BOSTON—The Boston Bruins have a very big question looming this off-season.
A six-foot, nine-inch question, to be precise.
The Presidents’ Trophy winners must try to squeeze another Stanley Cup-contending season out of a core that has been together for one NHL championship and two more trips to the final. The biggest question: Whether there is room for 43-year-old captain Zdeno Chara, who has been a towering presence in the lineup since 2006.
“Have some of these guys aged out,” coach Bruce Cassidy wondered aloud in his wrap-up video conference with reporters Wednesday. “(Or) is there a lot more to give? I think there is, personally.”
The Bruins led the NHL with 100 points when the pandemic shut down the season in March, but when the league returned five months later the team struggled to get back to top form. Boston lost all four of its seeding games, dropping to No. 4 in the East and setting up a second-round series against Tampa Bay that ended Monday when the Lightning advanced with a 3-2 victory in Game 5.
“We’re definitely capable of more,” Cassidy said. “I think it’s in the room.”
The question is who will be in the room if and when the next NHL season begins? Defenceman Torey Krug and forward Joakim Nordstrom are among the team’s unrestricted free agents; holdovers from the team’s 2011 Stanley Cup championship like Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are in their mid-30s.
But no one looms larger than Chara.
A seven-time all-star who won the Norris Trophy in 2009, Chara said after Monday’s game that he hadn’t decided whether he will be back — whether it’s with Boston, or someplace else.
“I obviously just finished the game and I’m going to be open-minded,” he said.
It was the second time in three years Boston has been eliminated by the Lightning. Last season, when the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup Final before losing to St. Louis in seven games, they did not have to face Tampa Bay in the playoffs.
“Obviously, they’ve had our number, that’s a fact. We can’t hide that,” said Cassidy, who had left the NHL’s bubble in Toronto and returned home to his family. “We have to have that in mind — that to get to where we want to go, we have to go through Tampa. I think this year’s five-game loss, we’re farther ahead than we were two years ago. I truly believe that.”
There are five players remaining from the Bruins team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011: Chara, Bergeron, Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask, who backed up Tim Thomas in goal. Since then, the Bruins have returned to the Cup Final twice and finished with the best record in the league two other seasons, including this one.
Players like Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Sean Kuraly are part of the “second layer” that could become the core of the future, Cassidy said.
“We have a lot of trust and faith and our core guys are still carrying us, but it’s a full 20 guys and you need those other guys to step up sometimes,” Cassidy said. “The messaging is that we’re relying on you guys. … Now it’s your turn to take control a little bit.”
Cassidy also ran through the team’s physical condition during the playoffs, saying that top goal-scorer David Pastrnak had an unspecified injury but also “wasn’t at top speed” because he had missed some time after breaking the coronavirus protocol. Pastrnak and Ondrej Kaše skated with amateur and minor league players outside the team’s quasi-bubble, requiring them to quarantine when the rest of the Bruins had begun practicing.
“Their conditioning level wasn’t where it needed to be to stand the rigours of that,” Cassidy said.
Cassidy said that Rask, who opted out after one game of the playoffs to be with his family, had a finger injury. The coach listed unspecified injuries for Bergeron, Kuraly, Marchand, Brett Ritchie and Chris Wagner. Chara had an X-ray after blocking a shot with his foot in the final game, and Charlie Coyle was banged into the boards but returned.