The Boston Bruins step into the abbreviated 2013 with an excellent opportunity to continue their solid run of success in the Claude Julien era. However their season’s story depends on the answers to several significant questions – five of which are broken-down here.
1. Will a Lockout-Shortened Season Help or Harm the B’s Chances?
The B’s employ three defensemen (Chara, Seidenberg and Ference) and a trio of forwards (Kelly, Thornton, Peverley) on the wrong side of 30. With a shorter season, they might be able to avoid the injuries and wear and tear that a full 82-game schedule would bring.
While Tuukka Rask’s position as the team’s top ‘tender is finally incontrovertible, the shortened calendar could be a mixed bag. On the plus-side, Rask might be able to avoid hitting the 58-total-appearances that visibly slowed him in 2009-10; on the other hand, the compressed schedule will test his… and the team’s durability in ways a full season wouldn’t.
Boston has been a team of pronounced highs and lows over the past few years. At times they can seem invincible, propelled to victory by their impressively deep offense, impenetrable defense and unbeatable netminding. Conversely, they seem subject to equally-notable bouts of defensive malaise and attacking indifference.
Of course, the highs (the 2011 Cup, their 25-4-1 run from November to January of last season) have been more pronounced than the lows (last season’s 3-7-0 start, January 2010’s doldrums) but if either extreme emerges early in the short ’13 season, their fortune will shift dramatically one way or another. If they become a team trapped between the “poles” of excellence and mediocrity, one thing is certain: The lockout-shortened campaign will be anything but tedious.
2. Will the Northeast Be a Cakewalk (Again)?
The unbalanced schedule means the Bruins’ faceoff against their divisional rivals a whopping 18 times in 48 total games… a division they’ve dominated over the past four seasons running up a 72-30-11 record (including playoffs) and three Northeast Division titles.
Buffalo added John Scott and Steve Ott – the latter a particularly memorable pest to the Bruins’ – and some scoring potential in rookie
center Mikhail Grigorenko. The Habs also nabbed a talented young attacker (Alex Galchenyuk) and some grit in Brandon Prust but will start the season sans top defenseman, P.K. Subban. The Leafs are a team in-flux with the exit of GM Brian Burke and the revolving door in their crease, but still boast some impressive star-power up-front and a solid blue line corps. Ottawa made the postseason last year on the strength of several impressive breakout and rebound campaigns but may struggle to see those performances repeated.
Of these teams Boston has the fewest questions and should repeat as division winners – but the significant underperformance of several squads in 2011-12 (notably Buffalo and Montreal) could prevent the Bruins from winning in a runaway.
3. Will Chiarelli Deal?
Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli hasn’t been shy about affirming his belief in the B’s current roster… and why shouldn’t he be? The Black and Gold are perennial contenders, boast a solid prospect corps and own one of the deepest rosters in the game.
Still, there are places the Bruins might look to improve. With Benoit Pouliot gone to Tampa in the trade that brought fifth-round pick Seth Griffith into the fold, the B’s third-line left wing slot is a significant question-mark. On opening day, Boston will send-out Chris Bourque to skate alongside Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley – but with minimal NHL experience, the son of Bruins’ great Ray will be tested by fire. Other AHL options abound (most notably in the visage of top prospect Ryan Spooner) but unless Bourque or another wins the role outright, Chiarelli will feel some pressure to upgrade.
There’s also the question of a PMD. The Bruins’ have been locked in a perpetual will-they-or-won’t-they Ross and Rachel cycle when it comes to the subject of defenseman who can efficiently start the breakout. Every year the pundits and fans bemoan the team’s lack of such a player, and every year the ‘solution’ seems to fall short. This season, Dougie Hamilton steps-in to (hopefully) end the debate once and for-all… but whether a 19 year-old with plenty of warts in his game can be that player is still unknown.
4. Is Dougie Hamilton Ready for Prime Time?
Boston appears to have hit (another) home-run with the second first-round selection they acquired in exchange for Phil Kessel in 2010. Hamilton, who won the OHL and CHL defenseman-of-the-year awards in 2011, returned to the OHL where he was leading all defensemen in scoring yet again before a trip to the World Juniors and Bruins camp pushed him off the pace.
Hamilton, a 6’5+ blueliner with excellent mobility, great vision and attacking savvy made the Bruins out of the abbreviated camp despite some significant (to be expected) deficiencies. Hamilton’s defensive game – particularly his overall positioning – needs significant work before it’s even pro-average. The rangy defender has the bad habit of roaming all over the zone and leaving his spot unguarded. He also has a ‘riverboat gambler’ mindset and will look to make high-risk plays at nearly every turn.
Still, Hamilton is a tremendous talent whose stock can only go up with NHL experience. He’ll start the season on a pairing with steady-Eddie, Dennis Seidenberg, and while he might not be ready to be a star just yet, his skill-set should complement the excellent stay-at-home blue line already in Boston’s arsenal.
5. Will Tuukka and Nate Make Noise?
The Bruins two biggest question-marks heading into the 2013 campaign will be the performances of Nathan Horton and Tuukka Rask. Looking back on the season this coming summer, if the B’s have received solid to great showings from both, expect the Bruins to have been (at the very least) top-seeds in the Eastern Conference.
After Nathan Horton went down with his second concussion in under a calendar year, the B’s went into a tailspin that nearly cost them the Division crown and arguably took them down the path that led to their early exit via the surprising Capitals.
Horton turned-in a solid performance recovering from his first concussion, suffered in the 2011 Cup Finals, accruing 17 goals and 15 assists in 46 games. Anything close to those kind of totals would be phenomenal, but if Horton merely plays a solid role in the B’s first-line’s possession-game and can take a regular shift, Boston should be pleased.
Tuukka Rask isn’t returning from injury like the twice-concussed Horton, but the B’s starting netminder will face the expectations that stem from his history of success and from being the goalie to follow the legendary Tim Thomas.
Rask (as I mention here) has done a remarkable job in limited starts to date in his career. He possesses the size, skill and make-up to be a top-tier starter in the NHL. The Bruins will throw a formidable defense in front of him every night. If he’s able to assuage concerns about his durability and in-season stamina, Boston will find the departure of Tim Thomas that much easier to bear.
Follow Bob Mand on Twitter at @HockeyMand