How was your offseason, Bruins fans? Get all that stink from the way the playoffs ended washed off? Put away the 2009-10 Playoffs rally towels? Give a gentle nod and pat on the back to all your Celtics fan friends? Good. The epic collapse at the hands of the Flyers is in the past. Instead, the future of the Boston Bruins is upon us. With a few offseason moves under his belt, Peter Chiarelli looks towards Los Angeles and the 2010 NHL Entry Draft this weekend.
With two of the top 15 picks in the draft, Chiarelli has a chance to make an instant impact on the organization and add the pieces that will have the Bruins a legitimate factor in who hoists Lord Stanley’s Cup next June. Make no mistake about it, the Bruins are not too far off from the Chicago Blackhawks, and the right sequence of moves this offseason can put in place a system that leads to the first Stanley Cup title since 1972.
This is actually possible. One thing that kept coming back to me while watching the remainder of the Stanley Cup playoffs is how the Bruins were not too far removed from the teams competing for the Cup. Obviously, the ability to win one of four against Philadelphia would have proven that, but the B’s would still have had to defeat Chicago. Were the Bruins really capable of beating the ‘Hawks this year? As constituted during the actual playoff run, no. The loss of David Krejci and Dennis Seidenberg made that a tough mole hill to climb. However, breaking down the Bruins as they may appear in 2010-11 and the Blackhawks team that is currently in possession of the world’s biggest shot glass shows some pretty good comparisons if you are a Bruins fan.
So, before we get into the upcoming draft and the picks, trades and signings on the horizon for the Bruins, let’s look at the players who are currently under contract/likely to be resigned and compare them to the Blackhawks group which just won the Cup.
This is the area in which both teams are the closest. Entering the 09-10 season, both the B’s and ‘Hawks had a veteran goaltender making a big salary and a young Finnish goalie pushing for playing time. By the end of the season, the young upstarts had pushed the high-priced vets to the pine and were primed to carry their team through the playoffs. Tuukka Rask outplayed the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in Boston while Antti Niemi knocked Cristobal Huet out of the crease. Of course, Niemi went all the way while Rask seemed to fatigue a bit towards the end of the Flyers series. That isn’t a poor reflection on Rask, but moreso on his defense’s inability to keep play out of his zone. Niemi wasn’t called upon to be the world-beater Rask was against Buffalo and for parts of the Flyers series, but he was right there to make the stops he was called upon to make. Rask had the best GAA in the league in the regular season while Niemi was fourth. Clearly, each team has a young goalie to build around for the future. The good news for the Bruins is that Rask is locked up through the 2011-12 season where he will still be a restricted free agent. Niemi is due for arbitration this offseason and will add even more pressure to an already tight payroll in Chicago. Both teams will be looking to find takers for the old, pricey backups as Thomas is due $5 million for each of the next three seasons while Huet is due $5.625 million until the end of 2011-12.
As stated above, one of the reasons Niemi had a lower save percentage and wasn’t getting the same highlight reel love Rask did in the playoffs is because the defense in front of him was doing a better job holding off opposing attacks. However, when looking at the top 6-7 of the two teams, when healthy, the Bruins aren’t far off from what is widely considered the best group of defensemen in hockey. The Bruins boast a legitimate No. 1 defenseman in Zdeno Chara. The 2009 Norris Trophy winner is a shutdown defenseman who draws opposing teams’ best forwards on a nightly basis. The Blackhawks have one of those in Duncan Keith. The prohibitive favorite to usurp Chara as the Norris winner
this week, Keith averaged 28:11 of ice time in the playoffs, while scoring 17 points. He had 69 points in the regular season and was +21. Where the Bruins were lacking for most of the season was a complimentary part to go with Chara on the top pairing. They found that guy in Dennis Seidenberg at the trade deadline. In 17 games with the Bruins, he had nine points and, more importantly, he was a +9 while averaging 23 minutes a night. The Bruins understood how valuable he was, signing him through 2013-14. They hope he can be the Brent Seabrook to Chara’s Keith in the upcoming years. Seabrook was another play +20 for the Hawks in the regular season and he and Keith were the best pairing in the NHL, also suiting up together for Team Canada in the Olympics. The difference between the two teams is Brian Campbell. Don’t get me wrong, Campbell is a very good player who the Bruins would take in a second. He is not worth over seven million dollars however if he is your No. 3 defenseman. Campbell’s contract is a big reason the Hawks are over the cap with only 14 players signed for the upcoming season. Of course, they just won the Cup so I don’t think anyone minds too much.
The point is, once you get past the shutdown pairing each team has coming back, there are similar parts. With the trade of Dennis Wideman, the Bruins will likely turn to Johnny Boychuk as the puck-mover while Mark Stuart will be the rock in front of the net, keeping space clear for Rask. Andrew Ferrence and Matt Hunwick will need to gel as a pair, allowing the Bruins to use all three groupings. That is where Chicago was so good defensively, taking care of both its own end and the transition game on each pairing. In the Final, Philly played their bottom pair maybe three minutes a game. Chicago could roll all three all game. The Bruins need to do that in order to be successful.
Now, if anyone tries to tell you the Bruins have the forwards to skate with the Flyers in a goal-scoring contest, they are delirious. However, that is not to say both teams did not try to line things up similarly, just with the ‘Hawks having better talent at the top this season. Take a look at the top lines for both teams. The Blackhawks had Bruiser/Crease Presence (Dustin Byfuglien)-Heady Center/Playmaker (Jonathan Toews)-Finisher (Patrick Kane). The Bruins were hoping to enter the season with a similarly fashioned line of Milan Lucic-Marc Savard-Marco Sturm. Of course, only Sturm’s mother and wife would say he is as good as Patrick Kane, but he is capable of scoring when healthy. The reason the top line of Chicago worked so well is that everyone did their jobs perfectly. Byfuglien went for 17 goals and 34 points with 94 PIM while clearing space in the zone for Toews to feed Kane and vice versa. Think about how the Bruins were as an offensive unit when Kessel was playing with Lucic and Savard. That is what a top line should be in the NHL. The Bruins spent too much of this past season having to create something from nothing due to injury or subpar talent. Hopefully, this won’t be the case next season. With Tuesday’s trade for Nathan Horton, the Bruins may have found their sniper on the right side to put the biscuit in the basket.
The second line for Chicago was Sandpaper (Tomas Kopecky)-Versatile Two-Way Player (Patrick Sharp) – Veteran Goal Scorer (Marian Hossa). A line that was just as capable of scoring as it was to shut you down. Sound familiar? While Daniel Paille may never be called a sandpaper-type player, his 19 points was equal to Kopecky’s 21. Patrice Bergeron and Patrick Sharp are about as similar as you can get, with a jack of all trades. Mark Recchi plays the Hossa role, scoring the goals and committing to defense.
Again, when it comes to third lines, both organizations fashioned them in similar veins. The only difference was that Chicago’s wingers (Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg) weren’t as streaky as Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler were for Boston. Ladd and Versteeg combined for 37 goals and 45 assists while Ryder and Wheeler went for 36 goals and 35 assists. However, if I asked you which pairing you would choose for your team, no doubt you would want Chicago’s. That would be a fair choice, but in terms of money and production, the two sets of wingers are quite equal. In the middle, the Bruins have a burgeoning superstar in David Krejci while Chicago has David Bolland. Both are 24 and on the cusp of stardom in the NHL. Overall, these two units are a wash as well.
Rounding out the forward groups on each team were crash and bang fourth lines. The Bruins group of Enforcer (Shawn Thornton) – Veteran Defensive Player/Penalty Killer (Steve Begin)-Young Agitator (Vladimir Sobotka) would match up quite nicely with Chicago’s Ben Eager-John Madden-Troy Brouwer/Adam Burrish. Both sides valued the ability to agitate and protect while receiving supplemental contributions from this group on penalty kills. Both coaches could roll their fourth lines over the boards throughout the game without too much worry in regards to defensive liability. That is a lucky asset to have in the NHL, especially when hoping to keep your top players fresh in a playoff series. Another part of Tuesday’s deal with the Panthers, Gregory Campbell should slide in nicely on this line. He is all pest, averaging about 55 PIMs a season while pissing off the entire Southeast Division.
Anyways, this doesn’t mean that the Bruins are simply going to roll to the championship next season. What it does mean, however, is that this next stretch is the most important of Peter Chiarelli’s tenure in Boston. On Friday night, he will likely add two players expected to be not only building blocks of a Stanley Cup-caliber team but immediate factors. He has to try and turn some contracts (Tim Thomas, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ferrence are candidates) into
offensive punch. He has to put together a defensive corps of 7-8 players who compliment each other and allow each player to utilize his skills. There are many ways to accomplish the task at hand. The easiest way is to stay put at No. 2 and No. 15 and add young talent. Another way is to package that No. 15 pick with either players from the organization currently or with other picks and move up to get back into the top 4-10 range. Or, much like Toronto did with Boston last year, dangle those picks for players already established in the NHL. Chiarelli, Neely and the gang are playing coy right now, but there is no doubt that the 617 area code will be one of the most used from the floor in Los Angeles this weekend.