The Boston Bruins are set to begin the new season on October 3 at TD Garden. When they skate out for warm-ups, a few members of the 2013 Eastern Conference Championship squad will be missing. Meanwhile, some recognizable new faces will be donning the black and gold.
It has been a brief but painful summer for the Bruins, who came up just short in the Stanley Cup Final back in June. The emotional scars left by the loss are far from healed, but the Bruins' battle wounds are nearly healed. Nearing full health, Patrice Bergeron and company are ready to make another run for the Cup.
Here are the Bruins' five biggest storylines heading into the season:
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli shook-off his conservative reputation with a set of very aggressive off-season moves. On July 4, he responded to Nathan Horton's departure by trading Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley for Loui Eriksson and three prospects. The following day, future hall-of-famer Jarome Iginla came aboard on a one-year deal.
Now it's time to see if the big summer risks can pay off.
Boston's preseason lines have matched expectations. Eriksson, who can play on both wings, will play on the right side of Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, and Iginla will take Horton's spot next to Milan Lucic and David Krejci.
The Marchand-Bergeron-Eriksson line should now be Boston's clear number one unit. The trio projects to be an elite two-way group. Eriksson's offensive numbers have regularly exceeded those of his Bruins teammates in recent years, and he ought to challenge for the team points lead.
An exemplary defensive winger, Eriksson should post an elite plus-minus rating alongside Bergeron, who is a perennial Selke Trophy favorite. The 28-year-old Swede should be a perfect fit.
Iginla should also have no trouble establishing chemistry with David Krejci and Milan Lucic. The 36-year-old is similar in style to Nathan Horton, but he is even more offensively gifted.
The question about Iginla is his age. In the twilight of his career, he is no longer an elite goal-scorer. However, his success in Pittsburgh late last season was encouraging. After snubbing Boston at the trade deadline, Iginla potted five goals and 11 points in just 13 regular seasons games with the Pens.
Iginla improved significantly following his move away from Calgary. He benefited significantly from playing with Evgeni Malkin. Though Krejci is no Malkin, he is still a better playmaking center than Iginla ever had in Calgary.
The 530 goal-scorer won't have to be the star in Boston, and that should allow him to excel despite his age. Don't forget that he is just two seasons removed from a 43-goal, 86-point campaign.
The former-superstar scored twice in his preseason debut with the Bruins, and he has looked very comfortable so far. As he continues the long hunt for his first championship, he could turn in a vintage season.
Both Iginla and Eriksson should factor on Boston's power play. Scoring with the man-advantage has been very difficult for Boston over the last few seasons, and the new guys can only make it better.
If both stars meet expectations, Boston's offense is in for a major boost.
With Rich Peverley gone, the Bruins third line is in need of a shake-up. After a down season in 2013, Chris Kelly will be getting two new linemates to help get him back on track.
Swedish import Carl Soderberg seems to have one of the spots locked up. The 27-year-old arrived in Boston late last season after a protracted transfer dispute with the Swedish Ice Hockey Association. While playing with Linkopings HC, Soderberg was one of the Swedish Hockey League's top goal scorers.
He brings a lethal shot to the NHL, and after a full training camp he should be ready for a nightly role. Soderberg scored twice in a preseason visit to Detroit, and he's complemented Chris Kelly nicely. A natural center, Soderberg is likely to slide to the wing due to Kelly's faceoff superiority, but he could potentially line up on the dot.
The other wing spot on line three remains unfilled. Top prospect Ryan Spooner, Merlot-liner Daniel Paille, perennial underachiever Jordan Caron and former Dallas Stars Matt Fraser and Reilly Smith have battled for the role throughout camp.
Smith seems to have taken the lead recently, after playing very well with Kelly and Soderberg in preseason action. The 22-year-old prospect saw 37 games as a rookie in Dallas last year, and he is on track to avoid a return to the AHL.
Though another contender could still close the gap in time for the October 3 opener, it now seems as if Ryan Spooner and Matt Fraser are bound to form a dominant top-line combo in Providence. Both players are NHL-ready and could factor in at different times throughout the season.
Caron, on the other hand, is likely stuck in roster limbo. He probably won't go back to Providence due to his new one-way contract (capgeek). He should be Boston's reserve forward for now, and his time in Boston is probably almost over.
The probable combo of Soderberg, Kelly and Smith has a distinctly offensive flavor to it. Though Kelly is certainly a two-way forward, his point total ought to get a boost from the two goal-hunting wingers on his flanks.
Tuukka Rask handled the transition from backup to star spectacularly well in 2013. He was rewarded handsomely for his efforts with an eight-year, $56 million deal (capgeek).
Rask was unquestionably elite in 2012, not to mention almost unbeatable in the playoffs. However, he has still never been a team's wire-to-wire starter for 82 games.
He was injury free in 2013, but questions still remain about his ability to handle the massive workload. He is also likely to expand his share of starts due to the departure of trusted understudy Anton Khudobin.
The Bruins demonstrated their faith in Rask when they locked him up long term, and they have plenty of reason to be confident.
The Finnish netminder could be especially motivated early this season as he battles Pekka Rinne and Antti Niemi for the starting gig on Finland's Olympic team. Of course, if Rask wins the job, he'll take on even more work.
After a short summer, Rask could burn out in 2014. At the same time, the 26-year-old has a shot to emerge as the NHL's very best puck-stopper.
Based on his salary, Rask ought to be a Vezina Trophy contender. He will probably get 60 starts to chase that honor.
Boston was blessed with exceptional backup goaltending last season from Anton Khudobin. This year they will have to find someone else to relieve Tuukka Rask from time to time.
The Bruins brought in Chad Johnson this summer to compete for the job. Johnson played just four NHL games last season with the Phoenix Coyotes, but he stopped 95.4% of the shots he faced while allowing just 1.21 goals per game.
Johnson's competitor is Niklas Svedberg. After winning a championship with Brynäs IF in Sweden two years ago, Svedberg came to North America and dominated the AHL.
The 24-year-old European won the "Baz" Bastien Award as the AHL's best goaltender, and his 37-8-2 record with Providence screams "NHL-ready".
Though Svedberg might be more accomplished than Johnson, there are mitigating factors in the debate.
Johnson carries a significantly smaller cap hit than Svedberg, which could lead the Bruins to pick the more cost-effective option. Meanwhile, Svedberg's upside could encourage the Bruins to give him regular action in the AHL this season instead of sitting him in Boston.
A preseason shutout against the Detroit Red Wings has put Johnson in the driver's seat, but Svedberg remains very much in the hunt.
Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug were revelations in 2013.
The highly touted Hamilton got all of the attention in the regular season as he consistently impressed. However, Krug and Bartkowski stole the show in the playoffs.
Now the three young defenseman are looking to solidify their roles in Boston.
Though Hamilton was benched in the postseason, he continues to be an elite prospect. As the heir-apparent to Zdeno Chara, the 20-year-old should get top-four minutes in his sophomore season.
His ideal size and unmatched two-way talent give him an advantage over the slightly more mature Krug and Bartkowski.
The undersized Krug made a remarkable impact on the Bruins in the playoffs last year. Not only did he explode for four goals in his first five playoff games, but he also gave the Bruins attack a previously unseen edge. His lightning quick slappers from the point should be a mainstay on the power play this season.
The 25-year-old Bartkowski looks like the odd man out for now. Nearly traded to Calgary for Jarome Iginla last spring, the Ohio State alum seems to fit in as Boston's seventh defender. However, he could see regular action as part of a rotation.
Hamilton and Krug are both superb passers who can jump-start a breakout and quarterback a power play. Though Bartkowski won't see time with the man-advantage he is just as defensively reliable as the other two, if not more.
These three guys will be a lot of fun to watch as they mature, and one or two of them could be set for a breakout season.