By: Nathan Anderson | Follow me on Twitter @dairybeast
With the NHL season just about to start, I did what I do every year with the Bruins, which is to ask myself what a realistic expectation for this team is. This helps me stay level-headed throughout the long season so that if the B’s start out in first when they should be a fourth-place team, I don’t start panicking if they drop down to third. The NHL is a crazy league, as we’ve seen in the just the last six months. With the realigned divisions, a team that wouldn’t have made the playoffs in any other division (the Canadiens) made the Stanley Cup Finals.
It’s not about where you finish in the regular season in the NHL. Being set up for a playoff run is what is most important, and in my opinion, to do that, a team needs three things. One is depth scoring, which we will all admit, I’m sure, has been the Bruins Achilles’ heel for a while now.
The second is a solid defensive core. Specifically, I think a team needs a physically strong defense. High-scoring, offensive defensemen are great for the regular season, but if you look back at the teams who have won the cup recently, they are built with big strong D-men who take care of their own end first.
Third, and probably most importantly, is goaltending. This is the make-or-break item on this checklist. A good goaltender can almost single-handedly win you a cup. If your goalie is off, however, it can make for a rough time and an early exit. How do the Bruins shape up in terms of this list? Let’s go through each of them individually and take a look.
This is probably the Bruins’ most improved area in the offseason this summer. Adding guys like Erik Haula, Nick Foligno, and Tomas Nosek should help the Bruins get more scoring from the bottom six forwards. The problem, though, is that they also lost David Krejci, who, in the Bruins’ past deep playoff runs, has been instrumental in putting the puck in the back of the net. While it’s fair to say the Bruins have more depth in their forward core, I don’t know if the depth is at a Stanley Cup champion level.
I understand that may be a bit of a confusing statement, but my concern essentially is that the level of talent in the Bruins’ forward core drops off too quickly and then is maintained at a lower level, much better than before. I think the fourth line will be better than it was previously, and the third line may be as well. I believe losing Krejci on the second line is a more considerable loss than what they gained on those bottom two lines though.
There is a way this could work out, however. If the Bruins’ second line becomes more of a shutdown line, pairing them against opposing teams’ top lines to allow the first line of Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak to excel against the other team’s lower lines could be beneficial. Then, if the Bruins’ bottom six can beat anyone else’s bottom six, it’s a net positive overall. I don’t personally think that’s how the Bruins are set up, though.
If Taylor Hall were to drop to the third line to play with Erik Haula and maybe Jake Debrusk with Nick Foligno moving up to play left-wing with Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith, the lines start looking a bit more like what I suggested. Hall, Haula, and Debrusk all have speed and can create chances. Foligno, Coyle, and Smith are all gritty guys who can help out in the defensive zone. If those two lines are the middle six, I think the Bruins could be in pretty good shape.
This is where I’m most nervous about the Bruins for the upcoming season. That may be unreasonable based on past results and the Bruins’ historical reputation as a solid defensive team. As I mentioned, though, I don’t look at the Bruins and think about how they’re going to fare in the regular season. The postseason is what matters, and I don’t think the Bruins’ current defensive six is prepared well for a deep playoff run.
The biggest problem is the lack of reinforcements. As we’ve seen, if the Bruins lose one defenseman to injury, there’s no backup plan. When that one injury is someone like Brandon Carlo, who has been a bit unlucky in recent years, the Bruins’ defensive stability plummets. This could be solved by a midseason trade or by someone like Jakub Zboril or Urho Vaakanainen stepping their game up to be more ready for NHL action.
As of now, though, I don’t think the Bruins have someone to play on the top pairing with Charlie McAvoy. I also don’t believe Charlie McAvoy is at the level yet where he can dominate games. If we think about the teams that have won recently, guys like Victor Hedman, Alex Pietrangelo, and John Carlson all logged huge minutes for the Lightning, Blues, and Capitals respectively. I don’t know if McAvoy is at that level just yet. Maybe he is, but at least in my opinion, we haven’t quite seen it just yet.
This is a big question mark that I think Don Sweeney needs to address at some point during this season. If he chooses not to address it, I think the people who want him out of the Bruins’ front office have a little bit more justification for their argument. Only time will tell, however, what route he wants to take.
It’s not very often you see a team completely revamp their goaltending situation, especially a team that has had the same guy in net for almost ten years. With Tuukka Rask’s surgery this offseason, Sweeney was forced to make a choice. He chose to go out and get someone who he believes could be the Bruins starting goaltender for the next four years, at least in Linus Ullmark. Ullmark’s $5 million per year contract would normally line him up to be the precise number one heading into the season, but after a shaky preseason, it seems as though youngster Jeremy Swayman from the University of Maine may have the slight lead in the battle for the crease.
Swayman was impressive in his debut last year, filling in towards the end of the regular season, and even made a postseason appearance finishing out Game Five of the Islanders series. It’s hard not to be worried about Swayman, though, at least in my opinion, after seeing what happened in Philadelphia with Carter Hart last year. The last thing I want to see is Swayman rushed into the starter role and then losing his confidence if things go wrong.
I also don’t love the idea of Linus Ullmark sitting on the bench with a contract like the one he signed this summer. If Swayman is going to be the starter, I would have preferred that Sweeney use the $5 million he spent on Ullmark to go out and try to sign a defenseman. That, of course, is only a scenario in which Ullmark struggles and Swayman excels. If Ullmark has a good start and earns the starting role, I think his contract will be more than validated.
Summary & Outlook
So, where does this leave us in terms of a prediction for the upcoming year? I really hate to say this or write it, I suppose, but I think the Bruins are a second-round team again as things stand now. That’s assuming they can first get into the playoffs and then get past a team like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, or Montreal Canadiens if they’re lucky enough not to have to face Tampa right away.
I don’t think the Bruins got a lot worse this offseason, if at all. We all know that’s not good enough, though. Last year’s Bruins team wasn’t ready to compete for a Cup, not by a long shot. They went into the offseason needing significant improvements to take the next step and be a cup contender, and I don’t think they did that.
I would love to be proven wrong, and it’s important to note that what I’m saying is purely based on where they stand right now. If Sweeney goes and gets a defenseman at the deadline who strengthens the defensive core, maybe that changes my outlook. If Linus Ullmark or Jeremy Swayman perform at a Vezina Trophy level, maybe that changes my perspective. If Jake DeBrusk comes back and breaks out for a 40-goal season, maybe that changes my outlook. Those are all “ifs,” though. As things stand now, I think the second round is a fair expectation.