10 questions facing Bruins as 2021 season begins

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After a disappointing second-round exit and an offseason that saw them lose blue-line staples Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug in free agency, the new-look Bruins begin a new season in a new division Thursday night. To get you ready, we take a look at 10 of the biggest questions facing the team.

1. How does the defense look?

The next nine questions are important, too, or we wouldn’t be writing about them, but this is the big one. After losing Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara in free agency and not bringing in anyone to replace them, the Bruins’ 2021 season may very well hinge on how the new-look defense performs.

The right side of the defense looks good. Charlie McAvoy is a clear No. 1 defenseman and potential Norris Trophy contender. Brandon Carlo remains a solid top-four option behind him. And a finally healthy Kevan Miller and Connor Clifton battling for the third-pairing spot is fine (right now it looks like Miller has the inside track).

It’s the left side where all the questions are. Matt Grzelcyk established himself as one of the best third-pairing defensemen in the league the last couple seasons playing 18-19 minutes per game, but now as the clear top option on the left, he’ll have to take on more responsibility. How much more and how many more minutes he can handle remains to be seen.

Grzelcyk has been practicing with Carlo in training camp on what will be listed as the second pair (and a pair that should be a little better defensively than Krug-Carlo, by the way), but make no mistake: Grzelcyk should consistently be tops in minutes among Boston’s left-shot D, and could still see plenty of shifts with McAvoy in offensive situations or when the Bruins are playing catch-up and need offense.

So, who’s with McAvoy now that Chara’s gone? For most of training camp it’s been Jeremy Lauzon. The 23-year-old emerged as a solid third-pairing defender playing next to Grzelcyk in the second half of last season, but then he lost playing time to Clifton in the playoffs.

Lauzon brings some similar traits as Chara insofar as he can be a physical player and something of a stay-at-home security blanket for when McAvoy takes off up ice, but it would obviously be extremely unfair to expect him to be the next Chara. The Bruins would take solid defending without mistakes and good decision-making on the breakout, and if Lauzon can do that, he may stick next to McAvoy.

On the third pairing, it looks like Jakub Zboril will get the first crack, as he’s been practicing with Miller the most. Zboril was a 2015 first-round pick whom it’s been tempting to consider a bust, but Providence Bruins coach Jay Leach said he was that team’s best defenseman down the stretch last season, and now it looks like he might finally be ready to play in the NHL… or at least get a good, long look so the Bruins know what they have.

Zboril is a good skater with some offense in his game, so if the defensive side is there, he could certainly be an asset. Other options include veteran John Moore (more on him later), 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen (whom Cassidy has praised a couple times over the last week, but who might not quite be ready yet), and the possibility of moving Miller or Clifton to their off side.

Some hiccups, especially early on, are to be expected from this group, but with a short season and a loaded division, the Bruins can’t afford too many, or for too long. The defense may not need to be the strength of this team like it has been in recent years, but it can’t be the fatal flaw either.

2. How does the power play look?

Here’s where the Bruins have ranked on the power play the last four years: seventh, fourth, third, second. It’s been a big part of their success, as they have consistently been able to make teams pay for taking penalties.

But now they’ve lost their power-play quarterback in Krug, and they’ll also be without Pastrnak and his patented one-timer from the left circle for probably the first couple weeks of the season.

There should still be enough weapons for this to be a very good power play, especially once Pastrnak returns and joins the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Krejci, but Krug’s impact here shouldn’t be understated.

So, who replaces Krug in that quarterback spot on the top unit? Grzelcyk has gotten the early reps there in training camp and seems to the favorite over McAvoy to get the first crack. He and McAvoy have both played on the second unit the last couple years and Grzelcyk used to quarterback Boston University’s power play as well, so he has some experience.

But whether he can do his part to keep that unit humming at an elite clip remains to be seen. Krug had led the Bruins in power-play assists each of the last six seasons, as he was most often the one making the pass to either directly set up the one-timer or to start the tic-tac-toe sequence, and Grzelcyk (or McAvoy if the two switch places at some point) will need to have that same kind of vision and anticipation.

3. How does the penalty kill look?

Here’s where the Bruins have ranked on the penalty kill the last four seasons: first, third, 16th, third. Guess who led them in shorthanded ice time each of those four season (and for many before it)? Zdeno Chara, obviously.

He was a huge part of that success (literally and figuratively) and was still one of the best in the game in that department thanks to his smarts, his reach, his strength around the net and -- as Tuukka Rask has highlighted recently -- his communication and ability to keep everyone organized.

If the PK is going to be a strength for the Bruins once again, they’ll need the guys who pick up Chara’s minutes to at least come somewhere within the vicinity of Chara’s level.

Make no mistake, the Bruins still have defensemen with ample PK experience and success. Brandon Carlo has been one of Boston’s top killers for years now, as has Kevan Miller when healthy. Charlie McAvoy saw his PK role grow last season, as did Jeremy Lauzon when he was in the lineup. Matt Grzelcyk has done some killing as well, and will likely have to do some now. John Moore has also been a regular killer when he’s been in the lineup.

Chara was the rock of the unit, though, so the Bruins will need the rest of that group to all step up, do a little bit more, and make sure there are no communication breakdowns that result in wide-open looks.

4. How does Tuukka Rask look?

It was certainly a tumultuous summer and fall for the longtime Bruins netminder. First he made some bizarre comments about playing in the bubble in the middle of Boston’s first-round series. Then he opted out of the playoffs and returned home to tend to a family emergency. Then he had his name thrown around in trade rumors leading up to free agency.

But, Rask is back now, he’s still the Bruins’ No. 1 goalie, and oh yeah, he’s coming off a season in which he was a Vezina Trophy finalist. He says he’s in a good place. Coach Bruce Cassidy says Rask is in a good place. His teammates and the organization have been nothing but supportive from the start. So, everything’s good, right?

Hopefully for the Bruins, yes, because they’re probably going to need Rask to bail out a younger, less experienced defense corps at times. And they’re certainly going to need him to be playing and playing well come playoff time, because this summer made it clear that Jaroslav Halak and/or inexperienced youth isn’t going to cut it in the postseason.

Rask’s critics are never going to get off his back until or unless he wins a Stanley Cup. His outstanding 2019 postseason wasn’t enough to convince them because the whole team no-showed in Game 7 of the Final. Opting out of the bubble and not returning still counts as a strike against him for them, no matter how much has been learned about his daughter’s medical emergency since.

Rask has shown time and again that the criticism doesn’t really affect him, but one new wrinkle that could affect him this season is that it’s the final year of his contract. He says he wants to keep playing and has no intention of playing for anyone other than Boston, but you wonder if it’ll weigh on him at any point if there aren’t any talks with the team given that usually when the Bruins let a player get to free agency, they don’t re-sign him.

5. Will Jake DeBrusk finally be consistent?

It’s possible DeBrusk will just always be a streaky player. But we keep asking this question because A) he’s still just 24, and B) the talent level and hot streaks are so promising.

Heck, even with the slumps -- like his one-goal-in-14-games skid leading up to the pause last season -- his numbers are still pretty darn good for a second-line left wing. Here are some of them we mentioned after he signed a new two-year deal this offseason:

DeBrusk tied for 33rd among NHL left wings in goals last year and was 43rd in points. The year before, he was tied for 19th in goals and 31st in points. Over the past two seasons combined, he has scored 1.07 goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, which ranks 10th among all left wings.

No matter how you slice it, DeBrusk is a higher-end second-line wing. Now imagine him without as many cold streaks, and without them lasting as long. You’d be talking about a player who could be a first-line wing on a lot of teams and who could help make the Bruins’ second line one of the best in the league, on top of already having one of the best first lines.

DeBrusk has a new deal. He knows he’s the No. 2 left wing again. He’s back with his usual center, David Krejci, after some shuffling around in the second half last year. Now let’s see if he can put it all together and really take the next step in his career.

6. Is Ondrej Kase the answer at second-line right wing?

The Bruins sure hope so. They’ve been searching for that answer for years, and they traded a first-round pick to bring in Kase and dump the contract of David Backes -- the most recent failed second-line right wing experiment.

Nothing went as planned once Kase got to Boston, though. He only got six games in with his new team before the season was suspended. Then he missed all of the Bruins’ return-to-play camp before the playoffs while being forced to quarantine for reasons that were never explained on the record, but that we’re pretty confident were related to David Pastrnak’s similar forced quarantine after skating at a rink he wasn’t allowed to be at.

Once Kase was finally able to get on the ice, the Bruins put him with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk -- where they always intended to put him. That line looked pretty good for the most part -- thanks in large part to Krejci’s excellent postseason form -- but Kase struggled to finish his chances, scoring zero goals in 11 games despite 27 shots on net.

Kase is set to start this season with Krejci and DeBrusk again, and there’s a lot of good things he can bring to the table, namely good decision-making, speed in transition and skill with the puck on his stick. But it’s that finishing that will be the key.

Kase scored 20 goals in 2017-18 and was on a 30-goal pace before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in 2018-19. Since returning from that injury, his shooting percentage plummeted from 12.9% in the previous two seasons to 4.9% last season, a problem that obviously continued with the postseason goose egg.

Is that a lingering effect of the injury or just a year of bad luck? The Bruins have to hope it’s the latter, because all the other good things Kase can do will only get him and the second line so far if he can’t bury his chances.

7. Does Jack Studnicka stick?

This is really a two-part question. The first part is: Does the 21-year-old top prospect stick on the top line while David Pastrnak is out? He’s been practicing alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand in training camp and will get the first shot there to open the season.

The second part is: Does Studnicka find a way to stay in the lineup once Pastrnak returns in a couple weeks? There’s no obvious place for him to slot in as of now. Pastrnak will obviously go back to his usual spot on the first line. The Bruins want and expect Kase to click as second-line right wing. Same goes for Craig Smith as third-line right wing. And they like Chris Wagner in his usual fourth-line right wing spot.

Studnicka is a natural center, but the Bruins look set there as long as Bergeron, Krejci, Charlie Coyle and Sean Kuraly are all healthy. Left wing is a little more vulnerable a position with Nick Ritchie on the third line and Anders Bjork the fourth, but that would mean moving one of the right shots to their off side.

Still, if Studnicka plays well in his early audition, Bruce Cassidy would be wise to find a way to keep him in the lineup, especially if another forward is struggling. This kind of depth up front is a good problem to have, and it should create some good internal competition.

8. Will Nick Ritchie last on the third line?

Like Kase, Ritchie was a trade deadline acquisition who never quite clicked last season, but whom the Bruins hope will fit in better in the new year.

Ritchie doesn’t bring as many positive traits to the table as Kase, though, and the one he’s most known for -- his physicality -- is also the one that proved detrimental in the Bruins’ second-round loss to the Lightning, as he took several costly penalties.

Cassidy seems intent on trying to make Ritchie work on the third line alongside Charlie Coyle and Craig Smith, despite the fact that Coyle clicked better with Anders Bjork on his left in the playoffs. Cassidy believes Ritchie can help create scoring chances by getting inside on defenses and winning battles in the corner and in front of the net.

It’s fine to give Ritchie another chance, but the leash shouldn’t be long. If he struggles or isn’t using his physicality in the right way, Cassidy shouldn’t hesitate to put Bjork there or try moving one of the right wings over. Ritchie may not even be guaranteed a fourth-line role in that scenario, as Trent Frederic has had a good camp and is knocking on the door for just that kind of role.

9. What’s going to happen with John Moore?

Moore still has three years left on his contract with an annual cap hit of $2.75 million. Even after the departures of Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug, it appears he will not see regular playing time at least to start this season, as right now Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and Jakub Zboril are all slotted in ahead of him on the left side.

Moore will play at some point, as there will almost certainly be some shuffling around on the blue line. If he plays well, he may force his way into a regular role.

But if that doesn’t happen -- if six other defensemen remain better options -- you have to wonder how long the Bruins will be willing to let that much money sit in the press box every night. By all accounts Moore is a great teammate and everyone likes having him around, but you don’t pay $2.75 million for healthy scratches who are good guys.

Don Sweeney won’t want to make a habit of trading top picks to dump bad contracts like he did with David Backes last year, but if Moore isn’t playing, expect him to try to find some sort of deal.

10. Where are they at the trade deadline?

Last year the Bruins looked like a team that had a chance to win it all, but they didn’t in part because their deadline trades didn’t work out while the Lightning hit it out of the park by acquiring Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

If the Bruins are near the top of the standings again as this year’s trade deadline approaches, it will be interesting to see what Sweeney does. If he truly believes they’re set up to make another run before an offseason in which David Krejci and Tuukka Rask will both be free agents, he should try to make the kind of win-now moves Tampa made last year.

The flip side of this, and the more depressing thought exercise if you’re a Bruins fan, is what Sweeney will do if the Bruins aren’t looking like a contender -- say, if their defense turns out to be worst-case scenario bad and the forwards and goaltending aren’t enough to overcome it. The Bruins have some veterans who are approaching free agency this year or next, and it would be interesting to see if Sweeney would decide to sell.