The ever-dreaded Stanley Cup hangover loomed for the Boston Bruins in 2019-20. Yet, they took all those questions following the Game 7 loss to the St. Louis Blues and used it as motivation toward their hot start to the new season.
It’s a historic start at that. The Bruins’ 9-1-2 marked the best 12-game start to a season since their first Stanley Cup-winning season in 1929-30.
We’ll hold off on queuing the duck boats for now. But there’s plenty of thoughts to discuss following the Bruins’ impressive October run.
1. David Pastrnak and his torrid pace
Top shelf is where momma puts the… pasta? ?
David Pastrnak roofs one to top the scoring pic.twitter.com/tHo5g3J0P6
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 29, 2019
The only minor blemish on David Pastrnak’s October came Friday when the NHL announced their three stars of the month. Pastrnak finished as the No. 2 star of the month behind Capitals defenseman John Carlson, who tallied the second most October points all-time among defensemen with 23. You can make a case for either for first star honors.
But there’s no need for nitpicking Pastrnak’s stellar first month of the season. He followed up an impressive 11-goal first-month last year with 12 lamp-lighters this October, falling just two goals short of Phil Esposito’s franchise record with his 14 October goals set in 1973.
Pastrnak came into the season looking to shake off his up and down postseason. He’s done that and more so far. The Czech sensation’s stout puck pursuit and his competence in all three zones have stood out during the first 12 games of the year.
“Everything catches my eye with him lately,” head coach Bruce Cassidy said of Pastrnak following the Bruins’ 4-2 home win over the Maple Leafs on Oct. 22.
“He’s just on it, he’s on pucks, he’s strong, his conditioning seems great. He’s playing a lot of minutes, hard minutes against good players every night. Play-making ability, he’s making plays as well, getting his shot off. I think last year he was fighting the puck a little bit in the playoffs, for whatever reason. I think it was rust to be honest with you, a few times late in the year. He’s spot on this year.”
It helps skating on a top line with two fellow elite playmakers in Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. But make no mistake, Pastrnak carved out his spot with his two fellow partners in crime, thus fortifying the most potent trio in the National Hockey League.
We’ve seen Cassidy move Pastrnak to the second line to spread out the Bruins’ scoring output. He won’t be doing that any time soon.
Yes, the Bruins could use another upgrade in the middle of their lineup. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of breaking up the deadly Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak trio. All three make cases for individual hardware year in and year out.
Pastrnak’s goal per game pace put forth an early case for the Hart Trophy. Staying with Marchand and Bergeron will only help his MVP argument.
2. What to think of the Bruins’ long-term secondary scoring solution
Same story, different verse.
The Bruins’ secondary scoring woes lingered into a new season with more questions than answers. They hardly found any scoring outside of the top line up until their home and home with Toronto.
Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen and Charlie Coyle saw upticks in their production over the past couple of weeks. Anders Bjork picked up right where he left off from the preseason upon returning to Boston after leading the Providence Bruins in scoring during the first couple of weeks. And David Krejci’s return from an upper-body injury provides some much-needed stability in the middle of the lineup. Yet, the Bruins still need another winger or two to help their playoff push.
Let’s face it, Brett Ritchie, Par Lindholm and David Backes aren’t the answer. Karson Kuhlman, while providing a spark last year when inserted on the second line, didn’t produce any points before sustaining a lower-body injury. The other primary options from Providence either haven’t sustained much consistency in Boston (like Peter Cehlarik and Trent Fredric) or have entered their first season of professional hockey (like top prospects Jack Studnicka and Jakub Lauko).
Some notable names that could hit the trade block come the Feb. 24 deadline include Tyler Toffoli, Taylor Hall and Chris Kreider. But the best moves don’t necessarily involve the big names, just like last year when the Bruins acquired Coyle and Marcus Johansson right before the team embarked on their run to the Cup Final.
Don Sweeney will have his options to try and help put the Bruins over the top. For now, the Bruins’ GM and the rest of the brass have to work with their internal options to help ease the workload from the top line.
3. Roster questions loom with Miller and Moore closer to returning
The Bruins’ defensive depth was one of Sweeney’s primary areas of concern when he took over for Peter Chiarelli in 2015. But the drafting and developing of Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Matt Grzelcyk (a Chiarelli selection) helped turn the blue-line into a strength. That along with a well-conditioned and ageless Zdeno Chara, Torey Krug becoming more well rounded, and Connor Clifton bursting onto the scene as an undrafted free agent, Cassidy’s squad has a deep defensive core.
Both Kevan Miller and John Moore will add to that deep defensive depth once they return from injuries. Yet, Sweeney can’t escape the upcoming conundrum with his blue-line
The Bruins have a mere $554,167 of current cap space according to Cap Friendly. Miller (currently on injured reserve) and Moore (on long-term injured reserve) have a combined cap hit of $5.25 million.
Sweeney doesn’t have an easy solution here. Miller becomes a UFA at the end of the year, while Moore has three years remaining on his contract. Keeping Miller over Moore — if it comes to that — would be ideal, but teams might be more willing to acquire the former hoping for a low-risk high-reward move than they would for three years on the latter.
The likely short-term scenario: sending Clifton down to Providence. This isn’t ideal by any means, but the former Quinnipiac standout has waivers exempt status.
Another option: cashing in on a big trade involving Krug as he’s set to earn a big payday before his next contract. But taking away a potent power-play quarterback coming off a stellar postseason for a quick fix wouldn’t help.
I don’t doubt Sweeney’s ability to maneuver around the salary cap. He found a way to ink McAvoy and Carlo to bridge deals at training camp with little cap space at his disposal. But this looming decision leads to one of the more difficult situations of his five-year tenure.
4. Time to appreciate Tuukka Rask’s accomplishments
— NHL (@NHL) October 27, 2019
The Patriots’ dominance on sports radio and social media chatter make the early season results for the Celtics and Bruins a bit of an afterthought comparably. But even so, you aren’t hearing much chatter from the anti-Rask crowd.
Having Jaroslav Halak as a formidable goaltending partner provided Rask with some much-needed relief heading into last year’s playoffs. Aside from the Game 7 loss to the Blues and a couple of hiccups in the first-round series from the Maple Leafs, Rask performed at a Conn Smythe level during the team’s run to mid-June.
Rask, the franchise’s all-time winningest netminder, recently appeared in his 500th career NHL regular-season game. Halak will likely reach the 500-game milestone this month. The talented duo enters the second month of the season as early Jennings Trophy favorites.
Barring injury or any other unforeseen circumstance, the Bruins will go as far as Rask takes them. The 2014 Vezina Trophy winner quieted some of his detractors following last year’s run, but another Cup win — this as the team’s primary netminder — will silence them for good.
5. The Bruins “aren’t anywhere near their ceiling”
No, the Bruins haven’t peaked too early. Cassidy put those thoughts to rest with this aforementioned quote following practice earlier this week.
The Bruins don’t have many flaws right now. Their special teams are near the top of the league; they’ve slightly improved their secondary scoring and the Rask-Halak tandem and the top line picked up right where they left off. This allows Cassidy to roll out his four lines and three defensive pairings at any given moment.
Even with just one regulation loss in 12 games, the Bruins encountered some roadblocks along the way. Their second-period issues, while improving, still creep up from time to time. And even with the improved secondary scoring, the Bruins know they’ll need the second, third or fourth lines to carry them when Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak has a rare off night.
The Bruins enter Saturday tied with the Buffalo Sabres — with two games in hand — for first place in the Atlantic Division. They may find themselves in the Presidents’ Trophy race at season’s end, yet they’ll have a bigger target on their backs if they enter the postseason with the league’s best record. We all know how that turned out with the Tampa Bay Lightning last spring.
They avoided an initial early-season slump following a long playoff run, but the Bruins still have plenty of kinks to work out. The hot start, though, provides a good starting point for their “revenge tour”.