The winners of three of the last four Northeast Division titles figure to start their next season without Tim Thomas, their two-time Vezina Trophy winner and 2011 Conn Smythe Trophy recipient. Depending on the terms of the NHL’s new collective bargaining agreement, their ability to trade Thomas could be crucial to keeping the rest of their 2011 Stanley Cup holdovers.
For the sake of sustaining relevance and regional interest, the Bruins must ensure minimal change to their landscape. Smoothly replacing Thomas looks like a necessity and can be done, but consistent and adequate support for the new net-minder from a deep strike force must also be ensured.
With those priorities in mind, here is what the New England hockey faithful should hope for over the holidays and into the new year.
If Thomas is, in fact, not to return to Boston, let alone in his old form, then it is on Tuukka Rask to reward his own patience. In turn, it will be on presumptive backup Anton Khudobin to competently fill in for about one-quarter of the regular season in case of an emergency.
Although the 25-year-old Rask has a relatively tiny transcript, it bears no alarming elements. During the lockout, he has played 17 games in the Czech Republic and retained a 2.11 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.
Statistically speaking, out of three full NHL seasons, Rask’s two best have been 2009-10 and 2011-12. Those campaigns share a common thread with 2012-13 in that they were each the final year on the Finnish fortress’ previous contracts.
With all that said, he still has yet to take on the majority of a single-season NHL bushel, his busiest campaign featuring 45 games-played as a rookie. A shortened 2012-13 season beginning in January on top of his autumn stint overseas, may help Rask have a better transition into a workload in the upper 50-game range starting in 2013-14.
Next Saturday, Dec. 22, will mark exactly 11 months since the last time Horton saw any NHL game action. A hit by Philadelphia’s Tom Sestito in a Jan. 22 contest triggered the winger’s second confirmed concussion in less than eight months, the first one occurring in Game three of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals.
If no more NHL games are cancelled―the earliest the season can start is New Year’s Eve―Horton will have essentially had a hiatus of equal length to Patrice Bergeron’s recovery from his October 2007 concussion.
Bergeron returned for 2008-09 after a little less than a year’s absence and, other than a less severe head injury in December 2008, has steadily returned to old form since, his output increasing on an annual basis.
Bruins buffs can hope the same sort of saga awaits Horton, who highlighted his first season in Boston with two overtime strikes and two series clinchers in the 2011 playoffs. Besides the topmost concern for his long-term livelihood, his value to the team was partially underscored last spring when the B's stumbled and faltered in a seven-game, first-round bout with Washington.
Variously playing with and without Horton, the Bruins tied Philadelphia for the second-best offense in the NHL with 3.17 goals per night in 2011-12. However, their struggles from about Jan. 24 through March 15, when they went 9-13-1, and then their shortcoming in the playoffs all occurred in his absence.
Could the contrasts be much clearer?
Beat writer Joe Haggerty of csnne.com had this to say as part of a column late last month regarding Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs’ role in the lockout:
“The biggest question of the lockout is, why would a frugal, shrewd businessman like Jacobs seemingly do his own team a disservice by prolonging the lockout? The Bruins have the most money committed in player salaries over the next two seasons, and would be severely affected by a sudden drop in the salary cap. Even if NHL teams are given a one-year transition period to adjust to a plummeting salary cap, the Bruins will be bumping the cap ceiling in 2013-14 without a single proven NHL goaltender signed on for duty.”
To that point, last year’s Bruins were having a tough enough time with the current system.
As the payroll list stands right now, the Bruins are indeed the biggest spenders with only $1,332,024 worth of spare cap space. That is not even counting potential call-ups in Svedberg, Torey Krug and Malcolm Subban, all of whom would be drawing seven figures if they were in the NHL right now.
If the current cap were to be kept intact, life would be immeasurably easier for general manager Peter Chiarelli if he could free up about $9 million more by discharging the injured Marc Savard and Tim Thomas.
Or, if nothing else, it would at least be much easier to keep the rest of the remaining Cup core that way. Any rollback that might come with the new CBA would inevitably mean making sacrifices of some sort, and all after Chiarelli had meticulously spent his first five years on the job assembling a long-awaited championship contender for Boston.