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.

Backes: 'Time will be the judge' on his long-term deal with Bruins

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Backes: 'Time will be the judge' on his long-term deal with Bruins

JAMAICA PLAIN – Newest Bruins forward David Backes has heard the trepidation from Bruins fans about the five-year term of his contract, and he’s probably also caught wind of St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong stating publicly that contract length was an area he was uncomfortable getting to on a theoretical extension with his outbound.

The prevailing wisdom is that the decade of rugged, physical play from the 32-year-old in St. Louis will cause him to start slowing down sooner rather than later, and the last couple of seasons won’t be as high quality as the first couple in Boston.

So what does the actual player think about any questions surrounding his five year, $30 million contract?

The 6-foot-3, 221-pound Backes confidently said that concerns about his age, or him slowing down demonstrably in the last few years of his new contract, are “a bunch of malarkey” to borrow a favorite phrase from Vice President Joe Biden.

“I’m 32, not 52. Time will tell, but I feel really good and I take care of my body. I lay it all on the line, but when I’m not at the rink I’m resting and recovering for the next time I have to pour it all into a game,” said Backes, who logged 727 hard-hitting games all with the St. Louis Blues organization over the last 10 seasons. “Time will be the judge, but I feel like [after] five years I’ll even have a couple more [seasons] after that.

“I don’t think this is going to be end. That’s my plan. I’m still going to get better over the next five years, and hopefully have a couple of opportunities to hoist that big trophy I’ve been chasing around for the last 10 years.”

One area of concern from last season: the 21 goals and 45 points in 79 games for the Blues were Backes’ lowest totals over a full season since his first few years in the league. It might be the first signs of decline in a player that’s logged some heavy miles, or it could be a simple down season for a player that’s always focused on setting the physical tone, and defense, just as much as his offensive output at the other end of the ice.

As Backes himself said, “time will be judge” of just how well the five year contract turns out for a natural leader that will undoubtedly give the Bruins a boost as a hard-nosed, top-6 forward as he moves into the Boston phase of his NHL career.

Thursday, July 28: Will the Bruins end up with Jimmy Vesey?

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Thursday, July 28: Will the Bruins end up with Jimmy Vesey?

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading after a pretty amazing, on-point succession of speeches by Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg and Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention last night. It was quite a contrast to the absolute circus sideshow that went on in Cleveland last week.

*FOH (Friend of Haggs) Greg Wyshynksi chronicles the Jimmy Vesey Sweepstakes, and the late entry of the Chicago Blackhawks as a suitor. Wysh still feels, as I do, that the Bruins end up getting this talented player at the end of the day.

*The details of the charges levied against Evander Kane paint an ugly picture of a hockey player doing a lot of the wrong things.

*PHT writer Mike Halford says that the Carolina Hurricanes might be ready to snap their playoff drought after extending head coach Bill Peters.

*John Tavares tells the Toronto media not to count on him ever pulling over a Maple Leafs jersey amid post-Stamkos speculation.

*Well, would you look at this? The Nashville Predators are providing salary cap and contract info on their own team website. What a concept!

*The Edmonton Oilers say they will have a new captain in place by opening night, and it will be interesting to see if they go the Connor McDavid route.

*Brian Elliott is thrilled at the opportunity to be “the man” between the pipes for the Calgary Flames this season after splitting time in St. Louis.

*For something completely different: a great feature on Howard Stern, and his transformation from shock jock to master interviewer.

Joe Haggerty can be followed on Twitter: @HacksWithHaggs

Bergeron and Marchand convinced Backes to join Bruins

Bergeron and Marchand convinced Backes to join Bruins

JAMAICA PLAIN -- For those excited about the idea of an intense, hard-hitting David Backes in a Bruins uniform for the next five years, you have Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand to partially thank.

Backes, 32, didn’t know either of them all that well prior to this summer, aside from his experiences on ice against them. But Bergeron and Marchand called Backes multiple times while recruiting him to Boston, and it was a major factor in the former Blues captain signing a five-year, $30 million deal with the B's.

“Being an outsider, we need to have a little bit of confession here that Marchand is the kind of guy that gets under everybody’s skin. I was no different,” said the 6-foot-3, 221-pound Backes, who has 206 goals and 460 points in 727 career NHL games, all with St. Louis. “But then talking to him a little bit in the interview process prior to July 1, I hung up the phone and had to take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘That little disturber, he’s actually a pretty good guy.’ Those guys end up being the best teammates.

“A guy like Bergeron, when you play against him [he's] always in the right spot, and is never making mistakes. Those types of guys, again, are guys you want on your team, and guys you want to go to war with. They’re All-World players, Bergeron is an All-World player. But he’s also a down-to-earth guy that puts his work boots on, takes his lunch pail and plays his butt off. He’s nice to the young kids, and he’s nurturing in helping them come along. I think you’ve seen in the NHL that you need a few guys on entry-level deals, or a few guys to outperform their contracts, in order to have success in the salary-cap era. That nurturing and mentorship can really foster those kinds of performances.”

While Backes went on to mention Zdeno Chara as another highly respected, formidable opponent with whom he’ll now share a dressing room, it was interesting to note that players who currently have letters on their sweaters, like Chara and David Krejci, didn’t play a part in the recruiting process. Instead it was the next captain of the team (Bergeron) and a player (Marchand) currently in the middle of negotiations entering the last year of his contract.

“I talked to both Bergeron and Marchand twice before July 1," said Backes. "Just the way that they spoke about their team mentality, and teaming up together and sharing the load of hard minutes that need to be played, and also sharing the load of the offensive necessities that a team has . . . those things just rang true to my beliefs of a team.

“You’re all equals whether you’re the top-paid guy, or the top-minute guy, or the low-minute guy, or the guy that’s playing every other game because you’re the healthy scratch in the other games.

“We all needed to be treated equal, and do whatever we can to support the next guy. When the next guy has success, we have to be just as happy as if we scored the goal. That’s the type of thing where, when you get that from the full 20 guys on the ice, it’s so tough to be beat. Those are the teams that win championships.”

It will be interesting to see just how much involvement Backes has with the Bergeron and Marchand combination. He could very easily be a right-wing fit with those two dynamic forwards next season, or he could be a third-line center behind Bergeron and Krejci and give the Bruins elite depth down the middle of the ice.

True to his team-oriented nature, Backes said he’ll be happy to play at either position and do whatever Claude Julien feels is best.