Seven observations from the Bruins’ preseason finale loss

Courtesy%3A+Creative+Commons

Photo: Deb Ratner

Courtesy: Creative Commons

By Leo Kagan, Staff Writer

The Boston Bruins fell 5-3 to the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night, concluding their preseason with a home-ice loss. 

The loss to the Devils was the Bruins’ final test ahead of their Wednesday evening faceoff against the Washington Capitals, which kicked off the regular season. 

Four key players—left wingers Brad Marchand and Taylor Hall and defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk—wre absent from the lineup. Devils center Jack Hughes capitalized on these absences, leading his team with a two-point outing. 

Though some of the Bruins’ lines clicked on Saturday, others struggled to find synergy. Head Coach Jim Montgomery’s new system is yielding issues and rewards, roster spots are solidifying, and the battle in net remains unsettled. 

  1. David Krejci and David Pastrnak got cooking and Pavel Zacha brings a different element to the Czech line

 

After Hall was injured in the Bruins’ Oct. 1 match against the Philadelphia Flyers, center Pavel Zacha found himself slotted next to center David Krejci and right winger David Pastrnak for an all-Czech trio. 

Through two games, the line proved cohesive, putting up a combined 11 points between the Saturday loss to the Devils and a 5-4 overtime win against the New York Rangers on Oct. 5. 

Krejci—the playmaker of the line—showed no signs of rust in his limited preseason action, finding teammates with crisp, tape-to-tape passes. Pastrnak—the sniper—rifled a puck past Devils goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood and let another one fly past Rangers goalkeeper Jaroslav Halak. 

But Zacha is neither pure passer nor shooter—though he scored a goal and tallied two assists against the Rangers—so what is his role on the line?

Against the Devils, Zacha played well, handling pucks cleanly and contributing to the creative, free-flowing rush offense that the Czech line is best suited for. With his 6-foot-3 frame and decently-fast skating, Zacha should have no problems keeping up with his teammates and forechecking in deep. 

Moving forward, Zacha should aid his linemates and stay out of the way. When Krejci and Pastrnak get going like they did Saturday, the offense seems to pour out in buckets. 

  1. Czech line is the Bruins’ best offensive weapon but the rest are still searching for rhythm

Pastrnak, Krejci, and Zacha seem to create synergy, particularly in the offensive zone. But as has been proven in years past, one line can’t score all the goals. So what other lines are forming for the B’s?

The second line on the ice for the Bruins on Saturday was center Craig Smith, Bergeron, and DeBrusk, but Smith was swapped for left winger AJ Greer later in the game. Bergeron and DeBrusk will likely stay together—and probably be reunited with Marchand when he returns from injury—but for now, the top left wing position seems vacant. 

Smith was at his best when he was with Krejci and Hall during the 2020-21 season, but that line seems unlikely to go back together right now with the emergence of the Czech line. Greer has proven worthy of a roster spot, but is better suited for the bottom six. 

Left wingers Nick Foligno, Tomas Nosek, and center Jakub Lauko worked well together, with Foligno and Lauko connecting for a third-period goal. The beginnings of chemistry are forming between these three. 

Centers Jack Studnicka and Trent Frederic played together most of the night, but the pair didn’t seem to complement each other. Whether they were partnered with Smith or Greer didn’t seem to make a difference. Studnicka landed four shots on net and had a decent game individually, but Frederic struggled to keep up with his linemates. 

Right now, the Czech line remains the Bruins’ best option, and a Bergeron-DeBrusk duo will almost certainly yield offense. The puzzle of the team’s bottom two lines will be a priority for Montgomery to solve, as well as finding a compatible forward to play on Bergeron’s left wing—Taylor Hall was first up on Wednesday’s regular season opener. 

  1. Montgomery’s system impacting some areas of the ice more than others 

Montgomery was hired over the summer after former bench boss Bruce Cassidy was dismissed for reasons including his failure to jumpstart the team’s offense, particularly during the playoffs. 

During the Bruins’ first-round loss against the Carolina Hurricanes last May, the team scored just 2.86 goals per game, well below its 3.09 regular-season average. More importantly, the team relied on its top offensive weapons too much, receiving seven of its 20 goals from players not named Marchand, Bergeron, Pastrnak, or Hall. 

Montgomery was hired to push the team to produce more offense from more sources—a process he believes begins with the defensemen. Montgomery’s new system was in full effect Saturday as Bruins defensemen appeared more confident with the puck, particularly in leading the rush. Jakub Zboril, Mike Reilly, and Hampus Lindholm were among the most bold, and their efforts led to more offensive zone time and pressure. 

However, Montgomery’s more offensively-focused instructions for defensemen also led to a less stingy defense than usual. The Bruins allowed five goals on Saturday and looked less stout than usual. The Devils third goal highlighted this trend as defensemen Connor Clifton and Derek Forbort left Hughes wide open in front of the net. 

Montgomery isn’t doing his job if he does not try to change the way the team plays in some regards, but right now, his changes appear to be leading to less defensive stoutness. The Bruins will need to tighten up in their own zone to be successful this season. 

  1. Foligno turns back the clock with an impressive effort

Foligno had a disastrous 2021-22 campaign. Arriving in Boston via free agency in July 2021, the veteran forward struggled to produce, scoring just two goals and 13 points in the regular season and eventually being demoted to the Bruins’ fourth line

With increased competition for spots in the bottom six, it looked like Foligno might be ousted from the lineup altogether. His $3.8 million salary cap hit forced the team to make some tough decisions to remain compliant with the cap—including placing Foligno on waivers Sunday, which made him available for any team in the league to claim for free. 

But after Foligno’s performance on Saturday—during which he looked a lot more like the skilled power forward he was while captain of the Columbus Blue Jackets—the Bruins chose to keep him on the roster after he cleared waivers. One shift in the third period stood out when Foligno put together a dogged effort on the forecheck, forcing a turnover that gave Lauko a high-danger scoring chance, and then moments later laid a heavy bodycheck on Devil Alexander Holtz. 

Foligno was rewarded for his efforts late in the third period when he assisted on Lauko’s goal, but he was consistent all night long, looking much improved from the sluggish-skating fourth-liner he was last year. Foligno’s effort on Saturday made a much stronger case for his place on the roster, giving him a decent shot playing games regularly. 

  1. Studnicka will stick around, but his role is still indeterminate

After center Marc McLaughlin was assigned to the Providence Bruins—Boston’s AHL affiliate—it became clear the Bruins did not want to risk losing Studnicka by putting him on waivers. 

The 23-year-old has been touted as the Bruins’ top prospect for years, but struggled to carve out a place for himself in an NHL lineup and now seems to be approaching the end of his development curve, as evidenced by his ineligibility to move between Boston and Providence without waivers. 

Though he will likely take the fourth line spot McLaughlin was vying for—and lost, due to the Bruins’ freedom to call him up and send him down without risk of losing him—his capabilities on the line are in question. 

What became clear on Saturday is that Studnicka is struggling with the same problem he’s faced the last several years in Boston: finding a role. He does not have the size or aggressive play to be a physical, energy player, and he hasn’t quite put together the skill to contribute offensively—he had just two assists in four preseason games, tallying zero goals. 

The Bruins will allow Studnicka to find his way at hockey’s highest level, but he needs to find his game quickly if he wants to stick around long-term. 

  1. Lindholm looking like a true number one defenseman

Defenseman Hampus Lindholm arrived in Boston via trade in March and immediately signed an eight-year extension with the Bruins worth $6.5 million average annual value. That kind of money is almost always given to players at the top of the defensive depth chart, which is exactly where Lindholm finds himself now with McAvoy still recovering from surgery. 

Lindholm wasn’t expected to be the top dog for the Bruins when he arrived—the plan was for him to partner with McAvoy to form a more stable top pair and spread out depth throughout the lineup. But Lindholm was a number one defenseman in Anaheim for years, and he looks poised to take over the role in Boston now, too—at least until McAvoy returns. 

The Swedish defenseman played a team-high 22 minutes on Saturday and was plus-one over the night. Lindholm was proficient in all three zones, showing he can shoulder the load McAvoy will leave behind. 

  1. What is Frederic’s place on this team?

Frederic broke through with the Bruins in the 2020-21 season, playing 42 games while establishing himself as an agitator in the bottom-six. Last year, he played a season-high 60 games but failed to stick in the lineup for lack of a defined role. 

That trend appears to be continuing this year, as Frederic seems to be consistently the Bruins’ worst player. On Saturday, he took an early-boarding minor, forcing the Bruins to kill the penalty. After the penalty, he seemed to be skating a step behind the play, bobbling passes and contributing very little to the offense. It was a picture of Frederic at his worst: out of step, undisciplined, and disengaged. 

In a league where the fourth-line enforcer position is fading into history, what place does a bruiser like Frederic have if he can’t keep up with the play and avoid taking bad penalties? At this point, Frederic must find a way to remedy his shortcomings or risk being cut from the starting forward group.