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Perfection or Bostunned? Previewing the 2021 Boston Bruins

2021 Boston Bruins
The 2019 Eastern Conference Champions took a step back in last year’s playoffs. Was that just a blip on the radar, or a sign of things to come in Beantown? (Winslow Townson/AP)

Save for a brief blip in the middle of the decade, the Boston Bruins were clearly one of the premier teams of the 2010s. Twelve playoff series victories, three Prince of Whales Trophies, a President’s Trophy in 2014, and of course, the 2011 Stanley Cup championship. Through it all, the core of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask overcame countless foes, achieving gobs of success. They may not be a super team, but they’ve seemed like the next best thing for a while.

Though the 2020s began with another President’s Trophy and series victory, there’s no guarantee the next decade of Bruins hockey will be as successful as the last. As core pieces age and potentially prepare to exit, the Bruins will soon arrive at a crossroads. All of those years on top mean Boston isn’t blessed with waves of young reinforcements to supplement their roster. Cap space is always at a premium.

As the future of their core comes into question, succeeding in the present becomes more important than ever. The 2021 season is shaping up as one of the last shots for Boston’s best. But are the Bruins best days already behind them?

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronDavid Pastrnak
Jake DeBruskDavid KrejciCraig Smith
Anders BjorkCharlie CoyleOndrej Kase
Nick RitchieSean KuralyChris Wagner
Forwards (New Players in Bold)
Matt GrzelcykCharlie McAvoy
John MooreBrandon Carlo
Connor CliftonJeremy Lauzon
Tuukka Rask
Jaroslav Halak

Krugcial Losses

By the far, the biggest weakness for the 2021 Bruins is their left side on defense. That’s because the two guys that anchored that side of their top four are no longer under contract with the team. Zdeno Chara is a big loss (literally and figuratively), but it’s possible if not probable he ends up eventually returning to Boston. Chara is more of a name at this point, but the Bruins long-time captain is still a dependable defenseman and important in their dressing room.

But there’s no turning back when it comes to Torey Krug. Boston’s power-play quarterback and one of the league’s best offensive defensemen bolted for St. Louis this fall. The 7-year, $6.5 million contract the Blues gave Krug is pretty rich, but it seems worth it. Krug was on pace to smash through his career-high of 59 points if last season finished in full. His advanced numbers are also phenomenal; the only full-time Bruins with a better Corsi (shot attempt differential) than Krug last year were Bergeron and Marchand. And unlike St. Louis, who signed Krug to replace departing star Alex Pietrangelo, the Bruins haven’t added anyone to fill Krug’s void.

Well, not yet, anyway. The good news for the Bruins is that there are still quite a few quality defensemen on the market. Most of them are unfortunately right-handed, but Boston GM Don Sweeney should take a serious look at Sami Vatanen. He’s a right-handed shot who has played on the left side before, and his skillset is essentially the lite version of Krug’s. And considering the pandemic and flat salary cap, the Bruins could squeeze him with their $3 million of cap space.

In-jury’s Out

Not only did Boston’s back-end take a hit, their forward core is banged up heading into 2020. Two-thirds of the Perfection Line may begin 2021 on the shelf, and although the Bruins certainly have the depth to weather that storm, it still stings the B’s. David Pastrnak is projected to be out until mid-February with a right hip injury suffered during the playoffs. Brad Marchand’s surgery to repair a sports hernia; he might be back in time for the season’s January 13 start date, but it’s not guaranteed.

The good news is Boston’s forward core is somehow even deeper than it was at the start of last season (it was pretty good back then, too). Anders Bjork took a step forward, establishing himself as a full-time NHLer. Anaheim deadline imports Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase will aid the Bruins from day one this season. Kase in particular has a nice scoring touch and could thrive in the middle six (or at 1RW while Pastrnak’s out). This will be a pivotal year for Jake DeBrusk. The 24-year old’s point total has dropped each of the last two years, as he’s failed to build on an impressive 43-point rookie campaign in 2017-18.

Boston’s lone notable offseason acquisition also aids their forward core. The 3-year, $3.1 million AAV contract they signed to veteran Craig Smith may be one of free agency’s biggest bargains. Smith easily would’ve scored 20+ goals for the sixth time in seven seasons in a full season, and he’s one of the best possession players in the league. While it may not have address their defense’s deficiencies, there’s nothing wrong with supplementing a strength. Smith certainly does that.

One-Year Wonders?

While Smith is under contract through 2023, the 2021 offseason figures to be a pivotal one for the Bruins. Baring a major trade, their forward depth will likely take a hit in the Seattle expansion draft. While the 2020 Bruins look like contenders, there’s a chance the roster could look very different in the not-so distant future.

Look no further to prove this theory that Boston’s net-minders. It seems impossible to imagine Tuukka Rask wearing another team’s sweater, but he and sturdy backup Jaroslav Halak will both be unrestricted free agents. Rask surprisingly isn’t beloved in the Boston market, and the soon-to-be 34-year old won’t come cheap considering his outstanding track record.

The same “can’t imagine him elsewhere” narrative applies to life-long Boston center David Krejci. The veteran playmaker is actually Boston’s highest paid player ($7.5 million cap hit), and while he’ll certainly be in line for a pay cut, his best days are likely behind him, 2018-19 renaissance aside. Restricted free agents Kase, Ritchie, and top-four defensive defenseman Brandon Carlo will be in line for raises. And if Zdeno Chara does return for 2021, it’s likely a curtain call for the 43 (!) year old icon.

If you can beat ’em, you might as well read their season preview. At least the new divisions guarantee Toronto can lose to the Bruins in the first round again?

The Verdict

Boston’s days as a favorite will likely start to be numbered soon; it’s the circle of life for NHL contenders. However, their days at the league’s summit aren’t over just yet. The Perfection Line and a tremendously deep forward core should make sure of that. Reigning Jack Adams winner Bruce Cassidy will certainly have his group ready and able for the 2021 season after a second-round elimination to Tampa for the second time in three years.

That doesn’t mean cracks aren’t starting to show. Krug and (for now) Chara’s departures leave a significant hole on Boston’s left-side. Granted, the Bruins have enough cap space to still bring in a band-aid. Urho Vaakanainen, one of the team’s prospects, could also push for a full time role this season. 2015 1st rounder Jakub Zboril is in the same boat. But no combination of those two (and depth veterans John Moore and Kevan Miller) can make up for Krug’s lost production. Not this year, anyway.

Boston’s aforementioned strengths and strong special teams (2nd power-play, 3rd penalty kill in 2019-20) almost guarantees the club a playoff spot, even in the deep East Division. There’s too much firepower and their excellent goalie tandem should mask enough of their defensive flaws. But do they have enough for another deep run?

Honestly, seeing how teams like Toronto and Winnipeg have faired with similarly weak blue-lines, I kind of doubt it. The emergence of Matt Grzelyck (who’s played well in a sheltered role the last few seasons) or outside help could change that quickly, however. Like their local NFL team, it’s impossible to count the Bruins out until literally no evidence points to the contrary. That won’t be the case as long as Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak, Rask, and McAvoy are still operating at peak powers. But Boston would be best served winning now as their most important pieces age into their mid-late 30s.

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