Bergeron key to Bruins' fortunes

Ross McKeon
Yahoo! SportsSeptember 3, 2008

Normally, when a franchise steeped in tradition like the Boston Bruins squeezes into the playoffs and absorbs an opening-round loss to an archrival, it's regarded as a lost season.

But with the adversity the Bruins faced last season, and the fact Boston was coming off consecutive non-playoff campaigns, what happened in 2007-08 should be viewed as a stepping stone.

The Bruins' biggest hurdle was overcoming the loss of Patrice Bergeron, the 23-year-old whose season ended after only 10 games as a result of a terrible concussion suffered from a hit from behind by Philadelphia's Randy Jones. Coming off respective seasons with 73 and 70 points, Bergeron was looked on as Boston's best offensive threat.

The Bruins pulled through with a close-knit locker room and strong team character, something general manager Peter Chiarelli, who is entering his second season, said was a reason he made few changes at the trade deadline and in the offseason.

Boston is counting on a healthy Bergeron and the return of goalie Manny Fernandez from injury, too. Fernandez, needed to give the Bruins a solid one-two punch with Tim Thomas in goal, appeared in only four games, none after Oct. 22 before undergoing surgery to repair his right knee.

Boston took on a bend-but-don't-break persona, a typical approach employed by Claude Julien in previous coaching stops. The Bruins routinely were outshot, but by the end of the season they had the system down and were tough to beat.

Julien always has been a defense-first coach, and he has shown patience with young players. So maybe all that Boston went through last season, coupled with the return of key players, will put the Bruins on a path for contention.

Last season: 41-29-12, 94 points, third place Northeast Division, eighth place Eastern Conference. Qualified for the postseason for the first time in three seasons and gave top-seeded Montreal a scare, extending the Canadiens, 8-0 vs. the Bruins during the regular season, to a seventh and deciding game before losing.

Imports: RW Michael Ryder (2007-08 team: (Montreal Canadiens), LW Matt Marquardt (Columbus Blue Jackets), D Johnny Boychuk (Colorado Avalanche), C Martin St. Pierre (Chicago Blackhawks), RW Blake Wheeler (Phoenix Coyotes).

Exports: RW Glen Murray (available free agent), G Alex Auld (Ottawa Senators), C Glenn Metropolit (Philadelphia Flyers), D Jonathan Sigalet (Columbus Blue Jackets), C Matt Hendricks (Colorado Avalanche), C Pascal Pelletier (Chicago Blackhawks).

Three keys to the season: Regardless of how successful the Bruins play Julien's defense-first system, they must get more offensive production. Boston's 212 goals were third fewest in the conference last season. There was too much pressure on Thomas and the team's defensive system. Newly acquired forward Michael Ryder, who has positive history with Julien, would like to prove his drop in production in Montreal was a blip on his screen. He certainly could help in the goal-scoring department, as should Bergeron.

Second, it generally can be agreed that Boston boasts the most dominant defenseman in the league in Zdeno Chara, but the emergence of minute-muncher Dennis Wideman must continue to give the Bruins a formidable backline. Wideman, who logged more than 25 minutes per night, is coming into his prime at age 25 and has a fresh, four-year, $15.5-million contract to justify. A lot of the defensive responsibility rests on Chara and Wideman, and their ability to be stoppers will go a long way toward determining how far the Bruins go.

Thomas was deserving of credit for carrying the Bruins last season. But he and a healthy Manny Fernandez probably have to post better numbers if the Bruins are to make an improvement. And Fernandez has to be ready to give Thomas more time off than he had last season when he appeared taxed in the late going. Thomas is a battler, unconventional in his style, but it seems to fit this scrappy bunch. A healthy and effective Fernandez not only will make the team better but also will take a lot of pressure off Thomas.

On the hot seat: Fair or not, Bergeron will be under the microscope, especially early. Bergeron is coming to training camp 100 percent healthy, but you never know with concussions. The Bruins have nice support players in Marc Savard, Marco Sturm, rookie splash Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel, but Bergeron is the player the team needs to rekindle the offensive production he provided before getting hurt.

Poised to blossom: Kessel, who turns 21 just before the regular season starts, has enjoyed modest production his first two seasons – 11 goals and 29 points in 70 games as a rookie in addition to 19 goals and 37 points in 82 games last season. His 213 shots were second to Sturm, so there's an offensive upside to Kessel's game. He's fast and smart, a player who figures to pick up more ice time with the departure of fellow right wing Glen Murray. And considering Boston's need for goal-scoring, the time never has been better for Kessel to jump to another level.

Analysis and prediction: The Bruins still miss Joe Thornton, whether they admit it or not. It seems like everything is going to have to go right for Boston to be a solid playoff team, sand considering all the bumps a team faces in the regular season, the guess is the Bruins will be in a dogfight to slip into a playoff spot again.