Each week I'll be looking at the top prospects and new players for each NHL team, starting this week with the Boston Bruins. It has been 18 long years since the Bruins have advanced as far as the Eastern Conference finals. That’s an eternity in a city that has gotten used to being champions in baseball, football, and basketball in recent years. Eighteen years ago the Bruins were a scrappy bunch led by future Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Cam Neely. Bourque has long since retired and no longer plays an active role in the organization, except when he takes the ice from time to time with the local Bruins Alumni team. However, after the Bruins’ shocking early exit in last year’s historic playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Bruins promoted legend in residence Neely to the overseeing role as the team’s new President. For the time being the rest of the Bruins management (coach Claude Julian and GM Peter Chiarelli) will stay in place, but after last season’s disappointment, patience may be wearing a bit thin.
“Let's go back to last year a little bit,” said Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. “We went into last year with every reason to believe we had a terrific team, and we came off a very strong year when that second round we lost in overtime, so going into last year, we looked very, very promising, and I was very high on where we were going and high on the team.”
“We had a roller coaster year last year,” Jacobs continued. “And we almost wound up having to win everything to get into the playoffs. Once in the playoffs, we won the first round and…we were up three-nothing in the second round, we looked terrific and we…fell, as we did throughout the season.”
Jacobs went on to say, “Especially with all of the new players and the young players that we have, I feel very strongly about the team they put together. I have to be guided by history how this can be an up and down game that we’re in. I’m kind of in that position of almost feeling like they over promised and underperformed. I think you have to manage your expectations. I don’t think I managed my expectations as well as I hope to going forward. I think you have to manage your expectations. I’m very optimistic about the guys in camp, but for me to build on that, it’s false hope I think. Again, I go back to the idea of under promising. I have every reason to believe that this is a much better team than it was last year.”
Onto the player analysis:
Tyler Seguin – Every rebuilding project needs its catalyst and Seguin is it for the Bruins. The second pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft has been every bit as good as advertised. A key for Sequin is his shot output. When he starts to lead the Bruins in shots, you will see true improvement in the team. Early in the year, I expect him to defer to some of the older guys on the club, which will limit his goal scoring. Once he gets his pro hockey legs under him, the shots will start to come and the goals will follow. Seguin can definitely make things happen. I’ve already seen glimpses of this promise in preseason games. He can really control the power play from the half wall into the goal crease. Only the great ones can do that consistently.
Joe Colborne – Colborne has shown a surprising amount of grit and flexibility this season. He took the switch to winger well and was one of the final cuts in camp. Colborne will open the season in Providence (AHL) but will be among the top candidates to be recalled if someone gets hurt or the Bruins get tired of the chronic lack of production from the likes of Blake Wheeler or Michael Ryder. Colborne is a good team player who is unafraid of going into the corners, and he uses his size to maximize his advantage, especially in front of the net.
Jordan Caron – Caron made the team with a very strong camp in which he showed excellent chemistry with Seguin. With Marco Sturm and Marc Savard both out indefinitely, Caron has a chance to make a name for himself as one of Boston’s top six forwards. Caron can really make things happen when he carries the puck. He knows how to play in front of the net and uses his size well. He has taken to instruction from players such as Mark Recchi like a baby duck to water.
Brad Marchand – Marchand is becoming a pesky nuisance to opponents throughout the league, one push and shove at a time. Marchand reminds me of a classic super-pest, similar to Claude Lemieux. Like Lemieux before him, Marchand could prove to be a valuable player to his club. He has some offensive skills but his main role will be to disrupt the tempo of the game. Marchand will split time between Providence and Boston.
Nathan Horton – Horton was once considered a can’t-miss elite prospect. Despite averaging 20 goals a year for each of the past five seasons, Horton was considered a flameout in Florida. However, the move to Boston represents a chance for him to jumpstart his stalled career. The early returns have been very promising – Horton has already scored three goals in three games.
Zach Hamill – It’s a bit of a disappointment that this former high draft choice from 2007 has taken so long to mature. Hamill is running out of time. Perhaps he could use a change of scenery.
Carl Soderberg – At 25, Soderberg’s biggest challenge will be moving to North America. Should he take the plunge, he could make the transformation to the NHL in a couple of seasons. He’s a smart kid but seems to be far too comfortable playing hockey in his native Sweden to bother coming stateside. His stock drops further with each passing year.
Jared Knight – Knight is a little hesitant offensively, but that will pick up as his confidence at the top level increases. He could develop into a quality goal scorer but needs seasoning in the AHL.
Adam McQuaid – McQuaid is a defense-first blueliner; he just needs a little more experience. He might be better physically than several of the defenders already with the big club, but he still is learning how to play the game. McQuaid will start the year in Providence, but like last season, he could see plenty of time in Boston before the season is out.
Ryan Spooner – Like Knight, Spooner possesses terrific hockey sense. Mentally, I see Spooner as being ahead of many of his fellow rookies and more than a few young veterans as well. He is adept at picking up the nuances of the pro game quickly and should develop into a fine player. Unfortunately Spooner was sent back to his junior team because he is too young to suit up in the AHL.
Jamie Arniel – A gifted skater with a high hockey IQ, Arniel may not be top-six material, but if he can find a level of consistency, he can help this team down the road. He could be one of the first guys called up from Providence if necessary.
Overall the talent level of the younger players in the organization is impressive. Providence Bruins head coach Rob Murray adds, “Going into this rookie camp or the prospects’ camp in the summer, the overall skill level in the group was so much higher, on an average. I don’t think that I’ve seen a group of guys with this much talent. Just the skill level that we have in the organization, [Ryan] Spooner, [Jared] Knight, obviously Tyler [Seguin] and Joe [Colborne]. You’ve got like four or five guys that played there. It’s where you might have had two or three guys and you say wow ‘those guys were skilled’ and now we’ve got a whole group, be it not guys turning pro yet, but in the pipeline. I think it shows the direction, not only the Bruins are going in, but maybe the whole NHL.”
Nevertheless, finding enough offensive firepower will be an ongoing challenge this season as it was last year. This is where the losses of Marc Savard and Marco Sturm – who led the team in scoring last season with a paltry 22 goals – really hurt. Still, coach Claude Julien remains upbeat. “With the acquisition of Horton, with Sequin, who I think will get better as we move on here, and a guy that we haven’t talked about that’s still here, we don’t know if he will be when all is said and done, is Jordan Caron, who’s shown some promise, but we’ve got some guys that can score some goals, [Blake] Wheeler, [Michael] Ryder, those guys, [David] Krejci, they’ve had successful seasons in the past. Just because a few of those guys had some roller coaster rides throughout the season doesn’t mean that they can’t come back and show us the form that they showed us a few years ago. I think we saw Wheels [Blake Wheeler] as a much better presence and a stronger hockey player [this fall], which was very promising for me.”
It is tough selling a rebuilding project in a city that has seen multiple championships in recent years, but they are still necessary from time to time (see the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins for a template). Those teams finished out of the playoffs many years in a row, which allowed them to stockpile several lottery picks before they were able to challenge for, and ultimately win, the Stanley Cup. Fan interest remains high in Boston, but it is perhaps unrealistic to continue expecting the Bruins to reach the conference finals, let alone the Stanley Cup Finals, regardless of the true state of the team. They are on the right path but it is going to take a few more years before this group of Bruins is able to fulfill its youthful promise.