The Boston Bruins had another offseason rolling in the roster. But, even with David Krejci’s return to the Czech Republic and Tuukka Rask’s uncertain future after off-season hip surgery, the franchise still has lofty goals on the cusp of its 98th season.
“Expectations are certainly high here,” said team president Cam Neely, “and there is certainly no reason to change that.”
Watch: Cam Neely discussed possible returns of Tuukka Rask, David Krejci
4 developments to note ahead of the 2021-22 NHL season
The Bruins have a few big questions ahead of them, including a long-term replacement to fill Krejci’s gaping second-row vacancy. Several experts rank the B’s between second and fourth in the Atlantic division. Very few, if any, have the team near the Stanley Cup Finals.
But there’s a lot to love about Bruce Cassidy’s club heading into the 2021-22 campaign. With that in mind, here are five bold predictions for the Boston Bruins ahead of their season opener on Saturday night.
Jack Studnicka will be Boston’s second-line center by January.
The 2017 second-round selection arrived at training camp hoping the extra 15 pounds of muscle would complement their astute playing skills.
Studnicka impressed the coaching staff during the preseason. His weight gain made him harder to pull off pucks, yet never lost his speed and confidence in chasing the puck. Still, he faced a tough climb from the start to secure a top-nine role for opening night.
A healthy Charlie Coyle will start the year with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith in the second row. The trio completed well in their only preseason game together. Then the initial chemistry between Jake DeBrusk, Erik Haula and Nick Foligno on the third row left Studnicka on the outside looking inside.
Studnicka’s assignment in the AHL was not a referendum against him. Surely Bruce Cassidy and the coaching staff could have placed him on the fourth line, or they could have moved him to the wing in a top nine role. But they didn’t want to move Studnicka out of his natural central position or limit his playing time.
It’s only a matter of timing, not if Studnicka makes another trip on I-95, assuming its upward trajectory continues. He’s Boston’s best long-term option for securing the second-line center spot.
Studnicka jellied with Smith and Hall during the brief amount of time they skated together. Having a pair of veterans who score reliable goals will only help Studnicka’s development.
In January, Studnicka will definitely find its name between Hall and Smith.
Charlie McAvoy will win the Norris Trophy.
Judging by Neely’s comments on Zoom on Wednesday, the Bruins will soon see their talented top defenseman locked up for a lucrative long-term contract extension. It won’t take long for McAvoy to save his new pending contract with individual material, either.
Sure, McAvoy will have company with Cale Makar, Victor Hedman and reigning Norris winner Adam Fox ahead of him among recent Vegas odds. Makar and Fox will likely sit near the top offensive categories among blue line defenders.
McAvoy has solidified himself as one of the league’s top 5v5 defenders since arriving on the scene in his 2017-18 rookie season. His offensive numbers should get a boost after hitting Boston’s top power play unit – with four astute playmakers in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Taylor Hall to start the year.
The wealth of having younger defenders with two-way skills gives the league an intriguing dynamic. Each season will feature deserving Norris contestants from McAvoy to Makar, Fox, Thomas Chabot and Quinn Hughes, to name a few. They’re all unique on their own, but McAvoy’s 5v5 production and likely rise in scores will result in his first of multiple potential Norris Trophies at the end of the year.
Brad Marchand will be a Hart Trophy finalist.
Marchand’s reputation as one of the talented but bolder players in the game has haunted him at times. But for the past few seasons, the talented veteran has avoided meeting with the NHL Player Safety Department.
Since his last blow of dust from a licking incident – of all things – Marchand has found himself near the top of the NHL’s top scorers. He has the fifth point total (256) among all skaters since 2018-19, behind Nathan MacKinnon (257), Patrick Kane (260), Leon Draisaitl (299) and Connor McDavid (318). The top three players on this list each have a Hart Trophy under their belt and MacKinnon has been an MVP finalist in three of his last four seasons.
Marchand has been in the top five among Hart Trophy voters in two of the past three years. He went from “Little Ball of Hate” to one of the elite players in the National Hockey League today. Given his history, Marchand may need a McDavid-like season to win the award, but he’s gained enough weight with voters to break through as a runner-up. This year, he will finally secure a coveted top-three spot alongside MacKinnon and McDavid.
Tuukka Rask will be back, but won’t sign with the Bruins.
The Bruins have left the door open when Rask returns after his rehabilitation from hip surgery. And Boston’s most successful goaltender has expressed his desire to end his career with the only NHL club he knows.
Without a doubt, despite the hot shots, Rask provided the Bruins with stability in front of the net following the departure of Tim Thomas. He did a good job sharing tasks with Jaroslav Halak and Anton Khudobin during his tenure of more than ten years. But every era ends at some point.
Jeremy Swayman has picked up where he left off in the preseason after a stellar 10-game streak during the COVID-shortened 2021 season. The Bruins see an advantage in their five-year investment with former Sabers goaltender Linus Ullmark despite his disappointing camp. A stable goalie situation would make a reunion for Rask difficult once he was ready to go.
Even with Rask’s statements about his time in Boston, I can’t imagine him sitting on the sidelines for a full year if he’s allowed to. A handful of needy playoff-caliber teams like the Penguins, Oilers and Capitals would line up for his services.
The Bruins are not expected to interrupt any positive development with Swayman and Ullmark. Rask would surely be well received by his teammates, but they might not need their most successful goalkeeper of all time. There is no doubt that other teams will be crushing Rask’s tires once he’s ready.
The Bruins will push the Lightning to the limit in the playoffs.
I can’t be too bold with the Bruins who won the Cup or even made it to the Cup Final. Hell, they’ll have company in the battle for second, third and fourth places in the Atlantic Division with the Panthers and Maple Leafs.
Ideally, the Bruins and Lightning will find themselves in the playoffs. Their previous two playoffs have resulted in five-game streak wins for the Bolts. That won’t happen again this season if the two teams meet in the spring of 2022.
The Lightning exposed the depth of Boston’s last six in each of those clashes. Sweeney improved B’s third and fourth lines during the offseason with the free agent trio of Nick Foligno, Erik Haula and Tomas Nosek. Due to its tight salary cap space, Tampa has lost its entire third row from a year ago to Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.
The Bruins can have an edge over the Lightning with Jake DeBrusk, Curtis Lazar – when healthy – and a rotating cast of Karson Kuhlman, Anton Blidh and Trent Frederic. But the Bolts tick several boxes in the games department, including defensive and high-end depth. And for now, they have a goalkeeper advantage with the experience of Andrei Vasilevski beating the Swayman / Ulmark duo.
I’d still take the Lightning in a hypothetical playoff series against the Bruins, but it won’t end in five. A seven-game streak loss isn’t necessarily a bold projection, but Cassidy and company aren’t too far from catching the Bolts compared to years before.
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