Bruins fans had every right to be concerned about the state of their hometown team after an offseason change.
After all, those fears had been hanging over the Original Six franchise for several seasons – and were rooted in years of tangible evidence.
Yes, it was expected that Boston would take a step back following the departures of franchisees like Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci – coupled with the departures of key cogs like Taylor Hall, Tyler Bertuzzi, Dmitry Orlov, Nick Foligno and others.
But a lack of top prospects — especially those capable of stepping into an immediate role this fall — offered little optimism that a still-talented Boston roster would be replenished by the next wave of Bruins faithful.
With a decline in contention on the horizon, the Bruins are in dire need of a period like 2016-2017 – when an influx of young names like Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk all played crucial roles in Boston’s lineup.
Such a scenario seemed unlikely in 2023-2024, not when Boston had the pipeline of the worst prospects in the NHL – according to The Athletic.
But over the three-plus weeks of the new season, it has been the team with that projected bare-bones farm system that has seen several young talents all pulling the strings.
The 10-1-1 Bruins’ torrid start to the 2023-2024 season has primarily been a byproduct of an elite goaltending tandem of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark, coupled with a solid defensive structure in front of them and elite offensive talent in David. Pastrnak (17 points in 12 games).
But the contributions of rookies like Matt Poitras, Mason Lohrei and Johnny Beecher have all come up big on a reworked roster that is in desperate need of impactful (and affordable) players across the depth chart.
Monday’s 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars was the latest game in which Boston’s youth movement pulled their weight behind two points.
Swayman’s standout performance between the pipes (35 saves) sealed Boston’s 10th win of the year, but it was a pair of career-first wins from Beecher and Lohrei in the opening period of the game that put the Bruins on the path to another victory.
“You get excited. And it’s good to have that depth,” Brad Marchand said after the game. “They continue to establish themselves and lay the foundation for their game and their careers and it’s always exciting to watch … The potential of both boys is enormous.”
Given the flood of veteran signings Don Sweeney signed in July, the Bruins didn’t necessarily expect games like Monday to be a regular occurrence.
The hope was that a Beecher could provide a strong boost to NHL reps during training camp after a total of 76 games in the AHL ranks.
But with Lohrei playing all eight games with the P-Bruins last spring, coupled with Poitras’ likely return to junior hockey, the expectation was that Boston’s next group of top players was at least a year away from becoming permanent NHL representatives.
It only took the trio a few weeks before each got the chance to shine at the highest level of hockey.
Poitras has served as a much-needed solution to concerns about Boston’s top-six talent under center – both this season and for years to come.
The center’s playmaking skills, attention to detail and puck possession habits have all drawn praise from his coach and teammates. His seven points (four goals, three assists) in twelve games are tied with Chicago phenom Connor Bedard – and is just one point shy of the league lead for most points among NHL rookies.
Lohrei isn’t the first defenseman whose profile is that of a balanced puck mover and a threat in the offensive zone.
Few skaters at his position are also 6-foot-4, 211 pounds – giving Boston a coveted asset on their blueline capable of logging taxing minutes and dealing damage to opposing defenses.
The 2020 second-round pick already has two points (one goal, one assist) in his first three games with Boston, and is doing his part to keep afloat a Bruins D corps that is currently trudging forward without Charlie McAvoy (suspension), Matt Grzelcyk (upper bodily injury) and Derek Forbort (undisclosed injury).
“Yeah, I had to steal my thunder a little bit, I guess,” Beecher said Monday of Lohrei’s count. “But no, I’m super happy for him. I mean, he plays great. And we needed guys to come in and fill roles and play their game. So he’s been great for us and couldn’t be happier.”
Beecher’s role as Boston’s fourth-line lynchpin may not be flashy, but the 2019 first-round pick profiles as a stout defensive forward who can hold his own in tough games.
During Beecher’s 95:31 5v5 ice time this season, only seven of his 98 faceoffs have come in the offensive zone. Despite many changes taking place on the Boston side, the Bruins only conceded three goals in those 95 minutes.
A strong faceoff performance (55.0%) has helped Beecher limit the amount of time he spends in the D-zone, along with his 0-to-60 acceleration that can quickly push the puck through the neutral zone.
Monday was perhaps Beecher’s best game as a Bruin, even looking beyond his first-period snipe past Jake Oettinger.
A fourth line of Beecher, Danton Heinen and Oskar Steen dominated during their reps together, with Boston holding a 4-0 advantage in shots on goal during their 8:37 of 5v5 ice time together. Those eight-plus minutes were far from easy, with most of those teams coming up against Dallas’ top trio of Roope Hintz, Joe Pavelski and Jason Robertson.
“That is special. That’s something that will get us going right away,” Swayman said of Boston’s rookies. “And those guys work so hard and it’s so good to see those guys rewarded. So I know they’re not even close to being done yet.’
Of course, every youth movement will also encounter its fair share of bumps in the road.
Those tough D-zone replays will eventually give way to a few 5v5 matches against, while Poitras will have to navigate a long scoreless stretch at some point.
Despite Lohrei’s obvious offensive talent, he still spent most of the third period on the pine on Monday after a D-zone blunder that resulted in a goal conceded. In Lohrei’s 49:10 of 5v5 replays this season, Boston was outshot, 32-22.
But Boston has the defensive prowess to solve most of those miscues and growing pains that come with the influx of young talent.
And based on what we’ve seen so far, the good should far outweigh the bad in Boston’s next wave of major contributions — both in 2023-2024 and in the years to come.
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