When the NHL officially announced the new divisional alignments for the 2020-21 season, the Boston Bruins knew that there would be new challenges on their schedule. Gone for this season are the Tampa Bay Lightning, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, and Detroit Red Wings.
The Bruins and Lightning have had their share of battles the last two years, with each team winning the Presidents’ Trophy. The Lightning won it in 2018-19 and the Bruins claimed it in the shortened 2019-20 season. This will also be the first time ever that Boston won’t see their long-time rival Canadiens on the schedule.
Not playing the Maple Leafs also means former Bruins’ first overall draft pick in 1997 Joe Thornton won’t be making an appearance at the TD Garden, at least in the regular-season after signing in Toronto as a free agent. With the new regionalized alignments, the Bruins will have their work cut out for them in East Division. The Buffalo Sabres are the only Atlantic Division team going with the Black and Gold and other Northeast teams.
It’s safe to say that the Bruins will have a dogfight on a nightly basis and finishing in the top four will not be as easy as it was in the Atlantic Division. If Boston is able to finish in the top four and qualify for the playoffs, these three keys will go a long way in helping them do it.
If there is one advantage that the Bruins have in a shortened and compacted 56-game season over 115 days, it’s in net. Tuukka Rask returns for the final year of his eight-year contract and is coming off finishing second in the Vezina Trophy voting to Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.
At 33 years old, he is still at the top of his game. Last season, Rask led the NHL with a 2.12 goals-against average (GAA) and was second in save percentage (SV%) with a 9.29, just behind Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars.
Over the past two seasons, one of the more underrated free-agent signings by Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has been backup Jaroslav Halak. He has gone 40-17-10 with a 2.36 GAA and a .921 SV%. Halak has given coach Bruce Cassidy the opportunity to rest Rask more during the regular-season and have him fresher for the playoffs, while also helping the Bruins survive injuries to their No. 1 goalie.
This season, the NHL is requiring teams to have a taxi squad, which includes a goalie. With the Bruins having several young prospects in the minors that need time with their development, look for Boston to have Dan Vladar as the third goalie traveling with the team.
2. Defense Comes Together Quickly
With Torey Krug leaving for the St. Louis Blues in free agency and captain Zdeno Chara still deciding on whether he returns for a 15th season in Boston, the Bruins are going younger on defense. With that comes a lot of questions for the blue line, but if the unit can play well in front of their goalies, it would go a long way in winning games.
Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo will lead the group and all have experience in the regular-season and playoffs over the last couple of seasons. Jeremy Lauzon saw time last season with the Bruins, while Connor Clifton and John Moore return, as does Kevan Miller, who re-signed on a one-year deal in October.
Even if Chara returns, the defense is one position that the Bruins might look to upgrade through a trade for a veteran. There is also no shortage of prospects that Boston has on defense that will try and earn a spot on the opening night roster. Urho Vaakanainen and Jakub Zboril are two names to keep an eye on this season as they have an opportunity to make an impact in the NHL.
3. Stay Healthy
Health will already be an issue when the season begins. Leading goal-scorer and Rocket Richard Award co-winner last season David Pastrnak will be out until at least mid-February after undergoing hip surgery in September. Linemate Brad Marchand is recovering from sports hernia surgery in September and right now has a mid-January return date. He will be cutting it close to be able to begin the season on Jan. 14, but the sense here is that the Bruins will be cautious and not rush him back.
The Bruins are not blessed with the greatest depth chart, especially with their wings. It won’t take many injuries to either their forwards or even their defense to cause concern for Cassidy and the front office. If injuries occur and the Bruins need to make moves at the trade deadline, look for Sweeney to be aggressive in adding pieces for a postseason run.
Bruins Will Have Their Hands Full
The East Division is arguably the toughest of the four divisions for 2020-21. It is going to be a nightly battle with each team, and every point will be valuable in the standings. Goaltending, their young defense growing up quickly, and good health will go a long way in helping the Bruins reach the playoffs in the spring.