With the NHL season now just underway, we continue our look at what each team has done this summer and what to watch for in the year to come. Next up is a look at the Boston Bruins.
Last Season: 50-20-12 record (112 points), second in the Atlantic Division (lost in second round to Tampa Bay Lightning)
Remaining Cap Space: $5,246,849 per CapFriendly
Key Additions: F Martin Bakos (free agent, Liberec – Czech Rep.), G Jaroslav Halak (free agent, NY Islanders), D Steven Kampfer (trade, NY Rangers), D John Moore (free agent, New Jersey), F Joakim Nordstrom (free agent, Carolina), F Chris Wagner (free agent, NY Islanders)
Key Subtractions: F Kenny Agostino (free agent, Montreal), D Tommy Cross (free agent, Columbus), F Austin Czarnik (free agent, Calgary), F Brian Gionta (retirement), D Nick Holden (free agent, Vegas), G Anton Khudobin (free agent, Dallas), D Adam McQuaid (trade, NY Rangers), F Rick Nash (free agent, unsigned), F Riley Nash (free agent, Columbus), D Paul Postma (free agent, Kazan – KHL), F Tim Schaller (free agent, Vancouver), F Tommy Wingels (free agent, Geneve – NLA)
[Related: Bruins Depth Chart From Roster Resource]
Player To Watch: F Ryan Donato – Rookie forward Donato made his NHL debut last year in the midst of a season most only dream of. Donato wrapped up a stellar collegiate career with Harvard University by leading the NCAA in goals per game with 26 tallies – and 43 points – in 29 games. The effort made Donato a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in college hockey. Donato also starred for his country, playing a major role for Team USA at the Winter Olympics where, again, he led the tournament in goals per game, potting five in six contests. He then stepped right into the NHL, notching five goals and four assists in 12 regular season games down the stretch and even skating in three playoff games. After such an impressive campaign, the question now is can he keep it up?
The ceiling for Donato is clear: as a supremely talented shooter and intelligent offensive player, Donato is able to seamlessly transition into a regular scoring role on a skilled Boston lineup. Donato is currently skating on the off-wing, something he did little of in college, on the Bruins’ second line with veteran center David Krejci and impressive sophomore winger Jake DeBrusk. He’s also been tasked with first unit power play work, getting to share the ice with the NHL’s best line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak. If he adjusts well to this role, Donato could be looking at 30+ goals and not only in the conversation for the Calder Trophy, but perhaps the favorite.
However, the floor for Donato is also apparent. The Bruins have recently seen what can happen when a talented offensive player with a knack for putting the puck in the net during his developmental years fails to transition that ability to the NHL. Frank Vatrano, traded late last year to the Florida Panthers, was a goal-scoring phenom in the AHL and was expected to take over a top-nine role last season, only to struggle with scoring, too often get exposed defensively, take too many bad penalties, and ultimately end up as an extra skater later jettisoned away. While Donato is a far superior prospect to Vatrano and is in no way at risk of being dealt, his rookie year could go similarly to Vatrano’s final season in Boston. The Bruins ask all of their forwards to play a responsible, two-way, forechecking game. Donato is still developing those skills and, if he isn’t scoring enough on the second line, could find it hard to get play time in the bottom-six. Danton Heinen and Anders Bjork already have a pro experience, and more importantly two-way IQ, to their credit and could push Donato for an opportunity in the top-six or even force him out of the lineup entirely. The Bruins also have their eye on a Stanley Cup this year and could seek to replace a disappointing Donato via trade if it comes to that down the line.
It says a lot that the Bruins let several middle-six free agent forwards walk without finding viable replacements this off-season, as they clearly trust Donato, as well as DeBrusk, Heinen, Bjork, and other options in the AHL, to be reliable NHL scorers. Already, through just three games, secondary scoring has been an issue for Boston and Donato needs to prove management right that he is ready to take on his current role. The Bruins’ season rests with the ability of their young forwards to continue improving and provide stable secondary scoring. Of that group, Donato is the most important, having been handed the second-line opening early on, and bears watching all season long.
Key Storyline: For much of last season, the Boston Bruins were neck-and-neck with the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in both the division and the conference and at times even the league’s best record. Boston ended up only one point behind the Bolts in the final standings and then fell to their foes in the second round of the playoffs. Part of the reason that Tampa was able to relatively easily dispatch the Bruins: their trade deadline additions of Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller, both of whom remain on the team moving forward. The Bruins added Rick Nash, who was a good fit while healthy but a bust overall, as well as several depth pieces. None of those players are donning the black and gold this year.
Then, this off-season the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished third behind the Bruins in the division last season and proved to be a difficult first round opponent, landed the biggest fish in free agency, superstar center John Tavares. The Bruins were in on Tavares as well, but after they missed out, opted not to pursue any other prominent free agent scorers.
The Atlantic Division has improved right before the Bruins’ eyes, with many calling the Lightning and Leafs favorites not only to win the division, but the Stanley Cup. And that isn’t even considering the improvements made by the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres as well. Meanwhile, Boston continues to rely on their current core and the young players they have shuffled into the lineup. Without many noticeable external improvements – outside of a top backup goaltender in Jaroslav Halak and a reliable, versatile defenseman in John Moore – can the Bruins keep up? Is this team as good as the patient front office thinks they are?
Overall Outlook: The answer, of course, is yes. This Bruins team is great. Ignore an ugly opening night loss to the banner ceremony-fueled Washington Capitals and Boston still enters the season with some of the highest expectations in the NHL. The best line in the league is supported by young, exciting scoring forwards, dependable veterans like Krejci and David Backes, and several capable fourth line options. The defense is anchored by a legend in Zdeno Chara and a wunderkind in Charlie McAvoy, not to mention offensive dynamo Torey Krug and young Brandon Carlo. Tuukka Rask and Halak could also prove to be the best goalie tandem in the league and not a stretch as Jennings Trophy favorites behind a possession-dominant, defensively responsible lineup. Not to mention, the Bruins have ample cap space and will almost assuredly be a top suitor come trade deadline time. Yes, the Bruins are great. But is “great” enough in a division that is stacked at the top with arguably three of the NHL’s top five teams? Or to make it out of the Eastern Conference, which features the past three Cup winners in the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins?