When the 2021 NHL season began in January, we predicted that the Boston Bruins could contend for the Stanley Cup if its young core of defensemen could make the leap and hold things together on the blue line. Former team captain and future Hall of Famer Zdeno Chára and power play lynchpin Torey Krug each signed with other teams in the offseason, leaving big skates to fill in the Boston locker room for the likes of Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk and Brandon Carlo.
The Bruins are in the midst of a weeklong COVID-19 pause, but exactly halfway through their regular season, their young defensemen have been exceptional: Despite a mini injury crisis, the Bruins rank among the league’s best defensive teams in a number of categories, including goals against per game (fourth), penalty kill percentage (first) and shots against per game (second). The Bruins allow more high-danger scoring chances at 5-on-5 per game (3) than the league average (2.93), but they can live with that because their goaltenders are among the five best netminding units in the league in save percentage.1 Only the Vegas Golden Knights and New York Islanders lead the Bruins in both save percentage and goals against per game. And it doesn’t hurt that McAvoy has established himself as one of the best defensemen in the league and one of the front-runners for this season’s Norris Trophy.
Everything is functioning exactly how Boston wants it to in its own zone, but the same can’t be said in the offensive zone — at least not while playing at 5-on-5, which is how the majority of the game is played. To date, the Bruins have scored the second-fewest 5-on-5 goals in the league: 43, or just 1.54 per game.
Those 43 goals account for just 57 percent of Boston’s total goals scored, a bad omen considering that just one of the past 13 Stanley Cup champions2 scored under 60 percent of their regular-season goals while playing 5-on-5. So, what’s wrong with Boston’s offense?
To put it simply, the Bruins aren’t getting much scoring beyond their top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrňák. The “Perfection Line” has, yet again, been close to that — each player ranks in the top 50 for points per game, and Marchand and Pastrňák rank in the top 10. But left winger Nick Ritchie, who’s having the best year of his career in points and goals created per game, is the only Bruins forward approaching double-digit goals not named Bergeron, Marchand or Pastrňák.
The forwards on the three lines below the top unit have been extremely imperfect. That’s been especially true of Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, David Krejčí and Craig Smith. Each of the four has performed below his career averages in a number of offensive categories, including shooting percentage, shots per game and goals created per game.
Four Bruins forwards have stumbled this season
Difference between pre-2021 career statistics and 2021 stats for Charlie Coyle, Jake DeBrusk, David Krejčí and Craig Smith of the Boston Bruins
|Shooting %||Shots/G||Goals Created/G|
Krejčí has been a consistent performer on a Boston team that’s contended for more than a decade now — nearly a lock for 15 goals and 50 points every season. But he has struggled this season, especially with his shooting. He’s scored just one goal on 36 shots for an abysmal shooting percentage of 2.8. Krejčí is assisting at a per-game rate better than his career average, but his shooting woes mean that he’s creating fewer goals per game.
Smith was brought in for the express purpose of providing secondary offense behind the top line, but hasn’t looked anything like the player he was in Nashville. He’s taking fewer shots, scoring on a lower percentage of those shots and creating fewer goals per game than he did as a Predator. DeBrusk’s shooting percentage and goals created numbers have also plummeted in 2021. Among the four underperformers, only Coyle is shooting the puck better in 2021 than he did previously, but like the others, he is also taking fewer shots per game in 2021.
Shooting percentage tends to regress to the mean, and fluctuations can be expected, especially with such a small sample size. But as it stands, four of the Bruins’ best eight forwards are struggling to find the back of the net.
To be fair to Boston, the East is the second-stingiest division in high-danger scoring chances against per game. The Bruins are constantly playing against teams that do an above-average to excellent job of limiting opposition chances. Indeed, 15 of Boston’s games this season (so, more than half of its games) have come against the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, the ninth-, fourth- and seventh-best teams at limiting high-danger scoring opportunities. It’s hard to score goals when good opportunities are scarce. Some of Boston’s inability to score 5-on-5 goals is certainly on the collective dip in form of its secondary scorers, but its opponents should get credit where it’s due, too.
There’s still half a season left, and our Elo ratings still think the Bruins are the fourth-best team in the league (and the fifth-most-likely to lift the Cup), so it’s not time to panic just yet. But teams don’t typically win it all without being able to score 5-on-5 goals, and unless the Bruins figure out how to do so, their Stanley Cup dreams may be just that: dreams.