BOSTON -- The Bruins had one of the NHL's best 1-2 punches at center for about a decade with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Since arriving in 2018-19, Charlie Coyle has excelled as one of the league's top third-line centers.
Boston's extraordinary depth and experience down the middle helped the franchise win a Stanley Cup in 2011 and get back to the Cup Final in 2013 and 2019. But all good things must come to an end.
While Coyle remains with the Bruins, Bergeron and Krejci both retired in the offseason, thus ending two of the best careers in B's history. Tomas Nosek, who did such a good job as a fourth-line center and penalty killer over the last two seasons, also left in free agency.
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For the first time in a long time, the Bruins will look quite different at center. And in many ways, their success during the 2023-24 NHL season will hinge on whether this new-look group is able to produce offensively and maintain the defensive structure that's been crucial to the team's recent success.
“Well, I still feel pretty confident about our club, but obviously when you lose your top two centers, and that's a big gap to fill, it's very difficult to replace one of them let alone two, especially when you know you have some cap constraints like we did," Bruins president Cam Neely said Monday at a Media Day press conference.
"We were planning for it. I mean, we knew (Bergeron and Krejci) were eventually going to retire. But we still have some quality NHL players in our lineup that have played in the National Hockey League, played the center position. Now it's really a matter of, can they elevate their game to a level where we can get some offense out of it? I think goaltending, defense, our wingers are all -- you look at our top six, it's pretty solid compared to the rest of the league. So, it's just really a matter of can those (centers) help contribute a little bit more offensively than they have in the past.”
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The most encouraging development for the Bruins during training camp and the preseason was the emergence of prospect Matthew Poitras, whose performance over the last few weeks has earned him a spot on the NHL roster for Wednesday night's regular season opener.
Poitras not only scored three goals with two assists in five preseason games, he showed the type of poise and confidence with the puck you don't often see from players with his lack of experience.
Despite his size, he battles hard for puck possession and wins more than 50 percent of his faceoffs. His high hockey IQ, vision and playmaking ability allow him to consistently create scoring chances for himself and others.
“I think I can come in here and try and make an impact," Poitras said after Monday's practice. "I know what type of player I am. I think I've worked hard and I've earned my chance to start up here. Just try and work hard every day and stay here.”
Poitras will get nine games to prove he belongs for the full season. At that point, the Bruins will have to decide to burn the first year of his entry-level contract and keep him, or send him to the OHL. He's not AHL eligible right now. It's one thing to shine in the preseason, but it's a totally different ballgame when the regular season begins and every opponent plays its optimal lineup.
If Poitras produces offensively and proves he belongs, it's a massive win for the Bruins, who have failed to draft and develop top-six centers over the last decade. Poitras' salary cap hit will be under $1 million during his ELC, which is another benefit for a B's team that is tight against the cap.
Poitras isn't the only center facing high expectations, though.
Pavel Zacha is coming off his best season as a pro during which he set career highs with 21 goals and 36 assists. He also played all 82 games for the first time. Zacha was a left wing in his first year with the Bruins, mostly playing alongside Krejci and David Pastrnak. Now Zacha is shifting to center -- his natural position -- and will be asked to raise his production even further. He has tremendous chemistry with Pastrnak, which is important, but it'll be interesting to see how he handles the increased responsibility and expectations.
Coyle could start the season as a top-six center or remain in his third-line role, depending on where Poitras slots in. Coyle is a strong, two-way center who can kill penalties, defend against the opponents' top-six forwards and provide anywhere between 40 and 50 points per season. He's better suited in a third-line role where he can feast on inferior competition and anchor a line that should be plenty physical and hard to play against with Trent Frederic and Morgan Geekie.
The Bruins got a glimpse of a Coyle/Zacha 1-2 punch at center during Games 3 and 4 against the Florida Panthers in last season's first-round playoff series. Those were the Bruins' two-best performances of the postseason. It's a small sample, but it was still encouraging for people who might have previously been unconvinced that Zacha and Coyle could be the top two centers on a contender.
John Beecher likely has won the fourth-line center job over veteran Patrick Brown, who was waived Sunday. Beecher was a 2019 first-round pick and has yet to play in an NHL game. But his size, penalty killing, faceoff ability and smooth skating make him a good fit for the bottom-six. He also packs more of an offensive punch than some recent fourth-line centers in Boston.
"They're looking for a fourth-line center who plays physical and plays fast," Beecher said. "That's pretty much me to a T, so I just wanted to come in and put my best foot forward, and I think I did that."
What if the Bruins don't get enough offense at center? What if Poitras is slow to acclimate to the NHL? What if an injury to one of these centers hurts the team's depth?
The trade market is one avenue to explore in those types of situations. Calgary Flames center Elias Lindholm is entering the final year of his contract and hasn't signed an extension at this time. If it doesn't look like he will re-sign, it would make sense for Calgary to trade him.
"We'll see how this all goes, but as long as there are players like Lindholm and (Mark) Scheifele unsigned, Boston will be lurking," Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman said during Monday's episode of the 32 Thoughts podcast. Scheifele signed a seven-year extension worth $59.5 million ($8.5 million salary cap hit) with the Winnipeg Jets on Monday afternoon, taking him off the trade market.
The Bruins don't have a ton of quality trade assets because of all the draft picks they've dealt away in recent years, but they do have salary cap space going forward -- potentially $25 million next summer -- and the need for another top-six center. Lindholm is 28 years old and a very good all-around player who finished second in Selke Trophy voting behind Bergeron in 2021-22.
The Bruins have the sport's best goalie tandem. Their blue line is very deep and one of the few in the league that boasts two No. 1 defensemen in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm. Brad Marchand is the league's best all-around left wing. Jake DeBrusk is a likely 30-goal scorer if healthy. David Pastrnak is coming off a 61-goal campaign.
The Bruins have a lot of talent on this roster, even after all the offseason departures. The biggest question mark is down the middle, and whether these centers are able to produce offensively at a high enough level. There are reasons to believe this group will be successful based on camp and the preseason, but doing it consistently for 82 regular season games is an entirely different challenge.
It's not unfair to say that the performance of the Bruins' centers could be enough to make or break this team's chances of playoff success in 2024.