It was just over one month ago that a Boston Bruins squad embedded in an historic points streak suddenly found itself minus two if its most important players. Between Brad Marchand’s delivery of a Macho Man-inspired flying elbow and Charlie McAvoy’s finicky ticker the B’s were forced to endure the absence of two difference makers for three overlapping contests.
The Bruins acquitted themselves well, winning two of the tilts, though their points streak did come to an end at 18 games.
Flash back to the present and once again the team finds itself without its 20-year-old stud defensemen indefinitely. He is joined this time by the all-situations, all-world talent that is Patrice Bergeron, felled by a fractured foot. Tuukka Rask and Matt Grzelcyk are reportedly nicked-up and nursing minor ailments to boot, as the team’s overall health has once again taken a turn for the worse.
Though the latter two are in comparatively better shape than the former, caution is nonetheless being exercised; the Bruins could be without all four players for their Tuesday night tilt versus the Detroit Red Wings.
No one player can replace or compensate for the loss of a Patrice Bergeron or Charlie McAvoy. The latter is an ultra-rare example of a defenseman more capable of playing top-pairing minutes and matchups than legally ordering a beer. The former is simply the best two-way forward in the NHL, arguably the best defensive forward in history while simultaneously leading his team in goals during what was a legitimate Hart Trophy campaign prior to his injury.
As such, the tried-and-true philosophical cliche that is “next man up,” firmly applies as to how the Bruins can endure these personnel losses while maintaining their standing amongst the recently-reinforced Tampa Bay Lightning and a frenetic Toronto Maple Leafs club which has dominated the Bruins of late.
Fortunately, 17 points separate the B’s from the playoff bubble; a testament to their three-month stretch of excellence. Furthermore, General manager Don Sweeney had the foresight to bolster the overall team depth ahead of the trade deadline and not just swing for the fences with the Rick Nash acquisition.
The better news? All four newly-acquired Bruins are thriving.
Boston’s blockbuster trade for Rick Nash grabbed the lion’s share of the headlines and for good reason. The six-time all-star registers as the organization’s biggest splash since Jaromir Jagr brought his prodigious skill-set and equally impressive hair to Causeway Street five years ago.
Nash brought his 434 career goals, power forward’s frame and speed seldom seen in a man of his size and age to Boston and hit the ground running. With two goals and three points in his first four games with the team he has immediately “clicked” with his new linemates David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. He has scored at both even-strength and on the power play, with the latter tally breaking the team’s woeful streak of 18-consecutive scoreless power plays.
His 23 shots-on-goal since landing in Boston pace the team by a substantial margin while averaging over 17 minutes of ice time. No one’s happier to see Nash in Black and Gold than David Krejci, who recently registered his first hat trick since 2014 while playing alongside the 33-year-old.
Double-Dose of Depth
Shortly after the Nash trade was finalized, it was announced that veteran forwards Tommy Wingels and Brian Gionta were to join him in Boston. Reaction to their arrival was mixed, largely vacillating between confused and underwhelmed. After all, Gionta had yet to play a single NHL contest this season while Wingels had the look of a spare part, having scored just 14 goals across his previous 130 games between San Jose, Ottawa and Chicago.
Their arrival perfectly coincided with the announcement of Bergeron’s injury and further enabled head coach Bruce Cassidy to give struggling rookie winger Danton Heinen a much-needed breather.
After spending just one week as Bruins the two have made Sweeney look brilliant. Playing inspired and productive hockey primarily from Boston’s third-line, the duo have seamlessly filled the void left behind by Riley Nash’s ascent to the top line as he fills-in for the injured Bergeron.
Wingels has quickly and emphatically displayed his trademark tenacity, forechecking and backchecking like a man built for the playoffs. His one-goal, two-point debut versus Carolina was precisely the jolt his beleaguered club needed as they once again looked out of sorts for an extended period of time. Two nights later versus Pittsburgh the points eluded him, yet the 29-year-old put together the kind of performance and balanced stat line Bruins fans should grow accustomed to witnessing from him.
He led all Boston forwards in shorthanded ice time (3:28) during a contest in which the NHL’s top ranked power play scored zero goals in four attempts. He won 80% of his face-offs, dished-out two hits, blocked one shot and landed a shot on goal in 14-plus minutes of ice time during the 8-4 drubbing.
With a dozen goals going on the board in the game one could have easily failed to notice Wingels’ impactful and unheralded performance. Brian Gionta’s multi-point debut however was impossible to miss.
Playing in his first NHL game in nearly 11 months, the Boston College alum has looked perfectly at home with the Bruins, following-up on his two-point debut with another point in Montreal versus the club he’d captained for four seasons. The secondary-assist came on Brad Marchand’s game-winning overtime tally which allowed Boston to narrowly escape what would have been a disappointing defeat at the hands of their struggling rivals.
Through it all he has looked spry and confident, two areas in which a 39-year-old man who’d spent the season’s first 60 games unemployed could have easily fallen short.
Going into the deadline it was no secret that the 2017-18 Bruins were a tight bunch. They’d displayed irrefutable chemistry on the ice and had developed a reputation for being a close-knit group off of it. Bringing outside personnel into a cohesive group runs the risk of disrupting a working formula, meaning anyone joining the mix would need to be of a certain quality as a human being, not just as a player.
This is where we see the deeper machinations behind the additions of Wingels and Gionta. Both have, “been there, done that,” combining for more than 1,400 regular season games and 166 playoff contests. Gionta has won a Stanley Cup while Wingels competed in the Final two years ago and was one win away from playing in another last season with Ottawa. Battle-tested doesn’t begin to describe the two.
But beyond their experience, both have displayed precisely the kind of leadership and character necessary to justify their inclusion and bolster an already-gelling team. Wingels has been nominated for both the King Clancy Award and Bill Masterton Trophy, recognizing leadership, perseverance, sportsmanship and humanitarianism.
Gionta was previously the captain of every team he’d played for from 2010 up through last month’s Winter Olympics. ‘Nuff said there.
Joining a tight-knit team without disrupting chemistry can be difficult, as is regularly rotating in and out of the lineup. In Brian Gionta and Tommy Wingels the Bruins have added two guys who can not only play the part, but also find ways to contribute to the team’s overall well-being and attitude even when they themselves are out of the lineup.
“Holden” Things Down
Not to be outdone by his newly-acquired forward counterparts, defenseman Nick Holden has already made a substantial impact to his new club. The 30-year-old rearguard has two points in as many games since joining the Bruins, showcasing the mobility and puck-moving skills the club needed even before Charlie McAvoy’s injury.
He has shown a keen knack for getting pucks into danger areas, as evidenced by his two gorgerous slap-pass assists (one of which tied the Montreal game with less than three minutes to play) and the whopping ten shots-on-goal he has landed in just two games. He has been stout and reliable in his own end, eclipsing 20 minutes of ice time in each of his first two tilts with Boston while his team has yet to concede a goal with him on the ice.
With McAvoy sidelined indefinitely, Holden’s box of tools and experience playing the right side (his off-wing) will be relied upon even further. Should he maintain this level of success and help to stabilize the back end while McAvoy mends his acquisition will have immediately paid for itself.
It’s rare for players to make such immediate and significant impacts to their new team. Rick Nash has looked even better than advertised, elevating the entire top six, much less the play of linemate David Krejci.
All three aforementioned depth additions have hit the ground running as well. It’s unfortunate that injuries to key players paved the way for their respective debuts, but the instant results have already vindicated Don Sweeney from the smatterings of grumblings which came in the wake of his three newest insurance policies.
Ignore the market-value (yet substantial) price paid for Rick Nash’s services for one moment and focus on the following:
Tommy Wingels, Brian Gionta and Nick Holden were acquired for Frank Vatrano, Rob O’Gara, a Fifth-Round Pick and the savings created by Paul Postma’s demotion to Providence. Consider the impact the news guys have already made versus the various struggles and “out-of-place” standing of the former Bruins.
Though it’s possible (perhaps even likely) that none of the newly-acquired depth pieces remain in Boston beyond this season, the same was likely also true of the aforementioned recently-traded Bruins. At least the new guys can contribute this season; something Vatrano, O’Gara and Postma had failed to do. Hell, Sweeney even managed to move up in the third-round of this year’s draft in the process…
With less than 20 games remaining in the regular season, the indefinite-losses of Patrice Bergeron and Charlie McAvoy have put an unmistakable dent in the club’s ability to make up ground on the division-leading Lightning. A difficult first round date with the Maple Leafs looks increasingly likely, meaning one of the NHL’s best teams will be ousted at the hands of another before the calendar even turns to May.
But with the new guys having already displayed their worth in just one week’s time, it’s evident that these Bruins have the depth, mentality and talent to take things into June and beyond.