- James Murphy, Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The Bruins are in Belfast, Northern Ireland, before heading to Prague, Czech Republic, where they will open their regular-season schedule with two games against the Phoenix Coyotes (Oct. 9 and 10). With the start of the season just over a week away, here are 10 of the biggest storylines facing the Bruins:
1. Can the Bruins get over the hump and advance past the second round?
The Bruins have ended their last two seasons in identical fashion, suffering heartbreaking losses in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The 2008-09 Bruins entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed after winning the Northeast Division and their loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round was a disappointment. Meanwhile, the 2009-10 Bruins endured an injury plagued, roller-coaster regular season and entered the playoffs as the No. 6 seed. The Bruins upset the Buffalo Sabres in six games before suffering a monumental collapse to the Flyers, blowing a 3-0 series lead and 3-0 lead in Game 7.
So which team shows up this season, and can it take the next step? Only time will reveal that answer, but if this squad -- which even without the injured Marc Savard appears to have more offensive talent -- can score to its potential then yes, the Bruins can reach the conference finals. The additions of Tyler Seguin and Nathan Horton will be instant boosts to the offense and Gregory Campbell will provide a fourth-line center that has potential to pot some big goals. On the blue line, full and healthy seasons from Mark Stuart and Dennis Seidenberg would be a huge benefit as well.
If the Bruins stay healthy, find a legit puck-moving defenseman (either from within or via trade) and again get solid goaltending from one or both of Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas, they could be a Stanley Cup contender.
2. Will Tuukka Rask suffer a sophomore slump or be better?
In his rookie season, Rask seized the starting role from then-reigning Vezina Trophy winner Thomas, going 22-12-5 with a 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage, good for first in the NHL in each category. He was also tied for seventh in the league with five shutouts. All indications are that Rask is poised for another stellar campaign, but there is always the risk of that sophomore slump. Goalie Steve Mason, the 2008-09 Calder Trophy winner, followed up his brilliant rookie season with a 20-26-9 record, 3.05 GAA and .901 save percentage in 2009-10. Rask has been sharp during training camp, he has put on more muscle and with his calm demeanor seems fit to continue his rise to stardom.
However, if Rask struggles at all, Thomas could pounce and grab his old job back.
3. Speaking of Thomas ... will he finish the season with the Bruins?
Thomas is looking to return to his Vezina Trophy form of 2008-09, when he posted a 36-11-7 record, 2.10 GAA and .933 save percentage. Thomas appears to be on schedule in his recovery from offseason hip surgery and is set to start the season as Rask's backup. But after a summer full of trade rumors surrounding the 35 year-old netminder, there will be question marks about his future with the team.
With the Bruins facing salary cap issues and Thomas due to make $5 million per season for this season and the next two, his name will be bandied about in trade rumors as soon as other teams have a need at goalie. While Rask is the No. 1, Thomas will get a chance to play, and the better he does, the more trade value he has. But remember, Thomas has no-movement and no-trade clauses until 2012, meaning he can't be demoted to the AHL or traded without his permission.
4. Will Marc Savard come back and have an impact? Who will step up in his absence?
There is no telling when Savard, who is suffering from post-concussion syndrome, will be back to normal. Even if he does return to the lineup, there's no guarantee his symptoms won't return. So regardless of how that pans out, the Bruins' other centers will need to step up and carry more of the load offensively. As the Bruins embarked on their trip overseas, it appeared that David Krejci will replace Savard on the top line between Milan Lucic and Horton. Patrice Bergeron looked to be the second-line center between Mark Recchi and either Jordan Caron or Seguin. Seguin and Wheeler will most likely share the workload as the third-line center.
While there is some solid depth up the middle, the team appears to be looking at Krejci to regain his 73-point form of 2008-09. Krejci was good in 2009-10 with 53 points, but both he and the Bruins know he has the skill level to be better. Horton, his new linemate, called Krejci the best stick-handler he's ever played with. Krejci has the potential to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 center.
5. Will the Bruins find a puck-moving defenseman?
Since Peter Chiarelli has taken over as general manager of the Bruins, he has been on a search to find a legitimate puck-moving defenseman. Chiarelli thought he had his man in Maple Leafs defenseman Tomas Kaberle during the 2009 NHL draft but a trade that would've landed the Czech blueliner in exchange for Phil Kessel and draft picks fell through.
Chiarelli has since admittedly tried to find a similar player and sources tell ESPNBoston.com that he is still searching as the season approaches. But for now, the team will have to find a remedy internally. Matt Hunwick has shown potential but hasn't seized the opportunity and has struggled through training camp. Former Bruin Dennis Wideman had the skills to do it but he was inconsistent last season and was shipped to Florida as part of the Horton trade. This is a void that most likely won't be filled before the season begins and could be the Bruins' Achilles' heel.
6. Can Nathan Horton be the power forward this team so desperately needs?
Wideman may have had a rough season and been the scapegoat for Bruins fans in 2009-10, but he was the closest thing the Bruins had to a puck-moving defenseman. The Bruins gave up a lot -- Wideman and the No. 15 pick in the most recent draft -- to get Horton and Greg Campbell. That tells you Boston expects big things from Horton.
Horton has scored 20 or more goals in each of his last five seasons and the 2003 No. 3 overall pick lit the lamp 31 times in 2006-07. The big (6-foot-2, 229 pounds) winger is only 25 and could be entering his prime. Look for Horton to push for 30-35 goals this season.
7. Is Milan Lucic back?
After a disappointing season that saw him miss 32 games thanks to a hand injury and high ankle sprain, Lucic has looked like a man on a mission in training camp. He's skating hard and most importantly using his physical strength along the boards and with his fists. If he can stay healthy, look for a big season similar to his 42-point campaign in 2008-09. Lucic has the potential to create space for Krejci and Horton on the top line and be more of a factor in the team's offensive production.
8. What can be expected from Tyler Seguin?
Unlike 2010 top overall pick Taylor Hall, who will be playing for a team and city (Edmonton) desperate for hope and a return to their glory days, Seguin, the 2010 No. 2 overall pick, enters a situation where he won't be depended on to be the savior. The Bruins are deep up front and there is a solid core of youth and veterans in place throughout the roster. This is why Seguin has a good chance to prosper in his rookie season. He may not be the savior but expect him to be a factor for the Bruins.
Look for Seguin to be a great depth center this season and also see some time at wing. He should help the power play and challenge for the Calder Trophy.
9. What will Peter Chiarelli do to alleviate his team's salary cap woes?
About the only positive in the news that Savard will most likely begin the season on long-term injury reserve is that it would free up cap space. With Savard and Marco Sturm on LTIR, the Bruins will free up $7.5 million in cap space. According to capgeek.com, with Savard active, the Bruins are just north of $3 million over the $59.4 NHL salary cap. Most likely Chiarelli will have until at least November to figure out a way to get under the cap when Sturm and/or Savard return. But it's not just a question of getting under the cap when Savard or Sturm return, it's also important to be under so the team can be in a position to make trades.
One player to watch is Michael Ryder. His inconsistency last season combined with the $4 million he's due in the final year of his three-year contract has prompted many to peg Ryder as a candidate to be bought out or demoted to Providence. Having Sturm and possibly Savard on long-term injury reserve to start the season should buy Ryder some time. But the enigmatic winger needs to get off to a solid start or his spot on the team could be jeopardy.
How Chiarelli manages the cap space and builds his team during the season with possible trades, call-ups/demotions and signings will go a long way toward determining the Bruins' success.
10. Can The Bruins win the Northeast Division?
An upstart Bruins squad upset the Sabres and Olympic hero Ryan Miller in the opening round of the playoffs last spring. The Bruins proved that when they're relatively healthy and working to their potential, they're a contender. Now with a deeper lineup, they appear to be a serious threat to dethrone the Sabres as Northeast Division champions. The bet here is that they will, finishing third in the Eastern Conference.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.