In addition, the big free-agent signing from the previous year, defenseman Zdeno Chara, had underwhelmed fans in his first season. Plus, two of the three players acquired in the Joe Thornton trade had moved on. Where were the signs of hope?
To top it off, 10 games into the season, the Bruins' best player, Patrice Bergeron, suffered a season-ending concussion when he was slammed from behind into the end boards. Oh, and the big summer free-agent signing, goalie Manny Fernandez, needed knee surgery.
We repeat, where were the signs of hope?
Right there in plain sight, as it turned out. Julien presented himself and addressed his team as anything but a last-chance coach, installing a hard forecheck and building a camaraderie among his players that was evident all season. Across the League, coaches begged for consistency, but Julien's crew started well and never had a long winning or losing streak, holding a playoff position throughout the season.
Eight rookies contributed greatly and Tim Thomas, the goalie the Bruins had tried several times to replace, gave them another solid season. Dennis Wideman, considered an insignificant pickup when acquired in February 2007, matured into a point-producing defenseman who could log big minutes. Marco Sturm also had his most productive season while Phil Kessel and Chuck Kobasew both rebounded from illness and injury.
The Bruins finished third in the Northeast Division with a 41-29-12 record for 94 points. They were 35-25-12 against the Eastern Conference, 10-8-2 against the Southeast Division, 12-4-4 against the Atlantic Division and only 13-13-6 against the Northeast.
The team is a year older and Julien's system is second nature. The Bruins have a wealth of young talent on the verge of breaking into the NHL. Their future looks brighter than it has in a long time.
2007-08 SEASON STATS
(8th east/15th NHL)
|Change from 2006-07||+18|
(9th east/21st NHL)
(2nd east/5th NHL)
Thomas, 34, enters his fourth full NHL season with a 73-62-20 record, 2.80 goals-against average and .913 save percentage. He was 28-19-6 in 57 games last season with a 2.44 GAA and .921 save percentage. Thomas is a good-sized fighter with a strong belief in himself. After graduating the University of Vermont, Thomas played three seasons in Finland and one in Sweden to keep his career alive. He has an extremely quick glove hand, often snagging shots you thought were in the net.
Fernandez, 33, showed this summer he was healed from knee surgery when he attended the Bruins' prospect development camp. The Bruins signed him as a free agent a year ago and he missed 73 games with knee and back problems. If the knee is fine, Fernandez could provide strong goaltending, given a moderate workload. He split goaltending duties through most of his six seasons in Minnesota and won the William Jennings Trophy with Niklas Backstrom in 2006-07.
Fernandez is 127-115-32 in 297 NHL games with a 2.49 GAA and .912 save percentage. Perhaps his best attribute is his ability to win low-scoring contests. He played in a lot of pressure situations in Minnesota and was reliable, including showing an ability to "steal" games. He is a good-sized 6-foot, 207 pounds and is a very strong puckhandler.
Tuukka Rask is the goalie of the future. Rask was acquired two years ago at the draft from Toronto in a deal for Andrew Raycroft. Rask was the No. 21 selection in the 2005 Entry Draft. He is a tall, thin goalie with exceptional ability. He went 27-12-3 in 47 games with AHL Providence last year and 2-1-1 in four NHL games last November and December.
Rask will likely play another season with AHL Providence, where Kevin Regan will be his backup. Regan is the former University of New Hampshire goalie who set school records in saves, save percentage, games played and wins and won the Walter Brown Award as the best American-born college hockey player in New England. He is the reigning Hockey East Player of the Year, All-Star Goaltender and an All-American. He put on an incredible performance through three overtimes in the playoffs before losing to eventual NCAA champion Boston College.
Three Northeast Division teams could eventually wind up with first-string goalies from the ninth round of the 2003 draft: Jaroslav Halak in Montreal, Regan in Boston and Brian Elliott in Ottawa.
Chara, the captain, just returned from a hike of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At 6-foot-9 and 251 pounds, Chara towers over NHL players like Kilimanjaro towers over Tanzania. Chara plays a physical game, keeping the front of his net clear, and he is a good puck mover. He is coming off his best offensive season, posting 17 goals and 34 assists for 51 points while going plus-14. He led the Bruins' defense in points, plus-minus rating, and with 207 shots, 223 hits and 26:50 of average ice time.
Chara was key to the Bruins' strong season with his on-ice contributions but it was his leadership, his commitment to Julien's system and his upbeat nature that made the Bruins' dressing room a united and happy place. There was no doubt that the Bruins were committed to each other and intent on success.
When Brad Boyes got off to a hot start with St. Louis last season, Chiarelli was roundly criticized for the trade that brought Dennis Wideman, who was getting the label "career minor-leaguer." Wideman's puck-moving skills came into full view with Boston last season and he has been signed to a long-term contract. Wideman had 13 goals, 23 assists and finished plus-11.
Andrew Ference was the only member of the Bruins' top-six defensemen with a negative rating and it was a rough minus-14. Yet, he was third in average ice time with 22:14. Ference had a goal and 14 assists and dished out 79 hits while blocking 65 shots.
Aaron Ward gives the defense size, experience and good puck-moving skills. He plays a physical game and pays the price. Ward suffered through concussion, foot and knee problems last season. Still, he led the Bruins with 119 blocked shots, but that led to a broken left foot, a bruised right foot and an ankle injury. Shane Hnidy was acquired in January and was minus-4 in 43 games with 1 goal and 4 assists.
Andrew Alberts was on his knees in his own zone Nov. 26 when an opponent checked his head into the boards. Andrews played for another 10 games, but then was out of the lineup until the last three games of the season. It was a tough break for the Boston College star, who needed only eight minor-league games before jumping into the Bruins' lineup three years ago.
Mark Stuart, the 2005 WCHA defensive player of the year and All-American, played 82 games after spending parts of the previous two seasons with the Bruins. Stuart had 4 goals and 4 assists and was plus-2. Stuart is a body-moving force in his zone but his offensive abilities are limited.
The Bruins are hoping that Matt Hunwick and Matt Lashoff will force themselves onto the roster. Lashoff was their first-round pick in 2005 and a member of the AHL All-Rookie team in 2007, but he struggled in 30 NHL games over two seasons. Described as a fluid skater, Lashoff has had trouble with the quickness of NHL opponents. He had 9 goals and 27 assists in 60 games with Providence last year and was plus-11. Hunwick was a seventh-round pick in 2004, but he had an outstanding career at Michigan. He played well at both Providence and Boston last year. Hunwick handles the puck really well and helps generate offense from his own end.
This is where it gets interesting. The Bruins have 10 candidates for their top six forward positions. They also have eight players who will contend for the four center positions. Marc Savard and Bergeron will almost certainly center the top two lines. Free-agent right winger Michael Ryder will play with one of them. That leaves Kobasew and Kessel competing for the second- and third-line right winger positions, unless Kessel centers the third line. Milan Lucic had a tremendous rookie year and will compete with Sturm for first-line left winger.
David Krejci, Vladimir Sobotka, Petteri Nokelainen and Martin St. Pierre will compete for the final two center spots, although Nokelainen can play right wing and St. Pierre is probably slotted to start the season in Providence. Superb defensive left winger P.J. Axelsson returns and will see regular penalty-killing duty. Axelsson has more offensive ability than is generally conceded. Shawn Thornton gives the Bruins a snarly face and good defensive ability at right wing. Martin Karsums deserves a chance at right wing after two solid seasons in Providence and Blake Wheeler, a first-round pick by Phoenix a couple years ago, was signed after he left the University of Minnesota to play again with his college linemate, Kessel.
Despite losing coach Scott Gordon to the New York Islanders, it's apparent Providence will be a force in the AHL. The roster will be loaded with forwards who believe they belong in the NHL and aren't far off.