Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Boston Bruins: Do they have what it takes to repeat?

After months of celebrating, and Zdeno Chara buying $100,000 bottles of champagne, it is time for the Boston Bruins to prepare for another grueling season, and attempt to become the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the 97-98 Red Wings. With the unfortunate news that Marc Savard will not play again this season and possibly for the rest of his career, let's see if the Bruins are able to come back and win another one for him. On a side note, I think it was extremely classy of GM Peter Chiarelli to publicly state that the team will petition to have Savard's name on the Cup, and highlights the respect that he has from his fellow teammates.

What happened last season: Champs! On the back of Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup for the first time since the Bobby Orr era. Thomas this past season had the best save percentage since the stat started being tracked in 1983. What was so remarkable about their Cup victory was the resiliency that they showed at so many different times during the Playoffs. In the first round against the Canadiens, the Bruins came back in the series after losing the first two games on their own home ice. In the second round, the Flyers goalies ended up beating themselves, so I guess that doesn't count. In the third round- or the round I would like to call, "the round of Tyler Seguin becoming a superstar after two great games," the Bruins defeated a strong and speedy Lightning team, despite a relatively poor series from Tim Thomas, and went on to face the Canucks in the finals. That resiliency continued in the finals, when the Bruins responded after losing the first two games, to come back and win the series, (or maybe Luongo lost the series) in seven games.

While the unbelievable play of Tim Thomas was the main reason that the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, people often forget that Bruins were the deepest team in the Eastern Conference and possibly the entire league. While the Canucks and Lightning were coming at them with forty goal scorers, the Bruins responded by having three lines of players that are capable of scoring fifty points. The top point-getter on the Bruins had only 62 points on the season, despite the collective team being fifth in the NHL, in the goals scored category.

Another impressive aspect of their Stanley Cup run, was the gut showed by GM Peter Chiarelli, to not only trade some top prospects and picks, but to take key players like Blake Wheeler and Brad Stuart off the current roster, with the foresight to realize the importance that  players with the speed and defensive ability, like Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley can offer. As he does every season, Chiarelli continues to make slight improvements to his roster, ensuring the best results from his teams.

Summer Cap Space Available and Team Needs: For those that watched the Playoffs at all, it was more than obvious that the Thomas Kaberle experiment for the most part failed. He had some good games in the Lightning and Canucks series', but by that point was already relegated to the third defensive pairing. So Chiarelli, in what I consider to be a swallowing pride move, chose to let him walk at the end of the season instead of re-signing the offensive defenceman at $4.25 million.

Immediately after Kaberle was signed for 3yrs/$12.75 million by the Carolina Hurricanes, Chiarelli traded a fourth round pick to the Huricanes for Joe Corvo. In many ways Corvo is the better option than Kaberle for the Bruins. The two of them essentially wash out offensively, with Kaberle being the better passer, but Corvo actually using a shot, the main difference that lies between the two of them is their contracts. While Kaberle is locked in at $4.25 million for the next three years, Corvo is on the last year of his deal that pays him $2.25 million.

This flexibility is exactly what the Bruins and Chiarelli need to ensure that they can be continue to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Trading for Corvo carries with it no downside, since at the worst he is re-signable at the same cap number as Kaberle, and most likely can be re-signed for cheaper.

The second keynote this summer on Chiarelli's agenda was to re-sign Brad Marchand. To this point, there is no deal in place and rumours are beginning to circulate that the Bruins are not ready to meet Marchand's contract demands, and are exploring different trade options. The Marchand situation is really tricky. James Van Riemsdyk has set the market incredibly high by signing his six year deal with an average salary of $4.25 million. From Marchand's perspective, he believes that he should probably be receiving at least the same package, while I am sure that Chiarelli is trying to shrink the size of the contract both in term and dollar. I personally do not see this ending well, and I envision a trade happening down the road. Both sides do not have much of a reason to budge from their demands. The Bruins are extremely deep at centre, with Seguin relegated to the bench last season, and Marchand has already got his name on the Cup , and may now be looking for the few extra dollars that are available to him on the market. However if Chiarelli really wants him re-signed, with a little over $7 million dollars in cap space, (before the Marc Savard contract situation which is a conversation for a whole other time) he can easily retain him.

What the future holds: As mentioned above, the salary cap flexibility that Chiarelli has in the future is vital to ensuring the Bruins are a top team for many years to come. One problem that is sort of unique to the Bruins is their star goalie issue. The Bruins have two star goalies, and both Tuuka Rask and Tim Thomas would be the starting goaltender on most teams in the NHL. This poses an issue for the Bruins in that, next year when Rask becomes a free agent, they will need to keep him, despite having Tim Thomas still under contract-and it will be expensive. Without knowing how long the acrobatic 37-year old will be able to continue to perform at such a high level, they can ill-afford to let Rask go. Look for Rask to sign to a long term deal, at approximately an average salary of $4 million dollars.

The added flexibility next season will also help ensure that David Krecji can be compensated appropriately at the end of the season. While he is still an RFA at seasons end, look for him to get a significant hike in salary to approximately the $5 million dollar range. Things do not get easier the following summer, as Tyler Seguin (RFA), Milan Lucic (RFA) and Nathan Horton (UFA) will all be up for new contracts, and a significant hike in salary will be necessary to keep all of them.

Essentially Chiarelli could not keep Kaberle if he wanted to keep all his stars in the future, and he has Corvo in the interim until young defensive stars like Adam McQuaid and newly drafted Dougie Hamilton are ready to take their games to the next step.

Prediction: The Bruins will finish second in the Eastern Conference, and will once again be a force to reckon with, as I predict they will be for many years to come- especially with Peter Chiarelli at the helm hopefully (for their sake) until he decides to retire.  

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