The Boston Bruins still expect to be a contender to win the newly formed East division during the 2020-21 NHL season, but some key departures over the offseason have made meeting these expectations much harder.
It's been a brutal offseason for the B's.
It started with Torey Krug -- the team's second-best defenseman and leading scorer on the back end -- leaving to join the St. Louis Blues in free agency. Boston has not replaced Krug with another top-four defenseman. The blue line depth took another hit Wednesday when longtime captain Zdeno Chara officially announced his departure. He agreed to sign a one-year deal worth just $795,000 with the Washington Capitals.
Despite these departures and the lack of notable upgrades made to the roster, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney admitted Thursday that expectations haven't changed.
"We’re a team that’s well positioned to be competitive in our division and get into the playoffs. That’s our expectation and see where we go from there," Sweeney said on a Zoom call. "It’s an uncharted kind of year that we’re going to face as was the return to play, going into a bubble environment. If anyone that has a clear-cut answer in terms of what to expect in and what players may or may not remain healthy, good on them to have the foresight to be able to do that.
"We have to have the depth within the organization. I think you have to be strong, obviously in all areas. I’ve made no bones that we’ll have some exposure in introducing some younger players that we plan to integrate and blend in, but our goaltending is in a great spot and our forward group is. Now we have to be healthy and hopefully we move forward. But, I don’t think our expectations have changed at all."
What happened to competing for the Stanley Cup? Unfortunately, that window likely has closed for Boston's veteran core.
The Bruins have made only one good addition to the roster in the offseason, and that was veteran right winger Craig Smith. He will improve the team's scoring depth, but he won't address the biggest weakness on the roster -- the blue line.
Boston's defensive corps lacks the ideal amount of talent, depth and experience. Chara and Krug's minutes and roles will collectively be replaced by Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, Connor Clifton, Kevan Miller and John Moore, among others. None of these players, with the exception of Grzelcyk, are fully ready for a top-four role this season.
Let's also not forget how difficult the competition in the East division should be in 2021. Boston's seven divisional opponents are the Buffalo Sabres, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
Four of the league's top seven teams (Bruins, Capitals, Flyers and Penguins) from last year's regular season are in this division. The New York Islanders also were a playoff team, and both the Rangers and Sabres should be much better this season based on offseason additions.
The Bruins also are likely to be without leading scorer David Pastrnak to begin the season after he underwent a procedure in September. First-line left winger Brad Marchand also underwent offseason surgery in September and could be ready by the Jan. 14 opener, but that's not certain yet.
There's no doubt the Bruins roster, and specifically the blue line, is worse than it was when the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated Boston in the second round of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
There's no guarantee the Bruins earn a playoff spot by finishing as one of the top four teams in the division, and a poor start will be tougher than normal to overcome given the shortened 56-game schedule.
The Red Sox and Patriots found it difficult to replace top players in 2020. The Bruins could be the latest Boston team to face that reality in 2021.