While the end of summer brings school and cold weather, it also brings us gloriously close to puck time. Training camp commences in little more than a month, so here are some general questions for Bruins fans to ponder heading into the 2009-10 campaign:
What becomes of Phil Kessel?
Contract negotiations with Boston’s only 30-goal scorer remain at an impasse. Kessel is due to miss a decent chunk of the season after shoulder surgery anyways, but one has to wonder if his future beyond that lies somewhere outside of Boston--especially considering the lack of available cap space and the need to retain other high-profile free-agents after 2009-10 (Lucic, Savard, Wheeler). Chiarelli has stated that he’ll match any offer sheets from other teams, but who’s biting? And if Chiarelli is set on Kessel’s return, which player is heading out the door to make room?
How will the new faces fit in?
Considering his history against the Bruins (most notably his hit on Savard), Steve Begin is an interesting locker room addition. That being said, he’s the type of player anyone would want on their team, providing plenty of grit and energy on the fourth line. Aside from Begin there aren’t any new forwards of note, although a healthy Marco Sturm will be a welcome sight. Much like Bergeron's return last season, Sturm's presence is akin to having added another forward in the offseason.
On the defensive end, signing Derek Morris at 3.3 million for one year raised plenty of eyebrows considering his decline in offensive output since the lockout. Morris hasn’t cracked the 30-point barrier since 2002-03 and is a career minus player. He’ll need to do better than that in order to justify his lofty contract, but he is clearly an offensive upgrade over Ward. There's no doubt he could have provided the skill and acuity with the puck that the Bruins' defenders frequently lacked against the Hurricanes.
What players should we keep an eye on?
I'm particularly interested to watch Hunwick, Wheeler and Bergeron play this season. The pressure will be on Hunwick and Wheeler to avoid the "sophomore slump," but I think Hunwick has a solid combination of poise and skill and could break the 40-point barrier over a full slate. Wheeler wore down as the season progressed, but I've heard he's been working out extra-hard this offseason, which bodes well for continued improvement and more consistent play. Bergeron is the player I'm really curious to watch. I'm unsure of whether or not he can return to form as the prominent scorer he was a few years ago, but I often forget that he's only 24. A strong start to the season offensively would be key in putting him back on his feet as a potential 30-to-40-goal scorer to complement his reliable defensive presence. I think he'll put at least 20 in the net this season; in my opinion, anything more would be gravy.
What’s the outlook for the division rivals?
The soap opera that is the Montreal Canadiens can expect plenty of media scrutiny after overhauling in lieu of a disappointing season. Or should I say, a centennial season in which hockey's most celebrated franchise was expected to win its 25th Cup but instead bumbled its way to an eighth-place finish--only to be humiliated in a four-game sweep by its rival. So farewell, Koivu, Komisarek and Kovalev, and welcome, Cammalleri, Gionta and Gomez, to a season of renewed expectations under Montreal’s unforgiving microscope. If everything breaks right, Carey Price still has a chance to be the next Patrick Roy.
Elsewhere in the division, Toronto and Ottawa continue to be franchises in upheaval, so I don’t expect them to keep pace with the Bruins this season. The Sabres are potential spoilers, particularly head-to-head, but I think the Bruins hold a pretty clear advantage both offensively and defensively; the Sabres lack scoring depth and depend too heavily on their goaltending. In my opinion, the Canadiens are once again the main concern.
Lastly--can the Bruins improve?
The Bruins’ regular season was nothing short of marvelous and will be difficult to replicate, let alone improve upon. Thomas, Krejci, Wideman, Lucic, Wheeler, Hunwick, Kobasew and maybe even Kessel will be expected to build on career-best seasons--a notion that isn't out of the question based on their combined youth. Last season also took a costly physical toll on key players. Krejci and Kessel, should he return, are both expected to miss months of action, so who knows how their play will shape up upon returning? Fortunately, I think the Bruins have the offensive depth to cover for those losses; I just don't expect another November and December like last year.
But the real issue for me isn’t improvement in the regular season--I fully expect the Bruins to qualify for the postseason whether or not they perform at the same level as last season, so I'd rather they didn't waste energy padding their record late in the season only to succumb to injuries and sloppy play in the postseason. Their runaway first place finish did nothing to prevent me from feeling sick after leaving Game 7. So hopefully, a tougher mental and physical approach to the upcoming season will prepare them for the battles further along the line that matter most. And these growing pains are to be expected from a young team, so I'm thinking that us Bruins fans have to be pretty excited about the future.