5 questions that will define the Bruins’ 2023-24 season


“I still feel pretty confident about our club.”

Boston Bruins' Charlie Coyle (13) is congratulated for his goal against the New York Rangers during the second period of an NHL preseason hockey game Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in New York.
Charlie Coyle is expected to log top-six minutes for the Bruins in 2023-24. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

With the start of the Bruins’ 2023-24 season just days away, let’s delve into a few pressing questions that will determine whether or not this reworked roster has what it takes to punch its ticket back to the playoffs.

Can the Bruins’ overhauled center corps keep driving play?

Patrice Bergeron isn’t walking through that door. David Krejci isn’t walking through that door.

But for all of the fears of a steep drop-off for the Bruins following the retirement of two franchise pillars, the 2023-24 Bruins still boast a competitive roster that should remain afloat in a cutthroat Atlantic Division.

Boston is still buoyed by arguably the best 1-2 punch between the pipes in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, while a majority of the team’s league-leading defense from last season remains intact.

Even with a significant talent drain up front over the summer, Boston still wields plenty of game-breaking talent on the wing in the form of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Jake DeBrusk.

But even though Boston’s floor can be mapped out as a stingy defensive club capable of grinding out points at a steady clip, it remains to be seen what the Bruins’ ceiling is as a viable contender this winter.

We likely won’t get that answer until we determine if centers like Charlie Coyle, Pavel Zacha, and potentially even Matthew Poitras can step into the top-six voids created by Bergeron and Krejci’s exits.

The primary hurdle for Boston’s breakout preseason star in Poitras is to simply stick around in the NHL beyond his upcoming nine-game sample size. Still, his poise with the puck and high-end skills offers hope that the Bruins have another potential top-six center in the pipeline — be it this winter or the next season.

But as Boston waits in anticipation to see if Poitras can continue to defy expectations, the onus is going to fall on both Coyle and Zacha to drive play and compliment some high-end forwards in the top-six unit out of the gate.

If Jim Montgomery wants to augment a forward trio of Zacha, Pastrnak, and James van Riemsdyk into an O-zone heavy scoring grouping, the results could be promising.

Getting paired with a 60+ goal scorer in Pastrnak will certainly help Zacha ease into his new role. But Zacha was impressive in his own right last season — surpassing his previous career-high in scoring by 21 points and ranking second on the team in total 5v5 points, ahead of names like Bergeron and Marchand.

In 12 games last year where Zacha replaced Krejci as Boston’s second-line center, he scored four goals and posted 10 points. The Bruins were a perfect 12-0-0 over that extended stretch.

A puck-possession pivot like Coyle could form an effective two-way grouping next to Marchand and DeBrusk.

Despite starting in the offensive zone during 33.2 percent of his 5v5 reps in 2022-23, the Bruins still outscored opponents, 51-32, when Coyle was out on the ice for over 1,070 minutes. That same stout defensive play in 2023-24 can be further complemented with legitimate playmakers in Marchand and DeBrusk.

The Bruins no longer have the luxury of penciling in arguably the best defensive forward in NHL history and a near-800-point scorer in their top-six center grouping moving forward. But Boston believes its remaining skaters down the middle have the proper skill sets required to keep the team afloat up front.

“I still feel pretty confident about our club, but obviously when you lose your top two centermen, and that’s a big gap to fill, it’s very difficult to replace one of them — let alone two, especially when you have some cap constraints like we did,” Cam Neely said Monday. “We were planning for it. I mean we knew these guys were eventually going to retire.

“But we still have some quality NHL players in our lineup that have played in the National Hockey League, played the center position. Now it’s really a matter of can they elevate their game to a level where we can get some offense out of it.”

Can the Bruins’ defense, goaltending keep up its lofty standards? 

Brandon Carlo might have said it best earlier this month when asked about Boston’s strengths in 2023-24.

“We’ve always focused upon the defensive side of the game,” the Bruins’ stay-at-home defenseman noted. “That’s not going to change. We’re not putting as many pucks in, hopefully we can keep them out. … “There might be some games on the back end and then within the net that we’re gonna have to steal this year. So it’s gonna be a great challenge, and I’m looking forward to that.”

In total, the Bruins lost a chunk of their forward corps over the offseason that accounted for 80 goals and 210 total points. Instead of cruising to 4-1 victories, Boston might need to grind out 2-1 contests at a steady clip.

If Boston realistically wants to punch its ticket back to the postseason, it’s going to need last year’s league-leading defense to not show any cracks.

The Bruins return five of the six starting defensemen who led the NHL in goals against (2.12 goals against per game) last season and helped Boston post a 43-8-5 record before the team even went out and added Dmitry Orlov to the mix. The stingy zone defense first implemented by Claude Julien and tweaked under Bruce Cassidy remains in place.

The Bruins were the best team in the league when it came to suppressing shots and negating scoring chances in Grade-A ice last season.

A D corps still anchored by two Norris-caliber blueliners in Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm will need to continue to hold their own, while the continued development of Mason Lohrei in Providence will be monitored.

In net, it’s to be expected for Linus Ullmark to undergo a bit of a regression after taking home the Vezina Trophy last season. But even if there is a dip, Jeremy Swayman could have plenty more room to grow as Boston’s primary backup.

Can youngsters deliver?

The Bruins will have to lean on an established crop of NHLers in order to drive play out of the gate in 2023-24.

But after a preseason full of surprises, the Bruins could receive a much-needed injection of young talent this season thanks to a group of prospects poised for NHL reps.

All eyes will be fixated on Matthew Poitras out of the gate, with the 19-year-old pivot going from a long-shot candidate to a potential middle-six fixture that has drawn comparisons to Mitch Marner.

Boston will have nine games to determine if Poitras has what it takes to leapfrog the AHL and go right from juniors to a full-time role in the NHL. After those nine games, Boston needs to either keep him on the roster (and burn the first year of his entry-level contract) or send him back down to the OHL’s Guelph Storm.

“We try to temper expectations internally and externally in terms of what we expect from a young player …Just seeing what he could handle [and] how he’s going to respond the next day,” Don Sweeney said of handling young players like Poitras. “That’ll be the continued challenge for any young player that consistency is really the benchmark.

“Whether or not you can survive and play in the National Hockey League and move forward. That will be a continuing evaluation for him and in this case, Johnny Beecher as well, or any young player throughout our lineup and the players that we have in the organization.”

While expectations should be tempered in terms of Poitras’ ability to keep up his strong play night in and night out, he’s done little to dissuade from the fact that he’s ready for a larger role in 2023-24. And if he sticks, his presence could create a positive domino effect — especially if it pushes Coyle back down to his usual spot at third-line center.

Other than Poitras, Johnny Beecher will look to solidify a spot on a potentially bruising fourth line next to Milan Lucic and Jakub Lauko — who posted seven points and drew 11 penalties in just 23 games last season.

Even though Lohrei just missed the cut for NHL reps out of the gate, the 22-year-old blueliner could be in position for a mid-season call-up if he makes the most of the sizable minutes available to him with Providence.

Can special teams deliver? 

Jim Montgomery’s emphasis on quality over quantity in terms of shot selection paid dividends for the 2022-23 Bruins, who have regularly struggled with generating steady 5v5 scoring over the last few seasons.

But the bedrock of Boston’s success for the last 5+ years has revolved around a lethal power-play unit and stout penalty-kill personnel.

Boston paced the pack with a 87.3% kill rate in shorthanded situations last season, with players like Charlie Coyle, Brandon Carlo, and Derek Forbort once again called on to help keep Boston’s defensive integrity intact. This season could also open the door for more opportunities on the PK for younger skaters like Lauko and Beecher.

Given Boston’s expected regression this season in its scoring capabilities, a potent power-play group stands as a necessity. Boston’s man advantage did dip last season (12th overall, 22.2%), but any unit anchored by a top sniper like Pastrnak should still be able to land punches.

Boston’s power play is set to add a few new wrinkles to its power play, with a left-shot skater in Zacha taking over for Bergeron in the bumper, as well as a poised netfront player in James van Riemsdyk added to the top grouping.

Can a revamped supporting cast hold its own? 

Jim Montgomery and the Bruins no longer have the luxury of slotting a former Hart Trophy winner like Taylor Hall on the third line.

But after a bargain-bin shopping spree in free agency, the Bruins are hoping that a reworked supporting cast can either take another step forward — or rekindle some of their prime play from yesteryear.

As intriguing as it might be to imagine a scenario where players like Poitras or Lohrei instantly morph into impact players, the Bruins are going to need free-agent pickups like Morgan Geekie, Milan Lucic, James van Riemsdyk, and Kevin Shattenkirk to hold up their end of the bargain at critical junctures of the depth chart.

Among returning talent, the Bruins will receive a major boost if DeBrusk can remain healthy and surpass the 30-goal threshold (setting himself up for a hefty contract in the process), while Trent Frederic will need to build off of last year’s gains and develop into a line-driver in the bottom six.