Boston Bruins Team Preview

The Boston Bruins had a tremendous 2008-2009 campaign. Squeaking into the playoffs the previous season where they took the Montreal Canadians to the brink of elimination; a slight improvement was the expected outcome by most observers for this past year. The Bruins surprised everyone by jumping out the gate strong and holding onto first place in the Eastern conference for the majority of the season. A second round knockout at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes in seven games was a disappointing end to what otherwise was an exceptional season.

As the summer moves along the Bruins look to bring a majority of their successful nucleus back into the fold with Phil Kessel being the lone free agent holdout. Kessel is a Restricted Free Agent, giving him little leverage in negotiations with the Bruins brass. The Bruins though are very tight against the salary cap with currently about $1,300,000 in cap space. One scenario in resigning him the Bruins could trade Chuck Kobasew ($2,333,333 cap hit), Andrew Ference ($1,400,000 cap hit) and sign Kessel to a three-year, $4,300,000 per year contract. This would consequently put the B’s even tighter against the cap. Trading Kobasew makes sense because the Bruins are already deep on the right wing. Both he and Ference have been injury prone as well. In return they should try for a defensive prospect to fill Ference’s void. Such a trade may not occur until late 2009, as Kessel is reportedly not going to be ready until December due to off season shoulder surgery. The Bruins would be wise to make the most of their assets (Kobesew and Ference) until Kessel is completely ready to go.

Kessel can expect big money following this current negotiated contract. He has the potential to put up 50 goals a year. Remember he’s only 21 years old. Last season he had mononucleosis that affected his game for probably over a month, and was able to bury 36 goals. He was rated in preliminary rankings at the top of his draft class in 2006. He fell in scouting service rankings over the course of his freshman year at Minnesota and was drafted by the Bruins fifth overall. It was a gift the Bruins were able to obtain him with the scoring potency he showed in his third NHL season. On the downside he seldom goes into the boards to battle, receives excellent scoring opportunities from premier set-up man Marc Savard, and scored most of his goals against non-playoff teams. Still, paying him $4,300,000 per season is reasonable with the skill he’s displayed thus far. He just needs to realize his day will come for a larger contract once he proves himself more. The movement of Ference and Kobesew and re-signing of “Phil-The-Thrill” would give the Bruins the following scary line combinations:

Lucic-Savard-Kessel
Wheeler-Krejci-Ryder
Sturm-Bergeron-Recchi
Thornton-Begin-Bitz
reserve forward: Sobotka

Part of the Bruins salary cap problem is several players are slightly overpaid: Michael Ryder ($4,000,000), Marco Sturm ($3,500,000), and Patrice Bergeron ($4,750,000) to name a few. These are all solid players that bring depth to the offensive core, but each is probably worth about one million less in this salary cap era. Also, do not forget the buy-out contracts included into the salary cap hit: Glen Murray ($1,383,333), Peter Schaefer ($566,667) and Patrick Eaves ($258,333). This leaves the Bruins with $2,208,333 in wasted salary cap space! Murray’s contract will be off the books after this upcoming season, leaving less than a million in buy-out contracts after 2009-2010.

Despite the overpriced and buy-out contracts on the payroll, the Bruins look to continue their offensive dominance on the league. Returning their top two lines that brought pain and envy to their foes should help the cause. Milan Lucic will lead the charge coming off a summer as a Team Canada summer orientation camp invitee. His solid combination of bringing determination and edge to every shift should only get better with two years of NHL experience under his belt. Lucic and linemate Marc Savard are both free agents at the end of the season. Expect Savard to continue his solid two-way play and be among the top 15 in league scoring.

Former University of Minnesota standout Blake Wheeler should come out the gate flying. He will be motivated after being a healthy scratch for most of the playoff series against Carolina and prove that his rookie season was no fluke. David Krejci will be coming off hip flexor surgery from this past summer. After signing a multi-year deal, Krejci will be another serious scoring threat once he returns to the lineup. Watch for him to help the continued rejuvenated career of Michael Ryder, who was forth in team scoring last year with 53 points.

Expect Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm to bring solid offensive depth. Both players missed significant time last season due to injury. Bergeron dealt with post concussion syndrome and did not regain his scoring touch prior to the original concussion in 2007-2008. Sturm was out for most of the season with a knee injury. Having these two in the lineup healthy topped with the veteran presence of Mark Recchi provides the Bruins three balanced scoring units. Byron Bitz, Shawn Thornton, and newcomer Scott Begin from Montreal will make up the Bruins checking line.

Boston’s defense is looking better than last years’ version. Aaron Ward is gone, back to his former team in Carolina via summer trade. He brought veteran leadership, but did not contribute much offensively from the blue-line. He also has had injury problems and is in the latter stages of his career. Derek Morris is a good upgrade, yet not exactly a cap friendly signing ($3,300,000) for one season. The 30-year-old has put up 20 plus points a season on a bad team, the Phoenix Coyotes, for almost four years in the desert. Then while on the offensively challenged New York Rangers for about a month at the tail end of last season, he registered eight points. He averaged 20-25 points on anemic offensive teams. Put him on the Bruins, especially with their dangerous power play and offensive depth, it’s foreseeable for him to register 35 points next season. This would be more than double the offensive output that Ward mustered last season. Below are the current defense combinations the Bruins are looking at next year:

Chara-Morris
Wideman-Ference
Hunwick-Stuart
Reserve Defenseman: Boychuk

The Bruins defense core will be a good blend of a Norris trophy winner, offensive-defenseman, and stay-at-home blueliners. It is arguably their weakest link right now, but the different skill sets each of these players brings will help stymie opposing teams offense. Captain Zdeno Chara will continue to lead this group. Averaging over twenty-five minutes of ice time per game, this behemoth of a man quarterbacks the power play, kills penalties, and punishes opponents with ease. He will certainly be beneficial in helping the Black and Gold take the next step forward.

Trading a dependable player such as Ference in order to sign Kessel will create a hole on the backend. In return under this hypothetical trade, a cheap ($950,000 or less), yet reliable defenseman should be brought on board. Some players the Bruins should consider are Kris Russell (Columbus), Nicklas Grossman (Dallas), Matt Niskanen (Dallas), Kyle Quincey (Colorado), Thomas Hickey (Los Angeles), and Bob Sanguinetti (New York Rangers). All these players are young and can develop well for the future.

In support of the defense will be one of arguably the best goalie duos in the league next year, Tim Thomas and the up-and-coming Tukku Rask. Thomas has proven himself as one of top five goalies in the league. Especially after his Vezina 2008-2009 season, he’s up in the same category there with Marty Brodeur, Henrik Lundquist, Mikka Kipprusoff, and Roberto Luongo. He gets flak for his style, but in the end pucks stay out of the net. He has the flair of Dominik Hasek in him, while at the same time showing strong butterfly-save fundamentals that make him tough to beat. He is also likely to be the starting goalie for Team USA at the Olympics in February.

Rask has proven himself in the AHL the past two seasons and will be an upgrade from Manny Fernandez. Coming to the Bruins in a trade from Toronto for Andrew Raycroft, a deal which is looking better every season since, do not be surprised to see Rask start 25-30 games. When called up to the big boys last year he earned a shutout against the Rangers in his lone NHL start of 2008-2009. After performing solidly in Providence this former 2005 first-rounder is ready to make his mark. Expect him to challenge the incumbent Thomas.

Due to playing in a weak Northeast Division, the Bruins will take the divisional crown and place third in the conference. Look for the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins to take their respective divisions and place ahead of the Bruins. The Bruins do bring back the core of their team from last season that was so successful, but other teams have improved as well. The lone X-factor currently is Kessel. If the Bruins can resign him and move Kobasew and Ference, the Bruins could jump a spot or two in the standings. Kessel brings the offensive firepower that the Bruins will need if they want to make a deeper push into the playoffs next season. At this time there appears to be no back up plan in place to replace Kessel’s output. Therefore it is imperative that General Manger Peter Chiarelli signs the young forward in order for Bruins to continue their resurgence and contend for the Stanley Cup. If the lineup remains status quo the Bruins will still be very competitive. Having a player like Kessel light the lamp though can be the difference between being championship caliber and “also ran.”

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