After surprising every expert and hockey pundit and finishing first in the Eastern Conference, and just one win away from a President’s Trophy, the Bruins enter this coming season with perhaps even higher expectations after a disappointing Game Seven loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Conference quarterfinals. Heading into the season there are still a few potential issues the team needs to address.
1) The Penalty Kill
After finishing 28th in the league on the PK during the 2007-2008 season, the Bruins improved to 11th in the league with an 82.4% kill during the 2008-2009 season. A huge part of their PK success was due to P.J. Axelsson, and to a lesser degree Stephane Yelle. Neither was re-signed (Yelle went to Carolina, Axelsson returned to Sweden). Axelsson was never an offensive force, but his instincts and vision were a great asset to the Bruins defensively. Blake Wheeler showed promise on the PK last season and the Bruins expect him to evolve in that role, while also posing an offensive threat. New addition Steve Begin also expects to see some time on the PK, replacing Yelle but with more of a mean streak.
2) Playing against a strong fore-check
The series against Carolina finally exposed a big weakness in the Bruins play—an inability to successfully defend against an aggressive fore-check. The Hurricanes speed and fore-checking ability was a huge match-up problem for the Bruins, which often resulted in the team failing to get past the neutral zone. Boston added defenseman Derek Morris this off-season to (hopefully) provide them with a solid puck moving defenseman who can help create offense when leaving the defensive zone. After a miserable showing atfer being traded to the Rangers, the Bruins will need Morris to regain his form from his Calgary days to really be effective.
Yes, the Bruins finished second in the league in scoring last year. However, speedy sniper Phil Kessel looks to be done in Boston as the trade rumors are flying. Kessel scored 36 goals last season despite missing time with mono and a shoulder injury and getting little power play time. Kessel was one of the few Bruins who could finish, usually catching rebounds or knowing the best time to shoot.
Breakout start David Krejci will be missing as well, at least to start the season. Krejci is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab and is hoping to be back in late October, but how will the injury affect him? The Bruins have winger Marco Sturm coming back from injury as a potential boost, but Sturm has never scored more than 30 goals in a season.
Late last season Patrice Bergeron looked to be regaining his old form but he will need to build on that. Young stars Krejci and Wheeler (who got gassed down the stretch) need to prove last season was no fluke, while vets Sturm and Bergeron will need to get past their injuries to make sure Boston has enough firepower.
4) Can Tim Thomas repeat his 2008-2009 Vezina campaign?
Tim Thomas enters this season as the undisputed No. 1 goalie for the first time in his tenure with the Bruins. After splitting time with Manny Fernandez last season, Thomas signed a four-year, $20 million deal with the Bruins to be their No. 1. Thomas has been a great story and seems to get better every year.
However Thomas has admitted that he wears down after too many starts. Prospect Tuuka Rask is finally expected to be promoted full time to the NHL this season as a backup to Thomas. Rask is hailed as a future goaltending All-star, but this will be his first season seeing regular time Boston. Can Rask play strong enough given his new responsibilities to provide Thomas with enough rest and earn the confidence of his coach and teammates?
5) Blueline depth
The Bruins start the season with a very solid top four of Chara, Wideman, Morris, and Ference. Mark Stuart and Matt Hunwick are expected to round out the top six.
Stuart is a budding star with some offensive upside who is not afraid to throw his weight around. Hunwick played well down the stretch last season, but this will be his first full NHL season. Ference has a history of injuries and needs to prove he can stay healthy for a full season.
Behind the top six, the Bruins seem to have little depth in regards to players/prospects with any solid NHL experience. Johnny Boychuk may be a good seventh defenseman or better depending on how he performs in camp, but there is little to offer behind him. If the injury bug strikes, the Bruins may have trouble on the back end.