On the heels of their worst defeat of the season, a 4-0 defeat to the New York Islanders, the Bruins jumped on the Detroit Red Wings quickly, scoring four goals in the first period. Frank Vatrano scored twice, Patrice Bergeron once, and even rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo pitched in for a goal. It seemed as though the Bruins had left that horrible 4-0 shutout behind and were ready to overwhelm a lesser team this time, something they have struggled with all season.
Then the Red Wings scored three unanswered goals in the second period, tying the game at four. Adam McQuaid scored his first goal of the season to put the Bruins ahead by one once again, but Gustav Nyquist tied the game again with about three minutes left in the third. When a five minute overtime period could not produce a winner, the game went to a shootout, and the Red Wings walked away with two points.
The phrase “consistently inconsistent” after the Bruins were shutout by the Islanders, who remain (as of Thursday morning) the Eastern Conference’s worst team. The Bruins will win against a better team and struggle against a worse club. We saw a condensed version of that on Wednesday against the Red Wings. It seems that this year even a four goal first period can’t guarantee a victory for the Bruins. Goaltender Tuukka Rask has posted save percentages under .900 four times in his last six games played. On a team who just can’t seem to put the puck in the net despite leading the league in shot attempts for (according to Corsica), they cannot afford shaky defense and goaltending right now.
The Bruins stand at 6th in the Eastern Conference, with Toronto and Ottawa at their heels in the Atlantic division. It is very possible the Bruins will miss the playoffs for the third season in a row. They benefit from the weak group of teams in the Atlantic this season- if they were in the Metropolitan division, they would be fighting for a wild card spot. At the same time, the Bruins are a more talented team than they’ve let on- their expected goals for per game this season is 2.51. Their goals for per game so fair is only 2.07. They’re underperforming offensively, save for a few notable exceptions (Brad Marchand, 45 points in 48 games, and David Pastrnak, 33 points in 41 games). Conventional thinking suggests they will turn it around, start shooting at a higher percentage, and score more goals. The question is when that will happen.
Don Sweeney’s plan for the Bruins since he took over as general manager in May 2015 has been described as a “re-tool”. The Bruins don’t want to rebuild. They have star players in their prime right now, and a lot of money locked up in those players’ contracts. At the same time, they still lack on defense and in forward depth. It’s near impossible to win without that.
A lot of people thought this was going to be a different season for the Bruins- they hoped thought they were going to win more often and more easily secure a playoff position. That hope has not been rewarded, due to a mix of underperforming players (David Backes, Ryan Spooner, Patrice Bergeron) and an over reliance on a twenty year old defenseman. Brandon Carlo has performed admirably as the team’s top right handed defenseman, but his best hockey will be in the future. No winning team has a twenty year old rookie defenseman playing almost 22 minutes each game.
The Bruins, like it or not, are in the middle of a four year process. Every year they continue as a middling team in the NHL is another year of their core’s prime that is wasted away, but this team requires their pool of prospects to graduate to the NHL level before they can contend again. It may take two more years for the plan to finally come to fruition, but it’s on the way. As Fluto Shinzawa of The Boston Globe wrote more eloquently Next season will more than likely see Boston University stars Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson join the NHL. McAvoy will slot in on the right side on defense, push one of McQuaid or Kevan Miller out of the lineup, and bolster the blue line’s offensive creativity. Forsbacka-Karlsson (JFK) may push Ryan Spooner out of the lineup. If the Bruins are lucky, one of Zach Senyshyn, Danton Heinen, or Jake Debrusk, may be ready to step in.
The Bruins are destined to become a truly competitive at the twilight of their core players’ primes. When Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask are entering their mid 30s, David Pastrnak, Brandon Carlo, and other members of the team’s future core will be entering their primes. But it’s a process. It’s been a process the last two seasons, and it will remain a process. For now, we have to deal with the bad and cherish the good, because this is the plan.
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