One of the more stunning moves made by the Boston Bruins last offseason was firing former coach Bruce Cassidy. The Bruins were one of the most successful teams in the second half last season, but the front office decided that the team would benefit from a new voice behind the bench for the 2022-23 season.
With a veteran core that is getting older with each passing season, the Bruins went outside the box when they hired Jim Montgomery. For general manager (GM), Don Sweeney, the former Dallas Stars coach who spent the last two seasons as an assistant coach with Craig Berube with the St. Louis Blues checked all the boxes he was looking for in his next coach. Apparently, he also checked the boxes of some of his players.
Montgomery implemented a new system, one that was more up-tempo that allows players to use their speed and skill sets, while unlocking the defense and allowing them more freedom offensively. Fourteen games into the season, the Bruins are 12-2-0 and they have some players that are greatly benefiting from the new system under their first-year coach.
More freedom for the defense is playing into the hands to multiple players, including Hampus Lindholm. He struggled following the trade last March from the Anaheim Ducks with injuries and never really settled in, but this season, he’s healthy and despite playing without Charlie McAvoy for the first 13 games, he’s been producing at a high level.
Playing in all situations, he has been averaging 24:13 a night and is tied for third among defensemen with 13 points on four goals and nine assists. He has assumed the spot on the four forward, one defenseman first power play unit, but he is showing off his offensive skills in each situation, something that was not seen as much when he was with the Ducks. His best single performance so far this season was against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 1. With the Bruins trailing 5-2 in the second period, he assisted on three consecutive regulation goals to force overtime, then he won the game in the extra session. After Patrice Bergeron won a defensive zone face-off, Lindholm skated the length of the ice and beat Tristan Jarry with a wrist shot for the 6-5 win.
With McAvoy back in the lineup, that should take some pressure off of Lindholm in terms of production, but a McAvoy/Lindholm paring has the makings of being one of the top ones in the league. Look for McAvoy to also thrive in the new system once he gets some games under his belt.
One player that is taking advantage of the freedom allowed by the defense is Connor Clifton. He has one goal and five assists this season, but the former Quinnipiac University defenseman is in a contract year and is making a case to stay beyond this season in Boston. He was paired with Derek Forbort before Forbort got injured and had hand surgery, but Clifton has moved up and down the lineup playing very well with whoever he’s paired with.
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Clifton is averaging over 21 minutes a night this season and has already landed 27 shots on the net. He has been physical with several big hits and he has sacrificed his body with 22 blocks. His biggest improvement has been his ability to read the play in the offensive end, and make smart and safe pinches at the blueline to keep the offensive pressure on the opponent. Forbort and Lindholm have been getting the headlines on defense with the start of the season they have had, but Clifton is benefitting greatly from Montgomery’s system.
What a difference a year makes for Nick Foligno. In 64 games last season, the veteran forward struggled with just two goals and 13 points, buried in the bottom six, mainly on the fourth line at the end of the season. Over the summer, Montgomery said that he had plans for the former Columbus Blue Jackets captain and Foligno is carving out a role like Montgomery had hoped he would in the bottom six and is also producing offensively, something the Bruins’ first-year coach predicted during training camp.
‘‘I think you can get 10 goals and up from a third- or fourth-line guy. And that’s even-strength goals. I don’t know if he’s playing power play yet or not. If he does, then [the goal total] will go up if he gets second-unit time.”Jim Montgomery (from ‘Bruins coach Jim Montgomery expects Nick Foligno to bring a spark to third or fourth line,’ Boston Globe, Sept. 26, 2022)
Ten goals at the time seemed like a big reach, but just 14 games into the season, Foligno is well on his way to reaching that number as he is getting time on the second power-play unit. He has four goals, and three assists for seven points and is a valuable player in all situations. Montgomery’s system is working perfectly for the 34-year-old who has been much more active down low in the opponent’s zone, creating chances.
“He really understands what our team is going to have success with, and that’s being a heavy team down low,” Foligno said. “He talks about wearing out the goal line. That’s conducive to a lot of guys in this room. So I think just that messaging alone plays into a lot of guys’ hands where they feel like the offense can start to come because of that. They’re more comfortable. The reads you can make down low, you don’t get burned on as many times if it doesn’t work out. There’s still a 200-foot game that a team has to get to. I think he’s given the guys some freedom to open up, especially on the power play, where our looks — our power play has always been good — but I think those guys feel freed up to make some more plays.”
There is no doubt that Foligno looks like a different player this season and the system has a lot to do with it, getting the freedom to play to his style. He is playing better below the circles and creating more chances for himself and his teammates. There is no better example than in the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Nov. 10. On the first two Boston goals, he supplied a screen in front of Flames netminder Dan Vladar as a distraction. There is no guarantee that he reaches 10 goals, but if he continues to play the way he has, anything is possible.
Boston began the season minus Brad Marchand, Matt Grzelcyk, and McAvoy, but not even the most optimistic fan could have seen the start the Black and Gold have had. They are getting healthy and the numbers should only go up with Montgomery’s system, especially after inserting McAvoy, the Bruins’ best offensive defenseman into the lineup.