Since around midday on July 1, when John Tavares put pen to paper on a contract with his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, the notion has been floated that the Atlantic Division is a two-horse race. On one side stands the Maple Leafs, chock full of youthful exuberance with a superstar addition that let more daylight in through an already wide open window. On the other is the Tampa Bay Lightning, fresh off a third trip to the Eastern Conference final in four seasons and with a roster so talent-laden it’s hard to fathom there will be any team in either conference that can keep pace.
Yet to suggest its some sort of foregone conclusion that it will be the Maple Leafs and Lightning battling for the Atlantic Division crown, not to mention the division’s berth in the conference final, would be to entirely overlook the Boston Bruins, who finished last season second in the Atlantic with their highest point total in four seasons’ time. The Bruins may not have made the big splash of the Maple Leafs or have the on-paper wealth of offensive firepower of the Lightning, but Boston has a roster that should not only be able to compete, but really, truly push both Toronto and Tampa Bay from start to finish this coming campaign.
As one would expect, any discussion of that begins with the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. The trio was almost inarguably the best three-man unit in the NHL last season. And while there’s no knowing how a new-look Maple Leafs lineup operates or what an even-more-battle-tested Lightning offense can produce, what we do know is that last season there were few lines that drove play and found twine quite like Boston’s top line. Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak skated roughly 500 minutes as a unit at 5-on-5 last season, one of 19 lines to do so. In terms of possession rates, the Bruins’ first line topped the group. They had the best expected goals for percentage at just shy of 64 percent. And they may have reached it with slightly more shooting luck or a few additional saves here and there. Instead, the unit finished 12th in goals for percentage at nearly 58 percent, but that’s still an impressive feat given they had the lowest combined shooting percentage and save percentage of any line.
The Bruins’ top line is their great equalizer, too. It’s the one unit that, combined, can be iced for one-third of any outing and get results against the best of the best, winning the matchup game and helping neutralize an opponents’ top trio. But one line alone can’t alone produce a winning record, let alone challenge two perceived Presidents’ Trophy contenders. Thankfully, the Bruins have pieced together a forward corps that is sneakily deep.
Down the middle, Boston has the opportunity to run David Krejci as a second-line pivot and either David Backes or Sean Kuraly down the middle on the third line. The fourth-line job goes to Chris Wagner, though promising youngster Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson will be hot on the heels of the bottom-six gig this season. It’s the wings where the young talent really shines through, though.
Jake DeBrusk was somewhat of a revelation last season, making an almost seamless transition to the NHL after one year in the AHL, netting 16 goals and 43 points as a rookie. Likewise, Ryan Donato has all the makings of a sleeper Calder Trophy candidate this season. He was white-hot after entering the lineup out of Harvard, scoring five goals and nine points in 12 games. Add Danton Heinen to the mix, who impressed with 16 goals and 47 points in his rookie season, and the Bruins have three early-20s wingers with true 50-point potential heading into the campaign, with Anders Bjork rounding out the crew of young wingers as a potential bottom-six contributor.
And while true that as much promise as the offense holds it’s still not enough to put the Bruins’ attack ahead of that of the Maple Leafs or Lightning, the difference between Boston’s defense and either Toronto’s or Tampa Bay’s might help narrow the gap. The Bruins not only have one of the best veteran rearguards in the NHLin the seemingly ageless wonder that is Zdeno Chara, but they’ve assembled a blueline corps that has all the pieces of a contender.
In Charlie McAvoy, who only stands to grow further after an outstanding rookie campaign, Boston has a future No. 1 blueliner learning firsthand from Chara. McAvoy is about more than just defensive stability and monster minutes, too, as he’s proven his offensive upside. He scored seven goals and 32 points in 63 games last season. His point total tied him for 44th among blueliners in 2017-18, but only 27 rearguards scored at a higher points per game rate. Among those who bested McAvoy was teammate Torey Krug, who could make a list of players who are perennially underrated. Over the past three seasons, the list of defensemen with more points than Krug is short — we’re talking six-players short — and he ranks sixth in power play points over that span.
Better yet, beyond the top-three on the back end, the Bruins should have no real depth concerns. Now healthy, Brandon Carlo projects to step into the No. 4 spot on the blueline and could be exceptional in that role if he’s back to his rookie-season form. Kevan Miller has carved out a spot for himself in the bottom-three over the past several seasons and remains a good fit in Boston. Matt Grzelcyk comes with upside, though he’s likely to be a fill-in rather than full-timer, while Adam McQuaid represents the sandpaper on the blueline. Finally, in off-season addition John Moore, the Bruins have another rearguard who can step into the top-four and find a fit or be a more-than-serviceable fifth defenseman.
And Tuukka Rask can’t be overlooked when looking at the challenge Boston can present in the Atlantic. Rask, who takes an unwarranted amount of flack from Bruins faithful, has been excellent over the past few seasons, sporting a .916 save percentage and a league-best 15 shutouts since the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign. What Rask will get this season, too, is a greater opportunity for rest with veteran backup Jaroslav Halak brought in as his crease compatriot. A rested Rask can be a dangerous Rask, as we saw last season. His .917 SP last season was his best since 2014-15, and it wouldn’t be altogether surprising to see the one-time Vezina Trophy winner, who has finished top-seven in voting four times in nine seasons, challenges for the hardware this coming campaign.
So, while the Bruins may not be as lethal on paper as the Maple Leafs or Lightning, they’ve proven they can be as good, if not better, in practice. As a unit, one that has remained relatively unchanged beyond added experience, Boston was one of the league’s premier possession teams, dominant in tilting the ice and out-chancing opponents. And there’s no reason the Bruins, under the guidance of coach Bruce Cassidy, can’t do that once again en route to challenging for a division title or conference crown that most have already pencilled in as belonging to the Maple Leafs or Lightning.