Nick Goss

Expectations for Bruins have cratered, but they could easily surprise next season

Don't expect another record-breaking season. But don't write off this team too early, either.

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What a difference just a few months make, right?

The Boston Bruins could do no wrong as recently as April. They had set NHL records for the most wins (65) and points (135) by any team in regular season history.

Interest in the team and the anticipation entering the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs were near all-time highs. A championship parade was fully expected. And that's why, among other reasons, Boston's historic first-round playoff upset loss to the Florida Panthers was such a stunner.

The Bruins went all-in for 2022-23 and have paid the price this offseason from a salary cap perspective. A cap crunch has led to Taylor Hall, Connor Clifton, Dmitry Orlov, Tyler Bertuzzi, Garnet Hathaway and others departing the franchise. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci could retire, too, although neither player has announced a final decision yet.

Expectations for the Bruins have cratered. Very few people think this team can be a real contender next season. For example, look at The Athletic's recent way-too-early predictions for the 2023-24 season that were published earlier this week. In the "Biggest Disappointment" category, the Bruins were at the top of the list with 41.9 percent of the vote from The Athletic's staff. When The Athletic asked its staff to vote for the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference next season, and B's received 77.7 percent of the vote, which was sixth.

The Bruins opened as the co-favorites or second-highest favorite to win the 2024 Stanley Cup title in the betting odds after the season. They're now tied for seventh on the list of betting odds for the 2024 championship.

Are the Bruins destined to be a disappointment in 2023-24? Is it going to be a bridge year for the franchise as it gears up for the summer of 2024 and the $30 million or so of salary cap space general manager Don Sweeney should have at his disposal?

Those scenarios are definitely possible, but don't be surprised if the Bruins are better than expected next season.

The primary reason why they will be in the mix is their defense and goaltending. Boston had the No. 1 goalie tandem in the league last season with Linus Ullmark winning the Vezina Trophy after leading all players in wins, save percentage and GAA. Backup netminder Jeremy Swayman ranked No. 4 in both save percentage and GAA, while ranking No. 2 in high-danger save percentage. If Swayman re-signs -- he's currently an RFA -- then the B's should have the top goalie duo (or close to it) once again in 2023-24, even if Ullmark's performance regresses a bit.

The Bruins have defended at a high level for over a decade under three different head coaches. They ranked No. 1 in goals against, No. 7 in shot attempts against, No. 7 in shots against, No. 8 in high-danger attempts against and No. 1 in penalty killing last season. Thanks to an elite goalie duo, and one of the best blue lines in the league -- headlined by two No. 1 caliber defensemen in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm -- the Bruins should be able to rank inside the top 10 of these important stats again next season.

Where the Bruins could see a real setback is offensively.

Bergeron and Krejci combined to score 43 goals. Hall was capable of scoring 20-plus goals. Bertuzzi was a beast in front of the net, especially on the power play. Orlov was an excellent playmaker on the back end. The Bruins went from No. 15 in 5-on-5 goals scored during Bruce Cassidy's final season to No. 2 under Montgomery last year. Boston probably won't be No. 2 again in 2023-24, but there's still enough talent up front for this group to be top 10-12 in scoring.

David Pastrnak scored 61 goals last season. He should consistently be over 50 if healthy. Brad Marchand is still a top-tier left wing. Jake DeBrusk would've easily surpassed 30 goals without fracturing his fibula during the Winter Classic. He's about to enter a contract year, so he will be plenty motivated. Pavel Zacha has another couple levels to go as well. The bottom-six is a mystery, but that group could surprise, too, especially if Fabian Lysell enters the mix.

One area that Montgomery significantly improved in his first season with the Bruins was scoring from the blue line. Lindholm and Clifton set career highs in points. McAvoy easily set a career high with 1.43 points per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. The defensemen will continue to be a major part of the attack under Montgomery.

Another reason to be optimistic about the Bruins is the fact that several recent Presidents' Trophy teams fared better the season after winning the award. It's funny what happens once the dreaded Presidents' Trophy curse is lifted.

Again, the potential departures of Bergeron and Krejci are a factor, but the Bruins still have a ton of talent on their roster even without those guys. The goaltending and defense are still among the league's best. Those two areas alone give the B's a good foundation for success. And if Bergeron and/or Krejci do return, the case for the Bruins contending becomes much stronger.

And as we saw in the playoffs last season, the Eastern Conference might not be the gauntlet that we thought. The Lightning are still good but also an older team now. The Leafs still can't win when it matters most. The Devils are mostly young and inexperienced. The Hurricanes are tough to play against but often plagued by injuries. The Rangers' core hasn't won anything together. The Penguins and Capitals are aging teams and no longer real threats. The Panthers are a good, well-coached team but also have plenty of weaknesses.

The Bruins won't have another historic regular season in 2023-24. They aren't going to storm out to a 20-point lead in the Atlantic Division in February. But to totally write off this team as one that could potentially make some noise in the 2024 playoffs would be foolish, too.

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