Bruins season preview: Vibes, concerns, predictions and more
The Bruins open the 2021-22 season Saturday night against the Dallas Stars at TD Garden.
To get you ready, WEEI’s Skate Podcast team of Scott McLaughlin, Brian DeFelice and Bridgette Proulx answered some questions about the team and the upcoming season and made some predictions. You can also listen to our season preview podcast here:
What kind of vibes are we feeling as the season begins?
Scott: Cautious optimism. The Bruins will be good, and they should be right in the mix with the top teams in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference. Don Sweeney will probably need to end up doing something at the trade deadline to elevate the team to true Cup contender status, but there’s enough here -- led by the top line up front and Charlie McAvoy at the back -- to play some good hockey and get into a good spot in the standings before then.
Brian: Mostly optimistic, but a little skeptical. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, Taylor Hall and Charlie McAvoy give the Bruins significant leadership and high-end talent. Expectations for this Bruins offense should be high even without David Krejci. In goal, the new tandem of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark have their question marks but should ultimately be a more than serviceable duo. The skepticism comes on the blue line. Frankly, it isn't nearly good enough to win a championship as the season approaches -- at least not on paper. Their need for a top-four left-shot defenseman was glaring heading into free-agency and the solution was Derek Forbort, who is a fine third pair defenseman but not nearly the high-end player they needed. They will still need to improve their personnel if they want to be the last team standing.
Bridgette: Generally optimistic. I think Charlie Coyle is healthy and the Bruins’ center depth in general, which was a big offseason question mark, is better than expected. Jeremy Swayman is a bright spot in net at just 22 years old, and we’re all about to learn more about his potential and what kind of workload he can handle. The ‘perfection line’ is still intact, the third line is better than last year, and Charlie McAvoy just received a deal that sets him up to be one of the Bruins’ leaders for a long time. However, I’m less convinced that the defense has taken any sort of step forward besides at least being healthy to start the season.
Which Bruin do you think will be better than anticipated?
Scott: Erik Haula. I was admittedly skeptical of this signing when it happened, and still am a little bit, but Haula has looked really good this preseason. His speed complements Jake DeBrusk well on the third line, and he’s an aggressive attacker with some skill. He’s also a well-rounded center who should see time on both the power play and penalty kill. Haula could definitely help turn depth scoring from a weakness to a strength.
Brian: Tomas Nosek is a player with a ton of upside. Since Vegas' inception in the league, Nosek had been a major cog in the wheel of one of the NHL's best fourth lines. Over the last four seasons in Vegas, the 29-year-old Czech averaged just north of 16 points per season. Considering the fact that Nosek hasn't played more than 68 games in an NHL season, it's conceivable that he could surpass 20 points over an 82-game season with the Bruins. Still, scoring is just a bonus when discussing Nosek since his role is to play responsibly and with energy -- exactly what Boston needs out of its fourth line.
Bridgette: They need it to be Charlie Coyle, and he will certainly see a bump in his offensive stats because he’s now playing with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith as his wings. But I think Jeremy Swayman is going to finally show fans what we saw flashes of last season - his ability to steal games and be the Bruins’ number one guy in net. My feeling is that he will eventually steal playing time, not full time, but maybe as much as a 70-30 split with Linus Ullmark by the second half of the season.
Which Bruin are you most concerned about heading into the season?
Scott: Derek Forbort. The Bruins think they improved their defense by signing Forbort. I don’t. Forbort is basically a lateral move from Jeremy Lauzon -- decent enough as a defender, but limited in transition and in the offensive zone -- and playing him next to McAvoy probably isn’t going to produce any better results than playing Lauzon there did last year. In 322 minutes with Lauzon and McAvoy at five-on-five last season, the Bruins broke even on goals (14-14) and had 56.1% of shot attempts. In 342 with McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk together, the Bruins outscored opponents 20-7 and had 63.3% of shot attempts. The Bruins seem intent on starting the year with Forbort playing more first-pairing minutes and Grzelcyk more third-pairing minutes, but it’s easy to envision that flipping at some point.
Brian: Jack Studnicka. Why send Studnicka back to Providence to start the season? He's done everything management and coaches have asked of him and yet he's still not getting the chance he's earned -- at least not yet.
Studnicka has served his time in Providence. He's already been the best player playing in all situations, there's very little room for development in the minors anymore, and it's time for him to develop and polish his game at the top level. It’s time to allow the organization’s top center prospect to begin his NHL career for good -- even if it's as the fourth-line center to start. It's a lot to ask of Studnicka to go from the minors to top-six NHL forward anyways. So, the concern here isn't with the player, it's with the organization's handling of him.
Bridgette: Linus Ullmark. I alluded to it earlier, but my confidence in Swayman getting his opportunities and truly earning more playing time also has to do with the fact that Ullmark concerns me. His preseason was shaky, his history with injuries looms, and the Bruins tapped Swayman to start game one of the season over him. Ullmark has also never been the main guy in net for an entire season in his career. He started 20 of 56 games last season for the Sabres and won nine of them. But I’m not completely down on this Bruins free agent signing. Ullmark does have a solid reason for not quite being at his peak performance level - he hasn’t played a game since April and was always going to be a step behind in camp because of the time off he spent dealing with a lower body injury.
Will we see Tuukka Rask in a Bruins uniform this season?
Scott: I say no, barring injury. Jeremy Swayman is very good, and Linus Ullmark should be fine despite his preseason struggles. If they’re both healthy and playing well, I can’t see the Bruins forcing Rask into the mix, no matter how much they like him personally. There could come a time when the team has to have a difficult “Thanks for everything, but we just don’t have a spot” conversation.
Brian: Unlikely. Unless one of Swayman or Ullmark suffer serious injury or severely underperform, I don't see the Bruins tinkering with a tandem that late into the season. Again, this is assuming the tandem plays well and has put the team in a comfortable playoff position. If keeping the puck out of the net is a glaring issue and the team is in a tight playoff race, then Rask coming back for cheap could become necessary. Still, going from rehabbing an offseason surgery to jumping right into a playoff race would be a lot to ask of Rask. If the only choices to this question are yes or no, then the answer is no.
Bridgette: No. I'd give it a 10% chance if there’s an injury, and a 0% chance if Ullmark and Swayman are healthy for the season. Do they have cap space for a $1 million, one-year contract? Yes. But that's not the issue. It’s a bad sign for the goalie position if Rask pulls back into the Bruins’ lineup because it means they are injured, and a little desperate. If it comes down to it, he may be a better option than Kyle Keyser or Troy Grosnick in Providence, were another goalie to be needed in Boston to fill in. But I think they still stick with Swayman to carry the load in net if an injury comes to Ullmark. I don't see it happening.
What kind of conversation will we be having come the trade deadline?
Scott: Defense, defense, defense. I think the Bruins are still going to be wishing they had that “elusive” all-around left-shot D. I don’t know if they’ll be able to find it on the trade market, because there aren’t exactly a surplus of those players to begin with, but that is probably what we’ll be talking about once again.
Brian: Will the Bruins be willing to pay the asking price for an impact top-four defenseman? Don Sweeney and others will have to determine if they're willing to mortgage their future for the present.
Bridgette: Once again it will be that they are in need of another defenseman. They never really addressed their issues on defense in the offseason. Adding Derek Forbort was an attempt at putting a bandaid on a defense that lacked depth in 2020-21 and lost depth in the offseason with the retirement of Kevan Miller and departure of Jeremy Lauzon to the Seattle Kraken.
Where will the Bruins finish in the Atlantic Division?
Scott: Second. The Lightning are still the best team in the division despite their offseason losses, and Andrei Vasilevskiy can single-handedly prevent any lengthy skids. The Maple Leafs are still very talented and I wouldn’t be surprised if they finish with more points than Boston, but I think they got a little weaker this offseason as well and I wonder if last spring’s collapse hangs over them at all. The Panthers are a strong team and a chic pick to win the division, but I have concerns about their goaltending. Led by the top line, Charlie McAvoy and what should be at least good goaltending, the Bruins should have enough to rack up points in the regular season.
Brian: This is a toss-up. An argument can be made for them to win the division, which would not shock me in the least. However, the Atlantic is home to four of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference and the Bruins will ultimately finish fourth in the division and easily secure the first wild card spot. Toronto and Florida will be regular-season darlings finishing first and second, Tampa will finish third after taking a step back due to a back-to-back Cup hangover while trying to establish a brand new bottom six, and the Bruins may take a little time gaining chemistry after significant offseason turnover up front and in net, ultimately finishing fourth. Any of those four could win this division, though.
Bridgette: I see the top four in the Atlantic finishing as Maple Leafs, Lightning, Bruins, Panthers in that order. I want to clarify that the order isn’t based on which teams I think are overall the best or who will have the most success in the playoffs; it’s purely how things will shake out in the regular season. A team like Toronto I see winning the Atlantic Division in the regular season because of their talent, but failing to advance again in the playoffs.
How far will the Bruins go in the playoffs?
Scott: I have them beating the Maple Leafs in the first round and losing to the Lightning in the second, just like old times. It just feels like this is where the Bruins are stuck right now -- good enough to win a series, but not quite good enough to make a deep run. They’ve won at least one round in each of the last four years, but they’ve lost in the second in three of those four. I don’t think they’ve done enough as of now to get over that hurdle. As I wrote earlier, it may take a significant move or two at the trade deadline.
Brian: Just because they might end up finishing fourth in the division doesn't necessarily mean they're the fourth-best team -- especially come playoff time. Toronto and Florida have combined for just one playoff series win since 2004. Meanwhile, Boston and Tampa are proven playoff winners year in and year out. Unless Boston and Tampa end up facing off in Round 1, I see both teams advancing to the second round. This really is an impossible question without knowing playoff rosters or matchups, but I'll pick the Bruins to at least make it to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bruins are still in Cup or bust mode as long as they still have Bergeron and Marchand playing at an elite level and should invest in the team as such and hold the highest of expectations for themselves.
Bridgette: My prediction: they lose in the conference final to the Islanders. The Bruins will be hoping to avoid the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season as long as possible. The most favorable matchup for the Bruins early on would be a series with Toronto. But at some point the Bruins will likely run into either the Lightning or the Islanders, the two best teams in the conference. And at that point it’s pick your poison. I still think the Bruins would match up better against Tampa with the slight decline the Lightning have seen in their roster this season. But I have a hard time seeing the Bruins getting past the Islanders in the postseason.