Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Hibernation ends tomorrow!

Get your last bit of rest while you can folks, because hibernation ENDS in just over 24 hours. The long grind (condensed this year because of the Olympics) kicks off with a home, yes...a HOME opener for a change, against the Washington Ovechkin's. So, what does the year ahead hold for us? Truth is, nobody knows. Not the so-called "experts" that have penciled in the Bruins anywhere from Stanley Cup Champs, to a first round loser. And surely not the legion of Cup starved fans that see this as the latest in a string of "THE YEAR". Certainly, this is the most legitimate shot the Bruins have had at a Stanley Cup since they ran into the buzzsaw that was the Edmonton Oilers back in 1990.

What's my take? As always, I'd say the truth may lie somewhere in between the two extremes mentioned above. Although, I'd have to lean heavily towards the Stanley Cup champ side of the picks. Why? Glad you asked:
Why I am very optimistic about the B's this season (this could get long, bear with me).
1)Claude Julien- The reigning Jack Adams winner has gained my complete and total trust. I trust his systems. I trust his ability to motivate. And most importantly, I trust his ability to keep his players focused on the the task at hand, and not at "the big picture". As he said during media day, if you think about the big picture of winning a Cup, "it's too hard". Rather, as he said, he's planning on keeping his team "in their bubble". Let the rest of the media, fans and pathetic bloggers proclaim them the next big thing. CJ and his staff will insulate the team from that and make sure they focus on the day to day business of winning hockey games. Again, as he stated, making the playoffs is the first priority. Matching or exceeding last year's point total isn't the objective. Make the tourny, and anything can happen. I'd rather see them playing well going in as a 4th seed than playing poorly as the 1 seed.

2)A (finally) healthy Bergeron-Patrice Bergeron has looked amazing in pre-season. Not only does he have his weight back to normal, but he looks quicker this year than I remember him ever being. Mind and body both seem to be operating at a much quicker pace. Add that speed boost to his intelligent, physical game and you have all the makings of the best third line center in the NHL. Most teams, he'd be at least a #2 center. That shows the depth this team has....speaking of which,

3)Depth- While I'm not sold on the B's depth along the blue line, there is no mistaking their strength up front. Despite losing their leading goal scorer in Phil Kessel (you may have heard something about him being traded to Toronto?), the B's still return six twenty goal scorers from last year. Chara had 19, while Lucic chipped in with 17 of his own. It's certainly logical to expect Lucic to add to his goal total, to a minimum of 20, with 25+ not out of the question playing as Savard's left wing. If Marco Sturm manages to stay healthy (no small task for the hard luck winger), he could potentially replace a very large percentage of Kessel's goal producstion, riding in Kess's old spot as RW on the top line. Remember, it was this time last year when Cam Neely was asked who he thought could/should be the B's next 50 goal scorer. While he stopped short of saying Marco could pot 50, he did say he expected him to be around the 40G plateau. Now, the knee injury may have robbed him of a step or two, and affect his production. But if he's anywhere near healthy, he should easily be a 30G man with Savard feeding him the puck. Somebody say Savard?

4)Mark Savard- It's been well documented lately that Savvy will be highly motivated by his Team Canada snub. I agree completely. Here is a guy who has been among the leading scorers the last few years, but has also worked incredibly hard to become a dependable two-way player. Not even getting an invite to a camp where close to FIFTY players were offered the chance to play for their country has got to sting. As an additional source of motivation, he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1st. While he consistently stated he loves playing here, the fact is, he's playing for a contract. Be it in Boston, or elsewhere. Having a top flight player on a contract year is almost never a bad thing. Plus, I believe it when he talks about being hungry to win a Cup, and he knows this could be his last, best chance to win.

5)Goaltending- Tim Thomas is fresh off a Vezina winning season. As his reward, he was signed to a lucrative, multi-year deal. Now, his detractors (and amzingly, they are legion), will say there is no way he can duplicate his performace of a year ago. In fact, many will say that he wasn't even that good last year (all evidence to the contrary be damned). Those same nay-sayers, along with more than a few of his supporters, wonder how he'll respond to the first bit of job/financial security he's ever known. Me? I think he uses those slights and doubters to his advantage, just as he's always done. The book of his career has been a long one, and I'm sure he doesn't want it to end with one fairytale "fluke" season. I look for Tim-may to have another strong year between the pipes. Maybe not another Vezina level year, but one most goalies would kill for nonetheless.
last season, Thomas also won the Jennings Trophy along with Manny Fernandez for compiling the best team GAA in the NHL. With Manny now gone (and still looking for employment), the Tukka Rask era officially begins. While he'll be Thomas's backup, he should earn plenty of ice time as the season goes on. somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 starts isn't out of the question, especially considering how compacted the schedule is this year. Having a top notch backup goalie could be more important this year than it ever has. Hopefully Tukka is able to respond well to sporadic duty instead of being "the guy" like he's accustomed to.

6)The Kids Are Alright?- At some point in '09-'10, the B's will need to get help from some of their youth, as every successful team does. With the likes of Bitz, Sobotka, Hamill, Marchand, Boychuk and even Lefevbre (for those "rough & tumble games) or Lehtonen, they seem well positioned to survive short term injuries. I stand by my earlier statements that Bitz may just be a 20 goal scorer, despite his lackluster pre-season. Sobotka, while also having a slow start to camp, may yet emerge as the SOB we all knew and loved from two years ago. He'll be battling all year just to get in the lineup, but I expect him to make some sort of impact once he does.

7)Chara- That's Norris winning Chara, folks. While his ability as a leader has been questioned by some fans and media, it never seems to come from players. Everyone in "the room" and on the ice knows who the Captain is, and when he speaks, they listen. More importantly, when he DOES, they follow. Big Z has the skill, size and nastiness to change the flow of a game in an instant. Whether it's the booming slapper from the point, the sneaky back door tap in on the PP (how a 6'9 monster can "sneak" around out there still amazes me), a bone crunching hit or even the odd fight, Z always seems to find a way to impact the outcome for the B's. There may be no more feared player in the league than our lovable giant. And in the NHL, intimidation still works.

1)Career years?- With so many players having spectacular season's last year, I can't help but that as good as they get? Can we realistically expect Thomas to be that good again? (as mentioned above, I think he SHOULD at least be close, but who knows?). Is Chara capable of playing at a Norris winning level again? Does Mark Recchi really have a shot at potting 20 again, after turning 42 this february? Can Kobasew stay healthy enough to again top the 20 goal mark?
What about the kids? Even though it's hard to imagine youngsters having "career years" only one or two years into their careers, it isn't unprecedented (see: Hodge Jr, Ken). Is krejci really as good as he looked last year (ok, I believe yes). Can Blake Wheeler repeat his 20G plus season, and stay fresh for the whole year? Is it fair to just assume, as I have, that Lucic will score upwards of 20-25 goals, playing the style he does (and with his considerable lack of "hands"?).
The bottom line is, last season was an incredible ride, where everything just seemed to work. Is it faor to assume there will be such a smooth sailing ship this time around? in '08-'09 every time there was an injury, somebody filled in perfectly and they never missed a beat. That is an amazing accomplishment, and one that is very difficult to repeat. It will be interesting to see how these things pan out.

2)The Defense- The B's back line is anchored by one of the game's best in Zdeno Chara. After that frankly, it gets a little iffy for me. Chara's new partner, at least to start the season, will be newcomer Derek Morris. While I've made it clear that I was never a huge fan of his, I'm willing to take a wait and see approach. He's saying all the right things so far and seems to be reborn now that he has a solid coach, team and system in place. Now it's all up to him. He's 31 years old.....if he doesn't excel this season, can we safely stop using the word "potential" in every reference to him? Maybe he is just what he is, or has been his whole career. A nice above average defenseman, but no star. Playing with the Captain should maximize his "potential". Take the ball and run with it Derek.
Mark Stuart has quitly become a very very good player. His steady, hard rock style has endeared him to many hard core B's fans, but the casual observer tends to forget about him. With the losses of Ward and Hnidy, Stuart's thumping style will be ever more important.
The rest of the D, frankly, scares me to death. Hunwick has tons of potential, but mainly as an offensive specialist. He's adequate in his own end, but has a long way to go before being considered a solid two-way defenseman.
Wideman? The proverbial Box Of just never know what you're gonna get with him. When he decides to take aquick half-slap or wrist shot from the point he is very good. But more often than not, he opts for the huge windup slapper....which is either blocked, or misses the net by 15 feet. In his own end, he looks like he's having a seizure half the time. Hopefully he's mauring into a more calm, steady defender. He has all the physical tools, he just has to get his mind in synch with his body.
Ference? Oh boy.....I'll start with the on-ice stuff. I really liked Ference when he was in Calgary. And now, I'm starting to think I'd really like him there again. If you read my comments about Wideman, well....Ference is pretty much a poor man's Wideman. Decent offensive player, woefully inept in his own end. He makes Wides look like Ray Bourque back there. While I do appreciate the fact that he plays a fairly physical game, he just doesnt have the body to withstand that style. (and he has a fair amount of bad luck, witness thebroken ankle last year).
So, I said I'd start with the on-ice stuff....which must mean there are some off-ice issues. I'm sure by now we've all heard about Ference's involvement in the firing of former NHLPA president Paul Kelly. I'll withold comment on that for now, but I will comment on how it affects the team. When veteran Mark Recchi comes out publicly and says Ference's actions, and subsequent comments about them, have caused tension in the B's locker room, you know there is a problem. The greatest asset the B's enjoyed in their run to the top of the Eastern Conference was chemistry. I firmly believe that hockey is the one sport where chemistry plays a huge role. If every man on that bench doesn't feel like the guy next to him is willing to "be there" for him, and support him in EVERYTHING, I think it does water down the on ice performance, if only a little. While I have faith in Julien's ability to keep his team focused, there are limits to what he can do, especially when it comes to a labor disagreement among his players. This has the potential to get nasty, and the B's can't afford any distraction. Chiarelli has to hope that some of the young defensemen develop quickly, so he can start working the phones on a deal for Andrew.

3)Kessel-Or, more precisely, what happens with the draft picks acqired in the Kessel deal? While conventional logic dictates that a draft pick doesn't help you "now", in this case the just might. Come trade deadline time, or before, Chilly could use those picks as a bargaining chip to pick up whatever missing piece they may identify. Assuming it's a deadline deal, the cap implications shouldn't be too bad, since they're only paying a prorated portion of that players salary.
On the flip side, and I don't think this would happen gieven Chiarelli's penchant for standing pat on deadline day, I don't want to see him make a move with those picks simply for the sake of doing "something". Over reacting and over paying for a rental, just because you have "extra" draft picks is an unwise move.

4)Injuries- it's the elephant in the room, and something nobody likes to consider.....namely because there isn't a damn thing you can do about it. But if major injuries strike the B's, how will they cope? Depending on who they lose, when and for how long, the answer varies. I think overall they have enough depth to survive short term injuries to all players, and short term for most. But if any of the "big names" (which I refuse to name here, as I knock on wood with crossed fingers) go down for any length of time, they're in trouble. Again, that is the case with every team, but is why it's very difficult to handicap favorites for the Cup. fate has a way of intervening at all the wrong times.

Fine, here are my off the cuff predictions for this year's Boston Bruins.
Tim Thomas has another stellar year, but does not win the Vezina, but does win his second consecutive Jennings (this time sharing with Rask, who plays a much larger role in winning it than Fernandez did)

Chara-Does not repeat as the Norris winner, losing to sentimental favorite Nick Lidstrom, after Lidstrom announces retirement. Z still has a monster year, thus getting screwed out of his award.

Phil who?-Boston doesn't finish in the top two in goals scored again (washington and Pittsburgh fill the net at a dizzying pace), but has even more 20 goal scorers than last year. All the returning players with 20 equal their production from last year, with the possible expception of Kobasew. Injuries slow his production. But Bergeron,Sturm, Lucic and Bitz all join the 20 goal club.

The B's finish first in the Northeast with 102 points.
They end up as the number 3 seed in the East (Pittsburgh and Philly are 1-2).

They play and defeat Pittsburgh in the Conference Finals.

In the Stanley Cup Finals, they square off against the darlings of the Western Conference, Chicago Blackhawks. In a thrilling Original Six Finals (which the NHL fails to capitalize on from a marketing perspective, yet again), Boston defeats the Wings in six games, on home ice. Your faithful blogger disappears to parts unknown for months long celebration, follow the trail of smashed Guinness glasses and shouts of "holy &*#%, I can't BELIEVE they actually WON A CUP" to find me. All while wishing Al Pedersen could have been a part of it all.

And all of that, in some form or another, starts in just over 24hrs. Rest up my friends, this is sure to be one hell of a ride.

Go B's-Kynch

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