By: Michael DiGiorgio | Follow Me On Twitter @BostonDiGiorgio
It’s officially 2021, and a new NHL season is upon us. The NHL and NHLPA agreed to begin the NHL season on January 13, 2020, and play a 56-game season ending in May. The number of games isn’t the only feature uncomparable from normal years; the divisions will differ.
The NHL designed four divisions that limit travel between its 31 teams to help stop any further COVID spread. The teams will only play within their own new division, which means the Bruins won’t see the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs in the regular season.
Even further, the Bruins will play each team eight times, and the top four teams in each division will advance to the playoffs. The first two rounds of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs will feature interdivisional games between the top four seeds (1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 3), seeded by their regular-season point total.
The Bruins have been dealt a hefty order. Due to Boston’s location, the Bruins are playing teams geographically closest to them. Buffalo is the only team in the new division that the Bruins regularly clash with during normal NHL seasons. Boston will face-off against Alexander Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby (when he’s healthy), Mathew Barzal, Travis Konecny, PK Subban, Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, and first-overall choice, Alex Lafreniere eight times each.
In the past three years, the Bruins’ head-to-head records (W-L-OTL) against each of these teams are as follows:
Buffalo Sabres – 7-4-1
New Jersey Devils: 7-1-1
New York Islanders: 8-0-1
New York Rangers: 5-2-2
Philadelphia Flyers: 4-1-4
Pittsburgh Penguins: 5-3-1
Washington Capitals: 2-5-2
As the numbers suggest, Boston held their own against each team, except for the Capitals, who have been a recurring nightmare. Each team has gone through its regular turnover this off-season, and the Bruins are no exception. So the biggest question remains, where will the Bruins finish in their division?
Over the past three seasons, the Bruins have finished either first or second in the Eastern Conference. The Tampa Bay Lightning secured the top spot when the Bruins finished second in these three years. Thankfully, the Bruins don’t have to play the reigning Stanley Cup Champions until the playoffs.
It might be wishful thinking to suggest another top seed for the Bruins’ future because they’re not in the same division as previous years and have endured a few unexpected changes. Torey Krug left Boston for St. Louis in free agency for a head-scratching contract. St. Louis offered Krug 6-years, $45.5M, a contract the Bruins could have afforded. The Bruins’ motive to allow their depth to crack at the lineup became clear after they didn’t approach Krug once the free agency period began.
The Bruins did sign Craig Smith, who will help their top-nine forward group out, especially in 5v5 scoring. Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak are both out to start the season, and the latter may not return until mid-February. Given the season is only 56 games, Pastrnak could end up missing half of the season. One of my Black n Gold colleagues wrote a piece predicting the opening night lines. These lines could become the Bruins’ best option until their top goal scorer returns.
Last night, the Bruins let their 14-year captain walk to another team within the new division.
Chara would have helped the Bruins back end depth and experience, but the Bruins clearly want to rely on their up and comers. The Bruins’ farm system needs to step up. In fact, the Bruins could be looking at three players on their defense that have not eclipsed 100 career games: Connor Clifton, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril.
With all of these changes, the Bruins are likely to find themselves in the third or fourth spot in the division, just barely getting into the playoffs. The Capitals are most likely to claim the top spot in the division, with the Flyers not far behind them. Most teams in their division made moves to improve their teams this offseason, while the Bruins let more impactful players go than they added.
The Capitals lost Braden Holtby but answered for him in net with Ilya Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist if the latter is cleared to play. They also added Zdeno Chara, who will help the penalty kill and shut down the opposition’s best.
The Devils received Andreas Johnsson from Toronto and Ryan Murray from Columbus to help their back end. They also signed veteran goaltender, Corey Crawford, to help Mackenzie Blackwood stay fresh. The Rangers selected first overall this year, taking the unanimous number one, Alex Lafreniere.
The Sabres won the Taylor Hall sweepstakes, making their top-six arguably better than the Bruins. The Islanders bring in their highly-touted goaltending prospect, Ilya Sorokin, to share the load with Semyon Varlamov.
As it stands today, the Bruins roster has glaring holes. Their top-six forward group still has much to prove. Players like Jack Studnicka, Zach Senyshyn, and Trent Frederic need to take massive steps forward. While Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk need to show us why they’re worthy of their new contracts. The defensive core is depleted on the left-side with John Moore being their most seasoned veteran behind Matt Grzelcyk. Their bottom six is also in flux given the injuries and who the Bruins have chose to invest in (i.e., Nick Ritchie, Greg McKegg, Par Lindholm).
The Bruins have too many moving parts and variables to confidently say they’ll be a top team in their division. General Manager Don Sweeney has taken a peculiar approach this off-season, seeming to set up a system that relies on its farm. That could be a recipe for disaster and force him to make a move at the deadline, making us all wonder why he didn’t do it sooner.
Boston’s going to look different nonetheless this year with Krug’s and Chara’s departures. Their one constant is the goaltending in Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. The former Williams Jenning trophy winners will have to step up in almost every game to mask the current shortfalls. Two things are for certain, hockey is back, and the Bruins are still contenders. It’s just a matter of how long will the Bruins continue to be contenders given their roster makeup?