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  • 4 Bruins storylines to watch following latest COVID-19 pause

    Tim Rosenthal December 30, 2021

    The Boston Bruins last played with 17 players nearly two weeks ago in a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders. Barring another significant COVID-19 outbreak, they’ll finally resume their 2021-22 campaign Saturday when they host the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden.

    Even with the highest vaccine rates among the four major North American professional sports leagues, the latest breakout — mainly from the omicron variant — forced the NHL to pause its season for a week. A resumption of stricter protocols also meant a return to taxi squads and other measures until the All-Star Break. An NHLPA opt-out to the upcoming Beijing Olympics opens a two-week window to reschedule the plethora of postponed tilts.

    The Bruins had their hands full navigating through a roller coaster start. They’ll likely encounter a busier, backloaded schedule in their late-season push for a playoff spot. Couple that with a looming return between the pipes and an impending trade request, and Bruce Cassidy’s squad will embark on a rugged stretch upon resuming their scheduled 82-game slate on New Year’s Day.

    Here’s a further look at the quartet of significant developments awaiting the Bruins.

    Tuukka Rask’s impending return

    Both Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark provided glimpses of solid goaltending while Rask rehabbed from off-season hip surgery. But make no mistake: the Bruins could use Tuukka Rask for their stretch run.

    Cassidy confirmed Rask’s three-week return timeline after the Bruins resumed on-ice activities at Warrior Ice Arena earlier in the week. Barring any setback during his likely conditioning stint in Providence, the Bruins should have Rask in the fold in mid-January.

    With taxi squads of up to six players returning, the Bruins could carry all three netminders at least through the All-Star break. They’ll likely encounter a tough decision at some point with Ullmark and Swayman serving as a backup or a 1B to Rask heading into the stretch run. Given that Don Sweeney inked Ullmark to a risky four-year investment in the off-season and Swayman’s waiver exempt status, the B’s would likely assign the latter to Providence if or when that decision comes.

    The Bruins have a little over $2 million of projected current salary cap space. They shouldn’t encounter any issues fitting Rask under the cap. After all, Boston’s all-time winningest netminder joked he’d sign for $250,000 and an endless supply of Bud Lights.

    Rask’s impending return will provide the Bruins with another veteran body entering their pivotal stretch of the 2021-22 campaign. But that isn’t the only significant transaction they face in the days and weeks ahead.

    Will the Bruins fulfill Jake DeBrusk’s trade request?

    Sweeney’s 2015 first-round selections continue to haunt the Bruins to this day. And now the marquee pick of Boston’s Round 1 trio wants out.

    DeBrusk’s trade request became public right after Thanksgiving. But amid their COVID outbreak, the Bruins needed all hands on deck, including a disgruntled DeBrusk.

    The Edmonton native declined to speak to the media since his request became public. But through all the turmoil, the Bruins praised DeBrusk’s professionalism over the last few weeks.

    DeBrusk netted a pair of goals following his public trade request. Through 25 games this year, he matched his goal total from his 41 tilts during the 2021 pandemic-altered season. But DeBrusk’s frequent trips to Cassidy’s doghouse — mostly centered around his efforts when he doesn’t light the lamp — prompted some tension between the player and the coaching staff.

    Who knows what the Bruins will receive in return for DeBrusk. A more extensive trade package might net a decent return, but a less significant deal could result in either low-mid tier prospects, draft selections, or even a bottom-six forward coming back the other way. They’ll need more than a latter proposal to jump from a fringe playoff roster to fielding at least a competitive postseason depth chart.

    Can Sweeney fulfill Boston’s needs between now and the trade deadline?

    Well, the Bruins enter another trade deadline period in need of a second line upgrade, this time at center following David Krejci’s off-season departure.

    Krejci’s return to his native Czech Republic left a gaping hole in the top-six. The Bruins used Charlie Coyle as a short-term option to fill Krejci’s giant vacancy to mixed early-season results.

    When Coyle missed time, the Bruins tried Jack Studnicka out with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith, hoping he’d finally breakthrough with the big club. A once-heralded prospect following his second-round selection at the 2017 Draft, Studnicka struggled to adapt his skillset at the NHL level even after adding 15 lbs. of muscle in the off-season.

    The Bruins have limited options to fill the second-line center hole from within. Now Sweeney enters another trade deadline hoping to find a needed top-six upgrade between now and March 21.

    Additionally, the Bruins could use a defensive upgrade, particularly on the left side. They’ve performed better of late, and Rask’s arrival should help alleviate some of the issues plaguing Boston’s back end.

    Arizona’s Jakub Chychrun checks all the defensive upgrade boxes. A pair of middle-of-the-lineup centermen in San Jose’s Tomas Hertl and Chicago’s Dylan Strome join Chychrun as the top names on the rumor mill.

    Sweeney has draft capital and prospects along with a disgruntled DeBrusk for a possible deal. These assets wouldn’t necessarily entice a deal for the aforementioned trio. But given the narrow window to make another potential deep run with their battle-tested vets like Bergeron, Marchand and Rask, the Bruins could use an external sparkplug to right the ship.

    What will Boston’s revised schedule look like?

    The schedule makers didn’t provide the Bruins any favors with a heavily backloaded slate. With the league’s recent COVID pause, Boston’s already busy year-end run will become even more hectic.

    The Bruins had six of their games postponed over the last two weeks. The situation north of the border provides the league with another challenging scheduling obstacle. Their rescheduling challenges include finding new dates for Boston’s road tilts in Montreal (initially slated for December 18) and Ottawa (from Dec. 19 and 29).

    The Olympic withdrawal reopens a two-week window following the league’s All-Star Weekend on Feb. 4 and 5 in Las Vegas. The Bruins could very well see most — if not all — of their six postponed tilts rescheduled in that timeframe before their scheduled six-game road trip beginning February 24 in Seattle.

    The schedule makers originally gave the Bruins a 32-game-in-64-day stretch to end the season. Cassidy’s crew will need to make up ground quickly before the league adds the postponed tilts to their daunting year-end schedule.

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    Tim Rosenthal

    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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