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10 for 2010: 10 Predictions about the 2010-11 Boston Bruins

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What does the future hold?  Will the Bruins win the Northeast?  The Eastern Conference?  The whole flippin' thing? 

Is Tuukka Rask the next Gerry Cheevers or the next Andrew Raycroft? 

Whither Tim Thomas? 

How about Nathan Horton? 

And what player is virtually guaranteed to drive your humble scribe bonkers this season? 

All these and more, in 10 for 2010; my attempt to make 10 predictions about the Boston Bruins.

1. Tim Thomas will not be traded this season.  

I'm going to have more on this another time, but for now, here's what you need to know.  First, the Bruins front office, no matter how good Tuukka Rask was last season, will always have that thought in the back of their heads of "what if he's a fluke?  What about a sophomore slump?"  Heck, even if Rask is for real, plenty of good goaltenders have had a sophomore slump before going on to fine careers.  To that end, keeping Thomas as an insurance policy, even a laughably expensive one, makes some sense.  It's easy to forget that he's probably still one of the 10 best goaltenders in the NHL.  Thomas isn't just the best backup in the NHL, he's the best backup by such a margin that I can't even see #2 from where Timmy is.  Second, Thomas wants his job back and believes he can do it.  And if that sounds crazy, I personally would want nothing less from him; you need to have ultra-high confidence to be a good NHL goaltender.  As such, he's going to have some reservations about waiving his no-trade clause.  Third, the Bruins have solved their short-term cap problem, or more accurately, had it solved for them, with injuries.  There is no urgency to trade Thomas to clear up the 2010-11 salary cap.  Fourth, the price of goaltending plummeted this offseason.  Thomas's extension represented one of the last big money deals for goaltenders.  $5M goalies are out of fashion right now, so teams will be reluctant to take on 3 years and $15M in net.  Fifth, the Bruins are going to score more this year, making the ability to carry a luxury like Thomas more palatable. 

Beyond 2010-11?  I'll cover that in another article. 

2. Nathan Horton will score 33 goals. 

I've covered Horton in depth elsewhere, so I won't belabor the point.  I predicted between 31 and 35 goals for him when I posted the poll attached to that article, so, let's split the difference and call it 33. 

3. The Bruins offense will improve dramatically over 2009-10.

Another point I've made elsewhere, but it's more relevant now in light of the questions about Marc Savard's health.  Look, we all love Savvy, and his absence will hurt a power play that should have improved mightily.  But you cannot possibly overstate how absurd and unexpected Boston's dropoff in shooting percentage was last year, nor how much rotten luck they had with injuries.  If the Bruins replayed last season with the same guys at the same points in their life, I'd have expected a significant increase in goal scoring.  Instead, they have a number of young players who should improve with another year under their belts, with very few players that should decline.  Additionally, they added a dynamic goal scorer in Horton, and a youngster in Tyler Seguin who might make an immediate impact.  The Bruins won't lead the NHL in scoring, but they will be somewhere in the top third of the league. 

4. The Bruins' failure to give Brad Marchand playing time will cause me to have a nervous breakdown.

"Blargggghhh!  My Rice Krispies are trying to kill me!  Why are you yelling?  Stop yelling!" 

OK, maybe not an actual, according-to-Hoyle nervous breakdown.  Maybe I'll just start up a website called "freebradmarchand.com".  Look, I like Shawn Thornton.  Chances are, you like Shawn Thornton.  If you were picking a Bruin to hang out with at a bar and have a beer or six...well, Milan Lucic would probably be your first choice, but Thornton would be in the top three.  He's a good guy, a willing media magnet on a team full of guys who are rather quiet, he works hard, does what's asked of him, makes newcomers feel welcome, and never, ever backs down from a fight.  And with that said, the fact that Thornton has a job and Marchand is on the bubble is an act of organizational negligence.  Shawn Thornton is better than Brad Marchand at placing his fists in the faces of opposing players.  Brad Marchand is better than Shawn Thornton at playing the game of hockey.  Marchand could easily be Boston's version of Patrick Kaleta, but with more scoring ability.  No, he probably won't be quite as good at drawing penalties as Kaleta, who is insanely good in that department, and one of the most underrated players in the NHL, but he should be very good.  And Marchand's history suggests that, if given the chance, he should be at least a 30-40 point guy in the NHL, and maybe more.  For a third/fourth liner, that's fine by me.  A fourth line of Paille-Campbell-Marchand would drive opponents nuts and provide the Bruins energy, and not a few power plays.  Alas, old time hockey dictates that the Bruins carry a designated goon. 

Why am I taking this out on Thornton?  Because Daniel Paille brings something to the table, skill-wise: when Boston picked him up, the penalty kill went from "good" to "freakin' awesome".  (What?  Of course the NHL has a rating for "freakin' awesome".)  He also scored 10 goals.  Daniel Paille is a fine fourth line player.  So why not Michael Ryder?  Because...

5. We have seen the last of Michael Ryder.

The fact that Jordan Caron appears to have made the big club points inexorably to the idea that Michael Ryder will not.  Ryder may start the season in Boston, with Savard and Marco Sturm (remember him?) on LTIR, but when they come back, Ryder will be demoted unless he has one hell of a hot start.  And if he has a hot start, I expect they'll just cash in, and he'll be traded.  The Bruins seem to have zeroed in on Ryder as the solution to their cap woes, and for good reason.  It seems unlikely to me that they would let Caron stay with the big club if they weren't committed to leaving him there.  The numbers game dictates that if Caron stays, Ryder probably goes. 

6. The Bruins will be forced to trade for a defenseman.

I like Peter Chiarelli.  You like Peter Chiarelli.  Well, maybe our Dear Leader has reservations, but most other Bruins fans like PC.  With that said, the Andrew Ference contract remains one of the dumbest moves I've ever seen.  Yes, worse than the Thomas contract extension.  I've slagged the Ference deal enough over the last few months, so there's no reason to do so again.  This year, Ference will do what Ference does best: give Boston 40 or 50 decent games, get injured and whine about environmental causes.  I'll make you an offer, Andrew: you play at least 78 games, and I'll swear off veal next season.  Deal?

Even if Ference stays healthy, and he won't (and I, in turn, will enjoy delicious veal parm and all the wanton cruelty that goes into bringing it to my table), the Bruins have some concerns on the blue line.  We were all glad when they managed to keep Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg and Mark Stuart without obliterating the budget.  But for Boston to have a top-rank defensive corps this season, you have to assume that the following: the Seidenberg we saw in 17 games in Boston is the real Seidenberg, and not a guy who was just riding a hot streak; that Boychuk found his stride at the tender age of 26; and that Stuart will stay healthy.  The third thing is a pretty good bet, since Stewie played 82 games the previous two seasons before 2009-10, but you wouldn't exactly bet your life on the other two.  And that's without considering the Matt Hunwick/Adam McQuaid/Matt Bartkowski battle for the 6th defenseman job.  McQuaid is a useful depth defenseman, but if he's in your regular rotation, I think there's a problem.  Bartkowski has impressed everyone in camp, but he's probably better suited for a season in Providence, where he can get regular ice time, rather than spending much of his time as a healthy scratch.  Hunwick should be a good puck mover, but he hasn't quite put it together, and I'm not sure it's going to happen. 

Murphy's Law has hit the Bruins harder than the average NHL team over the years.  Someone, and perhaps multiple someones (note the plural) is likely to disappoint, and the Bruins will be looking to fill the hole at the blue line.  Fortunately, with a deep prospect base, they won't have a problem.  Will it be Tomas Kaberle, as has often been rumored?  I don't know.  If you put a gun to my head and force me to guess, I'd say Kaberle, if only because when a team pursues a player long enough, they usually get him, and the Bruins have been in on Kaberle for two solid years now. But really, I'm shooting from the hip.

7. Tyler Seguin will be okay, not great, this season.

Since the Bruins drafted him second overall, the kid has not done one thing to disappoint me.  I think there's a good chance he's a star...but probably not this season.  This season, 40 points is a reasonable goal for Seguin.  Seguin will face the usual handicaps that rookies face, no matter how talented he is; he's a kid, and it's going to take time before the game slows down for him.  Moreover, he's probably going to be a third line center, or maybe, if things go well, a second line winger, depending on when Savvy gets back.  First, that limits ice time, and odds are, he's not going to spend a lot of time on the power play, thus getting that crucial opportunity for cheap points. 

Second, we're not looking at a guy that's going to be thrown in with a bunch of magical teammates.  Chances are fairly good that he's going to be centering a line with Blake Wheeler or Marco Sturm on one side, and either Jordan Caron or Michael Ryder on the other.  Certainly, if you're ranking the linemates that highly touted top draft picks have had to work with over the years, those guys will be on the better side, but still, it's not a group that makes you say "Tyler, you lucky dog!" 

Third, the Bruins prize defense first.  Right, wrong or indifferent, defense and toughness are the core of Boston Bruins hockey today, tomorrow and until the end of time.  In this way, the Bruins were better off with Seguin than Taylor Hall.  Seguin shows every sign of being the better defensive player, but it won't happen right away.  As a rookie, he will have his ups and downs on defense, and that, in turn, will limit his ice time, and therefore his production. 

For a brief overview of one particular challenge he faces, look at the history of Calder Trophy winners.  You'll note that very few of those guys were 18 years old in their rookie season, none since old friend Sergei Samsonov in 1997-98, and before Samsonov, none since Tom Barrasso in 1983-84.  That's not an accident; 18-20 are crucial developmental years.  Just one calendar year can make a massive difference in a player's development at that age, as I believe we'll see with Seguin.  I expect we'll see flashes of stardom this year, punctuating some lengthy slumps, with 2011-12 the time when he starts to emerge as a superstar.  Be content with 40 points, delighted with 50 and orgiastic with 60 or more.

8. Two guys driving Boston's offensive resurgence will be Blake Wheeler and Milan Lucic.

Looch underachieved in 2009-10 (like most of the Bruins), and did so in large part because of injury (ditto).  With good health, I see a major improvement for him.  Looch has a very high shooting percentage, which tells me he's got a good shot.  (Yes, I know you can see a good shot when you watch it, but it's even better to have numbers backing you up.)  He needs to be more assertive on offense, do more to put the puck on the net, and above all, use that big frame to get in front of the net and make life unpleasant for opposing goaltenders and defensemen. 

Wheels is a different case; he doesn't have poor health to use as an excuse.  He was healthy all last year, just like the year before.  For all the teeth-gnashing about Wheeler, it's easy to forget that he turned 24 in August, and that the list of 6'5 guys with 83 NHL points in their first two seasons isn't exactly a long one.  I don't think he's going to become a star this year, but I think he'll start to "get it" this season. 

Put me down for 48 in the Lucic/Wheeler combined goals pool.  And if that seems somewhat underwhelming, remember that they combined for 27 last year, so an increase of 21 would go a LONG way toward making up that dropoff in goal scoring from 2008-9 to 2009-10.

9.Tuukka Rask will be a top five goaltender. 

This might be the easiest prediction I have to make, but if we're playing "strict rules", #4 might be hard to meet, so I need a gimme.  I believe in Rask, and so should you.  There is absolutely nothing that should make someone hold a belief other than "Tuukka Rask will be an elite goaltender".  He is technically perfect, he has a blue-ribbon pedigree, he has a good defense in front of him (forwards and defenseman), and he's already proven himself at the NHL level.  Had he played a few more games, he might have grabbed the Calder Trophy from Tyler Myers. 

10. Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron will sign contract extensions. 

It sounds like they're fairly close as it is.  I think something gets done before the season, or at least shortly after the season begins, maybe when they get back from Europe and can announce it stateside.  The Bruins have ample cap space after this season, and there's no reason not to retain these guys, who have been at the heart of Boston's resurgence.  I'd be absolutely stunned if they don't work something out with Chara, as opposed to "fairly surprised" if they don't work something out with Bergy.  As for other free agents, I expect Michael Ryder and Marco Sturm will have new uniforms next season (if not before), Mark Recchi will retire, and Blake Wheeler's aforementioned emergence will earn him a significant contract extension.

What?  That's weak sauce?  Nothing about where the Bruins will finish?  Geez, you don't want much for your two bucks, do you?

11. The Bruins will win the Northeast, finish 2nd in the East and make the Conference Finals.

There, that's 11 predictions for the price of 10.  Never let it be said that Stanley Cup of Chowder doesn't give you your money's worth.

Understand, I do not think the Bruins will be a great hockey team.  I think they will be very good, but not great.  If, by some bizarre accident of geography, they were in the Western Conference, they wouldn't be better than 4th or 5th.  However, the Bruins will benefit from the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference.  The Northeast is a weak division this year; only the Southeast might be a weaker top to bottom division, with Washington and four teams that won't make the playoffs.  Unless Ottawa finds a top 15 goaltender, and they haven't yet...ever, the Bruins' only competition will be a Buffalo team that overachieved as much as the Bruins underachieved in 2009-10, and did nothing at all to improve.  I would be very surprised if this team, warts and all, fails to win the Northeast. 

As for second in the East, obviously I like the Caps for first (who doesn't?), but I just can't get behind the idea that Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or New Jersey is going to finish ahead of the Bruins.  Those three are pretty good teams that I think will beat each other up, while the Bruins take advantage of extra games against softer Northeast opponents and finish ahead, even if, in a vacuum, they're probably an equal team.  Round 1 sees the Bruins skate by...hell, let's say the Rangers, without a big problem.  Home ice advantage makes all the difference in a tight seven game conference semi-final against the Atlantic Division's best (let's say Pittsburgh), but the Bruins can't get by the Caps, who finally break through their playoff woes. 

And with all that said, I hope I have to swear off veal and substitute some crow, as the Bruins win the Stanley Cup.