Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Bruins still team to beat in Eastern Conference

The big bad Boston Bruins are still the team to beat in the Eastern Conference heading into the 2014-2015 season. Despite the loss of top-line winger Jarome Iginla, enforcer Shawn Thornton and reserve goalie Chad Johnson, the black-and-gold still possess an unrivaled set of intangibles that will have them right back in the thick of the Stanley Cup chase.

Many feel the club has taken a step back after losing a 30-goal scorer in Iginla, but that’s not the case in the grand scheme of things. Boston’s depth, coaching, veteran leadership, goaltending and prospective youth will all work in their favor. The vast majority of the team’s across the league fail to stack up to the Bruins in that regard.

Boston didn’t have the luxury of replacing a force like Iginla through free agency because of cap restraints, but he can and will be replaced. General Manager Peter Chiarelli says Loui Eriksson will likely be bumped up to play alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci.

Eriksson may not play with same style as Iginla though, he’s equally as talented. Eriksson’s debut season on Causeway Street in no way does him justice. He was limited due to injury. He never reached his full potential because he was in and out of the lineup, always being shifted around.

His track record suggests a potential breakout season if paired with an elite playmaker in Krejci. He scored 118 goals in four full seasons prior to the lockout shortened year in 2012-2013. This is a guy who can put the puck in the net and do it in a consistent fashion. He also had 160 assists in those games. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that Eriksson posted those stats playing alongside lesser talent.

Even if Eriksson fails to hit the 30-goal plateau, there’s still an abundance of goal-scoring ability scattered throughout Claude Julien‘s lineup. We know what Lucic and Krejci provide when paired with one another. Patrice Bergeron will provide reliability in addition to supplying Brad Marchand with every opportunity to be great. Reilly Smith showed promising things this past season. Assuming he re-signs, the youngster will just continue to get better. Without question, Boston’s top-six will tally their fair share of points over the course of 82 games.

Carl Soderberg is a guy who could push the Bruins toward achieving great things. The Swedish center scored 16 goals and notched 32 assists in his first full season in Boston. He progressively become better as time went on. He exhibited strong puck possession skills, keen playmaking instincts and touch around the cage. It’s safe to assume he’ll keep improving as he settles into his second year at the NHL level. He’s not going to carry the team, but his production will be key.

Spots will be up for grabs in the lineup. Aside from Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Chris Kelly on the bottom lines, the kids in the organization will have every chance to make the club coming out of training camp. Matt Fraser, Ryan Spooner, Alexander Khokhlachev and Seth Griffin all figure to have a legitimate shot at claiming one of the two open roster spots. Healthy competition in training camp will be beneficial to all of them in the long run. They each have progressed greatly at the AHL level and should be ready to take the next step.

Then there’s captain Zdeno Chara. Chara has been doubted by many this off-season. Some feel he’s on the decline. It’s foolish to think that for a second. Chara places the team on his back year in and year out. That won’t be any different in 2014-2015.  He’ll once again contend for the Norris Trophy while logging a team-high in minutes each night.

More than usual was asked of Chara this past year after defensive stalwart Dennis Seidenberg went down with an unfortunate knee injury. Seidenberg’s return will alleviate a great deal of weight from the shoulders of Chara. The two, coupled with Johnny Boychuk and a bevy of young blueliners, will anchor what projects to be one of the best defensive units in the game.

It also helps to have Tuukka Rask manning the crease on a nightly basis. Rask is arguably the best in the world at the position. The game of hockey is flukey, but if you have goaltending, you’re all set. The Los Angeles Kings are a prime example of that. Jonathan Quick suddenly caught fire this past postseason and the Kings road him from the verge of elimination in the opening round all the way to a title.

Rask is fresh off  a Vezina Trophy winning season. The Bruins will always be one of the hardest team’s to beat as long as they have him stopping the pucks. Niklas Svedberg will back him up. Svedberg more than proved himself in Providence and should continue on in taking positive strides.

Then there’s Claude Julien. His coaching style is conducive to winning championships. He preaches defensive responsibility and it shows with Boston’s annual success. Julien has instilled a systematic philosophy that all of his guys have bought into. With that said, we know Rask will be well protected with Chara and Bergeron leading the charge. A well protected Rask will present a nightmare for opposing teams.

Some teams in the Atlantic Division, such as the Florida Panthers, did improve via free agency. They’ll be more stout when matching up opposite Boston, but they’re not good enough to surpass them. Montreal is their biggest and most immediate threat. They lost their captain Brian Gionta, sniper Thomas Vanek and the talented d-man Josh Gorges. Veteran Daniel Briere also skipped town. The departures surely weaken Montreal.

Boston still remains the top dog in the division. The same can be said about the conference. New York and Pittsburgh would appear to be the Bruins most significant competition outside the division, yet each of those teams have taken a step back as well. The Penguins sustained a blow to their blueline after losing Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, while the Rangers lost a gritty leader in Brad Richards.

In conclusion, Bruins fans should be faithfully optimistic that this will be another year in which their beloved team makes a run at the promise land. They hold a favorable hand. Now the chips just have to fall in their direction. Re-upping with Iginla was not worth sacrificing the future of the team.

 

 

 

 

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