Five questions facing the Boston Bruins as preseason approaches

By Leo Kagan, Staff Writer

With just weeks left before the start of the NHL season, one might be tempted to call the Boston Bruins predictable.

In the last 15 years, the team has qualified for the playoffs 13 times. Aside from a brief reset period from 2014 to 2016, the Bruins have been remarkably consistent. Fans are used to winning 40-plus games per season, thanks to a strong defensive structure and excellent goaltending. 

Going into this season, however, things have changed. 

For the first time since 2016, the Bruins have a legitimate chance of missing the playoffs. Former head coach Bruce Cassidy—who led the team to the last six consecutive postseason appearances—was fired over the summer in an attempt to revamp the team’s direction. Former starting goaltender Tuukka Rask—the Bruins’ all-time winningest goalie—retired midseason last year. Skaters Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk all had offseason surgeries that will keep them out of action until December. 

These developments, coupled with the always-strong competition in the Atlantic Division, suggest the Bruins squad taking the ice in October will have a tougher path to the playoffs than in past years, even after stout defense and rookie goaltending brought the team to the playoffs last year. 

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The Bruins are no longer quite as predictable as they once were. Now, the team is facing some serious questions: 

1. How will the Bruins fare starting the year without three key players?

This is perhaps the most important question facing the team. Marchand is still, at age 34, arguably the team’s best forward. McAvoy is one of the best defensemen in the NHL, especially in his own end of the ice. Grzelcyk has been an excellent partner for McAvoy and also a solid defenseman.

Marchand’s impact was proven last season; the B’s went 4-8 in the 12 regular season games he missed. 

Missing even one of these three players would be detrimental to the team. Missing all three could be catastrophic. 

The Bruins also have to determine who will fill these players’ shoes while they recover. Summer trade acquisition Pavel Zacha is the most likely short-term replacement on the left flank of the first line. 2022 trade deadline acquisition Hampus Lindholm will likely shoulder the weight of McAvoy’s defensive shifts. Jakub Zboril, Connor Clifton, Brandon Carlo, and Mike Reilly will take over Grzelcyk’s duties. 

Whether this depth will be enough for the Bruins to win while their key players recover remains to be seen. 

2. Will the returning David Krejci be as impactful as the last time he wore a Bruins jersey?

Krejci stepped away from the Bruins at the end of the 2021 season to play in Czechia, citing a desire to be closer to his family. However, he re-signed with the Bruins this offseason, likely itching for another chance at the Stanley Cup alongside teammates he’d played with for over a decade. 

In the Czech Extraliga—the country’s top professional league and one of the best in Europe—Krejci scored 20 goals and tallied 26 assists for 46 points in 51 games for HC Olomouc. Krejci led his team in goals and points while ranking in the top 20 league-wide in both categories. 

But as good as Krejci was in Czechia, it isn’t the same as the NHL. Stepping back into the best league in the world at age 36 is a lofty goal. 

Krejci will be asked to handle second-line center responsibilities and facilitate playmaking, likely between Taylor Hall and David Pastrnak. Luckily for Krejci, Hall and Pastrnak should have the high-end speed to receive Krejci’s passes and transport them up ice. Ultimately, it’s up to him to prove he can still be effective at the highest level. 

3. Can any of the Bruins’ young players take big steps forward this year?

The Bruins’ prospect pool was recently ranked dead last in the NHL by The Athletic. It’s not particularly uncommon for teams that regularly contend for a championship to lack high-end prospects, but those teams also need some of their drafted talent to join the big club and contribute, particularly in a flat salary cap league.

Last season, there were seven players under 24 years old who played games for the team. Only two—Swayman and McAvoy—were regular contributors last season, though each still has room to grow. 

Of the others—those still on the roster—Oskar Steen had occasional stretches of strong play but couldn’t grab hold of a spot in the bottom six while everybody else was healthy. Jack Studnicka has been a frustrating player for years, often touted as the Bruins’ best prospect but unable to produce at the highest levels. Marc McLaughlin—signed out of Boston College—was an effective fourth-line grinder but will have to prove he’s better than the competition he’ll face for ice time. Trent Frederic, , seems to have lost his place in the lineup, after breaking into the league on a line with Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith in the 2021 season. 

Fabian Lysell, the Bruins’ 2021 first-round pick, played major junior hockey last season, but at 19, it seems like a long way from the NHL.

The bottom line is the Bruins are an aging team, particularly at the top of their lineup. While Bergeron defied the effects of aging for some time now and Marchand seemed to hit his prime after he turned 30, they won’t be dominant forever. When they do hang up the skates, the team will need effective young players to at least attempt to fill their roles. 

4. Will Pavel Zacha be more productive than he was in New Jersey?

The one-for-one swap of Erik Haula for Zacha was interesting. Statistically, Haula and Zacha share similar profiles from the 2021-22 season. Haula posted 18 goals and 44 points, while Zacha put up 15 goals and 36 points. From a financial perspective, Zacha actually costs the Bruins more, with a $3.5 million cap hit compared to Haula’s $2.4 million. But there isn’t a huge gap between the players in terms of money or performance, so why swap at all?

One reason is that 25-year-old Zacha is significantly younger than Haula, who turned 31 last March. The Bruins are betting that Zacha, a former top-10 draft pick, has room to grow, especially playing for a team likely to perform better than last season’s 28th-place New Jersey Devils. 

Haula was a great fit on a scoring line between Hall and Pastrnak last year, particularly when they were on the rush. But in the playoffs, when the rush offense is usually limited by tighter-checking hockey, the Hall-Haula-Pastrnak trio dried up offensively, forcing Cassidy to split them up. 

The hope is that Zacha will be a better fit throughout the lineup, one that can contribute regardless of which line he lands on. He’ll likely get some opportunity with Bergeron to start, but when Marchand returns,he will be demoted to the second or third unit. 

5. How will new head coach Jim Montgomery impact the squad? 

Cassidy filled the role of Bruins head coach for nearly six seasons, leading the team to the playoffs every year he was in charge. But after last season’s first-round playoff loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, upper management decided Cassidy’s run was over, releasing him in favor of former Dallas Stars head coach Jim Montgomery. 

Montgomery is known for being good with young players—something his predecessor was reportedly not. His track record through the USHL and NCAA suggests he is able to squeeze the most out of young talent and institute good playing habits. But Cassidy was no second-rate coach, either. The Bruins may not have developed many young players into superstars under his tenure, but they were also consistently near the top of the league standings. 

Montgomery’s hiring marks a change in front-office philosophy as the Bruins shift their focus to the youth on their roster. But how much more effective can Montgomery really be? Is the coaching staff responsible for the lack of development in young players, or is the front office—which has consistently traded away high draft picks and top prospects—to blame? The Bruins are betting Montgomery can turn around some of their struggling youngsters, transforming them into consistent contributors.