We’ve all heard the happy, shiny talk in the recent past about the Bruins, and head coach Claude Julien, embracing the youth movement.
It may have been more talk than reality in the last couple of seasons for the Black and Gold, but don’t look now because it’s actually happening. The last couple of drafts and some key NCAA free agent signings have helped stabilized the Bruins, and even deserve a big apple for helping push the B’s compass back toward playoff possibilities.
FELGER: Things seem different for Bruins
The reasons behind the sudden onset of youth are more multiple than singular, but there’s no question this season’s improvement is connected to first-year players Brandon Carlo, Austin Czarnik and Noel Acciari, along with 20-year-old David Pastrnak evolving into the elite game-breaking force forecasted for since his rookie season. The group also includes 24-year-old Colin Miller and 23-year-old Joe Morrow, who have helped stabilize a D-corps that’s been good enough to win on most nights this season.
Add it all up, and the B’s youth movement is as much action as talk this time around.
“Whenever there are young guys on the team they just bring a little more excitement. They have a lot of energy,” said Brad Marchand, prior to the season when it was clear to him there would a considerable contingent of young players on the B’s roster. “They’re like little puppies. That’s what [David Pastrnak] is like, just always buzzing around and excited all the time. It’s fun to have that young energy on the room, and it gives us all a little bit of energy for sure.”
Clearly the biggest underlying reason for the Bruins success this season is the otherworldly play between the pipes of Tuukka Rask. He has the NHL’s shiny, new No. 1 Star of the Week to show for it, and nobody would argue with his massive impact.
But the young prospects that have turned into NHL players represent the other big change from the last few years, and stand as an important reason why the Bruins are pointed in an upward trend. Their excellent week of hockey against admittedly beatable opponents has them second in the Atlantic Division, with the hallmark date of US Thanksgiving in sight next week.
Clearly the biggest difference-maker among the young players is Pastrnak with 10 goals scored in 16 games. In his breakthrough third NHL season he’s among the NHL’s top goal-scorers, and playing a vital role as the missing right wing piece on the “Perfect BP” Line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
“It’s the natural evolution of a young player, who has the potential and just needed some time,” said Claude Julien. “[Pastrnak] has been really good so far this year, and in my estimation he’s taken a really big step as compared to last year. It’s nice to see that.”
But arguably just as important has been Carlo, who has filled a titanic Black and Gold need for a shutdown, top pair defenseman aside Zdeno Chara with just a handful of pro games under his belt heading into this year.
The 19-year-old Carlo is more than the Bruins could have asked for out of a 2015 second round pick: he’s averaging 22:19 of ice time per night, he leads all NHL rookies with a plus-11 rating and he’s got two goals and four points in 16 games all as Chara’s partner. More importantly, Carlo and Chara have teamed to give Claude Julien a lockdown D-pair at the end of games that can close out one goal leads, and make life difficult for the opposition’s best offensive players. Attackers trying to fight through the long-reaching stick and massive bodies of Chara and Carlo can attest to just how challenging life has been for them.
Perhaps most underrated of all Carlo has had a positive impact on Chara, who is playing his best hockey in a couple of years as he approaches 40 years old this season.
“[Carlo] is a guy that keeps improving all the time because of his work ethic, his commitment and he wants to be better. I just like his attitude,” said Julien. “If he makes a mistake, there’s a second effort in there too just trying to correct it. I like his approach to the game, and that’s what is making him better all the time.”
Some of the renaissance for the B’s captain is undoubtedly due to his Team Europe stint in the World Cup of Hockey, but more of it is about Chara not having to cover for both him and his partner each time he’s on the ice. Chara was trying to do too much on most nights because the Bruins needed him to do too much, and that’s just an unfortunate fact. That was the case when the Bruins tried to shoehorn lower pairing D’s like Adam McQuaid or Kevan Miller into that top pair spot on the right side, but Carlo has the offensive instincts and simple, quick decision-making choices with the puck that those aforementioned veterans don’t always exhibit.
Clearly there are still times when Carlo looks more rookie than veteran, but those are the rare exceptions rather than the unmerciful rule. It’s also still a proving ground for Carlo just 16 games into his NHL career, but the 6-foot-5 rookie’s emergence has substantially lessened the pressure on Bruins GM Don Sweeney to make a desperate deal for a top-4 D-man.
A little less impactful, but still important youngster has been the 23-year-old Czarnik, who has brought speed and offense to a couple of bigger, stronger third line forwards in Matt Beleskey and Riley Nash. Replacing the bigger, slower Hayes with the more dynamic Czarnik has unlocked the third line’s dormant offense, and given the Bruins much better scoring depth up front among all their lines. The two goals and four points in 12 games don’t adequately tell the story, but the Bruins are a faster, aggressive, attacking group with Czarnik bringing forecheck heat to the third line.
The diminutive forward has also provided a dynamic point presence on the second power play unit as well, and that whole package is what he showed during an outstanding training camp.
“I don’t know if people are just looking at the two games he played before we sent him down [for a brief AHL stint], but he had an unbelievable camp,” said Julien. “We were really pleased with him, and then he had the setback with the [concussion]. But he’s gotten right back to where he was in training camp. He’s got good speed, he’s got good vision and he moves the puck well.
“He’s a smart player, and I think he’s really helped that [third] line get a little bit of an identity there. The other two guys have played better too, so it’s not about taking one guy off. [Matt] Beleskey has been a better player and [Riley] Nash been better too, so we’re getting some production because that line has been better as a whole.”
The 24-year-old Acciari is out for the next month after suffering a lower body injury, and Hayes has done a good job filling in and playing his best hockey of the season. But the 5-foot-10, 208-pound Rhode Island grinder brings a work ethic and toughness that makes him tough to play against, and he has taken on some of Marchand’s agitating mantle this season. Acciari does it in a little bit of a different way on the fourth line, but it’s been noticeable the way his heavy hits and ultra-aggressiveness has rubbed opponents wrong enough to take penalties as a result.
The two points and eight shots on net in 12 games aren’t going to win any offensive awards, but Acciari’s game is about heavy hits, energy and adding to a fourth line that’s been excellent for the B’s this season.
Add in the extensive, as-yet unrealized potential of both Miller and Morrow as young D-men with plenty to offer and the emergency work done by second year pro goalie Zane McIntyre, and this is a Black and Gold rookie crop finally giving the proven B’s core some help where they need it. That hasn’t been the case in the last couple of seasons where youngsters couldn’t fill into roles for a Bruins team that needed them, but Cam Neely and Sweeney will take it now when they absolutely needed it most.
Now the hope is that the B’s young legs, with another smart move or two potentially down the line, will be enough to help push the existing Boston crew over the top this time around.