A Good Year in Boston
By Steve Conroy
BOSTON -- The year 2018 was full of both promise and angst for Boston Bruins’ fans. By the time the ball dropped on New Year’s Day 2018, it was already clear that GM Don Sweeney’s gamble on a youth movement had paid off for the 2017-18 season.
Rookies Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Danton Heinen played prominent roles in turning the Bruins from a curiosity into an actual contender. They wound up making it to the second round of the playoffs. Everyone always wants more, but reasonable B’s fans could be satisfied with that result in the overall scheme of things -- provided it was just the next step in an upward trajectory.
That’s where it gets tricky. Rookies become second-year players who are susceptible to sophomore slumps, which as been the case this season. Grzelcyk has raised his profile with the B’s blue line beset with injuries and DeBrusk seemed to clicking along until he was knocked out of the lineup with a concussion recently. But McAvoy missed almost two months with a concussion. Heinen is only just now beginning to produce and Anders Bjork played his way down to Providence.
Meanwhile, Phase 2 of the youth movement, which called for a young player to take over a top six wing role and another to become the third line center, has not yet happened. It doesn’t mean it’s too late for players to step up, but Sweeney is already looking for outside help up front.
While the 2017-18 team looked like a very good mesh of both young and experienced players, it’s now no guarantee that the youth caboose will catch up to the veteran engine in time to take advantage of the window the organization still has with with the last of the 2011 Stanley Cup winners in Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask.
Will the 2018-19 team make good on the promise of 2017-18? We shall see. But before we put up the new calendar on the side of the fridge, let’s take a look back at some key dates.
TEN KEY DATES
1. Feb. 20: Bruins obtain Nick Holden. When Sweeney obtained the defenseman from the Rangers for Rob O’Gara and a third-round pick, most of us assumed that the rookie Grzelcyk would be the odd-man out. But that very night in Edmonton, the understated kid from Charlestown showed that he was not afraid of a challenge. He spearheaded a spirited Bruins comeback win against the Oilers and did not relinquish his spot in the lineup. And it told B’s management what kind of player they had in Grzelcyk.
2. Feb. 25: Bruins obtain Rick Nash. Nash was one of the biggest fish in the rental market. The B’s forked over forwards Ryan Spooner and Matt Beleskey, defense prospect Ryan Lindgren and their 2018 first- and seventh-round picks. Ultimately, it didn’t work because of injury to Nash. But it is a deal that, given where the B’s were at the time, they should do 10 out of 10 times. It also sent a signal that the B’s were ready to play with the big boys again.
3. March 17: Bruins beat Tampa Bay Lightning, but lose Nash. At first, everything looked all good for the B’s on St. Patrick’s Day. They continued their confounding mastery over the explosive Bolts and but no one knew that Nash, who had given the B’s second line the boost that was imagined, had suffered another head injury. This would be the last regular season game for Nash. He returned for the playoffs, but was not himself and we were all left with a whole bunch of what-ifs.
4. April 3: Lightning beat the Bruins, 4-0. Do not underestimate how much the B’s were in the Lightning’s head before this point, despite the fact that Tampa had the much deeper team. When they recorded the dominant shutout victory on this night, the Bolts answered some nagging questions in their own heads. They would be ready for the Bostonians when they would meet again.
5. April 25: Bruins beat Maple Leafs in Game 7. If the B’s could not get out of the first round, they would not have improved upon their finish the year before and the taste of the season would have been much more bitter. And that’s the way it was going until Torey Krug woke up the Garden with his tying goal in the third period and DeBrusk bulled his way to the net for game-winner.
6. May 4: Bruins lose Game 4 to Lightning. If the B’s had any chance of making this a series against Tampa, it was in this game. They were down 2-1 in games, but in Game 4 had erased a deficit and taken a lead before McAvoy was hauled down from behind by Nikita Kucherov (no call) and Steven Stamkos was given a wide open shot to tie it. He did, and the Bolts won it in overtime. Heading back to Tampa down 3-1, the B’s were toast.
7. June 23: Ilya Kovalchuk signs with Kings. Perhaps it was a bullet dodged, but the B’s had designs on someone with size and skill on the wing and the 35-year-old Kovlachuk, returning from the KHL, fit the bill. They were finalists for the wing’s services, but lost out to Los Angeles. Maybe just as well. He’s got 7-9-16 totals in 26 games for a Kings team that is already circling the drain. He has missed most of December with an ankle injury, though he did return with a bang on Saturday.
8. July 1: Free agent period opens. The headline of the day was that the B’s lost out on another target, John Tavares -- and to divisional rival Toronto, no less. But while the ramifications of that loss will be felt for years, Sweeney actually had a very good day. He added size and skating on the back end with John Moore, bolstered the goaltending with Jaroslav Halak (who has been more like a 1B than a traditional backup), picked up local banger Chris Wagner and under-utilized Carolina forward Joakim Nordstrom, who has been a multi-purpose revelation.
9. Nov. 9: Tuukka takes a break. After a disastrous relief performance in an 8-5 to Vancouver, Rask asked the team for a leave of absence to tend to some personal business. It was highly unusual. He missed the weekend back-to-back games against Toronto and Vegas, which Halak swept. But whatever Rask needed to tend to, he did and it’s helped his performance. Since that weekend off, he’s looked more like his old self and helped the B’s weather an tsunami of injuries.
10. Nov. 14-16: A nightmare scenario for the B’s played out in back-to-back games in Colorado and Dallas. First against the Avalanche, they lost their best defender as Chara joined both McAvoy and Miller on the shelf with a knee injury. Two nights later in Big D, Bergeron was ridden into the boards and miseds over a month with a chest injury. But instead of folding, the B’s were able to stay afloat in the playoff picture. They demonstrated to themselves and the rest of the league that they possess some of the best defensive depth in the league. How they utilize it all remains to be seen.
THREE PREDICTIONS FOR 2019
The Bruins will make a hockey trade. Don’t know if Sweeney will use some of his yet-to-bloom youth or the depth on defense as a lure, but they will make a move to bolster their forward corps. If it is for the right top-six wing, then they might be able to compete with Tampa Bay and Toronto.
David Pastrnak will reach the 50-goal plateau. No Bruin has even reached 40 since Glen Murray did it in 2002-03 when he had 44. The last Bruin to hit 50 was current team president Cam Neely in 1993-94, when he did it in just 49 games. It’ll take some doing for Pastrnak but with the lines more balanced with the return of Bergeron, he’s got a good shot.
Cassidy will be a finalist for the Jack Adams Award again. He’s done an excellent job in keeping this team afloat while it endured a plague of injuries. But if either the Islanders (Barry Trotz) or Canadiens (Claude Julien) make the playoffs, he’ll be a bridesmaid again.