With many questions surrounding both their present and future, the Boston Bruins will kick off their 99th season Wednesday night against the Washington Capitals.
The close of the first century of Bruins hockey quickly approaches, as does the end of an era marked by cornerstone players like Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. With Bergeron and Krejci returning to Boston on one-year, team-friendly deals, a window that has been kept open for as long as possible may have finally found its closing chapter.
The Bruins face a significant obstacle for the two months of the season as they attempt to tread water without Charlie McAvoy and Brad Marchand. As a team with championship expectations, excitement, as well as scrutiny, will follow the group throughout the season.
Here are three reasons for optimism and three reasons for concern heading into the 2022-23 campaign.
Optimism: Depth will position players to succeed when healthy
Much of this is because of Krejci’s return following a one-year hiatus playing in his native Czechia.
Without Krejci, the Bruins found a viable placeholder once Erik Haula secured the second-line center role in early January.
Even though Haula developed chemistry down the stretch with Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak, Krejci’s return gives the Bruins a more consistent, reliable option to center the pair of talented wingers.
“It’s always fun playing with [Pastrnak],” Krejci said. “Hopefully we can help the team at the beginning of the season, stick together for as long as we can.”
A full season of defenseman Hampus Lindholm in their top four, a seemingly renewed top-line right winger in Jake DeBrusk, and a versatile middle-six option in Pavel Zacha have bolstered Boston’s depth chart.
When healthy, the Bruins will have greater flexibility up front than in previous years. With some of the pressure alleviated, players like Craig Smith, Charlie Coyle, and Brandon Carlo can potentially produce at higher levels than their ideal lineup spots dictate.
McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk’s returns will grant Carlo a comfortable spot on the second pair next to Grzelcyk. Marchand’s renewed presence will allow Coyle and Smith to find depth-scoring positions on the third line.
The new voice behind the bench
Jim Montgomery replaces Bruce Cassidy after his five full seasons as head coach of the Bruins. Alongside his new, more offensively-based system, Montgomery also brings more of a ‘players-coach’ messaging style to the locker room.
“Maybe just delivery,” Grzelcyk said regarding the main differences between Montgomery and Cassidy. “I felt like we’d want to hang back a little bit and not get ahead of the play, whereas now it kind of seems like we get a little more leeway with that and play a little more instinctively.”
Outside of DeBrusk’s well-documented rift with Cassidy, much speculation occurred regarding Cassidy’s effect on team morale following his firing.
“You can’t worry about not getting back out there. I think that’s kind of one of the things that we need to change,” Bruins President Cam Neely stated at the end of last season. “I think when younger players make mistakes, they’re worried they’re not going to play the next game, well that game is still going on.”
The insertion of a new bench boss to an NHL club almost always provides an adrenaline shot into a locker room. There’s a good chance Montgomery continues that trend in his first year at the helm.
The Bruins gained ground on the top teams in the Atlantic
Even though it was a relatively uneventful offseason in Boston, the Bruins upgraded their roster with Krejci’s return and the Zacha trade. In doing this, the Bruins closed the gap on the top division foes who edged them in the standings last season.
The flat-cap crunch finally caught the Tampa Bay Lightning, forcing general manager Julien BriseBois to part ways with veteran cogs like Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh, and Jan Rutta. Even with their core still strongly intact, the perennial Stanley Cup contenders had to shed some significant depth to remain cap compliant.
The Florida Panthers made headlines over the summer after acquiring Matthew Tkachuk from Calgary. But they paid a hefty price after parting ways with Jonathan Huberdeau and Mackenzie Weegar. The move may help the Panthers in the long run, but it left their defensive core undermanned for the time being.
The Toronto Maple Leafs became another victim of the flat-cap crunch, thus forcing GM Kyle Dubas to gamble his future employment on a goaltending duo of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov following Jack Campbell’s departure to Edmonton.
The improved Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, and Ottawa Senators will all be chomping at the bit to dethrone the Atlantic Division’s top four. But for the time being, the Bruins still reign superior over those clubs and head into the season the most improved group between the aforementioned top-four.
Concerns: uncertain recoveries for McAvoy and Marchand
Grzelcyk progressed ahead of schedule following off-season shoulder surgery and recently joined the team for practice, albeit in a non-contact jersey. But Marchand and McAvoy’s timelines for an early-December return haven’t changed.
With lighter scheduling and solid depth throughout the lineup, the Bruins keeping their heads above water without McAvoy and Marchand long-term isn’t an inconceivable outcome.
The potential lingering effects of these injuries remain a bigger concern, however. McAvoy has never missed significant time due to injury, which should work in his favor, although it’s still a wild card. Lingering ailments from double-hip surgery on a 34-year-old won’t come as a surprise.
“That will be the thing that’s frustrating at some point is I’ll feel good, feel like I’m ready, but there’s still a process that you’ve got to follow to get back,” Marchand said to reporters during Media Day on Monday. “Just trying to take it day by day and make sure there’s no setbacks and nothing that holds me back from getting back when I want to. ”
Now in the most pivotal “win-now” situation of this era, mixed returns from Marchand and McAvoy would be a near worst-case scenario.
Adjusting to Montgomery’s system without McAvoy and Grzelcyk to start the year
Carlo and Lindholm will both face significant minutes to start the year as the Bruins try to navigate the first two months with their thin defensive depth without McAvoy and Grzelcyk. They’ll both have to accomplish that task while simultaneously facilitating the transition into Montgomery’s offensive-drive approach.
“I think it’ll be a challenge,” Carlo noted to the press at Media Day. “It’s something that, you know, it’ll be a learning process in certain regards for me going forward, but I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
Montgomery’s system will admittedly lead to more defensive breakdowns than what had been the norm under Cassidy and Claude Julien. The combined lack of personnel and implementation of a new system may cause some initial growing pains.
“I always have a long-term view,” Montgomery said. “I think that the more you can allow players early on to play through stuff and I’m talking like, long being Thanksgiving, right?”
The Cupboard is bare as the band’s breakup nears
With very little quality or quantity to show from his recent drafts, GM Don Sweeney will face an uphill climb in order to restock his prospect pool once Bergeron and Krejci call it a career.
A comprehensive analysis of each NHL club’s prospect pool from Corey Pronman of The Athletic saw the Bruins ranked dead last of all 32 teams. And given Boston’s drafting and developing issues, the post-Bergeron-era outlook remains bleak.
“Well, the narrative, quite frankly, is a little frustrating to me,” Neely said regarding Sweeney’s draft record. “If you look at the players the Boston Bruins have drafted and how many NHL games they’ve played, I think it’s amongst some of the highest in the league… Every GM in the league makes mistakes and we’re going to continue to make mistakes. But hopefully, we learn from those mistakes and limit those mistakes.”
High-end prospects like Fabian Lysell and Mason Lohrei continue to develop alongside potential solid depth pieces such as John Beecher and Marc McLaughlin. But the Bruins hardly have many options in their prospect pool to come up with the big club in the coming years. Because of that, there is no tomorrow to show that Sweeney’s ends have justified his means.
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