It’s that time again to look back at the previous month and sort various moments into the categories of good, bad, and ugly. There is plenty to reflect on for the Boston Bruins, as March had its share of ups and downs. It was probably their worst month of the season so far, and the team has a lot to improve on as the calendar flips to April.
But as always, let’s start on the positives from the past month.
Three Bruins players made their NHL debuts this month.
Goaltender Dan Vladar had his first career start in goal on March 16 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s been pulled up from the AHL to back up Jaroslav Halak after Tuukka Rask was injured with an unspecified upper-body injury against the New Jersey Devils on March 7. He missed several games and then re-aggravated it during the first period of the Bruins overtime loss to the New York Islanders on March 25. This opened the door for Vladar’s second career start on March 27 against the Buffalo Sabres.
Vladar won both of his NHL starts in March and looked good during them. It’s a small sample size, including his April 1 loss to the Penguins, but he has a .929 save percentage and a 2.03 goals-against average. With Rask still not practicing, he has more starts in his future, especially with a hectic, packed schedule for the second half of the season.
Oskar Steen also made his NHL debut against the Penguins on March 16. The 2016 sixth-round draft pick had some success in 60 games down in Providence last year, but has really been off to a great start in the 2020-21 season. He had 12 goals and 15 points in 16 games while playing on loan in Sweden and then in 13 AHL games, he had eight points. Given the Bruins’ struggles with scoring, it made sense to give him a look.
He played less than 10 minutes against the Penguins and then 14 minutes two days later against the Sabres. He was held off the scoresheet in both games. He was sent back to Providence on March 25. If he does well down there, hopefully the team will consider giving him another look up in Boston before the season is over.
Finally, defenseman Jack Ahcan made his NHL debut on March 18 against the Sabres. He played almost 18 minutes and had three shots on goal. He was an NCAA free-agent signing last spring out of St. Cloud State, where in 33 games last season, he had seven goals and 25 points. He was also the captain. So far in 2021, he has played games in both the AHL and ECHL. He was returned to Providence earlier this week.
Finally Played Against Buffalo
The Bruins were supposed to play the last-ranked Sabres back in February, but had the road trip canceled due to a COVID-19 outbreak. They finally had their first matchup in Buffalo on March 18. If you somehow haven’t heard, the Sabres snapped an 18-game losing streak this week. Check out The Hockey Writers‘ coverage of the Sabres if you want to read more, including Nick Richardson’s Report Card for the first half of the season.
Given how competitive the MassMutual East Division is this season between the Bruins, Islanders, Penguins, and Washington Capitals, playing the Sabres is a nice break, even if you can’t be completely complacent as the March 27 matchup was way too close. Their March 18 game came after a rough series against the New York Rangers and a difficult back-to-back in Pittsburgh.
The Bruins were able to get goals out of Jake DeBrusk and Craig Smith, who have both had struggles scoring at various points during this season. Gregg McKegg also got his first goal as a Bruin, and David Pastrnak scored his 14th of the season. It was a good night for the team, one they were in need of.
Matt Grzelcyk has been a solid presence on the blue line for a few years now, but this season has really seen terrific growth for him, even if it’s been slightly hampered by injuries. In March, though, he was finally able to play some solid minutes and show why he belongs with Charlie McAvoy as the Bruins’ top defensive pairing.
In 20 games this season, 13 of which came in March, Grzelcyk has three goals and eight assists for 11 points, five of which have come on the power play. All three of his goals came in March. He is also a plus-2. In a month that really exposed the Bruins’ issues on offense, the 27-year-old was one of the few bright spots.
With Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara departing this past offseason, it was expected that he and McAvoy would step into a lot of their roles with the team. This plan has paid off more than people were expecting. McAvoy has been phenomenal all season and has played himself into the Norris Trophy consideration, and now that Grzelcyk is finally healthy, he’s showing how much he’s grown into his new role as well.
The two of them together have been an extraordinary defensive pairing. In 141:15 of even strength play together, the Bruins are outshooting opponents 96-35 and have seven goals for and one goal against (Conroy, “Bruins Notebook: Charlie McAvoy-Matt Grzelcyk pairing an eye-opening success,” Boston Herald, March 28, 2021). It remains to be seen how much time they will actually play together, though, especially with rookies Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril having some struggles as of late, and Kevan Miller continuing to deal with issues in his knee that kept him out for over a year.
Top Line Struggles
The top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Pastrnak, have been covering up a lot of the issues with the Bruins for several years now. The three of them can produce at a high enough rate, that as long as the rest of the team can keep the puck out of their own net, they will win games.
The problems with the Bruins’ depth are emphasized when Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak have bad games and no one else can step up. All three of them had struggles last month.
Pastrnak is in the middle of a five game goal drought, and has only had one assist and is a minus-one in the final stretch of games to close out the month. He had only five goals in the month of March, compared to nine in February. Bergeron had only two goals and seven points last month, and hasn’t scored since March 11. Marchand was the best out of the three of them with 13 total points, though only three goals. He scored twice against the Capitals on March 5 and then didn’t score again until their March 30 matchup with the Devils.
These are still decent numbers. Going through slumps isn’t uncommon and can be expected to happen throughout a season. But, with the way the Bruins are constructed at the moment, anything less than elite, extraordinary play from the top line can be detrimental. There simply isn’t enough depth to score goals when they aren’t at the top of their game, and hockey games can’t be won without goals.
Scoring Continues to Be an Issue
I’m not going to spend much time on this section because it is already pretty well known that scoring deth is a problem for the Bruins. There’s a lot out there to read about the team’s issues with scoring, especially here on The Hockey Writers.
The Bruins have scored 86 goals so far this season. 38 have come from the top line, 10 from Nick Ritchie, and then 38 are from the rest of the team. Four guys account for over 50% of the goals scored. With Marchand, Bergeron, and Pastrnak not at the top of their games last month, this team did not look great, even in their wins.
DeBrusk has been the guy to bear the brunt of the criticism this season and even found himself benched for a game at the beginning of March, but this problem is bigger than just one player. Smith has had good moments, but he isn’t the missing piece the team was hoping for when they signed him this offseason. Charlie Coyle has gone long stretches without getting on the scoresheet. David Krejci, while he has 20 assists, only has one goal.
It’s the same issue the team had last year, the year before that, and the year before that. There is lots of discussion out there about what and who the Bruins should target at the trade deadline to provide a “solution,” but as we’ve seen in past years, one right wing isn’t going to suddenly fix the issue of depth scoring. The fingers are turning inward, as questions are beginning to arise about the work ethic of the team, particularly the forwards. In the most recent stretch of games, even when they win, they just look uninspired.
Something needs to change and someone in the current group of forwards needs to step up. There really isn’t much time left, as head coach Bruce Cassidy is becoming increasingly frustrated, particularly with the lack of desire on the ice and work ethic of the team.
Injuries continue to play a big role in shaping the Bruins’ season. Ondrej Kase has been out with an upper body injury since the second game of the season and there is still no timetable for his return. Defenseman John Moore, who has only played in a few games in 2021, had season ending hip surgery on March 22. Miller hasn’t played since February due to issues with his knee. Rask remains day-to-day.
The good news on the injury front is that Brandon Carlo, who was injured in a scary hit from Tom Wilson on March 5 that resulted in a concussion, returned to play against the Devils on March 30. The bad news is that he’s once again on the injury report after leaving Thursday’s game against the Penguins. The Bruins have seen big pieces of their team go fairly long stretches without playing this season. In the case of Grzelcyk, it has been multiple stretches.
As I wrote in the February edition of the good, bad, and ugly, the biggest issue with the injuries isn’t just that important players are being sidelined, but that those getting an opportunity to play in light of them, aren’t stepping up and taking advantage of it. Maybe this is part of the work ethic issues that Cassidy has spoken on recently, but there seems to be a lack of “next man up” mentality.
The Bruins had their first Covid Outbreak in their locker room of the season. It started on March 18 when Sean Kuraly tested positive prior to their 4 – 1 win against the Sabres. The next day, four more players were added to the Covid protocol list and their Saturday, March 20 game against the Sabres and Tuesday, March 23 game against the Islanders were both cancelled. All their facilities were closed until Wednesday, March 24.
We’re still in a global pandemic, even as portions of the world are becoming vaccinated. The Coronavirus is still a threat, even as the Bruins welcomed fans back to the Garden last month. DeBrusk remains on the Covid list and has yet to return to practice this week. At this moment, there is still no “clear timetable for his return.”
This is the third time this season the Bruins have had a prolonged, unexpected break due to Covid protocols. This time it was worse because they were the ones with the outbreak. This has created quite the packed schedule for the team, as they now have 17 games in the month of April. The end of their season was also recently pushed out to May 11.
Given this team is already dealing with injuries, this many games in that short of a time frame, very well may prove problematic for the B’s. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Ondrej Kase Done for the Season?
At the beginning of March, Bruins general manager, Don Sweeney, gave an update on Kase, who has not played since January. His entire statement is below.
“He’s back on the ice, but there is zero timetable for when he returns. It’s just whatever medically allows him to continue to progress and he’ll do so. He’s eager to play, but sometimes things just take their own natural course to get past where he needs to.”– Ty Anderson, “Bruins confirm there’s ‘zero timetable’ for an Ondrej Kase return,” 98.5 The Sports Hub, March 10, 2021.
Kase is no stranger to injuries. In fact, when the Bruins traded for him at last season’s deadline from the Anaheim Ducks, he missed the first few games while recovering from an injury. Since making his NHL debut in 2016, he has yet to play a full season of games.
A few years ago, Kase was shaping up to be a great story in the NHL. He was a 2014 seventh-round draft pick, 205th overall, and had little expectations for making the league. In 53 games in the 2016-17 season, he had 15 points, but then burst onto the scene in 2017-18 with 38 points in 66 games. Of those 38 points, 20 were goals. Suddenly, there was a lot of talk of his potential as a goal scorer in the league.
Since then, he played only 30 games in 2018-19 and 55 in 2019-20. His current injury is suspected to be a concussion, even though it is only listed as a vague “upper body” injury. He has at least five on-the-record concussions and is only 25-years-old.
Kase’s continued absence from the team in March, along with Sweeney’s statements, put his injury in the ugly category for multiple reasons. First, he’s not playing and is a guy that the team is paying a decent amount. Even if his tenure with the Bruins has only resulted in five assists in 19 games, the scorer that he was in Anaheim is someone this team desperately needs.
Secondly, and most importantly, this injury has the potential to reach beyond the game of hockey. Knowing the little we do about the links between concussions and their long-term health effects, when do we become concerned for his general welfare? No one wants to see a guy’s life permanently affected by head injuries, even if it means he never becomes the player Boston needs him to be.
Trade Deadline Is Fast Approaching
March was not a great month for the Bruins and as we approach closer to the April 12 NHL Trade Deadline, there is a lot of speculation on what should be done to fix this team. Sweeney will probably make a move at the deadline, but I’m skeptical to how effective this will be. As the struggles of the top line this month showed, one person can’t completely save a team.
Something needs to change from within. Whether it does or not, well, we’ll have to see as the season draws nearer to its close.
So that’s it for March. What would you change or add to these categories? Comment below what you found good, bad, and ugly from the Bruins last month.
I’m Hannah Garfield, a graduate of Elon University with degrees in Film and Media Analytics. I’m a lifelong, passionate Boston sports fan and love all things Bruins.