Haggerty: Bruins facing a big question about their top line this summer

Haggerty: Bruins facing a big question about their top line this summer

There were myriad questions facing the Bruins at the closure of their Stanley Cup playoff run in the second round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Some were about the overall roster and some were about players who either did or didn’t rise to the occasion in the postseason. Still, there are deeper, fundamental issues as well after watching just how top-heavy the Bruins offense was, particularly when their even strength offense went completely dark against Tampa Bay in the second round.

It begs the question, should the Bruins keep their dominant top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak together moving forward, or bust it up in the interest of balancing the offense a little more up front?

Clearly, it’s a bit counterintuitive given that Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were the best forward line in the NHL this season and rang up 16 goals and 53 points in 12 postseason games against Toronto and Tampa Bay after operating as a dominant two-way force in the regular season.  

In the losses, however, that top line was held to four goals, 11 points and a combined minus-23 in seven playoff games, with all the offense that they did provide coming in the Tampa Bay series. That’s too much all-or-nothing from the top players when teams need to battle tooth and nail in the playoffs and way too much nothing from everybody else in the second round.

Some of it was about injuries, ranging from Jake DeBrusk, to Rick Nash, to Riley Nash and David Backes, who were all banged up, but some of it was that something that needs to change up front. The Bruins forwards were far too easily neutralized by a big, strong and physical Tampa Bay defensive group. It's something that needs to be addressed for next season and beyond.  

Certainly, Marchand and Bergeron would stay together as a duo regardless of what happens, but it was eye-opening to watch that Bruins top line get shut down in the postseason losses and then to watch the sheer inability of anybody else among the forwards to step up. Couple that with the chemistry that Pastrnak has shown with fellow Czech David Krejci in the past, and did again when the two played together in the World Championships earlier this spring, and there’s a very compelling argument to remove Pastrnak from the top line.

The question is how deeply the Bruins are going to investigate breaking up the Black and Gold Beatles so to speak, and if that is the answer for Boston’s second line next season rather than searching outside the organization for a Rick Nash replacement.

“It’s a prolific line, it’s very difficult to stop, and the chemistry that they have created [is special]. We had three people at the World Championships come back and said ‘Boy, [David] Krejci and [David] Pastrnak played really well together’ those things filter back to the coaches,” said GM Don Sweeney. “We know that that’s an option for us. Whether or not it’s a player from the outside, whether that’s Rick Nash, or whether it’s somebody that goes up and plays, I think Bruce [Cassidy] is excited about sort of the younger forwards and the options that he has to try some of those things.

“I don’t think anything is set in stone. It’s certainly a coach’s decision, but we’ll have some conversations. We feel that our top six – I think Rick Nash from a size and puck protection standpoint -- gave us something that was maybe missing in that regard, so we’re cognizant of it. We’re just trying to field the best, most competitive team that we can. Anders Bjork started [with Marchand and Bergeron] this year, and a lot of teams have worked in sets of two, you know, to keep combinations of two together. Does that mean that Krejci and Pastrnak become a combination of two, or is it now Jake DeBrusk and Krejci become a combination of two? These are things we’re kind of going through.”

In a perfect world, the Bruins would keep their top line intact for next season and continue to ride it all the way to dominant performances against opponents who can’t stop them and can’t score against them either. Still, part of the problem is that they need to find somebody that can bring the best out of Krejci. That’s something that Rick Nash was never able to do at any point when the two were together at the end of last season.

Instead, it might have to be the explosive, 22-year-old Pastrnak who gets dropped to the second line to highlight the best of what’s still left in Krejci’s playmaking and bring balance back to the attack. Perhaps the Bruins can even tailor their forward group to whatever team they’re playing: Load up on the top line against the weaker defensive teams that simply don’t have the wherewithal to stop them and then spread things out a little bit against teams Tampa and Toronto, where balanced scoring is more of a must-have.  

The Bruins can always plug in a young player (Bjork, Danton Heinen or Ryan Donato) with Marchand and Bergeron in most scenarios. That would actually be ideal from a player development standpoint, and could bring out the best in a talented young player ready to burst on the NHL scene offensively.  

The good news is this: The Bruins have as many options up front as they have questions about the makeup of their top-six and they still have three explosive offensive forces in Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak, who each scored 30 goals last season. That’s a pretty damn good place to start and much better than most of the other NHL teams will be working with this fall when they put their forward combos together in camp.


Bruins open home season with a day game against Ottawa

File photo

Bruins open home season with a day game against Ottawa

The Bruins normally start the home portion of their schedule with a festive Opening Night celebration. But not this year.

This year, it'll be an Opening Day ceremony.

The Columbus Day matinee makes it a rare day opener for the B's. But they'll have had a normal Opening Night before that, and what a night it figures to be:

(The Caps say Banner 'Day,' but since Oct. 3 is a Wednesday, the assumption is it'll be played at night.)

The NHL will release the full schedule tomorrow, but teams are being allowed to Tweet out the dates of their home openers. So, in addition to the season opener in Washington and the home opener against the Senators, we know two other game dates for the Bruins:

And tomorrow, we'll know the whole thing.

Haggerty: Stage getting set for an active Bruins offseason

Haggerty: Stage getting set for an active Bruins offseason

Given some of the contracts the Bruins have on their books, given their overabundance of young assets and given a couple of the holes that need filling on the NHL roster, it feels inevitable they're going to be active over the next few weeks.

First, there are a couple of key openings they'd like to fill on their NHL roster that they can’t simply plug in with their own young talent in the organization. Boston’s interest in free-agent winger Ilya Kovalchuk would fill one of those vacancies as a second line sniper-type that the Bruins could plug in with David Krejci and theoretically provide more balanced scoring up front than what the B's featured in their second-round defeat against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Clearly, the Bruins aren’t the only team interested in Kovalchuk, 35, who has suitors on the West Coast (the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks) among others when he becomes available to sign on July 1. Given his age and that he's been away from the NHL playing in Russia the past five years, Kovalchuk isn’t going to command much more than a one-to-two-year deal at $5 million to $6 million per season. That’s a doable price tag for an aging game-breaker who should score 25 goals and 60 points in his sleep.

Certainly, Kovalchuk seems a better bet than Rick Nash, 33, who disappointed after arriving at the trade deadline while also coping with a concussion that really messed up his time with the Black and Gold. It could come down to an either/or for the Bruins between giving Kovalchuk or Nash a similar contract to be the veteran, big-bodied scorer on the second line. That’s a must given the small stature, inexperience and highly skilled nature of the young players the B's overwhelmingly feature on their wing right now.

A little higher on the degree of difficulty this offseason is the longstanding search for a front-line, left-shot defenseman who could fit into Boston’s top four. With Zdeno Chara turning 42 next season and Torey Krug and Matt Grzelcyk both undersized, puck-moving types, there’s a clear need for a bigger, stronger and younger do-everything D-man.

The Bruins have a longstanding interest in Carolina defenseman Noah Hanifin that goes back to their efforts to trade up for him in the first round of the 2015 draft. The Hurricanes are a team that appears likely to trade off some of their players amid a regime change. Hanifin won’t come cheap as the Canes will undoubtedly ask for left winger Jake DeBrusk in a hefty package, just as the Rangers similarly did in the Ryan McDonagh discussions last spring. Perhaps the two sides can settle on a package built around Danton Heinen or Anders Bjork instead, or perhaps the Bruins will have to look elsewhere, whether that means Oskar Klefbom or seeing what Jakub Zboril/Urho Vaakanainen/Jeremy Lauzon could bring to the table.

As it stands, the Bruins will have somewhere between $10.4 million to $14.4 million in cap space after signing Grzelcyk to a two-year, $2.8 million extension, depending on where the ceiling for 2018-19 ends up between the projected $78-82 million. They have 10 forwards, seven defensemen and one goaltender under contract and still need to make decisions on their third-line center and their backup goaltender, along with a second-line sniper. So, it would be smart cap management by the Bruins to move some salary in order to give themselves some breathing room ahead of July 1. That’s why the names David Krejci ($7.25 million cap hit) and David Backes ($6 million) have been whispered around the periphery of league-wide trade discussions.  

TSN Insider Darren Dreger told Buffalo WGR Sports Radio 550 last Friday that the Bruins are fielding calls about a potential Krejci trade. Dreger also added that the Bruins are "a little reluctant to” move their playmaking 32-year-old Czech center, but instead "would like" to deal away the 34-year-old Backes.    

What does it all sound like to this humble hockey writer?

It sounds like wishful thinking from a Bruins general manager who would love to move either of the two worst contracts - paying aging players with no-movement clauses - on their books. Of course, the Bruins would like to move Backes, who had a bad contract from the minute they signed him to a five-year deal. Backes has endured all kinds of injury and health issues the past couple of seasons, including a nasty concussion that ended his postseason. He has settled into a third-line role after never really building any offensive chemistry with Krejci.

Clearly, Backes is making too much money for a third-liner who has averaged 15 goals and 36 points in his first two seasons in Boston. It also wouldn’t be shocking if the hard-working, no-nonsense Backes would be amenable to moving somewhere where he might fit into a more prominent top-six role. Still, nobody is going to take on Backes unless A) the Bruins were willing to eat a great deal of his remaining $18 million or B) they were willing to take on a similarly unfavorable contract coming from another team.

All of this doesn’t even mention the fact Backes is one of the few Bruins forwards with size, strength, snarl and a willingness to go to the front of the net and jettisoning him would just be creating another hole to be filled on their roster.

“Hopefully he is going to be healthy. He went through... even he described it as a pretty difficult year," GM Don Sweeney said back in May at his end-of-season press conference. "I don’t know if a lot of players are going to play through some of the things David went through this year. It speaks to his character. It’s a big reason why we went out and got him, and to what he was going to offload at times from other players on our hockey club that we all speak about from a core standpoint, and the impact they make from a leadership standpoint. It’s a lot to lump on players individually to carry that burden, and I think David’s done a really good job of coming in and helping in that regard and spreading it around. From a pure production standpoint, a little bit is determined where he plays in the lineup.

“Nothing against Bruce, but he’s putting together the lineup and did a really good job this year. We played him on the power play. His offense comes in spurts probably more so than what he used to, from a volume standpoint. He’s also playing with younger players at times that’s he’s helping on and off the ice. I think we looked at David Backes as providing balance in our locker room, on the ice, not just from a pure production standpoint. Do I hope he becomes a 20 [goals] 50 [points] guy again? Yeah, I absolutely do. I don’t know, that’s up to him. He hasn’t the last two years, but at times, if he was healthy, he was trending in that way. But a little bit depends on the usage piece.”

Perhaps there is less reluctance to deal Krejci from a Bruins perspective, but it’s once again an aging player experiencing both more injuries and less production at this point in a very solid career. If the Bruins found a team willing to take either Krejci or Backes in a reasonable deal, and either was willing to waive their no-trade protection, then Boston would and should pull the trigger immediately, if not sooner.

Instead, this feels more like Boston trying to float a couple of names they’d like to trade before going through the pain of trading a younger, more valuable asset (Krug, perhaps?) to clear the cap space they’ll need to make all their desired offseason moves. All the pieces are in place for Sweeney and the Bruins to make a few splash-worthy moves this season, but let’s also hope B’s management doesn’t shake, rattle and roll too much of a roster that piled up 112 points last season while looking like they were onto something most of the year.