In a five-part “Back to The Bruins” series ushering in the start of Boston Bruins training camp, we’ll look at different areas of the roster for the upcoming 2021 NHL season. Today, we continue with the forward group that brings continuity and star-power to the mix for Boston.
Certainly, there will be familiarity with the Boston Bruins forward group for the upcoming 2021 season. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing for the Black and Gold.
When fully healthy and intact, the Bruins will again boast the best line in hockey, the Perfection Line, with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak again ready to be a lethal two-way threat and massive problem for other teams when they’re on the power play. Marchand should be good to go right off the bat after rehabbing from sports hernia surgery, but Pastrnak may not be ready to go until about a month into the regular season following offseason hip surgery.
It means Bergeron and Marchand will have to carry the mail offensively for the first few weeks of the season, but that’s eminently possible early in a compacted 2021 NHL season. Any problems or challenges for Bergeron, in particular, won’t come until later in the season if the 35-year-old again has to shoulder a heavy burden throughout a marathon regular season.
As we’ve seen in recent years, Bergeron isn’t able to consistently retain his optimal level in the postseason after playing high-leverage ice time during the regular season. It’s the reason why a deep, quality forward group is becoming increasingly important for a group of B’s forwards that have become top-heavy in recent years.
Bergeron has just 11 even strength points, and just three 5-on-5 goals, in 34 playoff games over the last two seasons, outlining some major issues that Boston’s forward group is competing with moving forward. They are getting older in a couple of key spots as both their top-6 centers, Bergeron and David Krejci, are hockey middle-aged while still expected to drive their top two lines.
Beyond that, the Boston Bruins are way, way too reliant on special teams scoring in the postseason.
The even-strength offense issue is why the Bruins were linked to free agent gunner Taylor Hall prior to the winger signing with the Buffalo Sabres, and why Mike Hoffman would have made sense in Boston prior to going the tryout route with the Blues. It’s also why the Bruins signed Craig Smith to a reasonable three-year, $9.3 million deal in free agency, a move that will perk up their third line scoring punch while giving Boston a top line right wing option until Pastrnak is ready to play.
This is going to be a paramount season, however, for a series of middle-tier forwards that make up Boston’s middle-6 forward group. Left winger Jake DeBrusk just signed a bridge deal for the next couple of seasons after a bit of a down year in 2019-20 and needs to return to the form that saw him score 27 goals just two years ago.
“I know our coaches work with all our players, particularly our younger players. Guys are getting their feet wet. They’re finding their way. [DeBrusk has] had a lot of time with a high-level player like David Krejci and developed some chemistry. [He’s] bounced back and forth with a little bit with Charlie Coyle,” said Don Sweeney. “He’s gone to the off-wing at times. Just to see what those next levels of Jake can be, as opposed to just as you referenced, having an innate ability to jump on a loose puck and score a big goal. You saw him take over games a couple years ago, in particular in Toronto [during the playoffs].
“He scored an enormous goal for us coming down the off-wing. In a game in Carolina in the playoffs this year, he has those abilities that few players do. But can you impact [the game] over the course of 60 minutes where you leave the rink some nights where, I might not have finished, but I really, really impacted the game and I made a few more plays? It was a little more tilted towards the goal-scoring side of things than he is to the assist side of things. With his speed and his ability to drive play in all three zones, I think Jake should recognize that he has at least one more, if not two more levels, to get to.”
And DeBrusk certainly isn’t the only one.
Anders Bjork will be given a chance to develop his offensive game to go along with world class skating speed, but the end product as a player remains to be seen. Ondrej Kase will be entering his first full season with the Bruins after disappointing with zero goals during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Kase has plenty to prove after the B’s gave up a first-round pick trading for him, and those dividends need to start getting paid this season.
Ditto the massive Nick Ritchie, who has all the ingredients to be a fearsome power forward for the Bruins if he can live up to his potential as a former first round pick. Charlie Coyle should be primed and ready for a big season as Boston’s third line center and will now have Craig Smith riding shotgun with him as a skilled linemate capable of creating offense.
The X-factor for the Bruins forward group is the influx of young players to this season’s roster. Top prospect Jack Studnicka looked ready to contribute as a top-9 winger or center during his appearances in the Toronto bubble. He could be another impact offensive player if he can make the team and beat out somebody like Ritchie or Bjork for a regular season, and he should be a regular by playoff-time barring something unforeseen.
Ditto Trent Frederic, the big, physical forward that should be in the running for a fourth line spot this season after Joakim Nordstrom was allowed to walk in free agency. A fourth line of Frederic, Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly would be the kind of physical, crash-and-bang trio that the B’s haven’t had on their fourth line for a few seasons. Provided all three players can remain healthy, the Bruins fourth line could be a big, bruising factor for them and exactly the kind of group that could tip the scales when things get nasty in a postseason series.
If nothing else, there should be a lot less running around by opponents with both Ritchie and Frederic potentially suiting up among the 12 forwards on a nightly basis.
The bottom line for the Bruins forwards: They should be a diverse, multi-faceted and dangerous group once they get healthy a month or so into the regular season. But they are going to need some improvement beyond their Perfection Line if they hold out hopes for a deep Stanley Cup playoff drive this summer. In that sense, it’s the same song, different verse for the Black and Gold with a similar forward group this season.