The Boston Bruins aren't one of the top Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL, but they will go into the 2022-23 season fully intent on competing for that trophy.
Is that the smartest move the Bruins could make? The reality is they didn't really have a choice.
Even if you think a rebuild is the right path for the Bruins, going down that road in 2022-23 never made a ton of sense. The team is too good to be a bottom feeder in the Eastern Conference next season.
There are too many quality players on the roster, and many of them have no-movement or no-trade clauses in their contracts. Tearing it down would take time, so why not run it back and chase another deep playoff run?
This is what the Bruins are doing, and that vision became crystal clear Monday morning when the team announced Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci have signed one-year contracts full of incentives that could push a portion of their salary cap hits to 2023-24.
"I'm really confident," Bergeron told reporters on a Zoom call Monday. "I believe in this team. I believe in management. I think we've made those decisions this summer because I wanted to play and I wanted to play for the Boston Bruins because I believe in the organization and that's never going to change."
The return of Bergeron and Krejci is a huge boost for the Bruins, to say the least. On paper, the B's have one of the best top-six forward groups in the league:
Brad Marchand--Patrice Bergeron--Jake DeBrusk
Taylor Hall-David Krejci--David Pastrnak
That's pretty damn good.
Bergeron is coming off arguably his best season ever. He scored 20-plus goals for the ninth consecutive year and won the Selke Trophy for a record fifth time. Marchand could be out until December as he rehabs from offseason hip surgery, but when healthy the 34-year-old veteran is the league's best all-around left wing. DeBrusk had a strong finish to the 2021-22 regular season and ended up with 25 goals. Pastrnak has scored the sixth-most goals in the league since the start of the 2019-20 campaign, including a team-leading 40 goals in 72 games last season.
Hall is a 20-goal power forward and formed great chemistry with Krejci during their time together in 2020-21. Krejci and Hall played 193:13 of 5-on-5 ice time that season and Boston outscored opponents 14-1 in those minutes.
It's easy to forget how good of a playmaker Krejci has been his entire career, even as recently as the 2020-21 season. He's a meaningful upgrade over the recently departed Erik Haula, who was Boston's No. 2 center most of last season.
The blue line isn't as strong as the forwards, but it's still anchored by a top-five defenseman in Charlie McAvoy and another legit first-pairing d-man in Hampus Lindholm. Brandon Carlo and Derek Forbort are quality defensive defensemen, while Matt Grzelcyk brings much-needed playmaking and power-play ability. The challenge for the Bruins will be weathering the storm over the first two months while McAvoy and Grzelcyk are out of the lineup rehabbing from offseason surgeries.
"There's going to be some adversity to start the year, but to me, that's probably a good thing," Bergeron said. "Obviously, you'd rather have (Marchand) and (McAvoy) and (Grzelcyk) from the get-go on the ice, but that being said, it's a better and bigger opportunity for other guys to work on their game, but also to show what they have and what they can bring and make them better players, and make us a better team ultimately. When there are challenges there are always positives that can come out of it."
The goaltending is above average, too. It took a while for Linus Ullmark to get going in his first season with the Bruins, but he finished with a .917 save percentage (T-9th best in the league). Jeremy Swayman posted a .914 save percentage and won three of the five first-round playoff games he started against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Remember, the Bruins were an elite defensive team last season. They allowed the fewest shots, fewest scoring chances, fewest high-danger chances and fourth-fewest goals at 5-on-5. Nearly everyone who played a part in that defensive success is returning for 2022-23.
Pain is on the horizon for the Bruins. Let's make that clear. The optimism detailed above is more short term.
Bergeron and Krejci are 37 and 36 years old, respectively, and the team doesn't have any centers in the system capable of filling a top-six role anytime soon. Marchand's prime is likely nearing its end. Boston's prospect pool ranks among the worst in the league. The Athletic recently released its latest top 50 prospect ranking and the B's had zero players listed. An infusion of high-end talent from within is not coming. The Bruins' roster is mostly old. They have just two players, Pastrnak and McAvoy, who are legitimate stars and below the age of 30.
The Eastern Conference is loaded, and the Bruins' own division, the Atlantic, is the best in the league. Getting back to the Stanley Cup Final will be a grueling road. But there's enough talent on the Bruins' roster for them to surprise and be a real contender in the East if a few things go their way, including Swayman taking another step forward in his development.
The Bruins won 51 games last season despite an awful first three months that were derailed by injuries and more than 10 players missing time due to COVID-19. They haven't lost any important players this offseason, they added Krejci and they could receive a boost from prospect Fabian Lysell.
A rebuild will be needed soon, but we're not there yet with the Bruins. Bergeron and Krejci coming back slammed that door shut, at least for now.