Hagg Bag: Taking stock of the Bruins after an up-and-down start

Hagg Bag: Taking stock of the Bruins after an up-and-down start

With two vastly different outcomes in the books, the Bruins are off and running in their regular season. Questions obviously still abound about how much this team is the one that rolled over and died against the Washington Capitals Opening Night and how much is the team that looked very sharp at both ends in a shutout win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.

Those questions aren’t going to get answered until we’re much deeper into the season, but we can answer questions of a different variety in our first Hagg Bag mailbag of the season. As always these are real questions from real readers and fans sent to my Twitter account using the #HaggBag hashtag, sent as messages to NBC Sports Boston Facebook fan page or as emails sent to my account,

Now, let’s get on with the bag:

Hey Joe

Coming into last season I thought Anders Bjork looked to actually be slightly ahead of Jake DeBrusk. Obviously, DeBrusk had a better season and a great playoff, but I still believe the player I saw, in Bjork looked like a top 6 forward. It was good to see him play in the second game of the season. I doubt they would keep him on the team if they weren't planning on giving him ice time. What kind of season do you think he will have, and do the Bruins still have him high in their organizational chart?


John D

And give Tuuka break. No one showed up for the 1st game. He actually made a couple saves when it was 2-0 to give them a chance to get their legs under them. 

JH: Hey John. Tuukka has had enough breaks over the years. I’m not here to cut anybody breaks. That’s not what I get paid to do. If Rask had been ready to go and the Bruins had managed to withstand that first-period onslaught without giving up a couple of goals, maybe things would have been different on Opening Night. I mean, maybe not obviously. But there’s a pattern of Rask being very shaky in these tone-setting type games and that was the case again vs. Washington before finally getting yanked in the second period.

As far as Anders Bjork goes, I like the skill and I like the speed. I think he’s an NHL player. But part of the reason DeBrusk managed to break through ahead of Bjork last season, besides overall health, was that he was a little more ready to do battle in the NHL after a season in Providence. Bjork hasn’t had that luxury despite spending some time in the AHL last season. I think an AHL stint could do him a lot of good based on how crowded things are up front for the Black and Gold.

If Donato keeps scoring, I’m just not sure where Bjork is going to push his way into the lineup unless Danton Heinen has a major regression, which I don’t see happening.

Hi Joe

Do you think the Bruins will sign Stempniak?

--Keith Nessen (via Facebook)

JH: This all depends on how Donato and Heinen fare in their top-six auditions, and if Donato is able to play a good enough two-way game to at least be a third-line winger. Stempniak is some great veteran insurance in case of them falters and he showed in training camp that he can still put the puck in the net and play with skill guys.

Stempniak told me that he’s going to practice with the Bruins for a while and stick around in Boston waiting to see what happens and that there isn’t anything imminent with anybody else around the league. He wants to play for the Bruins and stay home with his young family in Boston. He can also most definitely still play in the league, so we’ll see what happens to him over the next month or six weeks while he stays in shape working out with the B’s.

Going forward will Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins management play the goalie that gives the team the best chance to win and not worry about the contract that was given to Tuukka Rask by the previous GM

--Kevin Blair (@kmblair13)

JH: At this point, I don’t think so. If Rask struggles for a few weeks and Jaro Halak plays lights out as he did against the Sabres on Thursday night? That could certainly change just as it did last season in November when the Bruins opted to play Anton Khudobin for four games in a row. The difference being that Halak could run with the job for a few weeks at a time if he gets hot instead of the very limited way Khudobin was ever going to supplant Rask. Still, I fully expect that Rask is going to get the start on Monday afternoon at the Garden, and I think there’s a pretty fair chance he could play well and put some distance on the opening night stink bomb in DC.

Should the Bruins light a fire under Tuukka by playing Halak?

--Mark Peters (@mpeters74)

JH: I think they are going to light a fire under Tuukka early and often by playing Halak quite a bit. Certainly the fire should be lit after Rask watched Halak stop 32 shots and play very well in the shutout win over Buffalo after he got shelled in Washington DC. In theory, this should get the best out of Rask, but I wonder if the real pressure on him by his goalie partner is going to end up doing the opposite for Boston’s No. 1 goalie. We’ll see. But as I said above, I don’t see Halak playing Monday afternoon.

Brad Marchand is unnecessary.

--Ryan L (@rluck135)

JH: Nah, dawg. That tweet was unnecessary. Brad Marchand is one of the best players in the NHL and an integral part of the Bruins.    

Our top centers are getting older. Is there a plan to replace them? I don't see any of the young centers in the pipe with the offensive upside.

--meathome472 (@meathome472)

JH: Welp, Patrice Bergeron is signed for the next three seasons beyond this one and David Krejci is signed for another two seasons after the 2018-19 campaign. They’re both also making big bucks with a weighty cap hit, so the idea of replacing them isn’t something that’s going to happen in the short term. Is there a scenario where Bergeron or more likely Krejci would eventually drop down to a third-line center role to make room for another center? Sure, that might have happened if the Bruins had somehow signed John Tavares this summer, and it could eventually happen if any of Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic or Jack Studnicka eventually become a top-six pivot in the NHL.

Of those three, I think Studnicka has the upside to be that kind of player. But your point is well taken that a star center is something the Bruins really don’t have in the prospect pipeline right now. Not many other teams do either, but it’s something they might do well to focus on in the draft with Bergeron and Krejci now well into their 30’s.


I've felt for some time now that the Bruins have an overabundance of legit young wingers in Boston and Providence (eg. Cehlarik, Bjork, Donato, Senyshyn, Heinen, Debrusk, Fitzgerald etc).

My question is what are the B's going to do with all these pieces, and when are we going to start to deal some of these guys for a bona fide 2nd line RW or D-man while they have value? 



JH: Barring any serious injuries, I don’t think I see the Bruins dealing prospects for a defenseman at the trade deadline this season. But there’s a very plausible scenario where the Bruins could be in the market for a top-six sniper if both Heinen and Donato falter in their auditions for a top-six winger role alongside Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. If they need some offensive punch to really fortify that second line offensively, then it’s very realistic that some of that prospect currency you’re talking about will get moved for a player a la Rick Nash last season. The problem, as everybody saw with Nash last year, is that getting the seemingly right player at the deadline doesn’t always work out, or put that team over the top. So we’ll see, but I don’t see Donato, DeBrusk or maybe even Bjork as part of any trade packages unless it’s a major young talent coming in return. 


Ilya Kovalchuk would still look good in a B's uniform for the right price

Ilya Kovalchuk would still look good in a B's uniform for the right price

As the Bruins lament the lack of scoring from the middle of their forward lineup amid a five-game losing streak, a viable option might be just about to drop into their lap.

The latest out of Los Angeles is that Ilya Kovalchuk is about to have his contract terminated with the Kings after last playing a game for them on Nov. 19 and essentially having been told by Kings management a month ago that his time with the organization is over. The 36-year-old Russian winger has three goals and nine points in 17 games this season, but is also a minus-10 and hasn’t been all that good at any point the past few seasons with the Kings.

Kovalchuk had 16 goals and 34 points along with a minus-26 last season in 64 games, but clearly wasn’t a good fit with an L.A. team nowhere close to playoff-caliber. His three-year, $18.75 million deal was viewed at the time as a questionable contract signed to an aging, once-great player coming out of the KHL, but it was the cost to win Kovalchuk over other teams such as the Bruins that had also shown interest.

Certainly, Kovalchuk is no longer the guy that carried the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, or a player that’s capable of putting up 37 goals and 83 points as he did that season. Kovalchuk is still a 6-foot-3, 230-pound winger that can shoot, score goals and finish off plays as evidenced by his 19 goals in 81 games the past two seasons while doing it for a Kings team that’s severely lacking offensive pieces around him.  

But if Kovalchuk is either bought out of his contract or granted some kind of release from the Kings, it’s still perfectly reasonable to theorize that the Russian sniper would reach higher offensive levels skating in a second-line role with a natural playmaker such as David Krejci. It’s unclear at this point whether any interested team would have to put up his contract or be free to sign him to a new deal, but there’s no question his value is down after two rough years in L.A.

Sure, it looks like Kovalchuk is a severe defensive liability at this point in his career given that he was minus-36 over the past two seasons, but there are enough responsible defensive players for the B’s to make up for it.

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What they don’t have right now is a finisher who can spark the second line, or somebody with a natural scoring touch for the second power-play unit as well. It was a problem Bruce Cassidy highlighted after the 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night where they didn’t get much of anything from their middle two forward lines. It’s the same kind of issue that dogged the B’s in previous losses to quality opponents Colorado and Washington earlier in the stretch of five losses in a row and earlier in the season when their Perfection Line carried them.

“The top line again was creating. We’re just not getting anything from the middle of the lineup in terms of offense,” lamented Cassidy. “You need four lines to produce for you in this league on a regular basis. It might not be [on Thursday]. It might be Saturday [at Florida], but you need some offense to sort of balance things out.

“We need some guys to get going here a little bit. [They need] to at least find their opportunities and then they’ll go in. I’m not sure they’re even finding their opportunities yet, so that’s step one that they are chasing.”

It will depend on the details, of course, but if the Bruins can land Kovalchuk without surrendering much in the way of actual assets or big-time salary for a player that flamed out in Los Angeles, they need to seriously think about doing it. 

If nothing else, he gives them a much better top-six wing option than they now have with Brett Ritchie, Danton Heinen, David Backes or Karson Kuhlman, and fits along the lines of whatever the Bruins are hoping to upgrade their forward group with at the trade deadline.

It may be that Kovalchuk simply decides to head back to Mother Russia for a big-money deal and eschews the NHL moving forward after he was a spectacular flop in LA over the last couple of seasons.

Given how interested the B’s were in Kovalchuk a couple of summers ago as a free agent and how little they might have to spend to get him for the rest of the season, the Bruins need to do some serious tire-kicking on the former No. 1 overall pick who could be a revitalized force playing in a top-six role for a deep, skilled Bruins team looking to fortify a Cup run.



Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

Losing streak revealing a Bruins flaw that could be fatal if not addressed

TAMPA  – The problems are many when a team has lost five in a row as the Bruins have.

It wasn’t a desperate Bruins dressing room in the aftermath of their 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night at Amalie Arena, nor should it be. The B’s still hold an eight-point lead in the Atlantic Division despite being in the throes of their first losing streak of the season.

As Tuukka Rask said succinctly afterward, “We hate to lose, but we’re not going to go 80-3 or whatever it was that [Brett] Ritchie said.”

A strong, winning effort against the Florida Panthers on Saturday night would salvage a rough trip and get the Bruins spinning in the right direction in short order.

That’s not really the problem.

The issue with the Bruins is the same old problems that cropped up against the St. Louis Blues last June in the Stanley Cup Final and two years ago in the second-round series against Tampa Bay. The flaws are springing up again with a series of heavy, intense playoff-style games against quality opponents.

When the Bruins go up against opponents such as Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay, the offense gets one-dimensional and the effort to score becomes challenging if the special teams are playing at a dominant clip. 

Bruce Cassidy sounded the alarm about it after watching another loss to Tampa Bay where the Bruins scored just enough to lose. There wasn’t enough going on offensively aside from the "Perfection Line" accounting for a first-period lead and a late, desperate goal from John Moore.

“The top line again was creating. We’re just not getting anything from the middle of the lineup in terms of offense,” lamented Cassidy. “You need four lines to produce for you in this league on a regular basis. It might not be [on Thursday]. It might be Saturday, but you need some offense to sort of balance things out. We need some guys to get going here a little bit. [They need] to at least find their opportunities and then they’ll go in. I’m not sure they’re even finding their opportunities yet, so that’s step one that they are chasing.”

Can Cassidy put his finger on what the issue is with the middle lines?

“Some of it is inside. You start playing some good teams that are fast, Colorado, Washington and Tampa Bay. It’s almost like playoff hockey in December. A lot of those guys in that room have lived it and they know what it’s about,” said Cassidy. “Make a decision, do you want to play that way or not? Then some of it is self-inflicted where we won neutral zone face-offs, and harmless kind of plays where it doesn’t get in, we turn it over and then take penalties against a potent power play. Is it the PK? Well, it’s a great power play and we really didn’t help ourselves in those situations.”

Cassidy is spot-on about not enough from the supporting players in the kind of games the B’s will be in the postseason. Jake DeBrusk finished with zero points and had zero shots on net in two of the three games against Colorado, Washington and Tampa. Danton Heinen had zero points and a minus-4 in those three games with five shots on net. Anders Bjork picked up an assist in the loss to Tampa Bay, but managed just two shots on net in the three games against the Avs, Capitals and Lightning. Brett Ritchie has zero points and a minus-2 in the three games since coming back from injury. Even David Krejci has no points, a minus-1 rating and just two shots on net in those three games.

The dilemma facing the Bruins is this: Is this just a preview of what’s going to eventually doom them in the postseason if nothing is done about it?

Certainly, the Bruins weren’t playing their best in the loss to Colorado, but the efforts against Washington and Tampa Bay were more focused and had the kind of urgency that Boston has played with most of the season. And it still wasn’t enough when push came to shove and underlying flaws came forward for a team that’s a little small, a little short on real scoring depth against quality teams and beatable going up against big, deep teams with a physical defensemen corps. 

One would hope that Don Sweeney and Cam Neely were watching closely the past week and took these losses for what they are. The Bruins are showing that they are going to need some help when things get tough in the postseason and that they could use at least one more viable source of offense among their top-six forwards.

They have a bunch of talented kids up front who have shown a propensity to disappear when things get tough against the hard teams and that isn’t going to help the Bruins much this spring. There’s enough of a sample size now to predict that isn’t going to change when it comes to DeBrusk, Bjork, Heinen and Ritchie. The Bruins need to do something about it ahead of the NHL trade deadline.

Whether it’s kicking the tires on Taylor Hall, or a more realistic target such as Los Angeles Kings right wing Tyler Toffoli, the Bruins have shown the past few games that they need some outsource things for help up front if they want to finish what they started last spring.

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