Beginning Thursday night in New Jersey against the Devils, the Boston Bruins will commence their 2020-21 season by playing 56 games in a 115-day stretch. That’s essentially playing every other night.
You might surmise, with a roster that features a starting goalie who’ll turn 34 in two months, a backup keeper who’ll be 36 when the playoffs start, and three of their four best forwards who are 35, 34 and 32 years old, respectively, that a condensed schedule would be problematic.
Quite the opposite, actually.
While there’s no Ponce de Leon and his fountain of youth working his magic behind the scenes, the Bruins should be just fine getting into a semi-regular routine with no more wear and tear than any of the NHL’s other 30 squads.
One of the NHL’s best scorers, 24-year-old right wing David Pastrnak, was back on the ice Tuesday in a red non-contact jersey for first time since having surgery to fix his right hip a little less than four months ago. Originally due back in mid-February, it seems he’ll be ahead of that pace. Linemate Brad Marchand has been back at full strength at training camp after successful sports hernia surgery this offseason. He’s 32, but still plays with the energy, snarl and sandpaper of a younger man.
The team’s best defenseman, Charlie McAvoy, turned 23 four days before Christmas and will be a 23-minute a night, play-in-all-situations defender, taking the mantle from recently departed Zdeno Chara. Brandon Carlo, the team’s defensive conscious, is 24; Connor Clifton a year older than he, and Matt Grzelcyk still a very spry 27.
Left winger Jake DeBrusk enters his fourth NHL season at age 24, still awaiting a breakout campaign where he puts it all together and avoids the peaks and valleys he’s experienced thus far. Fellow portsider Anders Bjork, ready to cement a full-time place for himself on the varsity, is also 24. Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie, trade acquisitions last February who never had the chance to properly acclimate to their new organization or teammates, begin the new season as 25-year-olds.
Depth, whether it’s in the lineup or on the taxi squad (and believe me, that’ll play a prominent role as the league tries to play despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic) is also littered with young guys chomping at the bit. Trent Frederic is 22, Jakub Zboril 23, Urho Vaakanainen 22, Jack Studnicka 21, Jeremy Lauzon 23, even much maligned former first round pick Zach Senyshyn is only 23. Most, if not all, will be called upon to tug on the Black-and-Gold at some point this winter and be expected to contribute.
Even if there were a health issue with either of the goaltenders, Tuukka Rask or No. 2 man Jaroslav Halak (whom head coach Bruce Cassidy said Monday the team is trying to keep apart, lest they face a “Denver Broncos quarterback” situation should either one come down with COVID-19), 22-year-old Jeremy Swayman and 23-year-old Dan Vladar are in the system, awaiting the call.
Is anyone really concerned with 35-year-old newly minted captain Patrice Bergeron between Marchand and Pastrnak? No. Neither are they worried that there’s too much tread on 34-year-old David Krejci’s tires; he had an excellent regular season last winter and meshes nicely between DeBrusk and Kase.
If Kase isn’t up to holding down that spot all season, newcomer and trigger happy Craig Smith will undoubtedly step up and fill it. Right, now the 31-year-old is slated to ride shotgun on Charlie Coyle’s right, with Ritchie rounding out the third line.
Boston bowed out of the 2020 playoffs in a Game 5 loss to Tampa Bay on August 31. When they reconvened to begin this new season on Jan. 3, that gave them a full four months of rest, recovery and mental relaxation. Contrast that to previous season, when the Bruins played Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 12 and began training camp exactly three months later. That shorter-than-usual summer break obviously didn’t affect them in 2019-20, when the B’s won 44 of their 70 games played and finished with 100 points and the President’s Trophy.
There are certainly no nights to be taken off when more than one-quarter of the season has been lopped off; points will be at even more of a premium. Again, that’s a feather in Boston’s cap; there’s still plenty of experience, guile and gumption that have gotten them through difficult stretches before, and despite the losses of Chara and power play quarterback Torey Krug on the back end, there’s no reason to believe that will stop now. (Do you honestly think GM Don Sweeney and the Boston brass won’t deal for a left-shot defenseman in season if they need one?)
It’s been a few seasons since expectations were tempered a bit for the Bruins — and to someone that’s been going to games for this newspaper for the last three decades, that’s not a bad thing at all. Let the Lightning, Avalanche, Maple Leafs and such have verbal bouquets thrown their way; I believe the Bruins will be there when it counts.
Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN