BOSTON — The Bruins finished with 96 points this season, the most of any non-playoff team in NHL history. Despite that encouraging statistic, it obviously fell well short of the team’s preseason goal of winning a Stanley Cup.
Yet new general manager Don Sweeney doesn’t think the Original Six club is far away from contending again.
“I?m excited about the challenge in front of us to get back to where we need to get to,” Sweeney said Wednesday at his introductory press conference. “I know what it?s like to be booed in this city, to be cheered in this city, as a player, and I expect at times to take criticism. But that?s part of it.
“And I think — we finished with 96 points this year. We did not meet expectations, but we?re not as far away as what people may think. We have some challenges, we have some flexibility issues that we have to get back out in front of, that we have to address head on. And we have to get back a little bit the aggressiveness that is lost in our group. And maybe that?s a result of being a little stagnant at times, to get ourselves in situations where we didn?t make adjustments and changes that at times you were comfortable to a degree of some of the success that we had been achieving. The group had won a Stanley Cup and gotten back to the finals, there?s a lot to be said for that.”
While missing the playoffs was well below expectations for a championship contender, there are enough quality pieces in place for the Bruins to contend in a wide-open Eastern Conference as soon as next season.
Consider this: The Bruins have one of the best goaltenders in the league with Tuukka Rask. The 2014 Vezina Trophy winner is signed long-term and in the early stages of his prime. No goaltender with more than 5,000 5-on-5 minutes played in the last four seasons has a better save percentage than Rask, and his .930 playoff save percentage is the third-highest of all active goalies who’ve played 30-plus postseason games.
Boston also is strong in the middle. Patrice Bergeron is a top-five center and the best defensive forward in the league. David Krejci, when he’s not injured, is a high-end playmaker and capable of posting 65 to 80 points a season. Ryan Spooner enjoyed a breakout second half of the season and provides much-needed scoring ability, speed and power-play skill.
Depth at right wing is a strength as well. Brett Connolly, Reilly Smith, Seth Griffith and impressive rookie David Pastrnak should all compete for minutes at this position next season. Pastrnak has the skill, speed and offensive awareness to become a legitimate first-line right wing in the near future.
The blue line is more of a question mark, but there’s plenty of optimism within the group. Dougie Hamilton was one of the 15-best defensemen this season on the first pairing.
Captain Zdeno Chara missed 19 games with a knee injury and should return to top-pairing form next season. Yes, he’s 38 years old, but the analytics showed he was still capable of driving more than 54 percent of 5-on-5 puck possession despite having an injured knee and playing against the fifth-toughest competition in the league.
Zach Trotman’s play on the top pairing toward the end of the season was very encouraging. Torey Krug continued to be a power-play threat and took steps toward becoming a better defensive player.
The Bruins have issues to address, though.
The fourth line needs an overhaul that must result in more skill and speed, and the bottom six as a whole must provide better scoring depth. More scoring production from left wing and a new backup goalie also are priorities. Scoring more goals will require a more uptempo game with better transition play, and it’s unclear if Claude Julien will be the head coach making these adjustments.
The Bruins should find themselves in the playoffs next season with a chance to make a deep run if the key pieces — Rask, Bergeron and Chara — are healthy. They finished eighth in goals-against this campaign despite their problems defensively and should score more goals in 2015-16 if Krejci is healthy and Spooner, Pastrnak and Connolly play bigger roles.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” but there’s a good enough foundation in place for the B’s to compete in the East if more depth is added to the roster from within or outside the organization.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images