The Boston Bruins have already proven they have the hockey goods to romp their way through the Eastern Conference in the regular season.
The B’s finished second in the NHL in goals scored (274) behind a Detroit Red Wings team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup finals, and they led the pro hockey circuit in fewest goals allowed (196) in a dominant regular-season defensive showing. They put a wrap on last season with Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara and Claude Julien all picking up well-deserved hardware at the NHL Awards Show in the summer.
So many things went right on their way to piling up 116 points and securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and professional hockey is officially alive and well with a strong heartbeat again in the city of Boston.
Following the great regular season, the B’s vanquished the Montreal Canadiens in four electric rivalry games that allowed them to advance in the playoffs for the first time in a decade.
Boston’s on-ice success and teeming roster of talented young skaters have spurred on an immediate impact, and stirred up the most buzz the Bruins have enjoyed in Boston since well before the NHL lockout.
There are less than 4,000 seats available for sale per game after the team welcomed in a whole new wave of season ticket holders over the last five months, and there’s a new generation of Black and Gold fans with “Incredible Looch” and “Crafty Krejci” posters plastered up on their bedroom walls.
With all that being said, it’s about the playoffs and the postseason for this set of players after the Bruins dropped the seven-game semifinal series against the Carolina Hurricanes last season. The B’s players learned some valuable lessons in that second round of the playoffs while suffering from a bit of a post-Canadiens hangover in the immediate aftermath of their first-round sweep.
Give Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli a great deal of credit for recognizing and addressing a clear flaw on last season’s team once the playoffs got under way — a lack of enough mobile, puck-moving defenseman.
The B’s head front office man basically switched out Aaron Ward for Derek Morris, swapping a steady, smart, experienced, stay-at-home defenseman — with plenty of postseason experience — for a more athletic, offensively gifted, 30-year-old skater able to skate and execute that key first pass up the ice with ease.
The Bruins have made their slight adjustments and upgrades to improve into a better, more effective playoff unit this time around, and that’s the most important upgrade of them all. After all, it doesn’t matter what the B’s do this time around in the regular season leading up to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Another No. 1 finish in the East would be nice, and a dominant run through the Northeast Division is anticipated given the opposition, but it all comes down to the playoff ledger for a seemingly promising mixture of veterans and youngsters getting warmed up on the frozen sheet on Causeway Street.
This time around it’s the Eastern Conference finals or bust, and the pieces are certainly there for a run to the Stanley Cup finals.
With that in mind, here are Five Questions Facing the Bruins at the beginning of the most highly anticipated training camp in more than a decade.
HOW MUCH WILL THE HEALTH OF DAVID KREJCI AND THE PHIL KESSEL SITUATION AFFECT THE B'S DURING THE SEASON'S FIRST MONTH?
The Bruins have an unconventional start to their season due to the three-week break in February for the 2010 Winter Olympics. They will get an early start with five home games right off the bat beginning Oct. 1 against the Washington Capitals. Five of Boston’s 10 October games are against teams that made the playoffs last season.
The B’s could find themselves digging out of a hole after that first month if things don’t go just right, and a sluggish start for the Black and Gold could be traced back to any extended absence from both Krejci and Kessel to start the season. The two combined for 133 points and a plus-60 last season, and a key part of training camp will be spent tracking the two as they return from offseason surgeries and contract squabbles.
It was originally thought that Krejci might be out until November after having surgery in the spring to repair an impingement in his right hip, but the 23-year-old center won’t need too long to catch up with the rest of his teammates.
Krejci has been so encouraged by his recovery that he’s been ruled as a day-to-day situation by Chiarelli, and the young pivot hasn’t ruled out being in the lineup opening night.
“David is a day-to-day,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “We’re going to progress slowly with David. He’s probably a little ahead of schedule that was originally diagnosed for him after the surgery.”
Having Krejci back in the lineup would be a huge offensive boost for the B’s heading into the season, and his health will be a worthy story to follow throughout the next several weeks. The puck magician is that much of a key factor to the rise and fall of the B's, and the sooner the better on his healthy return.
Kessel, recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum in his left shoulder, is most likely going to be dealt within the next week — if not sooner — but it’s amazing how little there’s been in the way of campaigning by his teammates for Phil the Thrill.
There at least remains a theoretical possibility that Kessel will return to Boston if everything being discussed now with the Maple Leafs falls apart, but don’t bet on it. The Leafs have already put forth a standing trade offer that guarantees Boston a greater yield than the first-, second- and third-round picks they’d automatically receive from an accepted offer sheet, and that should be enough to get the deal done.
Back home on the range in Boston, though, the silence, as they say, of Kessel’s hockey peers has been deafening.
Asked if a prolonged Kessel holdout in training camp or a contract dispute that spilled over into the season could potentially be a distraction to a team looking to get off to a good start, Andrew Ference answered succinctly and simply.
“No,” said Ference without hesitation. “We have a room full of guys here ready to move forward. Phil isn’t here. He hasn’t been here the whole time. If he joins up, well, then, great, but if not, then it’s no different.”
Krejci’s hip and Kessel’s long-term fate will be the two biggest topics of conversation in training camp given their importance to the B’s first few steps out of the starting gate.
WHO WILL STEP INTO MORE OF A LEADERSHIP ROLE WITH THE DEPARTURE OF VETERAN LEADERS AARON WARD, STEPHANE YELLE, AND P.J. AXELSSON?
With Bruins training camp here, the pieces are pretty close to fitting fully in place for as autumn brings in the hockey season.
Kessel still remains unsigned and doesn’t appear to be any closer to the Black and Gold fold than he was when the free agency period began on July 1. But the remaining shape of the Bruins team should be just about fully developed, and there’s ample room to dissect and analyze.
There clearly are some areas of improvement on a club that finished with the best regular-season record in the Eastern Conference last season. The B’s fell short when they couldn’t scrape and scrounge their way past the Hurricanes in the second round of the playoffs, but the core of the team marches on after a summer of tweaking and tinkering by Chiarelli.
Key young players such as Krejci, Milan Lucic and Dennis Wideman remain as vital, improving cogs within the B’s machine while veteran performers Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard appear safe bets to stay within the fold for the balance of next season.
There is a boatload of hockey talent and grit bursting off the roster page, but there also are some highly reasonable questions about the roster following the exodus of veteran, leadership-style players who picked up and moved on from the Hub of Hockey last summer.
The Bruins added a puck-moving defenseman in Derek Morris and a provocative energy piece in Steve Begin — both parts that were lacking and sorely needed from last year’s talent-soaked roster — but they also dropped 36 years of hockey experience in the span of roughly three months.
Thirty-five-year-old Aaron Ward — with his two Stanley Cup rings, playoff savvy and ability to be one of the meaningful voices of the clubhouse — was shipped to Carolina and essentially replaced by Morris days later. After the B’s signed Begin to a one-year deal in July, it was clear that both Yelle and Axelsson weren’t coming back after serving as “glue” players last season.
Shane Hnidy was a quiet voice of blue collar experience among the defenseman corps and played with the kind of accountable toughness that Chiarelli and the rest of the Bruins staff routinely hold up as a veritable blueprint for their hockey team.
Clearly, all of the veteran pieces have been removed for on-ice upgrades designed to make Boston a tougher, more mobile puck unit headed into a pivotal season, but it’s also going to leave a significant void in the leadership department. The moves were about fixing areas on last year’s team and fulfilling a mandate to get stronger, faster, younger and tougher, but it remains to be seen how it all shakes out.
The leadership void will have to be filled by other voices in the dressing room, and the amplification of current Bruins leaders such as Chara, Thomas, Andrew Ference, Mark Recchi, Shawn Thornton and Patrice Bergeron within the dressing room.
Recchi, in particular, was unmistakable in the way his work ethic, toughness and experience rubbed off on his younger Bruins teammates sprinkled all throughout the dressing room. Playing while passing kidney stones in the playoffs is the stuff of Old Time Hockey legends, and Recchi set the kind of tough example that young players have no choice but to follow. He’ll be a big part of the leadership solution in this final go-round for him in the NHL.
There’s also a new wave of younger leaders that includes Krejci, Lucic and Mark Stuart, and those players are expected to take a step up in their hockey maturity levels this season. It’s another natural progression for the young B’s after experiencing nearly everything under the hockey sun last season.
Ference said that one of the characteristics that makes the B’s dressing room such a unique place is just how the veterans and the young players willingly share ownership in the leadership category. A handful of young Bruins already have flashed a willingness and capacity to lead by example and by their words, and that will help the ever-evolving mantle of team leadership come under their purview of the hockey youth.
“Perhaps contrary to conventional belief, we’ve had a lot of young players in fairly big leadership roles, and that’s been a big part of our success,” said Ference. “We haven’t excluded them from really speaking out about who we are and what our team identity is. So it’s not like the last couple of years where we’ve leaned heavily on the older guys, or the younger guys are just waiting around to see what the older guys are going to do. I don’t think that it’s been like that here.
“There isn’t a change at all. It’s more of a continuation and a step up as far as their roles on the ice because all of those players are a year stronger and a year better. It’s a fairly comfortable room and atmosphere if you’re a young player that wants to kind of take charge and get a little more vocal in the room. There are no handcuffs here.”
The budding young leadership group combined with the key veteran presence is all a part of the brave new salary cap world in the NHL, and it’s something that Chiarelli said couldn’t — and shouldn’t — be avoided.
“In this [salary cap] system you have to make moves and assume — and make the correct assumption — that you have other players that will carry those added responsibilities,” Chiarelli said. “Current players [will take it on], so I expect that to happen. We still have a very strong group, and I expect that to happen here.”
Nevertheless, there’s going to be a period of adjustment through the early portions of the season while the new mixture of short-term veterans and core younger players merge into the same “One for all, all for one” team that blended together while bludgeoning the Dallas Stars on the ice early last season — and kept picking up steam through the first round of the playoffs.
If the players can utilize the entire training camp period to get on the same page and synthesize that same chemistry that embodied last season’s tight-knit group, then all the better for the B’s.
HOW MUCH DOES DEREK MORRIS HAVE LEFT IN THE TANK HEADED INTO A PIVOTAL SEASON?
There was a whisper campaign shortly after Morris signed on the dotted line with the Bruins this summer. There were unnamed scouts attacking Morris’ skating ability and skills, and an unsubstantiated opinion that the 30-year-old was already rolling down the slow-decline back nine of an NHL career.
Perhaps that is so.
But one thing to watch during training camp is how seamlessly Morris meshes with Chara in a potential monster No. 1 pairing, and just how much mobility and puck-moving instinct remains within the man. Morris has five 30-plus-point seasons on his hockey resume and he was considered an offensively gifted blueliner with noteworthy skill when he first came into the NHL with the Calgary Flames.
Is Morris simply worn out at the young age of 30, or did he just suffer from the same Phoenix Coyotes malaise that has seemingly engulfed that star-crossed franchise for the last three years? Morris hasn’t been shy about making it sound as though he feels like he’s been freed from hockey jail with his landing spot in Boston, and the blueliner sounds like a guy who wouldn’t mind cementing some roots in the Hub.
Morris quickly realized that he wasn’t in Scottsdale anymore when he looked around and saw hundreds of fans wearing Bruins sweaters during the opening day of training camp. The fans simply wanted to watch the players skate around through drills during the first day of practice, and that blew Morris away.
He also expects it to make all the difference.
“That was special,” Morris said of the fan turnout. “They’re good fans and they cheered when guys scored. It’s fun to practice when there’s fans there. We probably didn’t have that many there for games [in Phoenix].
“I want to be a big part of the team. I had a year that was a frustrating year the whole year, and I wasn’t having fun playing hockey. I’ve got a new life, and I feel like I’m 19 again. It sounds funny to say it, but I do. I get around the guys and I feel like one of the kids. I’m having fun playing hockey again, and I think it’s going to [translate] out onto the ice.
The numbers would tend to agree with Morris. He admittedly went to a better team in the New York Rangers when he was dealt at the March trading deadline last season. He suddenly became a positive plus-minus player and his scoring pace shot up in two months with the Blueshirts. Add to that the natural motivation behind a one-year contract to a veteran player looking for a home base of operations for his wife and three sons, and this could be a perfect storm for a monster offensive season from the new face along the blueline.
IS MARCO STURM FULLY RECOVERED FROM MAJOR LEFT KNEE SURGERY LAST SEASON?
The German author of the fan-favorite “Sturm Face” and a speedy, consistent goal-scorer during his four seasons with the Bruins, the left winger is the last remaining link to the Joe Thornton trade and looms as a key figure for the Black and Gold this season.
Sturm enters training camp without any apparent restrictions after undergoing major reconstructive surgery on his left knee last November that forced the winger to miss the remainder of the season.
Sturm has never scored 30 goals during an NHL season, but he nonetheless is being looked upon as a fairly significant factor in replacing Kessel’s scoring once a merciful trade is executed with the Maple Leafs — or another much less-likely solution comes to pass and resolves the Phil the Thrill drama.
Sturm has averaged a shade under 28 goals per game during his three healthy seasons in Boston, and while his skating speed isn’t quite in the class of Kessel’s in terms of being a potential game-breaker, he should be one of the fastest Boston forwards on the ice this season.
That is all provided the 31-year-old didn't lose any skating speed on the surgeon’s table.
“[I think] he felt pretty good,” Julien said. “You’ve got to give Marco a lot of credit because he’s worked awfully hard, especially at the end of last year when he started skating. He came back this summer to skate some more, and he’s really committed himself to coming back in shape and being 100 percent. I saw a guy skating well, and he didn’t look like he’d been out for a whole year.
“Hopefully with these exhibition games he can find his [scoring] touch again and we’ll get more and more comfortable. Then hopefully we’ll be ready for the beginning of the season.”
WHO WILL BE THE MYSTERY MAN FOR THE BRUINS IN THIS CAMP THAT MAKES A PUSH FOR A ROSTER SPOT?
Two years ago Milan Lucic pried open the eyes of Bruins officials with one of the all-time training camp performances for a 19-year-old kid fresh out of junior hockey, and last season Blake Wheeler pushed past Peter Schaefer and became a surprise member of Boston’s final roster of 21 players. This year, Vladimir Sobotka could break camp with the Bruins if Krejci is unable to go on Oct. 1. The versatile, scrappy Czech forward already has spent plenty of time in Boston and doesn’t register as a surprise roster candidate, but there are other names looking to be added to a roster without many openings.
“Every year we’ve had those situations happen, where Lucic played his way in and last year we thought Wheeler was going to start out in the American League and work his way up, and he proved us wrong and deserved to start here,” Julien said. “So, every year we’ve had guys step in and we’ve had guys that have been sent down, and last year it was Peter Schaefer. Peter has said all along that as an organization we have to do whatever we have to do to make it the best team possible.
“The exhibition games will probably open some eyes a little bit, and that’s where guys like Looch and Wheeler really showed us [something] as they got closer to the end. As you get near the end [of the preseason] more regulars are playing, and those guys continued to perform well.”
Center Zach Hamill is entering a big year in his professional life and would be best served by another year of development in Providence, but he has worked diligently to make an impression this season. Hamill enjoyed a productive rookie tournament in Kitchener, Ontario, last week and could have an outside chance at an opening night roster spot if Krejci is slow to mend.
Youngsters Brad Marchand, Jeff Penner and Mikko Lehtonen are players who will get long looks in training camp from members of the Bruins coaching staff and front office, and perhaps one of them could step up and be this year’s edition of Lucic or Wheeler.
One caveat: It’s going to be much more difficult for a young player to force his way onto this season’s roster — barring injuries — than it was during the past two seasons.
Said Julien: “There are always guys pushing other guys every season and making it a tough decision for us at the end."