By Mike Miccoli, Boston Bruins correspondent
For Bruins fans, the offseason has been—well, pretty good, thanks for asking. It has certainly seemed shorter than ever before thanks to the Bruins’ extending their season to June 15. In fact, the beginning of free agency didn’t seem as painful as it did in years’ past because of the majority of Boston’s roster remaining intact for the following season. Yes, the summer is progressing along nicely. Not only can fans look forward to the Bruins’ opening night game against the Philadelphia Flyers as the beginning of the road to a championship, but as a night where a new banner is raised to the rafters of the TD Garden.
Apparently, everything is different in the hockey world in the summer following a Stanley Cup victory. It’s sort of nice finding that out.
Of course, next season is a concern for the Bruins—why wouldn’t it be? Defending the Stanley Cup is no easy feat and a repeat celebration in June has been done only twice in the last 20 years; the Pittsburgh Penguins went back-to-back in 1991 & 1992 while the Detroit Red Wings doubled up in 1997 & 1998. Since then, nada. Zip. Nothing.
Focusing on teams in the post-lockout era, it’s safe to say that it’s difficult to even re-appear in the Cup Finals; the exception, again, being the Red Wings. Two seasons ago, the Blackhawks looked unstoppable. The team’s offseason following their Cup win included dismembering their team due to cap restrictions. Chicago squeaked into the postseason on the last day of the regular season, their insane amount of depth from the season before disintegrated.
The Bruins won’t have that problem.
In fact, only four players on Boston’s active roster for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals have departed—Mark Recchi (retired), Michael Ryder (signed by Dallas), Tomas Kaberle (signed by Carolina) and Shane Hnidy (cut).
By filling holes internally with prospects, making minor signings (Benoit Pouliot) and trades (Joe Corvo) the Bruins certainly seem to be on the right track to be a strong contender for the 2011-12 Stanley Cup.
However, predicting who will win the Stanley Cup before NHL camps even open is irrelevant. How many thought that the Vancouver Canucks would win the Cup last season based on their incredible offseason? This guy did. Now, how many predicted that it would be Boston to force a Game 7 to win the Cup after being done 2-0 in the Finals? Not I, but that still feels good to write.
To me, there are five things that I feel could potentially happen with this Bruins team once the season begins. Of course, I could be miserably incorrect, but that’s the best thing about predictions—logic, a hunch and some opinions could make them possible…or ridiculous. But before that begins, let us assume that we can agree on all of the following regarding the 2011-12 Boston Bruins team:
1) Nathan Horton starts the regular season with no setbacks.
All signs points to yes but since he did suffer a concussion, one can never be too sure. By traveling to Vancouver for Game 7 and skating on the ice during the Cup presentation, you’d have to believe that Horton will be ready to go.
2) Marc Savard ends up missing next season.
Savard is still experiencing headaches and symptoms of post-concussion syndrome from the hit that edged his attempt at a comeback back in January against the Colorado Avalanche. It was good to see Savard out for the Bruins’ rolling rally but the sad reality is that he isn’t coming back.
3) Brad Marchand gets re-signed.
This would shocking if it didn’t happen. Marchand played a huge role for the team in the regular season and in the playoffs and is all but guaranteed to start the season in black and gold.
Now, this is where things get a bit opinionated:
Benoit Pouliot will not be the ‘biggest disappointment’ by any means.
Count me among those excited for the Benoit Pouliot era to begin in Boston, even if the 4th overall pick in 2005 hasn’t exactly lived up to his full potential. Pouliot bounced around the Minnesota Wild organization for a little more than three seasons, spending time with the big club and its AHL affiliate Houston Aeros, shortly before being traded to the Montreal Canadiens for Guillaume Latendresse in 2009. After being dubbed ‘gutless’ and the ‘biggest disappointment’ in the Bruins/Canadiens round one series by NESN play-by-play man Jack Edwards, it’s probable that Pouliot won’t receive the red carpet treatment upon his arrival. Still at a $1.1 million cap hit for one year, it’s a smart, calculated risk that Chiarelli could be rewarded for once the season begins.
No one expects Pouliot to net 20+ goals, but a season similar to his last with Montreal, 13 goals, 17 assists in 79 games, would make him anything but a bust, especially when playing bottom-six minutes. Stats like those, eerily similar to the same numbers his assumable center Gregory Campbell put up (80GP, 13G, 16A), would add even more firepower to the 4th-line which saw a revolving door at LW with Brad Marchand, Daniel Paille and Tyler Seguin all taking turns. Add-in a permanent left-winger with potential to grow, and we could see a similar situation as what happened with Marchand’s emergence.
You could argue that Pouliot is taking the spot of a Jamie Arniel, Jordan Caron or another prospect or that he was drafted way too early but consider this: if all else fails, a one-year, $1.1 million deal is easy to get rid of if Pouliot doesn’t produce, though I think this is the year he finally breaks out. I’m not buying into the notion that he’ll be bad for the locker-room since nobody knows what happens behind closed doors except the players. Let’s leave that up to them.
Tuukka Rask will make a serious impact this season.
Nothing against Tim Thomas since the only person who knows what Tim Thomas will do next is Tim Thomas–that’s something everyone learned this season–but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the future goaltender of the Bruins is sitting on the bench watching it all unfold. Rask accepted the backup position graciously while Thomas shined throughout the season. The motivation level for Rask to compete for the starting position coming off a Cup victory should be sky-high.
The problem with Rask’s starts this past season were that the Bruins were unable to score in support of him. Out of the 27 starts for Rask in 2010-11, the Bruins scored three or more goals in only ten games, or 37% of his starts. In Thomas’ 55 starts, they scored three or more goals in 39 games, 71% of his starts. A little bit of an unbalanced stat, if you ask me.
It’s my estimate that the Bruins score more this season (more on that later). If Rask continues to be a shutdown goaltender and reverts back to the style of play in 2009-10 that helped him achieve a 1.97 goals-against-average, he’ll play more. Thomas will probably still be stellar but if you have a backup that starts to heat up, you’d have to ride his hot streak. Now over the sophomore slump and after offseason surgery, Rask should be able to find total control of his game.
Thomas will probably still see around 50-55 starts, but Rask’s starts should be better this season, especially if he’s stronger in net. Right now, Rask is a top-five backup goaltender in the NHL. After this season, I’ll imagine him to be the best.
The Bruins will have(at least) three 30+ goal scorers.
…but I won’t tell you who they will be, since there are plenty of options.
Of course, I’m operating under the impression that Tyler Seguin breaks out this year. I’ll spare the Steven Stamkos comparisons, but a nice 30+ goal season for Seguin should be quite possible for the rookie in his second year. We saw what the center is capable of doing in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. By translating that same electricity and raw skill to the regular season, anything is possible. Put Seguin on a line with a puck-moving center and who knows what can happen.
Two more candidates for 30 or more are Milan Lucic, who scored 31 last season, and his top-line counterpart, Nathan Horton. If 100% healthy, Horton might be more likely than Lucic to surpass the 30-goal mark for one main reason: his confidence. Coming off the emotional postseason, Horton proved to everyone what type of a shot he’s capable of unleashing. Though he finished last season with only 26 tallies, even after a few goal-less stretches of games (the longest lasting from January 3 until February 1) Horton began to score again once he built up a shoot-first mentality, something that helped him succeed in the playoffs.
Even though Horton’s only played one season with 30 or more goals (2006-07), it was with Olli Jokinen and (wait for it!) Josef Stumpel as his centermen. Lucic and Horton get to play alongside one of the best up-and-coming playmakers in the NHL, David Krejci. Krejci will have a huge impact on both of these two wingers reaching 30 or more goals. If both can avoid long goal-less droughts that they suffered from this past season, surpassing 30 goals should come easily.
Patrice Bergeron is another pick to surpass 30 goals this season. He was on a tear last season and came awfully close until he just stopped come March 1. In his last 18 games, Bergeron had only one goal. If he’s able to carry his scoring momentum late into the season, he should be on pace to reach 30. Some other candidates, though unlikely, could be Brad Marchand or David Krejci.
Johnny Boychuk will unfortunately become the next Dennis Wideman.
With fan-appointed goats, Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle off the team, the finger will have to be pointed at someone when all goes wrong. Deservingly so or not, Boychuk could be that player and that’s just unfortunate.
We saw some signs of Boychuk’s defensive game slipping throughout the postseason, especially during the Eastern Conference Finals against Tampa Bay. Though his stats were decent throughout the season, it is safe to say that Boychuk may not have lived up to his billing after a stellar 2009-10 season. With one year remaining on his contract, and an offseason that included Adam McQuaid adding three more years to his contract, the drafting of Dougie Hamilton ninth overall and plenty of younger options waiting in the wings (Steven Kampfer, Colby Cohen, Ryan Button, etc.), it doesn’t seem like Boychuk is in the future plans of the Bruins.
Even though Johnny Rocket is still beloved by the die-hards (and for good reason too), there’s no denying that his game has slipped. With no other players to scapegoat, Boychuk could be next in line to join an under-performing list of former Bruins that most recently includes Ryder, Kaberle, Dennis Wideman, Glen Murray and Hal Gill. Of course, the reasonable solution is not to blame one player but the team as a whole, but welcome to Boston—somebody, always, unfairly loses.
The Bruins roster on opening night will not be the same lineup come the postseason.
I cheated here. For one, I made an obvious statement since this happens almost every year (2010-11 had Matt Hunwick, Blake Wheeler, Mark Stuart all in the lineup with Marco Sturm scratched, none of which were dressed in black and gold by March while 2009-10 had Derek Morris, Chuck Kobasew and Byron Bitz in October, but not in April). And secondly, I assumed that the Bruins will make the playoffs–very likely.
As it stands, it seems the Bruins will have a good amount of cap space to play around with, all things considered (Marchand signing for a reasonable amount, Savard remaining on long-term IR). With plenty of prospects in the system, Chiarelli should have some decent flexibility to make some trades for rental players come the trade deadline. It’s way too early to think about the deadline but if Chiarelli sees a way to improve his team–much like this past season when Kaberle was acquired–he’ll pull the trigger. There are plenty of players on the last year of their contracts in Boston. If there’s a player to push the Bruins over the top, expect Chiarelli to go for it.
But for now, let’s just focus on training camp. When does hockey start again?
Mike is a nominee for CBS Boston’s Most Valuable Sports Blogger of 2011.You can vote for him here. Mike is also on Twitter. For more Bruins updates, as well as general hockey and pop culture commentary, you can follow him here.