THE BOSTON BRUINS 2021 SEASON POSTMORTEM
The Boston Bruins 2021 campaign has come to an end, and there were a lot of things to be positive about, and there were, as in any season that does not end with your team hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup, some negatives. I am going to cover as much of them as I can, as well as give you my opinion on what should be done going forward with respect to free agents, potential trades, and what the team might look like next year.
TUUKKA RASK – WHAT WENT WRONG AND WHAT’S NEXT?
So let me first vent my frustration from last night’s 6-2 loss to the New York Islanders. Tuukka Rask, while he is better and more experienced at this point than 22-year old Jeremy Swayman, did not look right since the second period of game 5 when he was pulled in favor of Swayman after giving up 4 goals on 16 shots. This would not improve for Tuukka as he would give up 4 goals on 27 shots in Game 6. During one stretch of play, Tuukka failed to stop 8 of 32 shots – a terrible save percentage of .750 – would Swayman have been any worse? He didn’t look right at all. His movements in the net were slow, and labored. He didn’t move with the catlike agility we’ve seen in the past. Tuukka is 6’3”, 173 lbs but he was moving like he was underwater for most of the game, between his side-to-side motion, playing the puck, and getting up into a standing position when he had to drop down to make a save. There was none of the smooth, liquid grace that we had seen in the past from Tuukka.
Tuukka Rask is one of the best goaltenders in the world and a multiple-time Vezina award finalist who won the award in 2014, but he has a habit of shrinking when the stage is biggest and the lights are brightest. From losing a 3-0 series lead against Philadelphia in 2010 (including a 3-0 lead in the pivotal game 7 to lose 4-3 in the game and 4-3 in the series) to the collapse against the Blackhawks in the Cup Final, the Blues in the Cup Final (despite the fact that Jordan Binnington was a rookie, the Bruins had home ice, and Binnington had to be pulled more than once because he couldn’t handle the Bruins’ offensive onslaught), abandoning his teammates in the bubble last year when the Bruins had a great chance to win it all, to insisting he was healthy enough to play this year despite the fact that he very clearly was not.
Rask is now 34 and is an unrestricted free agent as he played his final game under his 8-year/$56 million deal he signed after leading the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Finals in the 2013-14 season, the first year of that contract was the one in which he won the Vezina and the Bruins were a powerhouse team, winning the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points. They were led by 30-goal seasons from both Patrice Bergeron and Jarome Iginla, as well as 25 from Brad Marchand, 24 from Milan Lucic, and 20 from Reilly Smith. Despite all of this, they lost in the second round in seven games to the hated Montreal Canadiens.
Throughout all of this there were Rask detractors and defenders. While Tuukka wasn’t always performing up to his massive contract, the team struggled to score and the defense lapsed at times, so the blame couldn’t all be placed on Tuukka. That has been a theme throughout his tenure with Boston. He will play brilliantly at times, but there are those points when he becomes a massive disappointment and lets the team and fans down. This series has had a bit of both – goaltending brilliance from Rask in the first few games of this series and throughout the first round, and the way the offense was clicking (especially with Taylor Hall, who I’ll get to shortly) and the way the defense had played gave you real hope about the Bruins’ chances against the league’s powerhouse teams like Colorado, Vegas, and Tampa. Brad Marchand had eight goals, David Pastrnak had seven – this placed them among the league leaders.
There was a lot of speculation this year that Rask, in the hopes of one last contract either with the bruins or elsewhere, would put up one of his best seasons ever.
It didn’t happen.
Rask was injured and missed over a month with a back injury and in his absence Jaroslav Halak reaffirmed what we learned in last year’s playoffs- he’s not the long-term solution and the Bruins will make no attempt to re-sign the unrestricted free agent goalie this offseason. They brought up Dan Vladar who was not impressive in the playoffs last year but performed well enough this year in limited starts, but the real star was Jeremy Swayman. He was tearing it up for the Bruins’ AHL affiliate Providence Bruins, and even recorded a shutout for the big club. In fact, this was the first time since 2008 that the Bruins had three goaltenders record a shutout, because Rask and Vladar did as well.
I was hoping that Swayman would be the goalie for Game 6, and beyond. On the road in elimination games, Tuukka is 3-1 with a goals against average of 1.56 and a save percentage of .940 which would inspire hope that this was the correct move. However, his overall record in elimination games is 6-6 with a save percentage of .899, which is less inspiring because a seventh game would be played in Boston. Based on those stats, Tuukka is 3-5 with a save percentage of .860 – not Vezina-worthy.
But was it all on Tuukka? That brings me to my next point.
THE RETOOLED DEFENSE
This past offseason saw a major shakeup of the defensive core of the team. Gone in free agency was undersized but steady Torrey Krug, who took his talents to the St. Louis Blues in an attempt to replace former captain Alex Pietrangelo who signed with the Las Vegas Golden Knights. Also gone was defensive mainstay and team captain Zdeno Chara who was offered a very limited role and perhaps even a front-office position. Chara had been a force for a decade, but was showing signs of age, which was understandable because he recently turned 43.
Chara, once one of the most immovable objects and unstoppable forces in the NHL at six-foot-nine and 255 lbs, was losing his battle with Father Time. Even five years ago no one would dare step to Chara, to challenge him physically. A man who had a 108.8 MPH slap shot, a shot that broke defenders’ bones when they tried to block it, a man of such phenomenal strength that he always won the annual strength and conditioning contests the team would have in the offseason. Now? Defenders nearly a foot shorter and fifty to seventy pounds lighter were not only challenging him, but knocking him off his feet. No one feared him, or were in awe of him anymore. It was sad, it made me feel sorry for him that this once supremely powerful monster of a man who backed down from no one, occasionally going after entire lines on the opposing team he reminded me of how Andre the Giant used to fight multiple challengers. I remember when I first got into hockey when I was initially dating Ashes and thought “Wow, even when he gets older and slower, he still has that insane reach with the massive stick.”
But even that couldn’t offset how slow he was. He was stifling the growth of young defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who frequently had to cover for Chara’s lack of speed and quickness as well as deferring to him all the time.
For Chara, it at least wasn’t about the money. He had made enough. The bigger conundrum facing the Bruins if he were to come back to the team was the matter of his captaincy. Could he retain the C on his sweater if his role was such that he was a 3rd-pair defenseman at best, 7th or 8th defenseman at worst? That’s what the Bruins were trying to avoid by trying to nudge Chara towards retiring, but the big man refused to give in just as he had done throughout his career. He signed a one-year deal with Washington worth $950,000 annually. Like I said, he didn’t care about the money, he just wanted a chance to prove that he could still play at a high level, and while he contributed, it can’t be said that it was at a high level. He was a plus-5 and scored 2 goals and had 8 assists in 55 games, respectable for a 6th defenseman. Not great for a first-ballot Hall of Fame defenseman who led an Original Six team to a Stanley Cup win, two President’s Trophies, won a Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in 2008, becoming only the 3rd Bruins defenseman to win the award, along with Ray Bourque (5 times) and Bobby Orr (8 times – in a row).
Hindsight being what it is, considering the amount of injuries the Bruins suffered to their defensive corps, some have said that both Krug and Chara could have helped out. Of course, I don’t think that the Bruins would have been as good as they were throughout the regular season if the two of them had remained on the team, and we certainly wouldn’t have seen the ascension of McAvoy to one of the top defensemen in the league (despite his not getting consideration for the Norris Trophy, which now only goes to defensemen who score like forwards).
And that brings me to:
WHAT COMES NEXT FOR THE TEAM?
The biggest thing to address is the glut of restricted free agents, which includes Rask, Taylor Hall, David Krecji, Mike Reilly, Sean Kuraly, Kevan Miller, Jaroslav Halak, and Ondrej Kase.
It’s a virtual lock that Halak isn’t coming back, and neither is Kase, who did nothing for anyone in his time with the Bruins. He was supposed to be the second-line scoring that helped alleviate the pressure on the first line like so many others before him, and like them, he failed. The last time Krecji had a solid winger on his line was perhaps Jarome Iginla, or Nathan Horton.
Which brings me to Taylor hall. Signing Taylor Hall has got to be the Bruins’ highest priority. He proved what he could do, scoring one of the best goals I’ve ever seen against the Capitals in the first round and his game was revitalized playing alongside Krecji, whose game also improved drastically with Hall and Craig Smith as his wingers. The B’s finally had the scoring depth that would allow them to compete with teams like Tampa, Colorado, Pittsburgh, and other offensive powerhouses in the league. I would also say that they should bring back Krecji, despite his age (35) because they played so well together. However, he needs to come back at a severely reduced salary; he was the highest-paid player on the team at $7.25 million. I would give him 3 years at $3.5 million per year. If he wants a big payday, he can go elsewhere. If I’m going to pay that kind of money to a center, it’s going to be Ryan Nugent-Hopkins because he’s 29 and can do everything Krecji can do, and is seven years his junior. I’d love to see him on a line with Taylor Hall and Craig Smith.
That brings us to the next part of this plan – how to pay Taylor Hall. Do you make him the highest-paid player on the team? How would that go over with Marchand and Bergeron? I’m sure they would be okay with it if it helped them win, but how do you approach them to ask? Especially when one of the biggest reasons that Hall was able to flourish and why he wants to come back to the Bruins on a long-term contract is because he doesn’t have to be “The Guy” as he was on every other team for which he played. As for Hall, would he play for $6 million per year? That would be ideal.
The Bruins will have just over $23 million in cap space. Give Hall $6-$6.5, same with Nugent-Hopkins, $3-$3.5 for Krecji, $3 for Mike Reilly (a massive raise from his $1.5 million 2021 salary), bring in a guy like Adam Ekman-Larsson (6’3”, 208 lbs) from Edmonton or David Savard (6’2”, 229 lbs) because you KNOW Tampa won’t be able to retain him because of how far over the cap they are in their quest to repeat as champions. Hell, bring them both in! Let Kevan Miller go in free agency because he can’t stay healthy, re-sign Sean Kuraly for $1.5 million, which would still be a raise. Trade Jake DeBrusk for defensive depth. In an ideal world the team would look like this:
First Line: Pastrnak – Bergeron – Marchand
Second Line: Hall – Nugent-Hopkins – Smith
Third Line: Ritchie – Krecji – Coyle
Fourth Line: Frederic – Kuraly – Lazar
Reserve: Wagner, Kuhlman, Blidh, Studnicka
D-Pair 1: McAvoy – Savard
D-Pair 2: Ekman-Larsson – Grzelcyk
D-Pair 3: Carlo – Clifton
Reserve: Lauzon, Moore, Tinordi
Goalie 1: Jeremy Swayman
Goalie 2: DanVladar
Given the salaries that are already in place, plus the ones that I speculated about, this would leave them with about $4 million in cap space, even if you trade DeBrusk for equal salary. If not, you’re still under the cap. You’ve fixed the offense, you’ve improved the defense, and you’ve allowed for Swayman to grow and improve. He played very well with the defense that was in front of him, and if he were to be given this team that I’ve put forward, he’d be even better. Would he be as good as Prime Tuukka? I don’t know. But I know this: we’ve watched the Bruins falter because Rask has been up and down, and hasn’t risen to the occasion when his team has needed him to. Swayman has shown that he can perform under pressure (remember his first start against the Capitals during that street when every game was full of fights and cheap shots?) and he shut them down.
Krecji is 35. Bergeron is 35. Marchand is 33. They’re still playing at a high level. They’ve got maybe 2-3 years left where they can legitimately compete for the Cup. I don’t want to see it wasted.