We've officially reached the quarter point of the 2023-24 NHL season, and it's safe to say the Boston Bruins have exceeded expectations.
The 2022-23 regular season was a record-breaking one for the B's during which they set league records for the most wins and points. It came at a cost, though. The all-in approach resulted in massive roster turnover over the offseason. Boston was still expected to be a good team, but few would have thought this franchise would own the Eastern Conference's second-best record and sit atop the Atlantic Division on Nov. 30.
But that's where we are right now. The Bruins are 14-4-3, which puts them on pace for 127 points, and that would be the second-most in team history behind last season.
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The last couple games have been bad, there's no doubt about that. Boston enters Thursday's matchup versus the San Jose Sharks at TD Garden with a three-game losing streak. They did not lose more than three games in a row all last season. The Bruins' defense and goaltending have been average or worse throughout much of the last 11 games.
But it's a long season, and for the Bruins to be in such a strong position in the standings is impressive after all the offseason departures.
Now that we're at the quarter mark of the campaign, it's a good time to grade each facet of the team.
The Bruins ranked No. 2 in goals scored last season, and then they lost their top two centers in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, two top-six caliber wingers in Taylor Hall and Tyler Bertuzzi, an offensive defenseman in Dmitry Orlov and other players during the summer. In total, the Bruins lost players who scored 102 of the team's 301 goals from the 2022-23 campaign. Losing a third of your offensive output in one offseason is pretty tough, and yet the Bruins have been scoring at a solid rate through the first quarter of the year.
They are tied for 10th in scoring at 3.33 goals per game. They also rank 10th on the power play at 22.1 percent, which is basically the same as last season (22.2 percent).
David Pastrnak has continued to play at an elite level. He ranks fifth in scoring with 31 points, and his 13 goals are four off the league lead. It wouldn't be surprising if he's a finalist for the Hart Trophy again.
Boston's production at center has been better than expected. Pavel Zacha set career highs in goals, assists and points last season, and he's on pace to smash those numbers. He has tallied 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 21 games. Charlie Coyle also is on pace to set career highs in scoring. His 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in 21 games put him on track to finish with 74, which would be 18 more than his career high of 56 with the Wild in 2016-17.
Rookie center Matthew Poitras made the team after a stellar camp and preseason. He has 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 21 games, while another rookie center, John Beecher, leads the team in faceoff percentage and has excelled as a two-way forward on the fourth line.
If you're looking for the most encouraging aspect of the Bruins' season so far, the scoring production at center is very high on the list.
What about the wings? Brad Marchand is producing at his normal rate of close to a point per game with seven goals and 12 assists. James van Riemsdyk has proven to be an excellent signing with 15 points (five goals, 10 assists) in 20 games. He signed for just $1 million over the summer, so it's safe to say Boston is getting its money's worth with JVR.
Jake DeBrusk got off to a slow start, but he's been better of late with two goals in his last four games. Danton Heinen has been a versatile bottom-six forward, playing a couple different positions on a few different lines. He has six points in 13 games. Trent Frederic is on pace for career highs in goals and points, too.
The Bruins could still use another goal-scoring winger. It might actually be their top need at the trade deadline, unless of course the defensive issues of the last few games don't get corrected. In that scenario, another defenseman might be needed. But right now, another wing who can score would be a massive boost to the B's. They're not as deep as last season, which puts a ton of pressure on the top of the lineup (Pastrnak, Marchand, Zacha, etc.) to carry the load.
Bruins defensemen are not making the same impact offensively through 21 games this season that they did a year ago. Boston's blueliners had combined to score 11 goals and 38 assists at this point last season. In 21 games this year, the Bruins have gotten seven goals and 32 assists from their defensemen.
Hampus Lindholm's scoring production has gone way down. He tallied a career-high 53 points and 1.71 points per 60 minutes last season. Lindholm has posted just five points overall and 0.61 points per 60 minutes in 2023-24. And it's not like his minutes are down. He's playing 23:36 per game (a little less than his career high), including 1:35 of power-play time per night. The Bruins need more offense from Lindholm to reach their full potential.
Charlie McAvoy deserves a lot of credit for taking his offensive output to a higher level this season. He has 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 17 games. Don't be surprised if he finishes top five in Norris Trophy voting for the third time in his career.
From a defensive standpoint, this group has been fairly average so far. Gap control, positioning, seam passes, rush defense, and a less-than-stellar penalty kill have all been issues over the last couple weeks. The Bruins are not an elite defensive team, as you can see in the following chart.
How are the Bruins 14-4-3 when they are giving up too many shots and scoring chances? The goaltending has bailed them out in a bunch of games (more on that in the section below). The penalty kill also has been good overall (No. 5 in the league entering Thursday) despite the issues over the last couple games.
If there's one thing the Bruins can do to make the biggest improvement in their overall performance, it would be to tighten up defensively. They are not hard enough to play against in their defensive zone right now. And since the Bruins aren't as deep up front as they were last season, the blue line also needs to create more offense.
Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark gave the Bruins elite goaltending last regular season, and not much has changed in 2023-24.
Swayman is 7-1-2 with a .925 save percentage and a 2.38 GAA. If the season ended today, he might be a Vezina Trophy finalist. Ullmark, who won the Vezina last season, is 7-3-1 with a .917 save percentage and a 2.64 GAA.
This duo ranks in the top five of pretty much every goalie metric at 5-on-5 and all situations. They've been particularly good at thwarting opponents' high-danger scoring chances.
The goaltending has been worse of late, though. In fact, Bruins goalies have a .897 save percentage over the last 11 games, compared to a .947 mark over the first 10 matchups. The dip in save percentage is not all on Swayman and Ullmark, though. Sure, they do need to play better, but they've been hung out to dry way too many times in the last three games. Boston has allowed an astounding 37 high-danger chances and 14 (!) power-play opportunities over the last 180 minutes of hockey.
The bottom line is the Bruins still have the league's best goalie tandem, and this gives the team a very strong foundation and a great chance to win every night. No other team has the luxury of starting a top 10 goalie every single game.
Montgomery has said on numerous occasions that the team's goaltending is the primary reason why it has such a stellar win-loss record, and he's absolutely right.
Jim Montgomery hasn't been afraid to challenge his team. He did a bag skate at a Nov. 13 practice following a loss to the Canadiens. He called a timeout in the first period of a 7-4 loss to the Rangers last Saturday. He pulled Swayman after just two goals in Monday's loss to the Blue Jackets. Montgomery also pulled the goalie for the extra attacker with around seven minutes left in the third period of that game, which was an aggressive move.
Montgomery's job is harder this season compared to his first year for a few reasons. The Bruins still have a lot of good leaders, but losing a captain of Bergeron's caliber, plus another respected veteran in Krejci, in one offseason isn't easy. The Bruins also don't have a roster as deep as last season, which has resulted in Montgomery switching up the forward lines quite a bit over the first 21 games. While some combinations have yielded impressive results, it seems like he hasn't quite figured out the best possible trios yet.
The Bruins likely will face more adversity this season than 2022-23. They didn't lose back-to-back games or three in a row until January. They're already dealing with that in late November of this season.
Montgomery does deserve a lot of credit for his team's success, though. He's a great motivator, he's a great communicator, and the players seem to really respond to him.
This speech he gave during the team's recent Dads' trip was fantastic:
The fact that this team leads its division and got off to the best 10-game start in team history is pretty impressive when you consider the roster turnover that took place over the summer. He also has done a good job getting the Bruins ready to play, evidenced by their plus-9 goal differential in the first period, which ranks among the league's best.
Montgomery won the Jack Adams Award last season as the league's top coach. He probably won't win it again this year -- the last repeat winner was Jacques Demers in 1987 and 1988 -- but he should at least be in the mix if the B's finish atop the Atlantic again.