By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bruins center David Krejci never gets the benefit of the doubt.
When fellow Boston center Patrice Bergeron starts the season slowly, “he must be playing hurt” the masses cry. When it’s publicly known Krejci is coming off summertime hip surgery, and then he drops from 0.88 points per game to 0.66 points per game in 2016-17, he’s deemed no good, a waste of cap space and a player the Bruins have to dump.
If he was alive today, Rodney Dangerfield would be embarrassed for the lack of respect shown toward Krejci.
Krejci, though, should garner more deference and be given more of a chance to rebound in 2017-18 after a normal summer of training.
“Right now I’m going to take my mind off of hockey for a little bit and regroup and try to be a better player next year, try to take my second half of the season as motivation that I can be a good, dominant player. And try to work hard in the summer,” Krejci said before departing for the summer.
Krejci had 54 points (23 goals, 31 assists) in 82 games this season, down from 63 points in 72 games the season before. He was expected to be out five months after April 25 surgery and he managed to work his way into the lineup for opening night and every night after, despite an unforgiving post-World Cup of Hockey schedule. Despite his three-assist opening month and obvious physical limitations, the Bruins decided for various reasons not to rest him. He increased his production in the waning moments of the season, averaging 0.69 points per game in the last 43, including scoring seven goals in the last 19 games. He was a 54.2 percent Corsi For player despite a 46.4 defensive-zone start percentage (higher than even Bergeron’s).
Then an upper-body injury and a knee injury limited him to two games plus one period of a third in the six-game first-round playoff loss to Ottawa.
By all accounts, the Bruins are going to give Krejci an opportunity to re-establish himself as a 1A center to Bergeron’s No. 1 status. And they don’t have much of a choice, because he has a no-movement clause and few teams would be willing to trade for a player whose production waned in his age 31 season and counts $7.25 million against the NHL salary cup until the end of 2020-21. In a way, the Bruins are in a similar position with Krejci as the Washington Capitals are in with Alex Ovechkin, or maybe more comparable, the Anaheim Ducks are in with Corey Perry. A change of scenery may be good for the player, but getting value in a trade is nearly impossible and replacing the player is similarly difficult.
It’s unlikely Krejci will become a point-per-game player in his age 32 season or beyond. But there are ways the Bruins can help a healthy Krejci juice up his production while their window for competing with the current core is still cracked.
After a full training camp to absorb coach Bruce Cassidy’s system, Krejci should benefit from the coach’s strategy of freeing his forwards to look for more plays around the net. An empowered Cassidy, after having the interim tag removed from his title, might also have some ideas for Krejci so that the player’s game doesn’t go stale.
Boston should commit to one wing and let him play with Krejci almost in perpetuity. Cassidy loves pairs, so Krejci should be part of a pair. And David Pastrnak, Krejci’s countryman, is the obvious choice. Of course, that means the Bruins finding a full-time replacement for Pastrnak with Bergeron and Brad Marchand. That’s where a prospect is going to have to take the next step or the Bruins are going to have to consider participating in the free agent market for a top-six forward (unless you really think David Backes should be on the first line, which I know you don’t).
With Pastrnak on his right, Krejci’s left side still can’t be ignored. But the Bruins have to build a line with smart, skilled players on Krejci’s wings so he can play the type of two-way game he’s capable of giving them.
“Came to the rink many times and thought I’m playing with some players and then look at the board and it was different players,” Krejci said. “There’s lots of good players here that I could play with. But I just didn’t play with any of those for more than a couple games in a row. And it’s kind of hard to create chemistry. … So it was something I kind of had to battle through.”
Depth down the middle behind Bergeron and Krejci would also help. Dominic Moore did a decent job of taking the heat off both of Boston’s top-two centers and often was charged with taking defensive-zone faceoffs. If Moore returns, he’d be strong on the fourth line again. But the Bruins have to deal with the Ryan Spooner situation and determine if he’ll ever be able to take the third-line center spot by the horns or if they have to replace him, possibly from within the organization. If the Bruins go the prospect route for a Spooner replacement, however, that could delay the lessening of the load on Krejci and Bergeron.
In the present, Krejci might not be worth the amount he’s taking up on Boston’s salary cap. But at the time of his re-signing, he was paid market value based on his production. His slide in production was expected, even if he didn’t have the hip surgery, and now it’s up to the Bruins to squeeze as much as they can from Krejci by putting him in the best position to succeed, not to expect him to find a fountain of youth.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.