Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future.
Today we look at the Boston Bruins.
If three questions aren’t enough:
[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Under Pressure | Building Off a Breakthrough]
1. Will the aging curve send them into a brick wall?
Here’s a confession: my expectation was that the Bruins would look like an old team, at least at the top, during the 2017-18 season.
Instead, the Bruins went from a good (if frustrating) team under Claude Julien into a frequently scary (in a good way) squad with Bruce Cassidy running the ship. The top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak flat-out abused opponents with their skill and puck possession, to the point that the machine kept humming even when a key piece was on the shelf due to injuries. Zdeno Chara may or may not own a personal Lazarus Pit, as he remained fantastic at 40. Boston ultimately succumbed to Tampa Bay during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet B’s fans could be forgiven for picturing scenarios in which a deeper run was quite plausible.
With that in mind, the bar will likely be set higher in 2018-19.
What if Father Time merely strikes a year later?
Chara is 41. Bergeron’s 33, and some of those years have been tough (remember all of the ailments he dealt with in 2013, and how much concussions threatened the early phases of his career?). David Krejci is 32 and slipping, while David Backes‘ style isn’t necessarily friendly to a 34-year-old. Tuukka Rask is already 31, and Marchand is 30.
Ideally, the Bruins’ veteran bests will age out just in time for their youngsters to take over. Whether it’s 2018-19 or a little later, there’s also the possibility that the Bruins might suffer if that transition ends up being bumpy.
2. Will young players make more strides forward?
Hockey fans (and sports fans in general) have a habit of daydreaming young players to stardom, yet sometimes the siren call of potential can be quite misleading. Such a phenomenon explains why, if you need to send a star player away in a trade, it’s often wise to get a first-rounder (even if its from a good team who will leave you pretty close to round two).
While the Bruins passed up on Mathew Barzal (read more about that in this larger piece about promising forward Jake DeBrusk), Don Sweeney & Co. have gone on to find some pretty fantastic young talent. It’s easier said than done to replenish your reserves when your team is trading away premium picks and/or rarely drafting at the top of the first round, yet the Bruins rank among the best at doing just that.
David Pastrnak is the young stud among the aging stars at top, and sometimes you need to shake your head at the fact that he’s still just 22. Delightfully for the Bruins, 20-year-old defensive blue chip Charlie McAvoy provides Pastrnak with a rival in the “Who’s the best under-25 Bruin?” debate.
Most of the time, when you’re drafting outside of the lottery spots, you’re not going to find superstars that often. The Bruins have also supplemented talent with useful supporting cast members including DeBrusk, Ryan Donato, Brandon Carlo, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork.
The Bruins’ impressive fleet of reinforcements present interesting sub-questions. Will they at least be as effective as they were last season? Beyond an obvious choice like McAvoy, could DeBrusk and especially Donato offer a lot more as they continue to gain Cassidy’s trust?
Earlier in this post, there was the fearful scenario where older veterans fade before up-and-comers rise. On the flip side, the Bergerons and Marchands could sustain their all-world work while young players give the Bruins the sort of depth that true contenders relish.
3. Will the Atlantic simply be too tough?
The Washington Capitals provide evidence that NHL franchises don’t always know, for sure, when their best “windows” to win might be. Unfortunately, for most teams, being wrong doesn’t mean winning the Stanley Cup after you took what seemed to be your best shots.
This Bruins team could, conceivably, be as good or better than the 2017-18 edition and still get smoked in the first round.
We already saw the Bruins fall to the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team brimming with prime-age talent that might find another gear (or perhaps make a bold addition like landing Erik Karlsson?) next season. The Maple Leafs pushed the Bruins to a Game 7 without John Tavares; if all of Toronto’s pieces fit together, the Lightning might not even be Boston’s biggest worry.
It would be foolish to totally dismiss the Florida Panthers’ chances of making a big step forward, too, considering their summer improvements, talent at the top end, and their imposing finish to 2017-18.
The NHL’s current playoff system dictates that second round can sometimes present a larger hurdle than overcoming the conference final. A lot can change between early August and the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, yet right now, the Bruins don’t exactly seem like the favorites in a top-heavy division.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.