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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.

WATCH LIVE: Predators vs. Blues on Hockey Day in America

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

This game is the second of a back-to-back home-and-home between these clubs, with the Predators winning 4-3 on Saturday afternoon in St. Louis. Nashville led 2-0 after the first period and 3-1 in the second before the Blues came back to tie the game at 3-3. Mikael Granlund then scored the game- winner on the power play in the third period. Jake Allen started in goal for the Blues (23 saves on 27 shots).

The defending Stanley Cup champion Blues have hit their first major slump of the season, having lost four straight games and nine of their last 11 games (2-6-3). The Predators, on the other hand, have weathered a slow start to the season and are now very much in the playoff mix, just one point outside a Wild Card spot.

The Predators have won two straight games, beating the Islanders 5-0 on Thursday and the Blues 4-3 on Saturday. They have only won three straight games once this season with a four-game winning streak in October.

Despite leading Nashville to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons, the sluggish start to the 2019-20 season was enough for the Predators to move on from Peter Laviolette, their second-ever head coach, and bring in John Hynes, whose head coaching experience consisted of leading the Devils for four-plus seasons (2015-16 to 2019-20) before being fired on December third after New Jersey lost 17 of its first 26 games.

The Blues have been one of the league’s best home teams this season but have lost more than half of their road games (14-10-5). They have lost eight of their last nine road games, including each of the last three.

[COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

WHAT: St. Louis Blues at Nashville Predators
WHERE: Bridgestone Arena
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blues-Predators stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLUES
Jaden SchwartzBrayden SchennTyler Bozak
Zach SanfordRyan O'ReillyDavid Perron
Alex SteenRobert ThomasJordan Kyrou
Mackenzie MacEachernIvan BarbashevSammy Blais

Carl GunnarssonAlex Pietrangelo
Colton ParaykoJustin Faulk
Vince DunnRobert Bortuzzo

Starting goalie: Jake Allen

PREDATORS
Mikael Granlund – Ryan JohansenViktor Arvidsson
Filip ForsbergMatt DucheneKyle Turris
Rocco GrimaldiNick BoninoCraig Smith
Calle JarnkrokColton SissonsAustin Watson

Roman JosiYannick Weber
Jarred TinordiMattias Ekholm
Dan HamhuisDante Fabbro

Starting goalie: Pekka Rinne

Host Liam McHugh and analysts Keith Jones, Anson Carter, and Brian Boucher will anchor pre-game, intermission, and post-game coverage throughout the day. Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

Trade: Islanders land Devils captain Andy Greene

Islanders trade for Andy Greene Devils get pick, prospect
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The New Jersey Devils aren’t waiting until the trade deadline to start selling. The Islanders landed Devils captain Andy Greene in a trade on Sunday, and New Jersey may end up making more moves soon.

Islanders trade for Greene, Devils’ return highlighted by second-rounder

The Islanders treasure defense and grit under Barry Trotz. The Islanders got what they wanted, then, in a trade for Greene.

Chances are, Lou Lamoriello looks at Greene as a replacement for injured blueliner Adam Pelech.

The Devils? Well, they landed a pretty nice haul for a defenseman who wouldn’t make sense for their rebuild. That should soothe any discomfort that may come from sending Greene in a trade to the rival Islanders.

Islanders receive in trade: Greene, 37, on an expiring contract ($5M AAV); no word yet if there was salary retention

Devils get: 2021 Islanders second-round pick, prospect David Quenneville

Greene doesn’t blow you away offensively, by any means, with two goals and 11 points in 53 games. Greene also isn’t an analytics darling.

The Islanders march to the beat of their own drum, though, so this Hockey Viz heat map won’t phase them:

Greene Viz trade to Islanders

Greene fits the Islanders’ M.O. of being an experienced, defense-first (second, and third) player.

One interesting part of the gamble is that it’s a 2021 second-rounder, rather than the Islanders’ 2020. Will the Islanders be a better team in 2020-21, or could recent stumbles indicate a bumpier future? The Devils will be rooting for the Islanders slip like the Senators watching the Sharks this season.

Quenneville, 21, was a seventh-round pick (200th overall) in 2016.

TSN’s Darren Dreger reports that Blake Coleman isn’t suiting up for Sunday’s game, inspiring new rumblings.

The Devils shot down a report that Coleman was headed to the Avalanche, but that doesn’t mean a Coleman trade won’t happen in some later form. Stay tuned.

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.

Black Girl Hockey Club bolsters fan inclusivity

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NBC Sports celebrates Hockey Day in America this Sunday with an NHL tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

At the beginning of the 2018 NHL season, Renee Hess founded the Black Girl Hockey Club to create a comfortable atmosphere for black women to watch hockey games together.

Hess became interested in hockey years ago after running into a crowd of excited Penguins fans while she was working in Pittsburgh. The first game left Hess hooked, but she noticed that there weren’t a lot of people like her in the stands.

Hess found a handful of other black female hockey fans on Twitter and they created a group: the Black Girl Hockey Club. The must-follow group uses this platform to discuss the sport and meet in-person at games across the country. It looks they’re currently experiencing what the Carolina Hurricanes have to offer:

The Black Girl Hockey Club boasts a membership exceeding 200 people. Their story just seems to be beginning, yet they already rank as one of the best stories from “Hockey Day in America.”

You can follow their events and donate to Black Girl Hockey Club here.

(Oh, and Hess must have been happy to see the Penguins win on Sunday, too.)

NBC Hockey Day in America remaining schedule

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

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.

Penguins roll through Red Wings, gain ground in Metro race

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On paper, this seemed like it would be an easy win. Hockey is one of the more unpredictable sports, though, so credit the Penguins with taking care of business against the Red Wings. The Penguins won 5-1 to kick off “Hockey Day in America” on Sunday, improving their odds of taking the Metro crown.

Detroit got off to a 1-0 lead, but it ended up being short-lived. The Penguins tied it up 1-1 when Sam Lafferty (or was it Patric Hornqvist?) scored less than three minutes after Valtteri Filppula made it 1-0.

Hornqvist played a big role in the Penguins growing a 2-1 lead to a 5-1 rout during the second period. From there, it was automatic for Pittsburgh.

It turns out Hornqvist didn’t quite get a hat trick as it originally appeared, but he still had a big game. Sidney Crosby scored one goal and one assist, while Matt Murray stopped 26 out of 27 shots.

The Penguins set the stage for a potentially interesting race for the Metro Division title. They’ve been gaining quite a bit on the Washington Capitals:

  1. Capitals: 79 points in 58 games played (37-16-5)
  2. Penguins: 78 points in 57 GP (36-15-6)

NBC and NBCSN Hockey Day in America schedule

Bruins at Rangers – NBC – 3 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Mike Tirico will call the matchup at Madison Square Garden alongside Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury.

Blues at Predators – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live) – Chris Cuthbert will call the action from Bridgestone Arena alongside Darren Pang.

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.