The Bruins hit the bye week in a pretty good spot, even if they dragged bottom a little bit in getting there.
Losses over the last two weeks to a couple of non-playoff teams in the Flyers and Rangers certainly revealed a team that was in need of a break, but it also underscored some shortcomings with the Bruins team in general. Some of those shortcomings can be addressed by adjustments and the good coaching everybody has seen for three seasons from Bruce Cassidy and Co. and some of it will need to be solved by searching outside the organization.
“I thought we had some really good games. You know we had some games we could’ve probably played better, but overall I think we’re in a good position going into the break. Obviously after the break it’s going to be very important to keep playing strong and keep climbing in the standings,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “It’s going to obviously be the second half of the season. It’s always very important to play better and keep improving and closer you get to the playoffs, you know, you demand to play the best hockey.”
Perhaps even more young players like Peter Cehlarik and Trent Frederic will provide some of those answers in the second half of the season following the bye week and NHL All-Star weekend. But those questions will be answered in the future over the next three months.
Now is the time to take stock with where the Bruins currently sit, and where they hope to be once the playoffs begin in April.
Offense: On the periphery, things are very good offensively for the Bruins. They managed to survive an extended period when both Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara were injured, and their Perfection Line once again led the way in the first half. David Pastrnak has gone supernova while on pace for 45 goals and 97 points in what would be one of the best offensive seasons for the Black and Gold in decades, and both Patrice Bergeron (28 goals and 82 points) and Brad Marchand (32 goals and 89 points) are in line for outstanding offensive campaigns of their own. Jake DeBrusk is on pace for 26 goals in his second NHL season, and David Krejci is on pace for a pretty strong 17 goals and 67 points as the second line center. Torey Krug is on pace for nine goals and 60 points, which are close to his normal numbers in each of his previous three seasons.
Multiple injuries to Charlie McAvoy have taken away some of the offensive bite from the back end this season, and have certainly played into a team that’s been inconsistent at even strength despite their offensive stars.
The third line has been a season-long riddle for Bruce Cassidy, and the first half struggles for players like Danton Heinen, David Backes and Ryan Donato absolutely played into bottom-6 inconsistency. The Bruins brought up Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson to bring something to the third line, and there have been some moments for a kid third line of JFK, Donato and Heinen over the last month. But there’s still not much consistency in terms of secondary scoring from the third line, and the entire Bruins team in general is struggling to do damage during even strength play. The Bruins are second in the league with a 27.2 percent success rate on the power play, and that’s been a major weapon for them all season. But they’ve also become overly reliant on special teams to win games, and their power play has allowed an NHL-worst 10 shorthanded goals this season.
The fourth line has been excellent over the last couple of months, and Chris Wagner is on pace for 10 goals and 20 points while Sean Kuraly has used a great past six weeks to put himself on pace for 10 goals and 25 points.
The real question is whether the Bruins can properly fix their even strength situation by inserting young players like JFK, Trent Frederic or Cehlarik, and perhaps also removing Pastrnak from the top line while pairing him with his fellow Czech in Krejci. Or can those issues only be solved by going outside the organization for a top-6 winger like Wayne Simmonds, Micheal Ferland, Brayden Schenn or some other name in that class. Because it feels pretty certain that they need something added to their group if they hope to beat Tampa Bay come the postseason, and that’s been apparent since last season’s five-game playoff loss to the Lightning. Otherwise, the same fate could be awaiting the Bruins again this spring based on some of the offensive shortcomings as compared to teams like the Lightning and the Maple Leafs.
Defense and Goaltending: The Bruins are tied with Nashville and Dallas for the lowest goals against average (2.61) in the entire NHL, and they’ve managed to do that despite injuries to Zdeno Chara, Kevan Miller, Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug, and significant portions of the season where players like Steve Kampfer, Connor Clifton and Jeremy Lauzon have needed to step up and play important roles. Tuukka Rask started slowly this season per usual and Jaroslav Halak hit the skids going into the All-Star break, but they have combined to be arguably the best goaltending tandem in the league with the numbers to back it up. Halak was top-5 in goals against average and save percentage for most of the first half of the season, and Rask’s current .919 save percentage would be his best mark in four years.
Given the way things played out over December and January, one would expect Rask is going to take on the traditional No. 1 goalie role in the second half of the season after splitting equal time with Halak in the first half of the year. What will be interesting, though, is to see how things break down in the playoffs, and whether or not the B’s coaching staff would go with Halak if Rask isn’t playing his best in the big games. But for now both goalies have given the Bruins a chance to win on the majority of games in the first half, and that’s the most a hockey club can ask for.
Clearly the goaltenders masked some of the issues that the Bruins were having when they went through their spate of injuries, but the Bruins seemed to have found ideal combos of puck movers and shutdown D-men since everybody got healthy. Miller and Chara are still stalwart penalty killers and defensive warriors, and Brandon Carlo has arguably made the most strides of any of Boston’s defensemen over the last calendar year. Even Matt Grzelcyk has offset some of his physical weaknesses in the D-zone with his smarts, solid positioning and great technique along with the ability to skate the puck out of the zone quickly and efficiently. But there are definitely some defensive weak spots on this team. Krug is a minus-5 and goes through bouts where he gets trapped in the defensive zone against the elite offensive players he’s sometimes matched up with. Donato is a team-worst minus-11 and had a trip to the AHL for some remedial defensive work in the first few months of the season, and Noel Acciari is a minus-8 while getting the short end of the defensive stick on occasion.
One area where the B’s could improve? They are middle of the road on the penalty kill with an 80.7 percent success rate. It’s certainly not terrible and the penalty kill hasn’t been a major issue in most games, but they should be even better given the personnel, the goaltending and the way they’ve performed even strength for most of the season. While there are still plenty of areas for improvement up front for the Bruins in the second half, the B’s appear pretty set on the back end. The only question is whether one of those D-men might be on the move in a big trade given that John Moore has become a healthy scratch over the last few weeks. Players like Grzelcyk, Krug and Carlo would have significant trade value in a package for a game-breaking forward and the Bruins have the kind of defensive depth where they could execute that kind of deal.
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