The Bruins’ season gets underway against the Devils on Thursday at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, with the puck scheduled to drop at 7 p.m.
It will be the first meaningful hockey Boston has played since being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Lightning in August during the NHL playoffs held in the Toronto bubble due to COVID-19.
For the Bruins, the new season begins amid lingering disappointment at how 2020 ended. Despite reaching an NHL-best 100 points in the regular season prior to the pandemic-related shutdown, Boston was unable to reproduce the same kind of success in the postseason (played months after the season pause).
And after an offseason which included a few high-profile changes, it will be a decidedly different looking team that takes the ice to begin 2021.
Here’s a look at a few of the storylines ahead of Thursday’s opener:
The ongoing effects of the pandemic.
Since the coronavirus pandemic first began impacting the NHL (and society in general) last March, virtually nothing has escaped its effects. For the Bruins, it meant first having to suspend all hockey for multiple months during the initial lockdown. And even after the team returned to the ice, Boston had to prepare for the postseason bubble without top-scorer David Pastrnak due to violations of the league’s quarantine protocol.
As the new season begins, the ramifications of pandemic aren’t going away anytime soon. Multiple teams have had already been forced to cancel practices, reschedule games, or send players into quarantine after returning positive COVID-19 tests.
In a broader sense, the pandemic has already reshaped the season, given the shortened 56-game schedule (as opposed to the normal 82 games), and temporary realignment of divisions. Special roster provisions — a “taxi squad,” and a requirement to have three goaltenders — join the more familiar COVID-19 protocols that have been implemented by sports leagues worldwide.
For the Bruins specifically, it just means following protocols and, to an extent, luck.
“That’s all you can do,” head coach Bruce Cassidy explained recently. “And let’s keep our fingers crossed that our players and our coaches and anybody in hockey ops does the right thing. And then gets a little bit lucky because sometimes you do the right things, you can still contract the virus. So that’s the message to the players.”
Here are five storylines to follow as the season begins.
Zdeno Chara is out, and Patrice Bergeron in as captain.
The 2021 season will be the first time in 14 seasons that 6-foot-9 defenseman Zdeno Chara will not be wearing a Bruins sweater. The 43-year-old signed a one-year deal with the Capitals in December, and explained afterward that it was because Boston hadn’t planned on featuring him in the same role he’d had in previous seasons.
“Early on it was probably a little bit unknown what I was told the role would be,” Chara explained to the Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont. “But as the conversations progressed, towards the end it was pretty clear to me that I would not be in the starting lineup for the season, or starting some games, or playing some back-to-back games. I would be more in a reserve type of player. Again, I have no issue with that. Again, a lot of credit to Don Sweeney, how he handled the situation, but for me I felt that it would be a better fit for me if I found a better role with another team and step aside and let the Boston Bruins go in the direction they choose to do.”
With Chara gone, Boston had a vacancy not only in its defense, but in its leadership. Chara had worn the “C” denoting his captaincy since arriving in Boston in 2006.
Luckily, the Bruins have Chara’s hand-picked successor for captain in Patrice Bergeron. The 35-year-old — a four-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner — would probably already be a captain on most NHL teams, and was confirmed as the new captain earlier in January (after a joking presentation initially for Brad Marchand).
Tuukka Rask is back.
Now 33 years old, goaltender Tuukka Rask owns multiple Bruins records for goaltenders, including games played and career wins. Not unlike the Bruins as a team, Rask was in the midst of one of the best years of his career prior to the shutdown in 2020.
In the NHL bubble, he was given terrifying news from home prior to Game 3 against the Hurricanes in the Bruins’ first round series. His daughter had been sent to the hospital due to a medical emergency.
Rask immediately left the bubble to be with his family.
“It was a tough decision to leave, but then again, it wasn’t,” Rask told reporters on Jan. 6. “I knew it was more important for me to be home at the time. So, that was easy to live with. On the other hand, you’re home, knowing you could be there, you should be there playing hockey. So, it’s tough to watch the games. Your brain is kind of spinning at that point, knowing you’re at the right place at home but then again you should be there stopping pucks. So, it was tough for a few weeks.”
The veteran goaltender insisted that there are “no issues coming back” and that despite his contract expiring at the end of the season, he has a definitive position on where he wants to be.
“I have no intention of playing anywhere else but the Bruins.”
David Pastrnak is out for now, but might return ahead of schedule.
In September, Pastrnak underwent a right hip arthroscopy and labral repair. The procedure was successful, and the 24-year-old winger could be back prior to what was initially expected.
“Up to this point, which is approximately four months now, his rehab has gone very well,” Cassidy told reporters on Jan. 5. “No setbacks. I think because of his natural conditioning and work ethic that that pushes him ahead a little bit. How much? It’s too early for me to speculate, I just know that he won’t be ready when we head to New Jersey.”
Though the original expectation was for Pastrnak to be out until at least mid-February, Cassidy simply said that the Bruins would “get through January and see where he’s at.”
Missing Pastrnak has major implications for the Bruins. In 2019-2020, he tied for the lead in NHL scoring with 48 goals in 70 games.
Younger players will get chances.
With Pastrnak out and Chara gone (among other changes), Boston will feature some new faces.
To fill in for Pastrnak, Cassidy will likely turn to 21-year-old Canadian Jack Studnicka. The 2017 second-round pick will reportedly get his chance on the top line alongside Bergeron and Marchand.
Finding a replacement for Chara alongside Charlie McAvoy is another problem for Cassidy to solve. For the moment, 23-year-old Jeremy Lauzon, a 2015 second-round pick, is seen as the choice.
Explaining that he sees himself as a good complement to the more offensive-minded McAvoy, Lauzon stated his case.
“Obviously I’m a big body, plays hard, win some puck battles,” Lauzon told WEEI’s Scott McLaughlin. “I think me and Charlie could be a really good pair together. We’re both guys that compete a lot and can log good minutes against big lines, and that’s my goal. I want to make Charlie better and I’m going to focus on that. I think it’s a big opportunity for me and I think I’m ready for it, and I’m just going to jump into it and make a good impression.”
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