If you wait long enough into the summer things start to look more concrete– until you really look at the nitty gritty.
The 2017-18 Boston Bruins were ahead of schedule. They exceeded expectations. They weren’t even supposed to have the kind of season they had until at least this season or next season (if that makes sense), depending on how you broke down General Manager Don Sweeney‘s master three-year plan.
Like everything, however, this offseason has had some ups and downs.
Without getting too much into the nonsensically named (okay, it was named after some videogame, read Bob McKenzie’s book Hockey Confidential— shameless plug) advanced stat “PDO”, let’s just say that whenever a team does really well for a season, they usually come back to reality the following season.
Hockey logic has indicated this in the past, what with the Chicago Blackhawks almost evenly spaced out Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015 (notice, 2011, 2012 and 2014 did not result in Cups– kind of makes you think)– let alone all of hockey history.
A long season, while rewarding with a championship run (sometimes), is a grind.
Not trying to be Debbie Downer here, but let’s just try to look at things with a slice of realism for this season especially.
Last season they were “too young, too, too young”, but they amassed 50 wins and made it to the Second Round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This season they’re more experienced, but with an unknown and untapped source of depth in both their free agent signings and expected rookie debuts and sophomores.
Gone are Tim Schaller and Riley Nash— two quality bottom-six forwards who left for Vancouver and Columbus respectively in July. In their place we find Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom. Lateral– but necessary– moves.
The expectations coming into Schaller and Nash’s two-year deals in the 2016 offseason were that they’d contribute in some way, but nobody could predict Schaller becoming a legitimate fourth liner and Nash amassing 41 points (a career best) in a contract year.
While Wagner and Nordstrom aren’t your bottom-six fan favorites yet, they share similar parallels of the unknown and are expected to rise to the occasion– whatever that may be as Head Coach Bruce Cassidy will see fit.
Wagner’s your tough guy and Nordstrom’s a solid penalty killer. The latter will likely see some time with Sean Kuraly on a PK-unit a la Nash and Kuraly from this past season.
Moore’s five-year deal may seem like a bit much, but at $2.750 million per season, he’s making as much as Adam McQuaid for likely a bottom-pair role that’ll transform into McQuaid’s replacement, should Sweeney look to move the career-long Boston defender or not re-sign him in July 2019.
Despite being one-year older than Khudobin, Halak is an upgrade as a stable backup goaltender who’s numbers should improve in a more limited role with a better group of skaters in front of him than his now former New York Islanders teammates were the last few seasons.
Pointless arguments can be made all day (Halak is better than Khudobin), but let’s move on with the actual lineup projection, shall we?
Actually, let’s digress for another moment. Rick Nash remains undecided about whether or not he’d like to return to the game, so that could always mess everything up.
Anyway, here’s a look at how the Boston Bruins 2018-19 lineup should shape up:
Forward Line 1
Isn’t it obvious? The best line in the NHL from 2017-18 rolls right into 2018-19 intact with the same level of chemistry as before. Sure, you could spread out the points a bit by putting Pastrnak on the second line with David Krejci, but you really don’t have to unless you’re looking to shake things up a bit from time to time.
Boston’s first line is set for at least the remainder of Patrice Bergeron’s existence– ignoring contracts altogether. Brad Marchand is inseparable from Bergeron and Pastrnak has joined that royalty in his own right, as he continues to emerge as a star.
Forward Line 2
Jake DeBrusk and Krejci go together like Milan Lucic once did on the Czech center’s left side. Except there’s a bit of a difference in DeBrusk’s game– it’s more offensive. The bigger question on Boston’s second line shouldn’t be “what top-six forward will they try to acquire to fill a ‘hole'”, but rather “who will win the job between Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato?”
For the sake of testing things out in the wake of Bjork’s return from a season-ending injury in 2017-18, Cassidy could insert No. 10 on the second line. Then again, if the Bruins are set on giving Donato a big-time role for a full season, well, then it’ll be Bjork sliding down to line three or line four.
Donato could be like Pastrnak once was early in his development and be sent to Providence for some seasoning in his game and offensive capabilities at the professional level. However, one difference between Donato’s development and Pastrnak’s development is that Donato stood out on an Olympic level, not just in an international World Junior Championship competition.
But if you’re looking to give props to Pastrnak, it’s worth mentioning (albeit due to international/minor league transfer rules) that No. 88 in black and gold went pro before Donato while No. 17 in the spoked-B finished his bona fide duties at Harvard University.
Or just to mess everything else up, perhaps Bjork starts 2018-19 with a stint in Providence.
Forward Line 3
Whoever doesn’t win the second line right wing job (Bjork or Donato) should likely end up on the third line in Boston alongside Danton Heinen and Sean Kuraly. Kuraly, you say?
Yes, Kuraly will be tested out as a third line center as had been planned since he was part of the Martin Jones trade with the San Jose Sharks. Just how far will his bottom-six forward potential go? Time well tell and the time is now.
Otherwise Joakim Nordstrom slides right into Riley Nash’s old job much like how he’s already slid into the No. 20 sweater in the Hub.
Forward Line 4
14 Chris Wagner — 20 Joakim Nordstrom — 55 Noel Acciari
Then again, if Bjork or Donato slide just enough, they might end up taking a job from Noel Acciari on the fourth line. Or just maybe Sweeney can console armchair GMs enough with some level justification for having Backes on the fourth line at $6.000 million per season through the 2020-21 season.
For fans and armchair GMs alike that like a lot of hitting, Chris Wagner is your man. He’s basically the new Matt Beleskey, but without the expectations that ran rampant after Beleskey’s incredible 2015 Stanley Cup Playoff run with the Anaheim Ducks.
Otherwise, it’s pretty much status quo on the fourth line, despite some new faces in Wagner and Nordstrom– provide a spark. Whatever that is.
Defensive Pair 1
Zdeno Chara wants to play forever (basically) and Charlie McAvoy is the closest thing Bruins fans have seen to a modern-day Ray Bourque in his development and potential.
On a serious note, Chara intends to play for at least another four years (by then he’ll be 45) and signed a one-year extension (at a $5.000 million cap hit) this spring for the 2018-19 season. McAvoy, on the other hand, seeks to continue his rise to stardom on the blue line moving on to his sophomore season.
Defensive Pair 2
There’s an impetus among armchair GMs to trade Torey Krug for a second line wing and/or other assets, but the fact of the matter is Sweeney and Co. have no legitimate rush to move on from Krug. He might be their biggest piece of trade bait for speculative purposes this season, yet he’s also still part of the top-four defensive core in Boston.
Meanwhile, Brandon Carlo looks to rebound from a bit of a sophomore slump in which he failed to score a goal. Carlo and Krug had a chemistry that– at best of times– worked well in 2017-18. Like any defender, though, mistakes are usually noticeable, because there’s a puck in the net behind them.
Defensive Pair 3
27 John Moore — 86 Kevan Miller
You’re not going to pay John Moore $2.750 million for the next five seasons to not play him, whereas a guy like Matt Grzelcyk or Brandon Carlo could be at risk of becoming a healthy scratch– and that’s assuming Adam McQuaid who also has a $2.750 million cap hit this season already will be a healthy scratch most nights.
In the meantime, Kevan Miller has solidified himself as the 5th or 6th defenseman in Boston– for his physicality and impressive play alone– and could further take on McQuaid’s fighter role this season as a deterrence from the waning role of the enforcer around the rest of the league.
48 Matt Grzelcyk, 54 Adam McQuaid
Following suit with last season, Grzelcyk will have to win his full-time role out of the gate once again, while McQuaid’s future status with the organization remains cloudy past 2019. So cloudy, in fact, that he’ll be a pending-UFA as of July 2019.
In the system
Zach Senyshyn (potential second line RW/bottom six contender), Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson (bottom six contender), Jesse Gabrielle (fourth line option at camp), Trent Frederic (bottom six contender), Jack Studnicka (bottom six contender at camp), Jakub Zboril (bottom pair defensive contender), Jeremy Lauzon (bottom pair defensive contender), Zane McIntyre (backup goalie contender at camp), Dan Vladar (backup goalie contender at camp)
40 Tuukka Rask
Tuukka Rask is your starting goaltender as he has been since Tim Thomas decided to take a gap year (and was subsequently traded to the Islanders). There is no goaltending controversy, though Jaroslav Halak should provide more consistency in net on the night’s Rask gets to rest.
In addition to finding the right mix of rest and play, fewer shots against for the third consecutive year since facing a career high 2,011 shots in 70 games in 2014-15 has helped Rask’s focus throughout the season as the Bruins look to go further as a team.
You win and lose as a team– not solely as a goaltender.
41 Jaroslav Halak
Yes, Anton Khudobin bounced back from a disappointing 2016-17 season to an exuberant 2017-18 season, but let’s get this clear– he’s a backup. Khudobin bounced around a bit from the NHL to the AHL and back again in 2016-17, posting a 2.64 goals against average and .904 save percentage in 16 games played.
He then had a 2.56 GAA and .913 SV% in 31 games as Boston’s backup in 2017-18, which was good enough for his third best season in GAA and SV%, dating back to his first real taste of being a backup NHL goaltender in 2012-13 with Boston (Khudobin appeared in seven NHL games from 2009-12 with Minnesota and the Bruins in dire situations).
The thing here is a 2.56 GAA is not starting netminder material, no matter how you break down Khudobin’s overall improvement from 2016-17 to 2017-18.
In the meantime, Jaroslav Halak is poised for career-reset. He’s got a change of scenery from Brooklyn to Boston and with that he won’t be playing in nearly as many games.
Halak had a 3.19 GAA and .908 SV% in 54 games as New York’s starting goalie, keeping in mind the Islanders suffered a lot of injuries on the blue line last season. He also nearly doubled his workload from a dismal 2016-17 (28 games played) to 2017-18 (54 GP).
In 2015-16, Halak had a 2.30 GAA and .919 SV% as the Islanders backup netminder in 36 games played. Khudobin, on the other hand, appeared in nine games for the Anaheim Ducks that season, amassing a 2.69 GAA and .909 SV% before being sent down to San Diego (AHL).
The moral of the story here is that the Bruins have been about giving backups second chances in recent history, whether that’s Chad Johnson, Jonas Gustavsson, Khudobin and now Halak– they’re willing to take that gamble.
Okay, end Halak vs. Khudobin rant.