(We’re trying out some new writers here at Chowder. This post comes from Jason Silva.)
Today’s season opener marks Bruce Cassidy’s first game as Bruins head coach without the “interim” tag in his job title.
When introducing Cassidy in February, general manager Don Sweeney and team president Cam Neely indicated that the remainder of the 2017 season was to serve as a test of sorts for Cassidy’s methods.
Based on the results — an 18-8-1 record and a playoff berth — he passed with flying colors and earned the job full-time.
But what exactly did he do to boost the Bruins? And now that he’s had an offseason to plan and sculpt his team, what does last season tell us about what he’s going to do now?
For starters, we heard reports about him making practices harder and faster paced. He also instituted a new policy of keeping the puck low in the offensive zone, resisting the easier method of shooting from the point in exchange for more high-danger chances.
However, perhaps most tellingly, Cassidy made an immediate change to his top forward lines, swapping David Pastrnak off of the super-powered top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and onto David Krejci’s wing.
David Backes slid up onto the Bergeron line. The results were predictable: Bergeron and Marchand continued to dominate the shot clock, and Pastrnak continued to score in bunches. Only now they were doing so on separate lines, creating tougher match-ups for opposing teams and making for a more sustained attack.
This was a primary driver of the Bruins’ jump in goal scoring under their new coach
Going into the new season, Cassidy is taking this “spread the wealth” mentality a step further. By using low-cost, unproven rookies in top-six roles, he continues to distribute his forward talent throughout the lineup.
Anders Bjork, who hasn’t played a single second of professional regular season hockey, has now taken the right wing spot next to Bergeron. Jake DeBrusk fills Krejci’s left wing. This means Backes can be a full-time third liner, giving much needed stability to a third line that recently suffered the indignity of Jimmy Hayes, amongst other things.
But what about those rookies? Don’t Bjork and DeBrusk (and their inexperience) pose a risk to the success of those top lines?
In Bjork’s case, the answer is just...no. He’s playing with Bergeron and Marchand, a pair that has consistently and continuously dominated for years on end, regardless of their right wing.
They’ve blown away the league in shots and expected goals year after year, sometimes with good right wings (Mark Recchi, Tyler Seguin, Pastrnak) and sometimes with mediocre right wings (Reilly Smith, Brett Connolly, Lee Stempniak, Backes, others we’re surely forgetting).
To put it bluntly, Bergeron and Marchand are so good that it doesn’t seem to matter who is used as their third wheel. Bjork’s best case: that environment serves an incubator for him the way Sidney Crosby’s line has for young Penguins wingers, and he helps Bergeron and Marchand continue to challenge for the “best line in the league” title. Worst case: he struggles to adjust to the NHL, and his line becomes slightly less dominant.
DeBrusk’s projection is less straightforward, but looks favorable. He’ll likely be playing opposite Pastrnak, who drives play with the best of them. He’ll have the recently more responsible Krejci to pick him up defensively. And there’s plenty of evidence from his full year in Providence to suggest he’s ready: he finished fifth in AHL rookie scoring without the benefit of an inflated shooting percentage (8.9%), and he took a ton of shots (213), a good indicator that he’s always around the puck and near the net.
With the near certainty that Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak will drive success on their lines, Cassidy only has to hope that some of his bottom-six forwards play closer to their potential.
Backes has to be better than he was last year. Matt Beleskey has to contribute. These are pretty safe bets and even safer with the limited quality of competition they’ll see while locked into the bottom-six.
If last season’s late results are any indication, Cassidy’s “spread the wealth” approach could lead to a more balanced, dangerous team.