If you learn nothing from history, you’re bound to repeat your mistakes and the vast majority of the hockey world owes the Boston Bruins an apology.
For the second consecutive year, the Bruins were counted out during preseason prognostication hours and this year, there was credence to the argument. How could the Bruins withstand the retirement of captain Patrice Bergeron, who was the best defensive forward by several miles last year, a boon to their special teams, and someone with nearly unmatched leadership credentials?
David Krejci, coming off a terrific season in his own right, joined Bergeron on life’s proverbial golf course. Dmitry Orlov — Boston’s prized trade deadline acquisition — signed with the Carolina Hurricanes, forward Tyler Bertuzzi joined the Toronto Maple Leafs and it appeared the Bruins had surrendered the advantages of continuity.
And, of course, who can forget the Bruins ruining their shot at hockey immortality, getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Florida Panthers after recording a historic 65-win season?
But Brad Marchand took over the captaincy and the Bruins hit the ground running. They’ve clearly shaken off the disappointment of last year’s crashing halt, winning six consecutive games to begin the 2023-24 season. No Bergeron, no problem.
How is this happening?
Boston has a luxury that only the defending champion Vegas Golden Knights have: two excellent goaltenders in rotation at top form. Linus Ullmark is proving he’s far more than a one-year wonder, as the reigning Vezina Trophy winner has allowed just three goals in as many games with a .962 save percentage. Jeremy Swayman would start for the majority of teams but he’s quite happy to work in concert with Ullmark, with three wins, four goals allowed and a .957 save percentage.
There’s no ego between the tandem, and the Ullmark-Swayman post-game celebration is one of the most endearing parts of this sport.
“We are still a work in progress,” Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said earlier this week, via The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa. “We’re starting to see improvement every game. But our goaltenders, we know it’s the strength of our team. They’re doing a great job.”
Bergeron may have been the gold standard for two-way defensive excellence, but the 2023-24 Bruins are built in his visage, killing penalties at a 96% clip. Derek Forbort is actively getting into shooting lanes, while Brandon Carlo has negated the opponent’s advantage, drawing two penalties while shorthanded. Marchand remains disciplined and opportunistic and his threat of turning defense into instant offense keeps the opposition honest. Boston led the NHL with an 87.3% penalty-kill rate last season and could best that mark in the first post-Bergeron year.
David Pastrnak remains one of the NHL’s most dangerous scorers and last year’s Hart Trophy finalist scored in Boston’s first four games. He’s hunting his offense relentlessly, with 15 shots at 5-on-5 through six games and he’s getting the most out of Pavel Zacha and Jake DeBrusk while the Bruins experiment with their line combinations. Pastrnak can operate as a one-man offense at times, but the Bruins are getting top-level contributions from him and Marchand, with balance throughout the lineup.
Boston’s most commonly-used unit of James van Riemsdyk, Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic has posted an 86% share of the expected goals, with two goals versus zero against, creating an elite third line with secondary offense and toughness.
Exactly the type of goal you want to see from a line of:
Charlie Coyle (6-foot-3, 218 pounds)
James van Riemsdyk (6-foot-3, 208 pounds)
Trent Frederic (6-foot-3, 220 pounds)
2-0 Bruins. pic.twitter.com/aWFHunzxVB
— Conor Ryan (@ConorRyan_93) October 20, 2023
Frederic is creating chances independently at an excellent rate and is willing to drop the gloves, Coyle is emerging into a two-way menace both at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill, while van Riemsdyk is a known quantity: a veteran, steady 40-point producer who will win puck battles. Coyle and Frederic’s internal improvement makes up for the loss of Krejci and they’ve clearly learned well from Bergeron.
In the past, the Bruins’ continuity was one of their greatest strengths. Now, they’re getting contributions across the board from unexpected sources. Nineteen-year-old Matthew Poitras is pushing for a chance beyond a nine-game tryout. Selected with the 54th pick in the 2022 NHL Draft, Poitras has arrived ahead of schedule after lighting up the OHL last season with 16 goals and 95 points in 63 games with the Guelph Storm. Poitras is getting occasional top-line minutes, his point production is translating to the NHL and the Bruins may have found an internal solution to any concerns about their offensive production.
“We’ll huddle up after eight games, I’m sure,” Bruins president Cam Neely said to Shinzawa in reference to possibly keeping Poitras around.
Hampus Lindholm was outstanding last season, earning a few first-place votes for the Norris Trophy. This year, the Lindholm-Carlo pairing has been excellent, with the Bruins controlling 56% of the expected goals when they’re on the ice. Some Bruins fans have taken umbrage with Lindholm’s lack of offensive production to date but it's hard to see why they’d be upset. By all measures, he’s trending toward Norris contention again.
Charlie McAvoy is widely considered one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen — and really between him and Lindholm, the Bruins are spoiled for choice. McAvoy and partner Matt Grzelcyk have been outstanding. They haven’t been on the ice for a single goal at 5-on-5, while the Bruins control nearly 60% of the expected goals when the duo is patrolling the blue line.
Boston has two elite defensive pairings, two elite goalies and balanced scoring across the board. What more could you ask for?
If you’re looking for the Bruins’ downfall, they are benefiting from shooting luck but that doesn’t offset the tremendous depth and defensive excellence they’ve displayed through six games.
No Bergeron, no problem. Boston has internalized the lessons instilled by its former captain and is crushing preseason expectations and opponents into submission for the second consecutive year.