|Connelly’s Top Ten: The Countdown is on!||NBA All-Star Game Starters Announced, Illustrate Flawed Selection Process||Video: Bill Belichick Deflate-Gate Press Conference||The National Media is to Blame for Deflategate Outrage|
Last season, the Boston Bruins scored 274 goals, second only to the Detroit Red Wings’ 295. With Phil Kessel (36 goals), Michael Ryder (27), and Marc Savard (25) leading the way, the B’s coupled their smothering defense with a potent offense that earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. While their efforts fell short, no one can doubt the team’s offensive ability.
However, the Bruins’ front office has still not re-signed Kessel, a restricted free agent, and it seems most likely that he will not be rejoining the team this season. There have been very few signings, especially of forwards, made by the Bruins this off-season, which has many fans concerned that the offense will not perform as well as it did. It is certainly a valid point, but this line-by-line preview of the team’s forwards should dispel such a fear.
During the 2008-2009 campaign, Milan Lucic, Marc Savard, and Phil Kessel were one of the top performing first lines in the whole of the NHL, combining for 78 goals, more than one-quarter of the team’s total. However, with Kessel’s pending departure, nearly half of those 78 goals disappear.
Fortunately for the Bruins, second-year forward Blake Wheeler, who scored 21 goals in 81 games as a rookie (and as a left wing, the opposite side he is used to playing), is ready and willing to step up. Alongside playmaker Savard and the ever-physical Lucic, Wheeler, a former Minnesota Golden Golpher like Kessel, is poised to have continued success, especially after adding 15 lbs. of muscle in the offseason to improve his conditioning. With all three players coming up to free agent status (Savard unrestricted, Lucic and Wheeler restricted) at the end of the season, they will all be performing at their best. This line, arguably one of the best in the NHL even without Kessel, should have no problem leading the team deeper into the playoffs than last season’s disappointing exit in the second round, if not all the way through.
Marco Sturm, who is coming off of major knee surgery, David Krejci, who is recovering from knee surgery, and Michael Ryder, who appears to be completely healthy, will compose the second line of forwards for this year’s Boston Bruins. Despite the injuries and fact that the line may not be assembled until November, this team will also be an incredibly powerful offensive force. Ryder, signed in the summer of 2008 to simply score goals, did just that last season, netting 27 of them. Krejci notched 22 of his own before sputtering out as his injured hip began to affect his play at the end of the season. Sturm, who scored 27 goals in each of his first two years with the Bruins, lasted only 19 games last season, going 7-6-13, before undergoing surgery to repair the meniscus and ACL in his left knee. As soon as Krejci and Sturm recover, this line could easily compete with the Lucic-Savard-Wheeler as the top performing line for the Bruins. Expect at least 25 goals from each of these talented forwards, including a possibly 30-35+ season for Sturm.
After Sturm ended his season to his surgery, Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew were left without one of their wingers who had always been alongside them. However, veteran Mark Recchi, who was traded by the Tampa Bay Lightning to Boston in early March, filled the hole with amazing efficiency. With a significant amount of chemistry and an usual combination of offensive potential and defensive grit, this line not only scored goals last season, but also played as an alternative checking line, facing some of the NHL’s top scoring lines. The three combined to become Boston’s best two-way line, a title they took a great deal of pride in.
While Recchi’s age (41 years) has been growing concern, his determination to play through kidney stones in the playoffs seemed to dismiss any questions about his dedication and ability to play. Bergeron is still recovering from his life (never mind career) threatening concussions (one in each of the last two seasons), but he seemed to have overcome his fears by early April, when he took down Josh Gorges of the Montréal Canadiens. (You may recall Jack Edward’s quote, “Concuss that!” Just in case, though.) Kobasew plays as flawless as someone of his potential can, using his versatility to cover all areas of the ice. With Bergeron continuing to grow in confidence, this line could generate over 60 goals, in addition to preventing them with great skill. What more can you ask from them?
During his tenure in Boston, head coach Claude Julien has pulled a page from Detroit Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock’s playbook: rolling, and relying upon, a fourth line to allow the top lines to rest. Last season, Shawn Thorton, Byron Bitz, and Stéphane Yelle played approximately ten minutes per game, which proved to be effective as the first lines productivity increased greatly (despite less playing time; go figure). With the departure of Yelle, it will be up to former Canadien Steve Bégin, who was picked up in the off-season, to maintain the surliness and value of the fourth line. Meaning no disrespect to Yelle’s abilities and talents, it shouldn’t be too difficult for the ever-antagonizing Bégin, who also averaged 40% in the face-off circle last season. While not a goal scorer (8-5-13 in 62 games last season), Bégin will bring an increased physicality to the line with an undisputable reputation of fearlessness.
Thornton, the official enforcer of the team, isn’t a scorer either (six goals on 136 shots last season for 4.4%), but brings just as much, if not more, brute force as Bégin. While Bitz is still a young’n (24 years old), he’s seen as one of the Bruins top prospects for the fourth line, notching four goals and seven assists in 35 games last season. His bone-crushing checks have made him a fan favorite and have helped to usher in the return of the thuggish Bruins that the city has seen win Stanley Cups and for which they have always longed. Watch for Vladimir Sobotka to make a few trips up from Providence to work on this line, as well.
With the preseason opening earlier this week and the regular season two weeks away, it is unlikely these lines will be complete before November, if not later. However, once each player assumes their appropriate position, the Boston Bruins will once again have one of the league’s most effective offenses, with the first three lines pouring out at least 60 goals each and the fourth line shutting down opponent’s top lines. With such compelling expectations, it seems that the Bruins are poised for another playoff run. Hopefully, the forwards lead the way in bring Lord Stanley’s Cup back to Boston for the first time in 38 years.
Tags: Blake Wheeler, Byron Bitz, Chuck Kobasew, David Krejci, Marc Savard, Marco Sturm, Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Phil Kessel, Shawn Thornton, Steve Bégin, Vladimir Sobotka