By: Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio
The National Hockey League playoffs ended, crowning the Tampa Bay Lightning the champions. The Bruins were handed an early exit loss by the champs and headed for an enticing off-season. The rumor mill swirled with the Bruins being the forefront of most conversations, but alas, the Bruins made one splash in Craig Smith. The Bruins were rumored to be front runners for several free agents, none of which came to fruition. The front office made it clear in their lack of signings that their current group is their strongest option for this season.
A week after the organization passed on almost every free agent, a report came out with Bruins fans feeling even more anxious.
The Bruins will likely be without 67% of their top line to begin the season. David Pastrnak had a mysterious injury in the playoffs, and his surgery may shed light as to what was ailing him. He is slated to miss five months from September 16, which would place him back in the lineup around February 16. Brad Marchand did not miss a game in the playoffs, which leads us to believe he had been playing through the injury that his surgery required. He is expected to miss four months from September 14, which places him in the lineup a month before Pastrnak.
The NHL has yet to announce their start date, but reports suggest New Years Day will be opening day. There is still plenty to figure out by the NHL and NHLPA before skates hit the ice, but one thing is clear, the Bruins will be without their two top performers to begin next season. Marchand and Pasta accounted for 30% of the Bruins point total last season (182 points). Given their injury timelines, what will the Bruins’ lineups look like in the first half of the season?
Marchand’s timeline is much shorter than Pasta’s, but his readiness will depend on his recovery. Black n Gold writer Joey Patridge wrote a piece last month predicting what the Bruins opening night lineup could look like. Joey predicts Anders Bjork and Jack Studnicka will surround Patrice Bergeron on line one. These two players would benefit significantly from Bergeron’s expertise and veteran status. Bjork and Studnicka are entering major developmental seasons, especially Bjork and his injury history. Bruce Cassidy’s willingness to give young players just as many opportunities as veterans makes this lineup possible. I would be willing to bet that Cassidy gives Bjork LW1 duties, as Joey predicts, but newly-signed Craig Smith as RW1.
According to Natural Stat Trick, Bjork played 19:37 minutes alongside Bergeron last season. He’s been exposed to a small dose of Patrice’s style and is being handed opportunities to succeed. He recently signed a 3-year, $4.8M extension. The Bruins like what they see, and this year could prove beneficial for both parties.
Craig Smith is listed as a center on Hockey Reference but has been featured on the wing throughout his career. The 31-year old Wisconsin native has played for the Nashville Predators since his draft year in 2009. Smith was mainly used as the Preds’ third-line center, a position the Bruins don’t need. His versatility allows the Bruins to use him on the wing without skipping a beat. He has 330 points in 661 career games, scoring over 20 goals in five of his nine seasons. The Bruins have desperately needed more 5v5 depth scoring, and Smith delivers in that department.
The remainder of the lines could feature David Krejci with Jake DeBrusk (barring his contract situation) and Ondrej Kase on the second line. Charlie Coyle with Jack Studnicka and Karson Kuhlman on the third line and Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner, and Nick Ritchie on the fourth line. Ritchie is a safe bet, although newly-signed winger Greg McKegg could replace him on the fourth line.
Head Coach Bruce Cassidy has a strategy that his predecessor was unwilling to experiment with. He has no shame in switching up players throughout the lineup for future games and between periods. Cassidy will almost certainly tamper with his lines if a line is not producing or gives up a costly goal. This strategy can help the younger players looking to make a name for themselves, like Studnicka.
When Marchand returns in mid-to-late January, the odd man out on L1 will likely be Bjork. He could switch to Bergeron’s right-side, as Cap Friendly lists Bjork as left and right-wing, but it’s more likely Cassidy will shift him down to the third line with Coyle, replacing Kuhlman. Marchand, Bergeron, and Smith can build a strong rapport while Pastrnak heals.
When the Bruins get Pastrnak back, Cassidy will have the lineup that General Manager Don Sweeney believes is the best for the Bruins. The top line will be reunited; the second line will remain untouched, Coyle will gain Smith as a winger, and the rest is where it gets tricky. Most of it depends on injuries and player progression, but for the sake of argument, Studnicka is outperforming his expectations. He will fill the last hole on Coyle’s line, and Kuraly, Wagner, and (hopefully) Zach Senyshyn will be the fourth line bruisers. There’s been some talk that Trent Frederic should receive a look on the fourth line. The only problem is, who do you sit given the lineup above?
Sensyhyn is entering a year where he’s under the microscope. Every Bruin fan (and most of the NHL) wants to see what Don Sweeney saw in Senyshyn over Matthew Barzal, Kyle Connor, and Brock Boeser. Senyshyn is also entering his first contract year and will be a restricted free agent. He should be allowed a chance to compete, and hopefully, wins the spot. Frederic’s best opportunity to get into the lineup is an injury, or a player’s game is unpredictably too inconsistent.
If the Bruins’ lineup is anything close to this makeup, Cassidy’s draft capital will be put to the test. Their defense is still a big question mark as well, given Zdeno Chara has yet to re-sign. Sweeney re-signed Kevan Miller and allowed Torey Krug to sign with the St. Louis Blues. Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk will likely be the first pairing, Jeremy Lauzon and Brandon Carlo as the second pair, and (hopefully) Chara and Clifton as the third. Thankfully, the Bruins goaltending is not an issue as Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak will continue their tandem dominance.
There are many questions the Bruins are facing heading into another season. Sweeney didn’t address the needs exposed against Tampa Bay and, instead, will look to the depth of the organization to fill. It is a risky move given the aging veterans’ futures and the uncertainty that COVID brings, and how an 82-game season will play out in four months. Hopefully, the Bruins have enough internal depth to ensure a successful season.