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The 2021 Boston Bruins are set to embark on a new era. And no, we’re not just talking about starting the season at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The back-end looks significantly different without Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug. Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy are now the elder statesmen on the blue-line.
A returning Kevan Miller showed encouraging signs in a feel-good camp, but will that translate into success playing alongside an inexperienced Jakub Zboril on the third defensive pair? And can Jeremy Lauzon settle into a top-pair role with McAvoy?
Yes, Bruce Cassidy’s squad faces several question marks as they begin their season in mere hours against the Devils. But they still have a decent core of veterans, including Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Tuukka Rask, Jaroslav Halak, Charlie Coyle and David Pastrnak for the younger players to lean on.
A transition year looms. But the Bruins’ Cup odds aren’t that far fetched. And they remain one of the favorites to win the uber tough East Division.
With that in mind, here are a few bold predictions from your’s truly.
Replacing Pastrnak even on a short-term basis isn’t ideal. But Cassidy has seen enough growth in Studnicka’s game during his first professional season.
With a move to wing from his natural center position, Studnicka will get his first significant shot at becoming an impact player this season.
“He’s a guy who likes to get on pucks, no matter what position he plays,” Cassidy said of Studnicka during Thursday’s pregame Zoom call. “He had some good looks [in the Toronto bubble]. He didn’t finish like he did in the American [Hockey] League, but that will come if he keeps getting the looks. That continued into training camp. He had one scrimmage where he had three breakaways. So his anticipation is good and he has a good stick.”
Studnicka’s quality scoring attempts won’t stop when he plays with Bergeron and Marchand in the interim.
But Cassidy isn’t expecting a Pastrnak clone. He senses a different way for Studnicka to compliment the dynamic Marchand/Bergeron duo.
“You just can’t replace Pasta,” Cassidy added. “Pasta finds space quickly and he pops out for a one-timer and then it’s by the goalie. Not everyone has the ability to do that. So [we tell Studnicka] to play to his strength: get to the net, find the open ice and compliment [Marchand and Bergeron].”
Very few first-year players find themselves in a top-six role immediately. Auston Matthews, Conor McDavid, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were exceptions, not the norm. Even Alexis Lafreniere, this year’s top overall pick, will start his Rangers career on the third line.
Yet, Studnicka finds himself as a Calder longshot according to oddsmakers. He’ll have some stiff competition surely with Rangers goalie Igor Shertskin, Wild forward Kirill Kaprizov and third overall pick Tim Suetzele (Senators) as the odds on favorites.
Don’t sleep on Studnicka, though. The 2017 second rounder has the tools to become a formidable top-six commodity. Starting the year on the top line will only help his chances.
Some of the younger defensemen, like Lauzon, will lean on McAvoy to help ease that burden.
McAvoy was already one of the nightly leaders in time on ice. He’ll likely receive more special teams minutes with their top penalty kill (Chara) and power play (Krug) specialists now in Washington and St. Louis, respectively.
All this is a big ask for a third-year defenseman. But McAvoy was thrown in the proverbial fire before, including his postseason debut for an injury-riddled Bruins bunch against the Senators in 2017.
A good shot release is one of the only things missing in McAvoy’s toolset. He fits the top defenseman mold with every other trait from his stellar transition game to his physical presence.
“Those guys that play defense in the NHL, they’re there because they’re the best in their position They all have a gift, especially guys like Charlie,” Marchand said of McAvoy. “He has a different way that he can think the game.”
Reigning Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman sits atop the list of Norris favorites. Roman Josi, John Carlson, Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, former Bruin Dougie Hamilton and ex-Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo also find themselves in the pre-season running.
McAvoy isn’t too far off from making the jump to elite defender status. The Bruins would like nothing more than for McAvoy to climb up the Norris ranks in this transitional season.
I’m not willing to go with a bolder prediction here. After all, the Bruins may have to encounter a potent Tampa Bay Lightning bunch if they enter the NHL’s version of the Final Four.
But I’m not willing to count them out in the toughest division in hockey.
Sure, they’ll need some breaks to go their way. With an inexperienced D core, they’ll need Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak to steal some victories throughout the year.
Even with Carter Hart’s emergence in Philadelphia, the Bruins sit atop the goaltending ranks in their new division. The Capitals and Rangers both enter the season with relatively inexperienced goaltenders patrolling the pipes. Tristian Jarry begins his first full season as Pittsburgh’s primary netminder. Semeyon Varlamov showed flashes of brilliance in last year’s run to the East Finals with the Islanders, but struggled with inconsistent play at times during his stints with the Caps and Avalanche.
The Bruins have the luxury of trotting out the best line in hockey when Bergeron, Pastrnak and Marchand are all healthy. They brought in Craig Smith (a game-time decision for Thursday because of a lower-body injury) to provide stability 5V5 scoring. An emerging Studnicka could give the Bruins their best-looking top-six in quite some time.
So yes, the Bruins have some pieces in place for a deeper run than some pundits expect. But they still have some ways to go to re-establish themselves into a true championship contender.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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