The Boston Bruins are coming into their 2021 campaign after a disappointing finish to the 2019-2020 season. The team’s loss to the overpowering Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round exposed the main weakness of the team, which is their age. Despite finishing with the best record in the NHL during the regular season, the Bruins labored through their preliminary games in the bubble. It was clear that the four and a half month layoff had significantly affected the momentum they had before the shutdown.
Coming into this season, expectations are high for the Bruins to take their shot at what could be their final chance to win a cup with the veteran core of the team. While this core is still mostly intact, it will be without longtime captain Zdeno Chara for the first time in 14 years. Players like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Brad Marchand will certainly fill the hole left by Chara in the locker room, while young defensemen Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk will look to take on some of the ice time he and Torey Krug leave behind.
McAvoy, who has spent most of his time in the NHL alongside Chara on the blueline, will look to take the next step in his development and become a true number one defender. The Bruins will need McAvoy to lead the top defensive pairing as he will likely be playing with inexperienced young defender Jeremy Lauzon. The top four on defense will fill out nicely despite the loss of Krug, with defensive defenseman Brandon Carlo, who has proven to be an elite defender with limited offensive ability, and Grzelcyk, who is more offensive minded than Carlo, and should compliment his strengths well. The third pairing will probably be a rotation of an experienced John Moore, young and scrappy Connor Clifton, and injury prone Kevan Miller. This pairing won’t make or break any games for the team and should be very serviceable throughout the season.
On the offensive side of things the Bruins will look to answer the question that has been plaguing them for years: who can provide the team with depth scoring? The one knock that can be made on the “Perfection Line” of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak is that they can disappear for games at a time. When this slump occurs, the Bruins typically face their biggest struggles. The team will look to improve in this area with the addition of right winger Craig Smith who will presumably slide in alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk on the second line, although he may receive time on the top line while David Pastrnak sits out until early February after having hip surgery in the offseason.
Smith comes from Nashville where he has been for the last seven years. A consistent 20 goal scorer, his talents should come in handy with the natural playmaker Krejci at center. DeBrusk will also need to improve his consistency as a scorer this season. He has shown flashes of elite goal scoring capabilities, as well as the ability to score clutch goals in the playoffs, but he needs to take the next step and put up the 25-30 goal season that the Bruins desperately need from a top 6 forward.
As far as the bottom six forwards go, the team will likely face some trial and error to find someone who can fit alongside Charlie Coyle and Ondrej Kase. Coyle has proved to be a solid third line center in his two seasons as a Bruin, while Kase, despite having little experience with the team, possesses complimentary talents for a power forward like Coyle. The team will likely start with Anders Bjork on the third line but will certainly give opportunities to players like Karson Kuhlman or Jack Studnicka to fill the role. The fourth line will be anchored by Chris Wagner and Sean Kuraly who give the team some grit and power. The Bruins will need at least two or three guys to put up good depth numbers when the top line faces struggles.
If there’s one part of the team that Bruins fans should have no worries about, it is the goaltending. Tuukka Rask remains a top 5 goalie in the NHL, while Jaroslav Halak is essentially a 1a as opposed to being a backup. Halak will play more games than your typical backup goalie, giving Tuukka Rask more rest which will hopefully help him stay fully healthy throughout the entire season and into the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, expect Rask to play with some desperation, as he wants to get his first Stanley Cup as a starter and solidify his legacy as an all-time great Bruin.
The Bruins power play, which has undoubtedly been the strongest part of their game the past few years, will have to find a way to replace its quarterback with the loss of Torey Krug. Ideally this role will be filled by Matt Grzelcyk who has shown promise on the second power play unit. The Bruins have relied heavily on their power play to win games and they will need the top unit with Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak, when healthy, to be firing on all cylinders to fight their way through a tough division. Until Pastrnak is back, it is likely that we will see David Krejci and/or Jake DeBrusk on the top power play.
Due to the pandemic, the NHL has realigned the divisions so that teams don’t leave their region. The Bruins will be playing a tougher schedule than usual as they will be playing the same teams eight times. This could prove to be a problem, as this means they will be playing the likes of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, and a legit Stanley Cup contender in the Philadelphia Flyers.
Despite losing Captain Zdeno Chara and offensive force Torey Krug, the Bruins are still legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Even with depth scoring issues in recent years, the Bruins have always been right in the mix, and you can expect more of the same this year, with or without depth scoring. This is likely a team that will find a way to be a top regular season team even in a tough division and will be expected to make a deep playoff run.