Bruins’ Have Options to Shake-up Top-Six Forwards

The Boston Bruins have quietly collected points in five straight games. They are hanging around in the Eastern Conference playoff positioning and are doing it on the strength of their goaltending, which has helped them secure their string of points.

In the overall picture of their point streak, it is pretty amazing that the Bruins are collecting at least one point a night during their recent play. They were missing Brad Marchand for part of the streak as he served a three-game suspension for slew-footing Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 28. That put a strain on the limited depth the Black and Gold have behind their top line in terms of production.

Yes, the Bruins are hovering around in the Eastern Conference in mediocrity and if they stay there all season, there’s a good chance that they will find themselves on the outside looking in when the playoffs begin in the spring. With Boston returning home from their three-game Western Canada road trip, it is time for coach Bruce Cassidy, who has been sidelined since Nov. 30 in COVID protocols, to shake up the top-six.

Bruins Struggles Continue Behind First Line

On the recent trip, it was not a very good three games for some of the Bruins’ top players they are expecting big things from this season. In the first game of the trip in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Canucks, Boston was lucky to even grab a point and can thank Jeremy Swayman for that. The rookie netminder stopped 35 of the 36 shots fired at him, but was unable to save his team in the shootout, giving up two goals.

Down the other end, the Bruins managed 32 shots on Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko, but it was who didn’t get a shot on the net. Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak combined for 17 of the 32 shots on the net in the game, while Taylor Hall failed to land a shot on the net, and Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith each had one. Dive down a little further on the roster and Jake DeBrusk, Nick Foligno, and Erik Haula combined for four. Connor Clifton, a defenseman that has been seldom used this season, had three himself. 

Brad Marchand Patrice Bergeron Boston Bruins
Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Fast forward one night later in a 3-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers, the Bruins had 30 shots on net, with the first line combining for 10. The second line of Hall, Coyle, and Smith had three, but they did set up Matt Grzelcyk for the game-winning goal with under three minutes left. This time, Linus Ullmark stood on his head in the net, making 39 saves to give his team a chance to win the game late and steal two points against the talented Oilers.

Against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 11, the top-six combined for 16 of the Bruins 27 shots on the net in a 4-2 win, which is something they have been missing in their recent stretch. Hall had three of the shots, while the top line combined for 12. While that was a good sign, can it be sustainable? Not if recent history tells us anything.

Boston’s second-line is one of the most inconsistent lines on the team. One night they look like they are turning a corner, the next night they are too non-existent. That can’t continue, especially with the bottom-six having so many questions as well. Despite one good game against the Flames, there is still a need for a shakeup with the top-six. 

A Top-Six Shakeup Needed for the Bruins

When Marchand was suspended, Hall moved to the first line with Bergeron and Pastrnak and was a different player. He looked like the player the Bruins acquired at the trade deadline in April that thrived next to David Krejci on the second line. He was active all over the ice, shooting the puck whenever he had an opportunity, and had some of his best skating games of the 2021-22 season. Since Marchand came back, Hall has turned into the player the Buffalo Sabres moved on from last season.

When Krejci left over the summer to continue his career in his home county of the Czech Republic, that left a hole in the middle of the second line that the Bruins have yet to figure out. Coyle has not played badly in that spot this season, but he is not the playmaker that Krejci or even Bergeron is that Hall needs to thrive. 

Related: Former Bruins’ Forward David Krejci is Dominating Czech League

There are some different ways Cassidy and his staff can choose to go with making changes. Jack Studnicka, who played very well in training camp and in the preseason games he played in with Hall, did everything that was asked of him before camp started, yet he found himself with the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season. He has proved to everyone that when he’s playing his natural position at center, he is a different player than when he’s on the wing. Bringing up Studnicka is worth a shot.

Jack Studnicka Boston Bruins
Jack Studnicka, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Another move would be to send Pastrnak down to the second line and move Smith up to the first. That is not a demotion to Pastrnak, but moving Smith up to the first line with Marchand and Bergeron could get him going, while moving Pastrnak down to Hall and Coyle brings a different sense to the line than Smith does.

After those two moves, the Bruins, hands are tied. Unless a trade including DeBrusk is made, it might be some time before there is help from outside of the organization. DeBrusk, despite playing well since his trade request two weeks ago, is not the answer in moving him to the second line in place of Hall. Nick Foligno, Erik Haula, or anyone else would not be the answer either.

It is pretty amazing that Boston has hung around and collected points in five straight games considering how the offense has struggled. They can look no further than Swayman and Ullmark to thank. With the way things are going now, it’s not good enough for the Bruins to hang with the top teams in the conference. With a tough schedule the remainder of the month, both on the road and at home, Boston needs to start mixing and matching their top-six to get some of the players they are counting on going. If not, then it will be a long 58 remaining games this season.

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