The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused quite the disruption to the NHL season this past month. Between having to pause the season due to the large outbreaks on teams throughout the league and making the difficult decision to pull out on allowing NHL players to participate in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, it has certainly been a tough few weeks.
The Boston Bruins have had a number of players end up on their COVID list. At one point, Patrice Bergeron, Anton Blidh, Jeremy Swayman, Brad Marchand, Curtis Lazar, Taylor Hall, and Craig Smith were all on the list. Most recently, Brandon Carlo and Charlie Coyle have been added to the list as other players begin to come off.
Due to this, even as the NHL returns to play, the Bruins’ Dec. 29 match-up against the Ottawa Senators has been postponed. At the moment, they will play their first game since Dec. 16 on New Year’s Day against the Buffalo Sabres.
As we gear up to see them back on the ice after what feels like forever, here are three storylines to keep an eye on.
Will They End the Losing Streak?
The Bruins went into this COVID pause on a two-game losing streak and they were not particularly close games. They lost 4 – 1 to the Vegas Golden Knights on Dec. 14 and 3 – 1 to the New York Islanders on Dec. 16. They were two of their worst games of the season to date.
Now, the team did have several notable names on the COVID list at that time. They were playing without Marchand against Vegas. Then against the Islanders, they also lost Bergeron. For several years, the knock-on this roster has been the inability of other forwards to step up when the first line isn’t at the top of their game.
Against Vegas, the lone goal came from Bergeron and against the Islanders, their one goal came from defensemen Mike Reilly. In two games where the Bruins needed the rest of the forwards to contribute, they got nothing. But that has been the story with this team for several seasons now.
With both Marchand and Bergeron back, and going up against the Sabres, the Bruins should hopefully get back into the win column when they resume play.
Who Will Step Up on Defense?
On Dec. 21, the Bruins announced that defensemen Jakub Zboril’s season is officially over as he underwent surgery for a torn ACL. This couldn’t come at a worst time as prior to his injury, he was playing some of his best NHL hockey and was solidifying a spot on the blue line. Given how maligned the team’s 2015 draft is, it was nice to see one of their three first-round picks gaining some momentum.
The defense has had its highs this season, such as Derek Forbort’s surprising offensive mite and Charlie McAvoy’s continued excellence, but there have also been lows and inconsistencies. With new goaltenders in net, who while they have been very good, are not Tuukka Rask, the flaws in the Bruins blue line have been more apparent than in recent seasons.
After a terrific season last year, Grzelcyk has struggled this season, particularly on offense. He has only six points in 26 games and is a minus-2. In 2020-21, he had 20 points in 37 games and was a plus-11. Clifton has only two points in 17 games and is a minus-4. Reilly has been arguably the best out of the three with five points in 23 games and a plus-two. He’s the only one with multiple goals this season.
If Zboril hadn’t gotten hurt, I would have said one of those three would definitely be part of a trade deadline deal. There is still a chance, particularly if the deal brings in a new defenseman, but the Bruins’ depth at the blue line is not what it was a few seasons ago.
I predict that out of the three, Grzelcyk will have the best turnaround in the new year and if anyone is traded, it will be Clifton given the fact he has the lowest cap hit out of the three. If all three continue to struggle, I would implore GM Don Sweeney to give Jack Ahcan a look. He has 11 points in 19 games in the American Hockey League (AHL) and looked good in the one game he’s played up in the NHL this season.
Where Will Goals Come From?
The Bruins desperately need more contributions in the goal-scoring category. Whether it’s from Grzelcyk or one of the forwards, someone needs to step up when the season resumes. As mentioned above, the Bruins only managed one goal in their last game before the COVID pause, in which they were missing both Marchand and Bergeron.
Even having a down season, by his standards, David Pastrnak is still third on this team in goals and points (eight goals and 21 points). The Bruins aren’t worried about him and neither should we. But what we should be worried about is the continued inability of the rest of the forwards to step up when Marchand or Bergeron are absent or when Pastrnak isn’t only playing at a great level, rather than an elite one.
Coyle is the only one who has stepped up this season, but he can’t do it all on his own. As the season resumes, look to guys like Erik Haula and Smith to start picking up the pace.
Last season, Smith really came on in the second half of the season. Hopefully, he got some rest for the lingering injury that’s been bothering him all season and he’ll be ready to go in 2022. While Haula has shown in the past that he can be a real goal-scoring threat. Hopefully, now that he’s had time to adjust and settle in Boston, he’ll be ready to contribute more than his one goal so far this season.
Calendar Flips to 2022
In a few short days, 2021 will be behind us. Overall, it was a fairly flat year for hockey in Boston. In the shortened 2020-21 season, the Bruins had their moments and flashes of excellence but were booted in the second round of the playoffs. So far this season, they’ve been right around average and mediocre.
This next month or two of games will be very telling for the Bruins. Can they get it together and make a real run at the Stanley Cup? We’ve seen teams like the St. Louis Blues, who were in last going into the new year, and then get everything together to go and win the Stanley Cup. Or, are the Bruins truly just the average team we’ve seen all season so far.
The start of 2022 also obviously brings us closer to the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline. Last year, the Bruins were arguably the winners at the deadline with their deals for Hall, Reilly, and Lazar, addressing several areas that needed help. We’ll see if they are able to do that again this season.
I’m Hannah Garfield, a graduate of Elon University with degrees in Film and Media Analytics. Currently, I’m pursuing my MFA in Screenwriting at Boston University. I’m a lifelong, passionate Boston sports fan and love all things Bruins.