playoffs later this month.
It's enough to make you think that Coyle is probably starting his postseason on the wing. And that might not be their worst play.
Similar to how they viewed Coyle's potential to do damage behind the one-two of Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci in 2019, they may feel the same when it comes to Coyle lining up on the right wing behind the David Pastrnak-Craig Smith one-two. And the Bruins' recent asks of Coyle — using his size, driving to the net — are not necessarily position-specific.
Jaroslav Halak's postgame meltdown on Tuesday night felt a little over the top. At least in the grand scheme of things as it relates to the Bruins, who clinched a postseason berth the night before and left a mere point on table. But for Halak, who admittedly has had similar reactions upon losses this season and throughout his Boston tenure, it may have been the realization that he's likely to begin the 2021 playoffs as the No. 3 goaltender for the Bruins.
In what was his first start in a month, Halak had little support, but failed to deliver, with four goals allowed on 21 shots faced. He was also tagged with the loss during some third-period relief work in Buffalo in his last outing behind a four-for-five performance in net. Overall, Halak's 2021 record now includes nine wins and a .905 save percentage in 19 decisions.
The 35-year-old Halak is also coming off a lengthy absence due to a COVID battle, and was struggling even before that, with 22 goals allowed over his final seven appearances before landing in the league's COVID protocols.
But the problem isn't with Halak's numbers as much as it's that true first-year pro Jeremy Swayman has been just ridiculous.
Since making his NHL debut on Apr. 6, Swayman ranks sixth in wins (six), sixth in save percentage (.942), and fifth in goals against average (1.62) among goalies with at least five appearances. Swayman also ranks second in all-situation high-danger save percentage since then, trailing only Tuukka Rask's league-best .909 save percentage.
While the Bruins respect Halak and his contributions, it's both tough (almost impossible) to justify sitting Swayman in the name of experience or status, and the Bruins are running out of time to get Halak's game where it needs to be to feel comfortable with him as the in-game replacement for Rask should his still not 100 percent back acts up and leaves the Black and Gold without their No. 1. And, I mean, haven't we already seen what happens when Halak is asked to the No. 1 in the playoffs? This is part of the appeal that comes with the 22-year-old Swayman, too inexperienced and all.
Expect both Swayman and Halak to get another start each between now and the start of the postseason.
But it feels like it's going to take something special for Halak to unseat Swayman as the No. 2 for Game 1.
This one's probably not getting solved until the Bruins know exactly who they'll be playing in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If the Bruins draw the Islanders or Capitals, it feels like this line will be designed to play a heavier game, likely with Trent Frederic and Chris Wagner on Curtis Lazar's wings. If the Bruins draw the Penguins, however, perhaps this is a series where a Jake DeBrusk or Karson Kuhlman get a chance to shine on a more energetic, skillful fourth line.
Of course, this line has had the most shuffling over the last week, and I'd expect that to remain the case over the final four games of the regular season. It certainly helps that the B's will have meetings with the Isles and Capitals over that stretch, and that those games will likely mean something, at least in terms of playoff seeding and potential postseason momentum. Which is the perfect kind of contest to gauge how this line should look when things get started in round one.
One of the things that the made the Bruins' move for Mike Reilly so interesting was its ripple effect on the rest of the Boston defense. Led by two true puck-moving presences all year (Matt Grzelcyk and Charlie McAvoy), the Bruins were essentially forced to keep the two on separate pairings to achieve some semblance of balance on their backend. But with Reilly in the mix, the Bruins' ability to form their super-pairing on the top of their defensive depth chart is there, and boy, is it enticing.
One of 75 defensive pairings to log at least 250 minutes of five-on-five time together in 2021, the Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing ranks first in corsi-for percentage (62.4 percent), first in shots-for percentage (67.7 percent, and with a 104-shot advantage by way of their on-ice 197-94 edge in shots), first in goals-for percentage (71.4 percent, at 15-6), and fourth in high-danger scoring chances-for percentage (61.6 percent, at 53-33). All while starting just over 50 percent of their shifts in the attacking zone.
In other words, this has truly been one of the best pairings in the NHL this season, and the B's can keep it together with Reilly in the picture as a left-shot, two-way threat. That would seemingly align Reilly with Brandon Carlo on Boston's second pairing, which would leave the Bruins with a third pairing featuring two of lefty Jeremy Lauzon and/or righties Connor Clifton and Kevan Miller. Now, it's worth mentioning that the Lauzon-McAvoy pairing has actually been the B's most deployed five-on-five pairing in 2021 and that their numbers have been mostly good, but this Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing is outright tantalizing.
It appears to be in the mix for the Bruins, too, with Grzelcyk and McAvoy together on Tuesday night, while Reilly and Carlo were together for their first time in the losing effort. I'd expect to see a lot more (relative term, I suppose) of that Reilly-Carlo pairing to close out the season to see if this can indeed be a solid second pairing, too.
If not, the safe standby of a Lauzon-McAvoy and Grzelcyk-Carlo top four defense seems more likely, setting the stage for a Reilly-Miller/Clifton to be a third-pairing dynamo that feasts on bottom-six competition and favorable matchups.
I'm not sure there's a player who has hated this 2021 season more than Jake DeBrusk. And for good reason.
Now, I don't want to speculate on a professional athlete's mental health or how they're feeling from a view six floors up, but it really doesn't feel like DeBrusk has his normal jump or is enjoying himself at all this year. Perhaps that's natural when you consider his struggles to produce, the way he's bounced around the lineup, and the trade rumors that at one point led to DeBrusk outright saying that "people seem to think he's all done here."
But there's also the mental aspect of this year. Players aren't allowed to roam around the cities they visit, and they've been encouraged to take extra precautions when at home. And, again, we're not best friends or hang out, but it's hard to imagine those requests jiving with someone as personable as DeBrusk. It just seems the kind of year where it's entirely too easy to get in your own head or weighed down by your struggles, and it feels like that's been a big part of DeBrusk's 2021 campaign.
With all that in mind, the postseason has typically been where DeBrusk has shined, and it'll be interesting to see where DeBrusk slots into the mix when that begins, and if it can be the spark that ignites his game (and his smile) back to life.
The Bruins could certainly use it on their bottom six, too.
Ty Anderson is a writer and columnist for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Yell at him on Twitter: @_TyAnderson.