Zdeno Chara

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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.

Bruins’ Chara had ‘multiple fractures’ to his jaw

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It was widely reported, and even assumed, that Boston Bruins defender Zdeno Chara suffered a broken jaw when he was hit in the face by a puck during the Stanley Cup Final against the St. Louis Blues.

Chara confirmed all of those reports on Friday during the Bruins’ end of season media availability when he revealed that he had “several fractures” to his jaw.

The Bruins announced that the expected recovery time is 5-6 weeks.

Chara was injured when a shot deflected off his stick and struck him in the face during the Bruins’ Game 4 loss to the Blues. While he returned to the bench that night to watch the third period, he missed the remainder of the game as the Bruins were forced to finish with only five defenders for the second time in the series. They ended up losing both of those games.

He returned for Games 5, 6 and 7 of the series and played in a greatly reduced role. After averaging more than 22 minutes per game he logged just 16, 22, and 16 minutes in the remaining three games of the series. The Bruins ended up losing Games 5 and 7 on home ice, allowing the Blues to win their first ever Stanley Cup.

The 42-year-old Chara signed a one-year extension with the team earlier this season and finished with five goals and nine assists in 62 regular season games, before adding two goals and four assists in the playoffs.

Before he was injured in the Stanley Cup Final, he also sat out the series clinching Game 4 win of the Bruins’ Eastern Conference Final series against the Carolina Hurricanes with a lower-body injury.

Related: Bruins could have different look next season

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.

How different will Bruins look next season?

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The Boston Bruins were within one win of taking home the Stanley Cup this year, but in the end it simply wasn’t meant to be. As disappointed as they must be, they still put together an incredible season and postseason in 2018-19, and they have something they can continue to build on in the near future.

Yes, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are both over 30 and, yes, Zdeno Chara is 42 years old, but there’s enough talent there that they may go on another championship push as soon as next season. General manager Don Sweeney will have to get creative in order to improve his team, but he’s found a way to add to this roster every year.

The Bruins have about $14.3 million in cap space heading into the offseason. Re-signing Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo will likely eat up a good chunk of those available funds though. They also have to decide whether or not they want to bring back Marcus Johansson, who they acquired from the New Jersey Devils right before the trade deadline. Danton Heinen will also be a restricted free agent, while Noel Acciari is scheduled to become a UFA on July 1st.

For Sweeney, the issue isn’t just re-signing potential free agents this year, it’s also about projecting ahead to next summer when Jake DeBrusk will be an RFA and when Torey Krug and Charlie Coyle will need new contracts. There was a lot of trade speculation around Krug throughout the season, but do the Bruins really want to move him after the postseason he just had? Probably not.

In the end, Sweeney can’t sit around and do nothing, and he probably won’t. So what can he do to make this group better?

Boston is set up in goal with Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. Assuming McAvoy and Carlo are back, they’ll have eight defensemen under contract next season. So, unless Krug is moved, you’d have to think that they like the way their defense looks heading into next season.

One area where they can improve, is scoring depth. As we saw throughout the Stanley Cup Final, David Krejci and DeBrusk were relatively quiet. Krejci is now 33 years old, and he’s the highest paid forward on the team at $7.25 million (there are two years left on his deal).

Also, finding someone to take on David Backes‘ contract would be huge (two years remaining at a cap hit of $6 million). Sweeney would have to give up some kind of asset to make that happen though. Buying out Backes isn’t really an option, because he would cost $5.67 million on the cap next season and $3.67 million the year after that. They need someone to take him ofter their hands for a draft pick and/or a prospect.

If the Bruins can make the money work, they’ll likely be in the mix for a number of big-name free agents on July 1st. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them make a run at Matt Duchene, Jordan Eberle, or even Kevin Hayes, who is from Dorchester, Massachusetts. If they keep the perfection line together, they need to find a way to address the second line so that they can remove some of the scoring pressure on Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

So there’s a good chance the Bruins will look similar to the group that just went to the Stanley Cup Final, but don’t be surprised if they add a piece or two up front in an attempt to get themselves over the hump next year.

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.

Chara, Rask somehow keep puck out of Bruins’ net

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The Bruins can curse their luck after falling behind 2-0 to the Blues in the first period, but they can’t claim that they haven’t gotten any bounces in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final (NBC; stream here).

In yet another “how did the puck stay out of the net?” moment, a Brayden Schenn shot hit the crossbar and seemed primed to then bounce off of Tuukka Rask and into the Bruins’ net, only for Zdeno Chara to make a crucial play to keep it out. It was easy to make a connection between that desperation play and the one Charlie McAvoy made with Rask to save the Bruins from a goal allowed in Game 6.

So, the bad news for the Bruins after the second period is that they didn’t make up any ground. The Blues are still up 2-0, and now Boston must score at least twice in the third period to keep Game 7 (and their Stanley Cup hopes) alive.

The good news is that they didn’t dig that hole any deeper, in big part because of this mix of skill, luck, and timing. And luck. Let’s mention luck again, because:

Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final is currently airing on NBC (stream here).

MORE FROM GAME 7:

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.

Stanley Cup Final: Blues make lineup change; Grzelcyk game-time decision

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It looks as if the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins will both be making some lineup changes for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final Wednesday night (8 p.m. ET, NBC; Live Stream).

Let’s start with the significant news on the Boston side where the Bruins might have all of their top defenders in the lineup for the first time since the beginning of the series. After missing the past four games, Matt Grzelcyk has been cleared for action and is officially listed as a game-time decision. If he plays, and it seems extremely likely that he will, he would replace Connor Clifton.

Grzelcyk has been sidelined since early in Game 2 when he was on the receiving end of an illegal check from Oskar Sundqvist, resulting in a one-game suspension for the Blues’ forward.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

It remains to be seen how much of an impact he can make since he hasn’t taken any contact since the injury, but the Bruins have definitely missed his ability to move the puck.

“I think your adrenaline will carry you through,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy on Wednesday.

“The one thing about Matt if he does go in after missing some games is he’s been skating with us. It’s not like he just jumped on the ice yesterday. He’s been participating, albeit non-contact, so there is a little bit of a different animal there. At this time of the year you’re not into a lot of contact in practice anyway so he’s just going to have to understand, because he did obviously live the first whatever it was, game and a half with St. Louis, he knows they are physical. He’s been there. He’s been watching. He knows he’s gotta get back in a hurry, make good decisions with it, take a hit to make a play if that’s what is required, which it usually is against this team. That’s the challenge in front of him. We’ve had discussions with him about it and he’ll be ready for it.”

Two of the three Bruins’ losses in this series came in games where they were forced to finish with five defenders due to injury with Grzelcyk exiting Game 2 and Zdeno Chara being forced to miss most of Game 4 after being hit in the face with a puck. While Chara has not missed any further game action, Grzelcyk’s absence has been significant.

“If he’s able to come back and help us tonight, he’s an incredible puck mover,” said Bruins defender Charlie McAvoy. “He’s just kind of had that fire in his eye for the playoffs. He’s been playing awesome for us, and we’ve missed him terribly since he’s been out. He just gives us that extra jolt when it comes to breaking out. He’s a gifted puck-mover. If he’s back to night, I think he’ll do his job and help us out even more.”

On the St. Louis side, forward Ivan Barbashev will be returning to the lineup after missing Game 6 due to a suspension for an illegal check to the head.

He will replace rookie forward Robert Thomas on the team’s fourth line next to Alex Steen and Sundqvist.

That is not the only change the Blues will be making.

Coach Craig Berube also said that Joel Edmundson will be drawing back into the lineup in place of Robert Bortuzzo.

Why the change? With Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko playing so many minutes on the right side Berube wants to go with four left-handed defenders in his lineup.

“With Parayko and Pietrangelo on the right side, they’re just eating so many minutes up; there’s not a lot of minutes over there,” said Berube. “So, we decided to go with the four lefties, and what he can bring, he can bring a lot. I mean, he’s got some real good upside, shoots the puck well, big guy, big body, physical player, but he does do some things well in the offensive zone, so I like his shot.”

Edmundson played sparingly over the first four games of the series, recording zero points and finishing as a minus-3 in his limited minutes. Bortuzzo scored a goal for the Blues in Game 2 of the series in Boston and also scored a game-winning goal in the Western Conference Final series against the San Jose Sharks.

Edmundson will skate on the Blues’ third defense pairing alongside Vince Dunn.

“I played in I think three Game 7s now so this is going to be my fourth. None of them compare to this one,” said Edmundson. “Obviously it’s going to be the biggest game of my life. But everyone’s excited.”

Edmundson said his first reaction upon finding out that he would be in the lineup was to text his parents, who were already planning on attending the game. One member of his family not attending the game? His brother, Jesse, who has apparently been bad luck throughout the series.

“They were coming,” said Edmundson when talking about his parent’s plans. “My brother (Jesse) stayed back because he thinks he’s bad luck. He’s been bad luck throughout the series, so he stayed back, he’s taking one for the team.”

Whatever it takes.

More Blues-Bruins Game 7
• Blues vs. Bruins: Three keys for Game 7
• The Wraparound: It is all on line for Blues-Bruins 
• Which Blues, Bruins player will get Stanley Cup handoff?
• Conn Smythe watch
• Stanley Cup roundtable discussion

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.