It’s not really a stretch to call the Bruins' collection of forwards perhaps the deepest in all of the NHL. The B’s return six of their seven 20-goal scorers from last season and could easily welcome Patrice Bergeron, Marco Sturm and Milan Lucic into the 20-goal club this season.
Like any good team, the B’s are strong up the middle with Marc Savard, David Krejci and Bergeron at the center spot to provide more than enough offense and the sound defense dictated by Claude Julien’s box-plus-one style. There are a bevy of accomplished offensive players on the wings, and Blake Wheeler could be the breakout candidate this season if he can put his size and considerable puck skills together into one big goal-scoring package.
The one thing the Bruins don’t have is a pure sniper like the one who was dealt to Toronto for a barrel full of draft picks, and that means depth will be the key through the first half of the season. The Bruins might not again be second in the NHL in scoring as they were during last year’s intimidating regular season, but they’ll certainly have plenty of offense to support the tight defensive system and top-shelf goaltending.
The Bruins also will be in a position to fill that missing goal-scoring piece around the March deadline, and the school of thought continues to exist that Ilya Kovalchuk may be available as long his extension talks remain in neutral with the Thrashers.
With or without a vast deadline upgrade, however, the B’s boast a set of forwards that offers a nearly perfect blend of offense, defense, toughness, versatility and willingness to sacrifice individual glory for team greatness while also being a downright bear to play against.
In other words, it’s a group very much steeped in the “Bruins Way” preached by a coaching staff and front office hell-bent on the Stanley Cup. Here’s a review of the B’s forward group in the first installment of a three-part series previewing a Bruins team that is searching for greatness.
Marc Savard, C, first line
Last season: Savard topped the B’s in scoring for the third straight season and notched his second All-Star appearance while continuing to play responsible two-way hockey for Julien. The heartbeat of Boston’s offense flows through the 32-year-old pivot, and he remains the key figure facilitating everything the B’s do on the top power-play unit. Savard also played the full 82-game schedule for the third time in four seasons and fought his way through a knee injury in the seven-game series against Carolina.
Prospectus: Savard is missing 36-goal sniper Phil Kessel on his right side this year, but he has proven adept at creating offense even with lesser triggermen skating alongside him. Savard is a lock for 85 points and could have his best season yet with the Bruins after he was snubbed when invitations went out for the Canadian Olympic team this summer. It should be an interesting season nonetheless with Savard entering the final year of a four-year deal that coincided with general manager Peter Chiarelli’s hire by Boston. It may come to a crossroads for Savard, who needs to balance his instinct to break the bank with one last big contract vs. his desire to remain in a hockey city where he’s grown sizably in comfort and stature since arriving on the scene in 2006.
What he’s saying: “It’s a great city and I’ve enjoyed my time here so far. It’s a place that I’d like to finish if the chance comes, and I’m excited to get the season going. Things keep getting better and our team keeps getting better, so that only helps everybody when that happens. I want to stay here. This is a place I love. I love the people. I love the fans. This is where I want to be.”
Key stat: Savard finished last season with a career-best plus-25 rating, takes key faceoffs in penalty-kill situations and has become one of Julien’s most trusted players in all situations.
Milan Lucic, LW, first line
Last season: Big Looch made huge strides in his second NHL season as a 20-year-old winger and continued to show off a penchant for elevating his play during the most important games of the season. A two-goal performance in a loss to the San Jose Sharks and nine points (3 goals, 6 assists) in 10 playoff games last season immediately spring to mind when Big Game Looch is mentioned.
It’s been a meteoric rise for a player who was in junior hockey just three short seasons ago and now finds himself a returning first-line player on the best team in the Eastern Conference and a likely shoo-in for the Canadian Olympic team for the 2010 Games in his hometown of Vancouver.
Prospectus: Lucic had a much better training camp coming into his third NHL season and is on the cusp of superstardom in the perfect hockey city for the perfect mix of brute strength and budding offensive skills. Provided Lucic doesn’t ever lose sight of the intimidating physical aspect of his game and remains healthy while doling out the punishment, he should crack 20 goals and 50 points as a consistent member of Boston’s top line this season. Above all that, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound punching machine provides air-tight protection for Savard and the right winger du jour whenever he’s on the ice.
What he's saying: “You don’t want to be pushed around. You don’t want to get taken advantage of. We talk all the time about sticking up for each other and trying to straighten stuff out. It’s how the game goes.” — Lucic talking about standing up for teammates like Savard when opponents began taking liberties with Boston’s top players.
Key stat: Lucic went 8-1-1 in a total of 10 fights last season according to www.hockeyfights.com, including a close loss to Atlanta’s Eric Boulton and a draw with Ottawa Senators forward Chris Neil.
Marco Sturm, RW, first line
Last season: The speedy German forward went from a savior in the epic Game 6 win over the Montreal Canadiens two years ago to a largely forgotten forward after blowing out his left knee in a December game against the Maple Leafs. Sturm had gotten off to a slow start due to a concussion last season and was just beginning to hit his stride when his knee gave out on him.
Prospectus: Sturm worked diligently all summer to work his way back into playing shape while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, and he’s on the verge of making that comeback complete. Sturm missed a little time with a balky groin during training camp and may get out of the gate slowly while shaking off the rust, but he’ll be a consistent offensive force provided he didn’t lose any skating speed on the surgeon’s table. While Sturm isn’t quite the speed demon that Kessel is, the German forward gets it going on the frozen sheet and offers a desirable combination of speed, smarts and sometime sandpaper in his game.
Sturm will be looked on to score upward of 25 goals this season and replace much of the statistical goal production missing following Kessel’s departure.
What he's saying: “It was really hard to watch the playoff games last season. I’ve been waiting all summer for Thursday night." — Sturm talking about his return after sitting on the sidelines following his December knee injury
Key stat: Sturm has averaged 27.6 goals per season in his three healthy seasons with the Bruins.
David Krejci, C, second line
Last season: Krejci won the Seventh Player Award voted by the fans, led the NHL in the plus/minus category and parlayed a highly successful first full NHL season into a three-year deal worth more than $11 million this summer. The Czech Republic pivot needed surgery to address an impingement in his right hip once last season was over, and he never once complained about the problem while gutting his way through the injury last season. Krejci gives the B’s a playmaking center on their second scoring line and is, in many ways, the poster child for Boston’s successful drafting and development system under Chiarelli, Jim Benning, Cam Neely, Don Sweeney and Scott Bradley.
Prospectus: It was originally thought that Krejci was going to miss perhaps a month of the season, but now it appears that the 24-year-old pivot will be ready to start the year. He appeared a touch bigger and stronger than last season after a summer spent in the gym while rehabbing from surgery. The center needs only to clear the mental hurdle of coming back from his first major injury, and then stardom waits with the Bruins in only his second full season. Krejci is that rare player who can excel in every situation on the ice and makes everybody around him special. There’s every chance that people will be talking about what a bargain Krejci is by the time he plays out his shiny, new three-year deal.
What they’re saying: “He’s a great player and makes everyone around him good or better. That is basically his situation from Day 1, how he makes everyone around him better. — Julien talking about Krejci’s abilities to be a difference-maker on the Bruins
Key stat: The B’s were an amazing 38-2-5 when Krejci registered a point last season, which underscores just how important the contribution of the second line was.
Michael Ryder, RW, second line
Last season: Ryder came into Boston as a mildly maligned free agent signing following a down season with the Montreal Canadiens, but the winger was as good as advertised in Boston after a slow start. Ryder teamed with Krejci and Wheeler to form Boston’s best line for a solid two months in the middle of the regular season, and he stands as one of the B’s best pure goal-scorers following the exodus of Phil the Thrill.
Prospectus: Ryder had his chances to skate on the top line with Savard and Lucic in training camp, but it appears that he’s going to settle in again with Krejci and Wheeler on a potentially explosive second line. Expect another 25-30-goal season from Ryder with Krejci as his trigger man, provided he remains healthy. His $4 million salary is becoming a bit unwieldy in this new era of the NHL salary cap. Ryder and Steve Begin represent a pair of known commodities for Julien after watching them excel for him with the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge and the Black and Gold.
What they're saying: “He’s been OK, but that’s Michael in a nutshell. Hopefully he finds his touch sooner this year than he did last year. It took him almost a month before he started scoring, so this year he should be used to the team and his teammates and hopefully get a quicker start.” — Julien on Ryder’s game at the end of training camp
Key stat: Ryder improved by 13 goals last season after escaping the Habs and since-deposed coach Guy Carbonneau’s doghouse.
Blake Wheeler, LW, second line
Last season: Wheeler looked like another brilliant move by Chiarelli early last season when the GM hopped over 29 other NHL teams to secure the University of Minnesota free agent who wisely refused to sign with a Phoenix Coyotes team that originally drafted him in the first round. Wheeler ended up scoring 21 goals and playing in the NHL All-Star Young Guns game in Montreal — even winning the MVP award in the showcase event — but hit a rookie wall in the second half of the season. Wheeler was a healthy scratch by the end of Boston’s playoff run in favor the older, more physical Byron Bitz.
Prospectus: Wheeler had a fighting chance to start the season replacing Phil Kessel on Boston’s top line with Lucic and Savard, but he didn’t impress enough watchful eyes in training camp. The 6-foot-3 forward did add 15 pounds to his lean frame to withstand the rigors of an 82-game schedule, and could be one of the players that helps offset the loss of Kessel’s 36 goals.
What they're saying: “He came in here last year and the only thing that was on his mind is he wanted to make the team. He made it, so maybe he’s thinking too much about what he has to do in certain situations. I think he’ll come around. We need guys like him to come around.” — Julien talking about Wheeler’s slow start during the preseason
Key stat: Wheeler scored only 15 points in 35 games following the All-Star break last season.
Patrice Bergeron, C, third line
Last season: Bergeron represented one of the best feel-good stories of the year when he came back from a concussion that nearly ended his career. The solid center finished strong after suffering a second concussion midway through the season against Carolina, and was at his best during the playoffs. Though his points and performance were down from previous healthy seasons, Bergeron looked pretty close to himself by the time the playoffs rolled around. Bergeron was a reliable point on the power play and served as Boston’s best faceoff man from beginning to end.
Prospectus: Julien found great chemistry when he paired Bergeron with Chuck Kobasew and Mark Recchi toward the end of the regular season, and the experienced trio evolved into the B’s shutdown defensive line during the playoffs. The line’s personality was sparked by Bergeron’s textbook two-way abilities, and the 24-year-old is poised for a big offensive resurgence following a summer spent working out in his native Quebec. The good taste after an impressive individual performance down the stretch also allowed him to remove himself further from the head injuries of the last two seasons. A return to form for Bergeron over the course of a full season makes the Bruins an incredibly deep bunch down the middle of the ice.
What they’re saying: “[Patrice] was one of our best forwards in the [Carolina] series. I think he was excited about it when he left here last year and is excited about coming back. I think [this season] is a continuation of what you saw last year. — Julien talking about Bergeron’s strong play at the tail end of last season
Key stat: Bergeron averaged 23.6 shifts per game last season, which led all Bruins forwards and underscores how important the center is to Boston on both sides of the puck.
Chuck Kobasew, RW, third line
Last season: Kobasew broke his leg against the Colorado Avalanche during the first game of last season and slowly progressed as the season moved along. The former Boston College standout caught fire in the season’s second half and barged into the playoffs as a pinball-machine ball bouncing off puck-carriers and potting the odd goal. There were rumblings that Kobasew might be dealt this summer because of a mildly unattractive cap number, but the favorite among Bruins officials is back with his underrated leadership and hard-nosed forechecking style.
Prospectus: Kobasew has a nice little spot for himself skating on the wing with Bergeron and Recchi, and he simply needs to stay healthy so he can provide his mix of physicality, opportunistic offense and get-under-your-skin grit. Provided he plays a majority of games for the Bruins, you can pretty much pencil Kobasew in for 20 goals and a bevy of sound-byte-free interviews with the media. A player such as Kobasew on Boston’s third line is precisely what gives the Bruins one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL.
What he’s saying: “Whether it’s a goalie, a player, it doesn’t matter who it is. Everyone here wants to look out for each other."
Key stat: Kobasew scored 13 of his 21 goals after the All-Star break.
Mark Recchi, LW, third line
Last season: Recchi arrived as a 40-year-old rental player at the trade deadline and immediately sparked the B’s power play with his wrecking ball presence down around the net. Recchi showed he still has plenty of goal-scoring gas in the tank despite sitting at the tail end of a Hall of Fame-level career, and he immediately became a part of the leadership group upon arrival. Many of Boston’s young players — and media members for that matter — still are in awe of Recchi’s ability to perform in the playoffs despite passing a kidney stone just 24 hours earlier.
Prospectus: Recchi obviously isn’t getting any younger, and Julien mentioned during the preseason that the team will most likely monitor his minutes and practice workload carefully to reap the most out of the aging star during the season. As long as his legs are fresh, Recchi should be an automatic for 25 goals and plenty of mayhem in front of the net while continuing to point out the path of success for young brawny forwards such as Lucic and Bitz. Recchi could teach clinics about net coverage, the art of tipping and redirection and positioning despite his less-than-imposing stature.
What they're saying: “Sure he’s a 41-year-old, but he’s always been in good shape. Recchs is without a doubt the best player around the net tipping pucks and picking up loose puck, and some of our young guys can learn a lot from him. That’s where he excels.” — Julien on Recchi’s calling card around the net
Key stat: Recchi amassed 27 of his 63 points on the power play last season.
Steve Begin, C, fourth line
Last season: Bruins fans remember Begin as the dastardly villain in the Habs sweater who fractured a bone in Savard’s back with a vicious cross-check two years ago, an injury that cleared the way for Krejci to break onto the scene. Last year, Begin was dealt away from the Habs as part of the centennial disaster in Montreal, and the rugged forward finished up with the Dallas Stars before hitting free agency.
Prospectus: Chiarelli called Begin on the first day of NHL free agency this summer, and the aggressive forward said that’s all he needed to decide to sign on with the Bruins. Begin can play all three forward spots and gives Boston a bit of an agitating, forceful presence that the Bruins didn’t really have last year. He also gives Boston another player who can drop the gloves so Shawn Thornton doesn’t always have to.
What he's saying: “I’m a grinder. I’m not a big talker on the ice. I talk with my shoulders. I’m in your face. I just go skate, hit, block shots. That’s what is fun about this team. Everybody contributes and talks with their shoulders. They hit, and this is a hard team to play against.” — Begin talking with his mouth for possibly the last time this season
Key stat: Begin racked up 90 penalty minutes combined with the Stars and Habs last season, but he could surpass that in a full season with the Big Bad B’s.
Shawn Thornton, LW, fourth line
Last season: The Quiet Man made it through the entire season healthy and was a key contributor in ways that weren’t always readily apparent on the nightly stat sheet. Thornton is the most underrated leadership presence in the Bruins locker room and is able to effectively connect with players from all backgrounds or ability levels. He’s able to reap some opportunistic offensive chances from his fourth-line position and allows many of his teammates to play with added courage simply because of his mere presence on the roster.
Prospectus: Thornton is entering the final year of a three-year deal he signed when Chiarelli was attempting to extricate himself from the carnage of the Dave Lewis era, and the former Ducks scrapper been worth every penny. Thornton might be hard-pressed to match last season’s output when he set personal highs in games played, goals, points, shots on net and penalty minutes, but a reasonable facsimile of that effort is exactly what B’s management has in mind.
What he’s saying: “This is home now. I was expecting a lot of good things when I came here after talking to other people about Boston. The one thing I don’t think I was prepared for was how readily they embrace the hard-working, fourth-line guys like myself.”
Key stat: Thornton isn’t known for his scoring, but he had three points in six games against the Habs last season, including a two-point performance Nov. 13.
Byron Bitz, RW, fourth line
Last season: Bitz came on strong in the second half of last season and actually displaced rookie wonder boy Blake Wheeler when things got nasty in the seven-game series against the Carolina Hurricanes. Bitz managed a meager four goals and three assists in 35 games with the B’s but impressed the brass with his ability to guard the puck in and along the boards. The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder showed a little finish around the net with a hard-enough slap shot, and Julien enthusiastically indicated there may be plenty of upside to Bitz’s offensive game on the fourth line.
Prospectus: A 10-goal season certainly isn’t out of the question for Bitz, who showed quite a bit of potential chemistry with Sobotka during the preseason. The 25-year-old second-year player got plenty of firsts out of the way last season in a campaign that surprised everyone except the B’s amateur talent evaluators who drafted him. This season will be about improving his polish and finish around the net while continuing to display the intangibles that got him to the NHL in the first place.
What they're saying: “The reason we signed him is because we think there’s more to come from him. He’s a serious athlete and very focused. With his size and his commitment, I think he can only get better.” — Julien on the improvement he expects to see out of Bitz over the next two years
Key stat: Bitz scored a combined 17 points between Boston and Providence last season, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t at least match that in a full NHL season skating on the fourth line.
Vladimir Sobotka, C, fourth line
Last season: Sobotka had a couple of cameo appearances with the Bruins but experienced a little turbulence maintaining the offensive and defensive consistency needed to stick at the NHL level. Sobotka was a point-per-game player at the AHL level over the last two seasons but didn’t show the same spark last season that he did as a fearless 20-year-old back in 2007-08.
Prospectus: Sobotka will likely split time with Begin and Bitz on the fourth line to start the season and needs to play with the same controlled aggression and “damn the torpedoes” abandon that characterized his final three training camp games of the preseason. The 22-year-old is good enough in the skill department to score 15-20 goals on regular playing time, and he’s got an annoying flavor to his game that can potentially get under opposing teams’ collective skin. The skill, speed and grime are all there for Sobotka to utilize and turn into the regular role he probably felt like he deserved last season.
What he’s saying: “[Julien] told me to play like I did two years ago and I’d be good. I try to play without minuses, the coaches don’t like that. Try to score some goals, keep it simple and play my game.”
Key stat: Sobotka was a minus-10 in 25 games with the Bruins last year, and he needs to turn that around this season if he hopes to earn shifts on a Julien-coached outfit.