Perhaps the only way you could have forecast the dramatic improvement was by thinking that second-line center Patrice Bergeron, who missed most of last season with a severe concussion, could return to his earlier form and greatly improve on the performance of fill-in second-line center David Krejci, who had 6 goals, 27 points and a minus-3 rating in 56 games.
But Bergeron was handled tentatively by the Bruins in his return, playing mostly at wing, while Krejci centered a second line of newcomers -- free-agent signee Michael Ryder and rookie Blake Wheeler. Bergeron got hurt again and missed a couple of months, but Krejci has become one of the NHL's best players and a legitimate candidate for the Lady Byng Trophy, which rewards excellence combined with gentlemanly play.
Krejci, 22, has more than doubled his production of a year ago, to 19 goals and 56 points in 54 games. He also is a plus-30, third in the NHL. And with 5 power-play goals and 1 shorthanded goal, he's playing in all situations. And he stays out of the penalty box, with just 12 minutes of sin-bin time this season.
"I expected him to be good, but not this good this soon, like the team," said Boston broadcaster Bob Beers, a former Bruin. "You saw it last year, but it's always a challenge for young guys to be consistent, the same player night in and night out. We saw a glimpse last year when Marc Savard got hurt with a handful of games left in the season and the Bruins still needed wins. He had (9) points in the last seven games with Savard out of the lineup and the Bruins got into the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the East's eighth-place team, so David played an important role in that success. Then he played very well in the playoffs."
Krejci has played an important role in helping Wheeler adjust to the NHL and in getting Ryder back on track after a 14-goal season in Montreal. Wheeler has 15 goals and 18 assists, while Ryder has 19 goals and 17 assists and is tied for second in the NHL with 7 game-winning goals.
"Wheeler is a smart player and strong, with a good shot," Krejci said. "He's been a big addition to the team and creates a lot of space for me and Michael. Ryder is a great shooter. He has a really hard shot. He's creative and always has a good chance to score goals.
"We are trying to do the right things, not cheat out there, play our game plan and stick with the system. So far, it's working well and we have to keep doing it."
"David is extremely intelligent and he sees the ice really well," Beers said. "He manages the ice very well. He knows when to speed it up or slow it down, find the late guy coming. He's got deceptive speed and some jump to his game. He's not afraid to go into areas that people call the 'danger areas.'
"He's good in all zones and very good in his own zone. He's good for a defenseman to play with because he's always open, always looking for the pass. He does a lot of good things out there. Some show on the score sheet and some don't. Our defensemen are always looking for the pass up the middle, especially when the other team takes away the boards, and all the Bruins' centers are good at that play."
The Bruins' centers come back deep into their own zone to help support the defense. Krejci's teammates have high praise for his defensive awareness and great outlet passes.
"That's one of our key things in our game plan," Krejci said. "If you want to play with the puck, you have to go get it."
Going out and getting it is in Krejci's nature. He played one season of juniors with Kladno in the Czech Republic, and starred for his country in the 2004 World Under-18 Championship, with 7 points in seven games. The Bruins drafted him in the second round (No. 63) in the 2004 Entry Draft, and then he played two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the Gatineau Olympiques.
"I came over to play Canadian juniors because I wanted to get the experience and get a taste of very different hockey," Krejci said. "As the year went on, I took the game very seriously. I knew that I wanted a professional hockey career. I wanted to make it to the NHL, so in my second year I tried to improve my game in every area. In my third year over here I went to Providence in the AHL and my coach there, Scott Gordon, worked with me on the details I needed to improve to make it to the NHL.
"He was a great coach and I was very happy for him, getting the Islanders' job."
Krejci said the Bruins' great depth at Providence helps motivate the Boston players. The Bruins have had a lot of injuries this season and Matt Hunwick, Matt Lashoff, Vladimir Sobotka, Martin St. Pierre and Byron Bitz have come up and played positive roles.
"We have huge depth in Providence, so if you don't play well you're not in the lineup here anymore," Krejci said. "You have to get the job done to stay in the lineup. Guys like Sobotka and St. Pierre can play in this League and they showed it when they were up, and they're back in Providence waiting for their chance again."
"Hockey is our first sport in the Czech Republic," Krejci said. "When I was young, I would always watch when we could see an NHL game or our national team. I knew I wanted to be one of those players on the TV and everyone would be watching me. That was my dream. I watched all the Czech players in the NHL. I worked hard and did everything to be like those guys on TV."
He said the Czech Republic's gold-medal victory in the 1998 Winter Olympics was one of the highlights of his life and gave his country an enormous sense of pride. He remembers where he was for every game.
"I remember the semifinal when we beat Canada," Krejci said. "It went to a shootout. Everyone in my school went to this huge room where we did all the sports stuff. There was a big screen and we watched the shootout on the big screen. I think I was 10 or 11. That was special, and Robert Reichel scored the winning goal in the shootout.
"A couple of days later, when they played the Russians for the gold medal, that wasn't a school day. So everyone in the Czech Republic went down to the big square in their hometowns and watched on big screens. It was something really awesome. I watched in my hometown of Sternberk, but it was all over the country like that. It was something great. I thought how great it would be to play in the Olympics and win a gold medal."