Felger: Bruins should expect playoffs, but they're crazy if they expect more

Felger: Bruins should expect playoffs, but they're crazy if they expect more

Jeremy Jacobs has every right to expect his team to make the playoffs this season. The Bruins had more than enough talent to do it last year, and while we're at it, the year before as well. That they failed to do so was not so much a function of talent as it was a lack of toughness (mental and physical) and a coaching staff unable to get the best out of the team when it was needed most.

For two years running the Bruins have been above the playoff line by near-double digits in March, only to finish with the worst record in hockey down the stretch and miss the postseason by a couple of points. Jacobs has every right to expect them to recoup those points this season and give him some playoff revenue for the first time in three years. Fans can only hope that a failure to do so this time will finally result in some meaningful changes, from coach Claude Julien on up.

So I'm with Jacobs on this point.

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But the B's owner also said something during media day on Tuesday that I think is, frankly, nuts.

``I expect that we’ll go deep into the playoffs,'' he said. ``I think this is a very good mix of young and older, experienced players. I’m looking forward to their going into the playoff season.”

Deep? As in winning a couple of rounds?

Sorry, but that's not a realistic expectation. It's actually kind of delusional. Yes, anything can happen in hockey, but to win playoff series you need to be skilled and sturdy on defense -- and the B's are anything but. 

It's one thing to outwork opponents in the regular season and use your top-end forward talent (Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, David Backes is a pretty good group) to outclass the bottom-dwellers en route to a playoff berth. It's another thing entirely to defeat good teams in seven-game series when the effort levels and schedules even out.

The Bruins, as currently constituted, are not built to do this. Jacobs expects them to win multiple playoff rounds with a first defensive pairing of Zedeno Chara and… who? Colin Miller? A second pairing of John-Michael Liles and… who? Adam McQuaid? Kevan Miller? Yikes.

Chara has declined to the point where he's probably no longer a top pairing guy on a good team. Here's he's still the No. 1. Liles is a spare part on most teams. Here he's probably the B's second-best guy. That's putrid. The rest are all best suited to third-pairing duty. Do they expect Torey Krug to log top-4 minutes in the playoffs? Sorry, not sturdy enough. Can Colin Miller emerge? Maybe, but that's a big ask. I'm all for looking at kids like Brandon Carlo and Rob O'Gara, but unless they are very, very special, young defensemen usually aren't factors in the postseason.

So to sum up, the Bruins' group of top-four defensemen might be among the worst in the league, and below that are a bunch of kids who aren't ready to log the minutes required to go deep in the postseason. If the B's pull off a trade for a legit top-end guy at some point this year, then the equation changes. But as currently constructed, it's just not good enough.

Again, between the forward group, goalie Tuukka Rask and a coach who is allegedly one of the best in the league, Jacobs has a right to ask for a 95-point regular season and a playoff berth.

But anything more than that? Please.

Donato to make Bruins debut as a member of the third line

File photo

Donato to make Bruins debut as a member of the third line

BRIGHTON --  Ryan Donato will make his NHL debut for the Bruins on Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets, and it looks like he’ll do it as a member of the third line.

The newly-signed Harvard star was wearing No. 17 at morning skate on Monday at Warrior Ice Arena, and skating on the left wing with Noel Acciari and Brian Gionta in a new-look third line made necessary by injures to Patrice Bergeron, David Backes and Jake DeBrusk in the last few weeks. 

Donato signed with the Bruins on Sunday, so it will be interesting to see how ready he is to “plug and play” at the NHL level after crushing NCAA competition with 26 goals in 29 games for the Crimson this season. 

Otherwise it was a fairly standard lineup for the Bruins aside from Tommy Wingels dropping down to the fourth line to allow Acciari to center the third line, and thereby allow Donato to play the wing position where the B’s project him to be at the NHL level.

In other very positive B’s news, Bergeron -- recovering from a fractured right foot -- made a return to the ice, working on his own ahead of morning skate and then jumping in here and there in the team skate/

Here are the projected Bruins line combos and D-pairings vs. the Blue Jackets based on morning skate:  

Injuries opening up path for Donato to show what he can do

Injuries opening up path for Donato to show what he can do

In an ideal world the Bruins could have signed highly regarded prospect Ryan Donato to a two-year entry level contract, watched him develop his game deliberately at the AHL level and received two full years of service before the forward hit restricted free agency. 

But that doesn’t take into account the current injury situation for the Boston Bruins with a few weeks to go in the regular season, and it didn’t factor in Donato’s leverage as an NCAA player that could have chosen free agency, or going back to Harvard for his senior year, if he didn’t get what he was looking for in negotiations with the Black and Gold. Clearly it never got to anything approaching a hard ball level between the Bruins and a young player with plenty of B’s background in Donato, and now he’ll get to suit up for Boston and most likely make his NHL debut on Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

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Once he plays for the Bruins that will burn the first year on his two-year entry level contract, and it will also prohibit him from heading to Providence and playing for the P-Bruins through the rest of the hockey season. It’s the exact same situation Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson found himself in last spring when it was pretty clear after one game in Boston that he wasn’t quite ready for the NHL level. 

After Donato makes his debut it will be up to him and how NHL-ready he looks when he jumps into the Boston lineup, but it’s pretty clear they need some more dynamic top-6 bodies with Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, Jake DeBrusk all out of the lineup, and Anders Bjork done for the season as well as what could have been a good reserve option at the AHL level. 

None of those players are expected to return in the next couple of games or even in the next week most likely, so there may be an opening for Donato to dazzle if he's prepared to seize the opportunity. 

“Once [Harvard’s season] was over with I had an opportunity to speak with his family advisor and with the family and with Ryan himself. We just worked through what looked like the opportunity he was looking for and we were happy to provide that,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “We have some injuries and we’re at the point in the season where every game has a lot on the line. I think his being able to go over and have success at the Olympics this year really started to jumpstart his thought process that he was ready for the next challenge.

“I think Ryan might have looked at [the injuries on the NHL roster] as an even bigger opportunity for him to go in and possibly play as early as [Monday night]. From our standpoint, we had always been committed to providing the opportunity to Ryan if and when he decided to leave school. I think the two things just kind of lined up accordingly. We definitely are cognizant that the injuries are there, and they’ve mounted a little bit here coming down the stretch. It’s a testament to the group of players that we have [that led to the Tampa] win after losing [David] Backes early in the game and guys really playing well.”

Clearly Donato was ready for the next level after dominating college hockey to the tune of 26 goals in 29 games for the Crimson this season, and serving as one of Team USA’s best players in last month’s Olympic hockey tournament. Donato has a high hockey IQ that usually comes along with being the son of an NHL player, has a nose for the net for a young player that isn’t the biggest or strongest guy on the ice and has become a dangerous sniper with his NHL-level shot and release. The question now is whether all of those skills are “plug and play” at the NHL level, or if he’s more in the mold of similar NCAA players like Anders Bjork or Danton Heinen that needed some development time at the minor league level. 

“He’s a kid that’s got a confidence about himself, a talent level, and he’s got some details that he’s going to have to work on. All young players do, more importantly the inexperience part of it, but he’s a kid that has hard skill,” said Sweeney. “So we’re looking forward to having him join our team, get immersed, and get a taste, and then it’s up to him. He’ll take it with however far he can run with it, but he is welcomed to the opportunity.

“We’re not going to put any pressure on him to say ‘You have to produce.’ It’s like every player; he’s going to be another player that the coach will have an opportunity to play in situations, and the player himself will dictate how much time and circumstances they play in. We feel that, if we get healthy, we’re going to have a deep group. He’s going to add to that group. Then it’s up to him.”

It would be unfair to expect Donato to have an impact on this Bruins team like Craig Janney did coming out of college thirty years ago, but that’s what many are going to equate it to based on the circumstances. Instead it should be looked at as another talented young player that the Bruins are going to add to their embarrassment of young hockey talent riches, and a player that could possibly help them get through a current tough stretch of injuries and attrition. If Donato does anything more than that then it’s another great story in a Boston Bruins season that’s been chock full of them from beginning to end.