Boston Bruins Will Face Tougher Competition From Atlantic Division In 2014-15

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Boston Bruins Will Face Tougher Competition From Atlantic Division In 2014-15
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Can the Boston Bruins retain their stature at the summit of the NHL’s Atlantic Division in 2014-15? Sure.

Will they accomplish that hypothetical feat with the same apparent facility that they did in the first post-realignment campaign? Not with the way a couple of Atlantic cohabitants have eclipsed the cap-constrained Bruins on this summer’s trade and free-agent markets.

Results-wise, western New York and all of Florida bore the most favorable intra-divisional matchups for the 2013-14 Bruins.

With 5-0-0, 4-0-0 and 3-1-1 records against the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres, respectively, Boston had a better time with those clubs than with the other half of the eight-team sector. It went an aggregate 6-8-2 against everyone else, only detaching the majority of the wishbone against Toronto (2-1-1).

Expect at least two of those teams to upgrade their on-ice fortunes this fall. Expect them to reflect that turnaround by establishing more head-to-head balance with the Bruins.

The Atlantic’s regular-season champion failed to duplicate that title in the postseason with a second-round slip via Montreal. The Canadiens have since seen two key cogs shuffle below the border and turn west to Buffalo.

Brian Gionta joins a multitude of signings with the Sabres, who are approaching a new era in the first full season of Ted Nolan’s second coaching stint. Another familiar addition is blueliner Josh Gorges, who transferred via trade.

Of Gionta, Sabres general manager Tim Murray told Chris Ryndak of the team’s website on July 1, “Yesterday he was the captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a storied franchise, a playoff team. That wasn’t a token title. That was real.”

Equally real were the results the Canadiens collected against Boston during Gionta’s leadership tenure. From 2010-11 through 2013-14, Montreal went a cumulative 12-7-1 against the Bruins during the regular season and 7-7 in the playoffs.

Dating back to 2007-08, Gorges is a knowledgeable veteran of four Boston-Montreal playoff bouts in the Claude Julien era. That, along with his dependable stay-at-home skill set, emboldens his effect on the Sabres and their fortunes against the division’s reigning regular-season royals.

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Buffalo’s other marquee gain is top-tier left wing Matt Moulson, back for a second stint after Minnesota rented him at the trade deadline.

As best as 17 goals and 42 points in 64 games with two other teams can tell, Moulson has proved that his production as an Islander was authentic. He was not merely John Tavares’ remora on Long Island and will be a welcome addition to Buffalo’s new cohesion.

Playoff-caliber or not, Buffalo has flaunted a tendency to give the Bruins fits as is. In defiance of its uncontested bottom-feeder finish, it managed a regulation and overtime win in the 2013-14 season series.

Similarly, the Bruins were 2-2-1 against the Sabres in 2012-13. They stamped a 4-1-1 head-to-head record in the 2011-12 season series, but that one legitimate loss was a 6-0 shellacking. The year prior, they seized the Northeast Division crown back from Buffalo despite a 2-2-2 showing in direct confrontations.

This was all before the Sabres bottomed out and initiated their front-office overhaul last November. That was before the late-winter deal that discharged former franchise face Ryan Miller and assured Jhonas Enroth sole possession of the goaltending torch.

Wretched results aside, one had to think that Buffalo was making a gradual U-turn down the stretch of this past season. It has not stopped its drive this offseason, as evidenced by the import of Gionta, Gorges and Moulson, just to name three.

Meanwhile, Boston’s top summer story so far revolves around the exit of an aging legend, Jarome Iginla. Conversely, assuming consistent health, the Lightning figure to have the season-long services of an established beacon in Steven Stamkos.

Another ongoing Bruins storyline is the search for better speed up front. That was, after all, considered a key discrepancy in its losing cause against Montreal in 2014 as well as Chicago in 2013.

Barring unforeseen twists, Tampa figures to bear two premium specimens of speed in 2014-15.

This past season, Stamkos missed 45 games with a fractured tibia he suffered at none other than Boston’s TD Garden. The Bolts-Bruins season-series finale on March 8 was only his second game back.

The 24-year-old center ought to be back in his elite, elusive form in the coming campaign.

He should also have company in Jonathan Drouin, 2013’s third-overall draft pick who devoted one more year to major junior. Simply put, his initial impression as an NHL regular promises to jut out more than that of any current homegrown Bruins.

That is not to assert that Matt Fraser, Alexander Khokhlachev, Ryan Spooner, etc. cannot suffice as fillings on the depth chart. But they are all less likely to hit the ice sprinting than the logical preseason pick for the 2015 Calder Trophy at Tampa’s disposal.

Somewhat surprisingly, Drouin earned only a fleeting mention in Adam Proteau’s recent column on The Hockey News' website. But Proteau, whilst anointing general manager Steve Yzerman’s employees as the new class of the conference, had no shortage of external acquisitions to touch upon.

In Proteau’s words as part of his column last Tuesday:

Yzerman’s deft maneuvering under the salary cap has allowed him not only to retain the services of gritty winger Ryan Callahan, but also acquire a pair of experienced defensemen (Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison), a veteran backup goaltender (Evgeni Nabokov) and a big-bodied center (Brian Boyle) to supplement their talented core.

Three days after Proteau’s post, the Lightning carried on with their improvement by inking another seasoned, capable depth forward in Brenden Morrow.

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Contrast that with Boston’s brass and the paltry $1,640,857 in spare cap room, per CapGeek.com, it is trying to work with. While Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith can still be reliable right wings among the top three lines, a void remains all the same in that position.

Besides the endeavor to match the opposing strike force with one’s own, there is the matter of curbing the offense with one’s blue-line brigade. And sure, the Bruins can by all means make more strides among the likes of Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug and Kevan Miller.

That does not mean the next season will yield constant conquest, particularly when tangling with Tampa Bay. In their various slots on the defensive depth chart, those second- and third-year NHLers will have to stifle superior skill (Stamkos, Drouin) or strength and seasoning (Boyle, Callahan, Morrow).

The good news for the young Boston skaters is that they will still have the bulk of a competitive core on their side. They will have Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask defending the Selke and Vezina Trophy, respectively.

They will also have Dennis Seidenberg rejoining Zdeno Chara as the blue-line elders after an injury-shortened 2013-14. (Then again, due to the cap, they may need to relinquish another veteran bouncer in Johnny Boychuk.)

With that personnel, among others, the Bruins will remain a heavyweight in the Atlantic and the East. But while they are trying to figure out how to rinse out last year’s last-minute vinegar, frequent adversaries are figuring them out and acting accordingly.

After one-sided season series, the Sabres and Lightning are primed for the most gratification. A split of both four-game series in 2014-15 is a reasonable prediction.

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com

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