By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Contrary to popular belief, Boston does have a professional ice hockey team.
The Bruins may have understandably slipped your mind, what with the Patriots playing four games without Tom Brady then getting him back while the Red Sox went on a playoff run at the end of the season only to fall flat. There’s also that whole thing about the Bruins missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the past two seasons.
Believe it or not, the puck is about to drop for the 2016-17 season, and the Bruins may appear to be bringing back the same exact team as last season. But a few key changes on the coaching staff and infusions of younger talent could make this year’s Bruins look much differently from last season.
The question marks on the Bruins begin and end on the blue line. Despite the notion that the Bruins are bringing back exactly the same group as last season, there are some subtle changes. Dennis Seidenberg is gone. Borderline NHL defensemen like Zach Trotman and Matt Irwin aren’t invading the lineup. Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller are under contract but appear to be starting the season on injured reserve with consistent roster spots far from secure.
It’s important that the Bruins play actual defense this season after playing poorly around their own net for most of the 2015-16 season, but the Bruins coaching staff believes some changes to the system will also allow them to move the puck better and break the puck out of their own zone more effectively, which has also been a consistent issue under Claude Julien. The head coach believes their tweaks and infusion of younger defensemen like Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara, will improve the play of the defense as a unit.
“The play of a lot of these [younger] guys here has really impressed us,” Claude told reporters at Bruins Media Day Tuesday, echoing the sentiments of GM Don Sweeney. “On the other hand we’ve also, as a coaching staff, tried to implement some things that are going to make us better as a team, which will make our defensive game and our defense be more efficient.
“I think it’s shown so far in these preseason games. The puck is moving a lot better and there are reasons for that. Everyone’s kind of taking some responsibility in making some adjustments and some new players are stepping in and showing us that they can help us out.”
Some of that responsibility for adjustment falls on Julien himself, whose coaching style has never really been predicated on having a strong transition game with mobile defensemen. Part of the team’s defensive improvement will hinge on their ability to handle the puck in their own end and get it out of the zone more efficiently. But ultimately, they will also need to do a better job clearing out the front of the net in front of Tuukka Rask.
Enter new faces Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara. The two hulking defensemen (6-foot-5 and 6-foot-4, respectively) will each be making their NHL debuts if and when they make the NHL roster, which appears to be the case – at least as long as Miller and McQuaid are sidelined. Both of them obviously have no NHL experience to speak of, but O’Gara at 23 years old is certainly not too young to get a chance, while Carlo has the physical tools to be an effective defenseman in his own end.
Torey Krug, who was paired with O’Gara in Tuesday’s morning practice, believes the new faces on the defense bode well for the team’s prospects of playing better at that end of the ice – and also improve off of it.
“Any time you add new faces, especially young guys, they become high-energy guys in the locker room,” Krug told reporters Tuesday. “It’s definitely a different feel, but it’s something that we need. It’s refreshing to see those young legs working out on the ice and the creativity that a lot of these guys have. It brings a different element to this team that, maybe, we haven’t had in a while. So, definitely exciting times for us inside this locker room, and hopefully for the fans, it will be fun for them to watch.”
It may seem odd that the Bruins are still aiming to make a run at the Stanley Cup since they haven’t played in a postseason game since May of 2014, but that’s still the goal and it comes from the top. Jeremy Jacobs said on Tuesday that he expects the Bruins to not just make it back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season but to “get deep in the playoffs.” It seems like a tall order with much of the same team returning, especially on defense, but for a team that barely missed a playoff spot, perhaps a handful of minor changes is what the team needs to get over the hump.
“There’s pressure every year to make the playoffs. We expect to make the playoffs every year,” said Krug. “We haven’t done it the past two years and it’s disappointing and it leaves is hungry, but we have to use it as a learning experience and make sure we’re not taking nights off this year. It’s something we’ve talked about and we’ll just make sure to take advantage of opportunities when we can.”
The new guys don’t necessarily have anything to learn as far as showing up every night, but perhaps they will be more dependable in that regard. One thing’s for certain, the Bruins gave far from a complete effort every night last season, especially down the stretch before the playoffs. If they plan to make it back and go for a deep run in April and beyond, they’ll have to hope that those attitudinal changes and handful of minor tweaks to the roster are all they need to get there.
Torey Krug also joined 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Zolak & Bertrand in the studio to discuss the upcoming Bruins season. Listen below:
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.