By: Scott Wood | Follow me on Twitter @ScottHoHPodcast
The Bruins are back with a new look and different line strategy after a 15-day break, and so far, it seems to have served them well. The most significant change to the roster (aside from being full and healthy) is a new set of lines designed to spread talent and ditch the current identity of a “one-line team.”
The most notable change was what many have been calling for. David Pastrnak was moved to the second line, while Craig Smith was bumped up to play with the dynamic duo of Marchand and Bergeron. While the rationale for this was a simple one that stemmed from seeing how much more effective Hall was when he skated the top line during a recent three-game suspension to Brad Marchand, it was much more than that.
Not only was this designed to help an underwhelming Hall, who at the time had only one even-strength goal and 14 points in 26 games, but also to help wingers Craig Smith and David Pastrnak find their respective games. Pastrnak (currently fourth on the team in scoring with eight goals and 21 points) hasn’t been terrible, but we also haven’t seen the carefree dominance in his game all season long. Whether it’s giving up a prime shot to force a pass, or on the flip-side, (mis)firing from bad angles, hitting goaltenders already set, or missing the net entirely, Pasta has yet to find a proper rhythm to his game in 2021-22. With the pressure of being off the Bruins’ “one line,” this should give him a little bit of space and a different look to help him round into form.
Craig Smith, with only two goals and seven points to start the year, had a similarly rough start to last season before briefly moving up to the top line mid-season and finally settling into the right of Hall and David Krejci. The talent and tenacity for Smith have never waned even during the lean times statistically, but there was a commonality between his struggles last season and this one. He’s never been able to put up numbers with Charlie Coyle, a center who likes to carry the puck and maintain possession, while Smith takes every opportunity he gets to fire shots on net. While Smith is no Pastrnak in the goal-scoring aptitude department, his presence on the top line shouldn’t slow the chemistry that Marchand and Bergeron have forged over the years.
The last significant change saw Charlie Coyle sent back to the third line, with Erik Haula moved up to take his place between Hall and Pastrnak. Coyle, for his part, has done everything that’s been asked for him as the second-line center, and in just over the first quarter of this season (28 games, eight goals, 16 points), he has already matched his production from the entirety of last season (51 games, six goals, 16 points in 2020-21). While he wasn’t the problem on that second line, moving him down to the third helps spread the offense even further by providing a consistent threat as a driving force with wingers Jake DeBrusk and Nick Foligno. By sliding into Coyle’s place between two stars on the second line, Haula hopes to jump-start what has been an abysmal start to his year. Haula’s single goal and paltry five points before these changes have led to him being a prime target of those most critical of Sweeney’s signings in the off-season.
While it is too soon to take victory laps, the early returns on this realignment are promising. After a slow start against the Buffalo Sabres (behind 3-1 going into the third period) on Saturday, the Bruins finished their weekend by winning games in two ways we aren’t used to seeing.
A comeback victory being down two goals against the Sabres with a big overtime goal from Charlie Coyle was the first time this season the Bruins had overcome such a deficit in the final frame. They were sluggish and unsure in the first 40 minutes, which led many fans to believe the shuffling of the lines to be akin to deck chairs on a sinking Titanic. But the third period was dominated by the Bruins. The turnaround came after witnessing a unicorn that was a goal off the stick of Nick Foligno, his first of the season.
The following afternoon, the Bruins continued their domination by defeating the Detroit Red Wings in convincing fashion 5-1. However, more encouraging than the score was who was doing the scoring, as the charge was not from the usual suspects of the “Production Line.” It instead came from the likes of Erik Haula (just his second goal of the year), Tomas Nosek (his third) and Trent Frederic (like Foligno the game before, his first tally of 2021-22).
In two games, the Bruins managed nine goals, with only two coming via the top line, and one of those by newly implanted member Craig Smith on a gritty effort in front of the net.
These last couple of games are what one would imagine Sweeney envisioned when he signed depth players like Foligno, Haula, and Nosek in the off-season. A Bruins team with four lines that can beat you and a consistent, speedy attack that can play three zones for 60 minutes a game. Krejci’s replacement “center by committee” was never intended to mean “Coyle and no one else ever,” and despite the lack of production from most of his free-agent signings, what should never have been in doubt is that these are good players who happen to underachieving.
And while it’s only two games, it’s promising. The ask now is for Cassidy to resist the temptation to fix what isn’t broken. Stick with this strategy, and perhaps we’ll finally see what this Bruins team is truly capable of.