This is Part 1 of a five part “Breaking Down the Boston Bruins” series that will run this week at Boston Hockey Now. Today we’ll look at the current and future picture for the B’s forwards as we head into an important offseason.
Obviously, the forward picture for the Boston Bruins is going to hinge greatly on what Patrice Bergeron decides on his NHL playing career. There are two roads that the B’s could go down based on their captain’s decision: One more run at a Stanley Cup if No. 37 opts in for one more season at 37 years old coming off 25 goals and 65 points with Selke Trophy-worthy play at the center position, or a hard-earned retirement that would clearly drop the Bruins down a notch in terms of their forward group. It wouldn’t be a total rebuild based on the rest of their group, but the Bruins would be nothing close to a slam dunk playoff team anymore without a major upgrade at the center position. Selfishly, everybody around the Bruins hopes that future Hall of Famer Bergeron comes back for one more as the B’s captain.
“That would be a conversation we would have to have upstairs, obviously, because you’re going to need to fill it,” said Boston Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy on if Bergeron opts for retirement. “I really haven’t got that far along with it. Until Patrice makes a decision, it’s not something we’re right on top of now, but I imagine that we’ll have to have that conversation just to be ahead of things. We’re all hoping he comes back. I’m going to be an optimist on this one.”
Who hasn’t imagined a one-year run for Bergeron perhaps also spurring David Krejci to return for one more season after his year in the Czech Republic? Bergeron/Brad Marchand on the top line and a second line of Taylor Hall/David Krejci/David Pastrnak is exactly the kind of thing that could be a handful in the postseason and put them over the top against a team like the Carolina Hurricanes.
Krejci to Pastrnak…tale as old as time pic.twitter.com/KBW6N8sWLz
— Joe Haggerty (@HackswithHaggs) May 19, 2022
If Bergeron doesn’t return, it’s pretty much a given that Brad Marchand would take over as captain and the Bruins would be on the hunt for a top-6 center after losing Bergeron and Krejci in successive years. Maybe they could even convince Krejci to come back as the No. 1 center between Marchand and Pastrnak if Bergeron does opt for retirement, or they could go for the short term solution with UFA Claude Giroux after he’s done with the Florida Panthers this spring.
But the better option is hoping that an internal candidate like Jack Studnicka finally puts it together at a clear crossroads in his career. It’s something the Boston Bruins want to see after he failed to push his way into the NHL picture last season with Erik Haula instead putting together a solid season as the No. 2 center after a slow start to his year.
“Jack Studnicka, who’s sort of come into a flatline for a little bit – now we need to get him back on an upwards slope, which is what he was. That’s where your organization moves forward; it’s not just about getting lucky,” said Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “It’s not even a luck process. It’s honestly identification and development, and then the player himself has to have an internal engine that gets him to the point of where he’s capable of playing and contributing.
“But I think your point is well made, that we’re going to have to have it. The league is hard to score in, especially this time of the year.”
There’s also a potential RFA option in Kirby Dach as a big-bodied center that hasn’t lived up to expectations with the Blackhawks after being a lottery first round pick a couple of years ago, but it remains to be seen if dangling potential trade assets like Jake DeBrusk, Brandon Carlo and/or prospects would get something like that done.
“I think all of the above, to be perfectly honest there as well,” said Sweeney, when asked if the Boston Bruins will be looking at trades or free agency to boost their group for next season. “I think I have to peel back the onion a little bit and see what chances we can make and want to make. We’re going through a little deeper dive with our coaches and player personnel staff and look at, again, internally what are our options versus going to the trade market and exploring some of the opportunities that may present between now and really September and October.”
The bottom line is that the Boston Bruins are going to need help down the middle if Bergeron does not return for next season, and it’s unlikely that Studnicka and Johnny Beecher are going to be enough to fill the void.
Beyond that we’ll continue to bang the drum for a legitimate tough guy among the forwards and a desperate need for a power forward amongst a Boston Bruins forward group that isn’t always big and strong enough push their way to the net in the playoffs. Boston Bruins President Cam Neely lamented that was an issue against the Hurricanes in the playoffs and that it’s on the scouting department to identify and draft that kind of player after falling in love with college hockey players over the last few years.
“During the playoffs, any time you can have guys that occupy interior ice, can score there, it’s only going to help your overall team. Philosophically, yeah, you’d love to have [a power forward-type]. Whether or not you develop it – draft and develop it – whether you acquire it, it’s probably no different from trying to amass the best players at any position,” said Sweeney. “But I do believe it’s an area that really helps you. Especially as the things get tight. And when I talk about playing against good teams and the Islanders series last year we got dinged up.
“But that series got tight. When Tampa makes it hard on you, you know you have to get inside, and you have to beat a really good goalie. Size matters but also, we wouldn’t hold Marsh to a lesser standard. You realize that Marsh is not very big. But he plays all the attributes of a power forward.”
Charlie Coyle had a solid regular season after slotting in as the third line center and had his moments during the playoffs, but Craig Smith needs to both better during the regular season and more of a factor during the postseason after a disappointing series vs. Carolina. Trent Frederic continues to learn on the job when it comes to being the tough guy presence that the B’s desperately need, but he constantly feels like he’s stuck between playing that necessary role and wanting to be a skating-and-skills player that he just isn’t going to be at the NHL level.
It’s also about picking his spots on when to ratchet up the attitude and tough guy factor, a skill he’s trying to learn on the job in the NHL.
“I never really thought I was an undisciplined player before this year, but then I took one bad penalty and that turned into two and then three. I don’t always agree with the calls obviously, and I’m a younger player so I don’t get the benefit of the doubt if it was 50/50 or if you felt somebody should be going off with you,” said Frederic. “The way I play the game, it definitely affects you when you start getting penalties. That’s something I’ll have to think about and watch these playoffs, and watch guys that are good at doing that stuff and hopefully learn some things.”
Oskar Steen enters next season with a one-way contract, so he’ll likely be taking one of the bottom-6 forward jobs and mixing in with Nick Foligno, Frederic and Tomas Nosek to compete for third/fourth line spots with players like Anton Blidh and Curtis Lazar potentially moving on in unrestricted free agency this offseason.
The bottom line with the Boston Bruins: Some of the same old narratives persist about needing more scoring depth and secondary offense from the forwards, and that problem reaches whole new depths next season and beyond if a guy in Bergeron with 400 career goals is no longer around in Black and Gold anymore.
“We are going to give Patrice as much time as he necessarily needs. You could look at plans B and C and such, but let’s be honest, you don’t replace that type of player and what he means to our organization. That might take years to replace that player in that sense,” said Boston Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “We do have to give him all the latitude in the world to make the best decision for he and his family. We’ll do that. He’s given us indications that he’s not going to hold us up in that sense in terms of what we may have to do subsequent to making a decision. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think there’s a timetable on it.
“It might be years in the making to draft and develop a player like that, and then you count your blessings.”
The Boston Bruins are hoping they have at least one more season of blessings to count with their current franchise center in his potential 19th NHL season.