When the puck dropped on the 2022-23 season against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena on Oct.12, nobody envisioned that the Boston Bruins would be at the top of the NHL with a 23-4-1 record. Two of their top four defensemen and their first-line left wing and leading scorer from last season began the season sidelined as they recovered from off-season surgeries. Add in a first-year coach in Jim Montgomery, the Bruins were just hoping to tread water until they got fully healthy.
They did more than that in winning 23 of their first 28 games and set a new NHL record by winning their first 14 games on home ice. As the Bruins close in on the 30-game mark of the season, there have been some surprises in the Black and Gold’s lineup that have helped contribute to the record-setting start to the season. Here are three Bruins who have surprised in the first 27 games in 2022-23.
As Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk began the season recovering from their offseason surgeries, a lot of pressure was going to be placed on the goaltending. On Nov. 1, Jeremy Swayman went down with an injury that forced him to miss four weeks, but Linus Ullmark was able to hold down the fort in his teammate’s absence.
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There were questions entering the season as to whether Ullmark would be able to repeat his first solid season in Boston in 2021-22 after signing a four-year, $20 million contract. In 16 games, he is 17-1-0 with a 1.83 goals-against average (GAA) and a .938 save percentage (SV%). He was injured against the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 25 in the third period of a 3-2 overtime win. Fortunately for the Bruins, he avoided a serious injury and benefitted from a break in the schedule where the Bruins had just one game over eight days.
He returned in Boston’s 5-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche at the TD Garden on Dec. 3 and looked like he never skipped a beat. He was challenging shots, making big reactionary saves, and even took a hit in a collision early in the game, but he bounced up and was fine. The Bruins are not sitting on top of the Atlantic Division standings without the strong play in net from Ullmark, who should be the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy two months into the season. His $5 million average annual value (AAV) this season is looking like a steal for the Black and Gold.
To say that the 2021-22 season was a disappointment for Nick Foligno in his first season in Boston would be a major understatement. In 64 games, the veteran forward had two goals and 13 points, but found himself buried on the fourth line in the second half of the season and in the playoffs. The question following last season’s elimination in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven games at the hands of the Hurricanes in seven games in the first round was what was going to happen to the former Columbus Blue Jackets captain.
There were options that general manager (GM) Don Sweeney, to buy him out, or look to trade him, but moving his $3.8 million AAV contract was highly unlikely. Instead, the Bruins held onto him and despite a good training camp, he was placed on waivers on Oct. 9, but cleared without getting claimed and returned to Boston. They are glad he did.
He has looked like a different player this season and more than doubled his goal output already in goals with five and surpassed last season’s total for points with 14. He has been valuable on the penalty kill and is a net-front presence on the second power play unit. He has settled in on the fourth line mostly with Tomas Nosek and A.J. Greer and provides energy shifts for the bottom six. Montgomery had plans for Foligno before the season started and his plans as a spark to the bottom six have been evident from training camp (from ‘Bruins coach Jim Montgomery expects Nick Foligno to bring a spark to third or fourth line,’ Boston Globe, Sept. 26, 2022). A healthy Foligno is a valuable one this season so far for the Bruins.
Sweeney has been trying to get Pavel Zacha in a trade for some time, but it just has not worked out. Finally, in July, the Bruins’ GM acquired him from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Erik Haula. A restricted free agent (RFA), Zacha and the team agreed to a one-year, $3.5 million contract in August and the returns so far this season has been as good as the Bruins hoped they would be.
Zacha brings flexibility to the Bruins and they have needed it this season. He has mostly played on the wing, but when David Krejci went down with an upper-body injury on Oct. 27 against the Detroit Red Wings, he slid into the second-line center spot for the three games Krejci missed. He has been a mainstay on the second line with Krejci and David Pastrnak when all three are healthy. His best play of the season so far happened against the Golden Knights on Dec. 11. In a 1-1 third-period tie with a saucer pass across the front Vegas goalie Logan Thompson and Jake DeBrusk one-timed the pass for the game-winning goal.
Last season he had what could be considered a breakout season with the Devils with 15 goals and 21 assists for a career-high 36 points. This season, the sixth overall pick of the 2015 Entry Draft is on pace to shatter his career high in points. In 23 games, he has three goals and 16 assists for 19 points, which averages out to 56 points over an 82-game season. What has been important has been his ability in all situations to be a playmaker and find the right opening to make a pass. So far, Boston is getting the sixth overall pick version of Zacha.
When Krejci, who is currently day-to-day with an injury, left to return home to his home country of Czechia following the 2020-21 season, many thought that his career in Boston and the NHL was over. Not so fast.
On Aug. 8, the Bruins announced that they signed Krejci to a one-year contract with incentives to return and he has answered the questions if he could make the transition back to the NHL game. He has been able to do that in 23 games and then some. He has eight goals and 13 assists, with the eight goals being the same number he had in 51 games in a 56-game shortened 2020-21 season. Nine of his 21 points have come on the power play.
Krejci has solidified the second-line center spot behind Patrice Bergeron and is on pace for his fifth 20-goal season in the NHL. When the Bruins are healthy, the case can be made that the second line of Zacha, Krejci, and David Pastrnak is their best 5-on-5 line, something that’s only able to happen because of Krejci’s return.
When the Bruins fired Bruce Cassidy and hired Montgomery over the summer, a new system was going to be put into place on the ice. It is a system that allows freedom to the defensemen in the offensive end. One player that is taken advantage of not only the offensive part of the game for the blueliners, but is also playing the best he’s played in his career in the defensive zone is Connor Clifton.
The former Quinnipiac College standout has two goals and nine assists in 28 games with a plus/minus of plus-13. He already has landed 45 shots on the net, dished out 82 hits, and is averaging a career-high nightly time on ice at 19:35. He has been paired with Derek Forbort for most of the year and they have been a very solid pairing.
There were nights in the last couple of seasons when Clifton was in the lineup and you have to pay attention closely to notice him. Not this season. His most recent noticeable night was on Dec. 11 when he registered seven hits in the Bruins’ 3-1 win over the Golden Knights.
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There are other options that could have been on this list, the truth is, these five have become a valuable part of the 2022-23 Bruins and their starts have been unexpected, to say the least. You know what you’re going to get from the stars on the team, but Ullmark, Foligno, Zacha, Krejci, and Clifton have been pleasant surprises on a team that has surprised just about everyone outside of their locker room through the first 25 games of the season.