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Colageo: Boston Bruins’ Next Steps Are Critical

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For a season of significantly lower expectations, the less-is-more Boston Bruins spent many days atop the Atlantic Division, flirting even with the Presidents Trophy, then added an unlikely chapter to their legacy torture of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

All in all, the season of centennial celebrations had an amazing cake under all that frosting.

Having lost most of the top half of their 2023 playoff roster, the Bruins were forced by the salary cap to replace several high-end players at bargain-basement prices and then won a playoff series, something the 2022-23 Bruins of 65 wins and 135 points could not do.

Despite their six-game, second-round playoff ouster at the hands of the Florida Panthers, Bruins ownership and management should feel pretty good about what has transpired over the past seven months.

Defeat in any case is hard to swallow, but it was with an appropriate sense of pride that this hodge-podge collection of hockey players reflected on their act of becoming a team with something to prove. Talking about each other, how they rallied and played for one another, how careers blossomed, how old guys contributed and led, how young players matured, those were the words that flowed freely throughout the Boston Bruins’ dressing room inside Warrior Arena in Brighton on break-up day.

What wasn’t so easy to get at was a straight answer to what now, and by that we do not allude to individual matters such as Jake DeBrusk’s free agency, Linus Ullmark’s future with people’s choice Jeremy Swayman due a handsome raise, plus several other careers at a crossroads. No, this is about how do the Bruins take their next step forward as a team reconstituted around a younger core of talent.

While the 2023-24 season amounted to a drastic, seven-month adjustment period, it’s no secret in professional sports that the next step is always more difficult.

Despite the fact the 2024-25 salary cap is going up and significant salaries (along with Patrice Bergeron’s and David Krejci’s 2022-23 bonus overages) are coming off the books, putting the Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney in far better position to address the team’s personnel deficiencies, the players talked around the matter like an elephant in their kitchen.

It was perhaps their final act of having each other’s backs; no one wanted to imply that anyone else was insufficient. But no one needs to look further than the painfully long stretches in which the Bruins could not break the puck out of their defensive zone against Florida’s heavy forecheck. Boston’s wingers could not, with any regularity, win pucks along the sideboards or, when on the attack, get bodies to the Florida net. These were, by and large, the battlegrounds where the Panthers won the series.

And, especially given the fact the Panthers have been building toward this season at least two years longer than the Bruins have, there is sting but no shame in this defeat.

That said, it is crucial at this point for management to ignore the distraction of multiple breakaways missed, botched goal reviews, quality shots passed up in favor of perfect plays gone wrong, and a NHL-record seven “too many men on the ice” penalties and instead take a step back and get a long look from a wider lens.

As the Panthers take on the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final and the less-is-more Boston Bruins take stock in their 2023-24 achievements and emerging potential, an essential part of the exercise requires recognition that no team, no matter how tight the games, no matter how long the series, should consider itself close to the prize when playing so much of the game in their own end of the rink.

That’s why there was was so much Elias Lindholm talk, so much need for another veteran, two-way center to help Charlie Coyle navigate the 200-foot game.

The Bruins were disappointed to see Matt Poitras’ rookie-pro season cut short by injury, and he’ll be back. Early-season performances suggested that Pavel Zacha could fill the center role, something Sweeney no doubt had in mind when acquiring the elite skater for scrappy journeyman Eric Haula.

It was a creative series of transactions to grab Zacha, who had gone sixth overall in the 2015 entry draft, and develop him with a year’s apprenticeship skating with Krejci and watching Bergeron from the bench before attempting the leap to the center position as a NHLer.

The fact coach Jim Montgomery moved Zacha back to wing, then out of the top six, and instead matched up with his plumber (Morgan Geekie) does not close the door on Zacha as a solution, but there must be second thoughts after Zacha forfeited a Game 6 puck race he was winning in the Bruins’ defensive zone.

Bergeron and Krejci are missed on multiple levels, but the one that showed even in the twilight of their careers when wear and tear had reduced them to one-touch puck players, almost coaching rather than centering their lines, was their calming effect on the breakout.

Zacha and/or Poitras may someday mitigate this generational gap in elite center play that had been so core to franchise identity, but the Bergeron-Krejci absences compromised the Bruins in the playoffs far more than the loss of some faceoffs.

If there is a big move for Sweeney on July 1 or via an Ullmark trade, it will be for an experienced centerman like Elias Lindholm to complement Coyle.

We’ve also banged the drum in this space for moves that would trend the Bruins roster toward the violent forechecking that bruised their defensemen in this postseason but not Toronto’s and not Florida’s, not nearly enough.

In filling out his roster for this past season, Sweeney laid down some reasonable bets that veteran players like Danton Heinen, Kevin Shattenkirk and James van Riemsdyk would arrive highly motivated. Only one of the three is likely to receive a contract offer to stay on, but all three served a purpose in making this season a success.

It will be with great expressions of respect that some of the above players will be thanked for their contributions but be told that, if there is a contract offer forthcoming, it won’t be known until well after the July 1 free-agency dust settles. Likewise, defensemen Matt Grzelcyk (oblique) and Derek Forbort (both groins, thumb) fessed up to the injuries that plagued their campaigns. At ages 30 and 32 respectively, both are without contracts.

Sweeney more likely has keepers in reclamation projects such as Geekie, Justin Brazeau and Parker Wotherspoon, whose prime years lie ahead.

Inasmuch as 2023-24 was a transitional season, even much more will this be a transitional summer.

Even after what Sweeney accomplished last summer with one arm tied behind his back, this next opportunity comes with a different kind of pressure.

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