Pandemic Punts: What if Boston Bruins get derailed by slow start to 2020-21?

Pandemic Punts: What if Boston Bruins get off to slow start in 2020-21?
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Different NHL teams come into the 2020-21 season with different expectations. Yet, with COVID-19 looming to throw a wrench in even the best-laid plans, PHT asks: what if each of the NHL’s 31 teams had to “punt” their 2020-21 season? Some situations are more realistic than others, but hopefully this serves as an interesting exercise. In the latest edition of Pandemic Punts, PHT looks at the 2020-21 Boston Bruins.

For previous editions of Pandemic Puntsclick here.

Bruins aren’t likely to punt/tank

Believe it or not, the Boston Bruins inspired “Pandemic Punts.”

No, that doesn’t mean that the Bruins punting/tanking is the most likely outcome for their 2020-21 NHL season. Projecting in late November — with a lot of uncertainty swirling around next season — it seems like the Bruins are in a good spot to contend once again.

That said, there are some reasons to believe that they’re unlikely to repeat as Presidents’ Trophy winners. (Can we say they finished first in the East during the regular season? By re-seeding before the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the NHL really threw these sort of things out of whack.)

Anyway, just to reiterate: no, the Bruins aren’t likely to see their 2020-21 NHL season go up in flames.

But ponder a few reasons why things could be bumpy …

But what if a possible slow start causes damage?

At minimum, the Bruins will probably need to dig deep to avoid a slow start to 2020-21.

To start, they’ve suffered some key losses on defense. To the chagrin of Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug left for the Blues. As Bruins GM Don Sweeney’s mentioned before, Zdeno Chara‘s NHL future remains unclear. Even if Matt Grzelcyk could step up and absorb some of the losses, the Bruins figure to be weaker on the left side next season. Maybe a lot weaker.

(Infomercial voice) That’s not all, though …

Last we heard, Brad Marchand could need until mid-January to recover from offseason surgery, and David Pastrnak‘s procedure may force a recovery window to mid-February. As fantastic as Patrice Bergeron remains, Marchand and Pastrnak ranked as the Bruins’ top two forwards. If the 2020-21 NHL season began in early January, Marchand and especially Pastrnak could miss serious time.

Consider, too, that the 2020-21 NHL season is almost certain to be shorter. Even with the most optimistic estimates, it would be surprising to see the regular season hit the 60-game range. So the Bruins wouldn’t have as much runway to deal with a bumpy takeoff.

What if the Bruins stumble out of the gate? That could mean that they’d skew closer to the playoff bubble than battling the likes of the Lightning for home-ice advantage. Or it could mean struggling to make the playoffs altogether.

Perhaps a chance to reload?

Even in the event of a disastrous 2020-21 NHL season, the Bruins wouldn’t necessarily need to “blow things up.”

Instead, one could envision something closer to a mini-reboot. Think back to the Sharks and their 2013 NHL Trade Deadline “reset.”

At the time, it seemed a little bold to unload Ryane Clowe, Doug Murray, and Michal Handzus for a bucket of picks. In retrospect, it was brilliant. The Sharks still made a decent playoff push, as they didn’t blow up their core. But they sold high on depreciating assets. Sure, we didn’t know just how rapidly those assets were depreciating (goodness, the drop-off for Clowe), but maybe that’s the point?

Now, the Bruins don’t see the same bright, neon, flashing lights trumpeting the word “Sell” over several players. Still, there are some who might be worth moving on from.

  • If the Bruins are moving on from Tuukka Rask and/or Jaroslav Halak after 2020-21, maybe get something for one of them around the trade deadline? Theoretically, the Bruins might echo the Sharks in still going deep with whichever goalie they keep.
  • Apply similar logic to David Krejci. None of this is meant to disparage Krejci, Rask, or Halak. Instead, it’s just fair to wonder if a bumpy 2020-21 season might prompt the Bruins to make some tough choices.
  • What about supporting cast members carrying term? Would the Bruins move on from Charlie Coyle, or maybe depth forwards like Chris Wagner or Anders Bjork? Could the likes of Craig Smith or Jake DeBrusk move, even if it would happen months after the ink dried on new contracts?
  • On the other end of the spectrum: maybe bribe someone to absorb John Moore‘s contract?

Naturally, some of those ideas are more plausible than others. And some of those players boast no-trade clauses.

Closing thoughts

Teams like the Bruins would be wise to at least engage in such thought exercises. What if things go off the rails, or the team is in a more modest place in the standings? There’s at least a chance the Bruins might punt on their 2020-21 NHL season, or at least re-tool during the trade deadline, hoping to compete even while losing some surplus talent.

If those 2013 Sharks serve as any example, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad fate, especially long-term?

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.

Rangers sign Filip Chytil to 4-year extension

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NEW YORK — The New York Rangers have signed forward Filip Chytil to a four-year contract extension worth $17.75 million, locking up another member of their core long term.

The team announced the deal Wednesday night. Chytil will count just under $4.44 million annually against the salary cap through the 2026-27 season.

Chytil, 23, is in the midst of a career year. He has set career highs with 22 goals, 20 assists and 42 points in 66 games for the playoff-bound Rangers.

The Czech native is the team’s sixth-leading scorer and ranks fourth on the roster in goals. The 2017 first-round pick has 144 points in 342 NHL regular-season and playoff games. He was set to be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.

New York already had top center Mika Zibanejad signed through 2030, No. 1 defenseman Adam Fox through 2029, veteran Chris Kreider through 2027, winger Artemi Panarin through 2026 and reigning Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Igor Shesterkin through 2025.

General manager Chris Drury’s next order of business is an extension for 2020 top pick Alexis Lafrenière, who is only signed through the remainder of this season and can be a restricted free agent.

Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews returns to ice, hints at retirement

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CHICAGO — Longtime Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews returned to the ice but hinted his stellar NHL career could be winding down after 15 years.

Toews, 34, skated with teammates prior to Chicago’s game with the Dallas Stars. It was his first time practicing with them since a game in Edmonton on Jan. 28.

He made a statement through the team on Feb. 19 saying he would be stepping away because of the effects of Chronic Immune Response Syndrome and “long COVID.”

In meeting with reporters, Toews stopped short of saying he hoped to play in any of last-place Chicago’s nine remaining games. His eight-year, $84 million contract is set to expire at the end of the season.

Toews said he’s feeling stronger, but isn’t sure if he’ll be able to play again for the Blackhawks or another team.

“Both if I’m being fully honest,” Toews said. “I feel like I’ve said it already, that I’ve gotten to the point where my health is more important.

“When you’re young and you’re playing for a Stanley Cup and everyone’s playing through something, that means something and it’s worthwhile. But I’m at that point where it feels like more damage is being done than is a good thing.”

Toews, the Blackhawks’ first-round draft pick (third overall) in 2006, joined the team in 2007 and was a pillar of Stanley Cup championship clubs in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

At the peak of his career, he was one of the NHL’s top two-way centers, winning the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward in 2013.

In 1,060 regular-season games, Toews has 371 goals and 509 assists. In 139 playoff games, he’s posted 45 goals and 74 assists, and he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 2010.

Toews missed the entire 2020-21 season with Chronic Immune Response System, which caused debilitating inflammation and fatigue.

He appeared in 71 games in 2021-22, then started this season with renewed energy before slowing and eventually shutting himself down.

Entering this season, it looked as if Chicago might deal him, as it did fellow star Patrick Kane, before the March trade deadline. But Kane went to the New York Rangers and Toews to injured reserve.

Toews believed he was progressing before a relapse in January left him so sore and tired that he could barely “put on my skates or roll out of bed to come to the rink.”

Toews said his progress over the past month has been “pretty encouraging” and he’s delighted to be back among his teammates. He has no timetable beyond that.

“We’re just going to go day by day here,” Chicago coach Luke Richardson said. He deserves anything he wants to try to achieve here.”

Richardson hoped Toews “can take that next step later in the week and hopefully (he) gives us the green light to go in a game.”

But Toews emphasized his long-term health and ability to lead a “normal life” is most important. He wants to go out on a positive note and not hit the ice for a game playing through excessive pain and dysfunction.

“It’s definitely on my mind that this could be my last few weeks here as a Blackhawk in Chicago,” Toews said. “It’s definitely very important for me to go out there and enjoy the game and just kind of soak it in and just really appreciate everything I’ve been able to be part of here in Chicago.”

Budding Wild star Matt Boldy more willing to shoot, and it shows

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Boldy was unable to resist a smile in the aftermath of his second hat trick in five games for the Minnesota Wild, a young right wing and reluctant star trying to make sense of a remarkable hot streak.

Does the puck feel as if it’s automatically going in the net these days each time he shoots?

“Yeah, it does,” Boldy said in the locker room after leading the first-place Wild to a 5-1 win over Seattle. “My linemates are playing great. Hopefully you guys are giving them a lot of credit. You look at some of those goals – just putting it on a tee for me.”

This non-attention-seeker has found himself squarely in the NHL spotlight. Boldy has 11 goals in nine games since Wild superstar Kirill Kaprizov was sidelined with a lower-body injury to raise his goal total to 28, in part because he’s been more willing to shoot. With vision and stickhandling as strengths and the humility of being a second-year player, it’s easy to be in a pass-first mindset.

“Everybody kind of took turns talking to him. But it’s not that he didn’t want to. A lot of times a situation like that where a guy’s got that skillset, it’s a real unselfish quality, right?” coach Dean Evason said. “But I think he gets now that he helps the team a lot when he scores goals.”

The Wild were confident enough in Boldy’s scoring ability to commit a seven-year, $49 million contract extension to him earlier this winter, after all.

“I think I’ve always had that mentality, but sometimes you just get into spots and it comes off your stick good,” Boldy said. “When things are going well, the puck goes in the net.”’

The Wild are 6-1-2 without Kaprizov. Boldy is a big reason why.

“You go through the slumps, you learn what you need to do to score. I think he’s found a good way to be in the right spot and shoot the puck when he had a good opportunity,” center Joel Eriksson Ek said.

The Wild have only won one division title in 22 years, the five-team Northwest Division in 2007-08. They’re leading the eight-team Central Division with eight games to go, with both Colorado and Dallas too close for comfort. They haven’t won a playoff series since 2015.

With Kaprizov due back before the postseason and Boldy on this heater, a Wild team that ranks just 23rd in the league in goals per game (2.93) ought to have a better chance to advance. Eriksson Ek and Marcus Johansson have been ideal linemates for the Boston College product and Massachusetts native.

Since the Wild entered the league in the 2000-01 season, only five NHL players have had more hat tricks at age 21 or younger than Boldy with three: Patrik Laine (eight), Marian Gaborik (five), Steven Stamkos (five), Alex DeBrincat (four) and Connor McDavid (four). Boldy turns 22 next week, so there’s still time for one or two more.

“He’s big. He controls the puck a lot. He’s got a good shot, good release. He’s smart. He switches it up. He’s got good moves on breakaways. He’s a total player,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Fun to watch him grow this year.”

Pezzetta scores shootout winner; Canadiens beat Sabres 4-3

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BUFFALO, N.Y. ⁠— Brendan Gallagher and the Montreal Canadiens rallied back to avoid playoff elimination with less than three weeks left in their season. The Buffalo Sabres, meanwhile, are running out of chances to stay in the Eastern Conference wild-card hunt.

Gallagher forced overtime by scoring his 200th career goal, and Michael Pezzetta scored the decisive shootout goal in a 4-3 win over the Sabres on Monday night.

“It’s one of those things I think we earned that chance. We weren’t fantastic but we did enough on the road tonight to get a win,” Gallagher said. “Smiles all around.”

The Canadiens could laugh, especially after Pezzetta celebrated his goal by putting his stick between his legs and riding it like a wooden horse — much like former NHL tough guy Dave “Tiger” Williams did during his 14-year NHL career spanning the 1970s and 80s.

“I’m not sure we’ll see that again. One of a kind,” said Gallagher. “I’d be worried about falling over.”

Pezzetta scored by driving in from the right circle to beat Eric Comrie inside the far post. Buffalo’s Jack Quinn scored in the fourth shootout round, but was matched by Montreal’s Jesse Ylonen, whose shot from in tight managed to trickle in through Comrie.

Jordan Harris and Alex Belzile also scored for Montreal, and Jake Allen stopped 30 shots through overtime, while allowing one goal on six shootout attempts.

Montreal would have been eliminated from playoff contention for a second straight season – and two years removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Final – with any type of loss.

The Sabres squandered a 3-2 third-period lead to drop to 3-6-3 in their past 12. Buffalo also blew a chance to move to within four points of idle Pittsburgh, which holds the eighth and final playoff spot.

“Just a little hesitation,” forward JJ Peterka said of the Sabres third-period lapse. “We didn’t play with much energy and we didn’t play that aggressive as we played the two periods before. I think that was the difference.”

Buffalo’s Lukas Rousek scored a goal and added an assist while filling in for leading scorer Tage Thompson, who did not play due to an upper body injury. Peterka and defenseman Riley Stillman also scored, and Comrie stopped 38 shots through overtime, and allowed two goals on six shootout attempts.

Montreal blew two one-goal leads to fall behind 3-2 on Stillman’s goal at the 8:31 mark of the second period.

Gallagher scored on the fly by using Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin as a screen to snap in a shot inside the far left post. With the goal, Gallagher tied Bobby Rousseau for 24th on the Canadiens career scoring list.

“I liked the way we corrected ourselves, it’s a sign of maturity, in the way we stayed on task,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said, in recalling how the Canadiens recently unraveled in an 8-4 loss two weeks ago to Colorado, which plays a similar up-tempo style as Buffalo.

PRIDE NIGHT

The Sabres hosted their third Pride Night, with Russian D Ilya Lyubushkin electing not to participate in warmups by citing an anti-gay Kremlin law and fears of retribution at home in Moscow, where he has family and visits in the offseason. The remainder of the team wore dark blue jerseys with the Sabres logo on the front encircled by a rainbow-colored outline.

During the first intermission, the Sabres broadcast a video in which GM Kevyn Adams said: “This is about recognizing someone’s humanity and true identity. We know there are people out there struggling with who they are, and we want them to know that they have an ally in the Buffalo Sabres.”

UP NEXT

Canadiens: At the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night.

Sabres: Host the New York Rangers on Friday night.