With Boston's season opener now just a day away, let's take a look at some of the top breakout candidates on the Bruins roster this year. For as much as Boston will be anchored by its veteran core once again in 2021, the Bruins are going to need plenty of others to pull their weight and excel if this club has any chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup this summer. Luckily for Boston, there are a number of both newcomers and youngsters poised to take major steps forward in this upcoming NHL campaign.
Jeremy Lauzon, Defenseman
2019-20 Stats: 19 GP - 1 goal, 1 assist, 15:25 ATOI
It remains to be seen just what Lauzon's ceiling is up in the NHL, but the 23-year-old defenseman's steady, hard-nosed play was a welcome addition to Boston's blue line last season — shoring up the club’s third defensive pairing after getting called up at the end of January. Based on what we've seen so far during training camp, it appears as though Boston believes that the Quebec native is ready to take a big step forward in 2021, as he's primarily skated next to Charlie McAvoy on Boston's top D pairing, and is in line for a major boost in reps on the penalty kill. In a small sample size, opposing clubs struggled to consistently land punches against Boston when Lauzon was out on the ice, as the 2015 second-round pick ranked second among B’s defensemen last season (min. 250 minutes of 5v5 play) with a goals against per 60 minutes rate of 1.67.
(For reference on Micah Blake McCurdy’s individual impact charts via Hockey Viz — On the offensive side of things, you’d want to see a player providing positive numbers — with the red blobs signifying where the team is generating a majority of their shots from whenever said player is on the ice. Defensively, negative numbers are a sign that a team is snuffing out opposing scoring chances whenever said player is on the ice. As such, the blue blobs represent where the opposition’s shots aren’t regularly coming from. As seen above, opponents are generating more in terms of excess shots around Grade-A ice when Lauzon is on the bench. When he’s out on a shift? There’s a whole lot of blue out there. )
It remains to be seen if Lauzon can handle a heftier workload — and more daunting assignments — in a featured role next to McAvoy going forward, especially given that Lauzon ranked in the 11th percentile among NHL defensemen last season in terms of quality of competition (per JFreshHockey), which might speak to some of his impressive defensive metrics.
Lauzon's place alongside McAvoy is by no means set in stone, especially if other youngsters like Jakub Zboril or Urho Vaakanainen make a push. But even in a worst-case scenario, Lauzon's floor as a steady, third-pairing defenseman should offer some relief for a B's D corps in need of some stability on that left side.
Anders Bjork, Forward
2019-20 Stats: 58 GP - 9 goals, 10 assists, 12:56 ATOI
Bjork is an interesting case here. His offensive ceiling up in the NHL ranks is rather limited, at least when compared to some of the loftier projections put out shortly after the Notre Dame product signed his ELC back in 2017. The 2021 campaign also finds the 24-year-old winger placed in a new role, as Bjork will likely open the year on Boston's fourth line alongside the likes of Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner. Now, while it may seem strange to tab as a checking forward as a potential "breakout" candidate, simplifying Bjork's role on a north-south line could generate plenty of value for Boston in a crucial spot in the lineup.
Bjork is far from a driver of 5v5 offense (his expected goals for per 60 minutes rate off 1.99 last year ranked as the fourth-lowest among regulars on the team - min. 400 minutes of 5v5 play), but on a fourth line that will be tasked with negating opposing top-six lines in the D-zone (opening the door for more O-zone starts for Patrice Bergeron and Co.), Bjork's speed and play away from the puck offers plenty of intrigue.
Bjork, who ranked in the 94th percentile among forwards in even-strength defense last year (his 1.9 goals against per 60 minutes ranked second among Bruins forwards - min. 400 minutes), was actual;y rather solid when deployed in a simple forechecking role, ranking second on the club in pressures per 60 minutes at 10.94 — trailing only his new pivot in Kuraly (12.47 pressures / 60).
Couple some of that two-way potential with the fact that Bjork's transition game is already pretty damn effective, and the younger winger could add a much-needed spark to a fourth line in need of a facelift. Add Trent Frederic into the mix, and Bruce Cassidy should have the luxury of being able to craft his checking line depending on matchups, with Frederic's added snarl serving the club well against more imposing lineups such as the Capitals.
(Even if Bjork may not carry in the puck (49%) nearly as much as players like Pastrnak (64%), he did lead all Bruins skaters in terms of entries per 60 minutes last season. Even if he isn’t directly carrying the puck into the O-zone at the same rate as a player like Pastrnak, Bjork’s ability to consistently enter the offensive zone, whether it be carrying it in, dumping it in, etc., makes him a very valuable asset that should only continue to improve once he continues to round out his overall game.)
5. Jack Studnicka, Forward
2019-20 Stats: 60 GP - 23 goals, 26 assists (Providence)
The hype is going to be very real for Studnicka in 2021, especially after holding his own up in the Toronto bubble back in August. And so far, that hype appears to be validated — as Boston's top prospect appears poised to serve as David Pastrnak's temporary replacement on the club's top line next to Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
He still to pack on some muscle (he currently weighs in at 171 pounds) to last through the gauntlet that is a full NHL campaign, but Studnicka could be a potential X-factor for this B's forward corps if he capitalizes on whatever reps are handed to him in 2021. For as much as Studnicka's speed and silky mitts stand out on most highlight reels, it's often his fearlessness with the puck on his stick that stands out whenever he's out on a shift — with the youngster routinely generating Grade-A chances for his club during the 2020 postseason.
Among the 22 Bruins skaters that logged at least 50 minutes of 5v5 ice time during the 2020 playoffs, Studnicka ranked first in:
Individual shots per 60 minutes (10.23)
Individual expected goals per 60 minutes (0.87)
Individual shot attempts per 60 minutes (25.01)
Individual high-danger scoring chances per 60 minutes (5.68)
If you were to compile a grouping of every skater that participated in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Studnicka (circled in red below) ranks near the top in terms of quality per shot against per 60 minutes — with only five other players posting a higher rating when it came to the lack of quality chances generated by the opposition when said skater was out on the ice. Again, we need to stress that this is a small sample size, but the fact that Studnicka was also Boston’s leader in quality per shot for per 60 minutes is a telling sign that the forward is already more than willing to operate in and around Grade-A ice.
That knack for generating quality looks should bode well for Studnicka, especially if Marchand and Bergeron are the ones orchestrating the offense beside him.
As we've seen in the past, there have been very, very few forward trios featuring both Marchand and Bergeron that have underwhelmed over the past few years, beyond some of the usual final cogs such as David Pastrnak.
Here’s just a few lineup combinations featuring No. 63 and No. 37 over the last couple of seasons:
With Reilly Smith in 1,199 minutes of 5v5 play — 60.96 CF% / Plus-28 goal differential / Plus-241 shot differential / 3.45 goals for per 60 minutes
With Loui Eriksson in 372 5v5 minutes — 62.81 CF% / Plus-3 goal differential / Plus-108 shot differential / 2.26 goals for per 60 minutes
With Brett Connolly in 424 5v5 minutes — 55.23 CF% / Plus-3 goal differential / Plus-49 shot differential / 2.97 goals for per 60 minutes
With Lee Stempniak in 186 5v5 minutes — 58.45 CF% / Plus-6 goal differential / Plus-32 shot differential / 2.89 goals for per 60 minutes
Add in the fact that Studnicka will also likely be tasked with duties such as PK work (he scored an AHL-leading seven shorthanded goals last year) and Studnicka very well might remain in the lineup even after Pastrnak returns.