Commentary

5 bold Bruins predictions for the 2021-22 season

The Bruins have a few significant questions ahead of them, including a long-term replacement to fill David Krejci's gaping second-line vacancy.

Charlie Coyle and Brad Marchand during a September practice at Warrior Ice Arena. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Boston Bruins encountered another off-season of roster turnover. But, even with David Krejci returning home to the Czech Republic and Tuukka Rask’s uncertain future following off-season hip surgery, the franchise still has lofty goals entering its 98th season.

“The expectations are certainly high here,” team President Cam Neely said, “and there’s certainly no reason to change that.”

The Bruins have a few significant questions ahead of them, including a long-term replacement to fill Krejci’s gaping second-line vacancy. Several pundits peg the B’s between second and fourth in the Atlantic Division. Very few, if any, have the team anywhere near the Stanley Cup Final.

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But there’s a lot to like about Bruce Cassidy’s club heading into the 2021-22 campaign. With that in mind, here are five bold predictions for the Boston Bruins ahead of their season opener Saturday night.

Jack Studnicka will be Boston’s second-line center by January.

The 2017 second-round selection came to training camp hoping the added 15 pounds of muscle would compliment his crafty playmaking skillset.

Studnicka impressed the coaching staff during the preseason. Thanks to his weight gain, he became harder to move off pucks, all while never losing any of his quickness and assertiveness in puck pursuit. Yet, he faced an uphill climb from the get-go in securing a top-nine role for opening night.

A healthy Charlie Coyle will begin the year centering Taylor Hall and Craig Smith on the second line. The trio complemented each other well in their lone preseason game together. Then initial chemistry between Jake DeBrusk, Erik Haula and Nick Foligno on the third line left Studnicka on the outside looking in.

Studnicka’s AHL assignment wasn’t a referendum on him. Surely, Bruce Cassidy and the coaching staff could’ve slotted him on the fourth line, or they could have moved him to wing in a top-nine role. But they didn’t want to move Studnicka out of his natural center position or limit his playing time.

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It’s only a matter of when, not if Studnicka makes another trip up I-95, assuming his upward trajectory continues. He’s Boston’s best long-term option to secure the second-line center spot.

Studnicka gelled with Smith and Hall in the brief time they skated together. Having a pair of reliable goal-scoring vets will only help Studnicka’s development.

Come January, Studnicka will find his name between Hall and Smith for good.

Charlie McAvoy will win the Norris Trophy.

Judging by Neely’s comments over Zoom on Wednesday, the Bruins will soon have their talented top defenseman locked up for a lucrative, long-term contract extension. It won’t take long for McAvoy to back up his pending new contract with some individual hardware, either.

Surely, McAvoy will have company with Cale Makar, Victor Hedman, and reigning Norris winner Adam Fox ahead of him amongst recent Vegas odds. Makar and Fox will likely sit near the top offensive categories among blue-liners.

McAvoy solidified himself as one of the better 5v5 defensemen in the league since arriving on the scene in his 2017-18 rookie season. His offensive numbers should receive a boost after ascending to Boston’s top power-play unit — along with four crafty playmakers in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Taylor Hall to start the year.

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The riches of having younger defensemen with two-way skillsets provide the league with an intriguing dynamic. Every season will present deserving Norris candidates from McAvoy to Makar, Fox, Thomas Chabot and Quinn Hughes, to name a few. They’re all unique in their own right, but McAvoy’s 5v5 production and probable scoring uptick will result in his first of potential multiple Norris Trophies at the end of the year.

Brad Marchand will be a Hart Trophy Finalist.

Marchand’s reputation as one of the game’s skilled yet edgier players haunted him at times. But over the last few seasons, the talented veteran has avoided any meetings with the NHL’s Player Safety Department.

Ever since his last dust-up following a licking incident — of all things — Marchand has found himself near the top of the NHL’s scoring leaders. He has the fifth-highest point total (256) among all skaters since 2018-19, trailing only Nathan MacKinnon (257), Patrick Kane (260), Leon Draisaitl (299) and Connor McDavid (318). The top three players on that list each have one Hart Trophy to their credit and MacKinnon was an MVP finalist in three of his last four seasons.

Marchand found himself in the top five among Hart Trophy voters in two of the last three years. He’s transitioned from ‘Little Ball of Hate’ into one of the elite players in today’s National Hockey League. Given his history, Marchand may need a McDavid-like season to capture the award, but he’s earned enough clout from voters to break through as a finalist. This year, he’ll finally earn a coveted top three spot next to MacKinnon and McDavid.

Tuukka Rask will return, but not sign with the Bruins.

The Bruins kept the door open for Rask to return following his rehab from hip surgery. And Boston’s all-time winningest netminder expressed his desire to end his career with the only NHL club he’s known.

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No doubt, despite the spewing hot takes, Rask provided the Bruins with stability in net following Tim Thomas’ departure. He worked well sharing duties with Jaroslav Halak and Anton Khudobin over his decade-plus tenure. But every era ends at some point.

Jeremy Swayman picked up where he left off in the preseason following a stellar 10-game run in the COVID-shortened 2021 season. The Bruins see upside in their five-year investment with former Sabres netminder Linus Ullmark despite his disappointing camp. A stable goaltending situation would make a Rask reunion difficult once he’s ready to go.

Even with Rask’s statements on staying in Boston, I can’t envision him staying on the sidelines for a full year if he’s cleared. A handful of goaltending-needy playoff-caliber teams like the Penguins, Oilers, and Capitals would line up for his services.

The Bruins shouldn’t interrupt any positive developments with Swayman and Ullmark. Surely Rask would be welcomed back by his teammates, but they may not need their all-time winningest netminder. There is no doubt other teams will kick the tires on Rask once he’s ready.

The Bruins will take the Lightning to the limit in the playoffs.

I can’t go too bold with the Bruins winning the Cup or even making it to the Cup Final. Heck, they’ll have some company in the battle for the second, third, and fourth spots in the Atlantic Division with the Panthers and Maple Leafs.

In the best-case scenario, the Bruins and Lightning will meet again in the playoffs. Their previous two postseason matchups resulted in five-game series victories for the Bolts. That won’t happen again this season if the two teams meet in the spring of 2022.

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The Lightning exposed Boston’s bottom-six depth in each of those matchups. Sweeney upgraded the B’s third and fourth lines in the off-season with the free-agent trio of Nick Foligno, Erik Haula and Tomas Nosek. Because of its tight salary cap space, Tampa lost its entire third line from a year ago of Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

The Bruins may have a bottom-six edge over the Lightning with Jake DeBrusk, Curtis Lazar — when healthy — and a rotating cast of Karson Kuhlman, Anton Blidh and Trent Frederic. But the Bolts check off several boxes in the matchup department, including defensive and top-end depth. And for now, they have a goaltending edge with Andrei Vasilevski’s experience trumping the Swayman/Ulmark duo.

I’d still take the Lightning in a hypothetical playoff series against the Bruins, but it won’t end in five. A seven-game series loss isn’t necessarily a bold projection, but Cassidy and company aren’t too far away from catching the Bolts compared to years past.

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