I wrote a postmortem last March that expressed what, in my opinion, had gone wrong with the Bruins in 2006/2007. It was rather long. At that time I promised a look at the positive things about the Bruins that might give us hope for the coming season. With a new season on our doorstep, here it is. I wish my list of positives were longer, but so much of this team remains a question mark.
I've read some disparaging things about the Bruins talent (or lack thereof) lately from fans of other teams. I can't really blame people who don't follow the B's for mistaking a roster lacking in accomplished, well-known, players for one lacking in talent. But those of us who follow the team closely can see what may not be obvious to others: from a spark here, and a play there, we can pick out those players who either have great potential and/or who play with great heart. I am convinced that the Bruins are not lacking in talent. So I guess that would be good news right there.
On a team with so many question marks, when I look at the Bruins roster some names jump out at me that I feel can be counted on. These players together give me some cause for hope for this season.
Top-six players who have impressed me at one time or another with their skill and/or work ethic are: Marc Savard, Glenn Murray, Patrice Bergeron, and Marco Sturm. My fondest wish for next year is that these key Bruins will somehow come together to make at least one highly effective scoring line. Although Phil Kessel still has a long way to go to be a star in the NHL, I was very impressed with how much he improved last year. Perhaps the best part was how he improved. I think he's on the road to becoming a confident physical player who will win the battles along the boards, and that is exactly what the Bruins need.
If you throw in the likes of PJ Axelsson, Shawn Thornton, and Jeremy Reich they should also be able to come up with at least one monster checking line that nobody will want to play against. This was one area where I was very disappointed last year almost from the start: I thought the Bruins had the potential for one of the better 3rd lines in the league.
On the blue line, I am still a believer in Zdeno Chara. While it's true that he did not live up to expectations last season in either the physical or leadership sense, I still think he has what it takes to do both jobs with the best of them. There is a reason he is so loudly booed when they play on the road, we just haven't seen it yet. Andrew Alberts deserves mention because he has consistently out performed expectations and I don't see any reason why he can't continue to improve. I think he has what it takes to be a strong consistent presence on the blue line for many years to come. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Alberts is that he is still around. Given management's penchant for trading away young players if they don't immediately live up to their promise, it's a minor miracle he's still a Bruin.
In my mind the clear MVP from last season, if there is such a thing for a team that did so poorly, was Tim Thomas in goal. He did what he needed to do to give the team a chance to win, at least until there was no longer any point to it. He rose to the challenge when they put the screws to him in mid-season to carry the team, he made the huge saves of the type that can inspire, and he stood tall under more shots on goal than anyone else. His performance in the shootouts was nothing less than spectacular, and I would dearly love to see him get the chance to take his enormous competitiveness into a playoff series. There is no way to know for sure, but I strongly suspect that he would take his play to the next level, if only given the chance to do so.
I feel the above players are more or less proven on a team full of questions. These are all players that I am glad are on our team.
To my mind the biggest question mark is not only the new coach, but the open question of whether or not any coach could bring this rag-tag group of players together in only one season. There are two schools of thought here: some say the coach is responsible for motivating the players and for bringing them together as a team (a la Herb Brooks). Others say that no coach can do that by himself; that it is ultimately up to the players themselves (with strong on-ice leaders) to dig down inside and do what they need to do to win time and again. I suspect the answer is a complex combination of the two. When they asked Lewis what went wrong last year he said that he made the mistake of thinking the players already knew what was necessary to compete at the NHL level. Whether that was ultimately his fault or that of the players depends on your point of view... It will be interesting to see if under Julien everything changes, or nothing.
The acquisition of Fernandez is another question mark. Unfortunately, free agents can sometimes cruise into town seemingly thinking that they have finally made it, only to lose their focus. Hopefully the presence of Thomas will light enough of a fire under him that he will play solidly. And who knows--maybe the competition between the two will make them both better goalies. I just hope Fernandez doesn't underestimate Thomas like so many others have. If so, he may be in for some bench time. One way or another it should be fun to watch. I see the whole goaltender question as pretty much a win-win regardless how it turns out.
Perhaps the best thing about this season for me is that my expectations are very, very, low. Last year proved how difficult it is to build a team out of a bunch of players who don't know each other, and there have been so many changes since January that I fear a repeat. It would be a minor miracle if this team makes the playoffs. Yet at the same time it is entirely possible. If they do, it will be oh, so sweet.