Last season, Boston overcame key injuries to squeak into the playoffs and take Montreal to seven games. While Bruins fans have become accustomed to early exits, this one was sweeter.
Besides wearing out the top-seeded Canadiens, who lost in the next round to Philadelphia, the Bruins got there despite the absence of center Patrice Bergeron and goalie Manny Fernandez.
Their return, along with the addition of free agent winger Michael Ryder, doesn’t necessarily make Boston a contender. But for a team that had trouble scoring last year, Bergeron and Ryder’s presence suggests that the team will be competitive on both ends of the ice.
Bergeron’s return may well draw comparisons with fellow Boston youngster Jon Lester’s bout with lymphoma. Of course a concussion doesn’t really rank with cancer, but after Bergeron was blindsided into the boards, there were concerns that his career was over.
That speculation only gave the kid more reason to come back. Though the doctors vetoed it he wanted in for the playoffs, and after months of dealing with post-concussive syndrome, he’s back at full strength.
That’s good, because like Lester, Bergeron is carrying a lot of weight for his team. The young center will have to spark an offense that barely scored 200 goals last season.
However, it’s not on Bergeron alone—he’ll have help in the form of free agent forward Michael Ryder. The 28-year-old turncoat-Canadien was not Boston’s first choice, but after Marian Hossa signed with Detroit, the Bruins turned to a veteran with questions—and tremendous upside.
After scoring 30 goals in each of his first two seasons, Ryder’s playing time and scoring both dropped off significantly last year. Concerns that the ex-Montreal forward could be the Bruins' version of signing Ramiro Mendoza should be tempered.
It’s certainly worrying that Ryder still hasn’t explained what happened last year, but he’s being reunited with Coach Claude Julien who helped develop him. If he can find that finishing touch, he’ll make a great pairing with pass-happy center Marc Savard.
Bergeron isn’t the only young player to watch on the front lines. In his first year, Milan Lucic established himself as a physical presence, clearing space for the Bruins' attack.
Rookie Blake Wheeler, who had experience with fellow forward Phil Kessel in college, is already turning heads in training camp. And David Krejci, along with veteran Stephane Yelle, helps stabilize the center position after the departure of Glen Metropolit.
Looking all the way to the back, the Bruins' other big injury-addition should stabilize the net. Manny Fernandez is back from knee surgery, though bad luck seems to be following him. If he can avoid freak injuries, Tim Thomas won’t have quite so much pressure on him and the team can send prospect Tuukka Rask down to Providence for seasoning.
The defense was a strength for Boston last year, thanks primarily to the resurgence of Zdeno Chara. While he’s not quite fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery, expect him back for the regular season.
Another defender to watch is Mark Stuart. Last year he showed promise in his first full NHL campaign and hopefully he can displace the frustrating Andrew Ference (a team worst -14 last year) from the second line.
While it’s premature to talk of the Bruins in the same light as Boston’s championship franchises, there’s certainly good reason for optimism. Bergeron and Fernandez are back, Ryder could find his touch again, and there’s room for improvement from a host of young players.
The offense needs to improve, but if Lucic and Krejci continue their development, underachiever Phil Kessel can reach his potential, and Dennis Wideman can live up to his contract, it won’t be such a surprise if the Bruins make the playoffs this year.