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Colageo: Boston Bruins Searching for Identity



Boston Bruins

Only five days ahead of the March 8 NHL Trade Deadline (3 pm ET), the questions about the Boston Bruins being asked matter-of-factly today were first formulated last summer with the news that Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci were retiring from hockey.

The Bruins’ enduring foundation for Stanley Cup contention could be augmented a number of ways, but they were the basis. Make no mistake about the fact that an opposing coach would have to craft a game plan with those two centermen in mind for 40 out of every 60 minutes.

That foundation is obviously no more, and not only is 2023-24 a season of transition from this model to one built around the back end, it comes at a time when a younger generation is expected to take on impactful, leadership positions. Most notably, that includes captain Brad Marchand, alternates David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy, and the leader without the letter, Charlie Coyle.

Dialing back expectations is only natural.

Then the Bruins went 14-1-3 out of the gate and, but for a 5-4 loss in Detroit, did not go pointless until their 5-2 Black Friday loss on home ice, also to the potentially playoff-bound Red Wings. The 2023-24 season had actually started better than it did in 2022-23 when the Bruins set regular-season wins (65) and points (135) records.

Black Friday, however, was the first of a three-game losing streak including three-goal drubbings in New York and Columbus. More significantly, the Bruins’ sudden vulnerability became a gateway to a see-saw season of ups and downs that saw them go 5-6-3 between (U.S.) Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Piled atop their 14-1-3 start, 19-7-6 was still nothing to sneeze at, in fact a record screaming for the consideration, especially this far into the schedule, that this Boston Bruins team is substantially better than advertised.

If you held steady in your suspicion that the winning would not be sustainable and that this is not a Stanley Cup contender as presently constituted, then your victory is a lonely one. But take the credit as one that knows, despite NHL-driven propaganda, Cup champions are legitimate. This team hasn’t done enough to change some minds, and good on those minds.

Even if a new foundation is in place, and even if several players who left Boston last spring were trade-deadline rentals, the Boston Bruins are a team in a massive transition.

History dictates that Cup contenders take on one of two basic forms. Cap-era Pittsburgh sustained contention with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two top-line centermen, while cap-era Chicago was founded upon a big-three defense anchored by Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook.

The Boston Bruins, by the way, have transformed from a Bergeron-Krejci team to a big-three team based on Charlie McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm and Brandon Carlo. Only lately the Boston Bruins are not defending at all, and their stellar goaltending tandem is no longer bailing them out.

The see-saw continued after Christmas. The Bruins won four in a row and five out of six, followed by that frustrating trip out west that saw them blow lead after lead, going to overtime four out of four times and only coming out on top in the final game of the trip at St. Louis. That sparked a five-game winning streak and a 7-1-0 stretch to the All-Star Weekend.

At 31-9-9 at the break, the Bruins were even with 33-11-5 Vancouver atop the NHL standings, were five points ahead of Florida and eight ahead of the Rangers.

Nine days without a game were supposed to strengthen the Bruins, but instead they got outworked on February 6 by a desperate Calgary team that had just traded Elias Lindholm to Vancouver. The Bruins bounced back and beat the tired Canucks but couldn’t pass muster two days later against Washington. They have now won four of 13 games (4-4-5) since the All-Star break and looking worse every time they take the ice.

Their 14-1-3 start remains a feel-good backdrop to a season of centennial celebrations but now functions like a plastic cushion on outdoor furniture ripping at the seams. Take out the 14-1-3, and the 35-13-14 Boston Bruins are 21-12-11.

The real measure of .500 hockey in today’s NHL is winning 41 of 82 games. Since their crazy-good start, the Bruins have failed to do so. Only an above-average number of loser points puts a 21-12-11 record in the playoffs.

On the other hand, as incredible as it may seem, the Boston Bruins are only two points behind Atlantic Division rival Florida in the race for most points in the NHL (86-84); Florida also has a game in hand.

So who are the Boston Bruins and how can the bottom be falling out? Have we become Toronto for even talking about their recent struggles this way, or is that 14-1-3 start an anomaly that’s been lying to us all winter?

Speaking of Toronto, objects in the mirror are closer than they appear: The 35-17-8 Maple Leafs are six points back with two games in hand. The Bruins are in Toronto Monday night and see the Leafs again on Thursday in Boston. In between: a Tuesday home game against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers.

Any more of what we saw Saturday on Long Island, and Toronto will be breathing down Boston’s neck.

I said this before and one more time in this weekly space: Assuming there are offers on GM Don Sweeney’s desk that can address one of three critical needs, there is no merit to keeping players that the Sweeney knows will not be here next season. With Jeremy Swayman due a career contract, that list necessarily includes Linus Ullmark.

Three critical needs: Get McAvoy a left-shooting, physical, shutdown defense partner – ideally all-purpose 1B Noah Hanifin, but Jacob Middleton would do fine; Get a forechecker who can cause anxiety on opponents’ retrievals – Lawson Crouse is a valid suggestion from longtime season-ticket holder and “The Bruins Book” author Kevin Vautour; Get back in the first round of the NHL Draft.

While a left-shot faceoff man is sorely needed vis-a-vis this season and can be had at a relatively low price, the aforementioned holes are worth upsetting the apple cart. History dictates that the Boston Bruins will go through many more personnel changes over the next few seasons. The time to realize any opportunities that would trend the roster in any of those directions is now.

People should have been concerned about the Rangers’ gigantic pugilist Matt Rempe before his NHL recall. Rempe, who aspires to fight like Zdeno Chara, fights too much like the late, great Keith Magnuson, of whom it was written led with his jaw.

Earlier this season, Providence Bruins LW Vincent Arseneau, a journeyman enforcer who turns 32 on March 26, cleaned Rempe’s clock. Arseneau, acquired from Abbotsford last summer, is on an AHL contract. In case you’re wondering, Arseneau won’t be jumping over those boards.

Finally, watch NESN’s pregame on Tuesday for B-roll of the media’s peek into the Bruins’ unveiling of the new Heritage Hall. This fan-interactive experience will be well worth the take. A public unveiling is scheduled for Wednesday. Fans can access it by visiting The Sports Museum during its regular hours or possibly join select fans attending a Bruins home game and see it that way.

It’s wonderful to see what’s going on to honor the many great players upon whose shoulders was built the team that drew you to Bruins hockey.

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