So where exactly are the Boston Bruins at the midpoint of the NHL regular season?
The truth is that they aren’t that far away from what we thought they were at the beginning of the regular season after five significant new players jumped into the Black and Gold fold after a summer of free agency spending.
There are definite strengths that will make the Bruins a playoff team, as they’ve been throughout the Bruce Cassidy era. Brad Marchand remains the best left winger in the game enjoying a Hart Trophy season that belies his lack of an invitation to the NHL All-Star game. And his toughness gritting out a shoulder injury in the last few days prior to the NHL All-Star break is something to be admired by teammates, Bruins fans and everybody the appreciates our great game.
David Pastrnak has scored 14 goals in his last 15 games headed into the NHL All-Star break and was last seen headed to Key West in Florida for some much-deserved sun, rest and relaxation for the next few days.
The one-timer is lethal and on target once again, and that bodes well for Boston’s chances in the second half.
David Pastrnak, yet again reminding us that he’s very dangerous on the power play taking bombs from the circle.
1-0 BOS: pic.twitter.com/3jUe7GCQjR
— Blake Thorne (@_BlakeThorne) February 2, 2022
Some famously and foolishly wondered if “Patrice Bergeron’s heart was still in it” when he began slowly this season at 36 years old in the final year of his deal, but he’s shown there’s plenty of gas left with 12 goals and 34 points in 42 games this season.
Charlie McAvoy is on pace for 13 goals and 53 points this season while averaging north of 24 minutes of ice time per game, and his consistent PP presence has given him the offensive bump people were looking for in his Norris Trophy-caliber game. The power play has been consistently good and sits fourth in the NHL with a 26.4 percent success rate and the recent spate of even strength scoring in January has even pulled Boston up toward the middle of the league in that category.
A lot of it was keyed by Bruce Cassidy’s line changes coming back from the NHL holiday/COVID break. He busted up the Perfection Line, paired Taylor Hall and Pastrnak as a pair of speedy, creative wingers and slotted Charlie Coyle into a more comfortable spot as the third line center. It was the perfect bit of coaching at exactly the right time when it felt like the Bruins were floundering.
It essentially perked up all of Boston’s forwards offensively and showed that this team still has significant upside even while missing former key contributors like David Krejci, Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara among others.
“We’re halfway and if we have the same second half as first half then we’re a 50-win team and a 100-point team,” said Cassidy. “That will get you into the playoffs, typically. From there it’s how is your game, and how is your health, going into the playoffs. Those questions will remain to be answered.
“But what I think has happened this year is that Florida, Tampa and Toronto have been up around .700 hockey. We haven’t really been close to that, but it’s a solid season. We went through some new bodies getting acclimated early in the season and I think we’re doing a much better job of that after shuffling some things around.
“All in all, I think we’re trending in the right direction. The second half is when you want to be playing your best hockey and hopefully that’s the case for us. We’ve put ourselves into a good spot for the second half. We’re still chasing teams and we’d love to catch them, but we want to make sure our game keeps trending in the right direction.”
Most importantly of all, the Bruins have a nine-point cushion for a wild card spot, sit four points behind the top wild card and spot and are just six points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. The Bruins are in striking distance to rise in the standings and they’ve only just begun to truly start realizing this group’s potential.
“I like the way that we’ve improved over the last month or month-and-a-half,” said Boston Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron. “I think we’ve striving in the right direction. There’s always work to be done and always improvements in areas, but overall I like where we’re at. I think we’ve climbed our way back up and it’s a positive sign for the second half.
“You want to keep climbing and keep gaining ground on the teams that are up there. You want to keep catching up to them.”
The issues with the Boston Bruins roster, though, are well-documented and factor into their wish list at the NHL trade deadline. They have not replaced Krejci even as Haula has done a serviceable job as a stopgap No. 2 center and really played some good hockey in January while in a plum role centering Hall and Pastrnak.
We won’t really get into the goaltending here because the assumption is that situation will play itself out in the first month following the All-Star break.
And the Bruins are going to run into a similar problem to last spring’s playoffs where they’re going to be asking McAvoy to do way too much by himself while getting physically pounded, as happened in the second round against a strong Islanders group. The left side of Forbort, Reilly and Grzelcyk isn’t Stanley Cup caliber now, and it’s definitely not going to be deeper into the playoffs where attrition and stifling forechecks are a way of life.
Claude Giroux and JT Miller are the names heard most often as No. 2 center options for an eventual David Krejci replacement as it seems to be dawning on people that No. 46 isn’t coming back this season.
Jakob Chychrun is the other big time need as a top-4 left shot defenseman that can play top pairing minutes, can mix it up physically and defend against top players and is able to move the needle offensively as well.
It remains to be seen if the Boston Bruins have the cap space and/or the assets to bring in both of those big-time targets. They will free up nearly $4 million in cap space when they move a disgruntled Jake DeBrusk and will add to the roughly $1.68 million cap space they currently have, according to our good friends at PuckPedia.
They have potential trade assets like Jack Studnicka and Urho Vaakanainen but wouldn’t be crazy enough to even entertain thoughts of dealing away top prospect Fabian Lysell as he’s lighting up the WHL with the Vancouver Giants. Don Sweeney should also be very wary of dealing Boston’s first round pick as he attempts to build back up a prospect cupboard that’s gone bare in recent seasons beyond a top level of prospects.
But there’s one other undeniable X-factor here: How much is the end of this season going to impact Patrice Bergeron’s future in Boston? If it’s a disappointing first round exit in the playoffs, could that be a deciding factor for Bergeron between re-upping with the Boston Bruins or heading off into retirement after logging heavy miles over the last 18 seasons?
Will the Bruins feel added pressure to load up this season not knowing whether it’s the last with Bergeron and Marchand, with a Bergeron retirement absolutely closing the window on Stanley Cups for the next few seasons.
These are difficult times for the Boston Bruins when it comes to balancing the short term and the long term and coping with a Stanley Cup window that’s much closer to slammed shut than it is to being fully, wide open.