Last season, the Boston Bruins fell a stick-length short of the postseason for the second straight year, marking the first time the black and gold had missed consecutive postseason appearances since the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons. The single regulation/overtime win that separated the Bruins from the final spot in the Atlantic Division sparked questions of change in Boston, both on the ice and off of it.
When the dust cleared, the Bruins elected to keep Claude Julien at the head of the ship, putting their faith in the winningest coach in Bruins history to place Boston back on the map of the hockey elite. It was clear that the Bruins brass had some glaring issues they needed to address as they headed into another extended off-season.
The early summer focus was on Loui Eriksson, Boston’s second-leading scorer whose contract expired this summer. Many expected the Swedish winger to be dealt to a Cup contender at the trade deadline as a rental, however, Bruins management opted not to pull the trigger, and instead was forced to let Eriksson walk when the two sides couldn’t negotiate a deal.
From there, the Bruins made a surprising move in the signing of former Blues captain David Backes, who the B’s have now committed five years and $30 million to. The Bruins made a couple of other notable roster changes, including the release of longtime Bruin Dennis Seidenberg. The B’s then found themselves caught up in the Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes (along with the rest of the NHL, it seems) until it was announced that the highly-touted winger had signed with the New York Rangers.
And that leaves us here. The Bruins failed to address the gaping hole in their lineup that is the defense, leaving the blueline looking disappointingly familiar as colder weather approaches once again. A couple of changes were made to a run-of-the-mill Bruins team, both on the ice and in the front office, but will it be enough to bring postseason hockey back to Beantown?
2015-16 Season Record: 42-31-9 (4th in the Atlantic Division)
Key Offseason Moves
- David Backes
- Anton Khudobin
- Dominic Moore
- Danton Heinen
- Riley Nash
- Loui Eriksson
- Dennis Seidenberg
- Brett Connolly
- Chris Kelly
Key Organizational Changes
Out: Doug Houda, Doug Jarvis
While the Bruins brass elected to keep Claude Julien on board for this season, they did feel the need to shake some things up behind the bench this summer. The first of those changes came back in April when the team announced that they would not be bringing back assistant coach Doug Houda.
The 49-year-old spent ten seasons behind the bench with the Bruins, working as Claude Julien’s right-hand man and serving as the head of the defense during games. The news came with mixed reviews from fans and players alike, who pointed towards Bruins management and accused them of making Houda the scapegoat. According to the Boston Herald, a dismayed Bruins player who remained nameless was even quoted saying “Yeah, I guess it was all Houds’ fault.”
Houda didn’t sit on the market for too long, though. He signed a three-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings back in May, the team he played for back in the late 80’s (and a brief stint of the 90’s).
The Bruins later announced the departure of Doug Jarvis, who was also relieved of his duties back in May. Jarvis joined Julien’s team back in late 2010 and has served as an assistant coach ever since. Jarvis has since been hired by the Canucks as an assistant coach.
In: Bruce Cassidy, Jay Pandolfo
The Bruins opted to promote from within to fill the shoes of the departed coaches, choosing to promote Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy, as well as former director of player development, Jay Pandolfo, to serve as assistant coaches for the upcoming season.
Cassidy, who served as Providence’s head coach for five years, has a good track record with Boston’s AHL affiliate. He’s reached the playoffs each of the past four seasons while leading the team to a 207-128-45 record. Cassidy also has experience as an assistant coach, having served as one with Providence from 2008-11 before being promoted to head coach.
Pandolfo, meanwhile, is entering his third season with the Bruins organization. He joined the team as a player development coach two seasons ago and served as the director of player development last season. The Massachusetts native also played for the Bruins for a brief stint at the end of his playing career.
Danton Heinen/Riley Nash
|Dominic Moore/Noel Acciari||
Riley Nash/Tyler Randell
If the Bruins hope to find success this season, they’ll need their best player to perform at the highest level, as he did last season. We’re talking, of course, about Patrice Bergeron. The veteran center led the team in scoring last season, tallying 68 points (32 goals, 36 assists) in 80 games. Those were Bergeron’s best production numbers since the 2006-07 season when he put up 70 points (22 goals, 48 assists) for the B’s. He’s Boston’s most reliable player on both ends of the ice, serving as one of the best two-way forwards in the league, as is evident by the three Selke trophies he’s won with the Bruins. He’s also a clear leader in the dressing room and is in all likelihood the captain-to-be when Zdeno Chara inevitably departs.
If the Bruins want to find themselves back in the playoff picture, they’ll need more of the same from one of the NHL’s elite forwards.
It’s a big, big year for Brad Marchand this season. Bruins president Cam Neely has already made it clear that he hopes to ink Marchand to a contract extension before the season gets underway. Neely, like most Bruins fans, has no trouble seeing the talent and effort that Marchand brings to the table.
The biggest problem with Marchand’s game is the lack of discipline that arises from time to time. The edgy winger has always straddled the line with the Bruins, working as an agitator on the ice. It’s a position that Marchand excels in and one that makes him extremely productive when he does it correctly.
While Marchand has gotten a bit better about staying on the right side of the line, he’ll need to completely eliminate the undisciplined play if he hopes to step into a true leadership role with the team, which he stressed last season. He’s one of Boston’s quickest and most gifted players and is a top producer for the black and gold when his head is in the right place.
Uncertainty in Boston’s Lines
Boston’s line situation has been a bit of an uncertainty since signing David Backes. The later signings of Dominic Moore and Riley Nash clouded up the situation even more. Boston has a plethora of centers to work with, and the only real locks are Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Despite some predictions that Backes would be slotted into the right wing of the Bergeron-Marchand line, Bruins owner Charlie Jacobs told WEEI that he would be Boston’s third-line center.
That still leaves a very open fourth line that could shape up in a variety of ways for the Bruins. On the lowest line, Seth Griffith will battle it out with former Denver winger Danton Heinen. Vatrano’s injury may slide Griffith up to the third line, which could open up the lowest left wing for Heinen. Riley Nash is a versatile forward as well, and could battle for a spot on the left side. Up the middle, Noel Acciari, one of Boston’s strongest prospects, will compete with former New York Ranger Dominic Moore. Finally, on the right side, Tyler Randell will look to occupy the wing, although he could see some competition from Nash as well. Boston will certainly have the flexibility to mix up the bottom line, in particular, slotting players in and out on a game-by-game basis.
For years, Zdeno Chara was the lock-down, go-to defenseman that came up big in the most pivotal of situations for the Bruins. However, that time has passed. Chara, while hanging in as an above-average defenseman, has certainly fallen from the ‘elite’ tier that he once occupied. That being said, he’s still the anchor of the Bruins blueline, and he’ll need to be reliable this season if the Bruins want to get back into the mix of things.
From an offensive standpoint, Chara put up pretty good numbers last year, totaling 37 points (nine goals, 28 assists). However, it was clear that his defensive game has sloped off a bit from previous seasons. Chara made a number of uncharacteristic mistakes for the Bruins down the stretch last year, including some key turnovers in the defensive zone that the 39-year-old wouldn’t have made in the past.
Chara does eat up a lot of ice time for the Bruins, which could be the cause of some of his troubles. However, he’ll need to be better in the defensive zone this season or the Bruins may suffer a similar fate as they did last year.
Torey Krug was Boston’s most productive defenseman last season, to nobody’s surprise. In his third full season with the Bruins, the Michigan State alumnus put up career-high numbers, racking up 44 points from the blue line while appearing in 81 out of 82 games. Oddly enough, his goal-scoring rate fell off tremendously last season. He only netted four goals himself. However, his 40 helpers made up for the lack of scoring.
Krug is the only piece of the Bruins blueline that has a clear future with the Bruins. His offensive ability embodies the style of play that Don Sweeney wanted to bring to the Bruins lineup, and he’s developing his defensive game to match it. It’ll be a big season for the 25-year-old as he looks to solidify himself as a top defenseman in the organization, especially with some talented young defensive prospects knocking at the door.
Also in the Hunt:
- Joe Morrow
- Rob O’Gara
- Matt Grzelcyk
- Brandon Carlo
Surprise surprise, this season marks another big year for Tuukka Rask. The Finnish netminder has seen a lot of heat over the past two years for decreasing stats, despite the fact that Boston’s blueline has played an obvious role in the drop. Even still, the Bruins will look for Rask to step up in the biggest of games this season to bail out an uninspiring defense when the team needs it most.
Rask’s workload was decreased a bit last season after he was clearly overworked down the stretch the year prior. He posted a .915 save percentage and 2.56 goals against average. These aren’t terrible numbers, but are noticeably low given what we know Rask can do. Boston’s sub-par defense undoubtedly had an effect on Rask’s success, but that doesn’t mean we can totally let the netminder off the hook for this season. He needs to play to the peak of his ability for the Bruins to find success this year.
The Bruins also brought back an old friend in goaltender Anton Khudobin, who spent the season as Boston’s backup in 2012-13. Khudobin’s numbers have dropped off a bit over the past two years as well (he posted a .909 save percentage and 2.70 goals against average in just nine games last season). However, the Bruins still feel that he’s a reliable netminder who can step in and give Rask a break from time to time.
Breakout Player: Colin Miller
Colin Miller, who the Bruins acquired from the Los Angeles Kings organization in the Milan Lucic trade last year, saw his way in and out of the Bruins lineup last season. He appeared in 42 games for the B’s last season, tallying 16 points. In the AHL, he put up 12 points in 20 games.
Miller’s numbers weren’t poor last season, but he struggled to earn a consistent spot in the Bruins lineup. He’s a pretty highly touted prospect, having won both the hardest shot competition and the fastest skater competition in the AHL All-Star Game two seasons ago. He was a solid pickup for the Bruins in the trade that dealt away a Boston favorite, and now it’s time for Miller to earn a regular spot on the Bruins blue line.
Simply put, if Miller can’t break through this season, he may never with the Bruins. Boston has a damaged blue line that struggled quite a bit last season, which means the door is wide open for Miller to secure a regular spot if he can break out and earn the trust of Claude Julien and company. On top of that, Boston has some highly-regarded defensive prospects working their way up the ladder behind Miller, including Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara. If Miller fails to convert on his opportunity this season, he may be left in the dust in the years to come.
The pressure is on for Miller to have a breakout season and prove that he has earned a consistent spot on the Bruins blue line.
Player with the Most to Prove: David Backes
Much of the hockey world was surprised when the Bruins announced the 5-year, $30 million deal that they gave to David Backes over the summer. At the same AAV as Loui Eriksson was given, many Bruins fans and writers alike questioned why Boston gave Backes, not Eriksson, a deal, seeing as Eriksson is a year younger and produced more than Backes last season.
Coming in, Backes will have to be very good in order to satisfy Bruins fans. Letting go of your second-highest scorer is tough as a hockey fan, and presents big shoes to fill for Backes. The former Blues captain will look to satisfy Bruins fans with his stats, and his style of play, which is certainly more rough and tough than Loui Eriksson’s. He’s also a player that will need to be a leader in the locker room, having five years of experience with the “C” in St. Louis.
First Player in the ‘Call-Up’ Line: Danton Heinen
Danton Heinen provided an instant boost of excitement to the Bruins prospect pool when he signed with the Bruins at the end of last season. The speedy winger has received a lot of praise and is expected to compete for a spot in the Bruins lineup straight out of training camp.
Heinen, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Bruins in 2014, signed with the black and gold after two seasons at the University of Denver. With the Pioneers, Heinen tore up the NCHC, one of college hockey’s most competitive conferences. In 81 collegiate games, Heinen tallied 93 points (36 goals, 57 assists).
At the end of last year, the versatile winger appeared in two games with the Providence Bruins, recording two assists. He’s a smart, quick forward who has an understanding of the game up front, and the ability to convert on it. He’s heard nothing but praise from Providence head coach Kevin Dean, who has watched him at the rookie tournament that the Buffalo Sabres are sponsoring.
“I like everything,” Dean said of Heinen, per the Boston Herald. “He’s very smooth, but he does everything fast. Some of those smooth players, they’re smooth because they’re going three-quarters speed. But he’s getting up and down the ice pretty quickly — and he’s doing it under control, with his head up.
“That’s why he makes so many plays, because he doesn’t have to be contorted 100,000 ways to get going full speed. He can make plays at full speed and he’s under control doing it. He’s got great (hockey) IQ. He can really snap the puck. I think at his core he’s a pass-first type of guy. It’ll be good to see him this year.”
You can expect to see Heinen at the NHL level at some point this season. He’ll compete for a spot on the NHL roster during training camp, however, his success there won’t lock him into either level for the season. If he can’t crack the roster out of training camp, then it’s likely the Bruins will call him up at some point throughout the season to give him a chance to prove himself.
The Boston Bruins made some changes to the team, both on the ice and in the front office. They lost a key point producer in Loui Eriksson but picked up a tough veteran in David Backes. Meanwhile, the Bruins have quite a few exciting prospects that will be looking to make a name for themselves at both the NHL and AHL levels, who could eventually help to return the Bruins to Eastern Conference superiority.
However, the Bruins failed to address the major problem in the lineup that is their defense. On the blueline, the Bruins are polarized, with the exception of Torey Krug, and potentially Colin Miller. Zdeno Chara is past his prime and is becoming less effective with every season. Meanwhile, the Bruins have several bottom pair defensemen in Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller. John-Michael Liles is a solid defenseman but isn’t a long-term solution to Boston’s issues. Finally, they have a couple of exciting defensive prospects in Joe Morrow, Rob O’Gara, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo, however, none of them are ready to take on mid-to-upper level responsibilities.
As far as this season goes, Boston’s issue will likely be its defense once again. They were unable to plug the leak, and it will probably cost them quite a bit this season.
That being said, the Bruins have too many good players to be kicked down to the bottom of the division. Boston’s core up front -Bergeron, Marchand, and Krejci, with the addition of Backes, will provide a steady offense for the Bruins. They have a lot of options to work with up front, and Claude Julien will do his best to find line combinations that can produce day in and day out. Plus, keep an eye out for some of Boston’s prospects to break the NHL roster throughout the season and provide a boost when it’s needed. Rask, while struggling the past two seasons, is still a very capable NHL goaltender, and will provide the Bruins with some very good games.
For the final call, I’d expect to see Boston in a situation that looks unsurprisingly, but hopefully not painfully familiar. The Bruins will most likely sit on the bubble of a playoff spot for the third straight season. Don’t be surprised if the team’s fate isn’t decided until the final games of the season — something that Boston has gotten used to over the past few years.
If Boston’s defense is able to limit the damage, it’s offense is able to produce with the addition of Backes, and Rask plays to his ability level, then the Bruins could find themselves slipping into the playoffs for the first time in three years. However, if the troubles of the last two years resurface once again, then the Bruins will find themselves on the outside looking in – painfully close to a playoff spot, but just barely out of reach. Only this time, there may be much more drastic consequences (three strikes and you’re out).
The Bruins should fall within a stick length of the postseason cutoff. The only question is, which side of the stick will they be holding?
2016-17 Season Record Prediction: 42-30-10 (3rd/4th in the Atlantic Division)
Cam is a Broadcast Journalism student at the University of Maryland. He’s the Boston Bruins Beat Writer at The Hockey Writers, and is an avid college hockey fan. Find him on Twitter @CamHasbrouck!