NHL season preview: Five reasons why Bruins can compete for Stanley Cup

Five reasons why Bruins can compete for 2023 Stanley Cup title originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins are running it back for the 2022-23 NHL season with the hope of making another (and perhaps final) run at a Stanley Cup title with this veteran core.

The franchise had a busy offseason. It welcomed back David Krejci after a one-year absence. Team captain Patrice Bergeron decided not to retire and signed up for his 19th season. The Bruins also fired head coach Bruce Cassidy and replaced him with Jim Montgomery, who probably will bring a more player-friendly tone to the locker room.

The Bruins have obstacles on their way back to the Cup Final, most notably injuries to several key players to begin the regular season. Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk all had offseason surgeries and aren't expected to be back until some time in November.

Bruins injuries: When Marchand, McAvoy, Grzelcyk are expected to return

However, this roster does have plenty of talent and the depth should be better than 2021-22. With that said, let's look at five reasons why the Bruins can compete for a Stanley Cup title this season. On Thursday, we'll look at five potential reasons they won't.

1) An elite defense

The Bruins defend as well or better than any team in the league, especially during 5-on-5 play. The numbers don't lie.

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The Bruins ranked top four in all of those categories last season despite numerous injuries, more than 10 players missing games due to COVID-19 and a goalie tandem that included a rookie and someone playing their first season in Boston.

The B's did not lose any key players from last season's roster. They also will have star defenseman Hampus Lindholm for a full season and Jakub Zboril is back after suffering a season-ending ACL injury in November. The goalie tandem remains unchanged, too.

Let's not forget the Bruins also are one of the best penalty-killing teams in the league. Here's a look at where they've ranked shorthanded over the last six years.

  • 2016-17: 1st

  • 2017-18: 3rd

  • 2018-19: 16th

  • 2019-20: 3rd

  • 2020-21: 2nd

  • 2021-22: 9th

Once the Bruins are fully healthy, few teams will have better defensive talent or depth. In key situations late in games, the B's can deploy a shutdown pairing of Hampus Lindholm and Charlie McAvoy, plus a two-way line of Brad Marchand, Jake DeBrusk and five -time Selke Award winner Patrice Bergeron. That's pretty damn good.

Defense has been the Bruins' identity for 15 years, and that won't change in 2022-23.

2) Depth down the middle

A lack of a No. 2 center was a huge weakness last year. Erik Haula performed well in that role during the second half of the regular season, but in fairness to him, it's hard to be a legit contender when he's your No. 2 center.

This issue was addressed in the offseason with David Krejci's triumphant return.

Krejci was one of the best playmakers in the league, even after entering his thirties. His return also should be fantastic for Taylor Hall. The veteran left wing formed instant chemistry with Krejci during their brief time together in the 2020-21 season. Boston outscored opponents 16-4 at 5-on-5 in the 16 regular season games Krejci and Hall played together. Krejci also has tremendous chemistry with fellow Czech forward David Pastrnak. The Hall-Krejci-Pastrnak combo could be the best second line in the league.

Patrice Bergeron is back, too. Instead of retiring, the future Hall of Famer will play his 19th season in Boston and fill the No. 1 center role again. Bergeron has shown no signs of slowing down despite turning 37 in July. Many of Bergeron's accolades come from his elite defensive performance, and rightly so. His 2021-22 season was one of the best in recent memory and earned him a record fifth Selke Trophy. Bergeron's offensive prowess doesn't get enough credit, though. He has scored 20-plus goals in nine consecutive seasons.

The Bruins' top three centers -- Bergeron, Krejci and Charlie Coyle -- give the forward group a strong two-way backbone. Most Stanley Cup winners have a great foundation at center, and the Bruins certainly have that on their roster.

3) The goaltending has real potential

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A top-five goaltender is not needed to win the Stanley Cup -- just look at Darcy Kuemper and the Colorado Avalanche last season.

Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark aren't elite netminders, but they do give the Bruins a high floor at the position.

Swayman, in particular, has exciting potential. The University of Maine product has shown flashes of being a top-level goalie. He was named NHL Rookie of the Month in February, posting a 5-1-1 record with a .960 save percentage against several quality opponents. Unfortunately for Swayman, his performance dipped in March and April, resulting in Ullmark being the starting goalie for Game 1 of the playoffs. The drop-off wasn't surprising at all. Swayman had never played more than 35 games in a season since joining Maine in 2017-18. Between the NHL and AHL, he played 51 games (including playoffs) last season. Swayman did play better in the final five games of the first-round series against the Hurricanes, posting a 3-2 record and a .911 save percentage. The Bruins were eliminated in Game 7.

Swayman establishing himself as the clear cut No. 1 goalie would be great for the Bruins in the short and long term. But we shouldn't discount Ullmark's ability to do that, either. His .917 save percentage was tied for ninth-best in the league last season. Ullmark also tallied a .931 save percentage and a 1.87 GAA in the final three months of the regular season. Those are Vezina Trophy-level numbers.

The bottom line is the Bruins have two really good goalies entering the season, ensuring both will play plenty of games and keep each other fresh for the playoffs. It's not a bad position to be in.

4) Young players providing better depth

One of the reasons why the Bruins have failed to win the Stanley Cup in recent seasons has been a lack of quality depth further down in the lineup. An inability to draft and develop young players has played a huge role in this problem.

We should start to see that trend change in a positive way for Boston beginning this season.

A.J. Greer has played fantastic in training camp and the preseason, including a pair of goals in a win over the Rangers last week. His offensive skill, speed and power forward kind of play style should bolster the bottom-six forward group.

Greer is exactly what Bruins need from their fourth line this season

Jack Studnicka also figures to play a larger role at the NHL level compared to previous years. He can't go down to the AHL without passing through waivers. But aside from that fact, he has played well enough to earn a roster spot in camp. In that win over the Rangers, Studnicka helped create a goal by aggressively forechecking, creating a turnover and finding Greer for a scoring chance. Studnicka is a better choice for fourth-line center Tomas Nosek, who scored just three goals (none after Jan. 2) in 73 games last season.

Marc McLaughlin probably will start the season with the AHL's Providence Bruins, but not through any fault of his own. He's able to go to the AHL without needing waivers, so he's an easy candidate to begin down there. That said, McLaughlin has impressed in camp and the preseason. His aggressive attacking mindset and speed are two elements that Boston's fourth line has been lacking in recent years. McLaughlin scored twice against the Flyers in a preseason win last Saturday, showing a willingness to battle in the dirty areas of the ice.

He's likely to give the Bruins more offense than veteran forward Nick Foligno. Even if he doesn't begin the season in Boston, McLaughlin should make an impact at fourth-line right wing at some point.

We haven't even mentioned Fabian Lysell yet!

The Bruins' 2021 first-round pick has tremendous offensive skill, playmaking ability and speed. He has top-six potential and has shown encouraging improvement over the last year, primarily during the 2021-22 season with the WHL's Vancouver Giants. Lysell likely will begin the season in Providence, where he will play against more physical and skilled competition than he faced in the WHL. But it would be surprising if Lysell doesn't make his Bruins debut during the 2022-23 campaign. He's too skilled not to get a chance.

If these young players give the Bruins a little more offensive production in the bottom six, Boston should have enough scoring depth to be a top 10 team in goals again. The sooner the likes of Chris Wagner, Foligno and Nosek are replaced by younger, more skilled players, the better the B's offense will become.

5) Motivation from the Cup window closing

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Let's be honest -- the 2022-23 season probably will be this Bruins core's final opportunity to win another Stanley Cup.

Bergeron is 37 years old and Krejci is 36. Brad Marchand is 34 and had both hips surgically repaired in the offseason. Craig Smith is 33. Taylor Hall is 30. Boston is right up against the salary cap, and might not have much room under it next season due to bonus overages and David Pastrnak's new extension (assuming he signs one with the B's, of course).

Some people might argue Boston's window to win a championship already closed. But if this team is mostly healthy entering the playoffs, it has enough talent, depth and goaltending to make a deep run. No team will want to face the Bruins in Round 1. They are a well-structured, disciplined team that defends well and has loads of experience.

In many ways, this coming season is the Bruins' version of "The Last Dance". This scenario should be a powerful motivator for this group, especially the older players whose time to win is rapidly closing.