By Wayne Whittaker, Boston Bruins Correspondent
“This is basically the same team that won the Stanley Cup”. This statement was recycled time and time again during the course of the 2011-2012 season for the Boston Bruins. It was a card that could be pulled at any moment when their effort was being called into question. And who could debate it?
Beyond a few role players (most notably Michael Ryder), the ’11-’12 Bruins were more or less the same team that helped capture Boston’s first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years. But no matter how the match-ups may have appeared on paper, there’s a reason the games are played. The fact is that by the end of last season the Bruins were not a great hockey club. Instead they were group that had become tired, distracted, and expectant.
So, their season ended. Not so much “prematurely” as it was thought to be at the time, their defeat at the hands of the Washington Capitals was well-deserved. You could feel a sense of relief among players. Of course they hated losing, but it was as if this great weight had been lifted off of their collective shoulders. They were no longer champions, so they could stop defending.
Then, everything changed. Tim Thomas, suddenly eccentric net-minder who had been with the Bruins his entire NHL career, decided that 38 was a good age to take a year off from hockey. Be it a strategic career move or an honest-to-goodness R&R campaign, Thomas’s absence suddenly makes Boston a lot less scary.
The fans on Causeway Street have obviously grown accustomed to other-worldly goaltending. During the reshaping of a Boston franchise that’s gone from basement dwellers to perennial Cup contenders in just six years, Tim Thomas had steadily improved from back-up, to starter by default, to all-star, to Vezina winner, and eventually to Stanley Cup champion and Conn Smythe recipient.
Thomas followed up his defining season by putting together a respectable campaign that will forever be a footnote to the White House sideshow that defined what appears to have been his final season in Boston. The months following his January Presidential snub were particularly frustrating for Thomas and his teammates.
The best insight into Thomas’s mindset came moments after Joel Ward’s Game 7 overtime goal. Thomas skated off the ice with a smile and a “what can ya do?” demeanor that was sorely out of character for the famously competitive net minder.
And with that, it all ended.
The unquestioned safety net for Boston’s defense and coach Claude Julien’s system will no longer occupy his stall in the Bruins locker room. His signature pads, tellingly absent of team colors, will not be gracing the cover of game day programs come October. #30 is gone, and it’s up to Tuukka Rask and his Bruins teammates to pick up the pieces.
Whether or not Rask will live up to his potential is yet to be seen, but he finally has his opportunity to shed the “goalie of the future” tag he’s held since coming into the NHL in 2009.
Beyond the sudden question mark in goal, Boston has once again retained their “core group” which general manager Peter Chiarelli has slowly assembled since his arrival to the team.
Tyler Seguin will be entering his third NHL season, if you can believe it, and is reaching a point in his young career where people will begin expecting him to be a difference maker.
Seguin will be well aware of those expectations, as well as the fact that this is a contract year for the 20-year-old. He came within one goal of reaching the 30-goal benchmark, and could easily but up 35-40 goals if he continues to progress. His performance this season will go a long way in determining how the Bruins shape their roster in the near future.
Other than Seguin and his entry-level contract, Brad Marchand ($2.5 million), Milan Lucic ($4.08 million), and Nathan Horton ($4 million) will also be entering their final year under contract. For Marchand and Lucic the task is simple: continue to produce, continue to progress, and the Bruins will be happy to re-sign. For Horton, however, things are a little more tricky.
Two major concussions in seven months may force Horton to stray away from the physical game that has acted as one of his strong points throughout his career. He had 17 goals and 32 points through 46 games prior to his January 22nd concussion, and was clearly missed by Boston in the first round of the playoffs. Horton will have to have a long, healthy, and productive year in order to convince Boston to keep him around, and to keep himself off the trade block.
2012-2013 will also be the first season for David Krejci under his new deal. Krejci is now the highest paid forward on the Bruins ($5.25 million), and has already come under great criticism for his streaky play last year. Of course, it’s also a mere 12 months since the Czech forward scored 23 points in a dominant Stanley Cup playoffs performance. At 26 years of age, Krejci should be in his prime, and that could work in Boston’s favor whether or not he produces up to his capabilities this year.
Just a few weeks into the off-season and Bobby Ryan’s name has already popped up in the rumor mill. Krejci’s cap hit is comparable to that of Ryan’s, and his name is almost always linked to “blockbuster” rumors around the Hub. However, it’s doubtful Boston would be comfortable with Tyler Seguin centering their first line, or with Chris Kelly or Rich Peverley centering their second or third lines. Plus, let’s not forget that beyond the Tomas Kaberle fiasco, Chiarelli has never been known for his brashness.
“Depth moves” is the name of the game for the Bruins, as management has stated multiple times that they are very happy with this team in its current incarnation. July 1 is just around the corner, and there are no signs that Chiarelli and Co. will be looking to make a huge splash in free agency.
The cornerstones are still in place with Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron, but the 2012 season could be a turning point for the Bruins franchise. There are a lot of moving parts at the moment, and no one is quite sure what to expect. There will be no “Cup hangover” talk this time around. For the first time since capturing their sixth championship, the Boston Bruins will be viewed as harshly as they had been in the previous 39 years.