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2023-24 Bruins Half-Way Point: Where are we on the season now?

They never make it easy, but the Boston Bruins are still ahead of their compatriots in-division, and are a near certainty to make the playoffs. What will they do now?

Boston Bruins v Vegas Golden Knights Photo by Jeff Bottari/NHLI via Getty Images

So! The All-Star game sure happened!

But now that it’s done, The Boston Bruins after the halfway point of the season are still right back there when we checked in at 25 games; in front of the division, in the top 5 of the NHL, still nursing some growing pains here or there...and staring down the road of what needs to come next.

Let’s talk about that!

The Mandate of Heaven

You have to wonder how fans of other teams are handling this. Knowing the Bruins just won’t go away no matter what they do. I take a little bit of glee in that, to be honest.

Once again, through sheer force of will, the Boston Bruins are somehow still in charge of the Atlantic Division. This is in spite of a litany of injuries, a rapidly changing forward corps that has anywhere from 2 to almost 5 players being swapped out of it at any given time due to cold spells or simply being Day-to-Day with something.

Even better, they still found value when they previously had almost none in guys like Danton Heinen, who’s been one a strong player with his limited minutes, Trent Frederic and Charlie Coyle finding a niche as secondary scoring, and a number of players coming off of various schneids in order to become contributors. Not the least of which are of course, guys like David Pastrnak; who once again dazzled at the all-star game and is the beating heart of the offense, and Brad Marchand, who has come alive in the past month or so to rapidly rise the ranks and show what he earned that “C” for in the first place.

And of course...the goaltending.

It’s getting really hard to come up with new superlatives to describe the work done by Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. It’s over half the reason the team is in the position they’re in. Having the 1st and 8th best goalie in the NHL by SV% as a tandem is a luxury few can afford, and Boston’s investment in them for the short term has paid dividends. They’ve also gotten some bizarrely strong special teams; having the 5th best power play in the league (at the moment) and the 3rd best penalty kill, though the PK has been a position of strength on this team for quite some time.

All this has led up to a team that, somehow, is still way too good to fail. It’s almost maddening to think that of all teams, the one that got dealt a hand as bad as Boston got in the offseason still remains in the firm grasp of the Mandate of Heaven.

Maybe it’s something to do with the area? Either way, they’re still on easy street.

For now, anyway.

Under the hood, everything’s still as-is...which needs improving

So remember all that stuff I said back in December about the Bruins relying on goaltending and defensive structure to mask an otherwise kind of anemic offense?

If so, Good news! You can skip to the next section.

If not, the basic rundown is that Boston has rarely held a shot lead this year, and while they’re getting good finish from hyperfocusing in on net-front shots and a power play that always seems to find enough results to be dangerous, they’re still very much a team hard up for offense, and are no longer middle of the pack in anything but shot quality. In short, they need shots, they need possession, they need faceoff wins, and they don’t have much of any of those as of right now. They’ve found a way to overcome it for the most part, but they do need to try and rectify that if they want to face the best the Eastern Conference has to offer.

The Shooting Problem (updated)

The Stats Last Year This Year 25 Games in 49 Games in
The Stats Last Year This Year 25 Games in 49 Games in
Corsi For-% (Shot Attempts) 51.19 (15th in League) 48.59 (21st in League) 47.96 (22nd in League)
Fenwick For-% (Unblocked Shot Attempts) 51.77 (10th in League) 48.58 (23rd in League) 47.96 (22nd in League)
Expected Goals For-% (Quality Shots) 53.26 (8th in League) 51.14 (14th in League) 50.09 (17th in League)

The Shooting Problem, Expressed as Rates

The Stats Last Year This Year 49 Games in
The Stats Last Year This Year 49 Games in
Corsi For per 60 57.51 (16th in league) 56.51 (23rd in League)
Fenwick For per 60 43.47 (8th in league) 40.86 (22nd in League)
Expected Goals For per 60 2.78 (9th in league) 2.6 (15th in League)

Still! One unambiguous positive of the season so far is that there are players stepping into the role of secondary finisher where David Pastrnak doesn’t have to do everything, as I fear one day he may have to be; Trent Frederic and Charlie Coyle have found a rhythm that sets both of them on a course of two points shared or passed between the two for several weeks now, and it’s been a boon.

It helps of course that Frederic’s physical doggedness makes him an easy favorite, but it underlies that Frederic has always been a player at the bare minimum worthy of the top-half of the draft, and has found a niche that makes the first round pick they spent on him ultimately worth it by being patient with him. Coyle meanwhile, a local and a long-time vet of the league, is rising well above his impact; and that’s something the Boston Bruins are going to need from just about every player going forward until they can properly stock the cupboard again.

What’re ya buying?

With all this said, we have the question then of what’s to be done. We know what’s going right, and that can be nurtured. We’ve known what’s wrong since Game 1, and only now is it kind of manifesting itself on their record. Which places them in an odd position; This is, unquestionably, a playoff team. It would take an absolutely insane tumble for that to not be true. Are they cup contenders, on the other hand? Eh, not really. At least, not in the way that other teams with different flaws than the Bruins might be. Their issues are ones that need real time and energy that isn’t being taken up by trying to play a hockey season to fix.

Besides, here’s what the Boston Bruins actually “have” to work with:

  • $862,500 in Actual Cap Space to wiggle around with.
  • No meaningful draft picks and not for a good long time.
  • World Class goaltending.
  • Extremely inconsistent depth defense who can have bad nights at the drop of a hat. Sometimes in-between shifts. And it’s all of them; not just your personal whipping boy.
  • A forward corps that has one, maybe two fairly useful trade chips that would make a less-than-stellar offense that relies too often on three players to start scoring chances even more reliant on said three players.
  • One young center growing into his role and experiencing some growing pains, that’s about the extent of the positives at that particular position.

More of a fistfight lockbox rather than a war chest.

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan thinks that the Bruins are shopping for middle six forwards, which I absolutely get! They do need that kind of player!

But the ability to actually get to the checkout counter feels extremely limited at the moment without having to make at least some painful cuts. Further, the actual desperate need they have (a real 1-C) is not something they can fix without taking a hatchet to the roster.

Personally, I feel like the safe play here is to not play at all.

For one thing, Boston’s cap situation means that just about any move requires someone that’s getting paid going the other way. It’s just what they have on-hand. Further, while the impulse to move on from a Matt Grzelcyk or any number of the tweener fourth liners and depth defenders is pretty tempting, especially given what they’ve brought to the table so far has been kind of inconsistent, it does bear repeating that unless you can adequately sell these guys, you’re going to be replacing them with players who are either comparable...or the same depth guys who’ve been frustrating us all year. You’d better make good and goshdarned sure you can turn a hockey trade into an upgrade.

Then again, Don Sweeney has managed to surprise me pleasantly before by the deadline. I wouldn’t be shocked if he did it again.

Pleasant Surprises

Y’know, other than...well...just about all the other words I’ve said so far, I think I’m okay with the Bruins right now. I’m happy they’re doing this well.

I don’t know if they can meaningfully compete with the way they’re built, but I think they can get close if they work at it. I know exactly what’s wrong with them, and I’m at peace with it. I think that’s actually better than being all up in your own head trying to figure out what pieces aren’t working and what are like you could last year after being such a juggernaut. Now they’re just a pretty good team with great goaltending. I can live with that. I think the B’s can too. The Atlantic has otherwise fallen into lockstep with them (and the state of Florida. Yick.), so I’m not even terribly worried about a losing streak here an there, because they ultimately work hard enough to never make it too long.

Am I ready to deal with playoff anxiety yet? Hell no.

But we’ll get there when we get there.

Still, with a little under a month left before the deadline, Don has plenty of time to make changes. Let’s hope they’re the right ones for this squad.