The National Hockey League’s regular season is upon us. The Bruins hit the ice tomorrow night for the first time since April with plenty of questions surrounding the team: can Claude Julien and the coaching staff lead the Bruins back to the playoffs, or will this be the third year in a row the Bruins lose out on postseason play? Should we expect better play from a defensive group that gained no outside help over the summer? Can the team overcome losing top winger Loui Eriksson to free agency?
Make no mistake, Bruins fans: this season will not be much different from the last on defense.
Sure, buying out Dennis Seidenberg is addition by subtraction. As of now, rookie defensemen Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara will likely dress while Adam McQuaid recovers from his mild injury and Kevan Miller recovers from hand surgery. As exciting as finally having young defensemen breaking in to the NHL roster, it remains hard to expect outstanding play from a 19 year old and a 23 year old, both in their first year of professional hockey. If either Carlo or second-year Bruin Colin Miller takes a big step forward this year and can regularly assume first pairing minutes with the now 39(!) year old captain Zdeno Chara, then maybe Julien and his coaches will become comfortable giving Kevan Miller bottom pairing minutes when he does return, a position he will have the best opportunity to succeed in. Expect Torey Krug to have an even better season than he did last year (44 points) when he inevitably scores more than four goals, assumes more defensive responsibility, and continues to quietly become one of the team’s leaders. Veteran John-Michael Liles should be able to provide adequate defense on the team’s third pairing.
Star goalie Tuukka Rask is looking to rebound after a poor 2015-2016 season. His .915 save percentage last year and his goals allowed average (2.56 goals per game) were far from his career averages of .924 percent and 2.24 goals allowed per game. Those stats, combined with Rask falling ill for the season’s final decisive game, prompted some to question how vital Rask remained to the team. The bottom line is that Rask does need to be better for the Bruins to be a competitive team, but there is reason to expect that this year. Rask’s save percentage will likely regress back towards his career average. His goals allowed average, which is more of a reflection of a team’s defensive play rather than one individual goalie’s play, is harder to predict, but can also be expected to go back down. Rask is still one of the NHL’s best goalies- it would take another year of poor play for that to truly come into question. Barring any major injuries, expect him to play 55 games or more and to show a stronger year in the crease overall.
The Bruins may prove to have one of the most deep offenses in the league this season.
This year’s top line will feature David Pastrnak playing with the dynamic duo of Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand (though Bergeron is day to day to start the season). If Pastrnak clicks with the team’s top two forwards, it could do wonders for his development and play this year. Pastrnak has not yet played a full season in his NHL career, nor has he topped 27 points in one season. He certainly has more skill and flair than Brett Connolly, who saw a lot of time on Bergeron’s wing last year. Now 20 years old, this is the year we see David Pastrnak hit at least 40 points and assert himself as a dependable right winger in the league.
Similarily, Ryan Spooner can go nowhere but up this season. Though he begins the season playing left wing rather than his natural center, he will benefit from playing with David Krejci, possibly the team’s top offensive player. Last year, Spooner managed 49 points through power play time and centering a third line that often featured Jimmy Hayes on a down season. He and Krejci are both known for piling up assists rather than goal scoring, but if they can find chemistry in their seemingly unlimited offensive creativity, expect this line to succeed, especially if six time 20+ goal scorer David Backes bounces back from a down year (45 points in 2015-2016).
The Bruins hope Backes will bring the style and skill Jarome Iginla brought to David Krejci’s right wing in 2013-2014. Though he’s signed to a contract that will hurt in its latter half, Backes will provide more of what the team acquired in Matt Beleskey last season- a hard hitting, hard working, hard to play against veteran. Fans who want more physicality and lamented Boston players for not sticking up for their teammates in recent seasons will not worry with Backes on the ice.
The team’s forward depth benefits from the opening night presence of three youngsters, Austin Czarnik, Noel Acciari, and Danton Heinen. Czarnik and Heinen bring more youthful offensive flair to the table. the hope is that Czarnik will step in to the third line center role as smoothly as Spooner did last season, while Heinen exudes all around offensive potential. He has become Boston’s top offensive prospect after his point per game pace at the University of Denver over the past two seasons. If he impresses quickly, he could very well take Jimmy Hayes’ third line right wing spot by mid November.
The hope for Acciari, veteran face-off expert Dominic Moore, and two way forward Riley Nash is that they can form a competent fourth line, something the Bruins have not had since 2013. Last year’s experiments on the fourth line- Zac Rinaldo, Max Talbot, Joonas Kemppainen, Landon Ferraro- proved at best lackluster (Ferraro, Kemppainen) and at worst disastrous (Rinaldo) over the course of a full season. A mix of a hard hitting second year pro, a veteran forward, and a 27 year old who excelled at shot suppression in Carolina finally offers the Bruins a (hopefully) better look on the fourth line.
Despite Boston’s weakness on defense, it’s hard to expect them to finish outside third or fourth in the Atlantic Division this season. Outside of Tampa Bay and Florida, there are no heavy hitters in the division. Montreal is a mystery this season after swapping P.K. Subban for Shea Weber. With Carey Price healthy, we have to assume they’ll be in the mix, but they do not sell themselves all that well on paper. Ottawa will likely remain stuck in mediocrity this year, though they have helped spoil Boston’s playoff hopes two years running. Detroit lost Pavel Datsyuk, Buffalo is still a year or two away, and Auston Matthews can’t possibly drag the Maple Leafs to the playoffs this year, no matter how often he scores four goals in one game.
The NHL is back, folks. Enjoy.
Follow Tommy McArdle on Twitter @tmcardle27