It's finally here: The end is in sight.
Now? We're simply left with the Northeast. And it looks like I've saved the hardest for last.
To be honest, there's no predetermined way that this division can finish. For many, Boston is a foregone conclusion to finish on top, but after that there are so many intricacies facing the teams that two through five is completely up for grabs.
Right now I feel like if I had done this division first I wouldn't have these questions, but then where would the fun come from?
Probably this. Although he uses the transition too often, it's still worth spending three months of your life doing.
2008/09 Record: 53-19-10, 116 points, First in East—Lost to Carolina Hurricanes in seven games in second round
Additions: Derek Morris—D (1 year/$3.3 mil), Steve Begin—F (1 year/$850k), Dany Sabourin—G (FA)
Subtractions: Stephane Yelle—F (FA), Shane Hnidy—D (FA), Steve Montador—D (FA), Manny Fernandez—G (FA), Peter Schaefer—F (FA), Phil Kessel—F (Trade w/Toronto), Aaron Ward—D (Trade w/Carolina), Patrick Eaves—F (FA), P.J. Aexelsson—F (FA)
The Boston Bruins took the league by storm last year with a slew of young scorers, a mobile and exciting defense, and a goalie whose style is electrifying.
Then they ran into a Carolina Hurricanes team that was simply winning in playoff style.
Mark Recchi has faith that the younger players on the Bruins will be better and that this team will be well-prepared to battle for the cup this upcoming season—otherwise he wouldn’t have resigned.
The faith from one of the most-respected NHL veterans and another year of experience for the young players could soon turn this into the Big, Bad, Bruin Crew.
Timmy T, Tuukka Rask, and the Prevention of the Tickled Twine…
There is not a person who follows the NHL that isn’t familiar with Tim Thomas’ name now.
After two solid (full) seasons in Boston that saw him net 30 and 28 wins respectively, the well-traveled netminder made his mark and proved that he belonged at the NHL level last year.
Not only did he lead qualifying netminders in save percentage and goals-against average, but Thomas lost the fewest games (11) in regulation of any goalie in the top fifteen in wins (Thomas had 36 wins in sixth place).
Based on that track record its no wonder Thomas won every conceivable piece of hardware for a goalie last year.
While Thomas is a very athletic (and very unorthodox) goaltender whose effectiveness was unquestioned last year, his age (35) and the fact that he only played in 54 games last season are detractors, no matter how minute.
It’s not to say that Thomas’ age will hinder him, because if his numbers stay in the 50-60-start range it’s very manageable for a goalie of his abilities. The Bruins are just fortunate that they have a goalie of Tuukka Rask’s abilities backing him up.
Unfortunately, there are more than a few players around the NHL that have Leafs’ fans holding their heads in dismay that they got away from the franchise. One of those is Rask.
Rask’s one start in the NHL last year was a shutout, he had a 2-1 record in the NHL the year before, and he’s looked outstanding in his AHL stints over the past two seasons.
Then with the way he’s played early in the preseason, Rask looks like a bona-fide starter in net for the Bruins, and Thomas’ age and Rask’s development may work perfectly in tandem, one day offering the B’s a seamless transition.
Channel Your Inner Chara…
If Zdeno Chara couldn’t skate, his physical presence alone would still be intimidating people, just probably as a bouncer in a club or that guy that runs the lines at amusement parks. Would you cut in Zdeno Chara's line? I don't think so.
Also scary is the fact that, without skates, he's still taller than most NHL'ers ON skates.
The man with the biggest frame in the NHL is also one of the most complete defenseman.
Although he’s a little slow-footed at points (Then again you try dragging around a 6’9 frame), Chara can throw the puck up ice to start the rush, rip a humongous shot from the point, or erase the scoring threat of the opposition with his physical presence.
The NHL’s reigning Norris-winner is the ideal defenseman as he can do it all, but his physical gifts prevent him from being controlled by many, if any.
Going from the tallest, the Bruins then feature a few smaller defensemen.
While Dennis Wideman will never be a physical imposition on anyone, he has outstanding mobility and vision. Going back to his time in London, Wideman has always been a gear through which the offense turns, and as he gains experience in the NHL that will only continue (Although that 50 points will probably settle between 35-40).
Solidifying the top four is the acquisition of Derek Morris. Adding another top-end puck-mover to the defense only makes the Bruins harder to play against, because Morris offers a third defenseman who can move the puck effectively.
The discouraging factor, is that he's not as flashy as he could be as he has been saddled with a lack of talent and ineffective players the past few years.
Morris also has a big shot from the point, increasing the danger of both Bruins’ powerplays and ensuring that, whomever Wideman lines up alongside, there will be someone for him to slide the puck to.
After that there’s a little more youth on the Bruins roster. Mark Stuart is a big, strong player who played a strong 82 games last year posting a +20. Stuart is known for being strong physically, as well as in his own end, which will give the Bears a strong, balanced presence on the blueline.
There’s also the offensively developing Matt Hunwick whose a strong, productive low-pairing defenseman with the ability to jump up the depth chart, while Andrew Ference will always be able to add that gritty dimension to the game.
Johnny Boychuk is coming off of a 66-point year in the AHL, which may go to prove that the Bruins are going to have to make room for him in the NHL sooner, rather than later, while Andy Wozniewski, Andrew Bodnarchuk, Jeffrey Penner, and Adam Mcquaid will have to battle for the same spot.
If injuries strike, they each may get a look at the NHL level, but Penner, Bodnarchuk, and Mcquaid will be better served by getting big-time minutes in the AHL and playing consistently rather than trying to crack a tough rotation.
Yes I can Make the Kessel Run in Five Parsecs…
First of all, no I don’t know how long a parsec is. I don’t even know if I spelled Parsec right. Is it even capitalized? I think so, but these are the questions you SHOULD be asking during NHL previews.
Second of all, if there was the opportunity to make a “Wookie” joke with a player’s name on the Bruins, I would have—Wookie is simply a funny word. That and it rhymes with nookie. Awesome.
Third of all, yes, I am a Star Wars nerd. Leonard Nimoy just stopped reading in disgust.
I think it’s an all-but foregone conclusion that Phil Kessel is done with the Bruins (I wrote this a week before the trade. I kept this line in to prove I can tell the future). That being said, he will be missed in Boston for his abilities (not his attitude), as it’s hard to replace 36 goals.
With that out of the way, Boston may be one of the only teams with the resources able to do so.
You’re looking at a team that features dynamic young players Zach Hamil, Brad Marchand, Joe Colborne, and Mikko Lehtonen, and those are the guys who haven’t even played in the NHL yet.
Sticking with the youth, Milan Lucic is a fan favorite of the NHL and it’s no wonder why. The Vancouver-native is the epitome of old-school NHL: A hard-nosed player who can fight, hit, and put up his fair share of points. Although he’s more likely to score a Gordie Howe hat-trick than score like Gordie Howe, Lucic is the next in a long line of players to define the Boston Bruins.
That definition could put him on a list including Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Ray Bourque, and Cam Neely. While it remains to be seen if he has the talent to match them, you still have to be a very special player to earn a place in Boston sports lore.
Another Bruin who’s benefited from the expanded ice time early on is David Krejci. Put into a scoring role, Krejci has shown deft playmaking ability with 71 assists in 144 NHL games. Although he may not score much more than those 22 goals a year, Krejci’s vision will make up for it, especially if he's placed along goal scorers like Blake Wheeler.
Wheeler exploded with 21 goals in his first NHL season and if he continues to develop as an NHL winger, his shot will get better and that shooting percentage will go up—a great thing for a young winger with great size and strength.
Wheeler will have to learn to play against opponents who are constantly scouting and changing approaches, and his ability to last an entire year will be questioned his first few seasons, but improved condition will only be another tool for the young Boston winger.
Even some of the veteran NHL forwards on this roster aren’t what you’d call “veterans”. The 27-year old Chuck Kobasew has played over 300 games in the NHL, but he’s seemed to find a niche in the NHL as a pure goal-scorer, netting 20 goals in three of the past four seasons.
Patrice Bergeron even seems like more of an NHL veteran than he actually is. The 24-year old took baby steps in recovering from a serious concussion two years ago, but questions will always remain about his health. After all, Bergeron missed 15 games last year with another concussion, so how will head injuries effect this world-class talent in the long run?
While his production (39 points) was just above the halfway point of his last full season (70 points in 2006/07), Bergeron will have the time and opportunity to get his legs back.
It does help that Marc Savard’s world-class playmaking ability takes away a lot of the attention, while veterans Marco Sturm (Who they only got 19 games from last year), Michael Ryder, and Mark Recchi will be shouldering some of the load as well.
The first two carry 25-30 goal potential, while Recchi could be in line for at least 55 points given the way he played with Boston down the stretch.
There’s also some grit in Shawn Thornton and Steve Begin, who could be saddled with the job of protecting Bergeron if teams get too rough with him, while Byron Bitz is a great Boston sports name and a great grinder as well.
So what’s it all mean…
The Bruins have the most well-rounded package in the Northeast.
They’ve got great goaltending in both Thomas and Rask, a puck-moving defense that also has a great physical aspect, and their forward lines are dangerous up and down the roster.
Against a division that’s a bit of a mish-mash in places, the Bruins may have a little more trouble than last year, but a second Northeast title should be attainable.
1st in Northeast
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.