With a healthier Nathan Horton, a more poised Tuukka Rask and a collectively more consistent strike force, the Boston Bruins could have sealed first place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference last year. Or, at the very least, the seven-point gap between themselves and the New York Rangers could have been whittled down to one or two or a virtual tie.
All but one of the members of the 2011 Stanley Cup championship team who came back for last October’s banner night figure to be in Boston attire once again for the next season opener. With barely a couple of offseason roster changes, the sizeable core group will have a do-over in its effort to threaten the likes of the Rangers and Penguins for home ice throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs.
Is that a lofty ambition? You bet your blades it is. But provided the Bruins have all of the brighter elements of 2011-12 working for them in 2012-13 and pick up what was lacking for great portions of last season, it is not an unattainable goal.
With that said, nearly every regular or prospective regular in the lineup will need to reach finger-tipping distance of the ceiling of his potential to ensure Boston’s odds of finishing first.
Prospects Matt Bartkowski, Chris Bourque, Carter Camper, Garnet Exelby, Christian Hanson and Michael Hutchinson may all garner a call-up or two. But realistically, that will only happen for most of them if injuries plague the parent club in a manner similar to the way it did in the thick of last winter or in 2009-10.
In addition, the likes of forwards Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner and defensemen Aaron Johnson and Torey Krug will inevitably get a few looks as the occasional, injury, illness or rest night strikes.
But of the 20 players Boston will most frequently depend on, here is what they can do to ensure the best possible 82-game ride in 2012-13.
In 2011-12, when his team as a whole receded a little from Stanley Cup status, Bergeron broke 40-plus assists and 60-plus points for the first time since before he missed the majority of the 2007-08 season. Coupling that with a career-high and league-leading plus-36 rating, he garnered his first individual NHL award with the Selke Trophy.
Odds are Bergeron, at age 27, still has not reached his peak. Provided he continues to work with youngsters Tyler Seguin and/or Brad Marchand, even better numbers and more trophy ballots should be in store.
Look for him to threaten each of his previous career highs of 31 goals and 73 points from 2005-06 and 48 helpers from 2006-07. He probably won’t match each of them, but he should at least build upon his 2011-12 scoring log.
In each of three full NHL seasons, Boychuk has steadily elevated his regularity in the lineup from 51 games-played to 69 to 77. Yet his output has stalled in the mid-teen range from 15 to 16 to 15.
Granted, it is hardly the topmost priority in his job description, but if Boychuk can insert seven or eight goals and break the 20-point plateau, his performance on enemy property shall be deemed irreproachable.
The only way a team’s fourth line can justify a coach’s four-rolling-lines approach is for each member of that line to, if only barely, break double digits in both the goal and assist column.
In his second season as Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille’s pivot, a frostbitten October saw Campbell go pointless in each of the first 10 games. It was a can’t-miss contributing factor in Boston’s 3-7-0 start and, to a more noticeable extent, his final transcript of 8-8-16 in 78 games.
So, too, for that matter, was Campbell’s 13-game scoring drought that encompassed the entire February schedule, in which time Boston went 5-7-1.
A simple return to consistency from October through April and a concomitant return to 2010-11 proportions will suffice in the coming campaign.
With the door open to a third-line position all but earned by default, the third-year professional can justify his sustained presence over his first full NHL season by breaking out into the mid-to-upper 30s in the point column.
Can the towering captain and Norris-caliber blueliner raise his plus/minus any higher than the plus-33 that matches his jersey digits and has appeared on his final stat line three times in his career, including each of the last two seasons?
Could he possibly eclipse the career highs of 52 points and 166 hits he set last year?
The importance of the final hit count takes a backseat, provided Chara’s physicality on the home front amounts to enough timely counterattacks the other way. The rest of the aforementioned numbers, though, could be enhanced if he brings his goal-scoring back up to where it was in the mid-to-late portions of the previous decade.
A final point total hovering around 55 and a rating at or near plus-35 are not out of the question.
Ference is coming off arguably his best year in Boston to date, in part because he was not inhibited by much missed time. He cannot go much higher in the production department but could stand to bounce back on his primary tasks on defense.
Only once in his career has his plus/minus rating been a positive, double-digit number, but it happened to be in a fairly recent season when he stamped a plus-22 in 2010-11.
That number receded to a plus-nine this past year in spite of the fact that he scored a career-high six goals and totaled 24 points for the most in a single campaign since he was imported from Calgary.
Having turned 33 this past March, Ference is not quite in a position to start aging. His peak season(s) could still be yet to come, and he is perfectly capable of putting an upper-teens or lower-20s number in both the point and plus/minus column.
The door is gaping beyond belief for Hamilton to become an immediate fixture on Boston’s blue-line brigade, though nothing more than third-unit minutes at even strength is realistic for his rookie season.
On the other hand, he can inflate his ice time and output by taking the opportunity to transfer his prolific power-play prowess from the OHL to the NHL. If he challenges Chara for the team lead in that department by inserting about seven or eight man-up goals and cracking double-digits in power-play assists, he will have set the best and most reasonable tone.
With no further concussion issues, Horton ought to be a consistent presence in the lineup from both a corporeal and productive standpoint for the first time in his three-year Boston tenure. The ultimate result could be a return to the 30-goal and 60-point range, where he has not been since the middle of his Florida days.
The good news is that Kelly’s first full year in Boston yielded career highs of 20 goals and 39 points. The kicker is that he did it in spite of three pointless streaks lasting six games apiece, another lasting five games, yet another lasting four games and two three-game droughts.
A little more consistency, which would amount to another 20-goal season and a final point total in the mid-40s, is not unreasonable for the third-line pivot.
Although Khudobin will be moving up to an inherently more demanding level, he will also be coming off a fiery baptism in Providence.
Despite playing in only 44 of the P-Bruins’ 76 games, Khudobin finished seventh in the AHL with 1,388 cumulative shots-against and eighth with 1,275 cumulative saves. If all goes according to plan this year, he will go from backing an unripe, flimsy defensive brigade in Providence to backing a seasoned, proficient blue line in Boston for about 20 to 25 games.
Winning more than half of his decisions and not conceding any more than two-fifths of them in regulation should suffice for a first full NHL campaign.
In five years spent all but entirely in Boston, Krejci’s playmaking prowess has fluctuated in a consistent up-down-up-down pattern.
By that logic, but more importantly based on what he has shown in his better days, he should be due for a return to assists in the upper 40s. If that is accompanied by a new career-high bushel of about 25 goals, it will amount to his first collection of 70-plus points since his sophomore surge in 2008-09.
Krejci’s fellow 2007-08 rookie and off-and-on linemate has one 30-goal season to speak of since being elevated to the top six. Realistically, that will prove an anomaly on Lucic’s transcript, but there is a chance he could duplicate or exceed that 2010-11 output if he is working with Krejci and the Czech pivot’s best-case scenario comes to fruition.
Hard to imagine a player of Marchand’s build and skill set ever being the perennial 30-goal, 30-helper type. But if he is working with the likes of Bergeron or Krejci at the top of their respective games, he should be able to keep hitting the upper-20s in each category, as he did as an NHL sophomore last year.
McQuaid has missed 10 or more games in each of his first two full NHL seasons and, by his standards in his position as a stay-at-home defenseman, had a bit of a sophomore slide in 2011-12. He went from 15 points and a plus-30 in 67 games to only 10 points and a plus-16 in 72 appearances.
When playing under a coach like Claude Julien, though, a return to the vicinity of those 2010-11 numbers is hardly unattainable.
Peverley has proven himself to be a suitable top-six substitute whenever he is not utilizing his chemistry with fellow February 2011 import, Kelly.
His next challenges are to stay healthy enough to have a legitimately full season with Boston and to elevate his firsthand production. Peverley should be capable of breaking the low-to-mid 20s in the goal column and upper 30s in the assist department for his first single-season collection of 60-plus points in the NHL.
No Bruins goaltender in the Julien era has reached 60 games-played in a single season, meaning Rask can expect up to 57, 58 or 59 starts in his first year as the clear-cut No. 1 stopper.
With that said, his cumulative workload in 2012-13 still figures to eclipse his combined workload of the two preceding seasons. Because of that and the fact that he is still not fully proven, he most likely will not quite be duplicating his supreme save percentages and goals-against averages from 2009-10 and 2011-12 right away.
But, with that said, neither Rask’s personal stats nor his impact on the standings will slip back to 2010-11 proportions. Give or take no more than a pair in each column, and a near replica of his last AHL stat line from 2008-09 (57 games-played and a 33-20-4 record) is perfectly reasonable.
Out of his teenage years since late January and with 155 regular-season games on his log, Seguin ought to have seen the last of his repeat scoring slumps.
He should be ready to play a full 82-game slate and come only a few strides shy of charging up his current two-year totals of 40 goals and 89 points within a single campaign. Goals hovering around 35 and points around the 70s-80s borderline are a doable proposition in 2012-13.
Seidenberg’s performance at his day job reached a new height last year as he posted a career-high plus-23, trumping the previous high of plus-eight in 58 games-played as a rookie in 2002-03.
On the other hand, his offensive output took a mild dip to 5-18-23, ending a three-year string of 20-plus assists and 30-plus points.
His hitting and shot-blocking instincts are not going anywhere, and he need not be asked to dish up many more than five goals in an 82-game ride. But if Seidenberg can combine his efficiency in his own zone with his best playmaking rates on enemy property, he could he looking at points in the mid-30s and a rating in the low-to-mid 20s.
See Campbell and Paille.