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Boston Bruins

Boston Bruins

Boston Bruins

oJan 20, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins left wing Jake DeBrusk (74) celebrates with left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) after scoring a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

With 52 games played, the Bruins are indeed beyond the traditional ‘first half’ of the 2023-24 season.

But the Bruins themselves know that they are about to hit the stretch run here, with a ramp-up that’ll include 30 games over the next 65 days. It’s a stretch that’ll be full of opponents either looking to make their own second-half push or boost their own confidence and believability against a Bruins team that sits atop the Eastern Conference once again.

That’s nothing new for a Bruins team that dealt with the same approach down the stretch a year ago in what was a record-breaking regular season for the club. But this year itself is different for these B’s.

“I think the two seasons are completely different,” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said following a practice at Brighton’s Warrior Ice Arena last week. “We’ve faced adversity this year. We’ve had to grow and mature and get better this year. Last year was the smoothest season you’ll ever see for, you know, [82 games].”

  • For Montgomery, that growth and maturation has come with the Bruins discovering their new identity. Montgomery and the rest of the Bruins kicked off training camp acknowledging that as something that was going to have to shift given their offseason losses and the roster construct, and it’s something that Montgomery thinks has officially arrived.

    “I think since Christmas, we have really found our identity,” Montgomery offered. “We always talk about playing to our strengths, what gives us success. Offensively, how we generate offense and defensively, we’ve made some minor tweaks to how we defend that I think has given us less time in our own end.”

    But while the identity has shifted, and it’s tough to make direct comparisons on a year-to-year basis, the objective remains the same when the Bruins get back to work Tuesday night against the Flames.

    “The goals are the same: You wanna gear up, you wanna build, and you wanna be going into the playoffs playing your best hockey,” Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said. “That’s the main focus.”

    Here are seven players to watch as Boston gets into the thick of their ‘second half…

  • Jake DeBrusk

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - JANUARY 20: Jake DeBrusk #74 of the Boston Bruins celebrates after assisting a goal scored by Pavel Zacha #18 against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at TD Garden on January 20, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Bruins defeat the Canadiens 9-4. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS – JANUARY 20: Jake DeBrusk #74 of the Boston Bruins celebrates after assisting a goal scored by Pavel Zacha #18 against the Montreal Canadiens during the third period at TD Garden. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

    The 2024 NHL trade deadline is officially less than a month away, and Bruins winger Jake DeBrusk remains without a contract extension. For what it’s worth, DeBrusk sounds like someone who would absolutely love to take care of that and put the uncertainty behind him.

    And DeBrusk, a career-long Bruin taken with the ‘middle’ pick of the B’s back-to-back-to-back first-round selections in 2015, has made it clear that he wants to remain with the Bruins at every stop and turn. 

    Now, the fact that DeBrusk said all of that — and since the summer, really — and still remains without an extension is noteworthy in its own right. But it’ll be especially noticeable as the Bruins go down the stretch here, and the focus will only intensify there between now and the Mar. 8 trade deadline. 

    An obvious question here: DeBrusk may want to remain with the Bruins, but do the Bruins want to keep DeBrusk around? Speaking with the media before the start of the season, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney kept it close to the vest when discussing DeBrusk’s status. (That’s nothing new. Sweeney doesn’t wanna give the media much of anything when it comes to ongoing negotiations or pending UFAs.) 

    But how they view DeBrusk is going to play a big role over the final 30 games. 

    If the Bruins do not view DeBrusk as someone who is part of their long-term plans, they almost owe it to themselves to see if the trade market presents them with an opportunity to recoup some high-quality draft capital or leverage DeBrusk into a ‘hockey trade’ for a player that’s more in line with their future plans. The other side of that coin is that the Bruins could look at DeBrusk as ‘their own rental’ and keep him for the remainder of the season and hope that he gets hot at the right time. 

    As always, it’s DeBrusk’s streakiness that makes him a sometimes frustrating talent for the Bruins. After scoring just four goals and 11 points through his first 31 appearances of the season, DeBrusk returned from the Christma break with a bang, scoring eight goals and 14 points over 16 games between the break and bye week. But in three games since the Bruins returned from their extended break, DeBrusk remains without a point despite generating seven shots on goal.

    For the Bruins to get where they want to go this season, DeBrusk has to be their third-best scoring threat on the wings behind David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand. It’s not even a debate, really. The Bruins don’t have a player who possesses the dangerous blend of speed, skill, and high-danger know-how of DeBrusk. And you watch the way that DeBrusk can get going when a single bounce goes his way. 

    It’s just a matter of how DeBrusk generates that bounce. And if it’s here in Boston. 

  • Trent Frederic

    Nov 9, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins center Trent Frederic (11) reacts after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 9, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins center Trent Frederic (11) reacts after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at the TD Garden. (Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports)

    When Trent Frederic broke through with a career-year in 2022-23, with 17 goals and 31 points in 79 games played, you almost had to prepare yourself for some sort of regression.

    That 17-goal output came with a 14.2 shooting percentage, which was almost double the 7.3 shooting percentage Frederic posted through the first 119 games of his NHL career (12 goals on 164 shots). 

    Instead, Frederic has built on that and shot the puck even better, with 19.2 shooting percentage behind 14 goals on just 73 shots. And not only that, but Frederic has become a legitimate line driver for the Bruins, with almost every single line the B’s have getting an extra lift when Frederic is moved up or down with them. 

    One of 167 NHL forwards to play at least 600 five-on-five minutes this season, Frederic’s on-ice goals-for per 60 ranks 40th, at 3.24 on-ice goals-for per 60. Among Bruins, only David Pastrnak (3.35) has been better than Frederic there. Moving from on-ice to individually, Frederic’s 1.11 goals per 60 of five-on-five play ranks as the 33rd-best figure among that group of 167 forwards. Frederic’s 2.41 points per 60 ranks 32nd. I mean, that’s just some elite five-on-five production. 

    At his current pace, Frederic would finish this season with a career-high 23 goals. Should he score at least 20 goals without a noticeable uptick in his overall usage (Frederic is averaging 13:44 of time on ice per game), Frederic could become just the 31st player since 2005-06 to record at least 20 goals while averaging under 14 minutes per game. The last Bruin to accomplish that feat: Brad Marchand in 2010-11, with 21 goals while averaging just 13:59 per night as a rookie. 

    There’s also something to be said for the impact that Frederic’s scoring seems to have on the Bruins. The Bruins are 10-0-1 this season when Frederic records a goal. Over the last four seasons, that record balloons out to 32-2-2.

  • James van Riemsdyk

    Dec 3, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) gets set for a face-off during the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 3, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins left wing James van Riemsdyk (21) gets set for a face-off during the third period against the Columbus Blue Jackets at TD Garden. (Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports)

    When the Bruins landed James van Riemsdyk on a one-year, $1 million contract last summer, the thought was that ‘JVR’ had horrendous luck that was bound to turn. 

    In what was his final year of his second run with the Flyers, the 6-foot-3 wing’s power-play luck had absolutely cratered to just four points (despite generating a ton of chances), and his 29-point output by the year’s end was his worst since an injury-derailed 2015-16 season with Toronto. 

    Boston’s gamble, to this point, has been correct. He’s already surpassed last year’s point total with eight goals and 33 points through 48 games played. He’s also just eight helpers away from matching his single-season career high set in 2016-17. 

    At the same time, however, the Bruins themselves are probably hoping that van Riemsdyk’s luck turns when it comes to shooting the puck. 

    With 30 games to go, van Riemsdyk is shooting just 7.6 percent. It’s over a full percentage point worse than his career-low (8.7 percent back in 2009-10). But similar to his final year in Philly, it clearly hasn’t been for a lack of trying. 

    Per NaturalStatTrick.com, van Riemsdyk has an individual expected goals of 15.8 at all situations. That’s almost twice as many goals as he’s actually scored this season. The 34-year-old wing has also been credited with 90 individual high-danger scoring chances, which is 20 more than second-place David Pastrnak. Looking at it from a ‘per 60’ standpoint, van Riemsdyk has an individual expected goals per 60 of 1.42 (just 0.06 behind Pastrnak for the best mark on the Bruins), which ranks 13th in all of hockey among a group of 446 players with at least 600 all-situation minutes. His 8.1 individual high-danger scoring chances per 60, meanwhile, ranks fifth. 

    If even a few more of these can start finding the back of the net, the Bruins are a much more dangerous team. Especially if they come on the power play, with Boston currently in a power-play funk of sorts (just two goals on their last 22 opportunities dating back to last month’s showdown with the Jets), and with the club holding a 20-5-5 record this year when scoring at least one power-play goal.

  • Pavel Zacha

    Dec 27, 2023; Buffalo, New York, USA; Boston Bruins center Pavel Zacha (18) waits for the face-off during the third period against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 27, 2023; Buffalo, New York, USA; Boston Bruins center Pavel Zacha (18) waits for the face-off during the third period against the Buffalo Sabres at KeyBank Center. (Timothy T. Ludwig/USA TODAY Sports)

    To be absolutely clear, it hasn’t been a bad year for B’s top-six forward Pavel Zacha. The second-year Bruin is currently paced for yet another 20-goal, 50-point campaign, which is something he did not do in any of his six full seasons with the Devils. But it does feel like Zacha has more to give to this team to have them operating at something closer to 100 percent efficiency. 

    When Zacha returned to the Boston lineup on Dec. 19 after a three-game absence due to injury, Zacha did so with a bang, with two helpers despite a losing effort. But over the 16 games that followed, Zacha posted a triple donut combo 0-0-0 line 10 times, and recorded just two goals and six points in total over that stretch. Now, the good news: Zacha finished strong with three assists in two games prior to Boston’s bye week and All-Star break, and has come out of the gate firing, with two goals and an assist in three games since the Bruins returned to action. 

    The Bruins need the latter version of Zacha to be here down the stretch to avoid the club leaning on its Coyles, Marchands, and Pastrnaks for offense a bit too much and burning ‘em out before the real season begins sometime in mid-April. 

    And maybe this is a hot take, but that all begins with Zacha being more of a consistent shooting threat. Now, you understand Zacha’s natural instinct to be more of a pass-first center, especially when he skates with Pastrnak (or even high-danger machines like ‘JVR’ and DeBrusk), but we’ve seen Zacha bust out that absolute bomb of a shot, and it’s a legitimate weapon for the club. 

    Looking at Zacha’s even-strength game, the Czech-born pivot has scored nine goals on 55 shots in over 635 even-strength minutes this season. That 16.36 shooting percentage is fourth-best on the Bruins, but Zacha’s 5.19 shots per game is the lowest average among Boston forwards, and the sixth-lowest among all B’s skaters with at least 500 even-strength minutes this season. In fact, only two Bruins players are averaging fewer even-strength shot attempts per 60 than Zacha this year, and it’s Brandon Carlo and Hampus Lindholm, who have been downright buried in defensive-zone work this season. 

    In essence, Zacha has to shoot more. If he does, the Bruins will be a better team. 

    It’s really that simple for me. 

  • Matt Grzelcyk

    Jan 20, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (48) takes a shot for an assist on a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period at the TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

    Jan 20, 2024; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (48) takes a shot for an assist on a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period at the TD Garden. (Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports)

    Listen, I’m just gonna be honest here: I have no idea what to make of Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk

    I see the mentions after every goal or loss and I know everybody wants the guy traded for a bucket of pucks. But I also know that Grzelcyk is one of these players who is not nearly as bad as some people claim and not nearly as good as some people claim. He’s very much somewhere in the middle. 

    And the question here as it relates to Grzelcyk moving forward is a simple one: Is that alone good enough for the Bruins this year? 

    Another player in the final year of his current contract and facing an uncertain future, Boston’s lack of cap space and their relative uncertainty on the backend (at least by their own standards) makes Grzelcyk a legitimate candidate to be moved in a hockey trade. Especially if the Bruins look at defense as the spot that needs to be upgraded for a deep run. The other part of that is the fact that Montgomery scratched Grzelcyk in the playoffs last year. It’s a different year with different personnel, of course, but if the Bruins believe they need to be a tougher team in their own end, Grzelcyk’s footing on a spot feels… loose.

    For what it’s worth, I think Grzelcyk was at his best when the Bruins went out to Vegas for a showdown with the Golden Knights. The Golden Knights play a heavy, playoff-style forechecking game, too. I also thought Grzelcyk was passable against the Hurricanes (another strong forechecking team), and had solid efforts against Colorado and Tampa Bay. Grzelcyk will run into problems against teams every so often, and it’ll be U-G-L-Y when he does, but it hasn’t been all bad lately. 

    I’ve said and written this before, I know, but if Grzelcyk is not going to be traded, the Bruins can’t scratch him when the playoffs begin. It will have been a colossal waste of everybody’s time and energy if the Bruins go through all of what they’ve gone through once again only to have the same result as last year with No. 48. 

    The Bruins also need the Grzelcyk they got against Vegas to be there down the stretch. Hampus Lindholm has been used in a mega-defensive role this season, which has limited his offensive impact. Mason Lohrei, meanwhile, is not ready for primetime NHL minutes and that, along with Boston’s lack of cap space, has put him down in Providence until injuries strike. And it’s no secret that third-pairing left-side defenseman Derek Forbort is known for defense, not offense (at all). 

    Having Grzelcyk somewhere in Boston’s top-four may very well be as good as it gets — especially in a ‘transitional’ year from a roster construct and trading standpoint — and it’s on Grzelcyk to make the B’s breathe a little easier when it comes to that near-inevitability.

  • Parker Wotherspoon

    Dec 19, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Parker Wotherspoon (29) during the third period against the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Dec 19, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Bruins defenseman Parker Wotherspoon (29) during the third period against the Minnesota Wild at TD Garden. (Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports)

    Here’s a weird little stat for you: Last Saturday’s shutout loss to the Capitals marked the first time that the Bruins suffered a regulation loss with Parker Wotherspoon in their lineup since Dec. 23, and just the third regulation loss with Wotherspoon in action since they recalled him back to Boston in December. Overall, that record ‘dropped’ to 11-3-4 since Dec. 15. For some additional weird context, the Bruins are 3-3-1 with Wotherspoon out of their lineup over that same stretch. 

    This is quickly becoming one of these things that you simply can’t explain. 

    And it’s up to Wotherspoon to keep it rolling. 

    I do think the 26-year-old has some obvious limitations. His first pass out of his zone can sometimes get him into trouble — the shorter the better for Wotherspoon, it feels — and his game can get a little too adventurous on ‘down’ nights. But if this is a competition, I do think Wotherspoon is firmly in the mix with third-pairing options like Derek Forbort and Kevin Shattenkirk. 

    One thing I really liked about an otherwise crappy day against the Capitals was a third-period sequence where Wotherspoon had a Washington forechecking bearing down on him as he went to retrieve the puck in the B’s end. Wotherspoon sensed the pressure, and knowing he didn’t have an option, he made a strong self-pass off the boards and back to his stick, and then made a nifty move to get the puck through a second Washington forechecker. Those are the little plays that’ll give the B’s some added confidence when it comes to his ability to ‘hang’ with the big boys.

    Wotherspoon may very well be a seventh defenseman and nothing more for this club, but a little stress testing here could also lead to a discovery, and open up some options for the Black and Gold defense ahead of the playoffs.

  • Jeremy Swayman

    Jan 25, 2024; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Boston Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman (1) warms up prior to the start of the first period against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

    Jan 25, 2024; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Boston Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman (1) warms up prior to the start of the first period against the Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre. (Marc DesRosiers/USA TODAY Sports)

    Barring an unlikely pivot from Jim Montgomery, we are going to see both Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark in the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

    In the third (and perhaps final) year of having the hug-friendly tandem on their roster, the Bruins actually plan on using it in the postseason. 

    Now, if you’re asking me straight-up, here on Feb. 13, who I think gets Game 1, it’s Swayman. The 25-year-old Swayman has performed at an All-Star level this season, and is currently ahead of Ullmark in both save percentage (Swayman has a .922 compared to Ullmark’s .915) and goals against average (a 2.35 over a 2.67). If we are going off merit, it’s Swayman in Game 1. For now. 

    That ‘for now’ is key here, too, because we’ve been here before. 

    Back in 2022, Swayman appeared to be in the driver’s seat for the role of playoff starter. It was back in Feb. 2022 that Swayman had a month-long run that featured five wins, along with a .960 save percentage and 1.13 goals against average, in just seven games. It felt like a true ‘holy crap, the kid has arrived’ kind of month. But over the next two months, Swayman completely lost control of the gig with a 10-7 record and an .891 save percentage that ranked 47th out of 55 qualifying goalies. 

    If Swayman is going to become ‘The Guy’ in the Black and Gold’s crease this year and earn a massive payday after going to arbitration last summer, he simply can’t have that kind of a drop down the stretch. 

    I also think it extends beyond just playing well down the stretch, too. 

    Many have simply assumed that Swayman is the guy moving forward and that the Bruins are going to trade Ullmark if and when Swayman earns that massive contract. But there’s two things here: Swayman has to play well to get that contract, and the Bruins are going to need one of these guys to look like a playoff force, which has not happened through their first two postseasons in the post-Rask era. If neither happens, I’m not quite as sure that trading Ullmark over Swayman is the slam dunk many seem to suggest, especially if you look at it from the standpoint of who could net you a greater return in a trade. Those are problems for the summer, I know, but there’s an awful lot riding on Swayman’s 2024 finish.

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