If and when the NHL postseason begins, the reality is that everyone is going to be a question mark to some extent.
How guys play in big games after going four-plus months without a game is a question mark. Whether guys suffer injuries because they ramp up too quickly or play too many minutes out of the gate is a question mark. And of course, how many players test positive for COVID-19 and how much time they have to miss is the biggest question mark of all.
The Bruins, at least in theory, should be one of the teams that has the fewest question marks beyond that. They have arguably the best line in the NHL, arguably the best goaltending in the NHL, and one of the best defense corps in the NHL.
That’s a lot more than most of the other 23 playoff teams can say, but it doesn’t guarantee the Bruins anything. While you pretty much know what you’re going to get from the likes of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, and even most of their defensemen, they still have players that are going to be very intriguing to watch to see what they can give the team, and whether they can give it right off the bat.
So with that in mind, here are the five most intriguing Bruins to watch once the playoffs begin:
Last year Rask played every minute of the Bruins’ run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. That happened for two reasons: 1) He had gotten enough rest during the regular season that he was fresh and never felt overworked, and 2) he played great throughout the playoffs and never gave coach Bruce Cassidy a reason to consider benching him.
Rask has obviously had plenty of rest these last few months, but now the question is whether that actually hurts him. Will he be in good enough game shape to play every minute of what the Bruins hope will be another long playoff run? Will he be able to pick up where he left off in the regular season and play at an elite level right from the get-go?
If the answer to either question is no, or even maybe, Cassidy may be forced to consider the possibility of starting Jaroslav Halak at some point. Halak has been a top-notch 1A to Rask’s 1 for the past two regular seasons, but he also hasn’t played in a postseason game since 2015.
Of course, the other reason Rask is perhaps the most intriguing Bruin in this return is the inevitable “Can Rask win a Cup?” narrative. It is a tiresome narrative generally peddled by those who prefer hot takes and scapegoating over analysis and reason, but it is nonetheless a narrative and one that is sure to resurface once again.
We still don’t really know what to expect from Kase or where he fits in the lineup. He missed a couple games with flu-like symptoms after the Bruins acquired him from the Ducks, then played just six before the season was suspended.
He spent most of his time on a line with David Krejci and fellow Anaheim-to-Boston trade deadline mover Nick Ritchie. There were flashes of promise there, and Kase has had some measure of success playing with Ritchie before, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire. In fact, they didn’t score a single goal in nearly 49 minutes together at 5-on-5 and gave up two. Of the two Bruins 5-on-5 goals Kase was on the ice for, one came on a shift with Charlie Coyle and Sean Kuraly and one came when he changed on for Pastrnak for a brief shift with the top line that ended with a Bergeron goal.
It’s tempting to lump Kase and Ritchie together for the purposes of this post, but the reality is that more is expected of Kase. Ritchie is a physical forward you can kind of just plug in wherever you think you need that physicality. All you traded for him was Danton Heinen, and if you get anything approaching significant offensive contributions from him, consider it a bonus. Even if he isn’t scoring, fans probably won’t turn on him as long as he’s bringing that physicality.
Kase is a bit of a different story. He was brought here to be an offensive contributor and provide some much-sought-after secondary scoring. While part of the trade that brought him here was the David Backes salary dump, the other part of it was a first-round pick.
The Bruins have needed a right wing for Krejci’s line for a couple years now, and ideally Kase would be it. Twelve more regular-season games could’ve gone a long way toward building chemistry, but that’s gone now. They’re going to get three round-robin tournament games and probably a couple exhibition games, and then it’s go time. Cassidy is going to have to decide if that’s still where he wants to put Kase, and how long he wants to leave him there if things aren’t clicking.
It’s also worth noting that Kase is the kind of player Bruins fans tend to lose patience with if he’s not scoring. He’s a good two-way player who brings some defensive value to the table, so there is something there to fall back on if the offense is lagging. But he isn’t very physical, so that part of his game can easily go unappreciated or even ignored, as the likes of Loui Eriksson or the aforementioned Heinen can attest.
It feels like DeBrusk is always one of the X-factors for the Bruins, and there’s a reason for that: He’s a streaky player. When he’s on, he can score in bunches, wreak havoc on the forecheck and give the Bruins a dangerous second line. When he’s off, the Bruins’ secondary scoring tends to dry up and lines start getting shuffled in the hope that will spark something.
We’ve seen both DeBrusks in the playoffs. He started his playoff career on the hottest of hot streaks, scoring five goals in a seven-game series victory over the Maple Leafs in 2018. But he’s also scored just five goals in five series since then (it’s worth noting that there’s a distinct possibility DeBrusk never fully recovered from Nazem Kadri’s crosscheck to his head in the first round last year, but he also never missed a game). We also saw both DeBrusks over the last couple months of this regular season, as he scored seven goals in a 12-game stretch from Jan. 9 to Feb. 8, but then just one (to go along with zero assists) over the final 14 games before the season was paused.
The Bruins are going to need the scoring, impactful DeBrusk, especially with Kase and Ritchie still finding their way. They need some sort of constant on the wing after Marchand and Pastrnak, and DeBrusk, now three years into his career, really should be running with that role more than he has been.
Speaking of X-factors, Coyle was exactly that last postseason. After a slow start to his Bruins career following a trade deadline move, Coyle came alive in the playoffs and wound up tying for the team lead in goals with nine and tying for fifth in points with 16.
He played well in his first full (well, almost full) regular season with the Bruins, too, as he was fifth on the team in goals (19), sixth in points (37) and seventh in standing points above replacement (3.4). His two-way play was impressive, and he was rewarded with more and more ice time as the season went on.
In fact, Coyle actually led Bruins forwards in ice time in six of their final eight games before the season was suspended. Part of that was that Cassidy was spreading around ice time more in general and limiting the big guns’ minutes a little, but part of it is also that Coyle was playing well and making the most of the opportunity.
It really isn’t even accurate to call Coyle the third-line center at this point, as it’s become more of a 2/2A situation with him and Krejci, and it’s not entirely clear who’s the 2 and who’s the 2A. With that comes more expectations and more responsibility, though.
Being able to win matchups against other teams’ third and fourth lines is great, but now Coyle may see more matchups with first and second lines. And given some of the Bruins’ questions on the wing outlined above, Coyle is going to be relied on for offensive contributions regardless of matchup or linemates.
Speaking of linemates, it will also be interesting to see if Cassidy uses Coyle on Krejci’s right wing for some key shifts, especially late in games, and especially if other right wings aren’t getting the job done, to load up the second line if he needs it.
And now the other side of that 2/2A center situation. It might seem odd to see Krejci listed as something of a question mark given his sterling postseason record (103 points in 132 career playoff games, including twice leading the league in playoff scoring), but he really struggled down the stretch.
Krejci didn’t score a goal in the Bruins’ last 16 games before the pause and had just six assists during that stretch, and he saw his ice time drop as Coyle’s went up. Now, there’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg thing here. Did Krejci struggle because his wings were struggling (first DeBrusk before he was moved to Coyle’s line, then Kase and Ritchie as they tried to find their footing with a new team)? Or did those wings struggle because Krejci was struggling?
The answer is a little bit of both, with the wings probably the bigger problem. But excuses are like you know what, and when Krejci’s on his game he can produce even without great wing play, as evidenced by his 73 points last season, 16 points last postseason, and 37 points through the first 45 games this season.
It certainly hasn’t been easy for Krejci to work with so many different wings, with even DeBrusk no longer a sure thing on his left, but the Bruins are going to need Krejci to step up and lead and be the one who lifts up his linemates and gets them going, not wait for it to work the other way around.