2010-2011 NHL season preview: Boston Bruins

GYI0060279309-zdenochara-elsa-getty.jpgLast season: (39-30-13, 91 points, 3rd place in Northeast Division, 6th in Eastern Conference) After manhandling Buffalo in the first round and getting out to a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers in the second round, Boston folded up shop and lost in seven games. What turned into a feel-good season after some early struggles became the ultimate kick in the groin.

Head coach: Claude Julien returns for his fourth season. He’s pretty well established the brand of hockey he wants played in Boston with a defensive-minded, counter-attack style that doubles to also bully opponents around the ice. The Bruins have done well with Julien in charge, making the playoffs in each season he’s been there, so if you’re looking for a ‘hot seat’ candidate, look away from Boston.

Key departures: D Dennis Wideman, F Miroslav Satan, F Vladimir Sobotka, F Steve Begin. Forward depth takes a bit of a hit while losing Wideman might hurt their production on the back line.

Key arrivals: F Nathan Horton, F Tyler Seguin, F Gregory Campbell. Horton and Campbell come over in the trade with Florida that sent Wideman there. Horton should provide power forward goal scoring while Campbell will work as a grinder/Colin Campbell’s Wheel of Justice repellent. Campbell recuses himself from making punishment decisions on any games involving his son Gregory’s team.

Under pressure: Patrice Bergeron. Lots of players to pick from on the Bruins roster, but Bergeron is the most experienced of the bunch and with Savard out for an undetermined amount of time, the pressure is on Bergeron to step up his game in a big way. While his role of late has been to play as a hybrid checking center, getting a few more goals from the former team leader in points would help soften the blow of losing Savard in a big way. While No. 2 overall pick Seguin will have his own brand of pressure, the heat is on Bergeron to hold it all together.

Protecting the house: Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas will again get together to establish a formidable duo in net, only this time around Rask figures to shoulder most of the load. Provided Rask can avoid the Blaine Lacher/Andrew Raycroft second-year letdown, the Bruins figure to be tough to score on once again. Thomas has spent the offseason getting in shape and rehabbing from labrum surgery on his hip. If he bounces back in a big way, the Bruins’ potential two-headed monster in goal will be nasty.

Outside of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the blue liners have some question marks around them. Johnny Boychuk had a breakout season and if he can continue to be tough, that will help. Matt Hunwick, Mark Stuart and Andrew Ference will all have to be more consistent. Hunwick will potentially see his workload increase with Wideman gone.

Top line we’d like to see: Milan Lucic-Seguin-Horton. Letting the new kid in town run with a couple of bruisers, one who can finish well in Horton and the other who’s good about clearing room all over the ice, might prove to be the best thing for the 18 year-old Seguin. This line would also prove to be ridiculously young with Horton checking in as the old man at age 25. As it is, we’ll have to settle for the projected line of Seguin with Bergeron and ageless wonder Mark Recchi. Past, present, and future working together. Get on that one marketing department.

Oh captain, my captain: Chara once again wears the ‘C’ and who better to do it than the 6-foot-9 physical force? Chara’s done well as the go-to guy for rallies in Boston, but you have to wonder if perhaps he’s gotten a bit more negative attention after the Bruins choke job in the playoffs.

shawnthornton1.jpgStreet fighting man: While they’re trying out Brian McGrattan as a potential enforcer, the man that does most of the talking with his fists is Shawn Thornton. Being one of the most quotable guys in Boston helps make him even more of a fan favorite. With the Bruins’ team heart being called into question repeatedly last season, perhaps standing up for each other a bit more would put a lot of this to rest.

Best-case scenario: Injuries to Marc Savard and Marco Sturm don’t keep the Bruins down. Seguin steps into an NHL job seamlessly from junior hockey. Horton becomes a 40-goal scorer. Rask becomes the second-coming of Gerry Cheevers sending the Bruins into the Stanley Cup finals.

Worst-case scenario: Savard struggles all year long with concussion problems and can’t step back in as the team’s No. 1 center. Bergeron and David Krejci don’t make the ‘jump’ offensively to fill those needs. Seguin plays like an 18-year-old kid while Horton plays more like Lucic, meaning he plays physically but doesn’t punch in the goals they’re looking for out of him. If everything breaks poorly like that, the Bruins would again be fighting to get into the playoffs. Thankfully in the Eastern Conference, things are a bit more wide open.

Keeping it real: The Bruins can easily win their division and be a top-three seed as the rest of their division mates have much bigger questions marks. If the offense can get more consistent and the goaltending stays as good as it has been the last couple years, the Bruins figure to be a difficult and dangerous team to deal with.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5 with one being the worst and five being the best, the Bruins are a solid 4.

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    Can Golden Knights keep winning as they keep losing goalies?

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    The Vegas Golden Knights confirmed today’s fearful report: Malcolm Subban is expected to miss about a month thanks to a lower-body injury suffered during another Golden Knights upset (3-2 in OT vs. the Blues) on Saturday night.

    It makes for a dizzying run of turnover in the Cinderella expansion team’s net; Calvin Pickard went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the odd man out, Subban is headed to IR, and Marc-Andre Fleury is sidelined with another concussion.

    The spotlight, then, turns to Oscar Dansk, the 23-year-old goalie who stopped 10 of 11 shots against St. Louis when Subban went down with that injury.

    Golden Knights GM George McPhee said the predictable, right things regarding Dansk and the situation:

    “Injuries provide opportunities for others and that is the situation we have here,” McPhee said. “Our top two goaltenders are currently sidelined so we will now give our AHL goalies the chance to play in their absence. We felt Oscar Dansk performed well in relief on Saturday in his NHL debut.”

    In a way, Dansk feels like a lower-level version of Subban. While Subban is/was a struggling former first-rounder, Dansk was the second-round version; the Columbus Blue Jackets made him the 31st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

    (Hey, the 31st pick is now a first-rounder thanks to the Golden Knights, so there’s that.)

    Dansk hasn’t been setting the hockey world on fire at other levels, but maybe that makes him an interesting fit for this weird situation, as the Golden Knights continue to defy odds and puck-gravity during a 6-1-0 start.

    What to expect

    While the Chicago Blackhawks boast the sort of firepower that could make for an unpleasant introduction for Dansk, at least the Golden Knights still have a few games remaining on their first-ever homestand:

    Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
    Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
    Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
    Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

    That back-to-back to end the month could be Halloween-scary, but at least Vegas has some time to prepare. The losses are likely to come starting on Oct. 30, as they face a six-game road trip and eight of nine games away from home. That’s challenging, no expansion disclaimers needed.

    How they’ve been playing

    Some wonder if the Golden Knights should loosen their defensive logjam by trading for a netminder.

    Rather than wading too deep into that discussion, this seems like a reasonable time to look at the Golden Knights seven games (and six wins) in.

    • One thing that stands out is Vegas’ penalty kill. They’ve been almost perfect if you exclude a rough showing in their overtime win against the Sabres (Buffalo went 3-for-5 in that game). Aside from that, they’ve only allowed one power-play goal. They’ve also only hit the penalty box three or four times most nights, with one night with just one trip and the five opportunities for the Sabres standing as the outliers.

    The Golden Knights should expect more struggles in both regards, at least at times, this season. Maybe this long run of home-ice advantage and their expansion status helped avoid most whistles? Perhaps Gerard Gallant has them playing extra-smart?

    • So far, the shot counts have been pretty reasonable in five of seven games. They’ve only been heavily outshot twice so far: their first game (46 shots on goal for Dallas, 30 for them) and this past one vs. the Blues (49 for St. Louis, 22 for Vegas). That’s surprisingly competent stuff.
    • With any team enjoying success, close games can be a red flag, especially if there are OT wins. Vegas has three wins in overtime and one other one-goal win. Their 3-1 win against Boston included an empty-netter.

    This isn’t to dismiss those wins, but sometimes close games are more like “coin flips,” and some of those will start going against the Golden Knights eventually.

    • The Golden Knights are a top-10 team in two luck-leaning categories: PDO and shooting percentage. That said, they’re not the top team in either spot, so it’s not outrageous to give them some credit.

    ***

    Through some intriguing combination of competence and beginner’s luck, the Golden Knights are off to a shockingly good start.

    It’s one thing to lose one goalie, but seeing both go down is brutal for any squad, let alone an expansion team. The Golden Knights have every excuse to start to fade, and were likely to see slippage even at full strength.

    Even so, credit this team for being far better than anyone expected, and this hungry bunch will at least be able to point to doubtful bits like these if they need some “us against the world” motivation.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points in Bolts’ blowout of Penguins

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    The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

    As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

    Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

    (Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

    Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

    Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

    It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

    Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

    2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

    2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

    2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

    The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

    For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

    If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

    1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
    2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
    3. Stamkos (1.07)
    4. Kane (1.06)
    5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
    6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

    As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

    Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

    Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

    Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

    Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

    (Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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    Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

    Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

    Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

    The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

    None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

    Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

    Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

    “Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

    Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

    (By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

    Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

    It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

    Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Flyers could gain in lengthy loss of Andrew MacDonald

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    It’s not right to celebrate the injury of Andrew MacDonald, but it’s fair for Philadelphia Flyers fans to at least consider the silver linings.

    The oft-criticized defenseman (who was booed during warm-ups during the Flyers’ season-opener) is expected to miss four-to-six weeks after blocking a shot by Edmonton Oilers forward Mark Letestu during Philly’s eventual win on Saturday.

    MacDonald, 31, tried to fight through the pain and even briefly returned, gaining praise from teammates and coaches alike. Here’s the painful-looking play that caused the injury:

    Flyers fans – and fans of other NHL teams, as almost all have a contract or two they’d like to give the “Men In Black” treatment to – should remember to hate the contract, not the player.

    (If you’re going to boo anyone, do so to management, as that bad deal happened right around the time Ron Hextall was transitioning to GM. It’s probably not as much on Hextall, but it’s not inconceivable that he gave a thumbs up, too.)

    Anyway, with the 31-year-old on the shelf and his $5M cap hit being IR-bound, the Flyers should have plenty of room to call someone up, if they’d like. That’s where things get interesting, as the Courier-Post’s Dave Isaac ranks among those pointing out intriguing defensive prospect Samuel Morin as a potential replacement.

    Morin, 22, is a towering, Pronger-sized defenseman. He could slide into some of MacDonald’s roles, as both are going to be counted on for their own-zone work more than offense. Even in the AHL, Morin was known for stacking up penalty minutes more than points, although he’s off to a higher-scoring start so far this season.

    While MacDonald has struggled from a possession stats perspective (as Flyers fans will likely tell you, possibly loudly), he’s far from alone in that regard. The team is middling in possession categories, and MacDonald doesn’t look all that out of place when you consider “relative” stats in 2017-18.

    It will be fascinating to see if Morin can help in that regard, and really, how he fits into the modern NHL.

    A defenseman his size will need to work harder to stay in position and not get burned against faster, attacking teams. With the Flyers’ host of fleet-footed, scoring blueliners, Morin could serve as a nice change-of-pace.

    (Isaac also points to Mark Alt as an option, if the Flyers feel like now isn’t the time for Morin.)

    With three wins in their last four games and a five-game homestand wrapping up against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday, the Flyers have a lot of good things going. As promising as the present can be at times, it’s still the future that makes this group most tantalizing. Perhaps we’ll get a glimpse at how Morin might fit into the puzzle, then?

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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