4 burning questions facing the 2019-20 Boston Bruins

Can the Bruins put last year's bitter Game 7 loss behind them?

Boston Bruins' Zdeno Chara during the third period of an NHL preseason hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Bruins captain Zdeno Chara during a preseason game against the Chicago Blackhawks. –AP

COMMENTARY

The three-plus month wait for meaningful Boston Bruins hockey wraps up in just a few hours. But the bitter Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues remains fresh throughout Boston.

The offseason left Don Sweeney with a short time period to set his team up for a different result. Much of last year’s team remains, with Marcus Johansson being the notable departure.

The Bruins enter the season as one of the Cup favorites again in 2019-20. But even with much of last year’s core intact, Bruce Cassidy’s squad has a few unanswered questions heading into the new campaign. Here’s a look at some of those notable question marks.

Can the Bruins put last year’s bitter defeat behind them?

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We start with the obvious question here, which we’ll keep asking all season long.

Every athlete will tell you that they put a previous season behind them once they report to training camp. Their focus isn’t on the past or future, but the present.

The Bruins felt the sting of their most bitter loss in recent franchise history on June 12. That feeling lingered into the short summer. And technically they’re past that now as they turn their attention to the 82-game slate, beginning with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and the rest of the Stars.

But the Bruins shouldn’t erase last year’s run out of their minds completely. After all, they came within a game of ending the decade with their second Stanley Cup. This can only motivate them further after coming so close in June.

“Well, I don’t think there’s a blueprint out there on moving on, including the Patriots. Do the right thing a couple of years ago, they lost and got back and won last year. So right now we’re back here,” Cassidy said during the team’s media day in Brighton on Tuesday. “Typically,  hockey teams have not gone back to the Final. It’s been a long time, Detroit and Montreal years ago. Even Pittsburgh repeating, it’s a tough thing to do.”

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History isn’t on the Bruins’ side. The 2009 Penguins are the only team in the post-lockout era to bounce back from a Stanley Cup Final loss the year before and earn a ring following their rematch with the Red Wings.

It’s tougher following a Game 7 Cup Final loss. No team in the original expansion era dating back to 1967 advanced past the second round the following season after losing a seventh and decisive game for hockey’s ultimate prize.

Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Torey Krug, and Tuukka Rask were all front-and-center in Boston’s 2013 Cup Final loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. They captured the Presidents’ Trophy the following season as the best team in the regular season, only to bow out against the rival Montreal Canadiens in Round 2.

So yes, the Bruins have some motivation heading into this season. They also have some vets that have been through a similar situation. But they’ll have to buck some trends if they want to end this season as the last team standing.

Can the Bruins finally roll out four cohesive lines?

 Marchand, Bergeron, and David Pastrnak didn’t have the smoothest postseason as a trio, especially in the Cup Final. But there’s no denying that they are indeed the top line in the National Hockey League when they click.

This always provided a double-edged sword. One on hand, Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak can take over a game at any given moment. But moving Pastrnak away from the dynamic Bergeron-Marchand duo became a necessity at times when the Bruins didn’t have any scoring balance on their other three lines.

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David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk formed chemistry with one another over the last two seasons. Charlie Coyle provided a lift on the third line last postseason with Johansson and Danton Heinen. Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner provide two important cogs on the reliable fourth line.

So yes, Cassidy saw some sort of cohesion with his other three lines. But the Bruins still have some missing pieces in their lineup, including the revolving door opposite DeBrusk and Heinen wings on the second and third lines.

Karson Kuhlman provided a spark whenever Cassidy inserted him into the second line last year. He’ll have the same assignment to start the season with DeBrusk and Krejci (depending on his status for opening night). Newcomers Par Lindholm and Brett Ritchie, along with David Backes and Joakim Nordstrom (when healthy), will try to fill the holes left on the third and fourth lines, at least to start the season.

The Bruins would like nothing more than to shut the revolving doors in the middle of their lineup for good. But they may be better off looking at their coveted prospects or external options to finally fill those holes. The former brings us to our next question.

Which young Bruins could see playing time in Boston?

Boston’s youth movement provided much-needed energy to the club over the past few seasons. The likes of Pastrnak, Heinen, DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk meshing with the established veteran core opened the Bruins’ cup window earlier than expected.

Kuhlman, Urho Vaakaninen, and Connor Clifton traveled with the team to Dallas on Wednesday. Each, while playing in a few games last year, enters the season as a rookie having suited up in fewer than 25 regular-season contests.

The Bruins won’t have as many rookies compared to years past, at least to start the season. But they’ll see some of the young and talented prospects sooner rather than later.

Jack Studnicka, fresh off a stellar junior hockey career, will start his first professional season in a likely top-six role down in Providence. He’ll be on top of the call-up list if the Bruins are short on centers in Boston.

Anders Bjork put forth an inspirational preseason after injuries cut his first two years short. A trip to Providence to start the year provides a necessary first step for the former Notre Dame standout. He’s a better option than Backes, Lindholm or Ritchie as a second or third-line winger in the long run.

Jakub Lauko and Alex Steen showcased flashes of brilliance in their prospect developments. Both provide a strong combination of speed and skill. Don’t be surprised if one, or both, of the talented wingers make a trip or two up I-95 this season.

Other potential call-up candidates include Trent Frederic, Jakub Zboril, and Cameron Hughes.

How will the Bruins fare in a deep Atlantic Division?

The Bruins, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs all secured the top three spots in the Atlantic over the last two seasons. That shouldn’t change in 2019-20.

They’ll all have some company this time around.

The Florida Panthers added a few major pieces — including three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville, two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, and former Bruin sparkplug Noel Acciari — to complement a talented core featuring Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexsander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad. The Montreal Canadiens surprised many after coming within striking distance of a playoff spot last season. Both will likely vie for wild card spots in the East and provide plenty of fits for the Bruins, Leafs and Lightning.

But make no mistake. The Leafs and Bolts remain the Bruins’ biggest obstacles.

Toronto enters a pivotal season with all the talent surrounding head coach Mike Babcock. But are they set up for playoff success with the likes of Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner leading the way? Or will their defensive flaws — even with Tyson Barrie’s arrival from Colorado — rear their ugly heads again come playoff time.

As for Tampa Bay, well, they’re seeking vengeance after being swept by Columbus in Round 1 following the best regular season in franchise history. They have too much talent — Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy (to name a few) — to let that first-round result last spring linger into something worse.