How can the winningest team in NHL history reset after losing so much?

How can the winningest team in NHL history reset after losing so much?

BRIGHTON, Mass. — Jim Montgomery had something to say about the significance of centers. It was not enough to explain the concept at his desk. He rose from his chair and approached the whiteboard in his Warrior Ice Arena office.

“If I’m looking at the net, left D has this quadrant. Right D has this quadrant,” the Boston Bruins coach said, moving his finger from left to right.

“Right winger, if it’s here, he’s here,” Montgomery continued, pointing to an imaginary puck in front of the net. “If it’s over here,” he said, sliding his finger toward the strong-side boards, “he’s protecting this (hash) line.”

“The center is going to support everybody. So yeah, he’s got a lot of ice to cover. He’s the one that connects the dots.”

Unfortunately for Montgomery and the Bruins, one of the NHL’s all-time best dot-connectors is gone. After a historic 65-win regular season in 2022-23, that will require a hard reset in 2023-24.

The three-point plan

In the Bruins’ zone defense, the center is appropriately named. He is in the middle of the action, the pivot point between the defensemen and the wings. 

If the center is well placed, scanning his surroundings, supporting his teammates and executing plays, the Bruins’ system is optimized to mark threats, win pucks and initiate counterattacks. If he arrives late, misidentifies his outs, strays from his space or fumbles pucks, everything crumbles.

“The center’s everywhere. The center of every situation,” Charlie Coyle said. “No matter what it is, you’ve got to be here. You’ve got to be there.”

For 1,294 games, Patrice Bergeron fulfilled his responsibilities like no other. But Bergeron and his six Selke Trophies are history. So are David Krejci and Tomas Nosek. 

All of this matters.

“You can’t expect to be as good in our D-zone coverage as we were last year,” Montgomery said. “We lost the best defensive player of all time.”

Jim Montgomery won the Jack Adams as the NHL’s top coach in his first season with the Bruins. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

It is not only that. The team that checked all the Stanley Cup boxes last season has to course-correct after a first-round catastrophe. Tyler Bertuzzi, Connor Clifton, Nick Foligno, Taylor Hall, Garnet Hathaway and Dmitry Orlov are gone too.

Don Sweeney’s offseason job was to restock. The general manager acquired Ian Mitchell, Alec Regula and Reilly Walsh. He signed Jesper Boqvist, Patrick Brown, Morgan Geekie, Milan Lucic, Jayson Megna, Anthony Richard, Kevin Shattenkirk and James van Riemsdyk. Sweeney invited Alex Chiasson and Danton Heinen to camp.

Concurrently, Montgomery rethought his system. The second-year coach devised a three-point plan:

  1. Play faster in the defensive and neutral zones
  2. Increase the physicality in front of both nets
  3. Extend offensive-zone attacking time

These are not major changes. Returning the NHL’s top goaltending tandem, six defensemen and top-six needle-movers negated the need for an overhaul.

“We don’t need to,” said Montgomery of the idea of turning his system upside down. “We think less is more.”

So far, the players like what they’ve seen. Nobody in the organization considers 2023-24 a rebuilding year.

“Expectations internally have not changed for this hockey club,” said Sweeney.

Picking up the pace

For six seasons, ex-Bruins coach and former NHL defenseman Bruce Cassidy demanded defensive-zone structure. By the end, this came at a cost: dulled offense. In 2021-22, Cassidy’s last season with the Bruins, the team scored 172 five-on-five goals, No. 15 overall.

Montgomery opened the in-zone window after taking over. When Matt Grzelcyk, for example, sent an over to Charlie McAvoy, he was free to fly before his partner accepted the puck.

“Now it’s the next guy’s job to keep the puck moving,” said Grzelcyk. “There was more anticipation that way. It just allows you to play quicker. Now you’re joining the play as the fourth guy. You’re in a better position to do that. You’re not going to wait to see what happens.”

The Bruins excelled at controlling middle ice. Their weak-side defensemen, in particular, made it a habit to be available as net-front options. Forwards’ commitment to reloading facilitated airtight gaps and promoted turnovers.

The centers served as security blankets. If Grzelcyk chased a puck carrier up the left-side wall, the defenseman would fold back to net-front resistance as soon as he approached the hashmarks. Grzelcyk knew he could hand off coverage to Bergeron, Krejci or Nosek.

Not anymore.

Coyle and Pavel Zacha know the drill. But the new pivots will need time to acclimate.

The good thing for the Bruins is that Grzelcyk, McAvoy, Hampus Lindholm, Brandon Carlo, Derek Forbort and Jakub Zboril remain. They have the experience, foot speed, intelligence and the length to pursue pucks that were once the centers’ responsibility.

“Perfect example is a defenseman is flushing a winger up the wall,” Montgomery said. “He does a cutback and starts to go up the hashmarks. Bergeron and Krejci are there poking the puck off him. They might not have that support as quick, right away. So when you’re flushing that guy, try to end the play before he cuts back. Instead of steering, let’s look to end more plays.”

This will require defensemen to extend their territories. Montgomery doesn’t see this as a problem.

Charlie McAvoy and the Bruins’ other defensemen will need to adjust without six-time Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron in the lineup in 2023-24. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

“They’re going to want it, because that’s the way they are,” Montgomery said. “You tell Charlie McAvoy you want him more involved, he’s going to get more involved. Lindholm, same way. You tell a defenseman, ‘We want you to keep the offensive zone more and we want you to shut plays down earlier in the neutral zone if we can. We’re not changing how we play. We’re just trying to be more aggressive within how we play.’ They’re going to do it. No one wants to play in the defensive zone. So I think it’s an easy sell.”

The defensemen will be pressing up more. The wingers, however, may have to hold their ground longer. David Pastrnak can’t cheat as much with the expectation that Krejci will strip a puck and create a two-on-one rush. Three-on-twos, then, may be more common for No. 88.

“That’s going to be a hard sell for Pasta,” Montgomery said, laughing. “He’s paid to go. You can’t take away someone’s gift. And we’re not going to do that. But when it’s time for him to end plays in his area, they’re just going to be required to dig in. Or else we’re going to spend more time in our D-zone because those guys aren’t there to save the day for them.”

Once the Bruins gain possession and initiate transition, Montgomery wants them to control the puck longer in the offensive zone. 

Again, their defensemen will be asked to take charge.

Blue-line Bruins

From 2012 to 2019, Coyle played 479 games with the Minnesota Wild. The Chicago Blackhawks were one of his Central Division opponents. Defensemen Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson used to run Coyle into the ground with the manic nature of their offensive-zone tendencies.

“They’re just moving,” Coyle recalled. “It’s so hard to defend. You don’t know who to defend. You don’t know where to go. You’re second-guessing. All of a sudden, it’s in the back of your net. You’re like, ‘What the heck just happened?’”

McAvoy, Lindholm, Grzelcyk and Shattenkirk are designed for this kind of mayhem. Their quick-twitch skills make them naturals at pinching down the walls, diving into the middle and going backdoor. This season, they will have the green light even if a forward isn’t instantly available to cover their spots. A 1-3-1 formation won’t be the end of the world.

“Maybe move to the middle, get it back behind the net, maintain possession of it for a little while,” Carlo said. “I know what it’s like in the D-zone when guys are just cycling, cycling, cycling. You’re just running back and forth. You get a little tired. That’s when things start to go wrong.”

Bruins defensemen scored 25 five-on-five goals last year, led by Lindholm’s six strikes. This was well off the league-leading Calgary Flames’ pace of 42. Improvement is encouraged.

But it is not just about putting pucks on net. Montgomery is asking the defensemen to prolong plays by pursuing deeper into the offensive zone. 

To that end, they will continue the concept of surfing. The weak-side defenseman will ride the wave forward, so to speak, to confront the opposing center and blunt breakouts. After holding the strong-side wall, his partner will fold back to the middle in case something goes wrong.

“Instead of both pulling back, one guy skates forward, trying to break up a play,” said Grzelcyk. “Because if (the attacker) jumps behind you, now your partner is sliding back into your spot. You can continue skating forward. That’s something we’ve talked a lot about — skating more forward versus pivoting. Because once you pivot, it’s hard to even squash plays before they get into the zone. We’re a pretty mobile group. Even our bigger guys, they can skate. It’s just using that asset and not having to defend in your own zone. That’s just allowing you to play more in the offensive zone and get through the neutral zone pretty quickly.”

While the defensemen stretch out offensive-zone time, the forwards have to do their part down low. The daily message throughout camp: two in front of the net.

‘You better be inside’

Lucic: 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. Brown: 6-1, 210. Van Riemsdyk: 6-3, 208. Chiasson: 6-4, 207. Geekie: 6-3, 200.

There is a pattern.

“With that size,” said team president Cam Neely, “you better be inside.”

Those offseason additions join a cohort that already included Coyle (6-3, 223), Trent Frederic (6-3, 214), A.J. Greer (6-3, 208) and Zacha (6-4, 199). These are big men designed for dark alleys.

The Bruins added size to a lineup that already featured Charlie Coyle, A.J. Greer and Trent Frederic. (Bob DeChiara / USA Today)

“They’re heavy players,” said Montgomery. “Emphasizing winning races to the net front, having bodies there, should make us a harder team consistently. I think that wears on people. Over time, it should lead to more O-zone time as the game goes on.”

According to the Bruins’ internal analytics, offensive-zone possession was good in 2022-23 — but not best in class like some of their other categories.

Common sense dictates that more net-front hostility by the forwards and greater blue-line poise by the defensemen will lengthen the Bruins’ O-zone visits. Data backs this up. Based on the numbers Montgomery uses, a shot through a double-layered screen goes in 12 times more often than with just one net-front body.

“There’s the evidence,” said Montgomery. “It’s like, ‘What are you doing behind the net? Go to the front. Be in the line of the shot. Screen the goalie. Get a rebound.’ For these guys, we’re talking millions.”

The braver the Bruins are in front, the better their opportunities become. By Montgomery’s recollection, a shot following a slot-line pass above the dots goes in 22 percent of the time. The odds improve to 35 percent when the same shot is taken below the dots.

Montgomery has an objective: one more Grade-A chance per game.

“That,” said Montgomery, “is significantly a lot in the NHL.”

What it all means

In fantasyland, Bergeron, Krejci and the rest of the record-breaking Bruins crew would have come back for 2023-24. That wouldn’t have guaranteed anything.

“Even if we returned the exact same team,” said Montgomery, “we might win 48 games this year.”

History says the Bruins are unlikely to meet or exceed their 135-point threshold. In 1996-97, the Detroit Red Wings plunged to 94 points after a 131-point season the year before. In 2018-19, the Tampa Bay Lightning recorded 128 points. They dipped to a pro-rated 108 pounds in the COVID-19-shortened 2019-20 season.

But here’s the thing: In 2018-19, the steamrolling Lightning were swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets. The following year, the Lightning won the Stanley Cup. 

From one season to the next, the Lightning brought back most of their blue line. Shattenkirk was the only addition in their Cup season. Perhaps he could turn the same trick in Boston.

“I think it’s going to be great,” Carlo said of returning every defenseman save for Clifton. “Especially with how young we’re looking at this point, we’re going to be playing with a lot of pace. If we can do that and create off those odd-man rushes, that’ll be really good for us.”

The Bruins lost only 12 regulation games last year. Chances are that number will rise. Montgomery is OK with that.

“It’s good for us — the coaches returning, the players returning — to see what we’re like when there is turbulence,” he said. “That’s a healthy thing. Because last year in the playoffs, there was turbulence. Obviously, we didn’t overcome it. That’s such a short window that we really didn’t get to see what we’re like in turbulence. It was over. You don’t get to keep working through it.

“We’re going to work through this together. How do we get better? That’s why I think this season is going to be much different. But also just as rewarding.”

(Top photo of David Pastrnak: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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