Bruins on Boylston: New system yields rewards and creates problems

Patrice+Bergeron+%28via+Creative+Commons%29

Patrice Bergeron (via Creative Commons)

By Leo Kagan, Staff Writer

Former Bruins Head Coach Bruce Cassidy was not who fans would’ve expected to be fired last summer. If anyone, it would’ve been General Manager Don Sweeney, whose questionable drafting and trade deadline additions failed to earn the team a Stanley Cup. 

So when the pink slip got handed to Cassidy and the pen to Sweeney, who signed a multi-year extension, many were surprised. However, fans embraced their new coach, Jim Montgomery, as an adequate replacement. 

When a new coach joins a team, they bring their own system, and Montgomery hasn’t been shy about his desire to improve some aspects of the Bruins’ play through all three zones. Bolstering the offensive is a priority, though not at the cost of their historically strong defense. 

The Bruins, however, have yet to reach the equilibrium Montgomery’s looking for.

Offense

So far, the Bruins are generating more offense this season than last year. Through four games—an admittedly small sample size—the Bruins scored an average of 5.25 goals per game, a marked improvement from last season’s 3.09 average. 

Not only has the sheer volume of goals improved, but also the variety of goal-scorers. Through four games, two goals came from defensemen, 12 from top-six forwards, and seven from the bottom-six. 

The B’s are a one-line team no more, as offensive weapons are distributed throughout the lineup, clouding who deserves the title of “top line” for the first time in a while. 

Though new Head Coach Jim Montgomery hasn’t hesitated to juggle line combinations, the top six forwards have generally been right-winger David Pastrnak, left-wingers Taylor Hall and Jake DeBrusk, and centers David Krejci, Pavel Zacha, and Patrice Bergeron.

With Bergeron and Krejci anchoring each of the team’s top two lines, it’s hard to tell which line is the bigger offensive weapon. Krejci has typically had Pastrnak, an all-world goalscorer, on his right flank and Zacha on his left, while Bergeron has the speedy duo of Hall and DeBrusk on his wings. 

The Bruins have experimented with breaking up the “Perfection Line” of Pastrnak, Bergeron, and left winger Brad Marchand for years, but found success last season with former Bruins center Erik Haula and Hall skating alongside Pastrnak on the second unit. Splitting up the team’s best offensive weapons continues to work—despite some new and returning faces in the top-six—which bodes well for the Bruins’ offensive success.

The resurgence of left-winger Nick Foligno and center Trent Frederic, each of whom fared poorly in the 2021-22 season, has super-charged the Bruins’ bottom-six, contributing to the explosion of offense. 

Foligno matched last year’s goal total—two—in the first four games of this season. He looks faster, physically engaged, and impactful on the forecheck. But Foligno is still under pressure from younger, cheaper options, like centers Jakub Lauko and Jack Studnicka, gunning for his spot in the lineup, though he is winning the battle for a roster spot so far. 

Since I called Frederic the Bruins’ worst player in the team’s preseason finale on Oct. 8, his game has drastically improved. After being scratched for the regular season opener, the scrappy young forward found his way back into the lineup when DeBrusk fell to injury. Despite Debrusk’s return to the starting forward group on Monday, Frederic remained in the lineup off the strength of a good performance against the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday. 

Unsuccessful in last year’s playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes team who were dominant in suffocating their opponents on the forecheck, this year’s Bruins look improved in this department, forcing goals off the forecheck—like the one Frederic assisted on Saturday

Newcomer left winger A.J. Greer has proven to be one such effective forechecker, scoring twice against the Coyotes and collecting five points already. He brings the hard-working attitude and physicality Montgomery mandates from the bottom-six, making him a welcomed addition to the team. Greer uses his speed and tenacity to his advantage, forcing rivals to slip up in their own defensive zones and then capitalizing on their mistakes.

The offense extends beyond the forward group, something Montgomery emphasized would be a focal point in scoring this year. Derek Forbort and Hampus Lindholm are the only two defenseman to tally goals so far, though offense has been coming from the back end. Defenseman Mike Reilly and Lindholm have each tallied an assist, while Connor Clifton has recorded four.

Defense

Though the Bruins’ offense has improved, the defense has been shakier, with average goals per game allowed sitting at 3.75, up from 2.66 from the 2021-22 season.  

Their struggle results primarily from defensive coverage breakdowns, both in-zone and off the rush. So far, five of the 15 goals the B’s have given up have been from odd-man rush chances. Five more occurred when an opponent’s found the Bruins’ net uncovered. 

No game better exemplifies these deficiencies than Tuesday night’s loss to the Ottawa Senators, when the Bruins’ defenseman struggled considerably. Three of Ottawa’s seven (!) goals came when a Senator was wide open in front of helpless goaltender Jeremy Swayman, while two more came from rush plays where Ottawa sliced through the Bruins’ defensemen, scoring easy goals. 

These issues extend beyond Tuesday’s game, as the B’s were similarly leaky in their own zone against the Coyotes on Monday, but to a lesser extent. They allowed three consecutive goals between the second and third periods to let the Coyotes back into the fight, nearly dropping a game against one of the league’s worst teams. 

The issues the Bruins face in their own end of the ice are likely a product of Montgomery’s system, authorizing defensemen to spring forward on offense a little sooner permitted when Cassidy was in charge. The balance between jumping forward and jumping the gun is yet to be found by the defense. 

Without key defensemen Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo—three of the NHL’s best shutdown players—the Bruins aren’t at full strength. They should bounce back when those three return, but they must find a way to defend without them in the meantime. 

Limiting defensive breakdowns will be key if the Bruins want to achieve the balance that Montgomery believes is possible. On some nights, like the B’s opening victory against the Washington Capitals, it seems doable, and on others, like the loss to the Senators, equilibrium feels out of reach. 

Still, the Bruins are 3-1, a solid first week showing, and will have the chance to tweak things over the coming months while their top dogs in McAvoy, Grzelcyk, and Marchand recover. With a bolstered forward group and offense coming from all throughout the lineup, the Bruins now only have to prove they can outscore their problems or tighten up in the D-zone, a feat they’ll try to achieve on Thursday night when the Anaheim Ducks come to TD Garden.