By Neal Lyons
With a new season of Bruins hockey upon us, let’s take a look at four talking points.
1. The right-wing situation
Here we go again. It’s like Groundhog Day. Four years later and we’re still trying to replace Reilly Smith. That’s right, I said it! I’m pretty sure we’ve been forever cursed for trading Marc Savard’s contract, but we’ll save that for another day.
As it stands, Karson Kuhlman has earned an extended audition. I wouldn’t say he had a spectacular camp, but there wasn’t much competition, and he was excellent when called upon last spring. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t hurt you. A former university captain, Kuhlman is excellent on the forecheck and positionally responsible. He’s cut from the Bruin mold.
But will he produce??
I have my doubts, but David Krejci’s carried worse. If Kuhlman can be Jake Debrusk and David’s little workhorse, creating space and helping to put the puck on their sticks, thats maybe all the Bruins need. Ideally, he’s a bottom-six forward but, unless someone comes along who can knock him down the depth chart, he’ll have to do.
2. Will a rookie make a splash?
It seems like every year, the Bruins get a gift in the form of a young guy, stepping up to contribute.
Last year it was Connor Clifton and Kuhlman.
The year before, it was Heinen, Debrusk & Grzelcyk, with honorable mention to Acciari and his 10 goals.
In 2016/17, it was Brandon Carlo during the regular season, and then McAvoy and Kuraly burst onto the scene during the six-game series, versus Ottawa.
In 2015/16, it was Frank Vatrano and Colin Miller. If you recall, that was also Spooner’s 49 point, break out, season.
In 2014/15, it was Pasta.
In 2013/14, it was Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, and Kevan Miller.
In 2012/13, it was Dougie, and then Torey Krug during the playoff run.
And so on and so on.
So who will it be this year??
I genuinely believe Anders Bjork uses his demotion as motivation and will be back up with the big club very soon. He was building some chemistry with Coyle and Heinen. That would be an ideal spot for him and would give the Bruins more speed and skill on their third line. Besides his health, finding a way to score has been his biggest obstacle. I believe the production will come through.
Another possibility would be Jakub Zboril, who was one of the last cuts from camp. I think you could also throw fellow lefties, Urho Vaakanainen and Jeremy Lauzon, into the mix on D. Upfront, Trent Frederic, Jack Studnicka, or maybe this is the year Zach Senyshyn finds his way. It’s anyone’s guess but, if the last few years have been any indication, someone will make the jump.
3. New faceoff rules
If you’re not already aware, the NHL added a couple of interesting tweaks to their faceoff rules. Namely, that attacking teams will be able to pick which side of the ice the puck will be dropped after an icing or to begin a power play. In less frequent occurrences, they’ll also be able to choose which side when a goalie freezes a shot that comes from beyond the red line, or when a defensive skater unintentionally knocks the net off.
You would have to assume that this will be a plus for the Bruins, who were a top 10 team in faceoff percentage, last season. With the man advantage, they were second. Being able to choose what dot the occasional attacking zone draw is on should only strengthen those statistics. Not to mention, give us more offensive opportunities.
And then there’s Patrice Bergeron. Consistently near the top of the league in faceoff percentage (56.6% last year), it’s interesting to note that his percentage was higher when it came to offensive draws (59.7%), and even higher on the power play (62.6%).
A player as cerebral as he is, he’ll know what dot will be better to his advantage in these situations. Being right-handed, he likely prefers the right side, but I’m sure there will be times when he sees fit to take on a lesser center on their weaker side, even if it’s also his own.
You can guarantee that the data is already out there (at least I’d hope so), and teams will be looking to utilize it in their favor. It’ll be interesting to see which teams and players benefit the most by season’s end.
4. The progress vs decline ratio
If you follow me on Twitter, I have made this statement a few times in the past couple of years:
If the progress of our youth is more significant than the decline of our vets, we’re looking pretty good.
As far as this ratio goes, last year, we were blessed. Marchand, Bergeron, and Krejci all had career years, while most of our youth took another step, as well. Career highs in goals and points for David Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk bettered his rookie goal total by nearly 70%, Brandon Carlo established himself as one of the league’s best when it comes to defensive impact, and Matt Grzelcyk left little doubt that he’s ready for more than bottom pairing minutes.
With his new contract locked in, I expect a big season from Charlie McAvoy. Injuries have kept him under the radar receiving accolades that some of his contemporaries have, but he’s the real deal. A bona fide 1D in the making, and I think this is the season he lets everybody know it. Sportnet’s, Elliotte Friedman, went as far as picking him to win the Norris, this year. That’s a pretty serious endorsement.
A McAvoy stat that caught my eye was provided by the Sporting News’, Steve Kournianos. Since the NHL started officially tracking TOI in 1997-98, Charlie is the only defenceman under 22, with over 40 playoff games, to average 24+ mins. He went on to say that he believed Scott Niedermayer was the last to do it, from 1993-95. Hall of Fame company.
While there is little doubt that the future core will keep making strides, the same can not be said concerning the current one. Time will win the battle eventually. Will it be this year? Probably not, but I don’t think we can expect another season of career highs either.
I’m not one to buy into the whole “hangover” deal, and I’ve previously shared some stats to back up that stance, but the summer wasn’t even long enough for Bergeron to show up to camp at 100%. Groin issues are unpredictable at the best of times, let alone when you’re 34, but a healthy 37 will go a long way in ensuring we can repeat last year’s impressive regular-season performance.
Injuries are something that the Bruins have become accustomed to overcoming during the past few seasons. Wouldn’t it be nice to get through this year unscathed? Wishful thinking, I’m sure.