2008-09 Team Preview: Boston Bruins

Updated: October 3, 2008, 10:56 PM ET

Tom Szczerbowski/US Presswire

Last season, Zdeno Chara and the Bruins made it to the first round of the playoffs before losing to Montreal.

OUR EXPERT'S TAKE

The Boston Bruins surprised many last season when they reached the playoffs for the first time since 2004. They might have amazed even more when they stretched the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens to a seventh and deciding game before finally bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

Now what?

Boston GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com he expects to see two levels of improvement from his club.

First, his young players are going to improve, players like Dennis Wideman, David Krejci, Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic. "We feel that our young guys have been battle-tested," Chiarelli said.

Second, he sees improvement through the addition of four veteran players who weren't with the team last season, Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez (both of whom are coming off serious injuries), and newcomers Michael Ryder and Stephane Yelle. "With those four additions, we are going to improve, as well," Chiarelli said.

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OFFENSE
The Bruins were only 24th in goals scored last season, so there's plenty of room to improve. A healthy return of Bergeron, who missed most of last season with a serious concussion, and the addition of former 30-goal man Ryder should help in this area. Ryder had back-to-back 30-goal seasons in Montreal before running afoul of coach Guy Carbonneau and ending up a regular visitor to the press box as a healthy scratch.

Ryder signed a three-year, $12 million deal in the offseason, and Chiarelli acknowledged some people see it as a gamble. But Ryder played for Bruins coach Claude Julien in Montreal, as well as in the AHL and Junior. Chiarelli said the organization did its due diligence in finding out what contributed to Ryder's off year and is confident he can get back to his previous levels of production.

Keep an eye on Krejci. Chiarelli pointed to the 22-year-old center as having played a key role in the Bruins' drive to the postseason and the seven playoff games against Montreal. Krejci, Kessel, Marc Savard (who led the team with 78 points), Bergeron, Marco Sturm (a team-high 27 goals), Ryder, Lucic, Chuck Kobasew, Peter Schaefer and P.J. Axelsson give the Bruins a decent group of top-nine forwards.

DEFENSE
Zdeno Chara did his best to help a sagging offense by reeling off a career-best 51-point season. His 17 goals tied for second among NHL defensemen. He's among the best defensemen in the world, and the 31-year-old Slovak is unquestionably the MVP on his team.

He's joined on the blue line by Wideman, Aaron Ward, Mark Stuart, Shane Hnidy, Andrew Ference, Andrew Alberts and Matt Lashoff. Aside from Chara, it's not a group with a lot of name recognition, but it still helped the team to the fourth-smallest goals-against total in the Eastern Conference last season.

The Bruins have high hopes for 21-year-old Lashoff, the team's first pick, 22nd overall, in the 2005 NHL draft.

GOALTENDING
Every season, Tim Thomas arrives at camp, where everyone tells him he's behind another goalie on the depth chart. One year, it was Andrew Raycroft. Another, it was Hannu Toivonen. Last season, it was Fernandez. All three of those campaigns, Thomas ended up in the No. 1 spot. And yet, he still doesn't get the amount of respect he probably deserves.

His 2.44 goals-against average last season was better than the likes of Ryan Miller, Carey Price, Martin Biron and Miikka Kiprusoff. His .921 save percentage was bettered by only three NHL goalies. This season, Thomas might have to give up some starts (what else is new!) to Fernandez, who is working his way back after missing almost all of last season with a knee injury.

Behind them, there's 21-year-old prospect Tuukka Rask, who posted a 2.33 GAA in 45 games with Providence (AHL) last season. It's likely Thomas and Fernandez are just buying time before Rask is the guy. If Fernandez doesn't bounce back, Rask might get his chance this season. In the meantime, if Thomas, 34, has another solid season, does that not put him in line to possibly make the 2010 U.S. Olympic team along with Miller and Rick DiPietro? Just food for thought.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.

FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...

The biggest improvement in Beantown may be the sense of optimism generated by the belief that things are headed in the right direction. Coach Claude Julien has an unassuming and quiet style, but he is a solid bench boss who knows how to coax the most out of his players. He will be expected to work his magic again this season, particularly with major offseason acquisition Michael Ryder. Julien coached the talented Ryder in Junior, the AHL and NHL, and Ryder enjoyed unprecedented success at each stop. Clearly, the Bruins need a huge bounce-back season from him and a return to good health for Patrice Bergeron.

Goalie Tim Thomas plays an unorthodox style, but he is one of the best pure competitors in the league. What he lacks in style and form, he more than makes up for with good old-fashioned heart and desire. Zdeno Chara is one of the best defensemen in the game. The blue line has size, toughness and, with Dennis Wideman, mobility. The back line will be even more mobile if skilled prospect Matt Lashoff can crack the lineup. Lashoff, along with Phil Kessel, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler and Tuukka Rask should keep things looking good in Boston for a long time.

Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.


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Boston Bruins

EXTRA CREDITS
• Bruins Home
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IN REVIEW
• Record: 41-29-12
• Division: Third in the Northeast
• Conference: Eighth in the East
• Playoffs: Ousted in first round vs. MON

TOUGH STRETCH
• The Bruins play eight of 10 games on the road over Feb. 1-22 with stops in Montreal, Philadelphia, Ottawa, New Jersey, Nashville, Carolina, Florida and Tampa Bay.



COACH'S CORNER

Julien

Claude Julien
Experience: 4½ years
Record: 160-115-10-35
Playoffs: 7-11
Stanley Cup titles: 0

• Claude Julien had a dramatic effect on the Bruins in his first season behind their bench last season, overseeing a 70-goal decrease in their goals against from the previous season as they went from 29th in that department to 11th. The Bruins play an organized, two-way game under Julien, which was especially imperative after losing Bergeron for most of the season. If Julien can get Ryder back on track this season and help Kessel, Krecji and Lucic take the next step, the Bruins could surprise again.

STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE IT

F -- Milan Lucic
Entering his second season with the Bruins. Surprised many by making the team at 19 last season and then having a good season. Think a young Cam Neely. He has oodles of upside and even more character.

F -- Marc Savard
Entering his third season with the Bruins. The playmaker dropped from 96 points in 2006-07 to 78 points last season, but he improved from a minus-19 to a plus-3. That's a deal the Bruins are willing to live with -- fewer points for better defensive awareness.

F -- Michael Ryder
Arrived via free agency from Montreal. After scoring 85 goals in three seasons, he slumped to 14 last season, resulting in a ticket out of Montreal. Reunited with his old coach Claude Julien, can he rebound?

D -- Zdeno Chara
Entering his third season with the Bruins. Is he the best defenseman in the world not named Lidstrom? Yes.

D -- Dennis Wideman
Entering his second season with the Bruins. Solid 36-point, plus-11 season last year. And he's only 25.

KEY QUESTION

Bergeron

Question: Can Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez bounce back?

Answer: If Bergeron does, the Bruins have a mighty 1-2 punch at center with Savard. If Fernandez returns to the form that saw him win 30 games in Minnesota in 2005-06, the Bruins have a solid 1-2 punch in goal with Thomas. We think Bergeron will have a bigger effect than Fernandez.

FANTASY TAKE

Lucic

Sleeper: Milan Lucic, LW: This power forward is built in the same mold as Brenden Morrow. The 2007 Memorial Cup MVP is a future 70-point, 150-PIM player and he could start making good on that potential this season.

Bust: Tim Thomas, G: Thomas has to deal with a very accomplished, competitive and healthy Manny Fernandez. Don't be surprised if Fernandez wins the starting job in October and starts the majority of Boston's games.

Outlook: This Bruins club looks to build off of last season's performance and will improve with the return of some now-healthy players. Most of the fantasy skill resides in the forward ranks, where the team goes three lines deep with players that are at least intriguing for even shallow leagues. But if the team wants to make a playoff run, Manny Fernandez needs to bounce back from that knee injury that forced him to miss most of last season. -- Sean Allen

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