For the Boston Bruins, David Pastrnak is already a star. Many teams struggle to find 30-plus goal scorers at any age, and the Bruins were lucky enough to see one of their youngest, brightest stars thrive just three years into his professional hockey career.
It can be argued that Brandon Carlo had an excellent 2016-17 campaign, as well. There’s room for concern, as with any young defensive defenseman, that his physical style of play and heavy minutes overshadow a struggle to truly suppress shots in his own end. But overall, Carlo did an admirable job of stepping up in a strenuous position for Boston’s defense. If he’s put back in a top-pairing role again next season, it certainly won’t be a bad thing.
Beyond those two, though, the team’s youth presence was a bit underwhelming.
Sure, Colin Miller was never really given a fair whack. And maybe Ryan Spooner just had an off year (if he can even still be considered a youth, entering his age-25 season).
Could Frank Vatrano have hit 20 goals if he’d played all 82 games? What about Austin Czarnik; is he truly a middle-six caliber scoring forward? Plenty of maybes circulated, and could have easily left the team with a stellar offensive corps if just one or two things had gone differently.
As the Bruins enter their 2017-18 campaign, though, there can’t be any “maybe” performances.
For the defense, it’s the last year — so far — of Zdeno Chara on the blue line.
Maybe, once the year is over, Boston and Chara will come to terms on a farewell deal, but that’s about as much as can be expected. Chara will be 41 when the 2018 spring campaign wraps up; if he’s got anything left in the tank, it won’t be much. That’s the perfect opportunity for Boston’s young defensive pieces to truly show how much they have to offer.
Carlo is the one who seemingly stands to gain the most from the departure of Chara, as he’s expected to be the captain’s heir apparent as a big, tough presence who can man the penalty kill.
The departure of the team’s long-standing No. 1 may hold even more weight for Charlie McAvoy, though. Capable of playing — and thriving — in all situations on the ice, the 2016 first-rounder showed in spades during the postseason exactly how ready he is for the NHL.
The question for next season isn’t really whether or not McAvoy is ready for the NHL, because it seems clear that he is. While Carlo needs to fix his defensive presence, McAvoy will need to shine in all areas as a rookie, taking over for the team’s aging (and, sad as it might be, regressing) leader.
Behind them, there’s the hope that Jakub Zboril will stand out in his first year as a pro, although not necessarily at the NHL level. If he’s able to make the jump, though, he’ll need to prove that he’s worth the roster spot. With no postseason guarantee in what’s going on four years, the Bruins can’t afford to give players spots just for the sake of spots. The championship window for their veteran elite is closing; if Zboril isn’t ready, he shouldn’t be there.
On offense, things are a bit trickier.
Spooner is no longer really one of the team’s “young” players, as he’s a 2010 draft pick.
He has yet to surpass 13 goals in a season, though, and that needs to change if the team expects to keep him around for much longer — and the players who are primed to take his spot need to step up, as well.
This isn’t so much an indictment of a poor season for Vatrano last year as it is a suggestion that he absolutely must prove it wasn’t an anomaly. Ten goals in 44 games is very impressive, but an 82-game season is another beast.
Fans wondering why there’s any caution being given about Vatrano should look no further than Boston’s biggest rival. Montreal’s Alex Galchenyuk produced at twice the scoring pace over his first half of last season as he did during the final few months, leaving him with a disappointing season and a sour response from his head coach.
Inconsistency is a young player’s biggest foe; for Vatrano, Boston still needs proof over the long haul that he won’t fall victim to it.
Boston failed to hit the free-agent market with any kind of aggression this year, instead choosing to add through subtraction with the buyout of Jimmy Hayes. That’s a good thing, perhaps, after the poor season free-agent pickup Matt Beleskey had this past season. But it also means that the Bruins didn’t add anyone with a scoring punch or veteran presence to their offensive corps, and they didn’t do much to change their blue line, either.
That leaves their young players. Next year is their chance to shine, but it’s also the year they have to step up. Boston can’t afford anything less.