For a hockey club reloading on the fly with a massive amount of first and second-year players in the everyday lineup, this current season was always looked at as an exercise in development toward legit contender status for the Boston Bruins.
With nearly half of the regular season in the books, though, it looks like mission accomplished for the Black and Gold. Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen and Sean Kuraly have all filled significant roles since the season’s first few weeks, and Matt Grzelcyk has established himself as an NHL talent on defense during Adam McQuaid’s injury. In all the Bruins have seven rookies that have scored their first NHL goals this season, and there is another wave of young talented prospects getting Boston-ready now at the AHL level.
But a funny thing has happened amid the Black and Gold youth movement that was expected to require as much presence tense patience as it was excitement for the future. Instead the Bruins management and coaching staff has constructed a quality roster mix of youthful talent and established, proven veteran players, and they sit idle at the Christmas break with a hockey team already looking the part of a contender.
It begs the question as to whether Bruins fans should be allowed to forego the patience portion of the equation, and instead start harboring hopes the B’s could be a legit Cup contender as early as this spring.
“I think everyone is contributing. We’ve had some guys go in and out of the lineup. Whoever has been called upon to have more responsibility, [they have] done so. It’s been great. It’s been a fun ride and we got to keep that going,” said Patrice Bergeron. “I think that the young guys are doing a tremendous job to be ready, and to do the job and to help us win games. Hopefully, us as older guys, we can help them get more comfortable, feeling better and learn from us. We’ve got a good mix. It’s been fun.”
Clearly any hockey team is capable of stringing together a few wins during an 82-game regular season, and one winning steak doesn’t automatically make any team a Cup contender rather than playoff pretender. The Bruins have gone 13-3-1 over the last six weeks and rocketed up to third place in the Atlantic Division with games in hand on every other team in the East, and they have shown plenty of very promising things over the last two months.
That’s more than just a simple little hot streak.
The team defense has been perhaps the biggest surprise while ranking fifth in the NHL with 2.6 goals allowed per game, and that defensive surge has gone hand-in-hand with Tuukka Rask getting red-hot between the pipes. Offensively both David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand are on pace for 40 goal seasons, and the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak line hasn’t given up an even-strength goal against in 19 games together this season.
Charlie McAvoy leads all rookies in ice time by a wide margin, is well in the mix for a the Calder Trophy while on pace for 15 goals and 50 points as a 20-year-old top pairing defenseman and looks like the best D-man prospect for the B’s since a Hall of Famer named Ray Bourque.
Interestingly enough, the Bruins have been more average in terms of overall offense and power play production than originally anticipated in Bruce Cassidy’s up-tempo, attacking system. Some of that has been a byproduct of injuries all over Boston’s lineup in the first six weeks of the season, and some of it has been a natural adjustment by Cassidy and his staff based on what can give the Bruins sustained success at the NHL level. The truth is the Bruins’ current style of play is one that could have more sustainable success in the postseason, and is perhaps another reason to believe the B’s may have a surprise or two in store for everybody as soon as this year.
“The guys that have been here for years, they have won that way. All we’re trying to do is merge some of the youth and skill and speed of the game – the transition part of it – with the hard to play against identity. Clearly, with Tuukka, his play speaks for itself and Anton, the way he finished last year, we knew we were going to get good goaltending…at least we assumed we were going to get good goaltending. We’ve got some heavy defensemen that can play that way, and we’ve got bottom of the lineup that can kill penalties well,” said Cassidy. “Hard to play against is still keeping the puck out of your net; every good team keeps it out of their net. I just think if we have a few more goals, we might be able to extend leads a little easier. That is where there is a little bit of work in progress.
“Some nights, our power play can look scruffy, and I think some of the composure part of that, when you are missing a Krejci and guys that have been around, that shows up. I still thought we would be a good defensive team. I thought we finished that way last year. What was hidden in a bit of our offense was I thought we were keeping it out of our net. When we are winning and we’re playing a good brand of hockey, we are hard to play against. If people are mad about [a little less offense], too bad, I guess is my attitude. I would like us to extend leads a little more and be a little more attack-oriented, but it’s kind of the way it has evolved here, and it has evolved for us.”
Clearly nothing is going to change the fact that both the Boston Celtics and New England Patriots are more legit title contenders than the Bruins this season. If anybody is going to win it’s much more likely the former teams than the latter one. In the honest assessment of this humble hockey writer, the Bruins are a couple of years away from true Cup contender status when young talents like McAvoy and Pastrnak are more deeply into the full prime years of their NHL careers.
There are also still some very real question marks as to whether the goaltending, as good as it’s been over the last month plus, is high-caliber enough when push comes to shove in a winner-take-all playoff series. This author’s opinion on the subject is well-documented, and is still very much in the “No” answer to the question.
But these are all hockey debates for a different day when the Bruins have punched their playoff ticket this spring. At that point, they should have a lot more on their minds than simply being satiated with a return to the Stanley Cup dance as they were last season after two years peering into the postseason from the outside.
Clearly the Tampa Bay Lightning are the class of the Eastern Conference at this point, and the Bruins need to stop getting bullied on ice by the Washington Capitals if they’re going to strike fear in the hearts of anybody. The Bruins have a number of high-stakes games against Claude Julien’s Montreal Canadiens coming up in the next few weeks that will go a long way toward determining just how easy their path to the postseason will be this year.
But there should also be some real optimism among anybody associated with the Bruins that they are far ahead of schedule in their journey back toward being a Cup contender, and maybe, just maybe, they have enough to surprise people this spring. That would be a very good thing given the overall lack of hockey chatter this winter in the wake of dominant football and basketball teams that are currently soaking up most of the Boston sports fans’ valuable attention.
The chance will be there for the Bruins given their current strong position at the Christmas break, but they’re going to have to seize it the rest of the way by showing everybody they’re for real a little bit earlier than scheduled.