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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.

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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: Not time to fire Babcock; Who are elite goalies?

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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.
• It’s not time for the Leafs to fire Mike Babcock, but they should look at moving William Nylander. (Toronto Star)

• Who are the elite, good and replaceable goalies in the NHL? (Pension Plan Puppets)

• Teammates and rivals share their stories about Hall-of-Famer Hayley Wickenheiser. (Sportsnet)

• Canadiens rookies Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury have improved every game. (Habs Eyes on the Prize)

• Find out how the Washington Capitals have looked through 20 games. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• What’s wrong with Sergei Bobrovsky? (The Rat Trick)

• Jim Rutherford put the final touches on his Hall-of-Fame career by fixing the Penguins. (Pensburgh)

Robby Fabbri has given the Red Wings’ second line a spark. (MLive.com)

• The Golden Knights have had a different start to the season than they did one year ago. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• How much has Patrik Laine really improved this season? (Arctic Ice Hockey)

Martin Jones has been key during San Jose’s six-game winning streak. (NBC Sports Bay Area)

• Stars head coach Jim Montgomery was once traded for Guy Carbonneau. (Dallas Morning News)

Jason Zucker is struggling to find the back of the net. (Hockey Wilderness)

• Here are five players that are providing the least amount of value right now. (The Hockey News)

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.

Meet the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame class

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The 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame class is unique in the contributions the six inductees gave to the game. 

There’s the leader and two-way dynamo; the defector who left a successful career at home to come to North America and pursue his hockey dream; the dominant force in the women’s game who led Canada to great international success; the consistent offensive threat from the blue line wherever he played; the GM who after a long playing career established himself as a successful team builder, helping to lead two different franchises to Stanley Cups; and finally, the college coach who has over 1,000 wins on his resume and five national championships.

Let’s take a look at the 2019 class that will be inducted Monday night in Toronto.

CarbonneauGuy! Guy! Guy! It was worth the wait for the three-time Selke Trophy winner. After nearly two decades of eligibility, the skilled defensive forward got the call.

After scoring the lights out in junior with the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Carbonneau reinvented himself into a steady two-way presence with the Canadiens. Following in the footsteps of another Selke winner, Bob Gainey, Carbonneau helped Montreal to two Stanley Cups while recording scoring at least 15 goals in each of his first 10 NHL seasons. He would play one year in St. Louis before ending his career with five seasons in Dallas. It was with the Stars that he would win another Cup

Nedomansky – The first player to defect from Eastern Europe to play professionally in North America, “Big Ned” arrived in Toronto at age 30 to play for the WHA’s Toronto Toros. By the time he arrived here, Nedomansky had won nine medals representing Czechoslovakia and helped his country to silver and bronze medals at the Olympics.

Nedomansky made an immediate impression in his first two seasons in the WHA. He would score 97 goals and record 179 points with the Toros. He would play two more seasons in the league after the franchise moved to Birmingham, Ala. before being traded to the NHL — yes, an inter-league trade. (Included in the deal to Detroit was Dave Hanson a.k.a. “Jack Hanson” of Slap Shot fame.

The goals kept coming for Nedomansky in Detroit, where he would play five seasons. He would finish his career splitting the 1982-83 season with the Rangers and Blues. He spent the last two seasons working as a pro scout for the Golden Knights.

Wickenheiser – The legend owns four Olympic gold medals representing Canada, plus seven more golds from the World Championships. She was the Olympic tournament MVP in 2002 and 2006 and is Canada’s women’s leader in goals (168), assists (211) and points (379) after playing 276 games internationally. 

While playing professionally in Finland, she became the first women to record a point in a men’s league. Wickenheiser also participated in two rookie camps with the Philadelphia Flyers and acted as a guest coach in camps with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers. She is currently the Assistant Director of Player Development for the Maple Leafs, but is also attending medical school at the University of Calgary. Hall of Fame chairman Lanny MacDonald was unable to reach her after her selection was announced in June because she was in a class and unable to use her phone. Eventually, she saw the missed calls from Toronto and learned of the good news.

Zubov – An offensive stalwart, his 771 points puts him in the top 20 all-time among defensemen, as does his 0.72 points per game average. He finished his NHL career with the 12th-most playoff points for defensemen with 112. Only Sergei Gonchar has more goals and points than Zubov among Russian blue liners. He’s a two-time Stanley Cup winner, four-time All-Star, and gold medalist at the Olympics and World Junior Championship.

His best offensive season was his most memorable one as a player. Zubov led the 1993-94 Rangers in points with 89 (12 goals) and helped lead the team to the Presidents’ Trophy. Quarterbacking the NHL’s top power play (23%), the blue liner was fourth in the entire league with 49 points with the man advantage. That team would go on to win the Stanley Cup that season, with Zubov, Alexander Karpotsev, Alex Kovalev, and Sergei Nemchinov becoming the first Russian-born and trained players to get their names engraved on the trophy.

BUILDERS

Rutherford – After Peter Karmanos secured the purchase of the Hartford Whalers in 1994, Rutherford, then a part-owner, was put in charge as general manager. Having worked together in the past running junior teams, the tandem would remain in charge of the franchise long after its move to North Carolina when they became the Hurricanes in 1997. 

Five years after the move the Hurricanes reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time. Four years after that they were finally champions. In 2014 Rutherford stepped down from his GM role and later as team president after Carolina missed the playoffs seven out of eight seasons. He wasn’t out of work long as he would quickly join up with the Penguins. Over the next two seasons he would build a roster that would win back-to-back Cups, the first time an NHL team had achieve that feat since the 1997-98 Red Wings.

York – With nearly 1,110 wins under his belt, York is the winningest active coach in NCAA hockey history. He’s won five NCAA titles with Boston College and Bowling Green and reached the Frozen Four 12 times. York’s teams have also won nine Hockey East titles and nine Beanpots. A four-time Hockey East coach of the year winner, he was also named 1977 Spencer Penrose D-I coach of the year, and was named recipient of the 2010 Lester Patrick Trophy for his contributions to the game in the U.S.

Also honored this weekend at the Hall of Fame were longtime NHL PR man and former beat writer Frank Brown, who is the recipient of the Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award, given “in recognition of distinguished members of the newspaper profession whose words have brought honor to journalism and to hockey,” and Sportsnet broadcaster Jim Hughson, who is this year’s winner of the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award, for “outstanding contributions to their profession and the game of ice hockey during their broadcasting career.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Blackhawks, Golden Knights cruise; Sundqvist fined

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Three Stars

1. Kirby Dach, Blackhawks

It was quite the night for the rookie forward during Chicago’s 4-1 win over the Sabres. Dach became the third 18-year-old in franchise history to record a multi-goal game, joining Eddie Olczyk and Patrick Kane. Per the NHL, he’s also the fourth different 18-year-old in franchise history to record a point streak of four-plus games. Also, Kane scored his 11th of the year to extend his points streak to nine games.

2. Marc-Andre Fleury, Golden Knights

Vegas snapped its five-game losing streak in a big way Sunday night. Fleury posted 34 saves and his teammates provided six goals during a shutout of the Flames. It was Fleury’s second shutout of the season and 58th of his career.

3. William Karlsson, Golden Knights

Karlsson had a hand in a four-goal third period for Vegas scoring his second of the game and assisting on Max Pacioretty‘s eighth of the season. The Swedish forward has been on fire of late and now has four goals and seven points in his last three games. According to the NHL, his 75 goals with Vegas is now tied for the eighth-most by a player through a modern-era franchise’s first 200 all-time regular-season games.

Highlights of the Night

• Where there’s an annoyed goaltender, you can probably assume Matthew Tkachuk is in the area. Just ask Fleury:

• There’s never a bad time to have a dog on the ice:

Sundqvist fined

Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist was fined $7,392.47, the maximum allowable under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, for charging Anaheim Ducks goaltender John Gibson Saturday night.

Factoids of the Night

Brent Seabrook skated in his 1,100th NHL game on Sunday. He’s second in games played for the Blackhawks behind Stan Mikita (1,394).

Goalies optional in Sudbury

Wild game in the OHL Sunday night with the Hamilton Bulldogs topping the Sudbury Wolves in overtime 11-10. Yes, you read that right.

Scores
Golden Knights 6, Flames 0
Blackhawks 4, Sabres 1

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Avalanche furious over referee decision to not stop play after Calvert injury

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Thanks to huge performances from Nathan MacKinnon and Cale Makar on Saturday night, the Colorado Avalanche were able to pick up a 5-4 overtime win in Vancouver to gain a little more ground on the first place St. Louis Blues in the Central Division.

Makar continued to look like an emerging superstar with four points, while MacKinnon looked like an MVP candidate with two goals, including a highlight reel coast-to-coast goal in overtime to win it.

One of the biggest reasons the game even made it to overtime was because of a late third period rally by the Canucks that saw them score two goals in the final three minutes. The manner in which the Canucks scored the first of those two goals left the Avalanche completely livid.

It all happened after forward Matt Calvert was struck in the side head by an Elias Pettersson shot from point-blank range and remained down on the ice, bleeding from his head. The on-ice officials allowed play to continue and it ultimately resulted in Alex Edler scoring to bring to the Canucks to within one.

You can the sequence in the video above.

Here is the rule that is relevant to why play was allowed to continue:

When a player is injured so that he cannot continue play or go to his bench, the play shall not be stopped until the injured player’s team has secured control of the puck. If the player’s team is in control of the puck at the time of injury, play shall be stopped immediately unless his team is in a scoring position.

In the case where it is obvious that a player has sustained a serious injury, the referee and/or linesman may stop the play immediately.

The Avalanche never regained position of the puck during that sequence so play was allowed to continue. The last part of the rule is what is most relevant to this situation because it brings up a very important question: If a player bleeding from their head isn’t enough to be considered a serious injury to immediately stop play, what is?

The Avalanche were understandably angry, with defenseman Erik Johnson having the harshest words, via The Athletic’s Ryan S. Clark.

“It’s a [expletive] joke. You want to protect a guy? Guy’s got a family at home, he’s laying there bleeding out of his head and you don’t blow the whistle? It’s a complete joke. An absolute joke. They should be ashamed of themselves.”

Said head coach Jared Bednar: “That’s the second time in two weeks a guy takes a puck to the face and is bleeding all over the ice. Sometimes it’s a tough call to make, but in that situation, you should’ve blown it dead.”

During an appearance on Sportsnet with Scott Oake after the game MacKinnon took it in a different direction and played the “What if it was LeBron James?” card.

“I can only imagine if that was LeBron James, his head was bleeding and they let the other team take a three-pointer to tie the game,” said MacKinnon. “I know it’s not the ref’s fault, it’s the league rule, but I think you need to look and who’s laying on the ice.”

The rule is what it is (and one that probably needs to be re-examined, especially if you are serious about player safety), but there is still that segment of it that does give the referees the option to stop play. That brings it back to the question mentioned above — what sort of injury is considered serious enough to warrant a whistle?

This is not the first time something like this has happened. During the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs the Pittsburgh Penguins scored a game-tying goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets after Zach Werenski was struck in the face by a puck and remained down on the ice bleeding. Play was not stopped, resulting in a Bryan Rust goal.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.