By the end of the 2013-14 regular season, the Boston Bruins had emerged as the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference, and a path to making their third Stanley Cup Final in four years seemed clear.
It did not turn out that way because a long-time nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens, upset the Bruins in dramatic fashion in the second round. Boston did not have a lot of salary-cap flexibility this summer, and it showed.
Jarome Iginla left for the Colorado Avalanche, and his offense will be missed. Shawn Thornton left for the Florida Panthers, but breaking up the popular "Merlot Line" will be a positive for the Bruins moving forward.
Otherwise, it is more of the same for the Bruins. Time is catching up to a few guys, and Boston needs young players to emerge in larger roles this season. The Bruins are probably still the best team in the East, but the gap is not likely to be as wide.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Bruins:
There's been plenty of debate about which of Boston's two fantastic lines deserves top-line billing. Coach Claude Julien may refer to David Krejci's group as the top line, and might play them a tad more at even strength, but there's no question whatever trio Patrice Bergeron is anchoring is the team's best.
When Bergeron is on the ice, the Bruins dominate. When he is joined by defenseman Zdeno Chara, it's not really a fair fight.
The Bruins essentially had seven top-six forwards last season when Reilly Smith emerged as a consistent producer. With Iginla gone to Colorado, either Smith or Loui Eriksson will slide into the spot next to Krejci and Milan Lucic. Eriksson needs to have a bounce-back season.
The issue for Boston is there appears to be two open spots in the bottom six (assuming Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille are also locks). There are several interesting young candidates with little NHL experience to possibly fill them. There is also Jordan Caron, who hasn't reached his potential yet.
Chara has been a dominant force in each of the past two regular seasons, but he's slowed a bit as the playoffs progressed. Boston might need to lean on him less during the early months of the season to help him be at full value late in a postseason run.
The Bruins didn't adequately replace Dennis Seidenberg after he was lost for the rest of the season with a knee injury. He's also not young anymore, and now coming off a major injury. Boston needs more from Dougie Hamilton, who could be an elite two-way player at the position.
Torey Krug was great on the power play, but Julien sheltered him a great deal at even strength. The Bruins have a couple of other defense prospects like Joe Morrow and David Warsofsky who could also make a push for a spot. If Chara and Seidenberg are healthy and near 100 percent for the postseason, the Bruins can still win the conference.
Tuukka Rask's first full-season in charge of the Boston net was a smashing success. Rask set a career high for games played and won the Vezina Trophy. Rask has quickly elevated himself to a position among the League's elite.
Chad Johnson was a quality backup option for the Bruins last season, but they will likely turn to Niklas Svedberg in 2014-15. Svedberg had a nice season with Providence in the American Hockey League, and looks to join a growing list of strong backups in Boston, from Rask to Anton Khudobin to Johnson.
*Restricted free agent
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2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: BRUINS
Undervalued: Loui Eriksson -- With the departure of Jarome Iginla, Eriksson will have as good a chance as anyone to earn minutes alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic on the Bruins' top line. He filled in for Iginla on April 5 and had a four-assist game, providing fantasy owners with a glimpse of his potential with that duo. Eriksson missed 21 games last season with concussions and a heel injury and was mostly a third-line player when he was in the lineup, but fantasy owners should jump at the opportunity to grab the right wing in the 9th or 10th round of standard drafts. He scored 70-plus points in three consecutive seasons during his time with the Dallas Stars and could be one of the biggest steals NHL-wide if healthy.
Overvalued: Brad Marchand -- Marchand went pointless in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final (six games) and failed to score a goal last postseason (12 games). From a fantasy standpoint, the left wing is a proven 50-point player for an elite team who will boost your plus-minus each season. But the fact he barely sees any power-play time (15 power-play points in 300 NHL games) and has never come close to 200 shots on goal in a season makes him a bit overrated in fantasy. There's also a chance the 26-year-old could be deemed expendable for a deep Boston team that is up against the salary cap. View him as a category specialist, not a top-100 overall asset.
Sleeper: Dougie Hamilton -- Hamilton is gradually being given more ice time (17:07 per game in 2012-13, 19:06 in 2013-14) for a top-tier possession team that has enough depth on the blue line to dictate its pace for developing young defensemen. The 21-year-old missed time in December with injury but still put forth an encouraging sophomore season with a plus-22 regular-season rating, a strong postseason (seven points, three on power play with 23 shots in 12 games) and a regular-season Corsi-for percentage that led Bruins defensemen (56.3 at 5-on-5, per ExtraSkater.com). If Hamilton steals some power-play time from Torey Krug and takes the next step in the final year of his entry-level contract, he could easily finish among the top 30 fantasy defensemen.
Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen
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