Joe Haggerty's 2011-12 NHL preview

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Joe Haggerty's 2011-12 NHL preview

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com Bruins Insider Follow @hackswithhaggs

It wont be nearly as wide open for the Bruins in the Eastern Conference this time around.

The Bruins return 18 players (16 skaters and two goaltenders) to this seasons team from last years Cup champions, and have a young nucleus paired with a solid defensive philosophy and elite goaltenders. But theyre also stepping into a Northeast Division thats much improved from top to bottom, and an Eastern Conference that saw the Flyers, Rangers and Capitals make big upgrades to teams that were already playoff caliber.

Not only that, but Sidney Crosby is expected to return at some point during the season after last years concussion issues, and that makes the Penguins the prohibitive favorites with the best hockey player in the world.

Itll be a testing battleground for the Bruins for all 82 games, coming off a year that saw them play 107 games (regular season and playoffs) and log an extra two months of hockey when other players were off golfing. Coach Claude Julien was only speaking about the goaltenders the Bruins will have to face with regularity, but one got the impression he knows exactly what his team is in for this season.

We're in a conference -- and even a division -- that has some pretty good goaltenders, so it's not like we're going into the unknown here, said Julien. Ryan Miller in Buffalo Sabres and Carey Price with Montreal Canadiens, who had a great season last year. Craig Anderson's played well for Ottawa. This is only in our division.

I think the way goaltending in Toronto is this season they seem pretty confident there too. When youve got Martin Brodeur in New Jersey and so-on-and-so-forth, this is the challenge you have almost every night. A lot of teams say the same thing about our team and about our goaltending. So it's just one of the pieces of the puzzle that you have to solve, and there's not a million ways to solve that.

There arent a million ways to solve it, but the Bruins came across a few last season that are probably going to do them some good again this year. Here is the CSNNE.com NHL preview with Bostons final predicted place within the final painting (and for the record I predicted the Bruins losing to the Wings in the Cup Finals last season before the year got going).

Eastern ConferenceNortheast Division
1. Boston Bruins The Bruins barely hang on in a much tougher division despite returning cast.
2. Buffalo Sabres The new owner, energy and attitude help when it comes with good players for the Sabres.
3. Montreal Canadiens Guys like Subban, Price and Plekanec are only going to get better this season.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs Could this be the year that Toronto makes it back to the postseason? This writer is betting the answer is yes.
5. Ottawa Senators Craig Anderson will need to stand on his head, and that could happen on any given night.

Atlantic Division
1. Pittsburgh Penguins The belief here is that Sidney Crosby is back sooner rather than later, and that makes the Pens everybodys favorite.
2. Philadelphia Flyers It may take some time for the new pieces to gel, but Bryzgalov is a huge regular season upgrade at goalie.
3. New York Rangers Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik could be deadly in Gotham.
4. New York Islanders The return of Mark Streit gives the young Isles enough talent to throw scares in other teams.
5. New Jersey Devils This is a difficult team to figure out, but Martin Brodeurs swan song may be a sad one.

Southeast Division
1. Washington Capitals The best team in the East that nobody is talking about got much better with Tomas Vokoun.
2. Tampa Bay Lightning There may be a small dip in Tampa Bays performance, but this Bolts team is playoff-hardened and talent-blessed.
3. Winnipeg Jets The move to Canada agrees with a star-crossed franchise, and talented players like Byfuglien, Kane and Pavelec get the Jets back into the postseason.
4. Carolina Hurricanes Staal and Co. are young and formidable, but they still dont seem to have enough depth to truly challenge.
5. Florida Panthers Hockey purgatory remains firmly in place in Sunrise, Florida. A series of embarrassing signings this summer mean they deserve what they get.

The Washington Capitals over the Boston Bruins in the second round.
The Pittsburgh Penguins over the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.

Caps over the Pens in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Western Conference

Central Division
1. Chicago Blackhawks Kane and Toews show becomes must see hockey TV once again this season free of Cup hangover.
2. Detroit Red Wings The Wings have started to show their age, but theyve still got some sting left before flying East.
3. Nashville Predators The Preds proved last year that theyre for real, and Rinne can beat just about anybody.
4. St. Louis Blues The Blues would have much better chances if their division wasnt so talented and dangerous.
5. Columbus Blue Jackets On paper the Blue Jackets should be much better with Jeff Carter and Rich Nash. On paper that is.

Northwest Division
1. Vancouver Canucks The Sedins have proven they bounce back up when theyre mercilessly driven to the ice. This season will confirm that.
2. Edmonton Oilers The growing pains were many last season, but the young and restless Oilers are ready to ride Eberle, Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Co. to the playoffs.
3. Calgary Flames Things could go awfully wrong with so much reliance on NHL graybeards like Jarome Iginla and Mikka Kiprusoff.
4. Colorado Avalanche Theres plenty of talent to climb up the rankings for the Avs, but Russian goalie Semyon Varlamov will have to come ready to play.
5. Minnesota Wild Dany Heatley brings his sniping skills to the Wild, but theres a long way to go.

Pacific Division
1. Los Angeles Kings The dark horse for a Stanley Cup championship this season, Mike Richards adds a lot to an already talented bunch without a true, gritty leader.
2. San Jose Sharks The Sharks are obviously loaded once again, but there is growing that San Jose will ever get to Stanleys promise land.
3. Anaheim Ducks The talented core is still there with Getzlaf, Perry and Selanne, and a healthy Jonas Hiller makes them a team without many holes.
4. Phoenix Coyotes Should everyone take it as a bad omen that Kyle Turris refuses to sign a contract to play with the Desert Dogs?
5. Dallas Stars The loss of Brad Richards hurts the Stars, and toxic twins pairing of Michael RyderMike Ribeiro certainly doesnt help.

Vancouver Canucks over the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round
Los Angeles Kings over the San Jose Sharks in the second round
The Kings over the Canucks in the Western Conference Finals

2011-12 NHL Award Winners

Hart Trophy Alex Ovechkin
Vezina Trophy Carey Price
Norris Trophy Shea Weber
Art Ross Trophy Daniel Sedin
Calder Trophy Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
Jack Adams Award Guy Boucher
Maurice Richard Trophy Steve Stamkos
Selke Trophy Patrice Bergeron

Stanley Cup Finals: The Kings over the Capitals in seven games to make the fourth straight Stanley Cup winner that began the season in Europe.
Conn Smythe Winner: Mike Richards

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs.

Bruins taking a chance on Clarke in the fifth round

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Bruins taking a chance on Clarke in the fifth round

The Lone Star Brahmas aren’t exactly a household name in the junior hockey world, but NAHL team did produce a player worth of a Bruins draft pick last weekend. A 20-year-old defenseman named Cameron Clarke showed his offensive skills and playmaking en route to nine goals and 50 points in 59 games last season for the Brahmas, and continued to add strength to a wiry 6-foot-1, 170-pound frame that still needs to be developed as he heads off to Ferris State University.

The Tecumseh, Michigan native was floored at the prospect of being drafted by the Bruins after he was selected in the fifth round (136th overall) at last weekend’s draft in Buffalo, and excited to see some results for all of his hard work over the last few years.

“It’s a feeling like no other. I was just sitting in there with my family and when it happened, it was just pure excitement, and to go to Boston, they’re an Original Six organization,” said Clarke, who described himself as a good-skating defenseman and a good puck-mover that models his game after Capitals D-man John Carlson. “It’s just — it’s something you dream of growing up and it’s a great feeling.

“I talked to Mr. Sullivan [Bruins Scout Keith Sullivan] I believe it was in December and I knew that they had come watch me play a couple of times so I knew that they were interested. I knew that they were a team that could be a possibility that could be picking me and I’ve always watched hockey and my dad used to be a Bruins fan growing up when he was little [he grew up in Ottawa and was a big Bobby Orr fan], so it’s a great feeling. Boston’s an Original Six franchise. It’s very special, for sure.”

Clarke will obviously take a big step in his development headed to the Ferris State hockey program next season, and the Bruins hope to continue seeing improvements in the size and strength department during his college hockey years.

“We knew there were teams that were there [ready to take him], and our guys really liked him,” said Bruins Director of Scouting Keith Gretzky. “He’s gained a lot of weight in a year-and-a-half, but we know he’s going to take some time. We’re good with that. Our guys really liked him, so we took him.”

The Clarke pick is a pretty low risk/high reward selection that was off the beaten path of the normal OHL/European junior league paths, but it remains to be seen if it will pay dividends later for selecting the over-age player. 

Bruins may be getting cold feet on Trouba offer sheet

Bruins may be getting cold feet on Trouba offer sheet

The Bruins are still mulling the idea of a massive offer sheet for Winnipeg Jets restricted free agent defenseman Jacob Trouba, but they’re having second, and third thoughts about the bold move according to a league source.

While a seven year, $49 million offer sheet could net them the 22-year-old Trouba with a high ceiling as a possible No. 1 defenseman, there would also be massive costs in assets, and in the kind of major stink it would cause around the league. The Bruins would have a manageable $7 million cap hit for Trouba if they did indeed fire off seven year, $49 million offer sheet to the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder on Friday morning, and they would potentially fill in a big piece of their blue line puzzle for years to come.

But the Black and Gold would also surrender four first round picks given that they don’t have the draft picks to offer anything less than a contract with an AAV (Average Annual Value) of $9.3 million after shortsighted trades sent their 2017 second round pick (for Lee Stempniak) and 2017 third round pick (for Zac Rinaldo) to other teams. Wrinkles within the offer sheet language in the CBA would turn a seven year, $49 million contract into a $9.8 AAV for draft pick compensation purposes, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the Black and Gold.

Perhaps the one thing Bruins GM Don Sweeney didn’t anticipate, however, is the bad blood that poaching an RFA would create across a league where all 30 GMs apparently play by the unwritten NHL Commandment that “thou dost not offer sheet to anybody.”

If the Bruins indeed followed through with the massive offer sheet for a player that finished with six goals and 21 points last season, then the Bruins would live in fear that it could be open season on their own restricted free agents for the foreseeable future. There’s little doubt Winnipeg, and perhaps others, would come sniffing around 20-year-old right wing David Pastrnak when his contract is up next summer, and so on down the line with Boston’s next wave of talented young players coming through the pipeline.

There’s also the simple fact that opinions are very mixed on the ultimate NHL ceiling for Trouba given the possible investment involved. One Western Conference scout thought he was on track to become a No. 1 defenseman, and could be worth all of the assets involved in preparing an offer for a player like Trouba.

“He has elite skating, and has the shot to go with it. He’s built for the new age of mobile defenders that dominate through the neutral zone,” said the scout. “[The physicality] is there, but guys don’t punish anymore because you can push and pin. They defend with their sticks and feet. Upon zone entry is when they lay the body, and he checks all those boxes.”

One other NHL executive wasn’t so sure, and harbored some doubts about whether Trouba could be “The Man” for a blueline crew that had Stanley Cup aspirations.

“The physical tools alone allow him to be big minute guy, but his overall hockey sense could prevent him from being a top D-man,” said the exec.

That seems to be the knock on Trouba: he turns the puck over under pressure, and his decision-making while moving the puck hasn’t really improved from a rookie year as a 19-year-old where he posted 10 goals and 29 points. But the tools, the impressive body of work since entering the NHL as a teenager and the cachet of being a lottery pick keep all NHL observers ever-optimistic that a young player like Trouba will eventually figure it out.

There’s also the very real scenario that the Bruins don’t have the trade assets to get a young defenseman like Trouba given that the Edmonton Oilers had to surrender Taylor Hall in a one-for-one deal to get Adam Larsson from the New Jersey Devils. They have to hope they can build up some kind of trade package that could net them Kevin Shattenkirk or Cam Fowler, or hope that Jason Demers somehow picks Boston as his free agent destination.

That’s barring the offer sheet from the Bruins for Trouba, which is still being discussed by the Bruins even as it becomes less of a possibility for Don Sweeney heading into the July 1 opening of the free agent market. That’s because throwing an offer sheet at Trouba might be the only way the Bruins can land a young, potential No. 1 defenseman this summer that can give them the building block to compete for the next decade, and that’s something for Sweeney, Neely and everybody else on Causeway Street to seriously debate over the next two days.