Bruins on Boylston: Why you should doubt the Bruins’ strong start

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Patrice Bergeron (via Beacon Archives)

By Leo Kagan, Sports Editor

The Bruins have played 22 games in the 2022-23 season, roughly a quarter of the regular season matchups they’ll take part in before the postseason, for which they are an absolute lock. 

The Bruins, 19-3 since the season’s start, have looked like one of the best teams in the NHL, dominating offensively and defensively alike. The Bruins’ stars have been humming along, but their depth has been solid too. They’ve won the easy games, beating up on the league’s bottom-10 teams by a combined score of 35-11, but they’ve been strong against high-quality opponents too—beating the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, and Tampa Bay Lightning—all teams in the top 15. 

In short, the Bruins have played like a really good team. 

A lot has been written about the Bruins’ strong start—which players are outperforming their expectations, the records they’ve broken so far, and the success of the team’s new head coach

But instead of harping on the Bruins’ achievements, I’d like to feed the inner cynic, the fan still haunted by the 2010 collapse to the Philadelphia Flyers or the one who’s visited nightly with nightmares of Alex Pietranegelo’s 2019 Stanley Cup-winning goal at TD Garden. 

Today, let’s examine the potential flaws lurking beneath the surface of the Bruins’ sterling start, the reasons fans have to be pessimistic despite all the success so far. 

Penalty kill

Reasons to stay optimistic: The Bruins’ penalty kill sits at a comfortable 83.5% efficiency rate, second best in the league. Historically, the penalty kill has been a strength for the B’s; in the four seasons before this one, the penalty kill has ranked top ten in the NHL. Defenseman Derek Forbort, the Bruins’ most heavily-relied upon penalty killers with a team-leading 3:28 minutes of short-handed ice time per game, returned to action Tuesday after missing 11 games due to an injury. 

Reasons to feel pessimistic: Through the last 10 games, the Bruins penalty kill has operated at a more pedestrian 74.4% efficiency rate—twenty-second in the league. Furthermore, the Bruins have averaged 3.2 penalties through this stretch, third-most in the NHL. 

Missing a key defender like Forbort for an extended stretch doesn’t help the Bruins kill penalties, but his absence shouldn’t have such an outsized impact. The B’s still have two highly capable penalty killers up front in left winger Brad Marchand—who leads all active NHL-ers in short-handed goals—and center Patrice Bergeron—a five-time Selke Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defensive forward. 

Something deeper than Forbort is missing from the penalty kill, and it’s evident when the Bruins’ short-handed quartet takes the ice. The killers look too aggressive, pursuing pucks out of their immediate reach and leaving vast swaths of the ice open for opposing power-plays to take advantage. 

As previously mentioned, the Bruins have historically found success on the kill, and with a group of talented defenders—and defensive forwards—leading the charge, the B’s are likely to find their way again. But for now, a stumbling penalty kill is cause for concern. 

Salary cap constraints

Reasons to stay positive: According to CapFriendly, the Bruins currently have $33,693 in salary cap space, not enough to add another player. On the positive side, that means the Bruins can carry 22 players on the roster, enough for four full lines of forwards, three defense pairs, two goalies, and a spare forward and defenseman to boot. 

Reasons to feel pessimistic: The Bruins have $33,693 in salary cap space. 

That might not seem important now, as the Bruins are chugging away like a freight train with a broken speedometer. Come trade deadline time, however, the Bruins will have very little freedom to add depth or potential upgrades at any position. For context, no Stanley Cup-winning team in the last decade has watched the trade deadline come and pass without adding at least one player to the roster, often more. 

There are no glaring holes on the roster as of now, but that could change in the coming months, and it never hurts to have extra depth in the playoffs. 

If the Bruins do want to make a trade ahead of the deadline, they’ll need to move some salary. The two most likely candidates right now are defenseman Mike Reilly and right wing Craig Smith. 

Reilly, earning $3 million annually, was buried in the AHL on Oct. 27 to make space for Marchand to return from injury. He has cleared waivers twice this season, so teams aren’t lining up for his services right now. If the Bruins are to trade him away for cap flexibility, they’ll need to attach a prospect or draft pick to incentivize a deal—assets the Bruins are not stocked with currently. 

Smith, who earns slightly more than Reilly with an average annual value of $3.1 million, remains on the NHL roster, but seems to have lost his way under new Head Coach Jim Montgomery. Smith has scored just 3 points in 12 games, finding himself sitting in the press box a few times this year. He’s shooting 6.3%, a few ticks under his career average of 9.3%. He might fetch more value than Reilly on the trade market, but considering how capped-out the league is this year, the return might be paltry. 

It doesn’t spell certain doom for the Bruins, but the lack of cap flexibility is an issue looming on the horizon for any would-be deadline deals. 

Aging forward core

Reasons to stay optimistic: Three of the Bruins’ best forwards are also three of their oldest players. Bergeron, center David Krejci, and Marchand are 37, 36, and 34 years old respectively. 

They are also still playing at a very high level. Bergeron and Krejci are both hovering around a point-per game. Only one player older than Bergeron has scored more than his 19 points. If Krejci continues scoring at his current pace, he will break his own career single-season scoring record. 

Marchand, who returned Oct. 27 after recovering from offseason surgery, has stepped right back into play and scored an impressive 18 points in 14 games, producing offense as efficiently as before his hips required an operation. 

Reasons to feel pessimistic: Just one Stanley Cup championship roster from the last decade has had more than one player over 30 among its top-five scorers in the regular season. The Bruins

currently have three. 

Just because it’s unprecedented doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but in an increasingly younger league, believing three players over 30 can carry the B’s to a championship feels a lot more challenging. 

Krejci spent last season in the Czech Extraliga, a European league that ranks far below the NHL in quality of competition. Though he’s off to a strong start, can he keep it up for a full regular season and through a long playoff? Can Bergeron?

Marchand is the youngest of the three, but is coming off hip arthroscopy and labral repair on both hips. While he’s put points on the board so far, just five have been at even strength, which he says is a product of less time to condition himself. Will he really get the time to do that during the regular season? 

All of this is without mentioning right winger David Pastrnak, who currently leads the Bruins with 32 points. The 26-year-old is not in danger of experiencing an age-related decline, but it would also be unreasonable to expect him to single handedly propel the Bruins’ offense to a championship, especially if the team’s other offensive leaders start appearing less frequently on the scoresheet. There is a reason why even a supercharged Connor McDavid—33 points in 16 playoff games—could not drag the Edmonton Oilers past the Western Conference Finals last year: no one player can win a championship in today’s NHL. 

It would be foolish to say any of the Bruins’ over-30 players are likely to transform into pumpkins overnight, but with age comes added risk of injury and a higher likelihood of decreased efficiency—just because they’ve cheated Father Time so far doesn’t mean they’ll be able to escape him forever. 

The point

This column is a little nitpicky. The Bruins penalty kill hasn’t been great recently, but realistically, it will probably rebound. The salary cap issue is a potential stumbling block, but NHL teams hire capologists to find ways around these types of problems. Bergeron, Krejci, and Marchand are old, but they may continue producing because, as their career statistics suggest, they are special, age-defying players. 

But it’s important to stay leery. No NHL team puts up an 86% points percentage over a full season—it’s unheard of. No NHL team remains so successful for that long. Eventually the Bruins will start to lose games with at least a little more regularity than they have been. 

So here’s a friendly reminder to doubt your favorite NHL team at every turn—they won’t be perfect, so neither should you! Why approach games with a glass-half-full mentality when it’s more fun to know the glass is certainly half empty?