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30 in 30: Iginla's ability among Bruins' questions

by Corey Masisak

The Boston Bruins have represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final twice in the past three seasons, and 13 of the 20 players who dressed for Game 7 in 2011 against the Vancouver Canucks remain on the roster.

That type of stability doesn't leave a lot of questions, but there was some turnover this offseason and a few issues the Bruins need to sort out if they intend on contending for the Cup again.

Here's a look at six questions for Boston as the 2013-14 season approaches:

1. Can Jarome Iginla still be a top-six forward on a championship-caliber team? -- Iginla rebuffed the Bruins at the NHL Trade Deadline in April, was shut down by them in the Eastern Conference Final after being dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and likely will slot in on one of the team's top two lines after signing with Boston as a free agent this summer.

It was an interesting few months for Iginla, to say the least.

The longtime Calgary Flames captain figures to have a fresh start in Boston, but at age 36 he brings some questions with him. Iginla scored at least 31 goals in every season from 2000-01 to 2011-12; his 14 goals last season project to 24 over 82 games.

Iginla's regular-season numbers with the Penguins (five goals and 11 points in 13 games) looked more like his usual work. He had nine points in six games against the New York Islanders in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, then had three in the final two rounds, including a zero-point showing with five shots on goal in the sweep by the Bruins.

Iginla will play on an elite line for Boston, but can he continue to produce like an elite player?

"I still feel very good," Iginla said after signing with the Bruins. "I think last year was an average year, and I know as you get older, once you have one, that people start thinking, 'Oh, you know, how much is left in the tank?' and stuff. I still feel great. ... If you look over my career, I've had some average years. I think I'm going to bounce back. And I don't think it was a bad year. I think I got better, and also it was a half of a season, as far as the regular season. It's fun to get back into the playoffs and stuff."

2. Can Tuukka Rask replicate his 2012-13 season? -- Rask finished fifth in voting for the Vezina Trophy and probably somewhere between second and fifth on an unofficial list of top candidates for the Conn Smythe Trophy. It was a remarkable run for someone in his first full season as an unquestioned No. 1 goaltender.

Rask signed a seven-year, $49 million contract this offseason, which makes him the joint leader with Pekka Rinne of the Nashville Predators as the most expensive NHL goaltenders in 2013-14. It wasn't Rask's first great season in the NHL -- he took the No. 1 job from Tim Thomas during 2009-10 -- but 2013-14 will be the first time Rask is expected play at least 55 games, if not more.

"For me, it doesn't really matter if I'm making $4 million or $7 million or $10 million; you're just still trying to be worth your money and trying to prove yourself every night," Rask said after the contract was announced. "I don't really look at that if I'm making more or less than the guy sitting next to me. It doesn't really affect my mindset, but obviously people are going to expect great things from me, and as I do from myself, too, so it doesn't really change my mindset or my game at all."

3. Who will replace Andrew Ference on defense? -- The Bruins have had the same four players at the core of their defense in the playoffs for each of the past three seasons: Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Ference. But Ference left Boston to sign a four-year contract with the Edmonton Oilers, and the Bruins did not add a defenseman who played in the NHL last season. Late-season addition Wade Redden also was not retained.

That means it is likely one of the team's young defensemen will be in line for a promotion. The candidates are Dougie Hamilton and Torey Krug, with Matt Bartkowski and Joseph Morrow as the dark horses in the mix.

Hamilton has the pedigree. He was the No. 9 pick in the 2012 NHL Draft and played 42 games for the Bruins last season. He projects as a potential No. 1 defenseman, and getting to spend the season with Chara or Seidenberg as his partner would help him fulfill that promise.

Krug, an undrafted free-agent signing from Michigan State, has three games of regular-season NHL experience but passed Hamilton on the depth chart during the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Bartkowski could end up on the third pairing with Adam McQuaid, another candidate for top-four duty, but doesn't offer the same upside as any of the others.

Morrow was a first-round pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins who was traded twice in a span of a few months, first to the Dallas Stars for Brenden Morrow, and then to Boston as part of the Tyler Seguin-Loui Eriksson mega-deal. He most likely is ticketed for Providence in the American Hockey League.

4. How will the new-look third line shake out? -- Seguin and Rich Peverley each spent time on the third line last season, especially after Jaromir Jagr arrived from Dallas before the trade deadline. Chris Kelly is back and will center the team's third unit, but his linemates remain to be determined.

Carl Soderberg, who signed with the Bruins late last season after playing for years in his native Sweden, appeared in six regular-season games and two during the Stanley Cup Final. He seems like a favorite for one of the two spots next to Kelly.

The other opening (or both) could go to someone from a collection of young players who will come to training camp vying for a spot. Jordan Caron has the most NHL experience but hasn't been able to secure a permanent place in the lineup. Reilly Smith saw regular action for the Dallas Stars last season and could move into Peverley's place after being traded for him.

Other candidates include Matt Fraser (also from the Seguin-Eriksson deal) and homegrown prospects Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner. Coach Claude Julien could break up the "Merlot Line" and place Daniel Paille on the third line, as he did near the end of the postseason. Fraser, Knight or Spooner then could end up on the fourth line next to Gregory Campbell and Shawn Thornton.

5. Will postseason injuries affect the Bruins at the start of 2013-14? -- Campbell missed the end of the team's postseason run because of a broken leg. Patrice Bergeron spent the days following the Cup Final in a hospital with a variety of injuries, most notably a collapsed lung. Other players on the team were playing through injuries, serious or not.

At this point, it seems plausible everyone will be healthy and ready to play on opening night. Even if that is the case, several (especially Campbell and Bergeron) will not have had a "normal" offseason.

It already was going to be a short one because of last season's schedule. Boston's last game was June 24, the latest an NHL game has been played (the 1995 Stanley Cup Final also ended June 24). The 2013-14 season is starting about a week early because of the break for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Hockey players are typically creatures of habit, so the atypical offseason could have some sort of effect in the early stages.

6. Will Boston improve on the power play? -- This admittedly is a minor nitpick; the Bruins won the Cup in 2011 with an awful power play during the postseason. It was better in the 2013 playoffs, when they converted more than 17 percent of their chances and figured out the Chicago Blackhawks' previously impenetrable penalty kill in the Final.

But the Bruins have finished tied for 14th or worse in power-play proficiency every season since finishing tied for fourth in 2008-09. That was the last full season Marc Savard played, and the last before Phil Kessel was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Iginla scored at least eight power-play goals in 12 straight seasons before 2012-13 and hit double figures 10 times during that span. Krug and Hamilton are offensively gifted and could help with the extra man. The Bruins consistently have been excellent at even strength and on the penalty kill, so even a little bit of improvement on the power play would help their bid to win the Atlantic Division and finish first in the Eastern Conference.


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