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Five Bruins Poised For Breakout Seasons

Bruins forward Blake Wheeler

Isn’t it hard to believe that the Boston Bruins are a legitimate Stanley Cup contender? Granted, this team has yet to make it beyond the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but the devastatingly upsetting way that last season ended gave B’s fans a look of what was to come, and what was in the B’s future. With just 18 days left until the Boston Bruins take the ice at the TD Garden, the atmosphere and expectations for this club have certainly risen…and for good reason.

In Boston, the expectation for our teams is to win, regardless of the sport. Be it the Bruins or the Boston Lobsters (Martina Navratilova is your favorite player? Yeah, mine too.), the fans in the Hub expect a tradition of hard work and dedication night in and night out. While the 2008-09 Bruins didn’t bring Lord Stanley’s hardware back where it belongs (oddly enough Hal Gill did , but that’s irrelevant), the feeling among the fans is that of pure anticipation as the youngsters continue to develop and the veterans continue to shine.

Notably, players such as Tim Thomas, Marc Savard, and Zdeno Chara are expected to continue to compete at a very high level, but with this year’s squad being faced with a whole new set of challenges as the Bruins look to be the team to beat in the East, just who should we expect to achieve greater things in 2009-’10?

5. Matt Hunwick, D

To put it lightly, last season did not end well for Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick. Prior to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Montreal Canadiens, Bruins fans were shocked to find out that Matt Hunwick was rushed to the hospital from the team’s practice facility in Wilmington, MA to seek emergency treatment for a stomach problem.

It turned out that Hunwick had suffered a ruptured spleen and ultimately his playoffs were cut short after just one game. The loss of Hunwick proved to be more pivotal than originally believed as the Bruins had trouble keeping up with the speedy Hurricanes in the second round and were ousted on home ice against the sixth seeded ‘Canes.

Hunwick, who had passed at one time Bruins prized possession Matt Lashoff on the depth chart was coming off a solid season for the Bruins where he put up 27 points in 53 games for the black and gold. Part of what made Hunwick so valuable was his ability to play forward at times without missing a beat, making him a hybrid of sorts on the Bruins roster where he could perform at both positions capably, much like Dustin Byfuglien of the Chicago Blackhawks.

With the loss of Steve Montador (no complaining here), Shane Hnidy, and Aaron Ward, it appears that Hunwick will officially get his chance as an everyday player for the Bruins. Although he’s likely to be paired on the third defensive pair with Mark Stuart or Andrew Ference, Hunwick’s offensive capabilities will prove to be a great asset to an offensively deep team.

4. Mark Stuart, D

En route to becoming factual evidence in the city of Boston: Mark Stuart is an animal.

The Bruins’ bruising blue-liner is coming off a career year in almost every category. The 25 year old American put up 17 points, showing a rarely seen offensive side and finished with a +20.

Stuart, who was also credited with 95 hits and 105 blocked shots, is coming off an even more impressive postseason where he was absolutely destructive to the opposition when on the ice.

Due to Aaron Ward’s departure to Carolina in a trade, Mark Stuart will without question become the Bruins premier defensive defensemen behind Zdeno Chara and should continue to become a younger and more versatile version of Aaron Ward.

3. Patrice Bergeron, C

It can be argued that when you’ve already put up a 70-point season in your career that there’s no “breaking out” because well, you already have. However, if you’ve seen what Bruins center and alternate captain Patrice Bergeron has been through over the past two NHL seasons, you’ll know why he and the rest of us are expecting big things in this upcoming season.

Following a disgustingly scary moment where you felt your heart in your throat as the TD Garden went silent on October 27, 2007 when Patrice Bergeron layed still and motionless on the Garden ice following a questionable hit, the future of Bergeron was simply uncertain. Too many times had concussions ruined the careers of promising players such as Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine, the feeling among the Bruins faithful was that the same fate was in store for the 24-year-old center.

However, a determined Bergeron wasn’t about to change his style of play as the 2003 second round choice returned for the 2008-09 season until once again, his future was once again put in question after a Dennis Seidenberg hit left him down and out for the second time in fourteen months.

Bergeron returned just over a month later and truly found his swagger. The 24-year-old was back to playing without fear, and finished the season with strong play that lead into an even stronger postseason.  After knocking down Josh Gorges with a left hook in his first career fight, Bergeron and his line proved to be a shutdown line for the proceeding series against the ‘Canes.

Due in large part to Krejci’s hip surgery recovery, Bergeron is sure to get his chances to begin the season and with the expectations boosted from the playoffs it’ll be interesting to see how he bounces back with a possible reunion with Marco Sturm.

2. Milan Lucic, LW

Already achieving of cult-status in Boston, the Bruins young forward is ready for yet another season of continuing to get better. The 19-year old British Columbia native who joined the Bruins straight from the Western Hockey League’s Vancouver Giants, is already gaining a reputation as a dangerous player in all facets of the game. Known for his ability to pummel you with his fists and throw a body check that’ll send you into next week, Lucic has become a new-found scoring threat to the opposition.

Playing on the top line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel in 2008-09, Lucic tallied 17 goals and doubled his goal total from the year before. Despite the offensive breakout, Lucic didn’t shy away from the rough stuff as he finished 136 penalty minutes, although never tangling with Canadiens part-time enforcer Georges Laraque. The goon antics of Laraque continued to unphase the Bruins and Lucic as the Habs were swept out by Boston in the first round, a series where Lucic chipped in three assists and was still as physical as ever.

Will Lucic continue to prove that the third year in the NHL is the breakout one as his play could ultimately lead to a spot on Team Canada in the 2010 Olympics in Lucic’s hometown of Vancouver? My belief? Buy your Canada “Lucic” t-shirt’s while they’re still on the shelf.

1. Blake Wheeler RW/LW

Remember how excited the Hub of Hockey was when the Bruins acquired 6’5″ forward and University of Minnesota standout Blake Wheeler? The Coyotes first round pick from the 2004 NHL Draft had refused to sign with Phoenix and was reportedly down to signing with either the Canadiens, Rangers or Bruins.

Fortunately, the talented winger agreed to come to Boston on a two-year contract and the results were simply great…until January hit.

The rookie finished the 2008 calendar year with 13 goals and 10 assists and the Bruins were appearing to have a Calder Trophy nominee on their squad. However, the grueling rigors of an NHL schedule took their effect on the forward who had never played more than 55 games in a season due to being in the NCAA. Although Wheeler finished with 45 points in total, his play in the second half and playoffs led to a benching in the second round against Carolina.

Will Wheeler react the same way Phil Kessel did following his playoff benching in 2008?

It may be too early to tell, but with the fire lit under Wheeler, it could only mean good things for the Bruins heading into 2009-10. With Phil Kessel virtually out of the picture in Boston, Wheeler has arguably become the Bruins best young scoring forward who’ll without question become a monster at the NHL level when fully conditioned to an 82-game schedule in the NHL.

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