Thanks to the fact that they’re a veteran team with a lot of returning players, the Bruins are in better shape than most coming out of the lockout. The abbreviated training camp and lack of preseason games will affect everyone, but it should affect the Bruins less than other teams. The core of the team has been together for a few years and they already have plenty of chemistry, which should be an advantage for them early on.
That said, the Bruins aren’t without questions heading into this lockout-shortened season. Let’s take a look at five of the biggest.
1. Is Tuukka Rask ready to be the everyday starter?
With Tim Thomas sitting out the season and looking unlikely to ever play for the Bruins again, Rask is no longer the goalie of the future, but the goalie of the present. Rask has already proven he has what it takes to be a very good NHL goalie, as evidenced by his .926 career save percentage. The only question is his durability. Rask missed the end of last season with a groin injury, and then re-injured his groin while playing in the Czech Republic during the lockout.
Thankfully for the Bruins, that latest scare turned out to be very minor. Still, B’s fans will probably be on pins and needles watching Rask early on. Should he suffer another injury, the Bruins don’t exactly have a lot of depth behind him. Anton Khudobin, who has played just seven NHL games, is projected to be his backup. Also keep an eye on Niklas Svedberg, who is having a solid season in Providence.
2. Who will fill out the defensive corps?
Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk are about as solid of a top four as you’ll find. But with Adam McQuaid still recovering from major surgery to remove a blood clot and Joe Corvo, Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau all gone, the Bruins will likely have two spots up for grabs over the next couple weeks. Expect 2011 first-round pick Dougie Hamilton to get first crack at one of them. He struggled at the recently concluded World Junior Championship and still has some developing to do, but there’s really nothing left for him to prove at the major junior level.
The other spot should be interesting until McQuaid returns. Veteran free-agent signings Aaron Johnson and Garnet Exelby should both be in the mix, but the Bruins could give some younger guys a chance too. Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski have both already seen some time with the big club, while Zach Trotman and David Warsofsky are having good seasons in Providence as well. Krug and Warsofsky are small, speedy, offensive-minded guys, while Bartkowski and Trotman bring more of an all-around game.
3. Is Nathan Horton ready to go?
The short answer is yes. Horton had his season cut short last year after suffering his second concussion in less than a year in January. He has had a full year to recover now, and his agent has told reporters that Horton is completely healthy and ready to play. He should go right back to his usual top-six role, and the fact that he’s an unrestricted free agent after the season will give him plenty of motivation to prove that he is still a go-to scorer. He had 17 goals and 32 points in 46 games last season before suffering the concussion.
4. Who will be the 12th forward?
Barring something unforeseen, 11 of the Bruins’ 12 forward spots are set. Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand are the top two left wings, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are the top two centers, and Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton are the top two right wings. Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley should be two-thirds of the third line, while the fourth line will almost certainly be Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton once again. If the season had started on time, Jordan Caron would’ve had the inside track to fill one of the spots vacated by Benoit Pouliot and Brian Rolston (Horton’s return takes care of the other). But Caron has struggled in Providence this year and recently suffered an injury that is expected to keep him out for the start of the season.
That leaves Chris Bourque, son of Bruins legend Ray Bourque, as the apparent favorite to fill the opening. He’s had a productive AHL career and currently leads the P-Bruins in points, but he has struggled to make the most of his chances in the NHL. Others to keep an eye on are Jamie Tardif — another AHL vet who currently leads Providence in goals — and Ryan Spooner — a 2010 second-round pick who, in his first full season as a pro, ranks third on Providence in scoring.
5. Will David Krejci and Milan Lucic silence their critics?
Every Bruins forward not named Rich Peverley struggled in last April’s first-round loss to the Capitals, but Krejci and Lucic came under more fire than the rest. That wasn’t entirely fair, but it wasn’t totally unwarranted either. Despite both guys breaking 60 points each of the last two seasons, they have developed a reputation for being inconsistent, and last year’s playoffs didn’t help. Lucic has struggled in the playoffs each of the last two years, but B’s fans shouldn’t forget that Krejci led the team in goals and points during the 2011 Stanley Cup run.
Fair or unfair, a lot of people will be keeping a close watch on Krejci and Lucic this season. Should either struggle for a few games, it will probably be magnified more than a tough stretch for someone like Bergeron or Seguin would be. Even if both play well all regular season, you’ll hear, “Well let’s see how they do in the playoffs.” Either way, Krejci and Lucic can’t focus on what outsiders are saying. The Bruins don’t need them to be superstars, but they do need them to be consistent scorers.