With the start of the Bruins’ 2023-24 season just days away, let’s take a look at some pressing questions that will determine whether or not this reworked roster has what it takes to return to the playoffs.
Can the Bruins’ revamped core continue to run the game?
Patrice Bergeron does not walk through this door. David Krejci does not walk through that door.
But despite all the fears of a steep decline for the Bruins following the removal of two franchise pillars, the 2023-24 Bruins still have a competitive team that should stay afloat in a cut-throat Atlantic Division.
Boston is still buoyed by arguably the best one-two punch between the posts in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, while the majority of last season’s league-leading team’s defense remains intact.
Even with a significant drain of talent up front over the summer, Boston still has plenty of game-changing talent on the wing in the form of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk.
But even if the Boston field can be defined as a stingy defensive club capable of putting up points at a steady rate, it remains to be seen what the Bruins’ ceiling is as a viable contender this winter.
We probably won’t get that answer until we determine whether centers like Charlie Coyle, Pavel Zacha and potentially even Matthew Poitras can fill the top six voids created by the exits of Bergeron and Krejci.
The main obstacle for Boston’s preseason star in Poitras is simply staying in the NHL beyond his upcoming nine-game sample. Still, his balance with the puck and high-end skills give hope that the Bruins have another potential top-six center in the works – whether it’s this winter or next season.
But while Boston looks forward to seeing if Poitras can continue to defy expectations, it will be up to Coyle and Zacha to run the game and compliment some high-end forwards in the top six from the start.
If Jim Montgomery wants to augment a forward trio of Zacha, Pastrnak and James van Riemsdyk in a heavy O-zone scoring group, the results could be promising.
Being associated with a 60+ goal scorer in Pastrnak will certainly help Zacha adapt to his new role. But Zacha was impressive in his own right last season – surpassing his previous career high in scoring by 21 points and ranking second on the team in 5-for-5 point totals, ahead of names like Bergeron and Marchand.
In 12 games last year, where Zacha replaced Krejci as Boston’s second-line center, he scored four goals and recorded 10 points. The Bruins were a perfect 12-0-0 during that long stretch.
A puck-possessing pivot like Coyle could form an effective two-way group alongside Marchand and DeBrusk.
Despite starting in the offensive zone for 33.2 percent of his 5-on-5 reps in 2022-23, the Bruins still outscored opponents, 51-32, when Coyle was on the ice for more than 1 070 minutes. That same solid defensive play in 2023-24 can be supplemented by legitimate playmakers like Marchand and DeBrusk.
The Bruins no longer have the luxury of signing arguably the best defensive forward in NHL history and a nearly 800-point scorer to their top-six core group. But Boston believes its remaining skaters in the middle have the skills required to keep the team afloat up front.
“I still feel pretty confident about our club, but obviously when you lose your two best centers, and it’s a big hole to fill, it’s very difficult to replace one of them. between them, let alone two, especially when you have cap constraints like we did,” Cam Neely said Monday. “We planned for it. I mean, we knew these guys were going to take eventually their retirement.
“But we still have quality NHL players on our roster who played in the National Hockey League and played center. Now it’s really about whether they can elevate their game to a level where we can get some offense out of it.
Can the Bruins defense and goaltending maintain their high standards?
Brandon Carlo might have said it best earlier this month when asked about Boston’s strengths in 2023-24.
“We have always emphasized the defensive aspect of the game.” » noted the defenseman at the Bruins home. “That’s not going to change. We’re not putting as many pucks on the line, hopefully we can keep them out. … “There may be some games on defense and then in net that we have to steal this year. So it’s going to be a big challenge, and I’m looking forward to it.
In total, the Bruins lost some of their forward corps during the offseason, accounting for 80 goals and 210 total points. Instead of winning 4-1 wins, Boston may need to win 2-1 games at a consistent rate.
If Boston is to realistically punch its ticket to the playoffs, it will need last year’s league-leading defense to show no cracks.
The Bruins return five of the six starting defensemen who led the NHL in goals against (2.12 goals against per game) last season and helped Boston post a 43-8-5 record before the team even don’t go out and add Dmitry Orlov to the mix. The stingy zone defense first implemented by Claude Julien and refined under Bruce Cassidy remains in place.
The AD corps still anchored by two Norris-caliber defenders, Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm, will need to continue to hold strong, while Mason Lohrei’s continued development at Providence will be monitored.
In goal, Linus Ullmark should be expected to experience a slight regression after winning the Vezina Trophy last season. But even in a downturn, Jeremy Swayman could have a lot more room to grow as Boston’s primary backup.
Can young people deliver?
The Bruins will need to rely on an established roster of NHL players in order to bring the game out in 2023-24.
But after a preseason full of surprises, the Bruins could receive a much-needed injection of young talent this season thanks to a group of prospects poised to become NHL representatives.
All eyes will be on Matthew Poitras from the start, with the 19-year-old center going from a longshot candidate to a potential middle-six matchup who has drawn comparisons to Mitch Marner.
Boston will have nine games to determine if Poitras has what it takes to move beyond the AHL and go straight from junior to a full-time role in the NHL. After those nine games, Boston must either keep him on the roster (and burn the first year of his entry-level contract) or send him back to the Guelph Storm of the OHL.
“We’re trying to temper expectations internally and externally in terms of what we expect from a young player… Just to see what he could handle (and) how he’s going to react the next day,” said Don Sweeney about managing young players like Poitras. “That will be the ongoing challenge for any young player, with consistency really being the benchmark.
“Whether or not you can survive and play in the National Hockey League and move forward. It will be an ongoing evaluation for him and in this case, for Johnny Beecher as well, or any young players on our roster and players that we have in the organization.
While expectations should be tempered regarding Poitras’ ability to maintain his strong play night in and night out, it has done little to deter him from the fact that he is ready to take on a bigger role in 2023-2024. And if he sticks around, his presence could create a positive domino effect – especially if it pushes Coyle back to his usual spot at center on the third line.
Aside from Poitras, Johnny Beecher will look to cement his place on a potentially lethal fourth line alongside Milan Lucic and Jakub Lauko – who scored seven points and drew 11 penalties in just 23 games last season.
Although Lohrei narrowly missed out on the NHL draft, the 22-year-old defenseman could be in position for a mid-season call-up if he makes the most of the considerable minutes he has with Providence.
Can special teams deliver?
Jim Montgomery’s emphasis on quality over quantity in terms of shot selection has paid off for the 2022-23 Bruins, who have regularly struggled to generate a steady 5-on-5 score over the recent seasons.
But the foundation of Boston’s success over the past 5 years has revolved around a lethal power play unit and a strong penalty kill personnel.
Boston led the pack with an 87.3% shorthanded kill rate last season, with players like Charlie Coyle, Brandon Carlo and Derek Forbort once again called upon to help maintain Boston’s defensive integrity intact. This season could also open the door to more PK opportunities for younger skaters like Lauko and Beecher.
Given Boston’s expected regression this season in its scoring abilities, a strong power play group is required. Boston’s power play declined last season (12th overall, 22.2%), but any unit anchored by a high-level sniper like Pastrnak should still be able to hit.
Boston’s power play is about to add some new wrinkles to its power play, with a left-handed skater in Zacha taking over for Bergeron in the bumper, as well as a player in front of the net in James van Riemsdyk added to top group.
Can a revamped supporting cast hold up?
Jim Montgomery and the Bruins no longer have the luxury of putting a former Hart Trophy winner like Taylor Hall on the third line.
But after a cheap shopping spree in free agency, the Bruins are hoping a reworked supporting cast can either take a step forward — or revive some of their core game of yesteryear.
As intriguing as it may be to imagine a scenario in which players like Poitras or Lohrei instantly transform into impact players, the Bruins will need free agents like Morgan Geekie, Milan Lucic, James van Riemsdyk and Kevin Shattenkirk to hold out. end of the market at critical times in the depth chart.
Among returning talent, the Bruins will receive a major boost if DeBrusk can stay healthy and surpass the 30-goal threshold (thus setting himself up for a big contract), while Trent Frederic will have to rely on the gains from last year and develop into an airliner in the last six.
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