As long as the Perfection Line (and Charlie McAvoy) keep producing, the rest should fit into place for the Bruins in 2021-22. (NHLI via Getty Images)

Bruins Look To Transition On Top As An Era Ends: 2021 NHL Previews

For every great team, there comes a day when you look at their roster and it seems unrecognizable. Whether it be age, the salary cap, discontentment, players you expect to stay on a team forever eventually leave. It happens to everybody at some point or another. The Boston Bruins aren’t there yet, but they’ve moved a lot farther down that road over the last calendar year. First, one of the league’s longest tenured captains in Zdeno Chara departed for Washington due to rumors of a reduced role. Their lights out power-play quarterback Torey Krug also left town for a massive payday in St. Louis. With a nearly unrecognizable blue-line and aging talents up front, Boston had some legitimate reasons to worry heading into 2020-21.

But basically all of those fears were unfounded. The Bruins put together a strong season, reaching the second round for the fourth straight year. But when the year ended, two more icons left the black and gold. While Chara was more of a name at this point of his career (still a productive player, but certainly not what he once was), David Krejci the same rock at second-line center he’d been for over a decade. Boston’s backstop for the last nine seasons Tuukka Rask is also no longer with the organization; while it’s possible Rask returns once he recovers from hip surgery around the new year, the 34-year old’s days are numbered, if not already past expiration.

So is it time for the Bruins to shift their focus to the future after making the playoffs twelve of the last fourteen years? Not quite. In fact, the Bruins could be just as good as last year, if not better. Their most important players are all coming back. And there are some new(ish) faces that could make a serious difference in their first full season as Bruins. They may not be your father’s Bruins anymore. But this year’s Boston club still expects to finish near the top of the Atlantic Division. And they also hope to play a lot more hockey after that.

Forwards (New Players In Bold)

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Taylor HallCharlie CoyleCraig Smith
Jake DeBruskTomas NosekNick Foligno
Erik HaulaCurtis LazarChris Wagner

It feels like everything that could be said about the Bruins first line already went viral in 2018. The trio of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak easily remains one of the game’s best, even as Marchand (33) and Bergeron (36) are getting up there in age. At $6 million and change each, they also represent three of the game’s biggest bargains.

That’s even considering Pastrnak was merely very good instead of truly elite last season. After missing the first eight games of the year recovering from right hip surgery, Pastrnak fell from a 56-goal, 111-point pace in 2019-20 to 34 goals and 82 points over a full season. Those numbers are still very good, of course. And it’s reasonable to expect a fully healthy Pastrnak to be closer to one of the game’s very best offensive weapons than merely an excellent top-liner. Marchand scored at a 100-point clip for the fourth straight year and Bergeron was a Selke finalist for the tenth(!) straight year. The Perfection Line may be an annoying nickname, but it’s not far off from the truth.

Those two (plus Pastrnak when he broke out in 2016-17) weren’t enough to get the 2015, 2016, or 2017 Bruins out of the first round (or the ’15 and ’16 Bruins to the playoffs at all) when the team had basically no forward depth outside of the aforementioned Krejci. Perhaps the worst thing about Krejci’s departure is we won’t get to see a full season of him alongside Taylor Hall and Craig Smith. The Bruins were a different team before (2.72 goals per game, 19th in NHL) and after (3.41 goals per game, 6th) acquiring Hall (and Curtis Lazar, a solid fourth-liner in his own right) on April 12. Hall’s speed and playmaking abilities fit well next to the trigger-happy and analytically inclined Craig Smith, who scored at a 20-goal pace for the fourth straight season (technically 19.7, but close enough).

Finding a suitable replacement for Krejci is Boston’s biggest challenge up front. The 2019 playoff version of Charlie Coyle that earned him a 6-year, $31.5 million extension needs to resurface fast. Coyle scored just 6 goals and 16 points last year, an 82-game pace of 10 and 26, respectively. His underlying numbers were also poor; Coyle was gashed defensively (team worst 2.16 Expected Goals Against per 60) and was a negative relative to his teammates by Corsi and xG, clocking it sub-50% in both categories.

Playing with Hall and Smith could help, but it’s also possible the Bruins revisit this hole at the trade deadline if Coyle isn’t an option. Jake DeBrusk could be a potential trade chip; the 24-year old was healthy scratched multiple times last season and still hasn’t reached his career-high 43 points from his rookie season (17-18). He probably doesn’t even qualified next summer if he repeats his 2020-21 campaign.

The Bruins took Krejci’s $7.25 million and spread it around to three players to help stabilize their bottom-six, which was a priority after losing Sean Kuraly to Columbus in free agency. Erik Haula’s 55-point performance with the Golden Misfits in 2017-18 is definitely an outlier at this point. But he’s a versatile bottom-sixer who can play center or the wing and move up in the lineup in a pinch thanks to having such a little bit of a scoring touch.

Speaking of ex-Golden Knights, Tomas Nosek scored a career-high 18 points in just 38 games last year. Unfortunately, that was buoyed by an improbable 13.6% shooting percentage (his career average is 8.4%) Nick Foligno should help replace some of the leadership the Bruins lost and is also still a capable and versatile bottom-sixer. But $3.8 million is a lot to pay a 33-year old that will only score about as many points as age. Especially for two years. I’d expect 23-year old Trent Frederic, a 2016 1st rounder, to play a lot for the Bruins, even if he’s not listed on this mock lineup. After all, he led the team with 65 penalty minutes last year. And the Bruins always seem to have a guy or two ready to beat someone up. Frederic certainly fits that bill, even if he hasn’t proven to be a productive NHLer yet.

Defensemen

Matt GrzelcykCharlie McAvoy
Mike ReillyBrandon Carlo
Derek ForbortConnor Clifton

Defense was my biggest area of concern for the Bruins heading into last season. The logic behind losing Chara and not ponying up for Krug was the Bruins felt they had a few young defensemen that they wanted to give regular reps to. It was a risky approach, but it worked out; Boston was one of the league’s best defensive teams basically from start to finish, ranking top 10 in goals against per game every month except for February. Part of that was goaltending; the Bruins’ .911 team save percentage ranked 5th in the NHL. But the team was second in shots allowed, third in expected goals against per 60 at 5v5, and first in xGA/60 on the PK. The 2020-21 Boston Bruins were surprisingly a defensive machine.

Yet the Bruins were still smart to make an addition to their blue-line at the deadline. Especially considering that addition was a diamond in the rough in Ottawa’s Mike Reilly. Reilly recorded a career-high 27 points in 55 games in 2020-21 (all assists!) and was third among Bruins blue-liners in time-on-ice per game in the playoffs at 21 and a half minutes. Couple that with phenomenal underlying numbers, and giving Reilly a 3 year, $9 million extension seems like an excellent decision.

Less so is giving the same contract (only this time with a modified no-trade clause) to rugged blue-liner Derek Forbort, also hailing from a Canadian team (Winnipeg). Forbort’s not a terrible player; and his style is similar to Jérémy Lauzon’s, who they lost in the Seattle expansion draft, so I understand the logic behind it. But going with an all-youth third pair of Clifton and Jakub Zboril, maybe mixing in John Moore if he could ever stay healthy (how poorly his deal has aged is a good reason to be scared about Forbort), may have been a better decision. Not to mention 22-year old Urho Vaakanainen is banging on the NHL door, and I’d hate to see a pretty uninspiring player like Forbort block his path.

Boston’s big three on defense are still in tact, now featuring a hefty 6-year, $24.6 million extension to Brandon Carlo. It’s quite a bit to give for a pretty one-dimensional defender. But I think he and Reilly could form a really nice second pair. The crown jewel is McAvoy, who should receive a massive raise at the end of the year when his bridge deal expires. Especially considering how many other GMs treated equal to marginally better/worse defenders like kings this offseason. He’s a stellar top-pair defender who can do it all; move the puck, play stout defense, quarterback a power-play, McAvoy is the answer.

Couple that with being young and a right-handed shot, and he could easily clear the $9 million AAV mark. On his left, Matt Grzelcyk is an underrated puck-mover who scored at a 44-point pace last season. That Boston’s defense was so good with he and Reilly playing just 52 combined games for the B’s is impressive; having them around for the entire year should only make this unit better.

Goaltenders

Linus Ullmark
Jeremy Swayman

Just how high you think Boston’s ceiling (and floor) are likely comes down to your thoughts on their goaltending tandem. For the first time since the lockout shortened 2012-13 season, Tuukka Rask’s name is nowhere to be found here. Rask received his fair share of criticism during his twelve seasons in Beantown; it seemed like a lot of people lost trust in him after collapsing in the second round against the Flyers in 2010 and watching Tim Thomas bring them the Cup one year later. Those people might want to know since he re-established himself as starter in 2013, Rask ranks second in the entire NHL in regular season (.920% – min. 100 games) and T-1st in playoff save percentage (.927% – min. 20 games). Rask has been elite for a while; any other conclusion is either revisionist history or flat-out ignorance. His void is a tough one to fill.

That being said, I like the way Don Sweeney went about doing just that. Linus Ullmark was one of the more intriguing names on the goalie market after consecutive seasons with a .915 SV% or better… on the Buffalo Sabres. Granted, MoneyPuck.com’s model has Ullmark in the negative for goals saved above expected in both of those seasons. But public models certainly aren’t flawless; and it’s hard to believe Buffalo’s defense has actually been propping up Ullmark’s numbers, especially ones that are so strong. A four-year, $20 million deal is a bit risky for a goalie who’s never been a true full-time starter. But Ullmark’s numbers are promising; just like the ones of another ex-Sabre who found greater success after leaving Buffalo: Robin Lehner. Lehner was also negative by GSAE in his final year with the Sabres too, just saying.

Last year’s one-off East Division featured some of the best young goaltenders in the sport. That made it easy to lose 22-year old Jeremy Swayman in the shuffle. But that should be a lot harder this year. Swayman built off an outstanding .939 SV% in his final year at the University of Maine by posting a .933 mark in 9 AHL games and a .945 in 10 NHL contests. That’s not a typo. Swayman also certainly won’t be that good in 2021-22, but he’s one of the game’s most underrated young netminders. The Bruins are so confident in his abilities they traded 24-year old Dan Vladar to Calgary to clear up the backup role for him. Considering Swayman’s numbers, it’s hard to blame them.

The Verdict

The bottom line with great teams is you never know when and how they’re going to fall off. The decline can be gradual, or it can be steep. The Bruins certainly haven’t showed many signs of slowing down lately; Boston’s 33 playoff wins over the last five years are third in the NHL. Things are getting tougher for the ever-changing Bs, though. Their best players are getting up there, and Bergeron (2022) and Pastrnak (2023) will be UFAs soon. The Atlantic Division figures to be one of the sport’s toughest. Buffalo and Detroit are hopeless. But the other four of the other five teams have designs on a deep playoff run. And even Ottawa seems ready to get out of the basement after a strong finish to 2020-21.

Replacing the production the Bruins have lost will be tough. But as long as the players they still have remain productive (bouncebacks from DeBrusk and especially Coyle would be especially helpful; 2C is definitely my biggest area of concern), it’s hard to see this being the year the Bruins fall off. In fact, solid forward depth and an intriguing but unproven goaltending tandem give the Bruins the potential to do more than merely hang on in 2021-22. After two solid playoff runs that Boston fans must think are unsatisfactory (no conference finals appearances since 2019? *Gasp*), Boston still has the potential to get back over the hump with what remains of their core one again this season. Whether they do so remains to be seen.

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