Some of the sting of the Boston Bruins’ first-round exit has subsided. Patrice Bergeron might retire (gasp!). General Manager Don Sweeney still has not been extended. Will Bruce Cassidy be the coach next season? What changes will be made to the roster that struggled in five-on-five play and failed to win a road game in the postseason? Bruins fans are anxiously awaiting what is next for a team that accumulated 107 points on the season.
But as the playoffs roll on, the Bruins’ opponent in the opening round, the Carolina Hurricanes, are two wins away from playing in the Eastern Conference Finals. Their second-round opponent, the New York Rangers, has not won in Carolina either. Similar to the Boston series, Carolina continues to look unbeatable at home and somewhat pedestrian on the road. The Bruins ended the season with several questions surrounding the team and a general feeling that the roster was not good enough to compete for a Stanley Cup. But just how good are they?
The Bruins were the fourth-best team in the NHL after January 1st. They added a top-pair defenseman in Hampus Lindholm at the trade deadline and re-signed the former Duck for eight years. As frustrating as the postseason was for fans, the Bruins were very good. The matchup with Carolina was not. The Hurricanes had beaten the Bruins soundly in three regular-season meetings. Boston lost in Carolina all five times. The Hurricanes five-on-five dominance was the key. And some of the concerns with the Bruins heading into the postseason (secondary scoring, inexperienced goaltending, and the power play) were issues at times in the playoffs. However, the Bruins took the Canes to the brink.
As the Hurricanes march forward and the elimination of the top seed Florida Panthers, you feel that maybe the Bruins had a chance beyond Carolina. This scenario at least creates some confusion on just how close (or far) the Bruins are from contending. It was a bad matchup. But there were better matchups going forward. Even in their paths to the Cup Finals in 2011 and 2013, the Bruins were dangerously close to losing in round one. Sometimes you get past the first round, and everything comes together. This feeling almost makes it harder for Bruins’ management to get a real feel for the team.
The best-case scenario is that Bergeron returns at a very low cap hit, similar to Mark Giordano in Toronto. This would give the Bruins their top-line center for one more year and cap flexibility. The team could then trade Jake DeBrusk and a defenseman for picks/prospects and save $7 million. With that money, a top-6 forward would be a must. Boston has not had an entire season of Charlie McAvoy paired with Lindholm. Jeremy Swayman showed some signs that he could be solid in net.
The Bruins will not rebuild. It is not in their grand plan. But maybe they are still built, with a couple of moves, to contend in 2022-23. This all changes if Bergeron does not come back. With their salary cap issues, it will be difficult to replace a future Hall of Famer AND add to the roster. There are a lot of decisions to make, and the Bruins are at a crossroads. Which road they take is anyone’s guess. It all depends on how good they think they are.