Add another tally to the Boston Bruins’ list of walking wounded: Brad Marchand missed Monday’s game against the Minnesota Wild with an upper body injury, and he was ruled out of the team’s trip to face the New York Rangers tonight.
This injury bug is becoming more of an injury epidemic.
Save for the Anaheim Ducks, the Bruins have been more depleted by injuries than any other team in the league, forcing the coaching staff to load up the top line with scorers and give significant minutes to bunches of inexperienced players.
Monday’s lineup featured six players who played at least 22 games in Providence last year, and that’s not even counting rookies Charlie McAvoy and and Anders Bjork. It’s been a “next man up” conveyor belt, as young players get their shot to stick on the team and depth veterans get more ice time than usual.
Even so, the Bruins have stayed competitive, compiling 15 points through 13 games, a 95-point pace that seems on-par with preseason expectations.
In Monday’s game, the depleted lineup largely outplayed the Wild, especially at even strength. They scored four five-on-five goals — and this is important — none of which was scored by a forward from the stacked top line.
All that depth is doing a reasonable job not just keeping the team afloat, but giving the coaching staff a look at what their lineup should look like once they return to better health.
To hone in on one group, it appears that the trio of Tim Schaller, Sean Kuraly, and Danton Heinen should have some staying power. You might not have noticed until Monday, when Schaller disrobed Nino Niederreiter and set up the crashing Kuraly for a rebound goal, but these three have been positive contributors both as a unit and individually.
So far this year, Schaller and Heinen have done more than enough to justify their usage. They both rank in the Bruins’ top three forwards in five-on-five points/60, and rank first and second respectively in Expected Goals For Percentage (xGF%).
In the latter stat, Kuraly ranks third (stats credit to Corsica). That’s an impressive feat, albeit in a small sample, on a team with Marchand, David Pastrnak, and Patrice Bergeron.
In the 42:34 they’ve played together as a unit, they’ve scored three goals and surrendered zero, creating an impressive 14 High Danger Scoring Chances while giving up just four (Stats credit to Natural Stat Trick).
They’ve outshot their opponents comfortably as well. Put a different way, there seems to be some tangible chemistry here.
Of the three, Schaller’s performance is the most intriguing. Heinen and Kuraly both have lesser numbers away from him, and the 26 year-old Providence College alum has looked engaged, fast, and outright dangerous on occasion.
He’s never been a highly-touted prospect or professional, but he earned the Bruins’ trust last year, playing in 59 games. And don’t forget: players are allowed to improve. There’s a reason why he didn’t stick with the Sabres, who signed him out of college, but he’s a better player now than he was then.
We knew Heinen had the skill and hockey intelligence to produce in the NHL, given his explosive performance at Denver University after being drafted 116th overall. He seems to have made the most of his first pro year in Providence, now looking sharp and confident at both ends of the ice (scoring both goals to beat the San Jose Sharks couldn’t have hurt there either).
Heinen is shaping up as a nice draft-and-develop story for the Bruins, adding more depth to that next wave.
Meanwhile, Kuraly still has the most to prove. His numbers on the whole are good, but his performance has been markedly inconsistent, earning him some time on the pine on at least one occasion.
However, it seems that the more he plays with Schaller and Heinen, the better he does. Sometimes, team-building is more about fitting pieces together than it is about the pieces themselves.
Of course, we have to acknowledge that the sample size here is small, and Schaller-Kuraly-Heinen is quite certainly not a top notch line, or even a top six one.
But it’s something to watch as the Bruins battle through their injury issues. It seems safe to say that they’ll stay together for now, and Cassidy may see fit to keep them together even as health returns.
Who knows: maybe this is the elusive third line we’ve been looking for all along.