BOSTON -- It might not be quite a “passing of the torch” moment for the Boston Bruins, but it’s clear a couple of months into the season that the Boston offense needs some fundamental changes with their existing pieces.
The Bruins outshot the Maple Leafs by a 33-20 margin, they out-chanced Toronto and they should have probably won on Saturday night, but instead they dropped a 4-1 game to the young, fast and skilled Maple Leafs at TD Garden. It was the 20th time in 29 tries this season that the Bruins offense has mustered just two goals or less, and it reveals a flaw in the Black and Gold group that could be fatal if it’s not addressed and solved in a timely fashion.
“It seems like every game we’re out-chancing teams, but we don’t outscore teams. That’s where the biggest issue is right now,” said Claude Julien. “Our scoring is not there and if you don’t score goals you don’t win hockey games.”
Well, despite losing three games in a row -- including a pair to Colorado and Toronto teams that they need to beat if they want to be in the Stanley Cup playoffs -- the Bruins are still in a playoff spot with a two point cushion on New Jersey, Tampa Bay and Florida in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately things are unlikely to stay that way for the Bruins if they continue down their current pathway, and Saturday night was a reminder that there are issues to be addressed.
The Bruins couldn’t do anything with a first period power play when they were en route to outshooting the Maple Leafs by a dominant 11-2 margin, and perhaps even more concerning the second PP unit completely outplayed the first unit. While Torey Krug, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, David Backes and Ryan Spooner struggled with zone entries and any kind of possession in the attack zone, the second unit pressured Toronto’s penalty kill with Zdeno Chara feeding David Pastrnak for one-timers that handcuffed Frederik Andersen.
This is where perhaps the biggest fundamental change needs to come for the Black and Gold. Patrice Bergeron led the Bruins with 12 PP goals and 25 PP points last season, and was a revelation in the middle “bumper” role as the point man distributing pucks and making decisions with the slot. He was part of a Bruins power play that ranked in the top-10 all season, and was a big force behind any success Boston did have last season.
But opposing coaches have adjusted to the Bruins power play and clogged the area around No. 37 in the slot, and Bergeron has lost some of his offensive edge this season. The Bruins franchise center has just one goal and two points on the power play in 26 games, and the other offensive players on the top PP unit haven’t been able to make opposing PK’s pay for blanketing Bergeron in the slot.
So the time has come to reconfigure the Bruins power play, and at least get 20-year-old David Pastrnak on the top unit where he and his dazzling offensive skills can be the featured attraction. The Bruins players understand that the NHL is a meritocracy and a results oriented business, and they know the PP is headed for a change if it doesn’t produce.
“You know when it’s not working that you can only bang your head against the wall hoping for different results for only so long,” said Backes. “We need to take it upon us to really seize the opportunity with a power play unit that gets a lot of looks, and make good on it.
“[We want] to keep that group together and have that success as a group by putting the work in that get the results out. If we don’t do that then they obviously have that ability to make the changes, and I expect that they would if we continue to go down the road that we’re on. We need to get better, and we need to take that opportunity.”
If the righty shooting Pastrnak is going to work off the half-wall that will require the Bruins coaching staff to flip the PP formation to the opposite side of the ice, and it might take away some of the one-timer capabilities for the righty shooting Bergeron.
But if a player only has one PP goal through 26 games on the season, how many great one-timer chances are they getting in the first place?
Pastrnak showed his heat-seeking missile of a one-timer in the second goal he scored in a losing effort against Colorado, and that looks every bit the kind of Steve Stamkos-like bomb that should be the featured weapon on the power play. It also shouldn’t take that much coaxing to push the player with 18 goals in 24 games into a star on the top power play group, and also maybe even push the guy (Brad Marchand) that scored 37 goals last season into a bigger role as well.
Pastrnak already leads the Bruins with four power play goals in a secondary role through the first two months of the season, and both Pastrnak and Marchand are tied with David Krejci for the team lead with five power play points this season. Those numbers will grow exponentially for Pastrnak and Marchand if the coaches come up with something to feature the two offensive talents, and it certainly sounds like Julien and Co. are already considering making the change.
“It’s a very fine line…that much I’ll tell you. It’s a very fine line,” said Julien prior to Saturday night’s loss about the coaching staff’s stance between sticking with their current PP plan and making significant alterations. “They know that now. We need more out of them and you can only put so much trust, and put so much patience, in a power play that had been successful and needs to get it going. The line is fine.
“We’ve talked about it, and there are some options that we have prepared [for the power play] if it doesn’t go well.”
So what do to about the 5-on-5 play that has also failed the Bruins offensively this season?
Austin Czarnik is being given a long audition with the Bruins as an undersized college free agent, and the 24-year-old has shown flashes at points. But he also has just two points in his last 15 games, and shanked a golden shorthanded scoring chance in the third period on Saturday vs. Toronto that could have tied the game.
Instead Czarnik missed wide on the bang-bang play in front off Dominic Moore's centering feed, and Toronto scored in the ensuing seconds to plunge the dagger into Boston’s back. It underlines a season-long struggle for the third line to produce any consistent offense with players like Riley Nash, Czarnik and Ryan Spooner, or the now-injured Matt Beleskey, unable to generate enough to be considered a scoring threat.
Similarly, the Bruins have gone through a revolving door at second line left wing alongside David Krejci where both Tim Schaller and Spooner have tried to provide an answer, but haven’t been the idea fit for Krejci and David Backes. Young playmaking forward Danton Heinen was given another shot on Saturday night, and was once again kind of invisible with one shot on net in 14 minutes of ice time.
Perhaps former first round pick Jake DeBrusk gets a look sooner rather than later as he starts to find the scoring range in Providence, or big-bodied Peter Cehlarik and his 10 P-Bruins goals could get an audition in Boston?
The long term hope is that left winger Frank Vatrano can come along quickly and provide the goal-scoring punch this Bruins team is currently lacking, and that is entirely possible given that the 22-year-old scored 44 times between Boston and Providence last season. His shot and release could give both the 5-on-5 offense and the power play another weapon that they badly need right now, but it also could be a slow road to a full bounce back after foot surgery in September.
The Bruins may not get the Vatrano they absolutely need until months down the road when he’s up to full speed, and even then they’ll be relying on a player that scored just eight goals in 39 games at the NHL level last season.
The one area they won’t be getting immediate help: on the trade market. The NHL holiday roster freeze goes into effect on Dec. 19 and it’s difficult to see any move that Don Sweeney could make to secure a difference-making, goal-scoring forward between now and then. There just aren’t any good players to be had in trade this early in the regular season.
The Bruins would have to massively overpay, and invest in a hockey club that might not ultimately be worth spending the kinds of future assets it would require to get anything of consequence done. So the Bruins will have to look internally to find the answers to their offensive struggles, but the good news is that they should be there for them.
“I don’t think it’s because of line [combinations] because the chances are there, the scoring chances are there. Every line is getting scoring chances but nobody is finishing,” said Julien. “We could change lines to please everybody, but it doesn’t mean the puck is going to go in the net.
“When you look at individual statistics and you look at the number of chances they’ve had and you look at the number of goals they’ve had, it just doesn’t add up. It really isn’t about lines. If it was I wouldn’t hesitate to make changes. We are moving guys around at times as you can see, but one line that has been pretty steady for us and is scoring goals is the Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] line.”
Turning Pastrnak into the featured star attraction on the top power play unit would be a good start for a Bruins team that needs their special teams unit producing, and some fingers-crossed hope for a Christmas miracle that Bergeron busts out of his offensive slump wouldn’t be all that unreasonable either.
The one thing the Bruins can’t afford to do is nothing with their offensive problems, and Saturday night’s offensive constipated loss to Toronto was another convincing piece of evidence in that case.