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Should Bruins break up top line next season?

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The Boston Bruins and their fans are likely still smarting from falling one win short of a Stanley Cup victory against the St. Louis Blues, but the bottom line is that this was an impressive run. Really, it cemented the notion that Bruins management has done a lot right in finding ways to extend this group’s window of contention, where other teams would age out of elite play.

Still, there was one thing that bothered me about the Bruins: their lack of experimentation toward the end of the regular season.

Most teams don’t get the chance to tinker without big consequences

For a long time, it was clear that the Bruins would meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There was also plenty of advance notice that the Bruins were unlikely to slip from the second seed.

While other NHL teams can be dinged for a lack of experimentation as well, the Bruins (and Maple Leafs) were in a rare position in this age of parity: they basically knew where they were going to land in the playoff branches, and didn’t really face much of a threat of dropping out of their position for some time.

In other words, if the Bruins wanted to try a bunch of different things – treating the rest of the regular season as a virtual hockey science lab – they wouldn’t have faced severe consequences, even if those experimentations blew up in their faces in the form of losses.

Instead, the Bruins more or less played things out.

If there was one question I would’ve wanted answered if I were in Bruce Cassidy’s shoes,* it would be: “What if we broke up the line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak?”

* – And, make no mistake about it, this would be a bad deal for the Bruins, because Cassidy is overall a very bright coach, and I’d struggle to keep a team under one Too Many Men on the Ice penalties per period.

[More: How will the Bruins look next season?]

Hitting a wall at the worst possible time

Overall, it’s fine that the Bruins leaned toward not messing with a good thing. For the most part, that trio absolutely caves in opponents with their mix of smart defensive play, blistering passing, and dangerous sniping.

Unfortunately, that group hit some serious roadblocks during the postseason, particularly as the St. Louis Blues’ defense found ways to short circuit that top line, and the Blues’ own best players feasted to a surprisingly lopsided degree. This tweet really captures how one-sided things often were during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final:

Yikes. Yikes.

While wear and tear cannot be ignored during the grind of a deep playoff run, it’s fair to ask if the Bruins didn’t have enough of a Plan B for if the top line sputtered. To some extent, you can understand why: because they basically never ran into that problem during the regular season.

Yet, lacking alternate options might have made the Bruins easier to “solve.” Consider this striking excerpt from the latest edition of Elliotte Friedman’s “31 Thoughts.”

When it came to the Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand/David Pastrnak line, one Blue said they were determined “not to be fooled by their deception.” Those three are excellent at creating havoc through the neutral zone via the different routes they take. The Blues focused on where they wanted to get to (especially Marchand’s and Pastrnak’s preferred one-timer locations) instead of how they got there.

Attached at the hip

The Bruins certainly provided the Blues and other opponents with a lot of “tape” on the top line, so to speak, as they kept them glued together during the regular season.

Via Natural Stat Trick, Patrice Bergeron played more than 729 minutes with Brad Marchand at even-strength during the regular season, while Bergeron was only away from Marchand for less than 46 minutes. David Pastrnak saw a little bit more time away from that duo, but still spent far more time with them.

It’s striking, actually, that Pastrnak spent almost as much time away from Bergeron and Marchand during the smaller sample of the playoffs (123:12 without Marchand, 134:07 without Bergeron, in 24 games) as Pastrnak spent away from them during the regular season (202 away from Marchand, 182:27 away from Bergeron), and injuries exaggerated those regular season numbers.

You could argue that Pastrnak was moved around because of desperation, rather than inspiration, during the postseason, as things weren’t clicking. So it wasn’t exactly as if those swaps were happening in ideal circumstances.

But what if the Bruins had more combinations in their back pocket?

Roads less taken

Cassidy had the luxury of finding out a little bit more about how other duos or trios might click, but he chose not to do so. Could Marchand and Bergeron really propel their own lines, and how much does Pastrnak need at least one of those guys to thrive? Might Marchand find chemistry with David Krejci, and could Bergeron really click with Jake DeBrusk? If the drop-off from spreading the wealth vs. going top-heavy was small, then the Bruins might have been able to throw different looks against the Blues, rather than playing into their hands.

So, with all of that in mind, how much should the Bruins consider breaking up the top line for 2019-20, or at least portions of 2019-20?

Interestingly, there might be a political element to consider, too: would they grumble at being broken up? In particular, it could be a tough sell to pitch that idea to Bergeron and Marchand, specifically.

Expanding Marchand’s even-strength minutes from 2015-16 to 2018-19 with Natural Stat Trick, the results are pretty comical. Marchand spent 2,461 minutes and 40 seconds with Bergeron during that time period, and just 368:46 without Bergeron. That’s the hockey equivalent of a common law marriage.

If there’s no argument for breaking up the veterans, then maybe continued experimentation with Pastrnak is in order. Theoretically, Bergeron and Marchand could carry a lesser linemate, as that’s the general pattern around the NHL, as teams just don’t often enjoy the option to load up with their three best forwards and still have some talent left over not to get bombarded when their other three lines are on the ice.

Consistency vs. versatility

Again, the Bruins have done an impressive job finding other players, and this post is mainly asking the question regarding whether they can get even better, or at least more versatile.

This interesting piece by Steve Conroy of the Boston Herald discusses David Krejci wanting a more stable partner on the right wing to go with Jake DeBrusk on the Bruins’ mostly effective, but occasionally hot-and-cold second line.

To be fair, Krejci wants stability, where I would argue that the Bruins should try a number of different looks:

“We did touch on that a little bit, but that’s not really something I can control,” Krejci said. “We have lots of good players here who can play on that side, so I’m not worried about that. We have lots of players. But what I would like to have is consistency of the lines so you create some chemistry. You always go through some ups and downs. Everyone does. But if you stay together as a line, in your difficult time of the year, the two other guys can lift you up, or the other way around.”

Conroy brings up some options as right-handed shooters, from Pastrnak to interesting young forward Karson Kuhlman. I’d also throw Charlie Coyle‘s name in the hat, as while he’s mostly served as third-line center for the Bruins, Coyle also played at RW at times during his Wild years.

The thing is, coaches do what Krejci doesn’t like, and get the line blender going for reasons. During an 82-game season, you’re going to experience streaks, but also injuries. You also must battle stagnancy and predictability.

But, really, finding different looks comes down to the playoff contests after the 82-game season.

***

Would the Bruins have won it all if they could have kept the Blues a bit more off balance? Maybe, maybe not. You could also argue that staying the course helped the Bruins get as far as they did, in the first place.

Either way, these are the questions the Bruins should grapple with, and experiments they should undergo more often than they did in 2018-19. Chances are, their cap situation won’t allow them to add much and will probably force them to lose a nice asset like Marcus Johansson, so it’s about getting the most out of what they already have.

Cassidy & Co. deserve credit for getting a whole lot out of this group, already, yet maybe there are a few more answers that simply haven’t been explored, or explored enough to truly know?

LOOKING BACK, AND AHEAD, FOR BRUINS

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Bolts need Vasilevskiy; Isles should be buyers

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Flyers are rallying behind Oskar Lindblom after his Ewing’s sarcoma diagnosis. (NBC Sports Philadelphia)

• The Bolts need Andrei Vasilevskiy to play like he’s one of the best in the world again. (Tampa Times)

• Coaches have been getting fired for reasons both known and unknown. (Los Angeles Times)

• The Blackhawks keep finding ways to hit new lows this season. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• Jim Benning was looking to trade Sven Baertschi, but he was forced to put him on waivers. (Vancouver Sun)

• A London Knights physiotherapist helped save Tucker Tynan’s life. (CTV News)

Tom Wilson has become a new-age power forward. (Sportsnet)

• Four players from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association will play in the ECHL All-Star classic. (The Ice Garden)

• If good teams don’t go on long losing streaks, what does that mean for the Edmonton Oilers? (Edmonton Journal)

• Referee Tim Peel is likely done for the season after suffering a broken leg. (RMNB)

• Islanders GM Lou Lamorielllo should dip into the rental market this season. (GothamSN)

• Alexis Lafreniere is hoping to become the next future first overall pick to turn in an incredible performance at the World Juniors. (Featurd)

• It’s still too early to say that Jack Eichel is among the greatest players. (Rotoworld)

• It’s time for the Anaheim Ducks to rebuild. (Spector’s Hockey)

• Former Lightning head coach Steve Ludzik needs a liver transplant. (Tampa Times)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

The Buzzer: Kane’s hat trick; Staal’s milestone night

Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks celebrates with Jonathan Toews
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Three Stars

1) Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

Kane surpassed Sidney Crosby for the scoring lead this decade with 16 days left in the 2010s. Since Jan. 1, 2010, Kane has 791 points (311G, 480A), while Crosby has 788 points (296G, 492A). No. 88 recorded his sixth NHL hat trick in Chicago’s 5-3 victory over Minnesota. The Blackhawks have a long way to go if they want to have a realistic shot at the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but a victory against a surging division rival is a good place to start.

2) Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg Jets

On a football Sunday, the Jets scored a touchdown in their 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers. Scheifele played a huge part with his three-point performance featuring a goal and two assists as he extended his individual point streak to six games. Neal Pionk added three assists, including two power-play helpers. The top four teams in the Western Conference (Blues, Avalanche, Jets, Stars) currently reside in the Central Division and playoff positioning will be crucial as each team eyes a lengthy postseason run.

3) Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

Staal became the 89th player in NHL history to have 1,000 career points when he tallied a power-play goal against Chicago Sunday. After a dreadful 4-9 start to the season, the Wild have climbed up the standings with a 12-4-5 record in their past 21 games. The alternate captain leads Minnesota with 26 points, including four goals in the previous three games.

Other notable performances from Sunday:

  • Anze Kopitar’s two-goal performance in the Kings’ 4-2 victory against the Red Wings helped him surpass the iconic Wayne Gretzky for fourth place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list. Kopitar picked up his 918th and 919th point in his 1038th game.
  • Blake Wheeler finished with three points, including a goal and an assist during a four-goal barrage spanning 4:17.

Highlights of the Night

Staal etched his name in the NHL record books with this one-time blast

William Karlsson won an important foot race before Reilly Smith slid a cross-ice pass over to Jonathan Marchessault

Factoids

  • A total of 33 goals were scored across four contests Sunday for an average of 8.25 per game [NHL PR].
  • The Jets scored four goals in a span of five minutes or less for the fourth time in franchise history [NHL PR].
  • The Jets’ four goals in a span of 4:17 are their second-fastest scored in a game in franchise history, behind the mark of 3:50 set on Nov. 18, 2017 [NHL PR].
  • Canucks’ Bo Horvat has won an NHL-high 414 faceoffs this season [Sportsnet Stats].

NHL Scores

Winnipeg Jets 7, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Chicago Blackhawks 5, Minnesota Wild 3

Los Angeles Kings 4, Detroit Red Wings 2

Vegas Golden Knights 6, Vancouver Canucks 3

Sabres demote under-performing center Mittelstadt to minors

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres have assigned under-performing second-year center Casey Mittelstadt to the minors.

The demotion to Rochester of the AHL was made Sunday, coming a day following a 3-2 overtime loss at the New York Islanders in which Mittelstadt was a healthy scratch for the third time in four games.

The 21-year-old has four goals and five assists in 31 games this season, and limited to just a goal and an assist in his past 21. Buffalo selected the play-making center with the eighth pick in the 2017 draft following his senior year in high school.

He then signed with Buffalo and jumped directly to the NHL in making his Sabres debut immediately following his freshman college season at Minnesota.

Mittelstadt has failed to play up to early projections of developing into Buffalo’s second-line center. He has 17 goals and 22 assists for 39 points in 114 career NHL games.

Players hope U.S.-Canada rivalry game helps spawn pro league

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HARTFORD, Conn. — The United States women’s hockey team beat Canada 4-1 on Saturday night, with players hoping the first in a series of five games between the international rivals will help kindle the public’s interest in both their sport and their fight off the ice for better professional opportunities.

Canada’s Victoria Bach and the Megan Keller of the U.S. traded power-play goals in the first period, before Amanda Kessel put the U.S. on top for good with a player advantage in the second. Abbe Roque’s backhand in the period gave the US a 3-1 lead and Alex Carpenter beat Genevieve Lacasse for the final goal 1:15 seconds later.

More than 7,000 fans showed up for the international competition, which comes after more than 200 members of what has since become the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association announced in May they would not play professionally in North America during the 2019-2020 season.

“I think it’s important for people to watch us play and see the level of talent and entertainment that’s out there,” Kessel said. “It’s getting that understanding that we need to help get us a place to play year-round so that people can see us more than five times a year.”

The women are seeking a professional league that provides a living wage, health insurance, infrastructure and support for training. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League shut down in the spring after 12 years of operation, leaving only the five-team National Women’s Hockey League, where most players make less than $10,000 a season.

“The product is there,” Kessel said. “The people to watch it are there. We just need a structure set in place.”

Sarah Nurse, a forward for Team Canada, whose cousin Kia Nurse plays for New York in the WNBA, said players are hoping to get support from the NHL, which has, so far, expressed little interest in investing in a women’s league.

“We can look at (the WNBA) and see that women’s sports have value and they have a place in this world,” said Nurse, who made $2,000 last season playing in the CWHL. “That is definitely a model that we look to.”

The rivalry series was created after the Four Nations Cup in Sweden was canceled when top Swedish players pulled out of national team events due to concerns over their salary and working conditions.

Without a viable pro league, players who are out of college have been training on their own at random rinks across North America in between gatherings of the national teams or training sessions and exhibitions sponsored by the players association.

Canada won two of those over the US in Pittsburgh last month.

But the lack of consistent competition can stunt the players’ development, especially when it comes to be being prepared for world and Olympic competitions, the players said.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Nurse said. “Games are when we truly get better and test out our skills, so it’s unfortunate that we don’t have more games to play.”

Cayla Barnes, who plays defense for the U.S. team and Boston College, said she and the other college players on the national teams understand what is going on and appreciate what the older players are doing.

“They are putting so much on the line for the younger generations,” she said. “Not just for us college kids who are coming up, but for U-8, U-10 girls who are coming up so they have opportunities later on. So I think all of us who are younger are trying to support them in whatever way we can.”

Hundreds of girls wearing their youth hockey jerseys attended the game, chanting “U-S-A” as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

“I want to be like them, like in the Olympics when I get older,” said 14-year-old Leila Espirito Santo, of Glastonbury “I started playing when I was in fourth grade and I wasn’t the best, but watching them play made me want to be better. It showed me I could do it.”

The teams will meet again on Tuesday in Moncton, New Brunswick. Other games part of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series are slated for Feb. 3 and Feb. 5 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Feb. 8 in Anaheim, California.