Moving Pastrnak to second line is best option for Bruins to fix their top six

Matt Kalman
June 17, 2019 - 8:06 pm

Bruins general manager Don Sweeney obviously didn’t want to acknowledge his team’s hole among its top six forwards just five days after Boston lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final to St. Louis.

Asked specifically Monday at his year-end press conference about his priorities and where landing another top-six right wing ranks among them, Sweeney ranked getting his restricted free agents – mostly Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen – sorted out, getting players rested and healthy, at the top of his list.

Then he avoided the topic of any position he was going to target via free agency or a trade this offseason.

That Sweeney didn’t want to acknowledge the Bruins’ deficiency doesn’t mean he doesn’t recognize it, and it definitely doesn’t mean it’s not there. When you play Game 7 of the Final with Karson Kuhlman (no offense to the rookie who clearly has a future as a reliable bottom-six forward in the NHL) playing alongside David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, your depth has been pushed to the limits. Not to mention David Backes had been occupying that spot before Kuhlman, and with the season on the line Backes couldn’t get playing time ahead of Noel Acciari and his fractured sternum.

So far it seems like “we got within one win of the Cup” is the answer to every question about the Bruins’ roster shortfalls. But even if the Bruins had won the Cup they would still be going into this summer in need of help in their top six. They rode the phenomenal goaltending of Tuukka Rask and an amazing power play to within one victory of the title, but didn’t score enough 5-on-5 no matter which way you shake it. There were many symptoms of this problem, but first and foremost was Sweeney’s inability to address the right-wing spot next to Krejci.

Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle turned into a great deadline-day additions, but Johansson looked more comfortable on the left side and Coyle gave the Bruins more balance as a third-line center. David Pastrnak only got 57 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time this season with Krejci and DeBrusk because of coach Bruce Cassidy’s reluctance to break up his first line of Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.

The top-six hole looks bigger because the Bruins don’t have a Cup to distract your eyes from it, but it’s there and it was always going to be there regardless of how the season ended.

Here’s a look at the Bruins’ options when it comes to shoring up their top six:

1. Maybe it’s time to give Krejci the stability he craves and let the Bergeron/Marchand combo search for a right wing. This could be the cheapest approach because it has been statistically proven that almost anyone that plays with Bergeron and Marchand benefits and helps the line perform like a first line. Just look at these numbers:

As mentioned above, Pastrnak played just 57 minutes of 5-on-5 with Krejci and DeBrusk during the regular season, but they outscored their opponents 3-1 and had a 62.22 Corsi For percentage. Cassidy has to be willing to give that line a longer look.

He also has to be more trusting of whoever fills the spot next to Marchand and Bergeron. Danton Heinen was the only player other than Pastrnak to get a long run in that spot, and in 198 5-on-5 minutes the Marchand-Bergeron-Heinen line outscored opponents 11-4 after starting just 57 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.

“At times Danton Heinen did a good job. I felt at the end of the day, could he sustain it every night? I wasn’t convinced, not saying he could or couldn’t, but that was my decision to put Pasta back there,” Cassidy said.

Well if Cassidy couldn’t maintain faith in Heinen, it’s up to Sweeney to give him a player he can believe in for the long run, whether it’s on the first line or the second line.

And that leads us to …

2. Sweeney cited several internal options that could make the Bruins’ top six different and, he hopes, better. Coyle could move to right wing on one of the top lines, but that would put stress on Trent Frederic or Jack Studnicka to take over as the third-line center. Johansson could come back and try his hand again as a right wing.

Sweeney also cited Peter Cehlarik, Zach Senyshyn, Ryan Fitzgerald and Paul Carey as guys that could at least play in the top nine. Of course, we’ve been here before. Sweeney added Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom to remake his fourth line last year but left the Bruins to enter training camp without an established second-line right wing or third-line center. The GM ended up trading assets to get Coyle and Johansson. That’s a risky proposition because you never know what’s going to be available at deadline time, and you can’t guarantee every midseason acquisition is going to fit as well as Coyle and Johansson did. Remember, it took that pair until the second round to make Sweeney look smart. If the Bruins lose Game 7 to Toronto, there’s a whole other narrative going around.

Of course external options are going to be tough when you consider cap space and price …

3. Remember all those forwards the Bruins were rumored to be connected to at the trade deadline? Well as of now they’re all going to be UFAs on July 1: Mats Zuccarello, Wayne Simmonds, Gustav Nyqvist, Micheal Ferland. Let’s figure Artemi Panarin is out of play because of his price tag. Well after Sweeney gets his RFAs squared away, there might be little room for any of the aforementioned unrestricted free agents because this thin class is going to hold all the leverage. They could all be looking at, at least, $5 million X 5 years, as could Johansson.

Depending on what it might take to get someone looking to hit the salary-cap floor to take David Backes’ $6 million cap hit (or at least a portion of it), Sweeney could open up space that way. But more than likely the Bruins are going to be out on the better external top-six options, meaning this prospect pool that paid off in 2017-18 but failed to supply Boston with the necessary talent this past season is going to have to crank out at least one legit top-nine forward that Cassidy can rely on for the long term.

That brings us back to Pastrnak and his first-line role. If Krejci can produce 73 points with a revolving door on his right, imagine what he could do with a consistent right wing, especially one as talented as Pastrnak. And if you’re going to break in a younger wing, why not do it with your best two-way forwards, Bergeron and Marchand? It’d be similar to how all the Bruins’ best young defensemen have started as apprentices to Zdeno Chara.

This would seem to be the best way for the Bruins to provide Cassidy with a top six that features a 1 and 1A line, regardless of if they want to publicly allow that they’re lacking one player for their top six or not.

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