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Bruins have work cut out after shining season

by John McGourty
The Boston Bruins cruised to the Northeast Division title by an amazing 23 points over the Montreal Canadiens and claimed top seed in the Eastern Conference by eight points over the Washington Capitals. At season's end, their goalie, captain and coach were voted the best in the NHL at their jobs.

Can they do it again?

The Bruins might repeat if the right wings on their top two lines combine for 57 goals, as Phil Kessel (36 goals) and rookie Blake Wheeler (21 goals) did a season ago. But Kessel is unsigned and Wheeler was taken out of the lineup late in the season. The team said he was tired in his longest season to date. Maybe -- or maybe rivals learned how to play against him.

They might win again if Montreal's rebuilding doesn't work; Brian Burke and Ron Wilson need more time to turn around the Maple Leafs; Darcy Regier is wrong that his Sabres team is coming into its maturity; and the Ottawa Senators play as badly as they did in the first half last year. If not, it will be harder for Boston to win this season because the Bruins earned 36 of a possible 48 points against their own division.

The Bruins appear to have the depth to replace departed veterans Aaron Ward, Stephane Yelle, P.J. Axelsson, Steve Montador, Shane Hnidy and Manny Fernandez.

The Bruins expect to get about 26 of those 57 goals from returning left winger Marco Sturm, who was limited to 19 games last season after suffering a November concussion and December knee injury. Sturm also brings a lot of speed to the Bruins lineup and works well with first-line center Marc Savard. Second-line left winger Milan Lucic had eight goals in his rookie season and more than doubled that to 17 goals last season. He is expected to continue trending upward. Axelsson's 11-year Bruins career, much of it spent as a third-line winger is over.

The likelihood is that Wheeler simply tired in his first professional season. He scored at a consistent pace all season and his plus-36 second in the NHL behind center and linemate David Krejci (plus-37). Krejci will be under the microscope after his breakout 22-goal, 73-point sophomore season.

Thirteen of Patrice Bergeron's 39 points came after March 3. Had he produced at that rate all season, the third-line center would have posted 59 points, well below his average for his first two seasons. Trying to recover from a serious concussion that limited him to 10 games in 2007-08, Bergeron suffered another concussion in December, then had a strong second half.

Mark Recchi should at least triple Axelsson's six goals based on his strong play with Bergeron late in the season and during the playoffs. Chuck Kobasew has been a 20-goal scorer in both his Boston seasons and may be even better playing with Recchi.

Twice a 30-goal scorer in Montreal, Michael Ryder rebounded from 14 goals in his last Canadiens season to 27 for the Bruins last year and there's no reason to think he can't do it again. Savard's passing skills complement Ryder's superior one-time ability and he's great at finishing from the off-wing.

Veteran defensive forward Steve Begin will replace Yelle in centering the fourth line and he'll have reliable banger Shawn Thornton on his right wing. The fourth-line left wing role will be filled on a rotating basis by Lucic, Recchi, Vladimir Sobotka and probably Brad Marchand.

Marchand, Sobotka and Matt Marquardt will try to secure full-time jobs on the left wing while Zach Hamill, Boston's first-round pick in 2007, will try to bounce back from a wrist injury last season and secure an NHL center's job. Byron Bitz filled in well at right wing late last season and the club will make room for his 6-foot-5, 215-pound banging body.

Yannick Riendeau, who went undrafted before his 58-goal, 126-point season last year with Drummondville, signed with the Bruins and may need time in the AHL.

A couple of cautions: Kessel underwent postseason shoulder surgery and isn't expected to be ready to play until around Thanksgiving. Krejci had hip surgery and will also miss at least the first month of the season.

Don't be alarmed by the Kessel situation: He has to sign by Dec. 1 to play in the NHL this season; he won't be ready until after that date; until he signs, he doesn't count against the salary cap; Boston can match any offer the restricted free agent gets; and they can wait until Thanksgiving or so to make personnel changes to accommodate adding his salary, whatever it is.

The Bruins defense is led by reigning Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara, the team captain and biggest player in the NHL at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds. Chara ranked among the NHL's defense leaders in several major categories. He was fourth with 19 goals; 12th with 50 points; seventh at plus-23; third with 11 power-play goals; tied for 12th with three short-handed goals; fifth with 216 shots; sixth with 26:04 minutes of average ice time; and 17th with 169 hits. He blocked 123 shots.

Chara partnered most of last season with Ward. Coach Claude Julien will have to find a compatible partner, most likely Derek Morris, an 11-year pro signed as a free agent this summer. Morris, like Ward, is a right-handed shot. He's been trending downward in recent seasons but has a top-four opportunity in Boston and the potential to get a lot of power-play time.

That pairing would allow Dennis Wideman, a right-handed shot who was second in scoring on Boston's defense, to play on the second defensive combination and second power-play unit, better balancing the two. Andrew Ference has played well with Wideman and likely will again but Ference, after missing just four games in three seasons, has played only 59 and 47 games the past two seasons.

Defensively oriented left-hand passer Mark Stuart hasn't missed a game the past two seasons and had career highs of five goals and 17 points and was plus-20. Stuart is strong in front of his net. He could be on the third pairing with Matt Hunwick, an offensive defenseman who can also play wing. With the departure of Montador, Hunwick is the only Bruin with the experience of playing forward and defense.

Johnny Boychuk, 25, picked up the label "minor-league defenseman" early on, but he thrived in Providence last season after being acquired in a trade in June 2008. He will be given every chance to make the Boston roster after his breakout 20-goal, 65-point AHL season.

Free agent Jeff Penner had a strong season in Providence and Adam McQuaid is there learning to play the strongman role Stuart plays in Boston. Drew Fata, signed as a free agent, adds to Boston's depth. Bruins fans will have to wait another year for Yuri Alexandrov, 21, the 2006 second-rounder who is still developing in Russia.

Most Bruins fans have yet to meet a fan of another team who believes Tim Thomas, 35, is the best goalie in the NHL. Believe it. Thomas led the NHL with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. His unorthodox style is based on extremely quick reactions, strength, a large body and a combative nature. He hates to allow goals.

While the Bruins were disappointed in their second-round elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Thomas led all playoff goaltenders with a 1.85 GAA and his .935 save percentage was second.

The Bruins have parted ways with Fernandez, who went 16-8-3 with a 2.59 GAA and .910 save percentage. Fernandez struggled with lingering leg injuries and wasn't attuned to the backup role after a long career as the starter with the Minnesota Wild. The Bruins will call up Tuukka Rask from Providence to be the backup and signed veteran Dany Sabourin to play in Providence.

Rask, 22, has played two solid seasons for the Providence Bruins after coming from Toronto in a 2006 trade for Andrew Raycroft. He was 27-13-2 with a 2.33 GAA and .905 save percentage two years ago and improved to 33-20-4 with a 2.50 GAA and .915 save percentage last season.

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