Haggerty: Right now Bruins seem to have all the answers

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Haggerty: Right now Bruins seem to have all the answers

BOSTON -- In the grand scheme of all things NHL hockey, the Bruins werent facing too many questions coming into this season.

They boast the young, talented nucleus of a team that won the Stanley Cup two years ago and they were considered one of the Eastern Conference's best teams this season no matter what happened to them.

But there was some uncertainty coming off last years first round exit in the playoffs, and a fair share of unknowns dropping into a lockout-shortened 48-game schedule that has thrown everybody off their normal routines.

But the Bruins 4-2 win over the New York Islanders on Friday night underscored just how handily the Bruins have found quality answers for any questions that dogged them coming into the year. Finding answers at every street corner has allowed the Bruins to jump out to a 3-0-1 start in their first four games including two tilts against a fellow Eastern Conference powerhouse in the Rangers.

That means the Bruins are already atop the Eastern Conference after the first week of play, and theyve penciled in some regular season answers to their burning preseason questions.

Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand were all viewed as unknown commodities because none of them played in Europe during the lockout, and Horton hadnt played in an NHL game in nearly a year due to concussion woes.

Instead Horton, Lucic and David Krejci have been Bostons most effective line through four games, and Marchand and Lucic have been Boston's leading goal-scorers through the early going.

The sixth defenseman spot was earmarked for a rookie after the failed Joe Corvo experiment last season, and that seems to have worked out remarkably well. Dougie Hamilton has three assists through his first four games and continues to wow all onlookers while looking like the coveted puck-moving offensive defenseman the Bruins have been on the hunt for since Peter Chiarelli was hired six years ago.

Tuukka Rask is sporting a 1.96 goals against average and .925 save percentage while playing four games in six days, and showing zero signs of fatigue or slowdown despite the healthy workload. That means so much for the Bruins crumbling without Conn Smythe goaltender Tim Thomas or a slow start from HortonLucic putting the Bs offense in the deep freeze.

If nothing else, the Black and Gold look even better than ever while appearing completely well-prepared for the quick camp and immediate season. That's a credit to Claude Julien and his coaching staff under trying circumstances.

With our team its been positive surprises. We talked about Nathan Horton not playing for a whole year and we didnt quite know what to expect from him early onhow long it would take to get back to normal. To me, hes been a real pleasant surprise and so has Milan Lucic, said Julien. We talk about big bodies and those big bodies sometimes take a little longer, but those guys have been great. David Krejci, whos played since the beginning of the year, hasnt missed a stride and has been a good player for that line.

Theyve been great surprises. Dougie Hamilton is opening a lot of peoples eyes, we knew what he could do, but not knowing how he would adjust to this level or how quickly he would adjust. His transitions been pretty smooth so far. And Tuukka Rask is Tuukka. There is a lot of pressure on him to replace the guy that left us, but hes doing the job. So far hes been really good for us.

Things could always be better, of course.

The Bruins had a lousy 20 minutes to start off against the Rangers on Wednesday night, and didnt look too inspired for long portions of the first 40 minutes against the Islanders on Friday night. The power play is still a confidence-sucking mess that alternates somewhere between frustrating and hopeless despite considerable talent, and is now 1-for-17 on the season.

Chris Bourque has one shot, zero points and a minus-3 rating through four games, and hasnt made much of an impact as a third linepower play hybrid among a talented group of Bruins forwards that are admittedly struggling right along with him.

Tyler Seguin is without a goal after the first four games, and was perhaps the unlikeliest Bruins player to struggle back in the NHL after completely dominating the Swiss League in Europe.

But none of those things are unsolvable mysteries to the Bruins, and none of those question marks will ultimately derail a team thats jumping out to an ideal start while their counterparts in Washington, Philadelphia and New York have royally stubbed their toes in the seasons first week.

Its the best start the Bruins have enjoyed since they won their first three games of the 2001-02 season, and its something theyve been focused on since before training camp even began.

Were playing hungry. When you have that much time off you kind of sit back and feel fortunate to be a part of this group. I think thats what has gotten us off to this start. Were just happy and feel fortunate to be back together again, said Lucic, who added to Friday nights festivities by dropping Isles tough guy Matt Carkner with a right handed bomb to the chin in his first hockey fight of the season. Lets hope that mentality keeps us going.

Clearly the Bruins will need more than four games to cement the answers to all of their preseason questions, and things can change quickly in an NHL world where injuries and the fickle hand of fate can damage teams that cant help but tempt it.

But for now theres a feeling that the Bruins have perfect answers to all of their big, burning questions before the season commenced last weekend. The hope now is that nobody decides to change the questions on a surging Black and Gold club that looks ready for a 48-game sprint to the end.

GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

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GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

In an all-CSN edition in the 15th episode of the Great American Hockey Show Podcast as co-hosts Joe Haggerty and Jimmy Murphy welcomed SportsNet Central anchor Mike Giardi to discuss the current B’s situation and conducted a wide-ranging interview with Sports Tonight host and Felger and Mazz co-host Michael Felger about his time covering the Bruins as a beat reporter, where he developed his love for hockey and his pathway toward becoming the most influential figure in the Boston sports media scene.

Perhaps most interesting from Giardi’s segment was his take that “nobody should be untouchable” on the Bruins roster, that includes franchise player and future captain Patrice Bergeron, if the return is good enough. Felger discussed who he’d move between Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask to change up the Bruins roster this summer and how gravely concerned he is about the health and well-being of the franchise coming off two seasons out of the playoffs.

“I’m fearful, of course. I think the passion of the Bruins fan base is still there. We could do four hours on the radio tomorrow talking about the Bruins, and totally bang it out with callers,” said Felger. “So the Bruins are so lucky that the fans are that passionate. But if it’s too long of a drought, we all lived through 2005 and 2006 coming out of the lockout. It was dark, and we have the capacity to go back there.”

For the full Great American Hockey Show podcast check it out below: 

No defense for blue-line shortcomings

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No defense for blue-line shortcomings

This is the fourth in a five-part series about the breakdowns that doomed the team this season, and what must change for the Black and Gold to once again get moving in the right direction. 

The Bruins had a master plan to upgrade the defense last summer. It quickly morphed into a dumpster fire.

After ultimately deciding they were unwilling to pay Dougie Hamilton an outlandish sum of money -- and coming to the conclusion that the young D-man simply didn’t want to play for Boston anymore -- they dealt him to the Calgary Flames for three draft picks. It was pennies-on-the-dollar value for a young, top-pairing defenseman, and a fear-based move given the threat of offer sheets that possibly loomed if Hamilton made it past July 1 without a new contract extension.

(They also torpedoed a better draft-pick package offer from their ex-general manager, Peter Chiarelli, by demanding Edmonton's young stud D-man Darnell Nurse, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The Bruins made the decision to move Hamilton after he and his camp ignored Boston’s multiple contract overtures. It was also apparent to those running the team that players like Hamilton and Reilly Smith weren’t meshing well with the rest of the Bruins core. 

(There's no second-guessing from this humble hockey writer about the jettisoning of Smith, despite his solid 25-goal season with the Florida Panthers: he was a soft player in that last year with Boston. The part of that move that should be regretted was immediately signing Jimmy Hayes to a three-year contract extension after closing the Smith-for-Hayes deal. But, again, that's neither here nor there.)

The problem for the Bruins after trading Hamilton was in the follow-through.

First they followed Chiarelli's troubling pattern of overpaying mid-level talent by handing Adam McQuaid a four-year, $11 million extension. Then they were unsuccessful in their attempts to move up in the first round of last summer’s draft and take either of the two collegians, Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski, who projected as eventual No. 1 defensemen. They offered Hamilton and first-round draft choices; they also tried to use Martin Jones as a chip.

But whether new GM Don Sweeney thought he had a deal in place or not, things fell apart at the 11th hour. The Bruins did have three first-round picks, but they were in the middle of the round. In that position, they were unable to get an immediate difference-maker on defense.

The inability to land that young D-man (and potential heir apparent to Zdeno Chara) at last summer’s draft, or at the NHL trade deadline in February, ended up being a fatal blow. There was too much stress on a patchwork defense corps, and it was a major factor in the Bruins missing the playoffs. And even if they'd made it, the B's would have been nothing more than first-round cannon fodder.

The Band-Aid trade for 35-year-old John-Michael Liles was a nominal improvement at the deadline, but it spoke to just how badly they needed puck-moving reinforcements to assist a clearly overworked Torey Krug.

“I can tell you [Sweeney] worked extremely hard to try to move up (in the first round)," said Bruins president Cam Neely at his end-of-the-season press conference. "The scouting staff did a good job of identifying [players], and obviously, if you look back at the draft . . . you kind of had to be (in one of the top spots) to get one of those [defensemen] that were highly coveted. [Sweeney] just couldn’t do it last offseason. [He also] tried throughout the year to make something happen and he’s maybe laid some groundwork (for a future trade) . . . Hopefully [he'll] be able to get something done in the offseason.

"But like I said earlier, we know it’s an area that we need to improve upon . . . [We] know what our back end is all about. We need to . . . really improve that area of our team . . . [It's] something that I know [Sweeney's] going to be very focused on.”

Fast-forward to the present day. The Bruins finished the season with the aging, declining Chara, now 39, as their No. 1 defenseman, and the 5-foot-8 Krug as their No. 2 while posting a career-high 21:37 of ice time per game. The diminutive Krug perhaps paid the price for that wear and tear with right shoulder surgery last month that could sideline him until late October, which raises red flags about whether he should again play those kinds of heavy-duty minutes given his offensive value.

Beyond those two, the Bruins’ defensive prospects aren’t bright. The body of 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg is breaking down, and the B's would love to be out from under the final two years (at $4 million per) of his contract. Both McQuaid and Kevan Miller are limited, stay-at-home defensemen better cast as bottom-pair guys. Youngsters Colin Miller, Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow weren’t able to lock down roles last season for a multitude of reasons. Miller is the only one who appears to have potential to develop into a top-four NHL defenseman; Trotman and Morrow seem poised to be passed by other young D-men (Brandon Carlo, Robbie O’Gara, Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon) in the organizational ranks sooner rather than later.

Botton line: It simply doesn’t feel like the Bruins have the answer to their defense woes, at least in the short term, within their system.

They need a No. 1 defenseman in the prime of his career, or being groomed into that prime, who can ideally allow the Bruins coaching staff to start easing up on Chara's ice time. Chara is a No. 1 in name only these days, and would be much better served as a middle-pairing D-man playing closer to 20 minutes a night and removed from the power play, where he no longer features his booming slap shot very much.

It’s an fact that nearly every team that’s won the Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout has had a prime No. 1 defenseman in the 25-33 age range, with the exceptions of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins. Names like Chara, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nik Lidstrom, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty figured prominently in those championships, playing 30 minutes a night during the brutal two-month run to the Cup.

The Bruins don’t have that type of guy right now, and they aren’t anywhere close to competing for a Cup until they get one.

So how do you get one?

Sweeney and his management team are already deeply involved in that process, and that’s where names like Jacob Trouba, Sami Vatanen and Matthew Dumba will figure prominently in trade discussions this summer. But those types of players are costly, both in terms what will be needed to be surrendered to acquire them -- trade partners will undoubtedly ask for such talent as David Pastrnak, Frank Vatrano and Ryan Spooner -- and in what they'll be seeking in new contracts, since those demands are what's pushing them into the trade market to begin with.

Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that Sweeney and Co. will close the deal for any of these defensemen, given how hard it is to acquire young talent in trades in the NHL. There's also no guarantee the Bruins will target the right guy in a blockbuster trade, seeing how their scouting staff has whiffed on players like Hayes, Zac Rinaldo and Brett Connolly in recent years.  

The Bruins can hope their amateur scouting and development group can unearth a gem. After all, the Blackhawks probably didn’t know they had a future Conn Smythe winner in Keith when they selected him 54th overall in the 2002 draft. The Penguins got a diamond in Kris Letang with the 62nd overall pick in 2005 NHL. The Bruins, too, struck gold when they acquired Johnny Boychuk from the Colorado Avalanche in a deal for energy forward Matt Hendricks. Within a few years, Boychuk developed into a top-pairing stud on a Stanley Cup championship team. 

So perhaps one of the young prospects currently in the Bruins system is the ultimate answer as an eventual replacement for Chara.

But that’s something tough to count on, especially since -- even if it happens -- it's unlikely to happen in time to provide help next season. Sweeney and Neely need to pull off something in the epic-acquisition category this summer, whether it’s a deal for Kevin Shattenkirk and/or something worked out with a team like Winnipeg for a stud like Trouba.

Both their jobs, and the immediate health and well-being of a Bruins organization currently in distress, may very well depend on it.