September 17, 2012

Bruins 2012-13 outlook

By Jesse Connolly

Here’s a look at how the Bruins stack up at each position heading into the 2012-13 campaign:

GOALTENDERS

For the first time since 2004, Tim Thomas won’t be finishing the season as the Bruins’ leader in starts and wins. It’s Tuukka Time in Boston, as Tuukka Rask’s reign as the team’s No. 1 netminder is about to begin. Provided he can dodge injuries, which have hindered him in each of the past two seasons, the Bruins should be in good hands with Rask getting the lion’s share of starts.

Kazakhstani keeper Anton Khudobin (pictured right) is all but guaranteed to take on the backup role. Since being acquired at the trade deadline in February 2011 from Minnesota, Khudobin has been the go-to goaltender in Providence, where he went 21-19-3 with a .919 save percentage inw 2011-12. He’s 5-1-0 in seven NHL games, during which he has a minuscule 1.32 goals-against average.

Swedish newcomer Niklas Svedberg likely will be the first goaltender called upon in the event of an injury and probably will split playing time with Michael Hutchinson in Providence. WHL product Adam Morrison also is in the mix.

DEFENSE

After getting robbed of the Norris Trophy for the second year in a row, Zdeno Chara will be back leading the Bruins’ defensive corps this season. The behemoth blueliner is coming off a career-best, 52-point season.

Coach Claude Julien usually is a stickler for pairing up lefties and righties, but Boston’s back-end roster is going to give him a headache (though not as insufferable as the ones departed right-hander Joe Corvo likely gave him throughout the 2011-12 season). Among our projected top 12 defensemen on the depth chart, only two are righties, meaning the bench boss likely will have to reunite the dynamic duo of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg (a lefty who tends to fare better on the right side).

Andy Ference (pictured right), who had a career-high six goals in 2011-12, and tough-as-nails rearguard Johnny Boychuk likely will hold down the middle pairing, while Adam McQuaid is expected to reassume his role as the team’s No. 6 defenseman. Meanwhile, highly hyped prospect Dougie Hamilton will look to edge out veterans Aaron Johnson and Garnet Exelby for a spot with the big club — otherwise, he’ll be heading back to juniors.

FORWARD

You’d be hard-pressed to name a team with less turnover up front than the Black and Gold. The Bruins dealt Benoit Pouliot to Tampa Bay, signed depth forward Christian Hanson and, well, that’s about it. Following his second concussion in less than a year, Nathan Horton reportedly is healthy. His ability to stay in the lineup will be extremely important to the Bruins’ success, as the team slumped offensively after losing the dependable scorer in February.

Horton likely will rejoin David Krejci (pictured right) and Milan Lucic on the top line, while Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand — the Bruins’ most consistent forward trio in 2011-12 — are unlikely to be broken up.

The Merlot Line (Dan Paille, Greg Campbell, Shawn Thornton) presumably will remain intact, leaving just one spot up for grabs: third-line winger alongside two-way pivot Chris Kelly and fleet-footed forward Rich Peverley. Newcomer Chris Bourque (Topsfield, Mass.) and Jared Knight will be the underdogs in the battle, as former first-round pick Jordan Caron enters camp as the favorite to win the role.

SPECIAL TEAMS

During their 2011 Stanley Cup run, the Bruins’ still managed to win it all despite having a power play that was laughably bad until the finals. They followed that up with a mediocre, streaky showing in 2011-12, ranking 15th in the league at 17.2 percent. But come playoff time, the Bruins’ futility on the man-advantage proved costly. The Bruins converted just 8.7 percent of the time (2-for-23) in their first-round series loss to the Capitals, with a non-conversion near the end of regulation in Game 7 with the score tied proving to be a blown opportunity to advance to the next round.

Upon addressing the media at the end of the season, team president Cam Neely said the Bruins “need to have a philosophical difference” in how they look at the power play. Chara led the team with eight power-play goals. No Bruins forward ranked in the top 50 in that category in the NHL.

The Bruins went from ninth in the NHL (82.6 percent) on the penalty kill in 2010-11 to 11th this past year, clocking in at 83.5 percent. Bergeron and Kelly led the way up front in shorthanded ice time, while Chara and Seidenberg (pictured above) anchored the back-end. All of the Bruins’ key cogs on the PK will return in 2012-13, so Julien likely won’t modify much in that regard.

KEEP AN EYE ON

While Knight’s hard-nosed style makes him a viable candidate for the open spot on the third line, don’t forget about his close buddy Ryan Spooner (pictured right) either. Like every emerging youngster, the center still has some size to gain, things to learn and areas of his game to sharpen up on, but his raw talent alone is something Bruins fans should be excited about. While he likely will begin the campaign in Providence, don’t be surprised if the highly-skilled forward catches on quickly and climbs his way to the top of the call-up list.

While it’s assumed that the 19-year-old Hamilton — not old enough to play in the AHL quite yet — will begin the year with Boston, and experienced blueliners Johnson and Exelby will battle it out for the No. 7 spot on the back-end, don’t forget about Michigan State product Torey Krug. The slick, undersized defenseman looked incredibly comfortable in his two games with Boston in April, during which Krug notched his first NHL point with an assist. A strong camp and preseason by the puck-mover may make Julien and Co. re-evaluate their lineup.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the editor of hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter:@JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com