Bruins basking in the fountain of youth

Bruins basking in the fountain of youth

Building Back the Bruins is a five-part series in which we'll examine the slow, difficult process of turning the team back into a perennial Stanley Cup contender. Today we look at the injection of youth into the lineup and where things are headed in the future.
One stat that tells quite a story for the Boston Bruins: A whopping 11 players suited up for their first Stanley Cup playoff game in the B's first-round series against Ottawa. That inexperience is one of the reasons Boston was ousted in six games, but it also speaks to a youth movement that helped the team make the playoffs for the first time in three years . . . and is gaining traction.


The 11 picks the Bruins made in the first and second rounds of the last three NHL drafts have replenished the prospect cupboard, and this was the season they began to see dividends. David Pastrnak busted through and helped carry the Bruins offense in his third season. Brandon Carlo developed into a bona-fide, top-4 shutdown defenseman while essentially making the jump from junior hockey to the NHL with minimal minor-league grooming. And Charlie McAvoy hopped onto the moving train in the playoffs and left zero doubts he'll be the team's No. 1 defenseman a couple of years down the line. The ability to average 26 minutes a night in the playoffs, to move the puck with skill and poise while looking for offense and playing in every situation, made all those comparisons between McAvoy and Drew Doughty seem more reality than fantasy. It also fueled hopes the Bruins have found the answer to their biggest organizational need. (Now he just needs to go out and do it for training camp, 82 regular-season games and the playoffs next season as a true 20-year-old rookie. No problem, right?)

And this is all in addition to hard-hitting fourth liner Noel Acciari (undrafted free agent out of Providence College), Game 5 hero Sean Kuraly (acquired in the Martin Jones trade to San Jose), Tim Schaller (minor-league free agent) and young veterans like Ryan Spooner, Colin Miller and Frank Vatrano.

Clearly the youthful transfusion of energy, enthusiasm and -- most importantly -- talent, replentished the team's talent base after so many fallow drafts under Peter Chiarelli. It's making a difference both in the points column and in the salary cap world, as the younger, less-expensive players provide their own version of cap relief.

"I feel really good about [the direction of the team]," said captain Zdeno Chara, who, at 40, is old enough to be a father to young D-men protégés like Carlo and McAvoy. "I mentioned that after [Game 6] that the way that the younger players really stepped up this season, especially in the playoffs, it's a great sign for the team and the organization, obviously.

"There is a lot to look forward to in the upcoming season. It's something for sure that the scouting team and the management can be very proud of. There's so much talent in the room that is coming up."

It's all a credit to the Bruins scouting staff, to general manager Don Sweeney's plan to rebuild the prospect chest by making deals for draft picks, and to the three draft classes headed by top scout Keith Gretzky before he left to take an assistant GM job under Chiarelli in Edmonton. It remains to be seen how instrumental the Great One's brother was in the efforts to rebuild Boston's prospect base, but in any case we saw the first wave of young talent crash into TD Garden. Several more should follow.

Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs said very accurately at the end-of-the-season press conference that the B's have "a significantly different profile in terms of who we have in prospects than we did say 24 months ago." 

"[Sweeney's] work ethic is second to none and he thinks not just short term about the team, but also long term when he sat down with us and kind of laid out what he thought was a vision of how to get our team back to where we want to be, and in a sustainable period of time," said Bruins president Cam Neely. "Having said that, he also said there would be some bumps along the way, especially early, and there have been.

"Would everybody like to look back and make different decisions? Yeah, we all would. Don's no different. But, the overall package for me, with Don, is I think he's done a really good job of directing certain people in the organization to what we're looking for. Where the team is right now and where it looks to be going, I think the future is bright [for the Bruins]."

Now Sweeney and the Bruins look to push harder in the regular season and postseason. Just getting back to the playoffs is no longer good enough.

"I don't think just putting a young player in the lineup for the sake of just describing the fact that you want to play young players is the right thing to do," said Sweeney. "They have to be young players in order to do that, they deserve the opportunity and take advantage of the opportunity. They have to push another player out of a job. I've always felt that way, a team that's deep enough that you have internal competition and those players to push other players out of the way because they're ready. I think we're moving in that direction."

So what's the bottom line?

Next season, players like Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Jake DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn and possibly Anders Bjork may push their way into the picture for a team that could use a few more good forwards. The Bruins need to continue to get better at asset management when it comes to NHL trades, and they need to use caution when it comes to overpaying aging free agents after giving five years at big money to David Backes last summer.

But one area where Sweeney has already shown to be a hockey mind worthy of his Harvard degree is in the area of drafting and player development. It took a few years for that piece to take hold after Sweeney and Neely assumed full control of the team. They survived the bumpy ride for the last couple of seasons, and now have the rickety, still-in-need-of-repair Bruins ship pointed in the proper direction for the first time in three years.

The youth movement is arguably the biggest reason behind Boston's surge forward this spring. And there's no sign of let-up in that area.

As Timbuk-3 once infamously said, for the Bruins "the future's so bright, you got to wear shades."

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

TAMPA – David Backes certainly didn’t escape the scary situation with an errant skate blade unscathed, of course. 

The 33-year-old limped his way to the Bruins team bus out of Amalie Arena after Boston’s 3-0 shutout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and needed approximately 18 stitches to close up the gash on his right thigh. But Backes was still able to joke about it as he exited the dressing room while knowing that it could have been much, much worse with that kind of freak accident on the ice. 

"I'll play a second period one of these days,” said a smiling Backes, who was forced out of Saturday night’s loss with the skate blade cut in the last minute of the first period and exited the Florida loss as well after catching a match penalty in the first period as well. Luckily for him, there was no structural damage to Backes’ right leg after Yanni Gourde caught him in the thigh area as both players were down on the ice around the Tampa net.

MORE - Haggerty: B's make a statement to Lightning, rest of NHL

There was a lot of blood, however, as he quickly exited the ice, sped past the bench and headed right to the Bruins dressing room with Bruins trainer Donnie DelNegro trailing right behind. 

“I went in and saw him between periods. He’s okay. There’s no structural damage. There will be concern going forward about swelling or infection, but it looks like he’ll be okay. We’ll classify him as day-to-day, but I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play on Monday,” said Bruce Cassidy of Backes, who actually scored the second goal of the game for the Bruins as a power play strike. “You see a guy coming off like that and you see the blood pooling up, and you’re always worried they could hit an artery somewhere. He was able to get up. That was the first good sign and he was able to be tended to quickly. 

“It is scary. But we were told it would be a deep cut that would require some stitches, and it wasn’t too dangerous.”

For now it just becomes an eventful month for Backes where he’s been suspended, tossed out of a game with a match penalty and now forced out of a game after a freak skate blade incident, but there’s no doubt he’ll return better and stronger than ever in rapid fashion as he’s done through the last two seasons with the Bruins.


B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

AP Photo

B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

TAMPA – One has to wonder what the Tampa Bay Lightning are thinking after Saturday night’s game. 

It’s probably something along the lines of “Oh crap” after the Bruins completely shut them down while missing their top defensemen pairing, their best all-around player and top line center, their most impactful rookie forward and also losing their best power forward, who was filling in as top line center, in the first period. The undermanned Bruins made a big, fat statement with their 3-0 win over the well-rested, healthy Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena at the end of a long, four-game road trip, and now sit just two points behind the Bolts with 12 games to play in the regular season. 

MORE - Scary incident involving Backes

It was impressive enough that the Black and Gold won at all against the NHL’s best team while missing so many of their top shelf players, but to do it while also totally shutting down Tampa’s offense was something worth remarking about. The Bruins defense and goaltending had been playing a bit fast and loose for the better part of a month, and had been bailed out time and again by an offense that’s been dropping big numbers lately. 

But the Bruins went into Saturday night determined to leave an impression with the Lightning about what awaits them next month once the playoffs start, and they did it with physical, gritty defense that left Tampa with little space to operate. Even better the Bruins defensemen moved the puck pretty much perfectly and swiftly all night, blocked shots with hard-nosed determination and proved they could do more than survive without Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. 

That’s damned impressive when you consider the opponents from Tampa Bay lining up against them with a chance to clinch their playoff spot, and what’s on the line for both teams headed into the final three weeks of the regular season. 

“We were looking at it as more of a bounce-back against a really good team, and let’s see where we are. I thought we answered the bell,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “Probably the biggest win in a long time. We've had some nice comebacks and some high-scoring affairs, but it was nice to get a zero [goals allowed] in the column. It’s been a while. 

“It was just good, solid team defense…winning pucks. It was probably not the prettiest hockey, but I thought the goals we scored were pretty nice ones going to the net. It was playoff hockey. I thought we were better at it than they were tonight. Who knows how the next one is going to go, but we’re going to enjoy this.”

It was clear early on that the Bruins wanted to set the tone both physically and style of play-wise, and they did just that. The pounding physicality clearly bothered the Lightning as Steven Stamkos made an uncharacteristic choice to retaliate against Tim Schaller after he threw a heavy hit on the Tampa Bay star player. That landed Stamkos in the box and set the Bruins up for their first of two power play goals on the evening. 

Those two power play goals were proof enough that the Bruins had their special teams in good order, but it took just a combined 23 seconds of power play time to strike for those two scores against the Lightning penalty kill. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay coaching staff up at night before the final two meetings between these two teams. The suffocating defense, the stout physicality and the quick strike offense just completely overwhelmed the Lightning, and things went exactly according to the game plan that Bruce Cassidy had set out for them prior to the game. 

“We’re a confident group back there, and when we play the way we’re supposed to we can compete with anybody,” said Kevan Miller, who played a punishing, physical 21:41 of ice time in the win. “It’s that time of year where we’re pushing for the playoffs, we’re grinding away and we knew as a group after [the Florida loss] we needed to tighten things up. We did that. That’s a tough team over there, so you need to take time and space away from them. As a group we did a great job of that.”

About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Bruins early was David Backes exiting quickly at the end of the first after his right thigh got sliced by an errant skate blade. But even the 33-year-old Backes managed to avoid serious injury despite approximately 18 stitches to close the wound, and was cracking jokes about it as he limped to the Bruins bus postgame.

Clearly things can and will change with two games remaining between the two teams in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Bruins should theoretically be even better and more difficult to beat once they got all of their key players healthy, and that’s got to be a frightening prospect for the Lightning. 

MORE - Talking Points: B's start strong and don't look back vs Tampa

Then again perhaps the Bolts were a little rusty after three days off leading into Saturday night, and they needed to be kicked in the teeth by the Bruins to start getting that hunger back. Either way the Bruins are within a single win of pulling into a tie for the President’s Trophy and home ice throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Nobody should be surprised the Bruins did it once again while fighting through injuries and a brutal late season schedule, and that’s a testament to how stubbornly they’ve successfully plowed through adversity this season. 

The dominant win over Tampa on Saturday night just serves as another piece of compelling hockey evidence that something special is building with the Black and Gold. It’s become impossible to deny or ignore as the Bruins continue bucking the odds in a way that should have everybody else’s full attention around the NHL at this point.