Bruins on Boylston: It’s early, but the Bruins have all the pieces of a championship contender

TD+Garden.

Photo: Christopher Williams

TD Garden.

By Leo Kagan, Staff Writer

The last time the Boston Bruins lifted the Stanley Cup was 2011. It’s been just over a decade—not long compared to franchises that have been in limbo for half a century—but in the City of Champions, Bostonians have been spoiled enough to enjoy five more titles in that time, impatiently waiting for the Bruins to display a Patriots-like level of success.  

It’s not as if the Bruins have been cellar-dwellers since lifting Lord Stanley’s mug—the B’s have missed the playoffs only twice in the last 11 seasons, and have appeared in two Stanley Cup Finals in that time. But as former core players like defenseman Zdeno Chara and goaltender Tuukka Rask hang up their skates for good, it’s become evident the Bruins’ championship window is beginning to close

Centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and left winger Brad Marchand are now the only three Bruins that belonged to a Cup-winning team, but if this season’s start is any indication, they don’t plan on remaining the only ones for much longer. 

Off to a scorching 10-1 start, the Bruins—who currently occupy the no. 1 spot in league standings with the Las Vegas Golden Knights—look like they might be the real deal this year. The regular season doesn’t mean much and it’s too early to say for certain whether the B’s can sustain this high level of play all the way to another banner hanging in the rafters of TD Garden. However, this early stretch has been encouraging, signifying the Bruins have most of the right pieces in place for a long postseason come April. 

Elite scorers at the top

The Bruins’ most relied-upon offensive weapons have been humming along through the first 10 games of the season, with right winger David Pastrnak leading the way with seven goals and 18 points. After something of a down season by his standards in 2021-22—scoring 40 goals and 77 points in 72 games—the Czech sniper looks poised to have a career year, especially considering how the season could mean a hefty raise on his expiring contract. 

But Pastrnak’s offensive explosion isn’t the only positive sign for the Bruins’ top guys—Bergeron, Krejci, and left winger Taylor Hall have each pulled their weight, too. Krejci and Bergeron, 36 and 37 respectively, have looked ageless, each hovering around the point-per-game mark while doing everything a top-tier center should be doing in all three zones. Hall, who’s been an inconsistent player for years now, seems to have finally found his groove alongside Krejci and Pastrnak, tallying seven points thus far. 

All of this is without mentioning what could be the Bruins’ most dangerous two-way weapon, who was sidelined due to injury until returning triumphantly Friday night against the Detroit Red Wings. Marchand looks faster and more dynamic than ever after returning from hip surgery, scoring three points in his first outing.

Championship rosters need weapons like Marchand, Pastrnak, Bergeron, Krejci, and Hall. A lot of weight is given to defense in the playoffs, but in crunch time, any team looking to go the distance needs players who can will a goal into existence. The Bruins look like they’re stocked with them. 

Depth scoring

As impactful as the offensive leaders have been, depth players are finding the back of the net, too. Of the 22 skaters to play a game for the Bruins this season, 16 have scored at least one goal. 

For years, the Bruins were plagued by an inability to get goals from anybody beside their top-line guys. Now, with one of the best depth groups the B’s have seen in years, the team seems far better-equipped to face the kind of tough competition that will require offense from down the lineup. 

Part of the reason the bottom six is deeper than before is due to the return of Krejci, who pushes center Charlie Coyle back down the depth chart onto the third line, spreading out the offense a bit better. Revitalized left winger Nick Foligno provides far more value than he did last season, and the emergence of A.J. Greer benefits the depth group as well. 

The result has been a bottom six group that’s chipped in for nearly a third of the team’s goals. Compare that to the last three seasons, where the Bruins’ bottom-six players supplied just a quarter of the team’s goals on average. 

The top offensive weapons are important, but as fans have seen in years past, if an opponent can shut down the top line, depth becomes all-important. Right now, the Bruins have the depth they need. 

Strong (enough) defense

The Bruins have not had a perfect defense to start the season, but for all the gaffes so far—see the Oct. 18 game against the Ottawa Senators—the B’s have been one of the league’s stingiest teams, and have improved recently as well. 

Since the Ottawa game, the B’s allowed just 11 goals in the last 6 matchups, clamping down defensively for an impressive 1.83 GAA in that stretch. 

The much-improved defending has been a team effort, but in the absence of star defenseman Charlie McAvoy—who is expected to return from injury sometime in either November or December—a couple defenders stepped up to shoulder some of the load. 

Hampus Lindholm, who looked like a true No. 1 defenseman at the tail-end of the preseason, fully stepped into his role and excelled. He’s filled the tremendous gap McAvoy left behind, proving to be an all-situations defender, averaging nearly 24 minutes per game on the ice. He’s had a strong positive impact both offensively and defensively, posting 11 points—ranking second in team scoring as a defenseman (!)—while allowing just 1.7 goals-per-60 on the ice. 

Connor Clifton stepped up too, skating far more than last season, jumping from 16 to 21 minutes per night. His almost-reckless style of play—which has drawn criticism from coaches and fans—has reached a more steady rhythm. He’s not predictable, still surprising with big body checks and nifty offensive plays, but he appears to have phased his riskier moves out of his skill set. 

The Bruins have been one of the NHL’s better defensive teams for a decade and a half—the only question was whether a coaching change and the temporary absence of the team’s best defender would lessen the Bruins’ defensive impacts. So far it hasn’t, and when McAvoy finally returns to the lineup, things should only improve. 

A+ goaltending—and a solid alternate in the wings

Goaltenders Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman split last year’s workload down the middle, with each goalie starting 39 games. This year, the split hasn’t been so even. 

Ullmark has been remarkable between the pipes, claiming victory in each of his seven starts while posting a solid .932 save percentage and a 2.19 goals against average. He’s looked composed, providing the Bruins with timely saves and consistent play. 

Swayman, on the other hand, has struggled. His .878 save percentage isn’t as rosy as Ullmark’s, though it’s from a much smaller sample size—Swayman’s only started three times this season. The sophomore goaltender was lit up by the Senators to the tune of six goals before being pulled. Swayman was injured Tuesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but when he returns, he should find his groove—his .914 save percentage last year suggests he is too talented to play so poorly for long. 

Goaltending is hockey’s most volatile position, difficult to predict and constantly shifting. Right now, Ullmark looks like the type of 1A goaltender boasted by nearly every championship team for the past several decades, though he might slow down before the postseason. But that’s the beauty of the Bruins’ goaltending—they have two solid goalies who can defend the net, and when one cools off, the other usually heats up. Take last year’s playoffs for example—Ullmark entered the playoffs on a hot streak, but found little success in the first two games. Swayman assumed the starting role in Game 3 and put up a .913 save percentage in 5 games, despite the Bruins eventually losing the series. 

If Ullmark starts to slow down, Swayman will be more than ready to jump in net and stabilize the position. 

Hope

In addition to their formidable lineup, the Bruins have hope this season. They must, otherwise Bergeron—whose contract expired last summer—and Krejci—an aging veteran who took a year off from the NHL to play in his native Czechia—would not have returned for another run at the Stanley Cup. 

So far, the Bruins’ hope has been rewarded with a ripping hot start—but the season is long and the Stanley Cup isn’t awarded until June. The Bruins have run with championship efficiency through October, but they’ll need to keep it up for seven more months to prove their hope was not in vain.