With a potential lockout looming, there's plenty of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming NHL season, but for the Bruins, who finished 49-29-4 last season -- good for first place in the Northeast Davison and tied for seventh overall -- whether or not they can stay among the NHL's elite squads and possibly make another Stanley Cup run, hinges largely on the continued development of goalie Tuukka Rask.
The 25-year-old Finn will take over the Bruins' net-minding chores from Tim Thomas, who plans to take the coming season off for personal reasons. This was a shocking development to say the least, given the high level that the former Vezina Trophy winner was playing at. Under the NHL's current collective bargaining arrangement, if Thomas follows through with his plan to sit out the season, and there's no reason to believe he won't at press time, the Bruins are still slated to be responsible for his $5 million cap hit. In any case, the Bruins are prepared to move on with Rask as their starting goalie this season. He certainly has the talent to succeed, but Rask will need to stay healthy and consistent in order for Bruins' fans to forget Thomas. While Thomas' exit wasn't pretty, and last year's White House snub was a clear distraction, his success leading up to it was unquestioned.
Working in Rask's favor is that the Bruins are a defensively responsible team, featuring a group of players who clearly buy into coach Claude Julien's system. As a team, the Bruins allowed an average of 2.39 goals per game -- good for sixth overall in the league. That's only marginally inferior to the 2.28 GAA the team posted en route to the 2010-11 Stanley Cup title. Moreover, though no Bruin scored more than 67 points, the team managed 3.13 goals per game last season, second only to the Penguins. That stat underlines the balanced nature of the Bruins' attack, which is of more utility in real terms than it is in fantasy terms.
Losing Thomas hurts, but GM Peter Chiarelli has otherwise been able to maintain impressive roster/core player continuity, despite the constraints of the NHL salary cap. The likes of Benoit Pouliot, Joe Corvo, Brian Rolston, Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau are gone, but they were role players, who shouldn't be too hard to replace, especially with a handful of promising youngsters knocking on the door. The most impressive player in that group is Dougie Hamilton, who was dominant at the OHL level last season and comes with a "can't-miss" label. Though he won't likely burst onto the Boston scene like Bobby Orr, or even Ray Bourque did, Hamilton has All-Star potential down the road and he could provide an immediate boost to the Bruins' power play, an area of concern last season.
In short, the Bruins remain a top-notch NHL squad, as capable as any team in the league of making a championship run, given the team's depth and chemistry. How their new franchise goalie handles his new assignment, as well as the inevitable impact of injuries, will no doubt play a large role in determining how deep of a playoff run the Bruins make, as they chase their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
THE BIG GUNS
Zdeno Chara (D): Chara, who won the Norris Trophy in 2009, scored 12 goals and added 40 assists for a career-high 52 points in 79 games this past season. The 6-9 blueliner also recorded a spiffy plus-33 rating, while continuing in his role as one of the NHL's top shut-down defenders. While the big guy is no doubt smarting from the Bruins' early playoff elimination, from an individual standpoint his 2010-11 season was a resounding success, resulting in a third place finish in the Norris voting. At 35, he shows no signs of slowing down at this point in his career, especially given the rigorous fitness/conditioning regimen he keeps.
Tyler Seguin (RW): As a second-year player, the dynamic Seguin ended up leading the Bruins in both goals (29) and points (67) in 81 games, while recording a plus-34 rating. Heading into the 2012-13 season, the future is bright (with an arrow pointing up with regards to his fantasy prospects) for the electric Seguin, who possesses game-changing speed and a laser shot. Seguin had surgery to repair a dislocated tendon on his middle finger this offseason, but he should be 100 percent to start the season and poised to take the next step in terms of production at the NHL level.
Patrice Bergeron (C): Bergeron, whose career once appeared in jeopardy due to concussions, won the Selke Trophy this past season as the NHL's top defensive forward, a well-deserved honor for the superb two-way pivot. Bergeron had 22 goals and 64 points this past season in 81 games and was plus-36 with 20 minutes in penalties, 67 blocked shots and 55 takeaways. He was also brilliant in the face-off circle, winning 59.3 percent of the time including 53.5 percent of shorthanded draws. There are a number of NHL centers who routinely score with more frequency than Bergeron, but his all-around game makes him more elite in real terms than in fantasy circles.
Milan Lucic (LW): The rugged Lucic once again provided owners with solid all-around production from the left wing slot in 2011-12, chipping in 26 goals and 61 points, as well as 135 penalty minutes in 81 games. He's a classic power forward with surprisingly soft hands and the only things that limit Lucic's fantasy upside is that he works for a team that boasts such a balanced attack and also that he doesn't rack up a large percentage of his production via the power play, having notched just 11 points on the man advantage last season.
Tuukka Rask (G): Rask was excellent in a backup role this past season, posting a record of 11-8-3 and a 2.05 GAA to go along with a .929 save percentage. With former Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas planning to sit out the upcoming campaign, Rask is primed for a big jump up our rankings in his role as the Bruins' starting netminder. If the unflappable stays healthy, the 25-year-old has massive fantasy upside playing behind the defensively responsible Bruins.
ON THE RISE
Brad Marchand (LW): The energetic Marchand, who racked up 55 points (including 28 goals) and 87 PIM in 76 games to go along with a tidy plus-31 rating in 2011-12, has, aside from earning a rep as a pesky agitator on the ice, developed into a nice fantasy left winger. That is, when he stays out of trouble with the league. Marchand plays on the edge, and sometimes crosses the line, but when he keeps his cool, he boasts a solid all-around game, featuring relentless puck pursuit and good offensive instincts. If Marchand can achieve a bit more consistency, 70-75 points are within reach for the diminutive winger.
Jordan Caron (RW): Caron, the Bruins' 2009 first-round draft pick, played 48 games last season while scoring seven goals, recording eight assists and averaging 11:32 minutes of ice time. Despite the modest totals, one gets the sense that Caron, who has displayed flashes of upside the past couple of seasons, has a chance to emerge as a solid NHL power forward. He's the favorite to land a spot on the Bruins' third line this season, along with Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley. That's an assignment that would no doubt lead to increased production, which could turn Caron into a decent late-round draft bargain.
TWO TO WATCH
Nathan Horton (RW): Horton hasn't played an NHL game since suffering a concussion back on Jan. 22, but reports are that he is well on his way to returning to the Bruins' lineup this coming season, where his nice blend of size and skill is a tremendous asset to the team's attack. Assuming his health, which hopefully will be confirmed in training camp, Horton should pick up where he left off, that is, patrolling right wing on the Bruins' top line. Prior to being shut down last season, Horton, whose offensive presence was sorely missed by the team in the playoffs, notched 17 goals and 32 points in 46 games. He's a difference-maker for the Bruins when he's on the ice and a successful return on his part figures to help the team remain among the league's elite squads and one of the favorites to be in position for a Stanley Cup run.
Anton Khudobin (G): Khudobin, has only played in seven NHL games (five starts) to date, amassing a 5-1-0 record and .961 save percentage between Minnesota and Boston. He will now have the opportunity to back up Tuukka Rask, in the wake of Tim Thomas' departure from the Bruins. The 26-year-old has been sharp in his limited NHL action, but the sample size is obviously small. Either way, Khudobin makes a sneaky end-game grab as a handcuff to Rask, given the sound brand of defensive hockey the Bruins play in front of whoever is between the pipes for them.
David Krejci (C): While his 62-point output in 79 regular season games last season isn't dazzling, when he is on, Krejci is a highly-skilled setup man who possesses patience with the puck and the soft hands to deliver crisp passes in traffic. After leading the postseason in both goals (12) and points (23) during the Bruins' 2010-11 Stanley Cup run, perhaps more was expected of Krejci in 2011-12, but he's part of a very balanced attack and can be a streaky player. All that being said, there is another side to the coin here and if Krejci ever finds the next level of consistency, he has 90-100 point upside.
Chris Kelly (C): Kelly, who posted career highs in goals (20), points (39) and plus/minus (plus-33) this past season while playing in all 82 games for the Bruins, was rewarded for his fine effort with a four-year, $12 million contract extension. Look for Kelly to spend most of his time next season on the B's third line, where his speed, smarts and solid touch around the net will continue to come in handy for the team and its well-balanced attack. He'll probably have a hard time matching last years' numbers, however.
HOT (OR NOT?) PROSPECTS
Dougie Hamilton (D): The 19-year-old Hamilton is not eligible to play in the AHL this season and he has nothing to prove at the junior level, having dominated OHL competition last season to the tune of 17 goals and 55 assists in 50 games for the Niagra IceDogs. Assuming he sticks with the big club, Hamilton's initial utility will hinge on how much, if any, power play time he sees out of the gate. Given that the unit was not particularly dynamic for the B's last season, it's not hard to imagine the talented Hamilton getting a chance to work on special teams straight away. Hamilton still needs to grow into his 6-5 frame, but his nice size/skills combo evokes memories of a young Rob Blake. In any case, he's a blue-chip prospect, who is already gold in keeper formats.
Jared Knight (C): Keeper alert. Knight seems likely to start the season with AHL Providence, but he's a candidate for an in-season promotion and the B's have high hopes for the energetic and hard-driving forward, who scored 26 goals and 52 points in 52 games for the OHL's London Knights this past season.
Ryan Spooner (C): Spooner figures to enter training camp in a battle for a third-line position. In any case, it's clear that Spooner, who is likely to start the season with AHL Providence, is knocking on the door. Though he could stand to add some weight to his 5-10 frame (he's reportedly at 182 now) in order to withstand the rigors of the NHL, Spooner has the sort of puck skills/creativity that could make him a productive scorer for the B's down the road.
Alexander Khokhlachev (C): Khokhlachev, who is slated to play for the KHL's Spartak this coming season, has signed an entry-level deal with the Bruins and plans to take part in the team's training camp before departing for Russia to make his pro debut. Selected by the Bruins 40th overall in 2011, the undersized, but feisty Khokhlachev was OHL Windsor's second-leading scorer last year with 25 goals and 69 points in 56 games. He'll be back with the Bruins after this coming season, with a year of high level pro play under his belt and presumably on track to make a run for a roster spot with Boston, where his offensive spark would be welcome.
Torey Krug (D): Krug played in two games with the Bruins this past season after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Michigan State, recording an assist. With the cycling out of Joe Corvo, Greg Zanon and Mike Mottau, there is an opportunity for Krug to make the B's roster out of camp, especially if injuries hit leading up to the regular season. If he ends up starting with AHL Providence, however, Krug would be a candidate for an in-season call-up. Though he's undersized at 5-9 and 180 pounds, Krug is mobile and has some upside as an offensive defenseman down the road, so he's definitely worth tracking.
Malcolm Subban (G): Subban, who was drafted by the Bruins with the 24th pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, is a few years away, but the B's are delighted to have him on board as a potential high-upside franchise goalie. Subban needs work on his technique like most young goalies, but he is athletic and quietly confident, using his quickness and excellent flexibility to make acrobatic saves, while also bringing size, skill and good hockey sense to the table.