What went wrong for the Bruins and what comes next

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BOSTON — For the second straight year, the Florida Panthers ended the Boston Bruins’ run. This season, however, was different. The Bruins, up 3-1 in the series over the Panthers in 2023, found themselves on the other side of that equation this time around. They could not replicate the Panthers’ comeback.

The 2024 Bruins were simply not good enough to do so.

Six reasons their year is over and what comes next:

Brad Marchand’s absence makes a difference

Marchand returned in Game 6. That did nothing about the third period he missed in Game 3 after taking a Sam Bennett sucker punch. He was also unavailable for Games 4 and 5. The Bruins lost Games 3 and 4. 

Bennett was neither penalized nor disciplined. General manager Don Sweeney criticized the Department of Player Safety for its decision not to explain its lack of supplemental discipline. Marchand, on the other hand, was not critical of Bennett, citing the intensity of playoff hockey.

Marchand is the Bruins’ best all-around forward. He is their emotional catalyst. He does it all: plays against top players, works the right-side half-boards on the No. 1 power-play unit, kills penalties. The Bruins were happy to have their captain back in uniform for Game 6. But not having him for the third period of Game 3 and all of Game 4 was too much to overcome.

Marchand, 36, is entering the final season of his eight-year, $49 million contract. One of his goals is to play for Team Canada in the 2026 Olympics. 

The Bruins’ No. 1 strength was their goaltending rotation of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark. They started the playoffs by rotating the two and determining whether Swayman or Ullmark was good enough to carry the mail the rest of the way. Swayman fulfilled that part of the ask. He was their best player.

That left Ullmark, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner, in net for just one start, one relief appearance and 77:01 of playing time in 12 games. The Bruins had two aces and only one postseason net.

The problem with this situation was that the Bruins could have traded Ullmark and his $5 million average annual value for much-needed help up front and on defense. Ullmark, agent Joakim Persson and Sweeney declined to answer whether the goalie exercised his partial no-trade protection to remain a Bruin.

So instead of adding a scoring wing or a left-shot defenseman, the Bruins had to settle for Andrew Peeke and Pat Maroon. Both were good fits. But they were, respectively, a third-pairing defenseman and a fourth-line wing who couldn’t convince Bennett or any other Panther to fight. The Bruins needed more than that to hang with the Panthers.

Now Sweeney has to find an offseason landing spot for Ullmark, preferably before next month’s 2024 NHL Draft. The GM also has to pay Swayman, whose one-year, $3.475 million deal is expiring. Swayman’s postseason spike has added a premium to his inbound raise. In retrospect, Sweeney erred by electing a one-year arbitration award. The Bruins had the option to select a two-year deal.

Brandon Bussi, Swayman’s projected backup, will require waivers to be assigned to Providence in 2024-25. Bussi is unlikely to clear waivers.

Overage penalty compromises roster

In 2022-23, Sweeney pulled off the magic trick of employing Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci for a combined $3.5 million cap hit. But the check came due in 2023-24. Bergeron and Krejci made $4.5 million in bonus money, which the Bruins had to apply toward their cap number this season. 

It was a considerable sum of idle dough. Consider that Jake DeBrusk, a top-six wing, carries a $4 million AAV. Sweeney had no choice but to invest in inexpensive depth players such as Danton Heinen, Jesper Boqvist, Parker Wotherspoon and Justin Brazeau. All four make the $775,000 league minimum.

Not enough offensive firepower

The Bruins averaged 2.17 goals per game against the Panthers. This was down from their regular-season performance, when they averaged 3.21 goals per game, No. 14 in the NHL. They did not possess the puck enough against the Panthers. When they had it on their sticks, they failed to hang onto it, as coach Jim Montgomery prefers, to create quality scoring chances.

DeBrusk led the Bruins with five goals in the playoffs. He scored just 19 goals in 80 regular-season games. 

DeBrusk’s contract is expiring. His playoff performance, in all likelihood, did not move the Bruins’ needle in terms of meeting his financial ask. As such, DeBrusk could proceed toward free agency.

Bruins fall short at center

Morgan Geekie was a good first-year Bruin. The ex-Seattle Kraken scored a career-high 17 goals and 22 assists during the regular season. Geekie was a good fit as the No. 3 center and occasional top-six right wing.

But Geekie finished out Round 2 as the No. 1 center. It is not the 25-year-old’s optimal role. Montgomery felt he had no choice but to promote Geekie because of Pavel Zacha’s diminished presence.

Charlie Coyle played to expectations against the Panthers. Coyle was the Bruins’ best all-around center. But Coyle did not push the offensive pace either.

Zacha’s and Coyle’s regular-season play answered one of the primary questions for the Bruins in 2023-24: whether they had enough at center to replace Bergeron and Krejci. Coyle and Zacha had more points than their predecessors last year. But neither pushed the offensive envelope against the Panthers.

Meanwhile, Aleksander Barkov, Florida’s No. 1 center, manhandled his opponents. Barkov’s puck-controlling performance underscored how critical it is for teams to roll out a top-line pivot. The Bruins do not have any in their pipeline.

It is just about impossible for any team to contend for the Stanley Cup without at least one slam-dunk No. 1 center. Perhaps Matt Poitras will grow into a top-two NHL pivot with good health, more muscle and greater experience. Poitras’ rookie season was cut short following shoulder surgery. He is expected to be at full strength for 2024-25.

Sweeney’s priority will be to acquire an impact center. That will be difficult with the Bruins’ limited futures.

Former top pair falls short

Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk first played together at Boston University. Their familiarity showed. When they were rocking and rolling, they suppressed shots, moved pucks the other way and supported the attack.

But Grzelcyk, no doubt compromised by multiple injuries, picked the worst time to see his game unravel. Grzelcyk could not handle John Tavares in one-on-one coverage prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ overtime goal in Game 5. That was his final appearance.

By the end, Grzelcyk had tumbled to No. 9 on the depth chart. He did not have a stall in the visiting dressing room at Amerant Bank Arena. The Charlestown native’s contract is expiring. He is unlikely to return. Mason Lohrei projects to replace Grzelcyk on the left side.

As for McAvoy, he made an early Game 4 impact with his freight-training of Sam Reinhart and scored the Game 5 winner. But McAvoy did not produce enough offense overall, especially on the power play. More will be expected of McAvoy in 2024-25.

(Photo: Rich Gagnon / Getty Images)

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