FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The Winter Classic did not provide an ideal result for the Boston Bruins, but their situation was not ideal going in.
Absent David Pastrnak, off at World Junior. Absent David Krejci, week-to-week with an upper-body injury. And perhaps most important, absent Brad Marchand, suspended three games for a low-bridge on Mark Borowiecki.
That pressed Loui Eriksson into action alongside Patrice Bergeron.
People in Boston like to pretend for some baffling reason that Bergeron is not the team's top-line center, despite his talent and usage clearly dictating that this is the case. Eriksson, however, is anything but their first-line left wing, given Marchand's overwhelming quality and chemistry with Bergeron. Desperate times and all that, though. And because of the paucity of wing depth, Seth Griffith started the game on the opposite side of the ice from Eriksson.
Given the way Boston played in the Winter Classic, an argument could be made that two Marchands in the lineup wouldn't have moved the needle, but nonetheless, his absence was noticed.
“We're missing some key players,” Bergeron said. “We've always said we can't use that as an excuse, and we're definitely not gonna use that today. He's a big part of our team in all the facets and plays that he does on the ice, but we have to do the job without them."
As a unit, the number of minutes Eriksson, Griffith and Bergeron had played together entering this game was zero. Eriksson and Bergeron have had their paths cross in the past — for nearly 406 minutes of extremely dominant hockey over the last few years — but that chemistry Bergeron has forged with Marchand on his left side necessitates that few others even get a sniff on the top line, save for the odd suspension, injury, or occasional baffling demotion. Obviously Marchand's three-gamer was the reason for the new partnership here on Friday, but the absence of David Krejci, with whom Eriksson has played the bulk of his minutes this season basically gave Claude Julien little choice.
Until things clearly weren't working. About halfway through the game, with the Bruins being badly outshout, Julien shifted Brett Connolly to the top line. To that point, the Bruins' de facto top line had been badly out-attempted, which is unfamiliar territory for players of Bergeron and Eriksson's caliber, regardless of opponent and matchups. Landon Ferraro got moved up to that line in the third period as well.
“[Playing with Eriksson] felt fine,” Bergeron said. “I've played with Loui before so it's not necessarily [unfamiliar]. I know how he plays and his tendencies, but we have to definitely generate more offense.”
Despite that top line, with its constant shuffling, getting caved in, all this comes as Eriksson is having an absolute whopper of a year, even if there aren't necessarily a lot of people talking about it yet. Marchand's spot on Bergeron's left, it's understood, is merely being kept warm until the suspension ends. Ferraro joked on Thursday that he could score seven goals in the next three games and have no shot at cracking the top line.
But outside that top-line duo, no Bruins forward is having a better season than Eriksson.
Eriksson's basic stats alone are pretty convincing that he's been a great player for the Bruins in an otherwise up-and-down team season: 13 goals (second on the team, one behind Bergeron), 20 (also second the team, also one behind Bergeron), in just 37 games. From a production standpoint, it's pretty close to the best of his career.
And this is no one-off in terms of overall play. He hit a bit of a groove late last season (4-2-6 in the last nine as the Bruins spiraled the drain) and continued that. Maybe you argue these are the flashes Peter Chiarelli saw way back when he made the Seguin trade, but that was always going to skew perceptions. Indeed, Eriksson has been forced to wade through a few years of misguided disappointment and more than a few “Trade Eriksson” ruminations from the locals — especially last season.
But that ignored the inherent value he necessarily carried. You aren't considered the “No. 1 most underrated player in the league” for a few years running without bringing some level of play beyond your personal production. The Bruins knew they could count on dominant possession and goals-for numbers from this guy even if he wasn't going to score 30-plus every year, and he was never going to. And indeed, he's delivered just that over the last three seasons (almost 55 percent CF% and 58 percent GF% at 5-on-5) and it's easy to see why he's created a niche for himself as the team's reliable No. 4 offensive threat even if the goal and assist totals don't necessarily reflect it.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this supreme, Loui Eriksson Prime performance also comes in a contract year.
And the Eriksson situation is indeed a tricky one. Boston has plenty of cap commitments headed in 2016-17, nearly $43.2 million committed to just 11 players, with seven RFAs to re-sign including Torey Krug and Brett Connolly. Figuring out a way to re-sign a guy who will be 31 and coming off a career year might not necessarily be at the top of the priorities list, regardless of quality. Especially because Eriksson is likely to be seeking that one big payday — long-term, sizable AAV — that may perhaps price him out of Boston.
But such an investment might not be unwise for Boston or any other team, given that what makes Eriksson good ages well — possession, spatial awareness, etc. — and what would otherwise be a liability — speed, point production — has never really been his forte.
If he does leave, one might be able to expect more Bruins games that look like this, with them trying to hold their own against better-run division rivals with a top-heavy, aging, slowing roster. Bergeron and Marchand and Krejci can still deal with tough matchups, but if this club is asked to go without quality players like Eriksson long-term there might be galling as well.
It's a tough decision to have to make, and more results like the Winter Classic in the future could really weigh heavily, both in terms of how the Bruins end up faring this season, and psychically. They're getting Marchand back in two more games, and David Pastrnak will be back from World Junior soon enough, but Krejci is out long-term.
These early-30s guys who produce out-of-line with their recent history are not the guys you want to sign long-term for big money. But Boston management might feel as though they have no choice if the future is as grim as the Winter Classic Bruins, with so few legitimate top-six forwards, suggests.
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