When the NHL hopefully starts playing games again in early August, the Bruins will have had almost twice as long of a break during the coronavirus pause than they did in their actual offseason from the Stanley Cup Final to the start of the current 2020 season. It’s a potentially huge break for a team that could have been going up against other elite teams that had 2 months more rest than they did in rounds two and three. Everybody is going to be rested and healthy.
Which means there are infinite line combinations, and we have lots of time to think about it! Prior to the pause, Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase still hadn’t found their place in the Bruins lineup. Anders Bjork had been a healthy scratch in 4 of the final 5 games. Karson Kuhlman and Jack Studnicka were in Providence, despite being too good for the league, and Connor Clifton and Jeremy Lauzon were jousting for the 6th defense spot. There was still a lot to figure out in the final 3 weeks of play, even if the Bruins had socially distanced themselves from the rest of the league.
So what will Bruce Cassidy do with his 28 skater roster that NHL teams will be granted when they come back? That doesn’t matter for another two months. You know what else doesn’t matter? What I think the Bruins lineup should look like come August hockey, but that’s what we’re going to do. Here’s what my Bruins lineup would look like, and why:
Brad Marchand – Patrice Bergeron – David Pastrnak
Not much needs to be said here, they’re the best line in the league, and the Bruins will be relying on them heavily if they want to go on another deep run. In the last game before the pause, Cassidy tried Kase on that line, but it’s likely just a trial. The Bruins have more depth this year to be able to avoid breaking the top line up this year, as they were briefly forced to against Toronto last season. These three will be locked in, it’s a matter of figuring out what happens below them.
Nick Ritchie – David Krejci – Ondrej Kase
Cassidy used this line in the small amount of time that we’ve seen Ritchie and Kase as Bruins, and it didn’t work great, but I’d give it some time, cause I think it could work. Krejci and Kase are play drivers with skill and creativity. Ritchie is a net driver, and a larger body that could potentially create room for the two skill players. Ritchie and Kase played 170 minutes together in Anaheim, often with rookie Sam Steel in the middle, though they also played together with Ryan Getzlaf or Adam Henrique. This season when together, Kase and Ritchie had a 58.47 CF% and outscored opponents 9 to 6. Kase was the main play driver, but both players were worse without the other. It isn’t a huge sample, but it isn’t insignificant either. The success together didn’t translate to Boston in the 6 games before the pause, but you have to think that with a little time, it will click with a center like Krejci. The issue is, they don’t have a ton of time, but they also don’t have a choice.
Jake DeBrusk – Charlie Coyle – Anders Bjork
There’s a lot going on with this line, and I’ll explain. First off, it’s not a demotion for DeBrusk, I just really want to see what he can do in an extended period with Coyle. Both have a combination of speed, skill and physicality that I think could make the two thrive together, but the key here is Bjork. Bjork was a big reason for Coyle’s dominance this season, despite it not showing up on the stat sheet, and his defensive game was elite. The two played 383 minutes together this season, controlling all the major puck possession and shot categories, highlighted by the duo controlling 54.64% of the expected goals, and outsourcing opponents 16-14. These numbers improve further if you adjust for score and venue. Long story short: Coyle and Bjork dominated opponents when together this season. So what is this line missing? A pure goal scorer. Insert DeBrusk. Danton Heinen saw a lot of time with Coyle and Bjork, who despite being a useful player, isn’t quite the natural goal scorer this line needed. Another factor is essentially being able to have two second lines following the dominant first. Having Ritchie with Krejci and DeBrusk with Coyle allows for more of a 2A and 2B line rather than a 2nd and 3rd line, which would be an advantage based on how other teams decide to match up. This line has the potential to be a huge contributor, especially if they’re playing against other team’s third lines, and Bruce should listen to me.
Sean Kuraly – Par Lindholm – Jack Studnicka
This is the toughest line to choose, simply because there are so many options. The playoffs are about having your best players in the lineup, and I think leaving by leaving Studnicka out, you’d be inserting a worse player. He put up 23 points and 26 assists in 60 games for Providence this season, finishing with 13 points during Providence’s 12 game winning streak before the break. He scored 7 shorties as well, so he could definitely penalty kill. 4th line right wing may not be a typical spot for a player like Studnicka, but it speaks to the Bruins depth, and I can confidently say he’s one of the Bruins 12 best forwards. It’s worth a shot. The fourth line was at its best this season when Lindholm was in the middle and Kuraly was on the left. No player in the NHL gave up less when he was on the ice than Lindholm this season, with at least 370 minutes of 5v5 play. He was on the ice for just 4 goals against at 5 on 5, and had the lowest rate of xGA/60 in the league at just 1.54. Despite starting just 38.4% of his zone starts in the offensive zone, he controlled play whenever he was on the ice, holding a 51.44 CF%, 55.23 xGF%, and outscoring opponents 11-4. That’s the ideal 4th line center, and someone you can trust whenever you put them on the ice. Kuraly, there is less to be said about. He’s established himself as a mainstay, a very good 4th liner who can move up in the lineup, a playoff performer and has upped his point totals this season. All three can provide energy and penalty killing to Bruce Cassidy, and would be a more than break even, reliable 4th line.
Extras: Joakim Nordstrom, Chris Wagner, Anton Blidh, Karson Kuhlman, Trent Frederic/Zach Senyshyn
All the numbers say there are better players on the Bruins’ roster than Joakim Nordstrom, but after his incredible 2019 playoffs, my gut was telling me to put him in, and it was real tough to leave him out. His play wasn’t as good this regular season thanks to a tough start due to injuries, but he’ll throw his body in front on any shot, and is a guy Cassidy has put out to hold a lead in the last minutes of a game. He’ll see games at some point when they return, but he’s been passed on the depth chart by Lindholm and maybe others. Realistically, Wagner will probably be in the lineup game 1. I don’t have a problem with Wagner, he’s a solid bottom six guy, but again, there are better players, and Studnicka is one of them. It’s a good problem to have, but has just 5 points in his last 53 games, all goals. I think you have players who can do what he does, and contribute more offensively. I’m a big Blidh guy, his speed and energy is a fun combo that can be of use on a 4th line and I imagine he would be able to score a little bit in an extended opportunity. I’d love to see him get some games if injuries happen, but right now there are still players ahead of him. Kuhlman is a tough one. He’s an NHL caliber player. He’s in the lineup on most other teams, but the Bruins aren’t most teams. The acquisition of Kase made Kuhlman the odd man out, and it’s not exactly his fault. He’s driven play, scored, PKed, and has major wheels. If they don’t see Studnicka or Bjork fitting in, Kuhlman should be the first one in the lineup. He’s top 9 caliber, and played in last year’s playoffs, so I’d have no problem with him playing in every game if they see a better fit. For Frederic and Senyshyn, it would be good for them to get continued playoff experience like last year. They’re unlikely to play, but they’re capable and it will help them develop. I feel bad for Senyshyn, who really seemed like he was breaking in and potentially about to stick in the lineup in the stint before a knee injury, including his 3 assist game in Montreal.
Zdeno Chara – Charlie McAvoy
No questions here. Locked in. Charlie McAvoy could be the biggest reason the Bruins make a deep run, being arguably the best defenseman in the NHL this year, with the ability to shut down teams’ top line and play 25 minutes a night. The rest could especially help a guy like McAvoy who will be relied on for heavy minutes, and the 43 year old Chara, who will continue to play big minutes.
Torey Krug – Brandon Carlo
Another locked in pair. The two were hurt in the final game before the pause, but it’s not an issue anymore. They’ll continue to play 20+ minutes a night, with Krug leading the powerplay and Carlo leading the PK.
Matt Grzelcyk – Jeremy Lauzon
This is where it gets tough. Grzelcyk is locked in, but the decision between Clifton and Lauzon won’t be easy. Grzelcyk got good experience with both, playing 225 minutes with Clifton, before he got injured, and 195 minutes with Lauzon. The results were better with Lauzon on the ice, so I’ll go with him here. I could see them switch between the two based on the opponent; if they need a puck mover, they’ll use Clifton, whereas if they need a more defensive, physical presence, they’ll use Lauzon. Clifton’s 18 games in the playoffs last year and the fact that he’s right handed will help his case, but Lauzon is well accustomed to the right side. They both compliment Grzelcyk well, and I don’t think you can really go wrong, but Lauzon produced better results, so he’ll take the upper hand at least to start.
Chara and McAvoy were on the ice for 12 goals scored and 3 allowed in February, 80%, the best in the NHL (while taking only 38% offensive zone faceoffs).
Grzelcyk and Lauzon were 6 and 2, 75%, good for 7th best.
— Bruins Stats (@bruins_stats) February 28, 2020
Extras: Connor Clifton, John Moore, Steven Kampfer, Jakub Zboril/Urho Vaakanainen
I talked about Clifton, and he’ll likely see sometime in the exhibition and round robin even if he’s not in the Game 1 lineup. John Moore is a tough one. He’s got the respect of the players and the coaching staff, and could be implemented into the lineup with injuries, but simply put, he’s not very good, and there are better options. Steven Kampfer has plenty of NHL experience, including in last year’s playoffs, and could get the call as an offensive presence on the backend if Krug or Grzelcyk go down. Though I don’t follow Providence closely myself, those who do raved about Zboril’s play during the P-Bruins 12 game winning streak prior to the pause. Coach Jay Leetch said “The last 12 games or 15 games, he became probably our best defenseman overall. His ability to move the puck cleanly and there’s really there’s not many that can do it at our level.” That’s high praise for a defenseman that’s now 5 years past his draft year, and a good impression on the Bruins staff during this run could be important for his development. The other option is Urho Vaakanainen, who underwhelmed in his 5 game stint with the Bruins this year, but nobody is doubting the future for this kid. It would be good for him to be with the main group during the playoffs, but there may not be room for him if they decide to carry Zboril instead.
Nothing to say here. Unless Rask gets hurt or significantly falters, he will start every game in the playoffs, though Halak will likely get a few games in the exhibition and round robin.
Extras: Maxime Lagace, Daniel Vladar, Jeremy Swayman
The Bruins can carry unlimited goalies on the roster, but only 50 people in total on their team, so logistics may force them to leave a spare goalie. Lagace has the most NHL experience, playing 17 games for Vegas when they were decimated by injuries, but was outplayed by Vladar this season, who had a .936 sv% this season in Providence. The experience will be good for Vladar, as well. Swayman was a Hobby Baker candidate after putting up a .939 sv% for UMaine this season. He was signed on March 17th, after the pause, so it’s possible he won’t be eligible, but if they have room, the experience would be great for him to be able to face NHL shooters and live an NHL life (sort of) for a little bit. He could be the heir to Tuukka Rask, so it couldn’t hurt to have him there. The other goalie in the system is Kyle Keyser, who played very well for Oshawa in the OHL in 2019, but played just 7 games this season and none since November due to injury, and it’s unclear if he’s healthy or not.
So that’s where we are with (hopefully) a little over a month until camps and 2 months until games start. What would you change? Will Cassidy follow a similar path? Only time will tell.
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