Four important Bruins storylines to watch after NHL All-Star break

Four important Bruins storylines to watch after NHL All-Star break originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins could not have enjoyed a better first half of the 2023-24 NHL season.

Despite losing a bunch of important players last offseason, including their top-two centers in Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, the B's are in the exact same place today that they were at the All-Star break last season: first place in the Eastern Conference and the league overall.

David Pastrnak is on track to be a Hart Trophy finalist for the second year in a row. He ranks third in the NHL in scoring (72 points) and goals (33). The goaltending has been awesome again, led by Jeremy Swayman, who could end up being a Vezina Trophy finalist. He ranks tied for second in save percentage and third in GAA. Boston's special teams have been excellent, too. They are one of three teams with a top-seven power play and penalty kill.

So, what should Bruins fans be watching over the final few months of the regular season? Here are three important storylines to follow.

Can Bruins' red-hot offense keep up this pace?

The Bruins were an average offensive team at times over the first couple months of the season. They entered the holiday break on Dec. 23 ranked 22nd in goals scored and were overly reliant on their power play. The team was too top heavy with Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Charlie Coyle and Pavel Zacha shouldering most of the scoring burden.

But since the holiday break ended Dec. 27, the Bruins have been the league's top offensive team. They rank No. 1 in goals scored with a top-five power play. But it's not just the power-play driving this scoring uptick. Boston is tied for No. 1 in 5-on-5 goals during this 17-game span.

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One of the biggest reasons for the Bruins' offensive surge has been the secondary scorers producing at a more consistent rate.

Jake DeBrusk didn't score over the first 11 games of December. He has eight goals and six assists in his last 17 games. Trent Frederic is on pace to set career highs in scoring for the second season in a row. His 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) rank fourth on the B's since the holiday break. James van Riemsdyk (11 points), Morgan Geekie (11 points) and Danton Heinen (seven points) have all made positive contributions over the last month as well.

It remains to be seen whether these role players can score at or near this rate for the rest of the season. Another middle-six wing who can score would be a great upgrade before the trade deadline (more on that below). But it's definitely encouraging for the Bruins that their depth is not as bad as initially feared.

Will Bruins go all-in at trade deadline?

The Bruins have an interesting decision to make before the March 8 trade deadline. Do they go all-in and potentially trade another first-round pick to acquire impact players for the playoffs, or do they mostly stand pat and keep their best assets?

A strong case could be made for both.

The case for not doing much centers around the fact that the B's have parted with lots of significant assets in recent years, especially in regards to draft picks. The Bruins have picked in the first round just twice in the last six drafts, and they won't in 2024 because that pick is owed to the Detroit Red Wings. If the Bruins make a splash at this year's trade deadline and move their 2025 first-rounder, that would be two first-round picks made in eight drafts. That's a tough way to build a prospect pool.

The case to go for it is based on the fact that the Bruins are a really good team and you never know what can happen in the playoffs. There's no juggernaut out there, either. The Tampa Bay Lightning are no longer a dominant team. The Toronto Maple Leafs are still good, but not as deep as last season. The New Jersey Devils have taken a step back. The Carolina Hurricanes have played well of late, but they're beatable. The Western Conference has a bunch of quality contenders, but no one that the Bruins couldn't beat in a seven-game series.

That's a long way of saying the road to the 2024 Stanley Cup Final is wide open, and as long as the Bruins are mostly healthy in April, they'll have a good shot at making a deep run. And it would be foolish to not take advantage of that opportunity.

The Bruins could use another scorer up front. It doesn't have to be a first-line forward, but a middle-six forward who can score goals and contribute to the power play if needed. Blue line depth would be a nice upgrade, too. A defenseman who can play physical, kill penalties, clear traffic from the front of the net and lessen the workload of Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm in the second half of the regular season.

The Bruins have exceeded expectations this season. They have a nice core of young players to build aroud long-term, along with a couple good prospects in Matthew Poitras and Mason Lohrei. So it'll be fascinating to see if they go all-in again or take a more cautious approach to the trade deadline.

Can Charlie Coyle continue to play like a No. 1 center?

Pastrnak is an MVP candidate and Brad Marchand is still the sport's best all-around left wing, but the most impressive player, at least among skaters, on the Bruins so far might be Coyle.

He's having the best season of his career, and the Bruins really needed it after losing both Bergeron and Krejci in the offseason. Coyle has tallied 42 points (18 goals, 24 assists) in 49 games. He's on pace to score 70 points, which would blow past his previous career high of 56. He's been very consistent as well, and has gone more than two games without tallying a point only once so far this season. Coyle posted 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 14 January games. His work defensively, particularly on the penalty kill, has also been excellent.

Coyle playing at this level lessens the need for the Bruins to spend premium assets on acquiring a top-six center at the trade deadline. For example, making a move for Flames center Elias Lindholm no longer makes total sense for the B's. Part of that is Coyle's fantastic play, and part of it is Lindholm having a down year.

The Bruins will be a tough out in the playoffs if Coyle is playing like a No. 1 center.

Will the young guys continue to make an impact?

The Bruins have integrated a couple of their top prospects into the lineup this season, most notably centers Matthew Poitras and Johnny Beecher, as well as defenseman Mason Lohrei.

Beecher hasn't provided much offense, but his success in the faceoff circle and the physicality he brings to the ice are both valuable. He's also played some of the toughest minutes in the league -- constantly starting his shifts in the defensive zone.

Poitras had a hot start to the season offensively but has cooled off a bit. He hasn't tallied a single point in his last five games. Still, 15 points in 33 games isn't bad for a rookie center. Lohrei has shown exciting potential offensively, but his defensive skill set still needs work. Even defenseman Parker Wotherspoon has played quite well in a bunch of games, too.

If these young players can make an impact in the second half of the season, it will help the Bruins in several ways. For starters, it will put less pressure on the veterans, many of whom are playing more minutes this season compared to last year. The Bruins cannot afford to put so much of the burden on these veterans or they might not have enough gas left in the tank for a long playoff run.

And if these young guys contribute offensively, that lessens the need for general manager Don Sweeney to go get help at the trade deadline. He should still acquire a veteran forward regardless, but the urgency to make a blockbuster deal won't be as high if these rookies are able to make a meaningful impact as secondary scorers.

Over the second half of the season, the Bruins need to find the right balance between trying to win as many games as possible while also developing these young players and figuring out how trustworthy they are in crunch-time minutes. If head coach Jim Montgomery isn't able to trust them in those late-game situations, then reinforcements will be needed.