While the world has endured many difficulties in recent months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL’s recent announcement of a 24-team playoff has sparked a sense of optimism. Daily tracking of the outbreak has mercifully been replaced by the analysis of potential match-ups of the 24 postseason teams.
Although the 16 play-in teams can officially begin to evaluate and plan for their opponents, the Boston Bruins must wait until this round is complete to find out their first-round combatant. Given that this won’t be decided until August, at the earliest, Bruins fans must look elsewhere for optimism. One reason for hope is that several prominent Bruins players are likely to benefit from the extended pause in the NHL season. Despite the lengthy layoff, projections indicate that multiple core players will see their games improve heading into the playoffs.
Zdeno Chara is the poster boy for pause-related improvement, as all signs point to the time off substantially benefitting his game. He has logged just over 21 minutes of ice time per night this season, and those minutes were starting to take a toll on his 43-year-old frame. In the final two months of the regular season, he skated in 18 contests registering just one assist. Compare that to the first two months of his season (5 goals, 7 assists in 26 games), and you begin to see that the big man was starting to wear down.
This decline in production was not lost on head coach Bruce Cassidy, as he cut Chara’s 21:50 ATOI by nearly a full minute in February and March. Given that players will have had nearly five months to rest and recuperate heading into playoffs, he should return with a vengeance seldom seen outside of a Die Hard movie.
Another Bruin likely to experience a boost coming out of the break is David Krejci. Similar to his countryman Chara, Krejci experienced a rather substantial drop-off in production down the stretch compared to the beginning of the 2019-20 campaign.
In October and November, Krejci produced at nearly a point-per-game clip, tallying five goals and 14 assists in his first 20 games. His shooting percentage during this stretch was an impressive 16.1%; however, this dropped to just 3.8% in his final 18 contests. Taking his tendency for hot starts into account, it is reasonable to suggest that he is in line for a strong postseason performance.
Next on the list of Bruins is the perennial Selke Trophy candidate, Patrice Bergeron. Over the last three seasons, he has missed 44 games due to injury, including nine during the 2019-20 campaign. Despite this, he remains one of the game’s premier two-way forwards, even at nearly 35 years of age.
While Bergeron’s defensive game is virtually unparalleled, it is his offensive production that should see a boost when hockey returns this summer. He notched 14 points in 18 games prior to the pause, but fresh legs propelled him to 24 points in just 20 games to start the season. A few extra months to heal and prepare for the playoffs will undoubtedly help him return to his most dominant form. Watch out, Goku.
Finally, one of the most interesting players to benefit from the premature conclusion to the NHL season is David Pastrnak. While Pasta is expected to be a dominant force in the playoffs, it was not nearly as certain that he would take home the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, as the NHL’s leading goal-scorer, had the season been completed.
Tied at 48 goals with Alexander Ovechkin at the time of the pause, Pastrnak was in a tight race with other NHL heavyweights such as Auston Matthews (47) and Leon Draisaitl (43). Pastrnak propelled himself into the league-lead with 24 goals in his first 26 games of the season but saw other players begin to close the gap down the stretch.
As over a quarter of the season has now officially been lost, we will never know who would have taken home the Rocket after 82 games. We can look to more hypothetical metrics such as Expected Goals in order to estimate a player’s output, but unfortunately, that measure does not support Pastrnak’s case. His 29.9 xGoals is bested by Ovechkin’s 34.1, and Draisaitl’s 30.5, while narrowly edging out Matthews (28.7).
However, Pastrnak still has the opportunity to silence any doubters come playoff time. I’m sure a Conn Smythe Trophy would look pretty nice sitting next to the Rocket Richard that Ovechkin has inevitably sawed in half.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of how we get there, this postseason promises to be as captivating as any in recent memory. Although the announcement of playoff reseeding greatly diminishes our capacity to forecast the Bruins’ first round opponent, fans can take comfort in knowing the core of the team should experience a substantial boost heading into that match-up. As the Bruins were already a dominant force, the additional rest afforded by the extended pause in the NHL season should make the B’s a favorite in virtually any postseason series.