Haggerty: Many questions remain as B's open camp

Haggerty: Many questions remain as B's open camp
September 11, 2013, 12:45 am
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Question marks are the one big thing in abundance as the Boston Bruins staff unwraps the sticks, pucks and helmets to get ready for training camp.

Sure, the Bruins should be a Stanley Cup contender again this season. Barring any unforeseen disasters, they will probably make the playoffs and finish first in their newly constructed conference while riding a nucleus full of top players in their prime. It would be a shock to see things go in a different direction given how much talent, leadership and experience exists in the B’s dressing room.  

Getting from Point A to Point B is the question facing Peter Chiarelli, Claude Julien and a group of 22 players, however, when they eventually break camp with the Black and Gold. After roughly two summer months of resting, recharging and rejuvenating after falling to the Blackhawks in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, the returning Bruins will be responsible for picking up the pieces.

The health and well-being of Patrice Bergeron (separated shoulder, cracked ribs, collapsed lung) and Gregory Campbell (broken bone in lower leg) will be one of the top stories throughout camp. In essence the B’s continue to pay off the balance for last year’s playoff run, and both Bergeron and Campbell are the personification for credit card bills racked up for the Cup run.  

Both admit they may be slightly behind when camp opens on Wednesday, but expect to be ready to go when the puck drops against the Tampa Bay Lightning in October. That will be one of the biggest questions looming over the Black and Gold as they represent half of Boston’s important center group down the middle of the ice.

“Basically they’ve recovered as scheduled,” said Julien. “It’s a good sign there haven’t been any setbacks. For Patrice I think he’s felt good for a while, and for Gregory it’s just a matter of making sure he let things heal properly.”

Whether Bergeron and Campbell are operating at full speed right out of the starting gate or not, there is little question both players will be grinding away at full speed when the team prepares for the playoffs. The weightiest question marks come elsewhere with the Bruins, and they involve some of the many new faces set to enter the Black and Gold world.

Jarome Iginla and Loui Eriksson arrive as the top two right wings in Boston. The hope is they can step into the spots opened up by Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin respectively, and the expectation is they’ll live up to their career numbers. That means slotting the aging Iginla in with Milan Lucic and David Krejci, and inserting Eriksson’s two-way game onto a line with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron that should be elite offensively and defensively. Both should fit nicely into their new roles: Iginla shares many strengths and weaknesses with Horton, and Eriksson is expected to provide the kind of stability and toughness Boston has sought alongside elite players in Bergeron and Marchand.

“We have a pretty good idea what we’re getting. Iginla and Eriksson are both elite,” said Julien. “The other guys, [Reilly] Smith and [Matt] Fraser, played in Dallas. It’s not a matter of getting to know what we’ve got hockey-wise. It’s probably a matter of getting to know them personally, and that’s what we’ve done over the last couple of weeks.

“I don’t think that’s an issue there. If anything I think it’s good to get a couple of new faces in there. When you compete and want to get to the top every year, it’s hard enough as it is. But when you bring in a couple of new faces there is maybe a little more hunger there. It can make everybody more accountable because those new guys want to get a crack at it.”

But what if Iginla doesn’t have much left in the tank at 37 years old after looking O-L-D in the playoffs against the Bruins?

What if Eriksson falters playing in a pressure-packed atmosphere like Boston after thriving in obscurity as a hockey player in Dallas?

What if both of these admittedly talented players don’t mesh with Krejci, Lucic, Bergeron and Marchand?

The chances are miniscule this will happen, of course.

There’s always a possibility of the worst outcome, but the expectation is the Bruins will be better next season than they were last year while finishing two wins shy of the Stanley Cup. Eriksson is a 27-year-old finished product that will play hard at both ends of the ice, and has been the picture of consistency averaging 30 goals and 70 points over the last four full seasons.

The Seguin-for-Eriksson and prospects swap was about winning in the short term for Boston, and maximizing the window of competitiveness while Zdeno Chara is still a dominant defensive force. Seguin might end up burning Boston in the end if he can mature into an offensive superstar in Dallas, but another Stanley Cup or two would soften that blow for the Bruins.

Perhaps the biggest two questions for the Bruins entering training camp involve youth-infused areas of the team: the third line and the defensemen corps. Chris Kelly would appear to be a definite on the third line as he’s been the last three seasons, but it will be youth and inexperience around him. It would appear Big Swede Carl Soderberg has the inside track after finishing last season in Boston, and that somebody from a field of Jordan Caron, Anthony Camara, Jared Knight, Ryan Spooner, Fraser and Smith will win a spot to start the season.

It’s a wide open competition that Julien will be watching closely, but there’s still no telling how much better/worse the new trio will be than last year’s struggling trio of Kelly, Rich Peverley and Chris Bourque. Bourque has been relegated to the KHL, Peverley was shipped off to Dallas with Seguin, and Kelly needs to start living up to his $3 million a year contract.

“We talked about it a lot last year that we were trying to find that third line chemistry,” said Julien. “Carl is with us. He’s been with us for the last two to three months last year, and he comes in now knowing exactly what we want him to do for us. Last year he was kind of feeling his way through.

“I thought Chris Kelly played some of his best hockey in the last round coming off that [broken leg] injury. It took him a while to find his game. There are some spots open and young guys. There’s a lot of room for competition there, and how we decide to go with it. Carl is a natural centerman and so is Chris. So there will be some decisions made down the stretch.”

The biggest area where the Bruins could see growth and development this year is clearly among their defensemen group. While Chara and Dennis Seidenberg faltered through injuries during the Cup Final against a masterfully skilled Chicago hockey club, they are still among the best shutdown pairs in the NHL. Johnny Boychuk raised his game to another level during last year’s playoffs, and Adam McQuaid is still an improving stay-at-home defenseman at 26 years old.

But the addition of Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski brings speed, skill and a penchant for transition hockey to a Bruins team that moved at plodding speed over the last few years. The young trio will also make more mistakes on the ice, and be much more vulnerable in the defensive zone than Julien would prefer.

But Krug and Bartkowski are among the best skaters on the team, and both Krug and Hamilton are power play producers that should turn a traditional Bruins weakness into a team strength.

That’s assuming all three can produce the same level of play they displayed during last spring’s playoffs. Bruins assistant general manager Jim Benning went so far as to call Krug a “warrior” during the “Behind the B” show on NESN while positing him as the heir to Andrew Ference’s considerable legacy in Boston.

Can Krug effectively replace a guy in Ference that was a blood and guts leader for a championship Bruins team?

That is one of many questions Boston will start to answer on Wednesday morning as training camp opens for a Bruins team hoping they have answers for all of this season’s questions. They will certainly find out over the course of an 82 game regular season that always provides the ultimate “yes” and “no” answers.