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 in Part 3, we look at the re-establishment of the Bruins core group of players after a tough couple of seasons.
While the youth movement and the coaching change rightfully snatched the top headlines in the Bruins return to the playoffs this spring, none of it could have been accomplished if Boston’s grizzled, proven core group of veterans didn’t also answer the bell. They are big-money players and nearly all of them rose to the occasion in one way or another as they re-established themselves as postseason-worthy.
Brad Marchand pushed into Hart Trophy consideration with a brilliant campaign in which he scored 39 goals and had 85 points while becoming the first point-per-game player for the Bruins since Marc Savard. It seemed that the Nose Face Killah came through in the clutch moments just about all season when the Bruins needed him most and he consistently produced offense while other teams geared their game plans to stop him.
BUILDING BACK THE BRUINS
- Part 1: Basking in the Fountain of Youth
- Part 2: The improvement of Don Sweeney
- Part 3: Strengthening their core was key to B's revival
- Part 4: Cassidy a key part of this season's improvement
- Part 5: When will B's emerge as a true Cup contender?
Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask both soldiered through seasons where injuries nagged at them. Rask played some of his best hockey at the end while enduring a groin injury that required surgery this week. The expectation is that Rask’s ability to push through at the end of the season will finally fully eradicate the stench of the regular-season-ending loss to Ottawa a year ago, and ushered back in the reliability factor for Boston’s No. 1 goalie in big moments moving forward.
Zdeno Chara had his best season in years at 40 years old and was both reinvigorated and aided by a pairing with 20-year-old rookie Brandon Carlo while playing to his simple, dominant defensive strengths. It was a season-long decision to have Chara focus mostly on his role as a shutdown defender and penalty killer. Playing to his strengths produced a truly remarkable season from one of the oldest players in the NHL.
There were moments where fatigue may have gotten the best of him, but that’s more a statement on the need for higher quality at the top of Boston’s back end than anything about Chara himself.
Torey Krug finished fifth among all NHL defensemen with 51 points, turned in a very solid season as a top-four defenseman, usually paired with Adam McQuaid, and his puck-moving was sorely missed in the playoff series against Ottawa.
Even David Krejci finished by tying a career-high with 23 goals scored in an up-and-down season with rotating left wings beside him. David Backes brought leadership and toughness to the B’s where both qualities were desperately needed. David Pastrnak has been the rising star in the B’s core group for the past three years and he fully lived up that expectation with 34 goals and 70 points while bringing some serious game-breaking ability to the table for the Black and Gold.
Put it all together and the Bruins received some very good years from the core group around which the team was built. It gave Boston the stability to insert young players Carlo, Charlie McAvoy, Colin Miller, Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari into the lineup along the way.
“I was very happy for our core players and our younger players to experience...we had several players that played in the playoffs for their very first time. Had we continued in years past, David Pastrnak probably would have been more prepared this year [for the playoffs] if we had made it last year and the previous year,” said GM Don Sweeney. “I think it was an important step and I think that our players, our core players, in particular, some of them had tremendous seasons. Their demand to make sure our younger players sort of catch up and play the right way…we pushed the group.
“Bruce [Cassidy], in particular, our staff and Bruce, they really pushed the group to get to a higher pace. I think our aggressive nature churned. I think something that I felt would be injected into our group right from day one at practice because I know what his core principles are, and I think the group responded. The record speaks for it.”
Can the Bruins core group be even better?
Certainly, a fully healed Bergeron and Rask will be better next season and they won’t have to rebound from any World Cup of Hockey fatigue that might have played into their injuries suffered early in the regular season. Marchand can’t be much better than his statistics and all-around performance from last season, so the Bruins have to hope that he’s achieved a baseline for the next couple of seasons with perhaps even a bit better performance in the decision-making category. Krejci and Backes can both be better as the enter the very back end of their prime years and the play-making Czech center has to be more consistent regardless of which players are skating on either side of him.
The hope is that the Bruins land a left wing to pair with Krejci, and also acquire a left-shot, top-four defenseman who can slot Krug back into a bottom-pairing role where his offense can be maximized with less wear and tear.
The exciting prospect of this core group is Pastrnak is just entering his early prime years and still hasn’t even reached the height of his massive, electric potential after topping 30 goals and 70 points last season. Combine that with Carlo and Charlie McAvoy finding their NHL levels as young players next season, and there is a very interesting mixture bubbling up between veteran ex-Stanley Cup champions and young, hungry and talented players who will bring all the right elements to the table. It’s the reason this season’s finish was more encouraging than a simple first-round exit and instead hints at what is come in the future.
“I think we definitely made a step forward and definitely in the right direction, as well. Having the young players coming in, but also contributing and gaining some huge experience in the playoffs is something that we can’t buy,” said Bergeron. “It’s something that’s going to go a long way for them but also for us as a team, so that in itself is definitely a huge step forward.
“But at the same time, I think, you know, we’ve shown a lot of character, we’ve battled. It’s been three years now that we’ve been really battling to get into the playoffs, and this year we came through. It definitely gives us a lot of confidence looking forward, as well.”
Those that closely followed this Bruins team knew that the remaining core members of the 2011 Cup team still had some greatness in them and they were more talented than what they had become the last couple of seasons. With a coaching change that absolutely served as the catalytic spark, and a better-built roster buoyed by a needed injection of youthful talent, the Bruins core veterans were back in the playoffs where they belonged.
It was a quick ride after only six games, but the ascension of the Ottawa team they fell to after a hard-fought series should be the ultimate incentive for better times ahead for the Black and Gold as long as they’re willing to put in the same kind of effort they managed down the stretch this season.