Stanley Cup Playoffs preview: Scouting the Boston Bruins

Photo credit:Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Arun Srinivasan
8 days ago
This is precisely the type of matchup the league envisioned when it revamped its playoff format a decade ago as the Toronto Maple Leafs square off against the Boston Bruins for the fourth time in 11 years. Familiarity breeds contempt and this series is not only an Original Six matchup laden with history, but both teams genuinely seem to detest each other.
In fairness to the Bruins, they may not consider it a rivalry at all as they’ve defeated the Maple Leafs in the most agonizing ways possible over the past decade. Boston swept the season series and if you view the NHL standings as zero-sum, it’s precisely the difference between each team’s playoff placement.
Will Toronto be able to exorcise its greatest demon? It is the foundational question surrounding the Auston Matthews-era Maple Leafs team, a supercharged sports car of an offensive engine that turns into a lemon come spring annually.
We’ve been watching the Bruins with a careful eye all season. Here is our scouting report on the 2023-24 Boston Bruins!
All stats via NHL.com and Natural Stat Trick unless noted otherwise. 

Don’t look now but the 2023-2024 Boston Bruins are an average possession and shot-creation team

For all the doom-and-gloom ahead of this series, we have to note that these aren’t the behemoth Bruins of yesteryear. Boston is still an elite team but it is relying on an unsustainable 1.027 PDO at 5-on-5, while getting near-elite goaltending from both Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman. It is perhaps reductionist to say that the Bruins have benefited from some extreme luck, but as the adage goes, you have to be good to be lucky.
Boston controls 50 percent of the expected goals at 5-on-5, the 18th-best mark in the NHL. They’ve been a sub-50 percent Corsi team all year and have proven adept at scoring off the counterattack. Despite the middling possession and shot-creation numbers, the Bruins are an exceptionally disciplined team, their forwards are innately aware when the defensemen pinch, they have sound forechecking principles and will punish teams for simple mistakes.
In the clip below, Bruins forward Jake DeBrusk takes off after Brad Marchand beats TJ Brodie to a loose puck in Boston’s defensive third. No one picks up a crashing Marchand, DeBrusk threads the puck back to Boston’s captain, Ilya Samsonov kicks Marchand’s shot out right into DeBrusk’s path and he capitalizes during the Bruins’ 3-2 win on Nov. 2.
Boston’s most-commonly used line of Marchand, DeBrusk and centre Charlie Coyle have played 341:43 together at 5-on-5 with a 46 percent Corsi and a minus-31 shot differential. Marchand-Coyle-DeBrusk have controlled just over 50 percent of the expected goals, while being on the ice for 14 goals scored, nine against. It’s largely because of their excellence on the counterattack — Marchand, particularly has been incredible in this facet — that it can remain an effective unit despite league-average creation.
Toronto leads the NHL with 198 goals at 5-on-5 with a 51.5 percent share of the expected goals. They’ve been better at generating offense all year, although much of it has been aided by superlative campaigns from Auston Matthews and William Nylander. Boston isn’t impenetrable but Toronto has to limit its mistakes and ensure its opponent doesn’t get out in transition.

David Pastrnak is the focal point and dominated Toronto during the regular season 

David Pastrnak is the focal point of the Bruins’ offense, he is one of the NHL’s best players and he takes particular delight in torturing the Maple Leafs. I’ve written this before but Pastrnak may be the player who gives the Maple Leafs the most difficulty out of anyone in the entire NHL. The following passage is directly from my March 4 notebook after Pastrnak scorched the Maple Leafs in a 4-1 victory:
I don’t think there’s a single player in the NHL who gives the Maple Leafs more difficulty than David Pastrnak. During the Dec. 2 game — the final Leafs game I watched in-person, Pastrnak scorched the Leafs with his shot and tonight, the mere threat of his shot opened so many lanes for Pavel Zacha, who scored twice despite his game-time decision designation. Pastrnak’s shot-fake to Morgan Geekie opened the scoring and froze Toronto’s defense as Boston’s superstar threaded a perfect pass before William Nylander and Pontus Holmberg could close out. Jake DeBrusk won a puck battle against Calle Jarnkrok and Simon Benoit, dished the puck over to Pastrnak, who calmly surveyed the ice from the corner and found Zacha for his first of two goals. And it was Pastrnak again who got a decent shot on goal, scooped up his own rebound, then threaded another terrific pass to Zacha for a 4-1 lead — Timothy Liljegren was so entranced by Boston’s No. 88 that he didn’t bother to box out Zacha. He was far and away the best player on the ice tonight. 
Pastrnak is a one-man shot-creation machine onto himself and improves every line he’s on — he’s been on three of Boston’s four-most commonly-used units this season and in a similar vein to Auston Matthews, his presence creates a gravity effect on the ice. He is the danger and the threat of his omnipresent shot opens up lanes for his linemates, with Pavel Zacha and Danton Heinen as the lead beneficiaries.
In the below clip, Pastrnak commands the Carolina Hurricanes’ entire attention after Heinen drops the puck back to him on the wall. It’s not a clean play, either. Pastrnak fans on his initial shot attempt, but Heinen retrieves the puck and quickly dishes it to Pastrnak. All hell breaks loose! Pastrnak is in prime shooting position again and three Hurricanes players converge on him, including down-ballot Selke candidate Seth Jarvis. Boston’s No. 88 dishes the puck to a wide-open Heinen who makes no mistake with the finish.
Heinen-Zacha-Pastrnak are Boston’s second-most used unit, playing 175:27 at 5-on-5 with a 52.7 percent share of the expected goals, while outscoring their opponents 16-6. This is a commonality within all of Boston’s top-nine combinations: they’ve managed to produce more actual goals than expected goals, which is largely because of Pastrnak’s ability to create instant offense out of seemingly innocuous sequences within the offensive third.
During the Dec. 2 game which I covered for Yahoo Sports, Pastrnak ripped one of the hardest shots I’ve ever witnessed in-person. It may not look that impressive on tape but as Morgan Rielly affords Pastrnak too much space entering the offensive third, he rips an absolute laser into the top corner. Joseph Woll probably didn’t even see it. And therein lies the danger: if you afford Pastrnak any space at all, he will burn you. If you try to play him with tight man-to-man coverage, he’ll dissect the defense from the right faceoff circle. Pastrnak will get overflow minutes on other lines and he must be accounted for at all times.

Brad Marchand will draw penalties and wage psychological warfare

Brad Marchand’s skill set and antics are a known quantity, so it’s little surprise to reveal that he ranked third in the NHL with 43 drawn penalties, only trailing Matthew and Brady Tkachuk, respectively.
Marchand already became the public enemy of the Maple Leafs, when he took out Timothy Liljegren while chasing down a loose puck during the Nov. 2 contest. He wasn’t penalized nor did he receive any supplementary discipline, while Liljegren suffered a high-ankle sprain. Toronto infamously did not respond to Marchand, merely gawking at Boston’s captain from the bench, which infuriated Sheldon Keefe and inspired the Maple Leafs to play a more physical brand of hockey for the remainder of the season.
It’s incumbent upon the Maple Leafs not to take the bait. Marchand excels at this and always elevates his game during the playoffs. He’s not the All-NHL caliber playmaker that he was three years ago but he’s still a 30-goal threat who wins pucks back easily despite his diminutive stature. How many times can the Maple Leafs bend to Marchand’s specific brand of agitation and inflammation? This could be one of the keys to the series.

Trent Frederic and the Bruins’ third line will play bully ball

Trent Frederic won Boston’s 7th Player Award and he very well may be one of the unsung heroes of this series. Boston’s third line in some ways is a throwback to the past, a physically imposing unit that will essentially try to muscle the puck into the net. Frederic is a wrecking ball and put together a 40-point season, while known quantity James van Riemsdyk and Morgan Geekie are capable of generating secondary offense by emphasizing shot location over everything.
This line presents a fascinating statistical profile at 5-on-5: they’re pretty much winning in every category except the one that matters, actual goals! Frederic, Geekie and van Riemsdyk have played 110:30 together, posting an exceptional 68.9 percent share of the expected goals, while outshooting opponents by a 71-48 margin but they’ve been outscored 6-3. William Nylander will likely be spread throughout the lineup but if he’s deployed on Toronto’s third line, Frederic may try to force him into submission.
Coyle spent time on this line at the start of the season, where they smashed opponents to a 6-0 start. This line punishes teams off rebounds and essentially lives below the slot. Here’s an example of Frederic converting off a rebound, with some strong passing sequences in transition against the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 6.
Frederic isn’t just a bully in front of the net, he has deceptive speed and is one of three Bruins players (Pastrnak, DeBrusk) ranked within the top 20 league-wide in rush attempts at 5-on-5. His combination of speed and physicality on the wing makes him the player to watch on Boston’s third line and he could wreak havoc in bottom-six matchups.
Boston’s defense isn’t nearly as good as last year but beware Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm 
Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm aren’t down-ballot Norris candidates but they’re split across Boston’s top-two defensive pairings and will be heavily relied upon to shutdown Auston Matthews, William Nylander and the scorching Maple Leafs’ offense.
Lindholm has been primarily paired with Brandon Carlo and this pairing is the Bruins’ most-used duo, playing 668:05 at 5-on-5 with a 50 percent share of the expected goals, while being outshot by a minus-50 differential. These aren’t amazing numbers and frankly it’s because Lindholm has remained a borderline All-Star defenseman, while Carlo’s statistical profile suggests he should be deployed against weaker opponents in an ideal world. As for McAvoy, he’s been paired with Matt Grzelcyk for most of the year, playing 609:27 together, with a 51.9 percent share of the expected goals, while being outshot by a minus-33 differential. McAvoy is playing like a legitimate No. 1 defenseman but Grzelcyk has functioned as a bottom-pair defender.
What does this mean in a practical sense? It’s unlikely Boston will staple their two star defenders together unless Auston Matthews, Tyler Bertuzzi and Max Domi prove to be downright unstoppable during the opening games of the series — they’ve been scorching opponents throughout the past month and again, Toronto is the superior possession team.
Here’s the thing, though: Carlo and Grzelyck’s individual struggles ultimately don’t matter that much. The playoffs are a clean slate and both players are veteran defenders who have ran the gauntlet and were part of the 2019 Bruins team that lost in the Stanley Cup Final, to say nothing of last year’s group, the NHL’s rough equivalent to the 2015-2016 Golden State Warriors. They are proven playoff performers and it’s possible Boston could just staple Lindholm to Matthews, as he’s easily one of the NHL’s best defensive defensemen.

Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark are the ultimate advantage

Toronto is the superior possession team, the superior goal-scoring and shot-creation team and its Hart Trophy candidate (Matthews) is better than Boston’s (Pastrnak) but my, oh my, the tables turn when it comes to goaltending. Ullmark isn’t playing at a Vezina-level per se, but he’s still one of the NHL’s eight best goaltenders at minimum, while Swayman could very well emerge as a Vezina finalist this season! You need one elite and/or hot goalie to win a Stanley Cup, the Bruins have two and don’t plan on breaking from their rotation, while most teams lock into their nominal starter.
You don’t need the stats to quantify the advantage, you’ve gone this far, just trust us! While we’re here though: Swayman’s 18.4 goals saved above expected in all situations via MoneyPuck is the fourth-best total in the NHL. Ullmark ranks sixth with 14.8 goals saved above expected. Swayman and Ullmark were both rumoured to be on the trade block — the Bruins wisely avoided temptation and their post-game celebrations are part of the league’s modern lore.
Ilya Samsonov, who is almost certainly Toronto’s Game 1 starter, has posted -8.1 goals saved above expected throughout the year. Yikes! Samsonov was placed on waivers on New Year’s Eve due to his horrific start to the season, bounced back, and has seemingly regressed during the final month of the season. He posted a 18-4-1 record after returning to the Maple Leafs but even if you isolate his stats from Jan. 1-present, he’s still the third-best goalie in this series.

Check out these posts...