Five burning questions facing the Bruins this season
Five burning questions facing the Bruins this season
With the 2016-17 regular season just a couple of days away, here are five questions facing the Bruins as they head into a pivotal, transitional campaign after missing out on the Stanley Cup playoffs the past two seasons.
1) Will Tuukka Rask bounce back?
The 29-year-old Finnish netminder and former Vezina Trophy winner is coming off his worst statistical season as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL and the most challenging year of his career given the shoddy defense around him. Clearly, the talent is still there after watching Rask do such a solid job for Team Finland in the World Cup of Hockey. The hope is that the defense is going to be much improved all around him. But even if the Bruins don’t make major leaps ahead on the defensive side of the ice, Rask needs to be better, more consistent and mentally tougher when things start to go sideways all around him. The Bruins are paying Rask to be a goaltender that can steal games for them occasionally and that can stem the tide in losing streaks to keep his team from sinking down into the standings. It’s a tall order, given his defensemen, but surely he can be better than the .915 save percentage and 2.56 goals-against averaged he posted in 64 games last season. The Bruins also can’t afford any situation where Rask is too sick to play when the team needs him most, as happened to him against Ottawa in the final regular season game with the playoffs on the line. He had to be pulled early from a loss to the New York Rangers at MSG in those final weeks, as well. Rask needs to be standing tall in those moments this time around if the B’s hope for a different fate this year.
2) How much can Zdeno Chara still give as he turns 40 years old this season?
The Bruins captain was pretty good in the World Cup of Hockey for Team Europe, but a six-game tournament is probably the perfect setting for a 39-year-old, 6-foot-9 defenseman that can still become the defensive stopper old in short spurts. Clearly, Chara still has something left in the tank after posting nine goals, 37 points and a plus-12 last season and he’s still the most capable player to fill the No. 1 defenseman role on Boston’s roster. But the truth is that Chara would be a much more effective No. 3 or No. 4 defenseman playing right around 20 minutes a night than a top-pairing guy playing closer to 25 minutes a night as he is in Boston. The workload creates pockets of the schedule where fatigue, tired legs and mental mistakes become an unavoidable part of his game vs. the NHL’s best offensive players. It’s much more difficult for Chara to recover on plays when he finds himself behind the puck. That was obvious in the scrimmages against the lightning quick Team North America and it was there in his first preseason game vs. Montreal a couple of weeks ago. The hope is that some younger legs on the B’s defensemen corps can support Chara a little bit, and not force him to work quite as hard in all situations. If that can happen, then perhaps people will still see the Chara of old in the key moments and feel like he’s somebody that can take it to another level down the stretch to the postseason. But for right now, it looks like the Bruins will need major minutes out of Chara and one has to wonder what the diminishing returns will be for a player that’s expected to play like a 30-year-old as he readies to turn 40 later this season.
3) Can they find a worthy right wing for Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron?
Last season the Bruins watched as Brett Connolly, Jimmy Hayes and other potential right wings floated through in auditions to be the right-hand man for Bergeron and Marchand and none of them did anything close to worthiness aside from Loui Eriksson’s brief forays into playing right wing with that duo. So now, the Bruins will start the season with 20-year-old David Pastrnak in a big spot playing right wing with Bergeron and Marchand and the hope is that the talented right winger will be able to tap into his elite skill level playing with two of the best players in the world. At the very least, Pastrnak should be able to do better than Connolly, who went months with barely any goals to show for playing with the dynamic duo in a plum top-six spot. The bet here is that a maturing, stronger Pastrnak can grow into the role and produce the breakout NHL season people have been waiting for in each of the past two seasons and finally give those two the right wing they’ve been missing. The other good news: if it’s not Pastrnak, they’ve got other right wing candidates like Danton Heinen that could be equally dynamic playing third fiddle with No. 37 and No. 63.
4) Can the Bruins do better than ranking 19th in team defense this season?
The Bruins defensemen corps was a massive weak spot that was part of the eventual unraveling that took place at the end of the regular season. Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug were the only two D-men worthy of being called top-four stalwarts last season and that’s not good when your two best blueliners all season are a 39-year-old and a 5-foot-9 offensive dynamo. After those two, there was pretty abysmal offensive production and consistency from the rest of the group, aside from a promising first half from Colin Miller. The Bruins compounded their back-end problems by doing nothing to upgrade over the offseason, and instead hoping that A) they get better play out of their returning group, including most prominently Colin Miller or B) they have a couple of young defensemen pop over the course of the regular season. The bad news is that Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller are combining for a $5 million plus cap hit on the B’s roster and it’s going to be difficult to move them this season. The good news is that 19-year-old Brandon Carlo and 23-year-old Rob O’Gara both popped in camp and look very close to NHL-ready, if they’re not already there. That means Don Sweeney has to figure out how to balance the seven one-way contracts he’s already agreed to for this season, plus a couple of young guys who might already be upgrades over their veteran counterparts. That’s largely a good problem to have, but it’s going to be interesting to see how it works itself out unless a parade of injuries clear spots on the roster all season. Either way, the Bruins D-men have to be much better in their own zone, breaking the puck out and chipping in offensively if this team is going anywhere this year.
5) How long of a leash will Claude Julien get this season?
The best coach in franchise history is entering his 10th season behind the Boston bench and his status around the NHL and with Hockey Canada speaks volumes about how well he’s respected. He’s also the winningest coach in B’s history and that counts for a lot. Julien has guided the B’s to Stanley Cup glory and has been the only NHL coach that core B’s players Brad Marchand, David Krejci and Torey Krug have ever known. All that being said, there’s a great deal of urgency with this year’s Bruins group after missing the playoffs in each of the past two seasons and there is sure to be big challenges with a roster that, on paper, doesn’t look markedly better than last year’s team. Add on to that the sheer number of young players and inexperience that will be a part of this year’s group, and there could be some very rough patches this season. With Bruce Cassidy, the former coach of the Providence Bruins, now on his staff, it will be incumbent upon Julien to get the most out of his young, developing players while also getting good won-loss results. If he can’t do that then prolonged struggles this season could ultimately spark a coaching change, and pave the way for an interim coach such as Cassidy with a solid track record of player development in Providence. It’s a tough and somewhat thankless balancing act for Julien tasked by an ownership group mandating improvement with getting this group to overachieve this season and also be in the mix for the playoffs. It probably won’t be fair if there is a coaching change at some point this season for the Black and Gold, but there’s no doubt that Don Sweeney and Cam Neely won’t hesitate to make big moves if they’re feeling the heat around the corner.