Bruins Can Build off Positives From the 2020-21 Season

The Boston Bruins’ hopes of making it back to the Stanley Cup Final were ended prematurely in a six-game, second-round loss to the New York Islanders. As the higher seed, they were projected to win and advance to the Semifinals round, but a disappointing lack of fight and a handful of untimely injuries doomed them. Now, the team has many difficult questions: how will they handle their complicated goaltending situation? Will their free agents re-sign? Can they upgrade at defense?

However, their destiny is still in their own hands. General manager Don Sweeney has the opportunity to address the team’s issues that need attention, and with a productive offseason, could improve their current roster even more. A major reason for this is that, despite a frustrating end in the playoffs, their season had some bright spots that showed potential for a step forward by the group. If they can build off of these strong points, they have a chance to become better Cup contenders.

Blueprint on Offense Is Becoming Clearer

The advent of Taylor Hall at the trade deadline greatly improved the Bruins’ forward group for one big reason: there was no more need to juggle around anyone in the top six. A deadly first line consisting of David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand no longer needed to do all of the heavy lifting on offense. Now, they have had a “1B” line with almost as much firepower in Hall, David Krejci, and Craig Smith. Rolling out these top two lines, especially after a full offseason to work together, could be a menace for opponents on the ice.

The bottom six was a slightly different story; players like Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, and Sean Kuraly had major down-seasons, while the rest seemed to lose what success they had going into the playoffs. However, the issues that need to be addressed are becoming clearer. The fourth line needs improvement, and finding the right player for that role should be a cheap but significant priority for Don Sweeney. Coyle, who may have played poorly due to a recently-disclosed injury throughout the year, could also be a candidate for getting an upgrade at wing to make the third line a difference-maker again.

All that needs to be done is to find a player or two that can improve and stabilize the bottom six. This is a much better situation than those of previous offseasons, in which finding wingers for the second-line was their greatest need. Instead, they now may find solutions to their current offensive issues that are easier on the salary cap and could even come in the form of players already in their organization, like Karson Kuhlman or Trent Frederic.

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Sweeney, however, will also need to make sure that he doesn’t let players like Krejci and Hall walk in free agency (or retire, in Krejci’s case). The team can’t afford to lose either player or wait all offseason for an answer. Hall has expressed a strong desire to re-sign in Boston, but Krejci, who has held the highest-paying contract on the team for several years, is more uncertain; his future in the NHL has come into question, and if he is to return, there’s a chance it will require a decreased salary. It’s a tricky situation that much of the Bruins’ hopes for next season hinge on.

David Krejci Boston Bruins
David Krejci, Boston Bruins (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Even so, their blueprint for improving the forward lineup is evident: bring back the free agents they need and go get a bottom-six player or two. These tasks may require some cap maneuvering via trades but are certainly achievable if Sweeney can identify players this offseason that best fit the roles in question.

The Defense Has a Strong Core to Build Around

The defensemen of the future also showed once again that they are the blueline staples of this team. In a year where they had to shoulder the burden of a less experienced group, and ice-time was pushed more heavily up to the top-two pairings, the trio of Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo gracefully stepped up to the challenge.

A first-pairing of Grzelcyk and McAvoy had a Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 63.6 (percentage of shot attempts that were for the Bruins when they were on the ice) in just under 340 total minutes of ice-time, making them one of the most effective pairings in the league against some of the toughest matchups. McAvoy had a season deserving of a Norris Trophy nomination and continues to elevate the blueline no matter how much talent is around him, while Grzelcyk has grown into his role and quietly worked his magic with consistency.

Charlie McAvoy Boston Bruins
Charlie McAvoy, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Meanwhile, the second pairing became a thing of beauty when Mike Reilly joined the team at the trade deadline. Together, he and Carlo had a 76.92 CF% in 58 minutes of ice-time, rounding out a top-four capable of competing against high-level opponents. Reilly is a free agent this summer, but re-signing him to another cap-friendly deal could be a great move to continue this defensive core’s success.

The upcoming Seattle Expansion Draft will likely force the team to reset their bottom pairing, with players like Connor Clifton and Jeremy Lauzon due to be exposed. Adding talent to the blue line is not only necessary to compensate for the potential loss of these players but also to improve the group. This is perhaps the most important task that Sweeney must address in the offseason.

Adding a bigger left-shot defenseman that can play in the top four would be ideal; this would allow players like Grzelcyk and Reilly to slide down if needed, giving their bottom pairings another boost of talent. This would also solve the issue of “size” that may have hurt the Bruins in the playoffs. While Grzelcyk performed well, there is no question that playing top minutes against some of the best can put a smaller player like him at risk of injury or fatigue. McAvoy has proven that he can play at elite levels with almost anyone on his pairing, so getting him a larger blueline partner that can defend at a suitable level while giving Grzelcyk second-pairing minutes may be the best route to take.

Overall, the Bruins are not in nearly as bad a spot with the defense as recent hand-wringing would have us think. Getting a high-quality defenseman in the offseason is not an easy task. Still, the criteria Sweeney is looking to meet are transparent this time, and the groundwork has already been set for a fresh start for this young blueline. With a little bit of help, they can be a top-level defensive group again.

Jeremy Swayman Is the Future of the Team

If there’s something that every single Bruins fan can be encouraged by from this season, it’s 22-year-old goaltender Jeremy Swayman, who had a .945 save percentage (SV%) in 10 games. He also had a playoff appearance after beating out Jaroslav Halak for the backup spot, in which he demonstrated poise and confidence in a high-pressure environment. There’s no question that the rookie goalie had an incredible NHL debut, but what’s most exciting is that he’s going to be leading this team for years to come.

Jeremy Swayman Boston Bruins
Jeremy Swayman, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Patience is important in this situation – ensuring that they don’t introduce him to a full-time role too early is critical to his development as a future star. However, in the meantime, Bruins fans can be assured that the goaltending position is well taken care of for the long-foreseeable future. From what we saw this past season, it won’t be long before he becomes a fully-fledged star in Boston.

Swayman is a part of the future, but the present time for Boston is also full of possibility. Next season will likely be a final push for the veteran core and the improvements the team must make to their roster are in reach now. There’s no reason to give up on the Bruins after this past season’s disappointing end – with clear direction in this offseason, they can address what went wrong and come back even better in October.

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Advanced statistics and salary cap information from Natural Stat Trick and CapFriendly.


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