It’s official for the Boston Bruins, and for the rest of the NHL. The NHL and NHLPA have agreed on a 56-game regular season that’s officially set to kick off on Jan. 13 and will end within the first few days of May. Hockey clubs will report to training camp shortly after New Year’s with last season’s seven non-playoff teams eligible to begin skating in camp on Dec. 31.
It’s fantastic news for hockey fans, obviously, and for the media, the arena workers and literally anybody that benefits from the NHL. It’s also going to be strange with four newly configured regional divisions, including an All-Canadian division due to current COVID-19 travel protocols. Each of the four divisions will only play intra-division games during the regular season with the Bruins facing the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Buffalo Sabres eight times apiece.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 20, 2020
Only the top four teams from each division will make the playoffs, and the first two rounds will be divisional showdowns before a conference final and Stanley Cup Final. So, it’s not going to be easy at all for the Boston Bruins. Given that, we have five titanic questions looming for the Black and Gold as they get ready for a brief training camp and five months of regular season games ahead of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
- What will happen with Zdeno Chara? The 43-year-old captain is unsigned to this point in the offseason, but that’s not surprising given that his agent Matt Keator consistently said his client was waiting to see what the format for the upcoming season. With the NHL and NHLPA now officially signed on for a 56-game season beginning in January, there should be definitive action with Chara sooner rather than later. It was clear at the end of the B’s playoff run last summer that Chara intended to play in Boston again this coming season, but the commitment from the Bruins to retaining the 15-year captain has been less clear. Chara can certainly still kill penalties and he’s capable of playing strong shutdown defense, but it feels like the Bruins want a youth movement with Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon, Connor Clifton and Urho Vaakanainen all pushing for NHL time with Matt Grzelcyk, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, John Moore and Kevan Miller already expected to make the club. That’s a lot of defensemen already in the fold. Would the Bruins be better off playing a young guy like Lauzon in a PK/shutdown/physical role than utilizing Chara for one more season, particularly when the veteran Bruins defender really struggled in the return to play last summer? Certainly, they would miss him from a leadership perspective, but Patrice Bergeron has been ready to take over as the Bruins captain for quite a long time. It’s not cut-and-dried that Chara is coming back even if it still feels like that could be the eventual outcome, but I would also never say never with a surefire Hall of Fame legend like the 6-foot-9 defenseman.
- How long will Brad Marchand and/or David Pastrnak be out of the lineup? Both Brad Marchand (sports hernia) and Pastrnak (hip surgery) had work done in September following the end of the playoff run and weren’t expected back before the New Year. Marchand was on a timeline to return in January, so it could be that the B’s left winger is ready to go right from the jump on January 13. But it bears watching in training camp if Marchand isn’t a full go right from the start, or if it’s a slow build-up for him coming off an injury. It could be a month plus before Pastrnak jumps back in the lineup as his original timetable was about five months from the surgery back in the fall. Even so, it could be that Pastrnak is impacted in his skating and explosiveness even when he does come back. It can be a full year before everything comes back for some players following major hip surgery. Obviously, it’s a big deal if the Boston Bruins start the season missing both Marchand and Pastrnak from the Perfection Line, and even just going without No. 88 will be major given that the offense, and the top PP unit, is going to be trying to find it’s footing with Torey Krug now gone.
- Is there one more major shoe to drop for the Boston Bruins? The Bruins unsuccessfully pursued top puck-moving defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson this offseason and very clearly could use a top-4 left shot defenseman to add to their young group of blueliners. Perhaps it ends up being Zdeno Chara for one more season, but they have also been linked to Calgary Flames D-man Noah Hanifin in trade rumors for a reason. They very clearly need somebody that can replace Torey Krug’s vacant spot as a top offense producer and power play quarterback, with some real questions as to whether either Grzelcyk or McAvoy are going to be able to fill the void. There’s also Mike Hoffman still hanging around waiting for an NHL team with the Bruins perpetually in need of an established 30-goal scorer like the veteran winger. Either way, the Bruins are going to need to move some salary cap in order to make any kind of substantial impact move for their roster. So, there’s some work to be done for Bruins general manager Don Sweeney with scores of NHL teams that need to get under the salary cap prior to the Jan. 13 start to the regular season.
- Are the Bruins in danger of a slow start to the season, and is that a real problem in a 56-game season? The short answer is A) yes and B) yes. The injuries to Marchand Pastrnak could cause the Perfection Line to be less than full strength for the first couple of months, and there is obviously some serious turnover on the back where Torey Krug is gone, and Zdeno Chara is still in limbo. All of this leads into what could be a really slow start to the season for the Boston Bruins, particularly when considering the tough division, they’re going to be in with quality teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, New York Islanders and the Philadelphia Flyers. If the Bruins start out of the gate slowly over the first few months, it could be over for them before it even starts given the rest of the competition in the Eastern Division they’ll be playing for the next five months. It could be that they rely heavily on their goaltending in low-scoring games over the first six weeks of the regular season to stay afloat and then things begin to get better for them. But it’s going to be a dogfight with only the top four teams from this division making the playoffs this year. The Bruins could be in trouble if they really stumble out of the gate.
- How young is this Bruins team going to be? Many, this humble hockey writer included, were calling for the Bruins to begin turning over the roster following last summer’s playoff series loss to the Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. It sure looks like that is going to happen with Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon and Connor Clifton expected to be on this year’s NHL roster along with Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller and John Moore. And Urho Vaakanainen could factor in there as well. So, what about up front? Could Jack Studnicka make the NHL roster out of training camp with Pastrnak still rehabbing from his hip surgery? Studnicka is one of the few players they have internally that could supply some of the offense they’ll be missing until No. 88 returns. Is Trent Frederic going to factor into the fourth line as a big, thumping, physical presence that the Bruins could desperately use among their forward group? There’s a scenario where both of those forwards could be in the opening night lineup for the Boston Bruins depending on how training camp goes for them, but one would expect they would be a part of the NHL roster/taxi squad that the B’s are going to employ in this unpredictable NHL season.