There’s one Garden out there I’m expecting to see some growth in this winter.
The Boston Bruins surprised just about everyone by making the playoffs last year and nearly upped the ante to astonishment when they fell just short of upsetting the heavily favored Montreal Canadiens in the first round.
For one of the few times since they moved to TD Banknorth Garden from ‘The Gah-den,’ the Black and Gold are emitting signs of long-term progress.
Everybody knows about the Bruins’ commitment to defense. It starts with coach Claude Julien’s teachings, filters down through Zdeno Chara’s wingspan and touches every corner of the dressing room.
That Boston will play a stingy game is a given. Where I see the B’s branching out, though, is on the attack. Only New Jersey and the Islanders celebrated fewer goals than Boston’s 212 last year, a number that’s sure to improve with the return of one player, the addition of another and the natural progression of two youngsters.
Reports indicate center Patrice Bergeron is on course to return healthy and hungry after a hit from behind by Philadelphia’s Randy Jones limited his season to 10 games last year.
In case you’ve forgotten about this fella, he’s the 23-year-old who scored 73 and 70 points in the first two post-lockout years while playing on non-playoff teams.
His presence in the lineup will take pressure of No. 1 pivot Marc Savard, who should enjoy feeding passes to free agent pickup Michael Ryder.
Now, let me be clear about this: No contract handed out this summer better exemplifies the utter contempt NHL GMs have for using common sense during free agency than Ryder’s. That he received a three-year deal worth $4 million per after the scratchy, 14-goal year he put up in Montreal is absolutely criminal. But it’s also just a byproduct of the crooked lay of the land.
And Ryder, for all his struggles last year, hasn’t forgotten how to shoot the puck. Goal-scorers run on confidence and if Ryder can snap a few pucks past goalies early on, there’s no reason to believe he can’t finish the year with 25 or 30 goals. On a team led by Marco Sturm’s 27 tallies last year, that’s a big help.
As for improvement from within, Phil Kessel and David Krejci offer the most intriguing possibilities.
Krejci hasn’t spent much time on anybody’s radar yet, but the 22-year-old Czech has moves and touch. As a rookie last year, the majority of his production came late in the season when the B’s were pushing for a playoff spot.
Krejci had a stretch of nine points in five games as the regular season came to a close and his five points in seven playoff games was second only to Savard’s six on the Bruins. The second-rounder from 2004 clearly has potential.
Kessel, meanwhile, is approaching a crossroads.
The kid once pegged as a surefire No. 1 overall pick has to become a productive top-six forward in what will be his third year in the NHL. Watch Kessel and you know where the lofty projections once came from. He’s fast –, really fast – and he’s got a quick, accurate wrist shot.
But the kid doesn’t exactly exude commitment and that has landed him in Julien’s bad books more than once. He was a healthy scratch in three of Boston’s playoff games, but scored a team-leading three goals in the four contests he did get into. That inconsistency pretty much sums up his career to this point.
If Kessel, who won’t turn 21 until October, can find a way to iron out the wrinkles and burn more than he coasts, he’s going to be a player in this league.
With a natural spike in goals on the way and an unwavering pledge to team defense, the only big question left for the Bruins surrounds what kind of goaltending they will get.
Between Tim Thomas, Manny Fernandez (remember him?) and 21-year-old Finnish prospect Tuukka Rask, my guess is it will be somewhere between competent and good.
Bundle that all up and it’s easy to see why Boston will have something to say about how the Eastern Conference standings shake down.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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