STATE OF THE UNION
The Boston Bruins have been on a steady climb since finishing in the Northeast Division cellar in 2006 and 2007. They improved to third in the division in 2008 and took Montreal to a seventh game before being eliminated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The improving Bruins then rocketed to the top of the Eastern Conference last season as goalie Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy, defenseman Zdeno Chara won the Norris Trophy and coach Claude Julien won the Jack Adams Award. They swept Montreal in the first round and rallied from a 3-1 deficit before losing in overtime of Game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round.
There's a feeling of unfinished business in Boston, and Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli has made several important moves to make his team strong contenders for the 2010 Stanley Cup.
Chiarelli traded away veteran defensive leader Aaron Ward and replaced him with free-agent Derek Morris. Veteran defensive forward Steve Begin was signed to replace Stephane Yelle. Veteran Mark Recchi, acquired at the trade deadline, re-signed. Top prospect Tuukka Rask will replace Manny Fernandez as Thomas' backup.
If there's a dark cloud, the team hasn't yet come to terms with fourth-year right wing Phil Kessel, who scored a team-leading 36 goals. Chiarelli needs to find salary-cap room to fit Kessel onto the team, so expect one or more departures from the current roster before the season starts.
"We had a very good regular season and did OK in the playoffs, so I don't think we have a long ways to go," Chiarelli said. "Our mandate in this town is to win, and last year we didn't win at the end of the season. There should be a lot of fire in the belly."
"We had a very good regular season and did OK in the playoffs, so I don't think we have a long ways to go. Our mandate in this town is to win, and last year we didn't win at the end of the season. There should be a lot of fire in the belly." -- Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli
"We gave Boychuk a one-way contract so we expect him to be with us," Chiarelli said. "Penner was good all year and paired late in the season with Boychuk. McQuaid is still polishing his craft but has come a long way as a defensive defenseman."
All-Star Marc Savard will center Kessel and left wing Marco Sturm, who missed most of last season with a concussion and knee surgery. Sturm had 27 goals in each of the previous two seasons.
Patrice Bergeron likely will center Recchi and Chuck Kobasew again, while David Krejci, who led the NHL with a plus-37 rating, probably will center Milan Lucic and Michael Ryder. Begin most likely will center a fourth line that includes right wing Shawn Thornton, but then it gets tricky.
The Bruins have left wing Blake Wheeler, who had 21 goals but wore out in his first professional season. He's a likely top-six forward, so something's got to give.
"Begin is in the mix for the fourth line," Chiarelli said. "Then maybe a couple of different faces. It may be one guy moving up and down the lineup. It's a spot replacing Yelle, so the player has to be responsible defensively. Vladimir Sobotka has grown and is close to ready to play steadily in the league. We have a group of 13 or 14 forwards that can play at this level."
Pressing the top-12 forwards will be Byron Bitz, who played very well in the playoffs; free-agent centers Trent Whitfield and Drew Larman; feisty left wing Matt Marquadt; right winger Mikko Lehtonen; and center Zach Hamill, the eighth pick of the 2007 Entry Draft.
Chiarelli thought Bergeron, who suffered a serious head injury in October 2007, showed signs of returning to his former strong game during the playoffs.
"The last three or four games, he was really coming on," Chiarelli said. "We're counting on him being all the way back."
Boston Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli is building the kind of organization that puts pressure on players on the NHL club. There is a load of talent at Providence, the club's American Hockey League affiliate, with more to come.
The Bruins' developing talent is spread around the hockey world. Yuri Alexandrov is progressing nicely in Russia; Mikko Lehtonen returned to Providence from the Finnish league last season; Carl Soderberg had 59 points in 45 games in the Swedish league last season; and Joe Colborne had an outstanding freshman outing at the University of Denver.
Chiarelli signed winger Yannick Riendeau in April after the 5-foot-10, 178-pounder jumped from 23 goals and 49 points in 2007-08 to 58 goals and 126 points last season for the QMJHL champions, the Drummondville Voltigeurs.
Center Maxime Sauve, a 2008 second-round pick, had 27 goals and 76 points with Val d'Or of the QMJHL. Sauve played well with Caron at development camp.
Here is a look at the five biggest prospects on the horizon for the Bruins:
Johnny Boychuk -- A 2002 second-round pick, Boychuk languished in Colorado's system for three years before being traded to the Bruins. Now 25 years old, Boychuk comes off a season in which he was named the AHL's top defenseman after finishing second on the team in scoring. Boychuk is a hard checker at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, and he has a hard shot. He had 119 assists in five AHL seasons.
Tuukka Rask -- The Bruins have two questions about Rask: Is he ready for the NHL after two AHL seasons? And is playing behind Vezina Trophy-winning Tim Thomas the best thing for his development? The signing of NHL veteran Dany Sabourin gives the Bruins a strong No. 1 goalie for Providence, and he could move up if Rask falters. Rask had 33 wins, a 2.50 goals-against average and four shutouts last season.
Mikko Lehtonen -- Boston's 2005 third-round pick was sent back to Finland to fulfill his military obligation and heal from a shoulder injury in 2007. He had a good season and returned to play last season for Providence, where he had 28 goals and 53 points. The 22-year-old right wing is a speedster despite his 6-foot-3, 196-pound frame. Providence coach Rob Murray said Lehtonen was his most improved player and capable of playing in the NHL.
Joe Colborne -- The No. 16 pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, Colborne had an outstanding freshman season at the University of Denver, being named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team at center. His 31 points were fifth-highest among the league's freshmen. He's extremely smart and has a great work ethic. He's also 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds.
Brad Marchand -- When a rival coach called right wing Brad Marchand "a freaking classless act" during the AHL playoffs, Marchand cupped his hand to his ear and then pointed to the scoreboard. The Halifax, N.S., native is a 5-foot-9, 183-pound agitator who had 18 goals and 59 points in 79 games with Providence and then 7 goals and 15 points in 16 Calder Cup playoff games.
The Bruins were looking to the future with their 2009 draft picks, not trying to fill holes in the current lineup. They took a team-leading scorer with their first pick, a mobile, strong, puck-handling defenseman with the second pick and an enforcer with the third pick, then followed up with a long-shot power forward and a skilled center who will attend college.
First pick Jordan Caron admits he's more of a goal-scorer than a playmaker and he needs to work on playing better in the hard areas around the net. That description also would fit current Bruins right wing Michael Ryder, so the club wouldn't be disappointed if he turned out as well as Ryder did last year, with 27 goals.
The Bruins were very impressed with the skating and puck-moving skill of second pick Ryan Button at last month's development camp. Button likely will go back to his junior team, the WHL's Prince Albert Raiders, but there seems to be little doubt among NHL scouts that he'll play in the League.
Here is a quick look at the five selections the Bruins made in Montreal this June:
Jordan Caron -- Taken at No. 25, Caron is a 6-foot-2, 202-pound right wing who led the QMJHL's Rimouski Oceanic with 36 goals in 56 games. He had 6 goals and 11 points in 13 league playoff games.
Ryan Button -- Solidly built at 6-foot and 185 pounds, the third-round pick (No. 86) had 5 goals and 37 points last season. Button doesn't take many penalties (73 penalty minutes the last two seasons) and he's excellent on power plays.
Lane MacDermid -- After nine years of booing Paul MacDermid when he was with the Whalers, Bruins fans may get to cheer for his son, Lane, a heavily penalized (197 penalty minutes), bruising left wing from the Memorial Cup champion Windsor Spitfires, taken in the fourth round (No. 112).
Tyler Randell -- Taken in the sixth round (No. 176), Randell needs to upgrade his skating to become an NHL-level grinding, net-crashing right wing. He showed improvement in his second junior season, especially after being traded from the Belleville Bulls to the Kitchener Rangers.
Ben Sexton -- Sexton is the son of Randy Sexton, assistant general manager of the Florida Panthers. Ben Sexton played Tier II hockey and will attend Clarkson University in 2010.