4 thoughts on the Boston Bruins a quarter of the way through the season

The Bruins have plenty of room for improvement entering the next three quarters of their 56-game slate

Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy (73) talks with center Brad Marchand (63) and right wing David Pastrnak (88) during a break in action against the New York Islanders during the third period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders won 4-2. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Charlie McAvoy, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak during a break in action against the New York Islanders, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders won 4-2. –AP Photo/Adam Hunger

COMMENTARY

The Boston Bruins entered training camp nearly a month and a half ago facing several questions. Through the first 14 games of a unique 2021 campaign, they’ve proven some skeptics wrong.

Bruce Cassidy’s bunch sit atop the re-aligned East Division with 22 points (10-2-2). They’ve strung together several come-from-behind victories between their two regulation losses against the New York Islanders.

Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak tandem the pipes as the league’s best goaltending duo. In front of them, the young defense stepped up in their increased roles after Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara departed for new homes during the off-season. David Pastrnak’s return from off-season hip surgery gave the Bruins another offensive element with their balanced forward trios.

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They’ve encountered some bumpy waters along the way, including the ongoing 5v5 scoring issues. But the Bruins have plenty of room for improvement entering the next three-quarters of their 56-game slate. With that in mind, here are a few extended thoughts on their early-season success.

Pastrnak’s adaptable personality resonates with everyone

He’s cooled off a little bit after a sensational return to Boston’s lineup. But regardless of his production, Pastrnak’s upbeat personality provides a dynamic to both the locker room and the league’s image as a whole.

Pastrnak’s comments following Tuesday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena created some social media buzz. He came off sounding like a veteran of 10-plus years.

“When I get a day off, I just feel like [expletive] the next day,” the 24-year-old Pastrnak said. “I feel like I’m getting a little older.”

Now in his seventh season, Pastrnak ascended to a perennial goal-scorer worthy of lighting the lamp 50 times (or more) in an 82 game slate. He skated with elite wingers in Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron for the better half of four seasons. Now he’ll return to skating with fellow countryman David Krejci as the Bruins prep for Thursday’s scheduled contest with the New Jersey Devils.

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The 2014 first-round selection developed significant knowledge lining up to Krejci’s right in his first few seasons. The crafty Czech playmakers provide an intriguing element with one another whenever they play together. Their personalities are a bit different. One has earned significant ad time through the Dunkin’ campaign. The other lets his play speak for itself.

Yet, Krejci and Pastrnak mesh together like coffee and donuts. And perhaps Cassidy will want to keep these two together for the long run in an attempt to balance out the lineup.

Even-strength production remains an issue

Moving Pastrnak away from Marchand and Bergeron isn’t easy. Together, the trio form unquestionably the best scoring line in the National Hockey League.

But the Bruins have a bigger problem at hand: even-strength scoring. Their lack of 5v5 production caught up to them in their last three postseason eliminations, including the 2019 Stanley Cup Final against the Blues and their pair of second-round exits in 2018 and 2020 at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Only half of their 42 goals scored so far came at 5v5. They sit at a tie for 26th with the New Jersey Devils in that category. On top of that, the potent power-play unit hasn’t lit the lamp in their last 10 attempts.

This isn’t to say they have pieces in place to break out of this even-strength rut. Pastrnak, Marchand and Bergeron remain a threat to score every time they touch the puck. Krejci’s creativity makes anyone skating with him better, including Nick Ritchie. Jake DeBrusk looked sharp in his three games back from a lower-body injury earning himself a promotion to the top line for the time being. The growing chemistry between Craig Smith and Charlie Coyle provides and the potent duo of Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner on the fourth line gives the Bruins a well-rounded bottom-six unit.

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Yet, they could still use a piece or two to put them over the top. They could try to find that within the organization through a physical Trent Frederic, a skilled, but somewhat inconsistent performer in Anders Bjork or from Jack Studnicka whenever he’s recalled from Providence. If that doesn’t work, Sweeney will have to look for outside help at the trade deadline in another attempt to balance the lineup.

The Bruins can’t afford another year of 5v5 scoring struggles, especially come playoff time. Improving even-strength scoring issues could also give them a bit of a breather from playing catchup hockey in the interim. The more this continues, the more it will haunt the Bruins in the long run.

Defensive injuries will test depth

The Bruins hoped to have Matt Grzelcyk fill the puck-moving void left by Krug. It hasn’t come to fruition with Grzelcyk’s ongoing injury bug. Grzelcyk (lower-body) and Jakub Zboril (upper-body) won’t suit up for Boston’s tilt with New Jersey Thursday night at TD Garden.

So far, Boston’s D hasn’t been an issue. Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo look comfortable anchoring the right side of the blue-line. McAvoy remains the smoothest skater on the team, giving the Bruins a three-zone commodity. Carlo, primarily a stay-at-home defender, provided some timely goals in Boston’s come-from-behind efforts.

The Bruins lean on McAvoy and Carlo, but they’ve seen significant progress from some of their back-end youth. Jeremy Lauzon looks comfortable in a top pairing role with McAvoy. Zboril showcased some offensive flashes paired with a reliable veteran in Kevan Miller. Connor Clifton, Boston’s seventh defenseman coming into camp, made the most of his opportunities in Grzelcyk’s absence with his trademark ‘Cliffy hockey’ style of play.

All this, combined with stout goaltending from Rask and Halak, sparked the Bruins in their early-season defensive roll. They enter Wednesday’s schedule allowing the fewest shots on goal per game (25.4) and second-fewest average goals against per tilt (2.14) to go along with their second-ranked penalty kill (88 percent success rate).

We don’t know how much longer Grzelcyk and Zboril will remain out of the lineup. The Bruins may have to call up a defenseman from Providence — with 2017 first-round selection Urho Vaakaninen and veteran Steven Kampfer as likely candidates — if both are out for an extended period.

Offensive production could be hard to come by with another pair of solid puck movers out of the lineup. They may have to lean more on Rask and Halak to bail them out. The Bruins have a good defensive structure in place. The last thing they need is for cracks to open up on the back-end.

Difficult Expansion Draft decisions loom

The NHL will welcome the Seattle Kraken upon the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final. The league will quickly transition from awarding the Cup to the victors to conducting off-season business, beginning with the Expansion Draft on July 21.

Conventional wisdom suggests the Bruins will use the 7-3-1 format (seven forwards, three defensemen, one goalie) over the 4-4-1 (four defensemen-four forwards, one goalie) for protection purposes. Bergeron, Marchand and Coyle are already protected through their no-movement clauses.

Pencil in McAvoy, Carlo and Pastrnak, and potential unrestricted free agents Krejci and Rask to the protection list. I can’t imagine any possibility for Sweeney allowing Krejci and Rask to walk for nothing in return, at least for the Expansion Draft.

That leaves a decision on forwards and a defenseman. And boy, will that be tough.

The Bruins will likely have six forwards — Ritchie, DeBrusk, Smith, Wagner, Kuraly (another UFA) and Frederic — battling for those two remaining spots. Grzelcyk, a pre-season favorite for the third protection spot on the back-end, isn’t a sure bet now as Lauzon, Zboril and Clifton progress in his absence. Miller’s inspiration return adds another element to Sweeney’s decision-making process.

The Bruins have a tight-knit group. They have each other’s backs every single night. Yet, with July’s Expansion Draft looming, some members are playing for their future over the next few months.

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