NHL playoffs: Bruins left mired in uncertainty after shocking exit
The Boston Bruins entered the postseason as Stanley Cup favourites coming off a historic 2022-23 campaign. Now their future is up in the air.
On April 13, the Boston Bruins wrapped up a record-setting regular season looking poised for a memorable playoff run.
Eighteen days later, they are ready to hit the golf course after losing three consecutive games to a Florida Panthers team that snuck into the postseason on the heels of a 92-point campaign.
That's quite the change in fortune.
To be fair, the Panthers are a better team than that point total suggests, and weird results like this are not as uncommon in the NHL as they are in other sports. In the Western Conference, a Seattle Kraken squad in its second season of existence just took out the defending Stanley Cup champions.
For many teams that get upset in the first round, the plan would be to make a few tweaks in the offseason and bring the same group back. After all, if you have a dominant regular season, you're probably on to something.
In Boston, the situation is a little more complicated.
That starts with Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins captain may retire after 19 years with the team, and if he does he'll leave a massive hole in the middle of the lineup. Even at the age of 37, he excelled in all situations this season, and will likely bring home the sixth Selke Trophy of his career.
It's impossible to quantify the leadership void Boston may experience if Bergeron walks away, but it's awfully difficult to replace a franchise legend who's seen and done it all.
The man behind him on the depth chart, 36-year-old unrestricted free agent David Krejci, is a threat to retire as well. Even if he returns, its unclear how effective he'd be in a top-line center role at his age.
Behind Krejci, Boston employs two veteran bottom-six centers in their 30s — Charlie Coyle and Tomas Nosek. Neither looks like a candidate to step into a scoring role, and Nosek is about to become a free agent. Pavel Zacha could return to center from the wing, but he's coming off a career season and he's never thrived as a top-six center at the NHL level.
It's possible that Bergeron and Krejci both return for another run. If they don't, the center position will be an issue for the Bruins. Their pair of veterans cost a combined $3.5 million against the cap in 2022-23, and they'll have no hope of finding productive replacements at that price point in free agency.
A farm system that The Athletic ranked 30th in the NHL isn't brimming with possible replacements, either.
The center position isn't the only thing the Bruins have to worry about. Their in-season rentals — Tyler Bertuzzi and Dmitry Orlov— were extremely effective in the playoffs, combining for 18 points. Retaining either will be difficult, and they could be leaving with just $3.65 million coming off the books to replace them.
While the defense corps looks fairly stable beyond Orlov, the situation between the pipes is more complicated than it seemed a few weeks ago.
Statistically speaking, Linus Ullmark was the NHL's best goalie during the regular season...
... but he fell flat in the playoffs with an .896 save percentage in six games until Jeremy Swayman got the call for Game 7.
There's some speculation that Ullmark was dealing with a nagging injury during the series. In that case, we're talking about a player who's never been anything more than a part-time starter wearing down physically after a 49-start season.
If he was fine physically, that's probably a better outcome for Boston, but his play in the playoffs couldn't have been encouraging.
Writing Ullmark off based off a rough series isn't fair, though. Chances are he'll be a solid goaltender next year, but he's unlikely to repeat his unbelievable 2022-23 season. Regression to the mean can come for the best goaltenders, even Vezina Trophy winners — a club Ullmark is likely to join.
If we look at the last 10 Vezina winners, most experienced a save percentage decline the following year.
Unless you're a Patrick Roy, Dominik Hasek, or Martin Brodeur level of goalie, the award usually comes your way when you're having a career year. It's not necessarily indicative of a level you can maintain. The only man on this list twice is Sergei Bobrovsky, and his year-to-year inconsistency is well documented.
While Ullmark may not fall off a cliff, decline is to be expected, and Swayman is a restricted free agent. Boston will have to determine how much it's willing to invest in a partner for the Swede.
The Bruins also need to face up to the reality that they had more than their fair share of breaks this season. Boston had the third-highest shooting percentage (11.13 percent) in the NHL with a league-best save percentage (92.89 percentage). Those numbers aren't purely due to luck, but the team can't count on either of those results repeating.
Boston came into the 2022-23 season with questions about its aging core and goaltending situation. The Bruins were not a common preseason Stanley Cup pick, opening at +2500 to win it all on BetMGM. During the regular season, they did everything humanly possible to quiet all doubters.
One rough playoff series later and the questions have reemerged. As good as this year's edition of the 2022-23 Bruins were, the future is hazy for this franchise. There's no doubt Boston missed an opportunity to make a deep playoff run this year — and it's unclear when that next chance will come around.