Jake DeBrusk

Haggerty: Despite big moves by rivals, Bruins need to stick to the plan

Haggerty: Despite big moves by rivals, Bruins need to stick to the plan

The simple fact is that the Bruins' standing in their own division has worsened to this point in the summer and it might get even worse over the next weeks and months even as the B’s minimally improved as a team.

The Bruins are better than they were at the end of the playoffs by virtue of the additions of backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak and defenseman John Moore and landing a legit top-six impact winger would make it a more drastic improvement to their roster makeover.

Still, there’s no denying that the Maple Leafs have pushed closer to Stanley Cup contender status with the addition of free-agent superstar John Tavares, and could really get there if they can ever acquire, or develop, a No. 1 defenseman. Regardless of their standing league-wide, the Leafs are clearly much improved from the team that the Bruins barely eked by in seven games in the first round of the playoffs.

Then there’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, who dispatched the Bruins in five games in the second round and are now getting close to landing Erik Karlsson, which would give them Victor Hedman, Karlsson, Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman to start with on their back end. That puts them far ahead of a Bruins team they already dispatched if they can pull off the improbable and get Karlsson and make them a legit contender for the term “NHL super team.”

The thought of Hedman and Karlsson in the same Tampa D-corps conjures up memories of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer dominating with the Anaheim Ducks and would immediately vault them into Cup favorites. So, there’s a realistic scenario for next season where the Bruins could be the third best team in the NHL and still wind up the third best team in the Atlantic Division with a first-round playoff date of doom against the Lightning.

So what are the Black and Gold to do about this?

Well, what they shouldn’t do is rashly try to join the arms race that Tampa and Toronto have escalated this summer.

Certainly, Bruins GM Don Sweeney should keep pushing talks forward to acquire a top-six offensive impact player whether it’s Jeff Skinner, Artemi Panarin or somebody off the beaten path that hasn’t been readily discussed. But that’s all part of the offseason plan already in place and would include trading chips that the B’s have already reconciled with giving up in the right trade whether it's Torey Krug, a prospect such as Anders Bjork or another high draft pick after dealing their first-rounder last spring.

What the Bruins should not do is alter the plan to try and hit a home run trade to match Tavares or Karlsson.

What the Bruins should not do, under any circumstances, is think about trading Charlie McAvoy or Jake DeBrusk, who could be in the Bruins organization for the next ten years. It might even mean (though it wouldn't be ideal) not landing their top-six target ahead of the season and instead getting a look at their young players before making an impact move during the season. 

The B’s don’t need a panic move or a reactionary transaction simply designed to keep up with Toronto and Tampa. Those kinds of motives behind trades or free-agent signings almost always backfire on the team that’s getting desperate.  

“You’re juggling a few things [during the offseason], but you get through. You have contingency plans. All our staff, and I’m grateful for them, everybody worked hard [at the open of free agency], and all of the plans and all of the situations we had, the ownership was certainly supportive of what we are trying to accomplish,” said Sweeney. “Hopefully we move forward as a better team.”

It’s clear that the Lightning are loading up to win this season and then GM Steve Yzerman will have to answer the difficult questions later, like “how in the hell will Tampa afford Karlsson’s next contract where he wants $11 million per year?”

The Bruins are still building and doing it the right way. They posted a 112-point season while pushing Tampa Bay in the regular season, and they got some very valuable postseason experience for their young guys while winning a Game 7. Right now, the Bruins are an intriguing mix of young (20-year-old McAvoy) and old (Zdeno Chara will be 42 this season) that should absolutely be a playoff team and should be one of the contenders in an Eastern Conference that’s going to pack some punch next season.

The structure that Cam Neely and Sweeney are building in Boston could see the B's consistently competitive for the next 10 years with McAvoy and David Pastrnak leading the way. The Bruins just need to stick to the plan rather than getting overwhelmed by Toronto/Tampa’s shock and awe show this summer. By all accounts, that’s exactly what the Bruins are doing right now even as the road has clearly grown more treacherous and difficult for the Black and Gold next season.

Sometimes sticking to the plan can grow difficult when all manner of things are happening all around you, but that’s exactly what the Bruins should do even as their closest rivals are taking big home-run swings.  

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Next wave of Bruins' youthful talent on its way

Next wave of Bruins' youthful talent on its way

Here's the fourth 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 look at the Bruins efforts at draft and development, and the next wave of B’s prospects on the horizon.

The Bruins put a lot of faith into their drafting and the development the past few seasons as Don Sweeney and Cam Neely took full control of the operation and it really came to full fruition this season. The Bruins opted to only sign minor-league journeymen Kenny Agostino and Paul Postma on the July 1 opening of NHL free agency last summer and left a pair of top-nine winger spots wide open to their group of young prospects.

Eventually, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen claimed those spots and both had strong rookie seasons, with DeBrusk putting a punctuation mark at the end with the way he performed in the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was a gamble to leave a pair of important forward spots open among their young forwards, but Bruins management correctly had the faith and knowledge they would be up to the challenge.

Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato had their moments as well and both Bruins wingers should be heard from again next season. As far as Bruins rookies for next season go, Donato probably has the best chance of any of them to make a seismic impact with the Black and Gold, where his goal-scoring and offense could be difference-makers.

That doesn’t even get into the Bruins moving 20-year-old rookie Charlie McAvoy into one of the top pairing defenseman spots for this past season or rookie Matt Grzelcyk nailing down the bottom pairing D-man spot. Basically, the Bruins put a lot of trust into their young players as they hadn’t always done under the previous coaching regime. That trust was rewarded with the league’s best production among first-year players.

A whopping eight Bruins scored their first career NHL goal in this season’s magical 112-point campaign and it was a tremendously prominent trait for a team that did an ideal job of merging older and younger players.

“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, and I felt we did that this year,” said Bruins coach 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.”

Clearly, some younger guys fared better than others in the playoffs, but that is to be expected with such a large contingent of inexperienced NHL talent. It shouldn’t discourage the Bruins from continuing to introduce a newer wave of more prospects and youthful talent to the fold. That’s exactly what the Black and Gold plan to do again next season. It remains to be seen which areas of the Bruins roster will provide openings for the young guys, but there are a few spots where youth might definitely be served.

The most obvious and glaring would be at third-line center where Riley Nash might just price himself out of a gig with the Bruins after posting career-high offensive numbers. When a team is managing it properly, it’s simply the way of the NHL salary cap that veterans price themselves off teams and are supplanted by inexpensive rookies. The Bruins should have multiple internal options to replace Nash next season whether it’s Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic or even a promising youngster from junior hockey like Jack Studnicka.

JFK had injury problems that limited him to 58 games in Providence this past season, but he managed 15 goals and 32 points while playing in every situation for the P-Bruins. He’s the most experienced option at the pro level, but would be just entering his senior season at Boston University had he stayed in college. Forsbacka Karlsson could be the kind of two-way player that might mesh nicely with Danton Heinen and David Backes in a third-line role, but ideally, he’d get a little more seasoning in the AHL before his next call-up to Boston.

Frederic was very strong in Providence after signing out of the college ranks following his sophomore season. He had five goals and eight points in 13 games with the P-Bruins, where his size and strength felt like a better match for the pro game. Studnicka, 19, was a point-per-game player in a five-game audition with Providence at the end of the season, so the future continues to look bright with this very skilled, offensive-minded player. He had 22 goals and 72 points in 66 games for the Oshawa Generals last season prior to his cup of coffee with Providence and looks like a very strong second-round pick for the Bruins last summer.

Beyond the third-line centers and a somewhat established player in Donato, who will have to earn a spot on Boston’s roster next season, a wild card such as Ryan Fitzgerald might be somebody to watch for as a fourth-line option. It remains to be seen if the Bruins are going to re-sign unrestricted free agent Tim Schaller (who should be in line for a raise), and Fitzgerald might be a pretty good fit for a fourth-line role with a little added offense. Fitzgerald topped 20 goals for Providence last season and drew some comparisons to Brad Marchand last fall at training camp for his offense and competitiveness. Well, just as Marchand began on a fourth-line role it might be the same for Fitzgerald next season as the Bruins work to piece together a new energy line that didn’t quite get it done vs. Tampa Bay in the second round of the playoffs.

There are also younger D-men Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon who could finally break through next season with a role clearly there for the Czech-born Zboril, 20, if he can realize his potential as a frontline top-four defenseman. Zboril had four goals and 19 points in 68 games for Providence last season and had a strong second half to his season, so there’s clearly still hope there even if he may never live up to D-man names like Noah Hanifin, Zach Werenski and Ivan Provorov drafted before him in that first round.

Clearly, there will be some spots open for competition even as the Bruins return a core veteran group and a large group of established NHL youngsters, but Sweeney said as always that it’s up to the young guys to play their way into jobs.

“We all were young players at some point in time, and we all wanted to be told that there was an opportunity if you were good enough as a player. The one thing you can’t have when you start out is experience. So, is that held against you if you’re not overripe, so to speak? The whole league is trending towards that,” said Sweeney. “We don’t want to put players in positions they’re not ready for and they’re not able to succeed in on and off the ice. The players themselves, as I use the term, have to determine it. But they should be really, really excited, but there is an opportunity there.

If they’re a better player than the player in front of them, they take the job. If they’re not, they have to go and learn what it takes to earn that job. We have players that had positive years in Providence. Austin Czarnik had a really good year. He could come in and take somebody’s job. He’s a pending group six [free agent].

“I can go through the whole list of players I’m sure you’re referencing, whether it’s Jakub Zboril, whether it’s [Zach] Senyshyn, whether it’s Frederic coming out of school, we’re cognizant of every one of them and sort of where their potential trajectory is. Our exit meeting with Forsbacka-Karlsson, as an example [of a guy] who had a tough injury and missed a stretch down there. They’ve all made good progress, but when the rubber hits the road in training camp, you’ve got to take someone’s job. That’s what we try to tell them. Prepare for what’s in front of you and your opportunity will be there. There’s no absolute certainty, even when you draft a player – Buffalo is really excited. They have the first overall pick. That guy could be a potential generational player, and I’m sure they’re excited about it, and we’re excited about our young players. But, the player himself will dictate it. The opportunity will be there. Nobody is boxed out. We have depth. Hopefully, we’re going to continue to add to that in our organization, because you need it.”

Perhaps, as Sweeney said, Czarnik can finally nail down a regular NHL job after earning All-Star honors in Providence, and certainly, Senyshyn hasn’t completely fallen off the radar after an inconsistent first season as a professional player. Still, they might be toward the bottom of the list of an impressive collection of young talent that will be providing the Bruins with another energetic wave next season ready to take them to bigger and better places.

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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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