By Chris Gere
Hockey is (maybe) coming back! Isn’t that exciting? Okay, let’s set aside that the NHL has clumsily stumbled its way through several return-to-play proposals that could potentially put its players and their families in peril.
Let’s also totally ignore that the Pittsburgh Penguins, who famously denied that they had a mumps outbreak while trotting Sidney Crosby’s baked-potato face in front of the camera, have already had a positive test. Let’s even ignore that the Bruins themselves have had a positive test. Instead, let’s simply bask, optimistically, in the glory of playoff hockey.
While we can (ethically or…not so ethically) choose to ignore the dangers that COVID-19 may pose to the players, it’s going to be harder to ignore its obvious effects on the remainder of the season. For one, the NHL is forgoing the rest of the regular season in favor of a 24-team playoff. In addition, the players will play absent of fans after a long layoff, and it’s fair to wonder how this will affect the play on the ice. More importantly, because we’re Bruins fans, it’s fair to ask which players will hit the ice ready to go since the stakes have never been so high immediately following a break in play.
Is there any way to accurately determine which Bruins will start hot and which will struggle out of the gate? No, of course not. Hockey is a weird sport in which small sample sizes rarely tell the whole story. However, we’re at the point in our sport-less existence where I’m ready to start making bold claims based on what little information we can glean from how Bruins have reacted to long layoffs.
Now, I usually like to dive deeper than just the surface point-totals, but that’s not how the playoffs work. You don’t get to rely on large samples of data. Only goals and assists matter. So, I’m just going to look at Bruins who generally either kick ass or struggle to start the regular season. And, since it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to drag Brandon Carlo for not sniping water bottles right out of the gate, we’re only going to focus on 2019–20 30-plus point scorers.
I also moved the goalposts on what counts as the “start” of the season. The game totals float to encompass particular streaks, but I think they tell the story adequately.
1. Brad Marchand
This guy is the undisputed king of fast starts. Over his past four seasons, working back from 2019–20, he’s started with 28 points (including 10 goals) in 14 games, 13 points in seven games, 11 points (including six goals) in seven games, and nine points in four games.
He’s done it all. He’s come out hot right out of the gate for a short burst, he’s been on fire for basically the whole first month of the season, and he’s done enough to dominate a hypothetical playoff series on a couple of occasions. I wouldn’t stake my life on Marchy owning this format, but if I had to put my money somewhere, it would be on him…or on a new projector so I could watch hockey in the backyard. That would be cool.
2. David Pastrnak
If Marchand is the king of hot starts, Pasta is the hand of the king. The only person who started the 2019–20 season hotter than Brad was his linemate. With 15 goals and 30 points in 30 games, fans were recalling the Cam Neely 50-in-50 season. That hasn’t been his only hot start either. His previous three campaigns stack up pretty well with 15 points in nine games, eight points in seven games, and seven points in four games.
I don’t know if we need to even mention Pasta in this context. He’s simply one of the best players in the sport. However, knowing that his immortality extends to strong starts is comforting. Also he wears cool hats, and that comforts me. There isn’t a statistical correlation I can point to, but I believe with all my heart that the hats will help him succeed.
3. Patrice Bergeron
Surprise, surprise. The third musketeer also finds himself on this list. His prologues aren’t quite as grand as his cohorts’, but his most recent three seasons began with eight points in eight games, 19 points in 12 games, and 11 points in 10 games including four points in his return from injury.
We all know that Patrice is a god personified. When we consider that what he brings to the ice is far beyond just his scoring, we can rest assured that the whole top line will be firing on all cylinders when they suit up for game one of the seeding round-robin. Also, Red Robin might be going out of business. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a Red Robin and I’ve never particularly wanted to, but the fact that it’s a life experience I’ll miss out on is kind of depressing, ya know?
4. Torey Krug
The last player in this category is another member of the Bruins’ top power-play unit. While he may not be as quick off the block as his colleagues, he’s a defenseman, so that’s to be expected. His 17 points in 18 games, six points in six games, and 11 points in 15 games to begin each of the last three seasons are more than enough to qualify him.
One thing worth noting is that four seasons back, he went his first nine games without recording a point. That doesn’t really worry me, but it does give me unfortunate flashbacks to my college intramural basketball career.
1. David Krejci
Krejci is a bit of an enigma. His recent starts have included one point in five games to begin the 2019–20 season after missing time with an injury, nine points in 10 games, six points in six games, and a measly four points in 11 games. Honestly, if you look at his game logs for most of his career, he’s never been a player with a particularly steady point output.
You could attribute that to his style of play. He’s a distributor, so his point output is heavily tied to the volatility of his linemates.
2. Tuukka Rask
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I looked into this because I was pretty sure Tuukka got off to an incredible start to the 2019–20 season (I was right. He allowed only 12 goals in his first eight games, winning seven of them), but my impression was that he was a traditionally slow starter. Perhaps that’s true, but in 2016–17, he had equally toasty beginnings. He won 10 of his first 11 starts and allowed only 17 goals.
The reasons why Rask is on this list and not the previous one are that he had a mediocre start to last season (18 goals allowed in seven games), and a terrible start to the season before (three wins in 13 starts with 36 goals allowed). In addition, goaltending is weird and random, so we can’t tell how Rask is going to perform because a lot of it will be up to luck and the team in front of him.
In fact, these hot/cold start stats I mined for Tuukka mean next to nothing. For all we know, he could have been playing goalie during those stretches using the lyrics to Katy Perry’s Hot and Cold as literal instructions on how to goaltend. And now I’m a little mad at myself because I’m going to be humming that song every time Tuukka moves in and out of the crease and up and down into the butterfly.
3. Charlie McAvoy
Chuck is a really good hockey player, and he’s threatening to turn elite. While scoring isn’t the most important part of his game, he records more points than you might think—especially for a defenseman who doesn’t play on the top power-play unit.
If the outsets of the two seasons prior to this one (six points in seven games and eight points in nine games) are any indication, the break will bring Charles back feeling fresh. If this season is any indication, he might as well just stay in his own zone and play defense. He set sail on 2019–20 with a meager one point in eight games.
4. Ondrej Kase
This is kind of a bonus. Kase’s injuries prevented him from reaching the arbitrary 30-plus point plateau I outlined for this exercise, but he will be relied upon for scoring if the Bruins plan to compete for the Stanley Cup. He doesn’t have wildly volatile starts, he just has some pretty good starts and some mediocre starts.
14 points (including eight goals) in 15 games in 2018–19? Very good. Eight points (including 5 goals) in 10 games in 2017–18 (with a short injury break in the middle)? Pretty solid. Five points in eight games in 2019–20? Fine. Five points in 13 games to begin his rookie year? Not fantastic, but also doesn’t apply here since he had been playing with the San Diego Gulls prior to his call-up.
I think the takeaway here is that Kase can be counted on for some level of meaningful contribution, but, between injuries and adjusting to a new team, we saw Kase struggle to find his scoring touch. Let’s hope those issues are resolved because everybody wants that kid to succeed.
1. Jake DeBrusk
We love our large adult son here, but he’s really struggled to get going in each of his first three NHL seasons. This was literally the only Bruin of any importance for whom the stats said definitively, “this guy probably isn’t going to be a factor until the second round.”
He’s mustered only one point in seven games, three points in 13 games, and four points in 10 games to kick off each of his NHL seasons. Obviously, nothing is written in stone, though. We’ve seen DeBrusk succeed in spurts in the playoffs, so we can hope that the unique scenario produces some positive results.
2. Charlie Coyle
Charlie is kind of on the borderline. His last two seasons began with two points in 10 games and two points in seven games—certainly not inspiring. However, nine points in 12 games and seven points in nine games to start the two prior seasons are more in line with what we expect.
Coyle was fairly productive offensively and strong in his own end for most of last season’s playoffs, so I’d be inclined to believe that barring some bad puck luck, he’ll contribute effectively.
Bruins Team Outlook
Honestly, it’s really easy to twist data like this to say anything you want, but I left this experience mostly encouraged. There’s obviously not a direct parallel to a guy succeeding early in the season and how he’s going to react to being thrown directly into the NHL playoffs after not playing meaningful hockey for months, but it’s something.
The biggest factors if the Bruins want to exorcise the demons of last season will be if Tuukka comes in looking fresh if he benefits from responsible defensive hockey, and if the top line and the power play cash in. As the so-called “Perfection Line” goes, so do the Bruins, and it’s good to get clarity that they, as a group, generally succeed after some time on the shelf.