Re-strengthening the core was key to the Bruins' revival

Re-strengthening the core was key to the Bruins' revival

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.  


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. 

Morning skate: Does everyone owe Don Sweeney an apology?

NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Morning skate: Does everyone owe Don Sweeney an apology?

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while amazed that another Major League Baseball season is right around the corner.  

*In the best news that I’ve heard over the last 24 hours, FOH (Friend of Haggs) Eddie Olczyk announced on the air that he is cancer-free after a waging a battle against the disease over the course of this season. Great stuff, Edzo!

*CBC takes a look at the potential playoff scenarios coming together in the next couple of weeks with the Bruins and Maple Leafs seemingly on a collision course to face each other in the first round. That’s been apparent since about January.

*Interesting conversation at about whether or not everybody owes Bruins general manager Don Sweeney an apology after the way the Bruins have developed this season. I’m with Wysh that the Bruins stumbled and made some bad moves out of the gate, but it’s clear that their overall long term plan was a sound one that’s now playing out. So no apologies for Sweeney, but certainly appreciation for the good job he’s doing running the Black and Gold.

*Clayton Keller talks about his Calder Trophy candidacy that’s kind of faded in the second half of the year, and his first full season in Arizona.

*The frustrated Detroit Red Wings are out of playoff contention for a second straight year as they sit amidst a crossroads for a once great organization.

*For something completely different: An oral history of the amazing Outsiders movie done by Francis Ford Coppola that was basically a Who’s Who of young stars in Hollywood from the early 1980’s.

Hagg Bag: It just feels like it’s the Bruins' year

NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Hagg Bag: It just feels like it’s the Bruins' year

With 10 games remaining in the season, the Bruins have clinched a playoff berth with plenty of room to spare and get healthy for the postseason. It remains to be seen if all of Boston’s banged up players can sufficiently heal up for a Stanley Cup playoff run that’s set to begin three weeks from now, and it remains to be seen if the Bruins still have any chance whatsoever to pass the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

So with the Bruins in the home stretch, it felt like an opportune time to crack open the Hagg Bag mailbag and answer some questions. As always these are real tweets using the #HaggBag hash tag, real emails to my email address and real messages to my NBCS Facebook Page. Now, onto the bag:

What a surprise this year. They've been so much fun to watch. Kudos to [Don] Sweeney and [Bruce] Cassidy.

--Ross Mullin (@scoopsdad)

JH: Yeah, and Cam Neely too. You’ve got to give the Bruins management group credit for taking their lumps when they missed the playoffs a couple of years in a row, learning from their missteps early on in that transition process and then really focusing on the things that qualify as their strengths be it drafting or development.

The Bruins have been a ridiculous 39-10-4 since the middle the middle of November and really have been the NHL’s best team since that point with no consistently discernible weakness. They’re top-10 in just about every major category and top-5 in the NHL in both offense and defense, and the mix of proven, battle-hardened veterans and energetic, dynamic young players is exactly how you’d want it on this roster. Really when you think about it, the Bruins have hit it right on just about everything this season from leaving roster spots open in camp for Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk, to benching Tuukka Rask back in November, and all the way to picking up Rick Nash, Brian Gionta, Tommy Wingels and Nick Holden at the deadline and signing Ryan Donato late in the season. Everything has worked for Sweeney and Cassidy, and that’s one of those things that make you start thinking something special is happening when you witness it firsthand for a while.

One thing that you can’t really quantify is the mental toughness and heart the team consistently shows as well. Coming from three goals down in the third period in Carolina, or shutting down the East’s best team while missing your two best defensive players…the last few weeks have just been a window of what we’ve seen all season from a team that’s surprised at every turn with how ready they are to compete already this year. It all adds up to an “aura of greatness” that you start to sense about this year’s team. Not “greatness” in the sense that they’re the 1988 Edmonton Oilers, but “greatness” in the sense that they are capable of something great this season.

It just feels like it’s their year with the way everything has gone right for them amidst a sea of adversity and injuries, doesn’t it?


Hey Joe how are u? I'm a listener of The Big Jab Radio station... Got a question: What do u think is going to happen with McQuaid are they going to keep him or would u say he could possibly be on the way out the door?

--Brandon Knight

JH: It’s never easy parting with a Stanley Cup winner or a gritty, tough competitor like Adam McQuaid that always selflessly stands up for his teammates, so you don’t come at this question with a very easy answer in your head. As long as McQuaid is in Boston, he’ll always be a warrior in the defensive zone and a player that you want on the ice for his sheer toughness alone.

That being said the Bruins are going to need to start paying their young players after next season, and they are going to need salary space in order to do just that. It might not make it vital that McQuaid is moved this summer, but it might be a situation where the Bruins will be it might be a situation where the Bruins will be pushed into moving on from him in free agency a year from now. That being said, McQuaid spent a fair portion of this season as a healthy scratch and was left unprotected in last summer’s expansion draft.

So if the right deal that made sense came along for the Bruins this summer, they would certainly think about it. That being said, they also don’t have a ton of organizational depth on the right side of their defense beyond Charlie McAvoy, Kevan Miller, Brandon Carlo and McQuaid. So if they traded McQuaid they’d still have to spend money to go out and get a replacement for him that could play at the NHL level as well, and he certainly wouldn’t bring some of the intangibles to the table that a guy nick-named Darth Quaider already does for the Bruins. So I wouldn’t be so quick to move him with just a year to go on his contract.

Any idea what the @AHLBruins Star Wars jerseys are going to be for this Friday? If anyone knows it would be you

RossDaLostCauze @RossOliveira1

JH: I don’t know and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make it down to Providence for the Force-filled festivities, unfortunately. Now if the P-Bruins want to send along some cool photos or a video of their Star Wars sweaters for this weekend, I’d be happy to promote it for them. I’m just glad they’re finally joining the party with all these other minor league organizations that have enjoyed majorly successful events by holding these Star Wars and superhero nights. They’re great for business and the team usually makes a lot of dough for a worthy charity by raffling off whatever Star Wars jerseys they wear during the game. I think this would be my all-time favorite Star Wars hockey jersey worn by the Fort Wayne Komets, and yes I do own one of them.


Joe, seems like everyone minus Bjork will be back for playoffs. What do you think the lines will look like when we cross that bridge?

--Dan (@dan_baraniuk)

JH: Good health will be a good problem to have for the Bruins and a major problem for anybody that they play. I think the B’s are going to be a handful for anybody, but I do also think the first round vs. the Maple Leafs might be the toughest matchup for them as well. As far as what the lines might look like, here it goes:





The fourth line is a tough one to handicap because the Bruins could go in a number of different situations, and this would push Sean Kuraly, Tim Schaller and Tommy Wingels to the bench as healthy scratches. Would Bruce Cassidy do that to his fourth line after they’ve been so good, tough and effective all season? Will Ryan Donato continue to play well enough to push his way into a top-6 spot jumping straight from Harvard? It’s too tough to make the call on these kinds of things with weeks to go until the playoffs, and with more injuries potentially coming as the B’s are still in the 16 games in 31 days stretch during the month of March.

But that’s a rough idea of what it might look like to get the conversation rolling. A lot of the decisions may come down to the team that they’re playing in the playoffs as well, and how the series is playing out for both teams.


Who would you rather have right now out of the three…Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller or Colin Miller?

--Greg Ventura

JH: I’d rather have Bobby Orr. He turned 70 years old the other day, you know. In all seriousness, I’d take Kevan Miller as the guy I’d rather have for right now. I certainly haven’t come anywhere close to giving up on Brandon Carlo as a player that could continue to develop and enjoy a long, very solid NHL career as a top-4 defenseman. Certainly Carlo hasn’t really taken a step forward in second season and life has been difficult for him away from the Zdeno Chara pairing, but he’s still a young 6-foot-5 defenseman with size and strength that can also skate very well. Those guys don’t exactly grow on trees and he’s still just 21 years old. All that being said I’m not very surprised by the 10 goals and 39 points for Colin Miller with Vegas. You could see that talent when he was here in Boston, but he wasn’t going to get big minutes on the right side (5-on-5 or power play-wise) in Boston with Charlie McAvoy coming to town. Let’s wait to see what Colin Miller and Kevan Miller do for their respective teams in the playoffs before we start asking these questions. Also, Carlo doesn’t really enter into this equation as he was exempt from the expansion draft and it didn’t ever come down to picking Carlo over Colin Miller, who are two very different kinds of D-men.

Hey Haggs, Is the Sat morning Hockey Show available as a podcast anywhere?

--Guy Cascio

JH: Yes, and my good buddy and Hockey Show host Ryan Johnston (@RJohnston985) tweets it out from his twitter account within an hour or two after the Hockey Show has ended on Saturdays.

Mr. Haggerty, Do you remember in the shortened 2012-13 season the Bruins were referred to as a “Jekyll and Hyde” team as some nights they played outstanding, yet lost to teams that they should have been beating? Do you think that this current team, despite losing some matchups where they should be coming away with two points, has the potential to make a deep rub and get through the teams in the East like Toronto, Tampa, Pittsburgh, Washington? Some nights I feel that I see greatness, some nights I feel that I see a mediocre team at best. I know the schedule is tough with short back-to-backs. I do like the recent acquisitions to this team

--Charlie McLaughlin

JH: A deep rub? No. A deep run? Yes.

What is with the teams and poor line changes!!! Minor hockey coaches teach line changes when the puck is out of your zone and over the red line!!

--Randy Weiler (@hornytoad17)

JH: I think the easiest answer to this is that stuff happens in games. I don’t think the Bruins are any more prone to a bad line change here or there, than any other of the 30 teams in the NHL. It happens to every team over the course of 82 games, and I think stuff like that can be even more prominent when the schedule gets really dense for a team as it is for the Bruins right now with 21 games in 39 days to close out the season. Is it a coach’s fault if a player screws up the dump-in attempt as the rest of the group goes off the ice for a line change? I don’t think so. These guys are pros and should be able to do something like that.

The delay of game penalties are something I’d look at as more of a reflection on mismanagement coming from the bench, and admittedly the Bruins have had a couple of those as well. But when you look at the way the special teams are coached with this group, how each player is held accountable whether they are a rookie or a veteran and when you look at the development of the B’s young guys, I’m not sure how you could view the coaching as anything but a major strength on this Bruins team. Bruce Cassidy has done a hell of a job, and would be factoring much more prominently into the Jack Adams conversation if Gerard Gallant weren’t taking his expansion Golden Knights team to the playoffs. I think it’s even been enough evidence for the Claude Apologist Crew to finally put away their crybaby soup for good.