David Pastrnak

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’...so 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.

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Bruins' solid foundation is there, now for that next step...

Bruins' solid foundation is there, now for that next step...

Here's the second of our five-part “Breaking Down the Bruins” series where we look at where the B’s sit at the end of this season and where they’re headed as they aim toward again vying for a Stanley Cup. Today, we focus on what’s currently working on the Black and Gold’s NHL roster.

BOSTON – Certainly there are improvements to be made after this season’s run to the second round of the playoffs. Often, that next step to becoming a legit Stanley Cup threat can be the most arduous one of them all. Still, there’s also an extremely good base to the roster in Boston that’s built on speed, skill, two-way play and a group that didn’t show many areas of weakness in the regular season.

The Bruins turned into a top-heavy offense in the playoffs and their defense really struggled to move the puck against the Tampa Bay fore-check in the second round. Overall team depth is something the B’s must continue to build, but they have a solid foundation they're working from right now.

“We went into the summer with the plan of being younger and faster and building around our core or adding to our core with a younger group. I felt we did that this year,” said Bruce Cassidy. “We allowed these players the opportunity to be Boston Bruins, and I think some of them, certainly, met expectations, and some went beyond that with our younger group.

“I think it made us a better team, harder to play against. Some of the identity pieces that we wanted to be, we wanted to get back to being a dominant home team. I felt we did that during the year. Obviously, playing well on the road [was another goal]. Then, the bar was set that, most teams, if you can get to 100 points, you’re going to be in the playoffs. Clearly, that’s a goal we had a mind to get to, and we exceeded that. So those are the positives during the season.”

It all starts with the best line in hockey that put on a show in the postseason after dominating from beginning to end in the regular season. Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak each scored 30 or more goals in the regular season with both Marchand and Pastrnak eclipsing the 80-point mark and they were a standard-setting trio at both ends of the ice pretty much all season.

That continued into the playoffs where that trio pumped in offense and points against the Maple Leafs and the Bruins won every game in which they scored, including Pastrnak’s three goals and six points in a Game 2 win at home. In all, they finished with 16 goals and 53 points in 12 playoff games and certainly held up their end of the bargain while the rest of the Bruins forwards struggled to provide the secondary scoring punch.

While a lack of secondary scoring was a big issue in the second round, it wasn’t as much the case in the first round vs. Toronto where Jake DeBrusk stepped up and scored five goals in that series. The rookie winger certainly showed something with the scoring touch and really showed something in the Game 7 win when he scored the game-winning goal while attacking the net with his intriguing combination of speed and power from the left wing.

DeBrusk was one of a number of Bruins rookies who performed well and that was probably the biggest positive from this season's edition of the Black and Gold. Danton Heinen showed that he’s a top-nine winger in the NHL and, with a little added strength and speed, could really be an effective player based on his smarts, hands, compete level and underrated shot. 

Matt Grzelcyk had his good and bad moments in the playoffs, but he also showed that he belonged in the NHL as a puck-moving defenseman who relies on his skating and smarts. Grzelcyk didn’t show a ton of his offensive game while playing a third-pairing role, but there certainly appears to be some potential as he earns more responsibility. 

Ryan Donato showed real scoring touch in his late-season audition with the Black and Gold and certainly has to be considered for a top-nine winger spot on next season's NHL roster. 

The real wild card here is Anders Bjork, who showed speed and offensive skill before a huge hit by the Leafs' Matt Martin at mid-ice essentially stopped his momentum and eventually forced the 21-year-old into season-ending shoulder surgery.

Last but not least there was Charlie McAvoy, 20, who had his share of adversity in his first full NHL season but was again playing at a high level at the end of the playoffs while topping 26 minutes of ice time in the Game 5 vs. Tampa Bay when Boston was eliminated. McAvoy led all rookies in ice time, was arguably the best rookie defenseman in the league and continues to show all the makings of a workhorse No. 1 D-man for years to come.  

It was the mixture of those young players along with established Cup winners Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Adam McQuaid, and young, established veterans David Pastrnak, Kevan Miller and Torey Krug that brought the right alchemy to the B’s roster this season. The mix of young and old melded into something special and that’s a quality the Bruins want to retain moving forward.

“From adding younger players or continuing to add younger players, the players themselves generally dictate whether or not they’re ready. We will have other players that will want to knock on the door. Whether or not they’re able to is no different than Jake [DeBrusk] this year,” said Don Sweeney. “We told him the opportunity to make our hockey club would be there, but it wasn’t given to him. Ryan Donato, won’t be given to him. Anders Bjork, coming back healthy, won’t be given to him. They’ll determine where they play in Bruce’s lineup, and if they don’t, where they’ll play in Jay’s lineup [Jay Leach is coach of the AHL Providence Bruins].

“That’s always been – it’s performance. That’s just the business, but we’re committed to them. They’ve all heard. The younger players in Providence and even a Jack Studnicka [the 2017 second-round pick], they’ve all heard that if they’re good enough, they get an opportunity to play and develop. Then, it’s a matter of whether we can blend things together as we felt we needed to add for a playoff push. You know you probably can’t win just with completing a lineup riddle with younger guys that have never been through a Game 7 or [other] situations. We’re cognizant of it and we’ll explore every avenue, whether that’s a trade or whatever it may be.”

None of this even mentions a Bruins goaltending duo of Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin that finished top-five in the NHL in goals against this season and could be back as a tandem next season if the B’s opt to bring back free agent Khudobin. Or the leadership qualities of 41-year-old Chara, Bergeron, who turns 33 in July, and David Backes, 34, as veterans who have helped create an environment welcoming to rookies and older players alike and how that has allowed the Bruins to tap into the massive potential on their NHL roster.

It’s not all sunshine and roses for the Black and Gold, of course. Their 5-on-5 scoring dried up in the playoffs and they could stand to get both bigger and faster up front when it comes to battling bigger defensemen like the tall trees of Tampa Bay. They also badly need a left-side defenseman with Chara at 41 and Krug (broken ankle) knocked out of each of the past two postseasons with injuries.

Still, Sweeney and the Bruins have a solid foundation in place that makes them one of the best teams in the NHL and they should be there for the foreseeable future as they go about turning potential into results.  

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Pastrnak shows he's well on his way to NHL superstardom

Pastrnak shows he's well on his way to NHL superstardom

BRIGHTON – In each of David Pastrnak’s first four seasons with the Bruins, he’s legitimately taken a big step forward with each passing year from starting off as the youngest player in the NHL as an 18-year-old Czech kid fresh out of the Swedish League. It was that again that case in his fourth year with the Black and Gold as Pastrnak led the team in goals (35 goals, for the record) for the first time during the regular season, and then went absolutely nuclear in the playoffs with six goals and 20 points in 12 games for the Bruins. 

Certainly, Pastrnak’s three-goal, six-point effort in Game 2 against the Maple Leafs is something that’s going to be remembered in Boston for a long, long time as another chapter in a 21-year-old crossing into the threshold of NHL superstardom. 

“We’ve had some good memories in our time together since the season has ended, and remembering special moments throughout the year. If you look at the playoffs, I think Pasta’s six-point night against Toronto in the playoffs is something that’s a special moment that you don’t get to see or be a part of very often,” said David Backes. “I think we’ll look back on this year and say that [game for Pastrnak] was a very special moment.”

Amazingly enough, the top five current scoring leaders in the playoffs are all from eliminated teams in Pittsburgh and Boston, and Pastrnak is one of those five players just behind Jake Guentzel and Sidney Crosby for the league lead. Clearly, the 21-year-old would have loved to keep going in the Stanley Cup playoffs rather than preparing to head over to Denmark to join Team Czech Republic in the IIHF World Championships, but it was also a pretty darn good season for a player just coming into his own as an NHL superstar. 

With the offseason officially started, Pastrnak planned to take some time, decompress and get some separation from this season before thinking about next year, and another full year as one-third of the league’s best forward line along with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Perhaps even bigger and better things lie ahead for Pastrnak, and for his two veteran linemates where he’s become the third piece they were looking for the last couple of seasons.  

“They are great players, and we’ve played together for a long time. So, obviously, the chemistry only gets better when you play with somebody for a while, right?” said Pastrnak. “Especially with those two guys, they’re trying to get better every day and they just drag me with them. So, it’s been a pleasure for me to play with them, and I’m excited for next year.

“[The taste of the playoffs] is definitely something that’s going to keep me going. I want to bring it home [to Boston]. It’s all mental, you know? The points come when you’re playing well and you’re not thinking about it. I just go out there and do my best. I’m a good offensive player, so I know that the points will come if I take care of the other stuff like the D-zone, and taking care of the puck.” 

So what does Pastrnak plan for an encore next season as he continues that ascension toward NHL stardom at such a young age?

“I need to sit down and think about it a little bit and talk to my coach [in Czech Republic]. He probably has plans for me about what to get better at. I’ve been with him for a few years so he knows me and I know him, and he knows my weaknesses,” said Pastrnak. “We have a meeting, he lets me know and I just do it.

“Hopefully [Pastrnak’s line with Marchand and Bergeron] keeps getting better and better, you know? We'll work on some new plays in the summer, and have a new playbook [next season].”

There’s some true nightmare fuel for the NHL. Pastrnak is going to be even bigger, faster and stronger next season as he continues to enter his prime as an NHL player, and the NHL’s best trio of forwards could be even better next season as a result of that. Much of that is about the greatness of Bergeron and Marchand obviously, but a rapidly growing part of is a burgeoning superstar in Pastrnak that took a massive step forward this season.

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