With the bye week upon us, we present a five-part series breaking down Boston's 17-3-3 run over the last two months, and how the Black and Gold have gone about making the surge from Atlantic Division bottom dweller to legitimate playoff contender. Today, in Part Two, we look at the impact made by an impressive group of rookie players.
This season was supposed to be about the youth movement for the Boston Bruins.
It was supposed to be the time to witness a big wave of prospects get integrated into their NHL lineup, get their first go-round of experience with the big boys, and begin building toward being a contender in the next couple of seasons.
Well, theyoung players have lived up to their advanced billing; Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork, Sean Kuraly and Matt Grzelcyk have all played big parts in the first three months of the regular season. McAvoy, Heinen and DeBrusk have been so good, in fact, that the Bruins have pretty much fast-forwarded toward contender status this season.
BEHIND THE B's SURGE
There are several factors behind the B's big push over the last two months, but one of the biggest reasons is how the youth has melded seamlessly with the B's veteran core, especially over the last 23 games.
"We've upgraded with our young players," said Bruce Cassidy. "No disrespect to the guys that were in the lineup last year, but I just think they're good, young players. They're good and good players will eventually find a way in this league, some more quickly than others. With Charlie, it was right out of the gate."
McAvoy has been nothing short of amazing as the mythical, young No. 1-defenseman-in-the-making that every NHL team is chasing after. The 20-year-old leads all rookies with 22:54 of ice time per game and has stepped up into a top-pairing role alongside Zdeno Chara. The 2016 first-round pick is on pace for 11 goals and 43 points while logging time on both the power play and the penalty kill, and he's facing the other team's best forwards on a nightly basis. He plays all situations, has shown a penchant for stepping up in the big moments with a couple of shootout game-winners and even notched his first Gordie Howe hat trick in his first half-season.
At the head of a talented class of first-year players, McAvoy looks like a franchise player for the next 10 years, right alongside 21-year-old David Pastrnak. He's also the Bruins' best rookie defenseman since a guy named Ray Bourque patrolled the blue line almost 40 years ago, and that's portends plenty of good things for No. 73.
Clearly McAvoy has made a massive impact over the last three months, and helps fill the gigantic void that's been lingering with the Bruins since Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton were jettisoned away in successive seasons.
"He's efficient on the ice," said Cassidy. "We talk about the big moments, and it doesn't matter how many minutes he's played on the ice. He seems to rise up, but he's also efficient. There is not a lot of wasted energy. He doesn't come back to the bench exhausted because he's chasing guys all over the place. That's hockey sense for one, and he seems to be a guy that can recover quickly, and that's just in his DNA.
"He just loves being out there. He's not shy in the big moments and he doesn't get nervous, so there's another thing where more energy is expended when you're nervous. It's just a lot of things in his makeup and in his personality that allows him to [play big minutes]. That's what I see. He's a special talent in that way."
Heinen, on the other hand, has steadily and impressively flown under the radar as he's become a key part of Boston's depth-filled attack up front. The smart, skilled Heinen actually didn't make the team out of training camp, with fellow rookies DeBrusk and Bjork garnering a little more hype in their first real preseason crack at NHL gigs. Heinen was quickly up with the team once injuries began to hit in the opening few weeks, however, and he showed much more NHL readiness this time than he did while going scoreless in eight games a season ago in Boston.
This time around Heinen was more competitive and assertive in puck battles and playmaking, and he's clicked in a third-line role with Riley Nash and David Backes. The 22-year-old Heinen is on pace for 21 goals and 64 points as one of the most productive rookies in a very talented NHL class, and only big name rooks Brock Boeser, Mat Barzal and Clayton Keller have more points than Heinen thus far this season.
"I think part of it last year was some turnovers and some gray areas in the neutral zone, and hope plays," said Cassidy, who said one of his big points of emphasis this year with the rookie winger was making more plays on his fore-hand rather than the backhand. "He's done a much better job with that [this season] competing and winning pucks, especially with the second effort in the offensive zone. His pace hasn't changed a lot from last season. It is what it is, it's pretty good. He's not a blazer like Spooner or Marchand, but he keeps up. Good enough, good hands and a great brain has allowed him to keep up the pace. I think the puck plays and getting pucks back has been [the biggest area of improvement].
"He's a guy that we expected to bring a certain level of offense, and now that he has the puck a little bit more he's doing it."
Not as impactful as McAvoy or as productive as Heinen, DeBrusk has nonetheless been a very good first-year addition to the Boston lineup. The 21-year-old is strong, skilled and a very conscientious teammate who's got a little old-time hockey element to him by virtue of his upbringing with his NHL dad, former tough guy Louie DeBrusk. He's on pace for 19 goals and 45 points while giving David Krejci the type of skilled, rugged winger he's typically had success with in the past. DeBrusk isn't obviously as big or as strong as Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic or Jarome Iginla, but he's younger and faster than any of those three while showing the hard-nosed willingness for board battles and a net-front presence.
In some ways he plays a game much older than his years, and that has suited the Bruins well with so many young players in the lineup.
"It's great to see those guys getting involved in the way they have been, and that's what makes a team so good nowadays," said Brad Marchand. "When you have guys like that who can step up and win games the way they have been for us, [it makes for success]."
Perhaps most surprising of all has been the evolution of Matt Grzelcyk, who stepped into a role among Boston's group of six D-men when Adam McQuaid broke his leg. The puck-moving Charlestown native hasn't posted big offensive numbers or commanded more than a bottom-pairing role since his arrival, but he has formed a strong bottom D-men pairing with Kevan Miller. The one goal and five assists in 22 games aren't much to write home about from an offensive-minded D-man, but the plus-13 rating is pretty darn impressive for a first year player.
Then there's Kuraly, who has parlayed last season's playoff breakout into a solid, constant role centering a young, energetic fourth line. Clearly he's not as flashy as Heinen and DeBrusk, but his presence has helped turn the B's fourth line into something that's allowed Cassidy to roll four lines during Boston's two-month point-collecting binge.
The one rookie that hasn't quite panned out completely is Bjork, who is currently in Providence getting a little more development time as Ryan Spooner seems to have really found his game since getting healthy. Bjork had pretty good production with four goals and 12 points in 28 games, and showed flashes of the speed/skill combo that will make him an effective player at the NHL level. But he also disappeared for long stretches as Heinen did last season during his brief NHL stint, and kind of went quiet after getting hit by Toronto tough Matt Martin a few months ago.
It may not be where Bjork necessarily wants to be right now, but the AHL development piece could and should be nothing but positive for the former Notre Dame standout.
Clearly the rookies have been a very vibrant, real presence to the unbridled success the Bruins have enjoyed over the last couple of months, and have probably been even better than advertised to this point. The question now is whether those B's first year players can continue to play at their current level when things really tighten up in the second half of the season.
It's one of the practical reasons why the Bruins may not be able to maintain their pace of the last couple of months. But it's also a question for another day.
To this point the Bruins youth movement this season has been real…and it's been spectacular, and it's one of the tangible reasons for the big Black and Gold success story.