Entering the 2022-23 season, the Boston Bruins will be without Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy, and Matt Grzelcyk, who are all recovering from off-season surgeries. It will be a tall order for first-year coach Jim Montgomery to keep his team within striking distance of an Eastern Conference playoff spot until they get healthy.
If Boston is going to clinch a spot in the 2023 playoffs, they are going to have to survive some of the 82-game grind of an NHL season, there is a path, but they have to have a lot of things go right. The Bruins will make the playoffs if…….
Swayman & Ullmark Come Close to Repeat 2021-22 Performances
Missing two of your top-four defensemen is not ideal, especially for the Black and Gold’s goalies, Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. Last season, the duo provided a surprisingly good combination and was the backbone of a 51-win season after a slow start. Without McAvoy and Grzelcyk, the Bruins will need the duo to repeat their success from a season ago.
Swayman went 23-14-3 with a 2.41 goals against average (GAA) and a .914 save percentage (SV%). In his first taste of NHL hockey in 2020-21, he won seven of his 10 games with a 1.50 GAA and a.945 SV%. Ullmark struggled in the preseason last season, but had a big regular season. He went 26-10-2 with a 2.45 GAA and a .917 SV%. If the Bruins are going to get a postseason berth, both goalies will have to come close, if not repeat their success from a year ago.
Zacha & DeBrusk Have Big Offensive Seasons
General manager (GM) Don Sweeney had a quiet free agency because of limited cap space this summer, but he did pull off a trade in July by sending Erik Haula to the New Jersey Devils for Pavel Zacha. Sweeney has tried to get Zacha from Devils’ GM Tom Fitzgerlad in the past, but it wasn’t until this summer he got the sixth overall pick of the 2015 Entry Draft. During his time with New Jersey, they were waiting for Zacha to have a breakout season, but he was never able to put any consistency together, something the Bruins hope he can do this season.
DeBrusk rescinded his trade request in July after Montgomery was hired as head coach and the Bruins’ first-year bench boss hopes that DeBrusk can begin the season playing and producing the way he ended last season (from ‘Jake DeBrusk explained why he rescinded his trade request,’ Boston Globe, 9/13/22). He finished with 25 goals, two shy of his career-high in 2018-19, and without Marchand, Boston will need at least 25 goals, if not 30, and possibly more this season if a playoff berth is in reach.
Zacha and DeBrusk will likely begin the season on the first line with Patrice Bergeron, with Zacha dropping down to the third line once Marchand returns. Playing two months with a player of Bergeron’s caliber can give the young forward confidence for when he slides down in the lineup later in the season. A combined 50 or more goals from these two players will go a long way toward helping to get a playoff berth next spring.
Both Power Play & Penalty KIll Return to the Top 10 League Rankings
Last season, the Bruins power play dipped to the middle of the pack in the league and finished 15th overall. They were able to survive it, but they could be in trouble if they are around that number this season. Montgomery has been experimenting with a five-forward power play, something that former coach Bruce Cassidy went to a lot in the 2020-21 season and was successful. There is no shortage of talent that the Bruins can send over the boards on the man advantage, but they need to be productive, especially without Marchand and McAvoy, two key members of the first unit. DeBrusk, David Krejci, and others will need to pick up the slack until they get healthy.
The power play had its struggles in 2021-22, but the penalty killing was up and down, finishing ninth in the NHL. Derek Forbort and Brandon Carlo have formed a top-killing unit pair on defense, with Bergeron and Marchand leading the forward grouping that also includes some of the fourth-line grinders. Without Marchand, who had two shorthanded goals last season, the penalty-killing depth will be tested early in the season. Staying out of the penalty box this season is a must.
Boston is in a Playoff Spot or Just Out of Spot at American Thanksgiving
Generally where you are in the standings around American Thanksgiving can go a long way in determining if you are a playoff team or not. Last season the Bruins slumped early in the year and found themselves on the outside looking in of a berth on Jan. 1 after a league-wide COVID-19 shutdown, but they were able to put together a solid second half of the season to overcome teams in the standings and qualify for the postseason.
Boston can’t bank on something like that happening again when they get fully healthy, which makes the beginning of the season even more important. Without Marchand’s offensive production and McAvoy and Grzelcyk on defense, they have to figure out a way to be in the right spot in the standings on Nov. 24. They are expected to be fully healthy around that time, so being in the right spot in the standings is going to be key.
Health Does Not Become an Issue
It’s hard to navigate through an NHL season without injuries as they will pop up at different times during the season with every team. Missing Marchand, McAvoy, and Grzelcyk at the beginning of the season is tough enough, but having other players go down could be crippling to an older team. Now, Taylor Hall is out week-to-week with an injury and that is already going to test the Bruins’ left wing depth.
Boston is not blessed with a lot of deep prospect talent that can slide in and fill a hole in the top-six up front or on defense should someone go down that logs over 20 minutes a night. Goaltending-wise, they could survive an injury as Keith Kinkaid is an experienced NHL backup, but that would put a lot of pressure on either Swayman or Ullmark to play a lot more games.
Health with every team is an issue, but the Bruins feel like they are playing on thin ice with key bodies already down for the first couple of months. The Eastern Conference got tougher over the offseason and a playoff berth is not a guarantee for the Black and Gold. If they are going to get one, they will need most, if not all, of these to come true in Montgomery’s first year behind the bench.
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Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma. Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.