8 way-too-early predictions for Bruins in 2021

(Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

After a bleak offseason, the Boston Bruins are finally set to return once the calendar mercifully flips to 2021 — with Patrice Bergeron, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci and the rest of the roster set to open camp at Warrior Ice Arena on Jan. 3.

While there will be plenty to sort through and break down in the coming weeks as the Bruins ramp things up for an eventual puck drop on Jan. 13, we've decided to open this new campaign by offering up eight way-too-early predictions for the B's ahead of camp and a 56-game slate.

Will they be bold? Of course. Ill-advised? Perhaps. Will some tweet this article back to me in May when the B's end up on the outside looking in at the playoff bubble? No doubt.

But let's start the 2021 NHL season off with a bang, shall we?

Here are some bold takes regarding the B's in a season unlike any other:

1. Entering the final week of play, the Bruins will be vying for the top spot in a revamped "East" Division: Upon first glance, it's only natural for Bruins fans to fear the worst (a regular exercise) when predicting how a talented — albeit flawed — roster will hold its own in what appears to be a loaded "East" Division in 2021.

Even though both the Sabres and Devils are properly lined up to serve as the punching bag for the rest of a division sequestered together by way of a necessary regional alignment this season, the rest of the field will be much more daunting for Bruce Cassidy's club.

As part of its revamped schedule, Boston will play each of its new divisional foes eight times, setting the stage for some brutal scraps against the likes of ...

Carter Hart and a talented Flyers team that should build off last year’s playoff push.
A Capitals team that has taken the B's lunch money for years on end now.
A Penguins club still anchored by the two-headed beast that is Crosby/Malkin down the middle.
A defensive-minded Islanders crew that punched its ticket to the Eastern Conference Final last year.
A dynamic Rangers squad headlined by the likes of Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad — and a stacked crew of youngsters.

So, no — it's not going to be easy for the Bruins in this new East Division. But fans might find some solace in that arguably Boston's two top roadblocks in the traditional "Eastern Conference" in Toronto and Tampa Bay will be playing elsewhere in 2021 — while the B's have actually fared pretty well against most of their new divisional rivals over the years.

As stingy as the Islanders are, the Bruins are actually 5-0-1 against them since Barry Trotz took over in 2018, while a talented Blueshirts roster might still be a year or two away from full contention, due in large part to a leaky blue line.

Boston went 2-1-0 against the Pens in 2019-20, with Pittsburgh placing its hopes in net on Tristan Jarry this season — a promising young netminder that shined to open the 2019-20 campaign (.941 save percentage from Nov. 16 - Dec. 30), but faded down the stretch (7-7-1, .901 save percentage in final 15 games). Even though noted Bruins killer Braden Holtby was mortal in 2019-20 (he was actually just flat out bad for extended stretches), the sight of the B's longtime nemesis in net (with a career .939 save percentage to boot) now up in Vancouver should have the B's breathing a little easier when facing off against the Caps — who will now also be without Henrik Lundqvist after the veteran announced that he would not play this season due to a heart condition. The Flyers, with a talented young goalie, established veteran core and slew of rising stars like Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov promise to be the toughest out.

Ultimately, the road to the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Bruins starts by closing out the 56-game season as one of the top-four teams in the "East". And even though the gap in the standings between those four playoff clubs may not be all that much, one should still feel good about the Bruins' chances here — given both their matchup history and the fact that Boston still boasts the best goalie duo among the teams in this grouping. Expect a dogfight down the stretch in the "East", but both the Bruins and Flyers should still be considered the teams to beat here.

2. Charlie McAvoy garners Norris Trophy consideration: There are plenty of potential breakout candidates on the B's roster — whether it be the hot-and-cold Jake DeBrusk, unproven deadline pickups like Ondrej Kase or even a rookie like Jack Studnicka. But the Bruins skater primed to take the biggest step forward might be their No. 1 defenseman in Charlie McAvoy — who still has much more to give at just 23 years old.

For as much as some maligned McAvoy for his lack of offensive pop last season (0 goals in first 51 games), the young defenseman's value still soared thanks to his knack for regularly shutting down opposing top-six lines with ease — ranking 98th percentile among NHL defensemen in both even-strength defense and expected goals against last season, per JFreshHockey.

Of course, McAvoy's offensive game goes far beyond what can be tallied in a basic stat book — with his transition game playing a key role in Boston's ability to gets its big guns up front into the offensive zone in short order. And once McAvoy finally lit the lamp for the first time last season on Feb. 5, he went on a tear — tallying 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) over his final 17 outings.

While McAvoy should continue to thrive as a defensive anchor on Boston's blue line, his offensive game should also soar in 2021 and beyond — especially if given a longer leash in the O-zone if paired with a more fleet-footed partner like Matt Grzelcyk. When you factor in added reps on the power play and an increased emphasis from Cassidy on peppering the net from the blue line (McAvoy ranked last on B's with a 3.71 shots / 60 minutes rate last year), and this could be the season in which McAvoy finally puts it all together and starts inserting himself in the conversation as one of the top defensemen in the league.

The Norris Trophy field is awfully crowded these days, especially among younger blueliners like Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes and Miro Heiskanen. But don't be surprised if McAvoy inserts himself into the conversation with these skilled D-men as the 2021 season rolls along.

It seems rather inevitable at this point.

3. Bruins embrace a youth movement on defense, but Zdeno Chara re-ups just ahead of camp: Based on Cam Neely's comments on Monday afternoon, it seems as though Zdeno Chara's future in Boston is murkier than ever.

"We do want to take a look at some of these young, left-shot Ds that we have in our system and see if they can step up, or is it the time for them to step up and see where they’re at in their development," Neely said. "We certainly respect Zdeno and everything he’s done for the organization and what he’s accomplished as a player and what he’s done both on and off the ice here in Boston. So it’s really just a matter of what his desire is and how the coaching staff and we feel what our lineup should look like and could look like, depending on the development of some of these young guys.”

Given the number of openings on Boston's blue line, it won't come as much of a surprise if Boston opts to see what a youngster like Jeremy Lauzon or even a Jakub Zboril can offer in a top-four role on this club — although a lot of that will revolve around how these skaters fare during an abbreviated training camp. But even if Boston embraces the youth movement in order to account for the loss of a top-four D in Torey Krug, it'd be a pretty awful look for the B's if Chara ends up closing out his Hall-of-Fame career elsewhere, especially given that Chara's value on this team would be best utilized in more of a third-pairing role.

So far, it would seem as though Boston remains the top priority for Chara, to the surprise of very few. The 43-year-old defenseman and his family have put their roots down in Boston, and moving elsewhere for a single 56-game season seems to only be a scenario that'd only become tangible if Boston opts to completely move on from their longtime captain.

"I’ve had 20-plus teams reach out to me, but his focus right now is to talk to Boston," Chara's agent, Matt Keator, told TSN's Pierre LeBrun. "He still has the option to retire. But he seems very interested in playing if it’s the right fit.’’

As we noted on Monday, Chara can still be a difference-maker on this B's team on the ice, especially if asked to log a more reasonable 17-18 minutes a night and help anchor a stingy PK unit.

From Monday's piece:  Among the 108 NHL defensemen that logged at least 1,000 minutes of even-strength ice time this past season, Chara ranked second in terms of goals for share — with Boston outscoring the competition, 64-38, during his 1,198 minutes of ice time. And despite having the least faceoffs in the O-zone (33.28%) of any of those 108 blueliners, Chara didn’t let those tough defensive assignments lead to goals on the board — ranking fourth in that grouping in goals against per 60 minutes at 1.9.

Along with potentially functioning as a third-pairing regular next to the likes of Connor Clifton (Boston held a 16-6 edge in scoring chances when that duo was on the ice together during the 2021 playoffs), Chara could also earn a bump up in the lineup and function as a shutdown pair next to Carlo when Bruce Cassidy is looking to close a contest out — with a Chara-Carlo pairing only scored on five times last season in 234 minutes of 5v5 ice time.

And with other skaters like John Moore and the aforementioned younger blueliners still present on the roster, Boston would also have the luxury of adequately resting Chara and monitoring his minutes in a season expected to be filled with back-t0-back slates.

So yes, Boston's defense is going to look very, very different this season with the likes of Lauzon, Zboril and others thrown into the fire in the early going. Given the potential for some developmental bumps in the road along the way (not exactly what you're looking for on a "win-now" B's roster), bringing back Chara as a third-pairing regular and overall safety net stands as a prudent move for a B's team in need of some stability on its D corps.


[caption id="attachment_571507" align="alignnone" width="800"] (Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)[/caption]

4. Even without Krug, Bruins finish with a top-five power play: Let's be frank — Matt Grzelcyk is no Torey Krug on the power play. Whereas Krug was much more dynamic as the maestro of Boston's man-advantage — operating down along the half-wall in search of a perfect seam pass — Grzelcyk is much more fixated up along the blue line, tasked more with keeping the puck in the O-zone and feeding it back to Boston's playmakers down low.

Sure, Grzelcyk's game may not be as bombastic as Krug's typical M.O. on the power play, but when you have weapons like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak to work with, Grzelcyk can keep things simple and still produce when given the opportunity.

Given how much Boston relies on its power play to keep its offense afloat and cover for a lackluster 5v5 scoring output away from the top line, you're well within reason to fear what comes next now that Krug is off in St. Louis. But, even though they may not be a top-two squad in terms of efficiency as they've been in years past, the 2021 Bruins still have the means to dissect an opposing PK unit with ease.

Of course, a lot will be riding on just how long Pastrnak will be on the shelf this season after offseason surgery (a mid-February return appears to be the plan), along with what level of production Boston will receive in the interim from another shot-first option like Ondrej Kase or Craig Smith. But Boston's power play should still be in good hands moving forward, even now as Grzelcyk likely takes over for Krug up top. He may not be as dynamic as Krug under those situations, but Grzelcyk’s 12.07 goals scored per 60 minutes rate alongside Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak on the power play last season actually surpassed Krug’s 11.72 GF/60 with that same unit.

After some tough sledding in the early going, expect this unit to be humming with its same level of lethal efficiency — albeit with some different looks — as the playoffs approach.

5. Trent Frederic settles into a fourth-line role by spring: When the Bruins' forward corps is rolling, the play of Sean Kuraly's line is often serving as the conduit — with the B's checking trio often wearing down opposing top-six talent with a relentless forecheck and allowing Bergeron's line to land punches against more favorable matchups. But the 2019-20 campaign left a lot to be desired from Boston's fourth line — with Cassidy often forced to adjust Boston's gameplan once Kuraly's crew found themselves on the ropes. Finding the proper pieces to slot in around Kuraly will likely be a season-long exercise for Boston, and there are plenty of candidates to sort through in Chris Wagner, Par Lindholm, Greg McKegg, Karson Kuhlman and perhaps even Nick Ritchie.

Kuhlman's speed — and the promise of a clean slate after an injury-filled 2019-20 season — does offer some intrigue in a more simplified, north-south role, but it's hard to not get excited about what a youngster like Trent Frederic could offer Boston's bottom-six unit if his game finally starts to click up in the NHL ranks this year.

Frederic already has the size and snarl to be a menace for this club whenever he hops over the boards (he led the AHL in penalty minutes last season), but the biggest determinant in his validity as a regular starter lies in if he's able to chip in once in a while on offense and remain engaged down both ends of the ice. So far, the production hasn't been there for Frederic up in Boston (zero points in 17 career games), but the 22-year-old has focused on rounding out his playmaking ability down in the AHL — recording 32 points over 59 games with Providence last season. While more proven NHLers might earn first dibs for starting reps alongside Kuraly, don't be surprised if Frederic (who could open the season on Boston's 4-6-man "Taxi Squad") carves out a regular role as a hard-nosed, physical force on Boston's checking trio by the tail end of the regular season.

6. Craig Smith wins the 7th Player Award: There will be plenty of legitimate candidates for the 7th Player Award (given annually to the Bruin who exceeded the expectations of Bruins fans) during the 2021 season. Given that a pair of Massachusetts natives in Chris Wagner and Charlie Coyle have been the last two recipients, perhaps this is Matt Grzelcyk's year? Maybe Kevan Miller gets his due if he's able to get back on the ice after dealing with a devastating string of knee injuries. Or perhaps Frederic, further ingratiating himself with the Bruins faithful after beating the bag out of Brandon Tanev AGAIN, gets the call.

But we're going to go with Smith — Boston's top-free agent pickup this offseason — for the coveted award, with the veteran winger likely set to hit the ice running as a potential replacement for Pastrnak on Boston's first line through the first month of the season. Granted, wherever Smith is slotted into the lineup, the forward should be a welcome addition, as the shot-first skater is an analytics darling — ranking fifth overall in 5v5 shots per 60 minutes (11.74) and fifth in 5v5 individual expected goals for per 60 minutes (0.98) among a pool of 668 NHLers that logged at least 200 minutes of 5v5 ice time in 2019-20. He may not have the same draw as a Taylor Hall or even a Mike Hoffman, but Bruins fans are going to love what Smith can bring to this club.

7. Bruins swing trade for top-4 D: Even though a potential return for Chara could ease some of the burden felt by youngsters like Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen and Lauzon on the left side of Boston's defense, don't be surprised if Don Sweeney looks outside of the organization for a late-season pickup ahead of what will now be a trade deadline set for April 12. Now, this isn't to say that a player like Lauzon or Zboril can't emerge as regular, solid NHLers this season. In fact, it'd make things a lot easier for the top brass of the Bruins if one of these skaters thrives when placed in one of the numerous vacancies on Boston's defense.

But if the Bruins believe they have the potential to make one more serious run at Lord Stanley's Cup with this current veteran core in place, shoring up this D corps with a veteran, top-four presence seems like a logical route for Boston to take. While Noah Hanifin might remain as an intriguing option, there will likely be an even larger pool of intriguing names on the market come April once a number of teams find themselves out of the playoff hunt.

Of course, there stands a chance that the Bruins opt to swing a trade or sign another free agent before the new season even gets underway.

"I think now that everybody's kind of seen what the schedule is and when the start is things may pick up a little bit," Cam Neely said of the free-agent and trade markets picking back up this winter. "Some teams are still a little bit pushed up against the cap and will probably have to do something. There was no real rush, I don't think they had a feeling that they had to do anything anytime soon, but now we have an actual start date, things may change. You know I still think we’d like to still explore our back end a little bit. Even though we feel we've got some guys that can step in, it's just a matter of the experience piece that everybody likes, but you don't get experience until you play. I think you’re never really satisfied with your lineup, so I mean I'm sure Don (Sweeney) is still looking at potentially tweaking or adding, but we'll see what happens the next couple of weeks here."

8. The Bruins face off against the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup Final: Alright, alright — I'll pump the brakes here. You did want way-too-early predictions, right?

All joking aside, there remains a chance that we could see a dramatic showdown such as Boston-Toronto, Boston-Montreal or another storied matchup at the center of the battle for hockey's ultimate prize in 2021 thanks to these realigned divisions. Based on the new format this season, the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs will see the top-four seeds in each of the four divisions battling amongst each other — with the four champions of the East, North, Central and West Divisions facing off against one another in the last two rounds (with matchups determined by regular-season point totals).

So yes, we very well could find ourselves in a scenario in which the Bruins could host Joe Thornton and the Maple Leafs in a Game 7 at semi-filled TD Garden in July — with a chance to hoist the greatest trophy in sports on the line.

It'd be hockey nirvana for many after all of the misery that transpired in the previous year — with ANOTHER Game 7 comeback against Toronto serving as a storybook ending for the likes of Chara, Bergeron, Rask, Krejci and this era of Bruins hockey.

Is it a foolish claim? Maybe. Am I nuts for even bringing it up? Perhaps.

But hey, it's hockey. And crazier things have happened.