Last Word on Hockey’s Puck Drop Previews are back for the 2022-23 season! As the regular season approaches, Last Word will preview each team’s current outlook and stories to watch for the upcoming year. We’ll also do our best to project how things will go for each team over the course of the campaign. Today, we’re previewing the 2022-23 Boston Bruins.
2022-23 Boston Bruins
Note: Expected Goals and Scoring Rates are from Evolving Hockey
Boston finished the 2021-22 season with a record of 51–26–5, collecting 107 points and finishing as the top wild-card team in the Eastern Conference. Boston struggled to consistently either finish or generate offence (usually the latter), but built a defensive foundation with results that placed them number one in the league in 2022. A round-one loss to Carolina left Bruins fans underwhelmed and uncertain about the future.
Outside of Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Taylor Hall, the Bruins lacked consistent chance creation from the remaining of the lineup. Boston at times was placed in the bottom half in the league for expected goals for per 60 throughout the season. Haula, Smith, DeBrusk, and Coyle each were decent to solid contributors (whether as passers or goal-scorers), but dealt with stretches of struggle at times in the season. A shakeup in the forward group, including moving Pastrnak with Hall and Haula, and moving up DeBrusk, allowed the Bruins to finally generate offence with greater variety throughout the forward group, eventually placing 12th in xGF/60 league-wide.
Boston had quite the impressive defensive season in 2021-22. This was headed by a historic defensive season from Patrice Bergeron and a d-core of solid d-zone puck movers and suffocation headed by Charlie McAvoy. Boston’s expected Goals Against per 60 mark of 1.94 ranked first in the league by exactly 0.15 xGA/60 more than the second-place Wild. The mark also places them 33rd all-time since 2007-08, which is especially impressive considering that 2021-22 contained the highest scoring rates and number of 40-plus goal, 100-plus point players league-wide in that span.
Boston’s loss in round one to Carolina was marked by the wild fact the home team won every game in the series. The largest struggle Boston faced in the series was their inability to enter the zone. If the Bruins could enter the zone, they would usually sustain some offence, but the Canes limited the number of opportunities Boston had to generate chances. Boston actually had some control at the start of each of the four games they lost to Carolina, but gave up the first goal in each of them, and then lost any momentum they did have afterward.
Bruins fans dealt with rather heavy turbulence throughout the beginning of the team’s offseason. Cam Neely and Don Sweeney‘s decision to fire Bruce Cassidy after six seasons, despite his relatively large successes with the Bruins, was met with a shocked and overwhelmingly negative reception from Bruins fans. Speculations regarding Pastrnak’s future and Cassidy’s likeability, combined with the initial firing create a wedge and lack of confidence in management from fans. Even Boston’s coaching search was met with criticisms within the fanbase, as reports stating that former Rangers head coach David Quinn was the favourite left a bad taste in fans’ mouths.
Eventually, Boston chose Jim Montgomery for their vacant head coach role. Montgomery was a top college head coach for the University of Denver between 2013-14 and 2017-18, winning a National Championship in the process. He joined Dallas as a head coach in 2018-19, but only lasted up to 31 games in his second season before his firing due to a “personal behaviour issue”, later revealed to be drinking issues. He was able to put it aside and successfully went through rehab, joining the Blues for the 2021 and 2022 seasons as an assistant coach.
Now, as a head coach of the Bruins, Montgomery promises increased offensive output in the team offence. Montgomery’s previous successes throughout his career helped to ease concerns with the fans and placed some confidence back in the team’s immediate future.
The Bruins were not too active within free agency. Boston elected to bring back their top FAs and commit to one last push, with minor roster modifications included. Their most notable signings came in bargain returns from Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, who both had loose reports of agreements on the first day of free agency. Trading-wise, Boston’s most notable came in the form of swapping Erik Haula for another middle-six forward in Pavel Zacha (who was eventually locked up as an RFA). Other transactions Boston made came near exclusively in the form of non-roster players or minor league players, such as Connor Carrick, Keith Kinkaid, and Vinni Lettieri. Subtractions aside from Erik Haula include Curtis Lazar and Anton Blidh.
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jake DeBrusk
Taylor Hall-David Krejci-David Pastrnak
A complexion with these lines is the injury of Brad Marchand that will last at least the first month of the season. Zacha seems like the most likely candidate to fill his role (with Hall sticking to Krejci).
At full health, the Bruins have an excellent top six that should be able to generate offence at a stellar rate. One of the best first lines in the NHL in Marchand, Bergeron, and DeBrusk last season (league-leading xGF%) should easily drive team offence just as in past seasons. Even headed into his age 37 season, Bergeron shows no signs of significant regression in any of his impact on both sides of the puck.
For the second line, Hall and Krejci are near confirmed to be the one-two. Montgomery explained in an interview that Pastrnak would most likely start on line number two with Krejci and Hall, stating the successes DeBrusk had on the first line and Pastrnak’s connection with Hall last season. However, he left open other lineup prospects on the basis of Marchand’s injury. Regardless, Boston’s top six will certainly pack a punch in the Atlantic this season.
Boston’s bottom six is decent but leaves a bit to be desired. At full strength, the projected third line of Zacha-Coyle-Smith (or DeBrusk) contains the potential to score at an above-average rate, with improved defensive stability in adding Zacha (compared to last season’s third line). With the departure of Curtis Lazar, the fourth line is very much minorly shaken. Studnicka is the current projected fourth-line center, but if Montgomery wants Studnicka to start the season in the AHL, Nosek could be moved to the center, bringing up a potential Chris Wagner return.
Again, the injury to Brad Marchand already brings upon a complexion in the forward group that extends to the bottom six. Without Zacha, we could see a reintroduction of the Frederic-Coyle-Smith line that despite their inconsistencies had very good stretches of play last season. After that, you’d likely see a minor-league call-up or reshuffle of the fourth line. Boston’s bottom six reach at most slightly above-average efficiency.
Hampus Lindholm-Charlie McAvoy
Matt Grzelyck-Brandon Carlo
Just like Marchand, Charlie McAvoy is also out for at least a month. This will most likely bring up Brandon Carlo to the first line, with Jakub Zboril the most likely candidate to be called for the third and vacant RD spot.
Boston possesses one of the better top four groups in the league. Charlie McAvoy is an obvious stalwart, whose defensive stability and dynamic puck-moving from the back-end allowed Hampus Lindholm to recapture the form that he lost in his final two years in Anaheim. Matt Grzelyck and Brandon Carlo, however polarizing they are within the fanbase, are both excellent players in their regard. Grzelyck is one of the best d-zone puck movers in the league, while Carlo is a heavily reliable middle pairing defensive defender who fights off forechecking pressure with his large frame to indirectly move the puck up-ice.
The bottom pair provides solid defensive value, but it is unclear who will play most of the season on the pair and who will be the seventh defender. Once McAvoy returns from injury, one of Mike Reilly or Derek Forbort could see themselves demoted to the seventh defender role. Cassidy maximized the Forbort-Clifton pair defensively last season with sheltered minutes and a more specific team role after both started the season with some struggles. Meanwhile, Mike Reilly had chunks of minutes with McAvoy, Carlo, and Clifton last season, and performed well on all sides of the puck with all three (on three different pairings too). Av strong case for Mike Reilly to play over Derek Forbort could be made.
Both goaltenders did not face significant challenges for most of last season behind the team defence Boston had. Unfortunately, both goaltenders are still underwhelmed, with both having a negative goals saved above expected last season. Despite this, the Bruins should be fine in net, given that both goaltenders did have stellar stretches of play throughout the season. Swayman was once a dark horse Calder candidate until a late-season slump took away any chance of him being a prevalent figure in those discussions in the postseason. Ullmark was mildly inconsistent but impressed at times. Even given that goaltenders are by and far the most unpredictable position in this sport, Boston should not have to worry about pucks lying in their net becoming a prominent issue.
Players to Watch
Note: Stats Provided in this Section are from All Three Zones
As Boston’s only lineup addition, some ideas linger on his deployment and utilization in the lineup. He may start as high as the first line, and could end up as a third-line regular. If Zacha starts the season on the first line, we could see larger leverages of his strengths with Bergeron. In his more likely regular role, Zacha provides the higher-end skill to the third line, with his largest strength coming in his zone entry game. An area Boston lacked last season in their bottom six offence was more dynamic forms of play-driving, especially on the entry, so Zacha’s presence adds a layer of versatility to the Bruins’ forward group.
Perhaps Boston’s most polarizing player, Mike Reilly is another intriguing player who could be once again a quietly amazing defender for the Bruins, given he plays. In 2021-22, Reilly displayed an amazing ability to not only move the puck in the neutral zone effectively but also prevent the opposition from moving it. Reilly ranked above the 90th percentile in Possession and Passing Exits in 2022, as well as the 70th percentile or higher in Carry Exits and Exits Percentage. In terms of entry defence, Reilly ranked in the 95th percentile in chance prevention and 76th percentile in Carry Prevention. Choosing an overall more impactful player like Reilly, over that of a simplistic, physical defender in Forbort could pay dividends for the Bruins in 2022-23.
Prediction for 2022-23 Boston Bruins
Many believe Boston’s injuries will overcome them and will result in them missing the playoffs; however, Boston will most likely easily be a playoff contender for 2022-23. While losing your top two skaters for four to six weeks is a difficult challenge to take on, Boston still has two top 15 forwards in Pastrnak and Bergeron and three higher-end defenders in Grzelyck, Reilly, and Lindholm.
Considering the overall strength of the Atlantic Division (and a new semi-competitive team in Ottawa), it’s reasonable to state that Boston may be at around or just above a .500 winning percentage throughout October and November, but given a major and consistent collapse, Boston should easily contend for the postseason and finish with a points percentage that places them as either a top wild-card team or a dark-horse for a top three position in the division. Regardless, this will most certainly be the last hurrah for the Bruins and the remaining core that has been around for over a decade. After this, who knows what’s next for the Bruins?
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