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30 in 30

Reasons for optimism, questions facing Bruins

Tuukka Rask, David Krejci could be better; replacement needed for Loui Eriksson

by Matt Kalman / Correspondent is providing in-depth analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the biggest reasons for optimism and the biggest questions facing the Boston Bruins:

The Boston Bruins are five years removed from winning the Stanley Cup in 2011 and two years from the last time they made the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Bruins don't want to say they're rebuilding but are in transition.

Boston signed unrestricted free agent center David Backes to a five-year, $30 million contract, lost forward Loui Eriksson to the Vancouver Canucks in free agency, and bought out the final two years of defenseman Dennis Seidenberg's contract.

The Bruins missed the playoffs last season because of a tiebreaker. Their 38 regulation/overtime wins were one fewer than the 39 of the Detroit Red Wings for third place in the Atlantic Division. So time will tell if Boston's approach to retooling was the right one.

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Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. Brad Marchand improving heading into a contract year

Marchand, a third-round pick (No. 71) in the 2006 NHL Draft, has gone from playing on the fourth line to the first line, was sixth in the NHL and led the Bruins with a career high 37 goals last season. There's no telling how much more he can improve, but the speedy left wing is in the final season of a four-year, $18 million contract and can become an unrestricted free agent. Marchand will want to increase his stock and the Bruins will benefit from that.

2. Tuukka Rask has room to improve

Rask admits he had a down season in 2015-16. He had a .889 save percentage in October and .874 SV% in April. Despite those rough months, Rask finished the season with a .915 SV% and 2.56 goals-against average in 64 games.

Rask, 29, has a 2.24 GAA in 330 games over nine seasons with the Bruins, so it's easy to envision him getting back to the 2.30 GAA and .922 save percentage he had in 2014-15 in a career high 70 games.

3. David Krejci could come back stronger than ever

Krejci, who was tied with Eriksson for second on the Bruins with 63 points last season, had surgery on his left hip in April and was expected to need five months to recover. He said the hip had been an issue since before the start of the 2014-15 season, but he has 94 points in 119 games since then.

With his hip fixed, the 30-year-old center could become even more of an offensive threat this season.

4. The kids are coming

Though a number of the Bruins' best prospects need time to develop, there are some who could make a push for a roster spot this season.

Forward Frank Vatrano, 22, led the American Hockey League with 36 goals in 36 games with Providence and had 11 points in 39 games with the Bruins. Center Danton Heinen, 21, a fourth-round pick (No. 116) in the 2014 NHL Draft, signed an entry-level contract April 11 after two seasons at the University of Denver and could jump into the mix. The Bruins have seven defensemen signed to a one-way contract, but Brandon Carlo, 19, a second-round pick (No. 37) in 2015 or Matt Grzelcyk, 22, a third-round pick (No. 85) in 2012, will get their chance to earn a spot.

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Here are three key questions facing the Bruins:

1. Can the defense improve?

The Bruins ranked 20th in goals-against per game (2.78) last season. They bought out Seidenberg's contract but seven of the nine defenseman on the roster to end last season return.  

Until the Bruins' prospects are NHL-ready, they are hoping the incumbents will make strides. That means Colin Miller and Joe Morrow, who re-signed as restricted free agents, have to take advantage of their opportunities to contribute, and veterans Adam McQuaid, 29, and Kevan Miller, 28, have to thrive in bigger roles. Captain Zdeno Chara, who will turn 40 on March 18, has to maintain a high level of play. The Bruins also will rely on the addition of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy to bring some new ideas. He was the coach of Providence of the AHL the past five seasons.

2. Can the Bruins make up for Loui Eriksson's departure?

Backes should provide the Bruins with a presence similar to what Eriksson supplied on the power play and be another workhorse on the penalty kill. But Eriksson scored 30 goals last season and Backes had 21 with the St. Louis Blues.

A healthy Krejci, a more mature David Pastrnak, a full season for Vatrano, and an improved Jimmy Hayes, or some combination of these elements, could make a difference.

3. Will Tuukka Rask get enough rest?

Rask played 64 games last season, fewer than the career high 70 he played in 2014-15. He's durable, but almost every goaltender plays better when fresh. Rask's 134 games played the past two seasons are third in the League behind Jonathan Quick (140) of the Los Angeles Kings and Braden Holtby (139) of the Washington Capitals.  

The Bruins lost trust in backup goalie Jonas Gustavsson in crucial games last season, so they signed unrestricted free agent Anton Khudobin on July 1. Khudobin was Rask's backup when the Bruins reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.

The hope is Khudobin or 22-year-old prospect Malcolm Subban, who missed the final two months of last season because of a fractured larynx sustained Feb. 6, can provide reliable relief to make sure Rask is at his best for the stretch run. 

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