With the 2021 regular season finally upon us, here are 10 questions facing the Bruins in what could very well be the final kick at the can for Boston's veteran core.
For a more in-depth preview of some of the top breakout candidates on the Bruins, click here.
1. Can Bruins stay afloat in new East Division?
If the Bruins plan on orchestrating another run to the Stanley Cup Final, they should find some solace in the fact that the road to the final stages of the 2021 playoffs will not NEED to run through Tampa Bay or Toronto — at least until the final two rounds.
As a result of the NHL reshuffling its clubs into more regional-based divisions in order to minimize travel and account for the closed U.S. - Canada border, the Bruins find themselves in a revamped "East Division", featuring the likes of:
Carter Hart and a balanced Flyers team that should build off last year’s playoff push.
A Capitals team still anchored by a veteran core — and Zdeno Chara — that has routinely stuffed Boston in a locker for years now.
A Penguins club still anchored by Crosby/Malkin down the middle.
A tenacious, defensive-oriented 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 like Adam Fox, Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko.
And ... the Sabres and Devils. Which, ooof.
Yes, the Bruins do luck out in that they don't have to face off against the reigning Cup champions in Tampa Bay — nor do they need to battle the Leafs or a much-improved Habs teams during the 2021 regular season. But the road is far from easy for Boston in this revamped East Division.
Among the four new divisions, the East certainly seems like the most daunting — with three of the clubs combining for five of the last even Presidents’ Trophy wins (Bruins - 2019-20, 2013-14 / Capitals - 2016-17, 2015-16 / Rangers - 2014-15). In total, the eight teams in the East boasted a .597 cumulative points percentage in 2019-20 — tops in the league.
"We feel that way every year, you just never know how it's gonna play out," Bruce Cassidy said of the challenges facing Boston in the East. "And there's some merit in that, right? Last year, I think everyone expected Florida to challenge for the division title and they ended up on the outside looking in, so you just don't know. And then another team will kind of, won't be much written about them, and all of a sudden they're in there. So I mean, just going by history, Pittsburgh has Stanley Cup caliber talent in their lineup. Washington, another high-end team.
"Philadelphia after the year they had and Carter Hart, you assume they're only going to get better. The Islanders go to the final four. There's us, the Rangers have added good young players, are they ready? Buffalo adds some high-end talent. Jersey is probably the one that might be in flux a little bit. But again, those are the teams that sometimes fly under the radar. ... So you just never know. So we have to control our own play and make sure we do what we have to do. But I think it's a very strong division. Most coaches probably say that about whatever division they're in, but we've got, like I said, some pedigree in our division."
Now, even with the challenges that present themselves in the East, Boston should pretty confident about their chances of remaining comfortably in the top-four of the standings, if not vie for the top spot in the division. Not only does Boston still field a very competitive roster and should be aided by having two strong goalies available for a compressed 56-game schedule (which will be crucial in a season like this), the Bruins have actually had their fair share of success against the rest of the field — posting pretty convincing records against the Sabres, Devils, Islanders and Penguins over their last 10 meetings. Even the Rangers, who are 3-5-2 against Boston during that stretch, have lost four straight to the B's.
Of course, Philly will present a tough out for Boston, while the Capitals have had the Bruins' number for years now. Granted, even if noted Bruins slayer Braden Holtby was flat-out bad in 2019-20, his departure from D.C. should still be viewed as a coup for Boston — given the video-game-like numbers the veteran netminder posted against Boston over the years (18-4-0, .939 save percentage).
As is the case every season, regardless of division, expect the top of the standings to be pretty crowded as far as points go, with Boston likely trading punches with Philly for the top spot in the East. Still, even with the number of question marks on this B's roster, don't expect Boston to be on the outside looking in at the playoff picture this winter and spring.
As for my East Division standings?
2. Can Bruins avoid COVID complications?
Amid all of the promise and excitement that comes with the start of a new hockey season comes the sobering reality that the COVID pandemic remains ongoing — and can halt the NHL in its tracks if numerous safety protocols aren't enforced.
While the NFL, NBA and MLB have all dealt with their fair share of hurdles in regards to the virus, the NHL has already found itself dealing with numerous setbacks before the puck was even dropped in 2021 — headlined by the Dallas Stars shutting down their facilities and delaying the start of their season after 17 players tested positive for COVID.
Boston has managed to avoid any major outbreaks — although the league announced that Karson Kuhlman was included on the NHL's daily "COVID Protocol Related Absences" list Wednesday night (which doesn't mean that the winger has definitively tested positive). However, Cassidy admitted earlier during camp that sometimes even the best practices are not a complete safeguard against a potential outbreak.
Even with Boston limiting off-ice interactions between teammates — including their two starting netminders — the Bruins' chances of avoiding major COVID-related complications is going to come down to the self-discipline of players to avoid putting themselves in risky situations.
As expected, some of that message has already been echoed by new Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron and the rest of Boston's veteran core.
"I've seen what's been going on in basketball," Bergeron said. "I've seen it in football as well and also a little bit in baseball. Now that we're traveling, it's definitely different than what we experienced in the bubble. So it's going to be on us, the players, to make sure we make this thing work and we're cautious and careful and doing the right things. … We realize that it's a big difference — if (an outbreak) does happen, it's two weeks. In a short season like that, it makes a big difference. It's going to hurt you."
3. Can Bruins' blue line remain steady?
Let's be frank — even with the departures of both Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug, there's a lot to like about this Bruins roster. They are still anchored by a strong veteran core up front, boast one of the top goalie duos in the league, still adhere to a structured zone defense and have a number of players either poised for breakout campaigns or should, at the very least, continue to take steps forward in their development through more reps.
But, even with some of optimism sprinkled in by yours truly, all of those positives can — and will — be quickly negated if Boston's revamped D corps can't hold its own this season following the departures of some foundational pieces on the back end.