We’re a couple of days into the 2021 season training camp and for a change of pace, we got the amigos (KL, Dom Tiano, Anthony Kwetkowski and Reed Duthie) together to answer 5 questions about the Boston Bruins going into the new season.
1. What does the defense look like on opening night?
And that is the million-dollar question. I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to naming your number one defenceman, then number two, and so on. I prefer first pair, second pair and third pair.
The right-side seams to be set with Charlie McAvoy anchoring your first pair, Brandon Carlo the second pair and a healthy Kevan Miller on the third pair. All three can kill penalties but I think you’ll see Carlo and Miller get the bulk of that saving McAvoy for more 5 on 5 duty and powerplay time.
But where the questions on the blue line are is on the left side. I’d be tempted to try Jeremy Lauzon with McAvoy. It appears Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins brain trust are at least willing to give that a look on the first day of camp. Lauzon has shown he is a capable penalty killer.
Joining Carlo on the second pair would be Matt Grzelcyk. They’ve spent some time together and have shown some great chemistry when paired. Gryz can also kill penalties and like McAvoy, will be given powerplay minutes.
I think Jakub Zboril will be given every opportunity to grab that third pair minutes alongside Miller. Zboril can also kill penalties, but a bulk of that time should go to Lauzon and Grzelcyk. If he were to reach his potential, he could one day quarterback the powerplay. If Zboril falters, John Moore can fill that spot.
Each pair gives you a puck mover along with a guy capable of taking on the defensive responsibilities should his partner decide to “go with it.”- Dominic Tiano
No matter how promising young, unproven talent might be, coaches and general managers are in business to win hockey games, so you’ll likely see the NHL/pro veteran defenders get first crack at rotational play, with the less-experienced blue liners seeing more spot duty unless injuries or preseason play forces the staff to rethink the depth chart.
McAvoy is Boston’s top defender now, and he’ll be given every opportunity to log the top minutes in all situations and see where that leads. He’s ready to be an anchor, but the question remains as to how productive he will be both at even strength and on the power play. The left side of that top pairing is currently open, with fellow BU Terrier product Matt Grzelcyk an option, though the Charlestown native might be better suited to slot down to the second pairing if, as Dom mentioned (and the early practices have shown), the B’s want to give Lauzon’s defense-first approach with some bite/jam a chance out of the gate.
This is where the departures of Krug and Chara hurt the B’s in the short term, but another option could be to try Brandon Carlo on the left or his “off” side to give the team more experience and defensive acumen on that top pair with McAvoy, but it would probably mean that Kevan Miller would have to play on the second pair in Carlo’s spot on the right side with Grzelcyk- not ideal. Moore is the other defender with the most NHL experience, and while he’s a fan favorite whipping boy, he’s at least mobile and keeps things simple enough. I like the idea of a Moore-Miller third pairing or Moore-Connor Clifton duo.
Zboril and/or Urho Vaakanainen will likely have to break in more gradually and have their roles and time managed at least initially- both lack the experience to be the kind of player you can count on to play 15+ minutes a night right away, but you could see a revolving door of left-shot D moving in and out of the rotational pairings based on their game play and how practices go…at least until they prove they can or can’t play. The B’s have much riding on the success of both of Zboril and Vaakanainen, so now is the time for them to establish themselves as roster regulars.- Kirk Luedeke
Well, like Dom said above, isn’t this the million dollar question? I think there’s a lot of ways that this could play out, but using the benefit of training camp pairings, it would appear that Jeremy Lauzon could ride shotgun with Charlie McAvoy. I know, I know— but, but, but what about Grzelcyk?! Well, there’s definitely merit behind the idea of a Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing, especially when considering their mutual time at Boston University together.
With that said, I’m still not sure that Grzelcyk is the long-term solution for Boston’s top defensive pairing. Yes, the metrics and underlying numbers grade heavily in their favor. However, I think Lauzon-McAvoy, which also carries short-sample size positives, is much more natural to what the Bruins need to replace. Zdeno Chara, Boston’s 14-year captain and top-pair defender, signed with Washington and left the reins to to McAvoy. Lauzon, 6’3”, has more size, reach and coverage than Grzelcyk.
The dynamic of Lauzon-McAvoy, on paper, is much more similar to what McAvoy has been playing with since entering the NHL compared to that of Grzelcyk-McAvoy. With Lauzon as his partner, McAvoy can do his own thing as a two-way threat as the bigger, rangier, tougher Lauzon stays defense-first on the backend.
The rest of the pairings would then fall into place as follows:
Again, there’s also some issues with this setup given that it doesn’t account for John Moore or newly resigned Kevan Miller. These are some obstacles that Bruce Cassidy will have to answer for himself one way or another. – Anthony Kwetkowski
With the changes over the off-season on to the Bruins defense corps and young players knocking on the door for spots, opening night will look different on the back end than any season in recent memory.
Lauzon – McAvoy: It’s Charlie McAvoy’s defense now and the now veteran rearguard picks up the 6’2’’ 196lbs rugged Jeremy Lauzon, it will take some time for McAvoy to adjust to a new regular partner and although Lauzon isn’t 6’9” he brings the same attitude to the defensive zone and will allow McAvoy to get up ice and contribute to 5-on-5 offense.
Grzelcyk – Carlo: Brandon Carlo is used to being the defensive minded member of his pair and now picks up the developing Matt Grzelcyk. Although Grzelcyk hasn’t been the offensive force that Torey Krug is, he is a better skater and advanced metrics have shown in a 3rd pairing role that he could likely handle more. Much like with Lauzon & McAvoy, Carlo’s defensive acumen and speed for his massive frame will allow the smooth skating Grzelcyk to get up ice 5-on-5.
Zboril – Miller: The maligned 2015 1st round pick teams up with a defender who’s missed 21 months due to injury. That could sound crazy, however, Jakub Zboril has found the chip on his shoulder and is using it as motivation. A revelation in Providence for the 2019-20 season, Zboril took that momentum and was the best defenceman in the Czech Extraliga to open up the season and looks ready to take on a serious NHL role. Kevan Miller meanwhile, is a warrior, coming back from injury in what’s been described as the best shape of his career, his size and physicality will be an asset in a sprint of a season, making life miserable for any who step past his blueline.- Reed Duthie
2. Did the team do enough to shore up the forwards in the offseason?
I was happy about the Craig Smith signing and think he will fit in well. But when it comes to the forwards there are a lot of questions that can only be answered in time. How will the surgeries to David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand affect them? Can Jake DeBrusk finally find his consistency? Will Anders Bjork finally break out? Does father time slow down David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron? Will Ondrej Kase be Kase with a full camp in Boston? Jack Studnicka has proven he is ready for the NHL and will get his chance while Pastrnak is recovering, but can he stick on the roster for the full season and who comes out when No. 88 returns?
We don’t know what the taxi squad will look like, but how will guys like Trent Frederic or Zach Senyshyn handle it if the need arises to insert them into the lineup? Are they even going to be on the taxi squad?
In a best-case scenario, I think the forwards are fine, maybe even an improvement over last season. But it’s 2021 and if we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s to expect the unexpected.– D.T.
In a word, no. There isn’t enough depth and a safety net to counterbalance the significant changes in the defense, at least on paper.
Smith was the team’s marquee free agent signing and it evokes some memories of Steve Begin in 2009, after the B’s were coming off a great regular season only to lose in the second round of the playoffs. While Smith is not a direct comparison to Begin the player, but more to the situation in 2009, Smith is a good complementary winger and will provide a stable presence playing alongside Charlie Coyle. The Bruins are mainly counting on a few things to happen: Marchand’s hernia surgery to bring him back to 100%, Bergeron and Krejci to have another strong season without any major offensive fall-off (or injuries to test the thin depth chart), Kase to provide more production given his skill/shot and Studnicka to seamlessly slot into a top-six wing spot until Pastrnak returns to the lineup. If all of that happens, the Bruins will be fine. If not, there isn’t a lot of depth to bail them out. I’m not all that keen on Kase- I want to see results and production…in an admittedly small sample size, we haven’t gotten that from him. Don’t talk to me about potential- the B’s need scoring from Kase right now.
In getting back to Begin, the B’s took a big step back in 2009-10 and barely squeaked into the playoffs, upsetting Buffalo in R1 on the back of Rask before dropping the 3-0 lead in R2 to the Flyers. We all know what happened in 2011, but this offseason is reminiscent of that one- not much new talent in, but counting on the pieces in place to carry them for another year. Only thing is- the 2021 Bruins don’t have a still-in-his-prime Zdeno Chara on the back end to help cover up for deficiencies elsewhere.- K.L.
Contrary to what the doom and gloom brigade on Twitter has been saying for months now, I think the Bruins did well with forwards recently. No, they didn’t land a “big fish” like Taylor Hall or even Mike Hoffman, however, they landed exactly what they needed— enter Craig Smith. Being one of the top play-driving forwards at 5-on-5 in the entire NHL, Smith, 31, is exactly the kind of contagious forward that Boston needs. Smith is someone who has wheels, density and a killer shot. He’s a North-South forward and can play anywhere needed in the top-nine, though being the right-wing on the third-line is most ideal.
Something the Bruins have been lacking recently, especially in the RTP bubble, is selfish players who want to shoot the puck. Smith is the type of player to take matters into his own hands and shoot from wherever he deems fit. This type of play and attitude will also be contagious amongst the younger Boston forwards like Bjork, DeBrusk, Studnicka and even Kase.
Speaking of Ondrej Kase, let’s not forget about him. Limited to a handful of games after being acquired for David Backes, Axel Andersson and a first-round pick, Kase is another play-driving winger who likes to shoot and generate offense. Like Smith, Kase is exactly the type of forward this team was missing. Unfortunately, he was injured before being acquired and then the COVID-19 shutdown kind of derailed the season for him. When he returned, he played rather well alongside Krejci and DeBrusk, but the numbers were never posted.
Moving forward with a full season under his belt, I think Kase will be a great addition for the Bruins provided he can remain healthy. These two right-shot forwards are exactly what this team needed and I don’t think they’ve received nearly enough credit as roster additions. – A.K.
Much has been made about the Bruins chase of Taylor Hall or Mike Hoffman in the off-season, and while those are the “sexy” names that fans clamoured for, they already had more than enough up front to improve where the team needed it most, 5-on-5 offense. Ondrej Kase arriving last year from Anaheim will go a long way and has the track record of NHL offence with a previous 20 goal season and 30 goal pace season. Due to injury and illness we didn’t get to see the best of Kase in 19-20 but with a full camp next to David Krejci & Jake DeBrusk they should be able to build on the chemistry we saw really begin in the Carolina series.
Additionally, Craig Smith steps in as the major off-season acquisition from Nashville having averaged over 20 goals a season since the 13-14 campaign, with only two seasons below the 20 mark (16-17 and the pandemic shortened 19-20) over that time. Comparing to where the Bruins forward group was on opening night for the 19-20 season compared to the 2021 season, this year’s group is far, far improved.- R.D.
3. What is the next phase of Boston’s goaltending situation?
This is the hardest Bruins related question one could ask.
Both of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are unrestricted free agents after the season and will turn 34 and 36 years of age respectively. Rask certainly has more game in him if he wishes to sign an extension with the Bruins. It may be time to move on from Halak considering Dan Vladar will require waivers beginning with the 2021-22 season.
But it’s Jeremy Swayman who looks to have that future number 1 status. I would have said the same thing about Kyle Keyser, but injuries last season have derailed his development for the time being.
For the Bruins to have success in the blue paint for the short-term future, they absolutely need to lock Rask into an extension until Vladar or Swayman are ready. Otherwise, they may be forced to look at the free agent pool or seek a trade.– D.T.
The Rask and Halak tandem goes one more round this season and will likely see more rubber than they did in the previous two campaigns. The clock is ticking on both players. Rask will be 34 in March, but it looks like his workload will increase with the shortened season and travel schedule. Halak turns 36 in May, and is a capable player, though not a No. 1 as evidenced by the 2020 playoffs. Look for the Bruins keep one of their veterans in net with an extension, but not both going forward in 21-22.
Vladar was drafted with a third-round selection in 2015, and he’s gotten his development firmly on track after some early pro hiccups. Is he capable of being an NHL No. 1? He certainly looks the part with his size and has a pedigree for it, even though Swayman has enjoyed more consistent excellence at the lower levels. The B’s are probably hoping to groom either player as their future top option in net, but Keyser is the wild card who we hope can get back on track and playing again after regaining his health.- K.L.
Another interesting question with many moving parts, one of In thwhich is the outcome of this season. If the Bruins win it all this season, I could certainly see a situation where they’re heading into a rebuild-like era whether drastic or not. Given that Tuukka Rask is in the final year of his $7m AAV contract, I think Don Sweeney would be okay with moving on following ultimate victory. However, I think this is something that they’ll realistically face when they get to it this summer.
Rask, who’s had his ups and downs in Boston including a recently opted out playoffs, has remained Boston’s go-to net minder for essentially the last decade. His backup, Jaroslav Halak, is also an aging player who’s on the back nine of his career. I think it makes sense for the Bruins to possibly explore having Rask back on short-term contracts if mutual interest is there. Otherwise, they’ll be turning to the system.
Leading the professional charge in that regard is Dan Vladar— Providence’s standout goalie from last year. As someone who watched every game he played in, some multiple times, I can tell you he’s turned into a legitimate NHL prospect. Goalies are weird, man, you know? Vladar, selected in 2015 by Boston, is still in his prime developmental years for a goalie. He was also lights-out last year in Providence where he posted a 1.79 GAA and .936 SV% in 25 games. Vladar needs another full-year in Providence before we can fairly evaluate him further, but that might be tough.
Provided that two of Providence’s top-four defenders and multiple top-nine forwards are slated to potentially be in Boston, the P-Bruins might have to ice a non-optimized roster in front of their netminder. This is going to be a weird season, but also a good one because we get to see Jeremy Swayman in Providence as well. Swayman is coming off an exceptional year playing for UMaine in the NCAA. He has been the back bone of the Black Bears while playing behind a shoddy defense and structure.
Swayman, in my opinion, is as legitimate a number one goalie prospect as anyone else around the league. He’s tall, lanky, athletic and skilled. Swayman is a competitor and capable of making the tough and easy saves— all night long. I think Swayman is going to be the future of Boston goaltending in a few years from now. Another intriguing prospect is Kyle Keyser, currently shaking off some post-injury rust in the ECHL this season.
Keyser is a prospect that Dom, is very familiar with and high on after following him extensively throughout his OHL career. That said, although Keyser has struggled with injuries and concussions, I also believe he has the skill set and intangibles of a number one goalie. Unfortunately, he’s had some bad luck and will take more time than probably anticipated. Let’s see how he does this year seeing a ton of rubber in the ECHL and Providence next year. – A.K.
With the Tuukka Rask & Jaroslav Halak aging, the question of where will the Bruins go in net has loomed large.
Digging in to the future of the crease, the Bruins appear to be in solid shape. Despite an ugly outing in his emergency NHL debut, Dan Vladar has been incredible over the last year sporting a 1.79 GAA / .936 SV% with 3 shutouts over 25 games with Providence last season, Vladar continued his momentum in the Czech Extraliga to open this season with an eye-popping 1.29 GAA / .965 SV% over 6 starts for Dynamo Pardubice before returning to Boston. With another season at the professional level under his belt the towering Czech keeper of the crease will be ready for the NHL jump, likely serving as backup to Tuukka Rask in 2021-22. Meanwhile, behind Vladar, NCAA star Jeremy Swayman will step into a major role in Providence, coming off a year which saw him garner a laundry list of accolades including the Mike Richter award as the NCAA’s top goaltender. Finally- Kyle Keyser, who actually might be the most naturally talented of the trio, appears to have put concussions problems behind and the former Oshawa General who has stolen not just games but playoff series at the junior level looks prepared to start his pro ascent.- R.D.
4. How will key departures (Chara, Krug) and injuries (Pastrnak) impact the team in the immediate and longer-terms?
Short term, I think they will all hurt. Especially Pastrnak and Torey Krug on the powerplay. And if Pastrnak doesn’t come back 100%, that’ll really hurt.
Zdeno Chara I am torn on. I think the transition game will improve as a team without him. Certainly, everyone is questioning how much their defence will hurt without him. With the defensive system the Bruins deploy, I think eventually it will be fine, but there will be growing pains and there will be nights Rask and Halak will have to bail them out. Where it will hurt the most is on the penalty kill. No one can replace the wingspan of Chara’s to be able to take away passing lanes with little movement. Miller can replace some of the net front strength required on the PK and Carlo will really need to step up that part of his game. But let’s face reality, there is no one like Chara in the NHL who can match up physically with anyone the way he can.
Krug’s departure will hurt in both transition and the powerplay. His ability to transition by either skating or making a great first pass will surely be missed, as well as his vision and how he can process the game quickly. McAvoy will surely further develop those things and Grzelcyk will be asked to take on a bigger role. Gryz will also turn 27 on January 5th so there isn’t much room for development at that stage. Whether the tools he possesses for the expanded role are enough to take up some of the slack is yet to be determined.
The departure of Krug and Chara also means the leadership will take a hit. I believe there are enough leaders in the group that in time, they can overcome that. Many of the players on the roster learned from one of the greatest captains in the history of the game and what it takes to be a great teammate and leader. They won’t forget that overnight.– D.T.
The Bruins lost a lot of experience and production (especially on the PP) with the key departures on defense, and Pastrnak is one of the NHL’s best young players under 25, and would have been Boston’s first 50-goal scorer since Cam Neely in 1994 if not for the season being paused when it was. Replacing his production (especially on the PP) won’t be easy, so fans should be ready for it.
The B’s will need top-shelf performances from the goaltending- Rask and Halak will almost certainly see an increase in volume shots on goal and shot quality as well, so they will need to hold the fort. The Boston forwards are experienced enough to counter the weaker defense, but this isn’t a team that can win a lot of games if they become track meets, so key to Boston’s success will be in the coaching staff managing the players and getting the most out of the lineup while handling the various in-game situations and adjustments appropriately to mitigate the losses until Pastrnak returns and some of the younger players in the lineup can get their feet under them. Tall order, but the B’s are still a good team, even with the departures. Good teams don’t win the Stanley Cup, however…great teams do. – K.L.
In the present, I think the departures of Chara and Krug will have an impact that’s both good and bad. For sake of readability and time, please forgive my brevity when discussing the departure of the 14-year captain, but I think we’re going to see younger players on the roster respond by bringing energy and providing some sparks.
Players like McAvoy, Carlo and Grzelcyk have already been here for several years behind Chara and will know that they need to turn it up a notch without him. Lauzon, who was around last year, will now be tasked with the bearing the weight of “replacing” Chara in some capacity as well. This is a good thing for someone like Lauzon as he’s got a natural chip on his shoulder as it is. Jakub Zboril, who’s had his ups and downs, also falls into the same category.
The same goes for Torey Krug, as McAvoy and Grzelcyk will look to replace his offense from the backend at both even strength and the power play. Granted it won’t be as easy as it sounds, replacing someone like Krug that is, but the Bruins still have plenty of talent around to make it work. Even if things are a little different, I think there’s potential for newer structures and game plans that emphasizes the youth and in some cases, more size on the roster.
On the flip side, the loss of Chara and Krug will definitely be felt. We’re going to see more mistakes and growing pains from the younger defensive core. We’re going to see nights where this team is outmatched and overpowered. Replacing the 14-year captain on top of the longtime PP QB is quite the task, even if the Bruins have plenty of talent to step in and take the next step.– A.K.
The departures for the Bruins will have an effect in both the immediate and long-term but it may not all be negative. While the majority of Bruins fans will agree its not the way they would have liked to see Zdeno Chara leave the Bruins and there will be a learning curve for the young defenders, it creates a massive opportunity for the likes of Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, etc. to step forward and make their claim to an NHL spot. Torey Krug will be the hardest to replace, his ability to QB the PP and move the puck isn’t obviously replaced by any member of the current Bruins defense group, but the additions of players like Ondrej Kase & Craig Smith should up the 5-on-5 offense for the team, hopefully covering for the loss of Krug in a different fashion. The injury to David Pastrnak is another potential opportunity, although the Bruins lose their leading goal-scorer, even for a short length of time, it does allow Jack Studnicka to step to the Bergeron line and potentially begin to realize some of his massive potential at the NHL level and in a long-term thought, allow the Bruins to see the type of player they can hopefully build around for years to come.- R.D.
5. Who will be the surprise performers who elevate themselves early and earn an opportunity to contribute right away?
I’m going to pick a defenceman and a forward here.
On defence I am going with Lauzon. He got a taste of the NHL and I believe the Bruins brass really like him. At camp, he was given the first opportunity on the top pair with McAvoy and if he sticks to his game, he can succeed there. The only question I have is whether he can sustain it over a condensed 56-game season. It’s probably too much to ask.
Up front I am going with everyone’s choice to replace Pastrnak while he recovers – Jack Studnicka. I think Studnicka is going to make it extremely difficult to take him out of the lineup once Pastrnak returns and an even more difficult decision on who to take out of the lineup. I’ll go out on a limb and say Studnicka even gets some Calder votes. He won’t win it, but he’ll get some votes.– D.T.
I would like to see John Moore emerge as a solid middle-of-the-roster option, as he’s been much-maligned since signing with the Bruins in 2018. The former first-round pick in 2009 has over 500 games of NHL experience, can wheel and is a better player than he’s gotten credit for. His $2.75M cap hit through 2023 is a reasonable figure for what he can provide and the feeling here is that with a bigger role, he can take some of the pressure off the younger players at least in the short term. No one is ever going to confuse him with Chara or Krug with the impact he’s likely to make, but this team needs Moore to be a stabilizing presence right off the bat. Whether retrieving pucks and moving them up and out in quick transition or keeping it simple defensively, if he does that, fans might gain a new appreciation for him. Of course, there is always that segment of folks who aren’t going to like Moore no matter what he does, and that’s the world we live in.- K.L.
Players to step up and make an impact immediately this season include Bjork, Studnicka, Kase, Frederic and Lauzon. I think Studnicka is ready and able to contribute right now whether he’s at wing or center. The dynamic, Jack of all trades type (see what I did there?) forward is exactly the type of player Bruins fans have wanted to see for years now. He’s finally going to get his shot and it’s well deserved to boot.
Trent Frederic saw time in the NHL with Boston, but not after his excellent run he went on towards the end of the year in Providence. Frederic is faster, more agile and aggressive than he was during that ~15-game sample we saw him in. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and I think he’s the type of player to really own the moment and do whatever it takes to stick around this season. – A.K.
In looking at a player who will surprise and take the next step for the Bruins, I believe Jakub Zboril will be a breakout player. Long known as a great skater through his junior career Zboril is also an underappreciated puck mover having led the Czech Republic in scoring at the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship and posting 41 points in 50 games in his last season in the QMJHL, Zboril became more of a defensive player at the pro level. Growing into and learning how to use his now 6’1” 196lbs frame took time but the always mean Czech defender appears to have figured that part of his game out and has grown into his skill set. Taking a big step forward as a top defenceman in the AHL a season ago and opening this season as the best defenceman in the Czech Extraliga, it appears the mountain sized chip on Zboril’s shoulder is working in his favour and now looks to be an imposing figure on the Bruins blueline who is right on the cusp of a breakout at the NHL level. – R.D.