By: Kyle O’Rourke | Follow Me on Twitter @k_orourke15
At the moment, there is no certainty when, or if, the 2020-21 NHL season will be played. While we wait patiently for the players and owners to agree to terms on next season, we can look ahead to what the Bruins will look like after some significant offseason changes. Now that the offseason moves are (mostly) complete, here are my ten biggest questions about the 2020-21 Boston Bruins:
1. Is Ondrej Kase the right-winger of the future for David Krejci?
The running joke surrounding this organization since Nathan Horton’s departure has been that Krejci’s right-wing is a revolving door. The most recent face of this experiment is the newly-acquired Ondrej Kase.
Along with Nick Ritchie, Kase was brought in at last season’s trade deadline from Anaheim. While he lived up to his reputation as a shot-creator, he was unable to find the back of the net as a Bruin. In fairness to the 25-year-old, he played just six games for the black and gold before the league halted play in March.
When the season resumed in the Toronto bubble, Kase and Krejci seemed to have found a connection. Kase registered 27 shots in 11 games but, despite the chances, still could not register a goal. However, it was the chances that gave Bruins fans, and maybe Head Coach Bruce Cassidy, a reason to be optimistic. Assuming he maintains his position as Krejci’s right-wing, can they channel a Czech-connection once again and provide some secondary scoring? As great as the chances and shots are, they mean absolutely nothing if they never result in goals.
2. How will Jake DeBrusk respond after being given some security?
Speaking of the second line, the ink is not yet dry on Jake DeBrusk’s two-year, $7.35 million contract. One of the most polarizing players on the Bruins, DeBrusk is going to need to show some consistency in order to earn himself a contract beyond this current one.
DeBrusk will always have the dark rain cloud that is the 2015 NHL Draft lingering over his head. Bruins fans do not look back fondly on where those three first-round picks ended up, and DeBrusk takes a large share of the blame. However, DeBrusk is by far the most successful player of the three (Jakub Zboril and Zach Senyshyn are the others). He has had both memorable playoff goals — most recently against the Hurricanes in the bubble — and some forgetful playoff series.
If both DeBrusk and Kase raise their games to a new level this season, and Krejci stays as consistent as ever, this second line will be a matchup nightmare for opposing teams. It is a Bruins fan’s dream to have multiple lines that consistently put pressure on opposing teams. So, will Debrusk be able to show some consistency now that he has that extra year of security on his contract?
3. Is this Tuukka Rask’s last season in Boston/the NHL?
The former Vezina Trophy winner is coming off another strong statistical season, but a season that left some Bruins fans questioning his desire to play hockey. Recency bias may prevent those very same Bruins fans from recalling that, before the season shut down in March, Rask was a key part of the Bruins leading the NHL in points. Along with Jaroslav Halak, Boston had, arguably, the best goaltending duo in the entire league.
However, Rask’s decision to leave the bubble prematurely is likely what Bruins fans, and executives, will remember from this season. While it is unfair to fault the goaltender for wanting to tend to his family in a time of need, his decision does point to a larger question of how long does Rask really want to play for? In a conversation with The Boston Globe writer, Matt Porter, the 33-year-old stated, “I have one year left in the contract, so we’ll see if I even play.” When Porter followed up by asking if that was a real possibility, Rask told him, “We’ll see. Always a possibility.”
Unless Rask is giving Boston’s General Manager, Don Sweeney, and Team President Cam Neely, some behind-the-scenes commitment, you have to wonder if the team looks to move their franchise cornerstone at the trade deadline (whenever that may be for this season). If they did decide to part ways with Rask after his previous comments and decided to leave the bubble earlier this year, what would his trade value be? Would teams be willing to take a chance and give up assets for a non-committal goaltender turning 34 in a few short months?
4. How do the Bruins replace the offense lost from Krug’s departure?
It is no secret that Don Sweeney’s biggest and most polarizing offseason move — possibly in the history of his tenure as GM — was not re-signing Torey Krug. Krug’s departure leaves a massive hole on the left side of the defense and the powerplay. While some may argue that Krug’s defensive game left something to be desired, it would be difficult to argue against the boost he provided the Bruins’ offense from the backend. Whether he was racing up the ice with the puck looking to make an entry-pass or firing slap shots from the point, he typically made his presence felt in the offensive zone.
Now that his offense is no longer there, who will step up to replace it? I assume that it will not come from just one defenseman, but multiple. Sweeney made it clear when he let Krug walk, and subsequently did not sign a veteran left-shot defenseman to replace him, that he was putting his trust in the Bruins’ young talent. Players like Urho Vaakanainen or the previously-mentioned Jakub Zboril are the most likely replacements. However, Vaakanainen took a bit of a step back in his development last year, and Zboril has not been able to stay up with the NHL Bruins. Sweeney is making a bold decision, and if it does not prove to be the correct one, then his seat should get very warm very quickly.
5. What will the powerplay look like without Krug?
One of the other pivotal roles Torey Krug played on this team was acting as the point man for their power-play unit(s). He was able to dictate the flow from the blue line and look for holes to fire the occasional slap shot on net. So, who fills that void?
The probable candidate would be Matt Gryzelcyk, who is touted as a fantastic skater and puck-mover. While filling in for Krug on the power play is no easy task, the good news for the Massachusetts native is that he will likely have David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron on the first powerplay unit as passing options. Players like that should help to ease Gryzelcyk’s burden and put plenty of pucks in nets. However, if Pastrnak and Marchand are sidelined recovering from surgeries to start the season, does that affect Gryzelcky’s ability to get comfortable in that role?
6. Will Craig Smith provide the scoring depth the Bruins need?
While not re-signing Torey Krug was Don Sweeney’s headline decision this offseason, he did make a pretty significant addition that the Krug situation overshadows. The Bruins signed right-wing free agent Craig Smith to a three-year deal at $3.1 million AAV (Average Annual Value).
Smith will most likely slot in next to Charlie Coyle and help bolster the Bruins’ third line. While in Nashville, Smith was not afraid to fire pucks on net and has registered just under 1,700 total shots in his nine-year career. His recent highlights should have Bruins’ fans excited for some more potential scoring depth:
As I mentioned with Kase, chances and shots are well and good, but if they do not lead to goals, then it is nothing more than wasted effort. Hopefully, Smith can transfer his finishing ability to Boston and take some of the pressure off of Coyle.
7. How will Coyle’s play look with a shoot-first player like Smith on his wing?
It is no secret that Charlie Coyle has had to do the lion’s share of work on the third line in order for it to produce. Much like David Krejci, Coyle has had a bit of a revolving door when it comes to his linemates. He has been the steady presence behind the top-two lines while other players have had trouble sticking.
Smith should prove as another constant besides Coyle, and hopefully, the two can form some chemistry with a shortened pre-season likely approaching. Coyle’s playmaking ability, combined with Smith’s shoot-first mentality, could prove to be a big help for Boston. Assuming Anders Bjork is the final piece of that line, and he bounces back after a very disappointing playoff performance, the Bruins should have the ability to expose some holes in the bottom-six of opponents’ lineups.
8. Who will be the biggest pleasant surprise for the team?
There are a few candidates that have a prime opportunity to end the season as the player that played to a level most people likely would not have expected him to achieve. Some that come to mind are the aforementioned DeBrusk, Gryzelcyk, and Smith. However, if a guy like David Pastrnak repeats his Rocket Richard-winning season, Bruins fans will be ecstatic. While they certainly expect him to play well and score goals, being in the mix for the league’s top goal scorer for the second year in a row is no easy feat. That would certainly qualify as a pleasant surprise.
Another name to keep an eye on Charlie McAvoy. Assuming Zdeno Chara is not returning as McAvoy’s partner on the top defensive pairing, there is a real opportunity for the 22-year-old to shine. It had been no secret for the past couple of seasons that Chara had lost a step or two as he aged into his forties. It could be argued that McAvoy had to pick up some of the Captain’s slack and, as a result, was unable to thrive in his own right. Well, now McAvoy no longer has that burden, and he could be given a partner in Matt Gryzelcyk that is both a phenomenal skater and puck-mover.
9. If Zdeno Chara does not return, who will step up as a leader?
Chara has worn the Captain’s “C” on his sweater for over a decade. It was a period that saw the Bruins have one of the most competitive runs in the franchise’s storied history. Through three Stanley Cup Finals appearances and one championship, Chara led the way through them all.
As it stands now, Chara is not a member of the Boston Bruins. That means, if they start the season without him on their roster, the team will look to don a new Captain. The most predictable choice is Patrice Bergeron, who has worn the “A” on his sweater for longer than Chara had even been in Boston. He has never been anything more than a consummate professional and a lead-by-example kind of player for the Bruins.
However, some under-the-radar names that could step up and fill the 6’9″ leadership void are players like Charlie McAvoy and Charlie Coyle. Both Charlies have been members of the Bruins for at least a couple of seasons now and, as previously mentioned, have opportunities to raise their games to the next level. The chance is there for both players to lead by example and bring intensity to every game. If they each are able to step up, Boston will likely dictate the pace of play in every game they play.
10. Did Boston do enough this offseason to keep pace with the heavy hitters of the Eastern Conference?
You would struggle to find a Bruins fan who was satisfied with how the 2019-20 season concluded. The fanbase was hungry for an offseason that bolstered the roster and put the team on the same level as the Lightning, who made short work of the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. It is no secret that during their Stanley Cup Final run two seasons ago, the matchups in the playoffs broke perfectly for Boston. The Bruins did not get so lucky last season, and we all saw what happened. So, did Don Sweeney do enough to make his team competitive?
On paper, my answer is no. The addition of Craig Smith and the re-signing of Jake DeBrusk is not going to put you on that level. Torey Krug, who was clearly a coveted asset, walked for nothing in return. Sweeney is putting a great, great deal of faith in his younger, unproven players. If I were in his position, I do not think I would take that gamble with the last year(s) of the Bergeron, Krejci, and Rask window.
With that being said, hockey games, especially in the playoffs, are not won on paper. If the unproven defensemen and young forwards do step up and contribute regularly, then the sky is the limit. The greatest strength Tampa Bay has is its depth. If the Bruins are able to roll out four consistently-producing lines, as they did in 2011, I see no reason why they should not be hoisting Lord Stanley over their heads at the end of the season.