Less than a week removed from the Thanksgiving holiday, it is somewhat traditional for fans to take a look at where their teams stand in terms of standings and performance, given that a lot of playoff spots are often starting to take shape even at this early part of the season.
For supporters of the Boston Celtics and Bruins, the results for boththus far have been decidedly mixed, but because of certain circumstances, especially for the Black and Gold, it really may be too early to chart the team’s course toward playoff qualification next spring.
We took a glance at the Celtics last week, so let’s take a look at the Bruins this week.
Due to a nonsensical glitch in the NHL schedule, Boston’s hockey team has played only 19 games thus far, including Tuesday’s home loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Two years ago, the Bruins had already compiled an impressive 19-3-5 record through its first 27 games as of Dec. 1, but the schedule-makers have only given the Bruins 19 games through the first 46 days of the season, which amounts to just a game every two-and-a-half days. Twice the Bruins have had four or five days off between games, and only the Islanders (primarily because of COVID postponements) and the Avalanche have played fewer games.
As a result, it is undoubtedly a small sample size in which we examine whether the Bruins are any good or not, just 23 percent into the 82-game regular season.
So what to make of them? Well, Boston is 11-8 to this point and has played only one overtime game, and that puts them fifth in the Atlantic Division, three points ahead of the dreadful Sabres, who have played three more games. Only the Cup-finalist Canadiens (6-16-2) and Senators (4-14-1) are worse in the division. We can’t speculate on what place the Bruins would be situated until they play a few more games to catch up, but that opportunity is coming soon enough, as the 10 weeks leading to the Olympic break in February will find the Bruins playing nearly every other day: 33 games in 68 days.
What is clear, even at this early stage, is that the Bruins are a good team, not a great team. When they play mediocre or bad teams, they generally win, particularly at home (7-4 overall). Their 11 wins thus far have been against the Stars (8-7-2), the Sabres (7-10-2) twice, the Sharks (10-8-1), the Red Wings (9-9-3), the Senators (4-12-1), the Devils (8-5-4), the Canadiens (5-14-2), the Flyers (8-7-4), and the Canucks (7-14-2). The only truly impressive victory for Boston to this point was a 3-2 victory over the 15-4-3 Florida Panthers, and even that went to a shootout on Oct. 30.
But when the Bruins play very good or great teams, they struggle, as evidenced by the Black and Gold getting thrashed by those same Panthers, 4-1, three days before that shootout victory, along with beatdowns inflicted by the 15-5-1 Hurricanes (3-0), the 16-6-1 Maple Leafs (5-2), the 15-5 Oilers (5-3), the 13-4-5 Flames (4-0), and last Friday’s 5-2 home loss to the 13-4-3 Rangers, who trailed, 2-1, midway through the contest. That shutout loss to Calgary 10 days ago was particularly galling, as the Bruins were shut out by 6’-5” behemoth Dan Vladar, who was drafted by Boston in 2015 and was a part of the Bruins roster in the latter part of last season. Alas, the Bruins, in their infinite wisdom, traded the netminder to Calgary for just a third-round pick during the offseason, and Vladar, in a backup role, is 4-0 with a sparkling 1.57 GAA and a .946 save percentage, all while making just $700,000 a year. Worse, Boston instead signed free-agent goalie Linus Ullmark to a four-year, $20M contract in the offseason, and he has posted a so-so 5-4 record with a 2.68 GAA and just a .908 save percentage.
Ullmark is ostensibly sharing the goaltending duties with 23-year-old Jeremy Swayman, the winner of the 2020 Mike Richter Award (given annually to the best goaltender in NCAA Division I hockey) who is 6-4 with a 2.42 GAA and a .911 save percentage. Between the tandem, the Bruins sport a 2.88 GAA, which is, you guessed it, exactly halfway down the list of the 32 NHL teams. Last season, with veteran Tuukka Rask primarily between the pipes, Boston’s GAA of 2.39 was fourth in the NHL.
It remains to be seen whether the Bruins will indeed show interest in the free agent Rask, who had offseason hip surgery but probably won’t be ready until January or February at the earliest. They’ve invested significant capital in Ullmark while hoping for the best with the youngster, Swayman.
Meanwhile, offensively the Bruins are led by the usual suspects: first-liners Patrice Bergeron (8-10—18), Brad Marchand (9-15—24), and David Pastrnak (8-11—19). Surprisingly, the next-highest player in terms of points thus far is defenseman Charlie McAvoy (3-11—14), who signed a big eight-year, $76M contract extension earlier this season. The 23-year-old compiled totals of 5-25--30 in 51 games last season, but at this rate he will accumulate point totals in the 60s this season, and he is already shooting more, as evidenced by his 1.8-shots-per-game total last season improving to 2.17 this season.
Second-line center Charlie Coyle, who took over the role of the departed David Krejci, has also improved greatly, and his early 6-5—11 totals are way ahead of his injury-plagued 2020-21 campaign, when he collected totals of 6-10—16. Winger Taylor Hall, also extended during the offseason to the tune of four years and $24M, has five goals and six assists, but he is the lone remaining Bruin with double-digit points, as the scoring drop-off from the third and fourth lines has been precipitous. The first line has nearly 50 percent of the team’s goal totals, and the top two lines combined have tallied just about 68 percent of the team’s goal totals, and the Bruins are 13th in the league with their 3.06-goals-per-game total.
But the team’s lack of depth amidst its up-and-comers is alarming. The only player on the current roster that was drafted recently is Swayman, who was selected way back in 2017. A year earlier, Boston selected McAvoy and Trent Frederic in the first round, and they’re currently on the active roster, but the haul from the vaunted 2015 draft, which included three first-rounders, still hasn’t made an impact for the parent club, other than the underachieving Jake DeBrusk and blueliner Brandon Carlo — and this is six years after that draft.
So Boston has a dynamic first line, a decent second line, and a goaltending tandem that remains wait-and-see, and all this translates to the Bruins having a decent team, but nowhere near the talent level of the aforementioned half-dozen teams listed above, nor are they likely close to the likes of the two-time Cup champion Lightning, the Capitals, the Avalanche, or even the surprising Minnesota Wild, whose 15-6-1 record is the best in the West.
At least the Celtics continue to boast young talent coming up through the ranks; the Bruins need to be concerned because their two best players, Bergeron and Marchand, are 36 and 33, respectively, and there are no players on the roster or even likely in Providence who can provide the same offensive punch and intangibles.
So — still too early to write the team’s obituary, obviously, but a first- or second-round exit in the Stanley Cup playoffs next spring is the most likely outcome at this point for this good-but-certainly-not-great cast of characters.