By: Kevin O’Keefe | Follow me on Twitter @Kevin_OKeefe89
With the frenzy of free agency starting to simmer, rumors and signings are starting to wind down. So far, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has made a whirlwind of signings to address some of the team’s biggest needs heading into the 2021-2022 NHL season.
On the opening day of free agency, Sweeney was able to acquire key pieces to reconstruct the bottom-six forward group and sign a left-shot defenseman to help with depth on the left side of the blue line. While these moves were being made…. many Bruins fans were elated with joy thinking of the possibilities this newly constructed forward group could bring going into next season. That was until David Krejci announced he would be returning home to play in his homeland of the Czech Republic.
Krejci’s departure has undoubtedly created a void in the top-six that can’t be easily filled this upcoming season. The question now is…what will Sweeney do about this newly formed hole in the Bruins line up? The answer to this question may not be popular, but it is strongly believed that he will use a “center by committee” approach when it comes to replacing Krejci at the second-line center position. If Sweeney does indeed decide to go this route, what are the likely scenarios we could see to begin the season?
The first idea that comes to mind is that Sweeney will replace Krejci with the next highest-paid center in Charlie Coyle. Coyle, the Bruins third-line center, was paid handsomely with a brand-new contract to the tune of a $5.25 AAV over six years. One would have to think with a contract that large, Coyle should be able to step up and take that role with ease.
That’s not the case here…Coyle has yet to prove he can be that guy, and wasting a year of this closing cup window on that experiment seems counterproductive. Coyle has the skills and toolset to become a top-six center in this league, but it’s up to him to put it all together and prove he deserves that shot.
What about two of the brand-new forwards acquired in Nick Foligno and Erik Haula? Both players have seen time at the second-line center position in the past, could one of these two create just enough offense to balance out that scoring throughout the lineup? Foligno is no stranger to the top-six. Throughout his years in Columbus and his brief stint in Toronto, Foligno found himself used frequently in that role. Being a versatile forward, Foligno can slot himself in on any wing or at center when needed.
Haula also has the capability of switching from center to wing. In the Vegas expansion year. Haula found himself centering the Golden Knight’s second line and put up 29-goals and 55-points en route to a Stanley cup final appearance. That is exactly what the Bruins could use this season after losing veteran center David Krejci. Trying these two could yield favorable results and may end up being the best option available if Sweeney doesn’t make a deal to bring in a more viable second-line-center option. There is a dark horse for the job, though. One that would solve a lot of problems for the Bruins now and for the future…. that player is Jack Studnicka.
Studnicka has yet to put it all together at the NHL level to this point but has shown flashes of what he can accomplish at this level of play. He has been solid for the Providence Bruins scoring 24-goals and 61-points through 76-games played in his AHL career. These are promising numbers for the young center, and after putting on a reported 10 pounds of muscle this off-season, you may see Studnicka get his chance in the Bruins lineup this October.
Starting him off in a third-line position would be preferable, but if Studnicka has a strong training camp, he may get his shot in the second-line role sooner than we all thought. This would be the best-case scenario for a Bruins team that desperately needs youth at this position. With Krejci off to the Czech Republic and Bergeron being up there in age, having a guy like Studnicka blossom into a top-six position would be some serious luck for the Bruins, who don’t have much top-end young talent in their system.
Now that we know the in-house options, what could the opening night lineup look like? This is assuming Debrusk is still a Bruin and that no other moves are made, of course. Whatever Cassidy decides to do, he needs to make sure this lineup is built for scoring depth throughout the lineup. This team can’t go back to one line creating a majority of the team’s offense. You also need to look at a guy like Taylor Hall, will you get the best out of him by placing him with two middle-six players at best? I’m not entirely convinced of that. Here’s what my lineup would look like going into opening night, assuming Debrusk is still here and Studnicka doesn’t wow anyone at camp.
Why break up the first line? For me, it has to do with creating balanced scoring opportunities throughout your lineup. Having “duos” set up on each of your top three lines could lead to that much-needed balance. Marchand and Bergeron on the top-line is a no-brainer. These two have the most chemistry together out of any players on this team.
They have been attached at the hip since Marchand made his name in the top-six; breaking that up would be foolish. My reason for putting smith next to them is based on the small six-game sample size from last season when this trio was together. Smith was able to rope together his best stretch of the season, putting up 8-points in 6-games-played. This, to me, seems like the right fit for Craig Smith to get the best production out of him.
The next pair would be Hall and Pastrnak. While these two players may not have chemistry built up to this point, it’s hard to see any reason why they wouldn’t. Hall, like Marchand, can shift the momentum of a game and turn nothing into a prime offensive chance off the rush. Hall is an elite playmaker with a good shot that drives offense. That’s the type of player Pastrnak has been accustomed to over the years playing on the first line alongside Brad Marchand. Pastrnak would benefit from Hall’s style of play, and those two together could create a dynamic pair that would light up opposing team’s second lines on a nightly basis.
Foligno has the top-six experience over all others replacement candidates in the lineup, averaging over 18 minutes of ice time per game last season with the Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs. He still has gas left in the tank to provide these types of minutes for the Bruins in their top-six. On average, over an 82-game season, you could expect Foligno to post anywhere between 30-35 points, put him between two first-line players, and you may see Foligno have one of his best campaigns in years. His strength and physicality may also have players thinking twice about taking a run at either Pastrnak or Hall.
The last duo to mention would be Coyle and Haula. Coyle is coming off a down year which saw him post only 16-points over 51-games-played. At $5.25 million per season, you’d expect a lot more production out of Coyle. Between the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact Coyle was playing most of the season on an injured knee, I think it’s safe to say we could see a bounce-back year for the Weymouth-Massachusetts-native. Giving him a versatile forward like Haula to play with may just be the spark to ignite Coyles fire. Haula is a quick, gritty forward who loves to get into the dirty areas to get his opportunities.
A big heavy-puck-possession guy in Coyle loves to make offensive opportunities available to guys who can find those hard to get to areas in front of the net. There may be some untapped chemistry to explore here as well since both Coyle and Haula suited up for the Wild at the same time. Could we see a match made in heaven for both players that could provide some bottom-six scoring depth? I absolutely believe so. Debrusk is also looking for a bounce-back year and could benefit greatly from having these two lined up next to him.
Of course, this isn’t the only lineup that could garner the results needed to contend for a cup. Haula could do great at the second-line center as well. The Bruins could also elect to go out and trade for a better option to replace Krejci. This would allow you to have an even better third line consisting of Foligno-Haula-Coyle. However, Sweeney and Bruins head coach, Bruce Cassidy, decide to go about this; let’s hope it leads to balanced scoring throughout the lineup. This season will be nothing but full of excitement to see how the new-look Bruins fare in this heavy Atlantic Division.