The 2021 NHL season is sure to be an odd one. Teams will play 56 games in a very short amount of time, often playing games every other night. On top of that, squads will normally face each two times in a row and teams are relegated to their own divisions.
For the Bruins, that means becoming extremely familiar with the Capitals, Penguins, Flyers, Rangers, Islanders, Devils and Sabres.
“Guys will be sick of each other in a hurry,” Bruins President Cam Neely said of the new divisional alignments last week via Zoom.
Even if all 56 of these games will be against the same seven other teams, the Bruins will still be on the hot seat to win most of those and finish in good standing for the postseason. This is still a club with some of the highest expectations in the NHL.
According to BetOnline, the Bruins have the fourth-best odds to win the Stanley Cup and the best odds to win the new East Division.
So yes — even with Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara gone, injuries to David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand and questions throughout the lineup, much is still expected of the boys in black and gold.
Here are 10 predictions for the 2021 season. They’re sure to all be right.
No. 1: Matt Grzelcyk sees a large jump in points
For the past three seasons, Matt Grzelcyk has seen a rather limited role on the Boston blue line.
He’s been the consistent anchor on the third defensive pairing with a revolving door of partners during that time. Whether it be Adam McQuaid, Connor Clifton, Jeremy Lauzon, Nick Holden or John Moore, Grzelyck has played with a number of guys on his right side. Because of this, he’s never had the difficult defensive matchups.
As a solid puck-moving defenseman, Grzelcyk saw time on the second power play unit, but never the first because of Torey Krug earning the time of manning the top crew.
Now Krug is gone. Chara has played his last minutes for the Bruins. Both of those developments open a large hole for Grzelcyk to jump through.
Camp has yet to start, but the feeling is Grzelcyk will hop alongside McAvoy on the top pairing. Both will benefit from playing with each other and both are responsible at each end of the ice. With the edict from Bruce Cassidy being for the defensemen to be more involved in the offense, McAvoy and Grzelcyk will be free to rush the puck more and create scoring chances on their own.
Grzelcyk will also most likely assume top power play quarterbacking duties. He’s nowhere near as dynamic as Krug. It’s hard to imagine Grzelcyk flying down from the blue line for chances in the slot. But what Grzelcyk will do well is get the puck down low to Patrice Bergeron, Marchand, Pastrnak and whomever is the fourth forward on the unit.
Grzelcyk set a career-high in points with 21 last season. Even with 56 games this season, expect Grzelcyk to surpass that number by quite a bit.
No. 2: Ondrej Kase becomes the right wing David Krejci has needed since 2014
It’s no secret that Ondrej Kase’s Bruins tenure started out a bit rocky. In his six regular season games with Boston, he put up one assist. Once the postseason came around, Kase missed considerable time in return-to-play camp due to exposure to someone with COVID-19.
The Ex-Duck played 11 games in the Toronto bubble. Though he seemed to develop some chemistry with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci, he could never seem to score, only put up four assists and was skating on line four come the end of Game 5 against the Lightning.
There’s good reason to believe things will be very different this season.
Kase will benefit from a full, albeit short, training camp. He’ll have time to acclimate to life alongside Krejci. With Marchand most likely out for the very beginning of the season and Pastrnak out for longer, Cassidy’s focus will be on filling the slots on each side of Patrice Bergeron. Candidates for skating next to No. 37 will be Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka and Craig Smith. I’d imagine Cassidy would want consistency on Krejci’s line given the question marks on the first trio.
With regard to advanced stats, Kase led the Ducks last season in Corsi For per 60 at 64.12, according to Natural StatTrick. If paired with the right players, which is something he never really got the benefit of in Anaheim, Kase could be lethal.
It may take some time, but a threesome of DeBrusk, Krejci and Kase as the second line will help bring consistency to a line that’s been known for its inconsistency in recent years.
No. 3: Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen fall short in their chance at full-time work in Boston
The biggest question facing this version of the Bruins is what will the left side look like on defense? Grzelcyk really is the only sure bet, and that fact alone is enough to make Bruins fans wince.
Cassidy is fairly high on Jeremy Lauzon, so you can expect him to get some top-four looks. After that it’s quite a bit of uncertainty.
For starters, there’s John Moore. It’s pretty expected as to what Boston will get from him, which is nothing to be excited about. Where things get interesting is with Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen waiting in the wings. Both are first-round picks who’ve yet to come close to their expectations.
Combined, Zboril and Vaakananinen have nine games of NHL service time. Neither have done anything in Providence that warrants a definite spot in Boston’s lineup, although P-Bruins head coach Jay Leach had high hopes for them and liked what he saw out of both, especially Zboril, right before the COVID-19 pause in March.
Both will be given a chance for full-time work at TD Garden. Both will be inconsistent and have a tough time adjusting to NHL duties, which will lead to…
No. 4: Left side will need to be bolstered during the season
If you could bet on what position the Bruins will look to improve prior to the trade deadline during the 2021 season, left defense is sure to win you some money.
With Chara gone, the Bruins need to find a way to fill the hard, grueling minutes he played every night.
“We’re going to do it by committee and allow some of these guys a little bit of trial and error and potentially fail as a result of it,” Bruins GM Don Sweeney said of filling Chara’s minutes. “But also succeed as a result of it and not look over their shoulder in any way, shape or form because they have to gain that experience. You’re not going to move forward in your career if you’re not put into those situations. Sometimes you fall flat and other times you rise up.”
The Bruins were rumored to be looking into Flames d-man Noah Hanifin. Most recently they were linked to kicking tires on UFA defender Ben Hutton. Clearly they know this is an area of need and once games get going and there are real results to show, they’ll have an even clearer picture as to what kind of left defenseman they’ll need.
Trades won’t be as easy this season with COVID-19 restrictions and the salary cap’s future being uncertain. But come deadline time, expect the Bruins to be big players for some sort of defensive help.
No. 5: Charlie McAvoy becomes one of the league’s elite defenseman
When Charlie McAvoy was first paired with Chara at the start of the 2017-18 season, the idea was for Chara to help mentor the rookie and make up for mistakes that might be made. Over the course of the next two seasons the duo spent together, the roles reversed. Suddenly it was McAvoy retrieving and breaking pucks out.
Along with having to make up for some of Chara’s mistakes, McAvoy was also tasked with facing the opposing team’s best forward lines. It wasn’t an environment conducive to point-getting and standing out.
This will be the year that changes.
As stated earlier, if McAvoy and Grzelcyk are to be paired together, the offensive numbers would be enough to warrant them as a legitimate first pairing. The Bruins were already sticking the two former Boston University standouts together during last postseason on offensive zone draws and late in games when down by a goal.
Per Natural Stat Trick, the duo boasted very impressive numbers together during the 2019-20 regular season. Here are three of their best.
Corsi For per 60: 65.42
Expected Goals For per 60: 3.03
Expected Goals Against per 60: 1.86
While Grzelcyk will experience a large jump in points, it will be McAvoy who not only creates a lot more offensive production, but elevates his status as an elite two-way defenseman in the NHL.
No. 6: Tandem of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak propel Bruins to second in East Division
NHL schedules are known for being ruthless and a grind. The 2021 slate of games for each team takes that ruthlessness and multiples it by 10.
Yes, starting goalies will play less games than normal due to the schedule only consisting of 56 games. But, those 56 games take place over the course of 17 weeks from mid-January through early-May. Coaches will have to keep an even closer eye on their goaltenders to make sure they’re not getting worn down, not to mention the starter comes down with COVID.
The Bruins are perfectly set up to prevent the burn out situation (unfortunately, COVID knows no bounds).
With Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, Boston is in a position to split time in net just as they’ve done the past two seasons. It will benefit Rask come the postseason and the Bruins in general who will have a fresher, more rested goalie in net than the opposition.
The biggest threats to the Bruins in their division are the Capitals, Penguins and Flyers. The Capitals have massive uncertainty in net and the Penguins have young, inexperienced Tristan Jarry. The Flyers, who will be the Bruins biggest threat, also have a platoon in net with Carter Hart and Brian Elliott.
Ultimately, Boston’s duo will be the biggest reason as to why the Bruins finish in second place.
No. 7: Jack Studnicka impresses in David Pastrnak’s absence
No one on the Bruins had a bigger jump in their play during the 2020 postseason than Jack Studnicka.
In his first, consistent NHL experience, Studnicka proved he belonged. Eventually, he made his way onto Krejci’s line, producing chances and creating offense. His Corsi For per 60 of 84.12 during the playoffs was good for best on the Bruins, according to Natural Stat Trick. The same could be said for his Expected Goals For per 60 of 3.45.
It would only make sense for Cassidy to give Studnicka a shot in Pastrnak’s place when No. 88 misses time to begin the season.
He’s normally a center but because the Bruins are set down the middle for the time being, Studnicka’s chance will come on the wing and what better opportunity to impress during the regular season than next to Bergeron?
Studnicka will thrive in this slot, benefiting from playing alongside Bergeron. When Marchand returns, the line will look similar.
But once Pastrnak returns…
No. 8: Jack Studnicka battles Anders Bjork for left side of Charlie Coyle
Once the Bruins are fully healthy, the first line is fairly set with Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak. The second line will also be fairly certain with DeBrusk, Krejci and most likely Kase. On line three, Coyle and Smith are definite.
In that scenario, which is the most likely, that leaves one spot in the top nine up for grabs: the left side of Coyle.
Bjork and Studnicka will battle the most for that spot. Nick Ritchie will also slot in there on occasion, but it’ll mostly be between Bjork and Studnicka.
Bjork has been known as an analytics darling with tons of potential and chances created, but few results. The Bruins will be anxious to pass on that potential with Studnicka’s production on the Bergeron line.
It’s entirely possible Bjork finally begins to produce the way the Bruins think he can. But in the event he doesn’t, his spot will be a toss up between him and Studnicka.
No. 9: Trent Frederic gets a shot on the fourth line
Boston’s fourth line has many viable candidates. It will be Cassidy’s job to figure out what combination of three works best. In 2018-19, the fourth line of Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari helped lead the Bruins all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. This past season, that line’s inconsistencies were a large reason as to why the Bruins never really had a chance against the Lightning.
One of those players who will get their shot on the fourth line will be former first-round pick Trent Frederic.
Frederic has played in 17 NHL games. Aside from an incredible fight with Brandon Tanev in his first career game, Frederic has 0 points in those games.
However, the St. Louis native has made significant strides in Providence, which is why he’ll eventually get a look centering Boston’s fourth trio.
How will it look? Well, you can expect a bruising style of play. For Frederic to stay a regular, he’ll have to add in defensive responsibilities and a few points sprinkled in.
Another fight like the one he had with Tanev certainly wouldn’t hurt his stock either.
No. 10: Jake DeBrusk leads the Bruins in goals
This is by far the hottest take of the 10 in this piece, so allow me to explain.
The easy answer for most goals on the Bruins would typically be Pastrnak. But, No. 88 is slated to miss a considerable portion of the first half of the season, so he’s probably out of the running for leading the team in goals.
After that, it could be Marchand or Bergeron. It’s entirely possible that one of those two light the lamp the most times.
But the fun answer, and the player that could have a serious breakout year, is DeBrusk.
He just signed a two-year deal so not only is he newly compensated, but it’s a “prove me” type deal. The Bruins know DeBrusk has the potential to become a 40-goal scorer. The situation just needs to be right for No. 74.
This season won’t see him hit 40 goals. That would be a monumental jump from where DeBrusk currently is. But with stability on his line with Krejci and Kase, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see DeBrusk score 25 goals, which could easily be tops on the Bruins.
The inconsistencies of season’s past would have to go away for DeBrusk to tackle such a feat. But it’s well within the realm of possibility.