The Boston Bruins were one win away from capturing the Stanley Cup last season. Knowing just how close they came to a title only to squander the opportunity will leave a bitter taste in their mouth throughout the offseason and beyond…but it also means they don’t need all that much in the way of upgrades.
Bruce Cassidy’s team boasts a phenomenal top line, an unwavering defensive identity, a nice mix of experience and burgeoning talent, reliable goaltending and a scary power play. There aren’t really any weaknesses. The 49-24-9 Bruins were terrific from opening night through to the end of the year, which allowed them to secure the second seed in the Atlantic Division. They topped the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round once more before dispatching the Columbus Blue Jackets and Carolina Hurricanes. St. Louis presented the stiffest challenge, and though the Blues ultimately prevailed in seven hard-fought games, Boston has nothing to hang its head about. It enjoyed a tremendous season on the whole and could very well find itself in the Eastern Conference driver’s seat again in 2019-20.
All in all, the numbers were stellar.
Boston scored 3.13 goals per game (11th) and conceded 2.59 (3rd). At 5-on-5, it controlled 53.1% of the shot attempts (6th), 52.2% of the scoring chances (8th), 51.7% of the high-danger chances (13th) and 55.1% of the goals scored (4th).
More notably, the Bruins owned 57.2% of the goals from prime real estate (3rd). Cassidy’s team has clearly built its identity around dominating the trenches. Boston forces its opponents to work for every last touch in the slot area, using a blend of smarts, guts and cohesion to stymie the attacking side. Only one squad (Minnesota) allowed fewer high-danger bids than the Bruins in 2018-19.
Behind that defensive fortress, Boston ices a seasoned tandem in net. Tuukka Rask followed up a good regular season (2.48 GAA, 91.2 SV%) with an extraordinary postseason (2.02 GAA, 93.4 SV%) during which he exorcised his big-game demons to become the team’s most valuable performer in the spring. Beyond his own abilities, this vast improvement in the playoffs could be attributed to a lighter workload throughout the year. Rask’s 45 starts amounted to his lowest total since 2012-13. 34-year-old backup Jaroslav Halak fared very well in his 37 starts (2.34 GAA, 92.2 SV%), ensuring that Rask wasn’t forced into the crease more often than Cassidy would like.
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) May 7, 2019
This balance between the pipes resulted in the third-highest on-ice save percentage (93.1) in the regular season. Moreover, we saw a fresh and spectacular Rask in the postseason. He had never looked that dialed in and the team will surely employ a similar approach next year.
Keeping your composure against a dependable group of forwards, stout blueliners and stingy goaltenders is a tall order. In every phase of the game, the Bruins don’t give anything away for free. That breeds frustration. A lot of frustration. Once the other team overcommits, Boston doesn’t waste a single second to transition from bending on defense to breaking their opponent’s will. Its quick-strike flurries repeatedly catch foes by surprise because the action shifts from the perimeter to the belly of the beast in a blur. Though Boston’s offense isn’t miles ahead of the competition, its blistering approach to gets the most out of its talent. It consistently starts its onslaught before the opposing defense can even settle into its posture.
Whether it’s at even strength or on its third-ranked power play, that tempo creates timely goals. That’s why they posted the fifth-best record in the league when opponents scored first. The Bruins know how to stay close when they’re behind and how to blow opponents out of the water when they’re ahead. Nothing fazes them. They either reverse the tide or pile on the pressure until there’s no other choice but to collapse. It’s a masterclass in counterpunching, really. Never, ever lower your guard or they will bury you.
Cassidy has his troops playing at a remarkable level. He’s uncovered clutch offense without sacrificing the defensive solidity that defined Claude Julien’s tenure.
However, there are some concerns heading into next season. First, captain Zdeno Chara isn’t getting any younger. The 42-year-old remains a serviceable defender — especially in front of his net —but opponents made him look downright silly at times in 2018-19. When he’s caught out in space, he’s a fish out of water. He did about as well as you could hope for a player his age in a young man’s game, but he’s been on a steady decline for a couple of seasons now.
Meanwhile, 33-year-old Patrice Bergeron (79 points in 65 games) actually delivered the most productive year of his career. Why is that worrisome? Well, so did Brad Marchand (100 points in 79 games). Veteran pivot David Krejci (73 points in 81 games) tied his highest point total as well. Make no mistake: These are great players. With all three on the wrong side of 30, though, it’s hard to imagine them all matching their career years.
A pair of power play 🚨’s for Patrice Bergeron 👌
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) May 3, 2019
A drop-off on that front would hurt because the Bruins could already use a slight boost to their bottom six. Marcus Johansson provided that depth as a trade deadline pickup last season, but he’s an unrestricted free agent who may price himself out of Boston’s plans. General manager Don Sweeney has about $12 million of cap space with which to address RFAs Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen. Unless he can move David Backes’ albatross of a contract ($6 million cap hit for two more years), upgrading the roster and striking more balance up front may prove difficult.
Unfortunately, internal solutions aren’t exactly plentiful. Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson (9 points in 28 games), Anders Bjork (3 points in 20 games) and Peter Cehlarik (6 points in 20 games) appear to be fringe NHLers at this point, whereas 2015 first-round pick Zach Senyshyn has yet to translate his junior scoring prowess to the AHL. 2017 second-rounder Jack Studnicka is the most promising youngster, but we’ve yet to see the 20-year-old in an NHL setting.
Boston possesses a great fourth line centered by Sean Kuraly. It needs a spark on the third line or perhaps even the second unit alongside Krejci and Jake DeBrusk (42 points in 68 games). In an ideal world, iron will sharpen iron at training camp and the Bruins will find the right fit to plug into their lineup for a dose of energy and scoring upside.
Beefing up their third line or somehow retaining Johansson will be crucial because the Atlantic should provide a tougher test next season. Tampa Bay and Toronto are formidable teams, while Florida has been linked to star UFAs Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky for months. A Vezina-caliber netminder and a top-tier playmaker would represent one hell of an offseason haul. Montreal, for its part, has recently found itself involved in the Matt Duchene rumor mill. Adding a legitimate top-flight center to a young and fast forward corps would be huge for a franchise anchored by Carey Price and Shea Weber.
On the flip side, there are reasons for optimism in Boston. 6’3”, 220-pound forward Charlie Coyle, who took some time to get acclimated to his new surroundings (6 points in 21 games), exploded in the postseason to the tune of 16 points in 24 games. The 27-year-old is in his prime and should only feel more comfortable in his first full campaign with the club.
Along the blue line, McAvoy (28 points in 54 games) paced the entire team in average ice time (22:10) and seems poised to grab the reins from Chara. His foot speed and puck-carrying ability are invaluable assets on the back end, allowing him to post great underlying stats: 54.7 CF%, 54.9 SCF%, 52.3 HDCF%, 55.8 GF%. With his skill set, confidence and physical gifts, he has no ceiling. There are occasional slip-ups in coverage, but the 21-year-old looks like a budding two-way monster who could enter the Norris Trophy conversation as soon as in 2019-20.
Also, Boston persevered through injuries to Rask, McAvoy, David Pastrnak and Kevan Miller. Bergeron and Marchand were visibly hurting in the playoffs as well. It’s fair to assume the Bruins will be a bit luckier health-wise next season.
So, yes, the competition will be fierce and Boston’s elder statesmen will be one year older. But while teams should always strive to improve, the Bruins as presently constituted are still a nightmare for the rest of the league. Their defense, goaltending and special teams are a persistent thorn in your side, and Cassidy has molded his forwards into an equally responsible and opportunistic group.
That Game 7 loss at home will sting for a long time, but their overall performance in 2018-19 would have been enough to reach the mountaintop in most years.
It could very well be enough next season.