Over 10 days we break down the top 10 NHL teams ready to contend for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Day 10: Boston Bruins.
For a while it looked as if the Boston Bruins were going to avoid the dreaded Cup hangover in 2011-12 – and then everything went downhill after the New Year’s Eve. A rough month of January humbled the Bruins, and they just weren’t the same club in the season’s second half. They were eliminated in the first round by the seventh-seeded Washington Capitals – an unsatisfactory playoff exit after a first half that saw the Bruins impressively go 25-4-1 from Nov. 1 through Jan. 12.
The off-season in Beantown was mostly dominated by talk of Tim Thomas’s looming hiatus, as GM Peter Chiarelli only made minor tweaks to a team that collected 102 points a season ago. Goaltender Tuukka Rask will be out to prove himself and try to lead the B’s to the Promised Land. Can he do it with a well-built roster in front of him?
Here are three reasons why the Bruins are and aren’t ready to win their second Cup in three years:
You pretty much know what to expect from the Bruins up and down their roster, but all eyes will be on Rask when the season opens. The 25-year-old Finn, who arguably could have been the No. 1 goaltender for many teams last season, will be taking over as the Bruins’ starter less than two years after Thomas won the Cup, Conn Smythe and Vezina.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but I’m always up for a challenge,” Rask said recently. “I’m going to make the most of it and have some fun.”
The Bruins signed Rask to a one-year, $3.5 million deal in June – a low-risk move for the front office that could pay off in a big way for Rask next summer. Boston’s new go-to guy between the pipes will be determined all season to prove he can be a true No. 1 NHL goaltender. The small sample size we have seen in three-plus seasons (2.20 GAA and .926 SV% in 102 games), plus the 2010 playoffs, suggests Rask should be up to the challenge – which wouldn’t be good news for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
When the Bruins dealt Phil Kessel to Toronto in 2009, they mainly received two first-round picks in return. Those picks turned into Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, two big pieces of Boston’s present and future nucleus.
As expected, Seguin had a breakout campaign in 2011-12; a strong first half enabled him to lead the Bruins in goals (29) and points (67). Scary part is, he’s 20 years old and last season was only tipping the iceberg for what he can do big-picture.
Meanwhile, Hamilton, the ninth overall selection in the 2011 NHL Draft, is expected to crack the Bruins’ opening-night roster. He racked up 72 points in 50 games with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs, proving he has outgrown junior hockey. The level of success in which Hamilton, 19, can immediately experience in the NHL is unknown – especially playing defence – but expectations are high.
Having Seguin and Hamilton continue to show glimpses of their sky-high potential will only help Claude Julien’s club.
With Nicklas Lidstrom retired, there is only a handful of defencemen that opposing teams must game-plan for. One of them is Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. The 6’9” monster is a game-changer on the back end, even at 35 years old. Chara led all defencemen with a plus-33 rating last season en route to his fourth Norris Trophy nomination in five years. Chara, who also collected 52 points in 2011-12, is the backbone of the Bruins’ success.
When it comes to defence, though, it goes beyond just Chara. The forwards, led by Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron, are committed to a 180-foot game that few opponents can match. Julien’s defensive system makes the Bruins’ blue-line corps greater than the sum of its parts.
Chara, along with the two-way nature of its forwards, makes Boston tough to play against. There’s no reason to believe that will change this season.
As mentioned above, Rask should be up to the challenge of replacing Thomas as Boston’s starting netminder – but he still has to show it. If Rask does not live up to the lofty expectations, the Bruins’ lack of a proven backup will be costly.
Anton Khudobin, a 2004 seventh-round pick of Minnesota, has only seven career NHL games, spanning over the last three years, on his resume. He has good numbers in those appearances (5-1-0, 1.32 GAA, .961 SV%) and is thought of as a viable backup to Rask. Still, he has been stuck in the minors since 2007 and is unproven at the NHL level.
A big strength of the Bruins of late has been the duo of Thomas and Rask, arguably the league’s top goaltending tandem over the last three years. With Thomas gone and Khudobin taking over as the backup, there are question marks in net that weren’t there before.
Forward Nathan Horton has been cleared for contact, a great omen for the Bruins. But the question now is this: Which Nathan Horton will the Bruins be getting this season? When Horton went down with a concussion on Jan. 22, it was his second concussion in less than a year. It goes without saying that he’s one hit away from his career being in jeopardy.
His absence was also a major blow to Coach Julien’s offensive attack, as the B’s went 18-16-2 in the final 36 games and averaged 2.81 goals per game without Horton. In 46 games with Horton last year the team averaged 3.65 goals per game.
As you can see, Horton’s presence up front is crucial to the Bruins’ success; he had 32 points at the time of the injury and was an important cog to the Bruins’ Cup run in 2011. That said, it’s no guarantee that he can return to that level of production.
In 2011, the Bruins got away with a porous power play (10-for-88, 11.4%) when they won the Stanley Cup. It caught up with them in the 2012 playoffs against Washington, as a 2-for-23 man-advantage was one of a few reasons why Chara and company were deposited in the first round.
Los Angeles may have had its own power play struggles this past spring, but for the most part teams need a good power play to successfully get through eight months of hockey. Did Boston do anything this summer to fix the power outage? Not especially; not from outside the organization.
Hamilton and a healthy Horton could give the Bruins’ power play (ranked 15th last regular season; 20th in 2010-11; 23rd in 2009-10) a shot in the arm. Nevertheless, they need to solve the power-play woes to become the complete team they need to be to get past their fellow top Eastern Conference foes.
Prediction: Julien’s bunch wins a third consecutive Northeast Division title but runs into trouble against New York or Pittsburgh come May.
How far will the Boston Bruins make it in 2012-13?