By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Thursday night is going to be like Christmas morning for die-hard Bruins fans. The puck is finally set to drop on a new B’s season, and this one brings some unique excitement for the team’s devoted followers. It’s not often that you get the first look at so many intriguing young talents at once, like the Bruins are poised to do on their home ice.
At the forefront of the Bruins’ bourgeoning youth movement is defenseman Charlie McAvoy, who has drawn comparisons to one of the blue liners he’ll see on the opposite end for the Predators, P.K. Subban. The 20-year-old wunderkind’s stock has only risen since he fell to the Bruins at pick No. 14 in the 2016 NHL Draft and impressed when forced into the team’s injury-plagued lineup during last season’s playoff series against the Senators. Elsewhere, wingers Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork will be making their NHL debuts after earning spots among the Bruins’ top-six forwards.
Meanwhile, the Predators enter the 2017-18 season with plenty to prove. The defending Western Conference Champions are looking to show that their surprise run to the Stanley Cup Final was no fluke, and they present some formidable talent both up front and on defense. Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask is likely to have his hands full stopping pucks from the Preds’ considerable firepower, especially on the back end.
With that said, here are four big questions to ask ahead of the Bruins’ 2017-18 season opener:
Are the kids alright?
McAvoy enters his first regular season in the NHL with the fewest question marks, as he has already proved he belongs in the NHL with his impressively poised performance in his cameo appearance during the playoffs. He will likely play on the second defensive pairing with Kevan Miller, as the latter’s steady veteran presence could allow the rookie to show off his offensive creativity.
Bjork has perhaps the most to prove, as the 21-year-old former fifth-round pick will play on the top line with Brad Marchand. Unfortunately, Patrice Bergeron (lower-body injury) is out for the game and Ryan Spooner will take his place, so it could be hard to gauge expectations for the line without its center and all-around stalwart. But Bjork has a high ceiling offensively and all-around upside, and Thursday will be his first chance to show a wide Bruins audience what he is capable of doing.
DeBrusk will be the first of the Bruins’ three consecutive first-round picks to debut in the NHL, and the son of former NHL-er Louie DeBrusk has a chance to prove himself as a perfect complementary winger for David Krejci. He has good hands and a big shot, and also isn’t shy about playing in the dirty areas of the ice. The hope is that Krejci can consistently find ways to get the puck on DeBrusk’s stick, especially as he and David Pastrnak draw added attention.
Can the defense take another step forward?
Another kid who will be crucial for the Bruins’ development this season and moving forward is defenseman Brandon Carlo, who will once again play on a defensive pairing with captain Zdeno Chara. It would be hard for the 40-year-old Chara or veterans like Miller and Adam McQuaid to take steps forward, so the improvement of the defense will basically come down to Carlo and McAvoy.
It’s important that the 20-year-old Carlo avoids the dreaded “sophomore slump” for much of the season if the Bruins want to improve upon last year’s bottom-seed playoff appearance. The mountainous blue liner exceeded expectations as a 19-year-old rookie, playing strong defense in his own end as half of the Bruins’ shutdown pairing. But if Carlo is to succeed in Cassidy’s system, he will need to make smart breakout passes to jump-start the offense as well.
Ultimately, McAvoy is the true key to the improvement of the defensive corps. It will also be hard to judge them as a group with Torey Krug (fractured jaw) out. But as far as playing actual defense, which was a major issue for two seasons and only slightly improved last year, Carlo is expected to be a huge presence – both literally and figuratively.
Can the Bruins exploit the Predators’ defense?
This may sound weird, because the Preds actually boast one of the league’s most formidable blue lines on paper. Subban is as dangerous as they come offensively and Bruins fans are certainly familiar with his fast, aggressive game. Roman Josi is also one of the best puck-movers in the league and a solid all-around presence.
Still, those two (and the rest of their defensemen, for that matter) can be prone to turning the puck over or getting caught out of position. It will be interesting to see if Cassidy and the Bruins can find ways to exploit the Preds if they try to do too much with the puck on their sticks or play too aggressively.
If the Bruins have one clear advantage over the Predators, it’s with their shutdown pairing. The Preds don’t have anyone who plays defense like Chara and Carlo do. So the game may boil down to how that pair (and the Bruins’ top line) plays against the likes of Subban and Josi.
Will the NHL’s rule changes have an impact?
The league tweaked its offside review rules before the season, as teams will now be assessed a penalty for a failed challenge. As I wrote last month, this change will likely curb tedious offside challenges early in the game and limit the amount of long, drawn-out review processes – but could lead to an uptick in challenges at the end of games, when penalties would matter less for desperate teams that are already losing.
Another potentially controversial rule change involves faceoffs, so Bruins fans will have to wait and see how it will affect Bergeron when he returns from his lower-body injury. Officials are cracking down on faceoff violations in efforts to curb “cheating” at the dot, which they are hoping will lead to cleaner faceoffs. Teams will be penalized for multiple faceoff violations, so if the real goal is to increase power plays, it could lead to artificially enhanced scoring that masks a more stagnant, less entertaining product.
The NHL also cracked down on slashing penalties in the preseason as they look for defenders to cut down opponents’ sticks less and also to avoid injuries, particularly to players’ hands and wrists. This is a more reasonable rule change, but an uptick in whistles and power plays could inadvertently slow down the momentum of games.
There were five slashing penalties between the four games on Wednesday night as the league opened its season. Fortunately, there were none for delay of game. But it’s still a topic worth watching as the Bruins drop the puck for the first time.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.