Pit the 2011-12 Boston Bruins against their 2010-11 championship predecessor and you would have a slightly deeper, more balanced strike force attacking a peerless goaltender in Tim Thomas.
On one bench, you would have a team that subsisted heavily on five-on-five proficiency and whose power-play output was heavily fueled by Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder, Nathan Horton and Zdeno Chara. Challenging them would be a team that relies on even strength just a tad less and whose man-advantage has been bolstered chiefly by Chara and Milan Lucic.
You would have an ageless Recchi supplementing a top line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand going up against a Bergeron flanked by Marchand and a breaking-out Tyler Seguin.
You would have a goaltending tandem featuring a Vezina- and Conn Smythe-worthy Thomas and a healthy backup in Tuukka Rask on one end. On the other would be a more human Thomas backed by either an unripe Anton Khudobin or a Rask who is trying to replenish his game after an untimely stint on injured reserve.
You would have a not-so-shabby Bergeron and a plus-33 Chara sizing up against a host of celestial two-way performers. Chief among them are a Selke-caliber Bergeron, another plus-33 Chara and Seguin, Marchand and Chris Kelly all in the age-30 range as well.
You would have two similarly qualitative and quantitative assortments of physical power forwards and defensemen. The contesting exceptions on the blue line would be Tomas Kaberle and Joe Corvo, respectively. Each man’s productivity as point-based playmakers with the Bruins has come at relatively the same rate.
So, which team would win if they were to cross paths in a best-of-seven series?
Let’s just say the fact that the Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year and will almost certainly fall short of a repeat in 2012 is only a partial coincidence.
With disproportionately more NHL postseason experience and slightly more physical robustness, the Recchi of 2010-11 is a more reliable linemate than the 2011-12 Seguin. And compared to Rich Peverley, a healthy Horton makes a slightly better supplement to Lucic and David Krejci.
In addition, with Horton available, last year’s Bruins would be able to let Peverley work with Ryder and Chris Kelly. Contrast that with the present third line of Kelly, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Rolston.
Rolston, the trade deadline import designed to supplement the loss of the retired Recchi on offense, is slightly bigger and more physical than his predecessor. His line, along with an improved, Bergeron-led shutdown troika, could give the current Boston team a chance to neutralize the 2010-11 squad’s top six.
But given the choice between Recchi and Seguin, who gives Bergeron and Marchand a better chance to circumvent the virtually identical defensive pairs of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg?
And given the choice between the Thomas of last year and the Thomas of this year, who can be leaned upon more to bail out the blue line in the occasional event that the opposing offense squeezes through a seam?
When the time comes to lean on the deepest echelon of secondary scoring, which fourth line is more promising? The one that had double-digit goals and assists from both Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell and a double-digit pace by Daniel Paille, or the same three individuals who didn’t quite follow up on that this year?
Better pencil in an advantage for 2010-11 on all three counts.
Granted, the reigning champs do not need to do much to sustain their bright long-term future. In fact, they are better off leaving things generally status quo.
Seguin ought to grow exponentially productive and reliable as he takes on more seasoning in the regular season and the playoffs. His relatively young fellow skaters have almost equally ample time and room for enhancement.
The stable and seasoned blue line is not getting any younger, but should hold up well enough until Dougie Hamilton has jelled into the mix.
With Horton shrewdly shut down until next training camp, his odds of returning to normal look all the more promising. And Rask should ultimately return to normal health and has yet to see his best days when he permanently succeeds Thomas (that is assuming he is re-signed ahead of free agency).
But this particular postseason will mark a mild downturn from the banner campaign of 2011. There is only so much Thomas can do after so much labor and so little rest in recent memory and, in the short run, the still fairly green Bruins will miss the likes of Recchi and Ryder.