BOSTON – In true parental figure form, Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy pulled out the worst thing that a kid can hear growing up while analyzing the recent play of his scuffling hockey club. Cassidy isn’t mad at the Bruins, but he’s definitely disappointed.
It’s not a shock, of course, given there was too little of everything from the B’s in their 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night at TD Garden. Credit where it’s due to the Penguins as well, though, because it was just as much about the Penguins playing winning hockey as it was about the Black and Gold doing the exact opposite.
The Penguins played their high-speed, pressuring style that used opportunistic chances to counterattack the Bruins, and the frustrated B’s players were happy to play along while once again not pushing hard enough offensively. It was a sign of bad things to come when the Bruins managed only two shots on net while enjoying the period’s only power play, and it didn’t get much better after that for the Boston group.
“I’m not frustrated with those guys. I’m disappointed that they don’t recognize the value of the puck and where we are in the game. We’ve had games like this where we just don’t respect the process, and don’t respect taking care of the puck. And good offensive teams kind of shove it right up [on us] and that’s what happened,” said Bruce Cassidy. “It was a lot of was our top guys tonight. Our younger guys are learning the ropes, but we’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the puck.
“The last two goals [against] we had the puck on our stick and it’s in our goal a short time later. We talked about this against Jersey. It’s no disrespect to Jersey, but Pittsburgh is on fire right now and you just can’t [mismanage the puck] against them. Hopefully we learned a lesson.”
There is plenty of blame to go around, of course. And to the credit of the B’s leadership group, they aren’t making any excuses.
“Right now, we have to play better hockey and find the answer within ourselves,” said Patrice Bergeron. “I don’t think anybody around the league right now is feeling sorry for themselves, or for the Boston Bruins right now. It’s about how we can be better within this locker room and come together, and that’s it. We have to face it together as a team.”
The injuries and the compacted schedule have conspired to expose parts of the Boston Bruins roster that just aren’t NHL caliber at this point. After promising starts to the year, young defensemen Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril have both been struggling as of late while asked to do more with Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller out of the lineup.
Anders Bjork is on pace for five goals and 13 points this season and just isn’t providing enough offense as a third line guy with footspeed and penalty killing ability. Anton Blidh and Karson Kuhlman have been playing in place of establish NHL fourth line guys like Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly, and have done zero to impact games with energy, puck possession or much of anything.
It’s getting to the point for some of the B’s young players where it’s shape-up-or-ship-out time, and Thursday night’s loss didn’t put much in the positive column.
“I get frustrated with young guys that make the same mistakes or can’t get shots through from the point. It’s frustrating when teams collapse on you and you’ve got the low-to-high and it looks like you’re getting some action, and then you get a shot blocked and back they come [against us],” said Cassidy. “That’s the learning curve for some of them. Some of them will learn and better off for it. Some of them won’t and they won’t be here anymore. That’s not unique to our team. Every guy that comes into this league has to figure it out.”
The lack of quality NHL players on the roster and lack of depth has begun to impact the established star players as well. David Pastrnak has looked like a shell of himself in the last couple of weeks and has just a single point in his last five games. Pastrnak managed just one shot on net and two shot attempts in an invisible performance against the Penguins, where his only noticeable play was a rough third period turnover where he tried to go through three Penguins defenders in the neutral zone.
Instead, it came back Boston’s way for a backbreaking third goal for Pittsburgh that iced the game for the Penguins.
The Bruins luckily still hold a three-point lead on a playoff spot in the East Division with games in hand against both the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers, so there’s been no true fallout from their struggles. The Bruins are now 8-9-3 in their last 20 games over the past six weeks where they’ve essentially been stagnating in a “win one, lose one” rut while struggling mightily to score enough goals to win.
Some will point to the Boston Bruins coaching staff and say that Bruce Cassidy has lost the players. Others will allow for built-in excuses like the injuries or the unique COVID-influenced challenges to this season and give the B’s a bit of a mulligan.
But the problem lies with the roster. Last night’s Bruins lineup featured names like Blidh, Clifton, Senyshyn, Lauzon, Zboril and Kuhlman, which is 33 percent of the game night roster that (arguably) aren’t high enough caliber to be NHL regulars right now. That’s a general manager issues rather than a head coaching issue and harkens back to the stacked 2015 NHL Draft Class that produced borderline NHL guys in Zboril and Senyshyn rather than stud players like Mat Barzal, Kyle Conner, Thomas Chabot or Travis Konecny.
In case you were wondering, this is what Barzal was doing last night for the Islanders while Senyshyn and Zboril were struggling to generate much of anything for the Black and Gold.
.@Barzal_97 almost exclusively scores beauties.
Case in point: pic.twitter.com/hHBGafiCu1
— NHL GIFs (@NHLGIFs) April 1, 2021
So, given all of that, it really comes down Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney doing something to improve this NHL roster after letting Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug walk without bone fide NHL replacements for them. Clearly, the Bruins need another top-4 defenseman that can move the puck, get point shots through for rebound and traffic goals and play 20 plus minutes a night without nightmare shifts like Lauzon has experienced recently.
It’s going to be a challenge given the COVID-19 climate that every NHL team is living in, but this current Bruins mess is Sweeney’s to fix. And he’s on the clock over the couple 10 days to get something substantial done with the NHL trade deadline looming.
It could be Mattias Ekholm, or Alex Edler, or Oliver Ekman-Larsson, or even Alex Goligoski (who seems to be the D-man of choice they’re going to trade in Arizona). Maybe it could have been Keith Yandle prior to the season starting if the Bruins would have pulled the trigger, or it should have been Shayne Gostisbehere for nothing when the Flyers put him on waivers earlier this week.
But it’s clear the Bruins don’t have enough on the back end currently, as many NHL prognosticators called prior to the start of the season.
If Sweeney can’t pull it off, then it may be that this flawed Bruins roster can still grit their way into the Stanley Cup playoffs. But there’s no way anybody thinks they are a dangerous hockey club until they appropriately address the back-end issues they created when very consciously letting Krug and Chara walk during the offseason.