The Boston Bruins’ 2020-21 regular season is finally over. The team finished with a record of 33-16-7, good for 73 points and third place in the MassMutual East Division. Before their first-round matchup against the Washington Capitals begins, let’s look back on the regular season.
I will be assigning a letter grade to each position based on the group’s total body of work. Yes, the star players mostly lived up to expectations, but we must also account for the other key contributors. While one guy may have been an elite player at his position, the group as a whole may not have done so well. In any case, each position was good enough to earn the Bruins a coveted playoff spot, and that’s what counts.
Key Players: Tuukka Rask, Jaroslav Halak, Jeremy Swayman, Dan Vladar
Four goaltenders started in at least five games for the Bruins this season. Tuukka Rask started 24 games, Jaroslav Halak 19, Jeremy Swayman 10, and Dan Vladar five. Between the two veterans of the group, Rask looked much better than Halak, solidly beating him in save percentage and goals allowed average.
Halak’s record of 9-6-4 is not very impressive, and he gave up some soft goals in his most recent start against the New Jersey Devils on May 4. Some say he has played his last game in a Bruins’ uniform. While I agree that this is almost certainly his final season in Boston, I think he could still see some time in the playoffs. It’s too early to make Swayman the permanent backup.
While Rask was rehabbing a back injury and Halak was sidelined with COVID-19, Swayman and Vladar stepped up and played a big part in keeping the Bruins in the playoff race. Swayman’s numbers from his 10 starts are absurd: 1.50 GAA, .945 SV%, and a 7-3 record. This is no fluke. He was a big-time player at the collegiate level and in the AHL. The 22-year-old has all the makings of a star goaltender in the NHL.
Vladar looked sharp in relief as well, for the most part. His numbers don’t look nearly as impressive, but this is mostly due to his final start on April 11, in which he gave up eight goals to the Capitals. He still made a strong case for the Bruins to hold onto him for the future or to use him as a valuable trade piece.
This grade would have been an A+ if not for Halak. But his performance wasn’t that bad, all things considered. He faced about three more shots per game than Rask, and his four OT losses can’t be placed entirely on his shoulders. It’s much easier to get to the net in a 3-on-3 situation, plain and simple. He’s still one of the better back-ups in the league and could fill in adequately for Rask in a postseason game. He also just had a birthday, so let’s cut him some slack.
Key Players: Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo, Mike Reilly, Kevan Miller, Jeremy Lauzon, Connor Clifton, Jakub Zboril
The Bruins’ blue line was plagued with injuries from start to finish. All of the above names missed time due to injury, except for Connor Clifton and trade acquisition Mike Reilly. This has significantly affected the group’s overall performance. When healthy, this is an above-average unit, but that has simply not been the case for most of the year.
McAvoy stepped up and showed he was ready to fill the skates of Zdeno Chara. He’s a true two-way defenseman that every team needs. Grzelcyk is a skilled number-two, who fits the mold of Torey Krug. He was quiet for most of the season, though, due to several stints on the injury report.
Reilly and Brandon Carlo make up the second half of a formidable top-four. Carlo is this unit’s stabilizer. His return from multiple upper-body injuries is huge for the Bruins moving forward, and his partner Reilly provides some much-needed offense. He and Grzelcyk are the most polished on that end.
After those four, there’s a noticeable drop in skill and production. Kevan Miller has managed to avoid major injury and played his enforcer role well, but he doesn’t bring much else to the table. Clifton has silenced some doubters this season, leading the team in hits and earning a plus-10 rating, which is third among defensemen behind McAvoy and Grzelcyk.
Jeremy Lauzon has shown some nice chemistry with McAvoy and Miller, but he spends way too much time in the penalty box and still makes rookie mistakes. Jakub Zboril was sent back to the Providence Bruins midway through the season, which was the right move, but he’s been a developing prospect since 2015. How much more time can we give him?
Other names like Jarred Tinordi, Steven Kampfer, and John Moore played a few games, but they were just placeholders for injured starters and didn’t do much else. Moore has been on the IR since February. Tinordi and Kampfer will likely sign elsewhere in the offseason.
All in all, Boston’s blue line was relatively average in the regular season. The grade would certainly have been higher if not for the injury bug, but we cannot ignore that factor. The top four hasn’t played together much, and there’s a lot of uncertainty after that. Some difficult decisions will have to be made with this group in the summer.
Key Players: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle, Sean Kuraly, Curtis Lazar, Trent Frederic
Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are both still elite players at the center position. Bergeron is not only the heart and soul of the team but the team leader in plus/minus (plus-27) as well. Krejci’s numbers were underwhelming for most of the season, but that was largely due to inconsistency on the wings. He has been nothing but spectacular since the trade deadline. Nothing negative comes to mind about these two right now.
The other centers have done their jobs unselfishly and consistently. Sean Kuraly, Charlie Coyle, Curtis Lazar, and Trent Frederic are all great fits for head coach Bruce Cassidy’s game plan, contributing to the all-important faceoff game and killing a ton of penalties. Don’t let their plus/minus ratings fool you – the ratings are bound to be negative, with how much shorthanded time these guys spend on the ice.
The defensive prowess of this group really helped pick up the slack on the blue line. We give plenty of credit to Bergeron and Krejci, but these other guys have been the unsung heroes of the regular season. Yes, Coyle has disappointed on the offensive end (and this bumps the group’s grade down a bit), but there’s a good reason he was never benched. He is just too valuable in all the other facets of the game.
Despite all the good this group did, the scoring was simply non-existent outside of Bergeron and Krejci, so this bumps them down to a B+. If Coyle and Kuraly contribute any kind of scoring depth in the playoffs, the Bruins will be unstoppable.
Right Wings: C+
Key Players: David Pastrnak, Craig Smith, Chris Wagner, Ondrej Kase, Karson Kuhlman
This is an interesting group. David Pastrnak is arguably the most talented right winger in the league, but he didn’t quite play like it this season. Don’t get me wrong – he has been satisfactory, but not as dynamic as in years past. He went through a scoring slump late in the season, but thankfully Craig Smith picked up the slack.
The former Nashville Predator has been outstanding since the trade deadline. With that being said, when looking at his regular-season performance as a whole, he was quiet for most of the year. The addition of Smith was supposed to address the Bruins’ lack of scoring depth, but he did not live up to that expectation until Taylor Hall came along.
Chris Wagner is a valuable player on the penalty kill, and he mixes it up on the boards. For these reasons, he will probably find himself in the lineup in the first round against Washington. We’ve seen better years from him offensively, but he plays his role well.
Ondrej Kase hardly played at all this year. His absence hurts the right wing’s overall grade because of his anticipated top-six role and how much the Bruins gave up to get him. Hopefully, his most recent injury isn’t serious, and he can see some time in the playoffs. The speedy Karson Kuhlman could also see some playoff time if Boston should meet the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he didn’t do anything worth mentioning in the regular season.
This group largely underwhelmed for most of the season, but Pasta’s 48 points and Smith’s post-deadline resurrection is enough to give them a C+ grade – good, but not great. All Boston really needs is two capable scorers at this position, and they certainly have them.
Left Wings: A-
Key Players: Brad Marchand, Taylor Hall, Nick Ritchie, Jake DeBrusk
Brad Marchand’s performance this year – 69 points in 53 games – has solidified his status as the best-left winger in the NHL. Artemi Panarin and Leon Draisaitl might be more talented scorers, but neither of them does more for his team than Marchand. He will get votes for both the Hart and Selke Trophies.
Nick Ritchie has also done his part this season, giving the team some much-needed scoring depth with 15 goals and an extra hand on the power play. He also showed some nice chemistry with Coyle and Kuraly in the last few weeks of the season. That line can be a physical force in the playoffs. Taylor Hall took Ritchie’s spot on the second line, helped spark a late-season winning streak, and has turned his career around in the span of one month.
Other center/wing hybrids like Kuraly and Frederic filled in seamlessly on the left-wing when they needed to. This is a nice luxury to have, and it certainly paid off this year, with the amount of injuries and lineup changes the Bruins went through.
Jake DeBrusk didn’t impress offensively, but he was still plus-1 on the year and showed defensive improvement on the penalty kill. He also helped win a couple of shootouts, which made the difference in the Bruins getting the three-seed and a more favorable matchup against the Capitals. He doesn’t hurt the grade all that much. If he could regain his confidence, this would be the best position group on the team, from top to bottom.
Bruins Primed for Playoffs
To be clear: this is a regular-season report card. It has no bearing on how I think the Bruins will perform in the playoffs. Even if you disagree with this list, we can all agree on one thing: the Bruins aren’t just a playoff team. The trade deadline additions have elevated them from pretenders to contenders. Las Vegas agrees as the Bruins have the best odds to win the Cup out of any team in the MassMutual East Division.
Boston has a true championship-caliber roster: hardened veterans, young sparkplugs, scoring depth at each forward position, size/physicality, a couple of go-to defensemen, and a healthy, experienced goaltender. While their regular season certainly could have gone better, that road is behind them. The road to the Stanley Cup lies ahead, and the Bruins are primed for a deep playoff run.
I cover the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Fan of all things New England sports.