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Rask Looks to Rise to Occasion

by Staff Writer / Boston Bruins – The Boston Bruins have some question marks heading into the season, but none are likely of a make-or-break nature for a team that has had a stranglehold on the Northeast Division for the past two years and doesn’t appear to be on the verge of relinquishing it.

Still, with a new starting goaltender, a sniper returning from injury, a young defenseman attempting to make a big jump to the NHL, and a chronic deficiency still unresolved, the Bruins do have some issues that need to be dealt with.

While a playoff berth may not be hanging in the balance, just how far the Bruins go in the Stanley Cup Playoffs could very well depend on the answers to these six questions the team is facing heading into the season.

1. Tuukka's time to shine?

For most NHL teams, having a starting goaltender who is still under contract deliver news like that would be a devastating blow, one that would require some creative maneuvering to find a replacement, potentially weakening another area of the team in the process.

That was not the case for Chiarelli, who had a replacement already waiting in the wings: Tuukka Rask.

Rask, 25, has been groomed for this moment ever since he was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2006 for Andrew Raycroft, waiting patiently behind one of the League's top goaltenders for his opportunity to shine.

"I kind of felt like I paid my dues down in the minors and sitting on the bench most of the time the last couple of years," Rask told over the summer. "So it's a big challenge for me and I'm really looking forward to that."

Rask's career numbers certainly suggest he is ready to take this next step. In 102 career NHL games, Rask has a 47-35-11 record with 11 shutouts, a 2.20 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage. But the biggest workload in a single season in his professional career was 57 games with the American Hockey League's Providence Bruins in 2008-09.

"I'm sure there will be questions raised when I have a bad game or two, but that's part of the job and I'm sure I can handle it," Rask said. "Mentally, everything's fine. But when you play a lot of games and you play consecutive games, you have to take care of your body. I think that will be the biggest challenge for me, staying on top of that and staying healthy."

The pressure on Rask to perform at a level approaching what Tim Thomas has given the Bruins the past two seasons will be enormous, so he will need to be just as mentally strong as he is physically to get through it.

2. A healthy Horton?

Nathan Horton was having one of the best seasons of his career when an illegal hit by the Vancouver Canucks' Aaron Rome (now with the Dallas Stars) in Game 3 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final left him with a concussion. Horton scored 26 goals in the regular season in 2010-11, his first in Boston, and he was a key component of the Bruins' march to the Final.

Last season, Horton, much like his entire team, got off to a slow start with two goals and three assists in his first 12 games. But he was on a good run of eight goals in 11 games when he was hit Jan. 22 by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Tom Sestito, giving Horton another concussion that cost him the remainder of the season.

Horton was cleared for contact again over the summer and will be ready for Bruins training camp, and Boston hope's he'll be the same physical, offensive threat who can produce 25-plus goals.

3. Can Dougie Hamilton make a seamless jump from junior hockey to the NHL?

The Bruins appear to hope so.

The No. 9 selection at the 2011 NHL Draft had a tremendous season with the Ontario Hockey League's Niagara IceDogs, putting up 72 points in just 50 games to be named the Canadian Hockey League's defenseman of the year.

Listed at 6-foot-5 and 193 pounds last season, Hamilton focused on adding strength to that massive frame so he can compete in the NHL as soon as this season, something Chiarelli is hoping becomes a reality.

"One of the things that we've accomplished, that [coach] Claude [Julien] has accomplished, is we've brought youth into our lineup and allowed them to develop and succeed rather than throw them into the fire right away and all," Chiarelli told reporters at the Bruins' development camp in July. "Dougie Hamilton, we would hope that he would get into our lineup and fall into that category."

An added benefit for allowing Hamilton to make the leap to the NHL as soon as this season would be his exposure to fellow big-bodied defenseman Zdeno Chara, who would likely teach Hamilton more than he would ever learn in the junior ranks.

"There comes a point where you get diminishing returns when you're a player of that caliber," Chiarelli told Ottawa's the Team 1200 earlier this month. "We don’t want to hand the job to him, but he's everything you want in a defenseman right now. He's young and he has to come into his own as a professional, but he's tall, has great range, sees the ice well, likes to hit and likes to close off defensively."

4. How much higher will Tyler Seguin climb this season?

Seguin led the Bruins in scoring last season with 67 points at the age of 20, a jump of 45 points from his rookie year.

It would be unreasonable to suggest Seguin's production could increase at a similar rate a second year in a row, but there is very little doubt his point total will continue to climb -- just how high is the question.

For a player so young, Seguin was quite consistent last season, but he did show signs he was wearing down as the season went on. He had 32 points in 34 games by New Year's Eve and had a slight drop to 35 points in 47 games in 2012. His longest stretch without a point all season was three games, and all four times it happened came in the second half of the season.

In the playoffs, Seguin was held off the scoresheet through the first five games of Boston's first-round defeat against the Washington Capitals, but he managed three points in the final two games.

Coming in with some already established chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, plus some physical maturity that should help him deal with the rigors of the long NHL season, should help Seguin maintain the production he showed early on last season right through spring.

5. How to improve the power play?

All the pieces are there -- the League's hardest slap shot from the point from Chara, the big body in front of the net with Milan Lucic and Horton, the elite playmaking skill of Seguin, Bergeron and David Krejci, plus a healthy dose of solid role players with enough offensive skill to fill holes in case of injury.

Despite having the necessary ingredients for a potent power play, the Bruins finished 15th in the NHL last season with a 17.2 percent success rate – and that was their highest ranking since finishing fourth in the League in 2008-09.

Fixing this issue will be one of Julien's biggest challenges this season.

6. Could a long summer propel the Bruins back into Stanley Cup contention?

Winning back-to-back Stanley Cups has proven to be impossible for any team during the past 14 years, and the Bruins definitely showed the effects of a long playoff run at both the beginning and end of last season.

But with the core elements of their champion team from 2011 still in Boston, and with many of the younger ones having improved since that time, there's little reason to believe the Bruins are not legitimate contenders for hockey's ultimate prize.

"It almost makes you hungrier because you've had that taste of what it's like to win," Lucic told last week. "You watch that Game 6 between the Kings and the Devils and you see them celebrating with the Cup, you want to relive that feeling. I think that's what drives you to want more going into next season, and talking to the guys coming back I think we're all on the same page."

by Arpon Basu | Managing Editor

With edits by

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