Bruins

Haggerty: Time to look at the Bruins as one of the NHL's best

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Haggerty: Time to look at the Bruins as one of the NHL's best

There is no exaggeration or sports writing hyperbole when we say the Bruins are the NHL’s hottest team.

They secured points in their 15th game in a row (11-0-4) with a 5-2 demolishing of the New York Islanders on Thursday night, and are pulling away from the struggling Toronto Maple Leafs with a five-point lead for second place in the Atlantic Division. Oh, by the way, they also hold three games in hand over the Leafs. Amazingly, the Bruins are just five points behind the division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning with a game in hand on them as well while boasting the NHL’s second-best goal differential with a strong plus-36 mark.

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Basically, the Bruins are kicking butt, scoring goals and taking names all across the league.

Taking all this into account, it’s also no longer a leap to say the Black and Gold are one of the best teams in the league after showing no signs of slowing down the past two months. They’ve embarrassed the Coyotes, Blue Jackets, Hurricanes and spanked the Islanders, Senators and Canadiens multiple times in their stretch of dominance while outscoring opponents by a whopping 60-18 over those past 15 games.

It looked like they might slacken a little bit when they were a tad bit rusty coming off the five-day bye week with a couple of close, slightly sloppy games against the Habs and Dallas Stars, but they’ve bounced back with dominants wins over the Canadiens and Islanders.  

“We feel so good about our game that we know over the course of 60 minutes that we’ll get our chances if we’re working hard and stick to you know our layers and stick to our defensive posture that will turn into offense,” said Torey Krug. “For us, you know, it’s just confidence in our system and the way that we’re rolling right now. Guys are stepping up, we’re getting contributions from everyone and that’s a big part of it.”

So how are they doing it?

Well, the Perfection Line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak has gone supernova in January. Marchand (five goals, 14 points in seven games) and Bergeron (eight goals, 13 points in seven games) are averaging two points per game. Not only that, but David Krejci and Ryan Spooner have been point-per-game players on the second line to provide extra offensive support, Danton Heinen continues to bring an offensive element to the third line and the fourth line is bringing energy and physicality while taking regular shifts.

Basically, it’s come to the point where Boston’s top line is arguably the best 200-foot line in the NHL and their other three forward lines aren’t allowing opponents to simply key on the brilliantly flawless Perfection Line. That allows Bruce Cassidy to roll his forward lines, wear opponents down as they get deeper into games and simply overwhelm teams with their depth and quality while playing at a high pace.

“On our team this year I know for a fact that our four lines can play against anybody,” said Cassidy. “That’s the message I want to send to the players. I want them to feel like they can play against anybody, but I also want to be mindful of it and not get burnt by that. People will look at you and say ‘Geez, you’ve got all these great defensive forwards and you don’t use them.’ I’m not going to match David Krejci every night against the other team’s best line, but I don’t mind if for a shift or two they’re out there. That’s just the rhythm of the game, and I’m not going to jerk [players] off the ice [to play hard matchups].”

It’s not just about offense, though, as Zdeno Chara has made it his personal challenge to turn Boston’s penalty kill into Operation Shutdown. The Bruins basically won Wednesday night’s game in Boston when Chara stayed on the ice for nearly an entire, extended 5-on-3 power play for the Canadiens where they didn’t get much of a sniff. The 40-year-old was at it again on Thursday night with 25 plus minutes of ice time while blocking multiple shots killing an Islanders power play. Teams will always need defensive warriors to win big, important hockey games, and Chara is still the biggest, baddest shutdown defenseman warrior on the block.

“[Chara] thrives on it; he wants it. Sometimes you’ve got to grab him by the scruff – well I can’t – but [B’s assistant coach] Kevin [Dean] will try to get him off in [some of] those situations – not in a five-on-three – but he relishes that role,” said Cassidy, of Chara’s penalty killing ferocity. “If you look at our PK all year it has been in the top five, maybe slipped out to seven or eight. Zee is the biggest reason on it – and the goaltender has to make the saves. That’s not being disrespectful to [Patrice Bergeron], who does a great job, or [Riley] Nash, but Zee sees a lion’s share of it, and he sets the tone on it.”

Mix in consistently strong goaltending with the offense and the defense and it’s easy to see why the Bruins are dishing out humble pie to just about every opponent that crosses their path. It will be interesting to see if they can catch a Tampa Bay team without Victor Hedman for the next six weeks and if they can truly lock down home ice in the first round of the playoffs against the Maple Leafs.

But one thing to keep in mind before crowning the Bruins as the NHL’s next big thing: There is a huge youth faction on this team.

The five or six rookies in the lineup on a nightly basis have been instrumental to their success and, at this point, Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk and Sean Kuraly are becoming consistent contributors. But they’re only halfway through their first NHL season and Boston’s schedule gets much heavier in the second half. The Bruins, rookies and all, will be playing a taxing 16 games in March and it’s doubtful they’re going to come out of that heavy stretch at full strength.

It’s a very real possibility that Boston’s heralded rookies hit a wall at some point the next couple of months and they’ll need to be able to bounce back.

“I think we will keep an eye on it, but we have no intention of decreasing the workload right now until we see a drop-off because I don’t want to mess up a good thing,” said Cassidy. “You want to be out in front in some situations, but because [Charlie McAvoy] is so strong I think he’s going to be okay. But that will play itself out, and that will be a conversation with a number of guys and not just [McAvoy].

“How will DeBrusk handle it? Kuraly has played a lot of hockey for us, but he’s a little more down the lineup and doesn’t play as many minutes. Grzelcyk has now played a lot of games in a row. We have a few young guys that we’re going to have to monitor.”

The good news is that this Bruins team has been extremely resilient this season and they have a hardened, experienced leadership group that’s going to push them through. The Bruins also believe they’re one of the NHL’s best teams after the past couple of months. They’re absolutely right after the two-month run of awesome that they’ve been on.  

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Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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