Do The Bruins Have Enough Coming Down The Middle?

( Photo Credit: Brandon Taylor/OHL Images )

By: Jack McCarthy  |  Follow Me On Twitter @73johnnymac

The Boston Bruins, via Team President Cam Neely, identified a top-six winger as a position of need heading into the summer of 2019 following a largely successful 2018-19 campaign in which they finished in a tie for second overall in the NHL standings and advanced all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.  While the addition of a top-six winger clearly addresses a current need, should the Bruins be concerned with the long-term outlook at the center position?

The Boston Bruins have been blessed with a rock steady, 1-2 combination down the middle in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci for the better part of the last decade.  Whilst there has been a revolving door of pivots on the third and fourth lines over that time, the Bruins have been led by one of the leagues’ top 1-2 center-ice combinations providing them with consistent scoring, defensive prowess, and abundant leadership.

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Patrice Bergeron is a future Hockey Hall-of-Famer, all but confirmed with the recent selection of Guy Carbonneau to the Hall.  Long regarded as one of, if not the best two-way player in the game, Bergeron is coming off a career season in points production having amassed 79 points in just 65 games played.  He scored an equal-career high 32-goals as he topped the 30-goal mark for the fifth time in his career.  He also garnered an eighth consecutive Selke Trophy nomination and finished third in voting behind winner Ryan O’Reilly and runner-up Mark Stone in a closely contested vote.  Bergeron has previously won the award in 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017.

In David Krejci, the Bruins have a center who is also coming off a career season production-wise.  Krejci scored 73 points, equalling his previous career-high set all the way back in the 2008-09 season.   He hit the 20-goal plateau for the fourth time in his career.  Krejci also had 16 points in 24 playoff games during Boston’s Stanley Cup run.  Twice in his career, Krejci had led the NHL in playoff scoring, back in 2011 when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup as well as in 2013 when they fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.  Krejci had a solid all-around season in 2018-19 finishing with a CF % (Corsi for) percentage of 55.98.  Bergeron, as a comparison, finished just slightly better at 56.77.

So we know that the Bruins have enjoyed a decade long luxury at the top of the center depth chart and for the most part have made things work with various options at the center depth positions.    There is a reality that the Bruins and their fans must start to consider here very quickly, however.  Both Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are 33 years old.   In fact, Bergeron turns 34 this month.  Let that sink in for a moment.  Reality tells us that both of these career-long Bruins are well into the back nine of their respective careers.  The question for Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney is, what is the succession plan as the end approaches for Bergeron and Krejci?  It’s not something that Bruins fans like to contemplate, but these players won’t be here forever, and that endpoint is now beginning to approach.

If we look at the players’ respective contract statuses, Bergeron is under contract for three more seasons at $6.875M per season.  Krejci has two seasons remaining at $7.25M per season.  There has been much speculation that this off-season is the right time to move Krejci in a salary dump to provide cap relief.  There may be some merit to that argument as his trade value is likely as high as it is going to get.  With the possibility of diminishing returns and production next season, not many 33-year-olds have career-best seasons after-all, the trade Krejci argument is understandable.  On the other hand, if the Bruins believe they are still in a championship-contending window, and most of their fans believe they are, then trading David Krejci likely weakens your team, depending on the return, and puts you further from contending at a time that your two best forwards in Bergeron and winger Brad Marchand continue to progress into their thirties.   If winning now is still the priority, unless you can bring in a top-six center to replace David Krejci, I have to believe you need to keep him.

Getting back to the question of what happens in two and three years when their contracts expire and their play has inevitably tailed off, whom do the Bruins see as their top-six centers of the future?  Have they already acquired those pieces through the draft or via trade?  Or is this an area of need that, although not pressing, will reach out and bite the Bruins if they don’t begin to plan for it now.

Let’s consider the centers already within the organization and see if any project as a Bergeron or Krejci replacement.  For the purpose of this exercise, this will consider prospects whose rights the Bruins currently control, be it under contract or not.

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Beyond Bergeron and Krejci, the current third-line center in Boston is Charlie Coyle.  Coyle is coming off a successful playoff after being acquired in a trade deadline move from the Minnesota Wild.  Coyle has one year remaining on his current contract at a reasonable cap hit of $3.2M.    Bringing good size and skating, the 6’3”, 220-pound Coyle slots well into the third-line center position and has been touted as a possible solution at second-line right wing heading into next season.  Such a move would put further pressure on the Bruins to find in-house options to fill out their center depth positions.    For the time being he gives the Bruins what they need centering the third line but his long-term future in Boston may well be tied to the type of dollars and term he seeks on a new contract as he heads towards unrestricted free agency next summer.

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The Bruins appear set for the foreseeable future at the fourth line center position with Sean Kuraly.  Kuraly is a key bottom-six forward for the Bruins, and his absence was noticeable for the first four games of Boston’s opening-round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Kuraly’s return from injury in game five sparked the Bruins and helped stabilize the line-up as they went on to eliminate the Maple Leafs, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes.  Kuraly could be an option to play in the third line center position if required, but his perfect role in the Bruins lineup would appear to be a fourth-line pivot.

The Bruins also appear to boast several depth centermen who appear capable of playing in the bottom six.  Some of their current wingers can also play center including Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner, and Karson Kuhlman.  None of these players are likely options to replace Bergeron or Krejci however.  The same applies to David Backes, a player who could fill a role as a center or a winger up or down the Bruins line-up but at this stage in his career, he doesn’t factor into the conversation at hand.

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The next place to look is at the Bruins current prospects who are yet to make an impact at the NHL level but maybe closer to earning that opportunity over the next couple of seasons.  The Bruins managed to get 15 regular-season games into Trent Frederic this past season.  While Frederic is still seeking his first NHL point, he may be the next Bruins prospect in line at the center position and will very likely see more NHL action in the 2019-20 season.    The question is how high in an NHL line-up does Frederic project?  While that remains to be seen, the common opinion seems to be that he projects to be a solid third-line center at the NHL level.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t help solve the issue of replacing Bergeron or Krejci in the top six.

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Jack Studnicka is coming off a successful junior career as a member of the Oshawa Generals and Niagara Ice Dogs.   This past season he scored 83 points in 60 regular-season games and represented Canada in the World Junior Championships where he tallied four points in five games played.  Studnicka has many upsides but again, his ceiling is difficult to project.   The 2017, second-round selection will benefit from the opportunity to develop at the AHL level in Providence but has the potential to grow and develop into an option to challenge for a top-six role one day at the NHL level.

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Boston’s most recent first-round draft pick, John Beecher, selected 30th overall from the US National Development Team in last month’s NHL Amateur Draft, may signal a recognition by the Bruins management that there is a need to address their lack of long-term options at the center position.  Beecher has tremendous size at 6-3” and 209 pounds and impressed onlookers with his speed and skating ability at the Bruins recent development camp.  Bruins fans shouldn’t get too giddy and hopeful of seeing Beecher in the black and gold anytime soon, however, as he has committed to play at Michigan this upcoming season and he should benefit greatly from playing in the NCAA ranks.    Beecher does, however, represent perhaps the glimmer of hope that the Bruins may have a bona fide center prospect who can play a meaningful and successful top-six role one day in the future.   Bruins fans have to temper the expectations on the 18-year-old Beecher however and realize he is likely at least a couple of years away and possibly more from a role in the NHL with the Bruins.

While there is hope that the Bruins may already have prospects that may one day fill the top six roles that have been held down for so long by Bergeron and Krejci, the reality may be that the Bruins may need to look outside their own organization to acquire at least one future top-six center, whether that be via free agency or trade.  It’s no secret that the Bruins’ depth strength is on the back end.  The Bruins may be best served by utilizing their depth on the back end to address their need at center.  This does not have to happen immediately.  The smart play, however, would be to have replacements ready to assume those roles once their existing contracts expire.  The reality is that Bergeron and Krejci can’t play forever, however, and the Bruins need to improve their organizational depth at the center position in order to be prepared for that inevitable day when they are no longer contributing at the level we have been accustomed to for such a long time.

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