Bruins Need to Keep Smith in Position to Succeed

The Boston Bruins returned to game action for the first time in over two weeks on New Years Day and they came away with a victory. Narrowly edging the Buffalo Sabres in a 4-3 overtime victory, the Bruins would start 2022 off in a positive way.

One of the biggest takeaways from the game was the Bruins getting offensive production throughout their lineup in this game. It’s no secret that the Bruins have depended heavily on scoring from the line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak over the past few seasons. They’ve also depended on special teams to play their best hockey, which has led to many cold streaks over the years.

Craig Smith Boston Bruins
Craig Smith played on the Boston Bruins’ top line in a 4-3 overtime victory against the Buffalo Sabres. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

In the win over the Sabres, however, the Bruins would get goals from each of their top three lines which means that their line-shuffle heading into the contest seemed to pay early dividends. The first move was to swap Pastrnak and Craig Smith with the former playing on the second line and the latter playing on the first line. The Bruins would also play Erik Haula next to Pastrnak and Taylor Hall on the team’s second line, moving Charlie Coyle down to the third line to center Nick Foligno and Jake DeBrusk.

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Another important change came on defense with the Bruins playing Derek Forbort alongside Connor Clifton on the team’s third-pairing while moving Matt Grzelcyk back to the top-pairing alongside Charlie McAvoy. This was a move that fans were calling for all season long as the team’s best defensive unit when played together is undeniably McAvoy and Grzelcyk who have excelled as a pair since their time at Boston University.

Moving Smith to the Top Line Was a Good Decision

Of all of the changes that took place, one that could have the biggest impact on the team’s long-term success this season was the move to put Smith on the top line alongside Bergeron and Marchand. As they’ve shown time and time again, the Bruins top center and top left-winger can play with anybody on their right-wing if the situation calls for it. Giving Smith a boost like that could go a long way this season as he was in dire need of a spark this season.

Heading into Saturday’s game against the Sabres, Smith had only scored two goals and seven points in 19 games. This was a stark drop-off from his 13 goals and 32 points in 54 games from a season ago. It wasn’t that Smith wasn’t necessarily playing well or with the same compete level, but a combination of lingering injuries and bad luck was holding him back from producing in a meaningful way.

It’s been discussed before, but as Smith goes, the Bruins go and that’s not something the team can ignore if they want to compete this season.

In games that Smith has recorded even a single point, the Bruins have gone 22-4-1. In games that he hasn’t recorded a point, the Bruins have gone a mere 22-17-8. That’s a fairly significant drop-off in win rate and it’s a testament to how important Smith is to the team.

While Smith doesn’t necessarily have to play on the top line to be productive, the current configuration of the team’s lineup may be the most conducive to winning given the loss of David Krejci following his return to the Czech Republic in the offseason creating such a significant drop-off in production on the second line.

Craig Smith, Boston Bruins
Craig Smith scored in his first game alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand with the Boston Bruins this season. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Rather than playing with a talent like Krejci or someone like Bergeron, Smith was instead left playing with centers in the next-tier like Coyle and Haula. That coupled with Hall’s up-and-down season has ultimately hurt Smith’s production.

By moving Smith to play alongside Bergeron and Marchand, he’s now put in a prime spot to produce offensively. Additionally, Pastrnak playing next to Hall gives the former Hart Trophy-winner his best chance at producing, especially given his natural playmaking skills. Rounding out the top-six with Haula for now also gives that second line an extra element of speed that could go a long way in balancing the lines for the first time all season long.

It paid off immediately too as Smith and Hall would both score goals in Saturday’s victory. McAvoy would have a three-assist game and Grzelcyk would also notch an assist in the win.

Nothing is set in stone and the team’s lineup in this game will almost undoubtedly change between now and the playoffs. Still, with the formula in place, the Bruins are in a much better spot to create some sort of consistency out of their lines. Building chemistry is something the team hasn’t had a chance to do given their schedule early on, but that should change as they play more frequently.

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The changes seemed to get a positive review from head coach Bruce Cassidy too as he seemed to feel good about his decisions in the immediate aftermath of the game.

“When you get results, obviously you feel you’ve made the right decision, and when you don’t then you’re always gonna sort of look back at it,” Cassidy said following the game. “And that’s usually the short term, and then you typically — we’ll get on a plane now head to Detroit, I’ll watch the game again and see who was generating, how the communication was, the support.”

It’s encouraging that Cassidy is taking everything in stride, too, as one win against one team doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is fixed. Instead, Cassidy is aware that things will be ever-changing and that his initial reactions to the game might not necessarily give him the most complete picture of what happened throughout the contest.

Looking at it all again and seeing what worked, what didn’t, what needs fine-tuning and the like is an ever-going process that coaches need to do to remain competitive in the NHL.

Regardless of how the team looks at every step of the way, though, keeping Smith in a position to succeed will have to remain a priority as he is one of the Bruins’ most effective players.