Boston Bruins Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
Boston has witnessed its fair share of bizarre sports seasons, but usually they involve the Red Sox tanking in a pennant race.
And as crazy as the Bruins' 2002-03 season was, not even the most cynical Beantown sports fan can blame the "Curse of the Bambino" for this one.
A blazing start gave way to a terrible two-month stretch, leading to the firing of head coach and local high school legend Robbie Ftorek with nine games left in the season. General manager Mike O'Connell ended up taking over behind the bench.
Not even CSI provides that much drama.
The Bruins' second consecutive first-round exit was the end result of this topsy-turvy season, this time at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion Devils in a surprisingly easy five-game series.
"When we started the season like 19-4-3-1, we weren't that good," Bruins right wing Glen Murray conceded. "But we weren't as bad as we were playing in the second half, either. So somewhere in between, that was our team."
After the crazy roller-coaster ride of a year ago, Boston would be thankful for more consistency and less excitement in 2003-04. A fifth bench boss in the past three seasons will be charged with bringing sanity to the Hub's hockey bunch. O'Connell opted to not do double duty this season like the Blue Jackets' Doug MacLean and the Rangers' Glen Sather, instead promoting Mike Sullivan to head coach.
Sullivan proved during a 41-17-9-4 campaign with AHL Providence that he relates well to young players. O'Connell gave him a call-up of sorts by summoning him to assist in Boston after Ftorek was let go, before shuttling Sully back to Rhode Island to lead the Baby Bs in the AHL playoffs.
Sullivan was a moderately productive checking forward in his 709-game NHL career which ended two years ago. Growing up in Marshfield in the South Shore suburbs of Boston, Sullivan's favorite Bruins were Wayne Cashman, Terry O'Reilly and Jean Ratelle, heart-and-soul guys who spent as much time in the penalty box as they did raising their arms for a goal. His blue-collar upbringing and style during his 11-year NHL career will help him impart more of a defensive focus to a team that finished 25th in goals-against average (2.85) a year ago.
"It's a matter of getting us to buy into a team concept and making a commitment to defense," Sullivan said. "I think our team is talented enough that we can score goals, and if we can make more of a commitment to keeping the puck out of our net without discouraging creativity at the other end of the rink, we have the potential to be a real good hockey team."
But he won't have one of his most promising young defenseman to help with that effort. Jonathan Girard was lost for the season to injuries suffered in a July car wreck in Quebec. Veteran Don Sweeney went to Dallas and Sean Brown left for New Jersey, leaving a big leadership gap among the rearguards. The Bruins still hope to re-sign Bryan Berard but negotiations are contentious after Boston walked away from an arbitrator's ruling of a $2.51 million salary.
The Bruins realize their roster is talented enough for a third straight playoff appearance, but they know the postseason hurdle they have yet to clear could develop into a mental block if they don't advance beyond the first round soon.
"It's always tough when you lose in the first round," Murray said. "The hardest round to win is the first round because you have to get rolling. Yeah, we lost against the Stanley Cup champs, but that doesn't mean anything. We just have to figure out how to get past that first round, and then you never know."
A regular season of less drama and a first-round series win would be a positive step after the craziness of last year.
Joe Thornton, C -- Thornton is already among the NHL's top two or three all-around players. And the scary thing is he's still improving. The 24-year-old took a big leap forward last year in his sixth NHL season, netting 36 goals and adding a career-high 65 assists to crack the 100-point barrier for the first time. Thornton should remain a 90- to 110-point player for the next decade or so, even in this oppressively low-scoring era. A fourth-place finish in the Hart Trophy race is also the first of many times he will contend for the league MVP award.
The Bruins readily admit they have one of the top-five players in the world as their captain, but O'Connell points to veterans like Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Steve Yzerman as influences for Thornton to emulate as team leaders.
"There is a growth period for all of these great players," O'Connell said "They get the offensive stats -- and Joe easily could've led the league in scoring because he was pretty close to it anyway -- but there comes a time when players like Steve Yzerman and other great players make a decision to mature into a more complete player."
Thornton has been helped greatly by the emergence of right winger Glen Murray as an elite sniper and by Mike Knuble, who posted a surprising 30-goal season last year. Murray has been the biggest benefactor of Thornton's strength on the puck and pinpoint passing ability.
"He doesn't really shoot a lot," Murray said. "He can score, there's no question about it, but he likes to pass. He likes to hold on to the puck because he's so big and strong. He's so great with the puck that I just have to find the holes because he draws a lot of attention. He could score 40 or 50, but he likes to pass a lot more."
The Bruins organization wouldn't mind if Thornton shot more often than he does, but his playmaking and puckhandling skills are so exceptional that they don't want him to change his style of play too drastically.
"And to expect Joe to be that at 24 is not fair, but if we can hurry the process up, we'll try to do that," O'Connell said. "I talked to Joe this summer about some of these issues and to become a more well-rounded player and to become a real winner. What defines great players? They win. And the offensive stats are great, but it's all about the winning."
Goaltending -- The Jeff Hackett Era in Boston lasted all of 21 games and wasn't memorable. After trotting Steve Shields, John Grahame, Tim Thomas and Andrew Raycroft out at various points in the season's first 3 1/2 months, the Bruins thought Hackett could provide stability for the stretch run. What he provided was a mediocre 8-9 record with a 3.21 goals-against average and .894 save percentage after coming over from Montreal on Jan. 23.
With Hackett off to Philadelphia as a free agent, the Bruins are left with journeyman Shields and youngster Raycroft. Shields' medicore career mark of 76-96-38 can't inspire great confidence in what otherwise looks like a playoff roster, while Raycroft's 56-48-13 AHL mark shows his potential, but offers no real indicator of how he'll do in his first extensive action with the big club.
"I think we have capable goalies," Sullivan said. "Steve Shields is a guy who has been around the league quite a bit, and he has shown that he is an NHL goaltender. Andrew Raycroft played for me in Providence last year and just got better and better as the year went on. I think myself and our management feel that he is ready to make the jump to the next level. Whether they are the guys who get the job done is yet to be seen, but we are certainly comfortable with what we have."
A more likely possibility is that the Bruins will go with Shields and Raycroft for the first few months, and then if their in-house duo isn't working out, Boston could explore a trade with Detroit for Curtis Joseph once he is recovered from ankle surgery.
Will the Bruins ever open up their checkbook?
Tight purse strings are the rule around the NHL as we approach CBA D-Day (Sept. 15, 2004). While the Bruins often are criticized for their miserly ways, they should, in fact, be given credit for rebuilding the team into an annual playoff club while not overpaying for free agents.
Of course, all of this will change whenever Thornton becomes an unrestricted free agent and the Bruins have to make him one of the highest-paid players in the sport. Even with fiscal responsibility and the Gary Bettman buzzword of "cost certainty" being preached around the league under the new CBA, Thornton is only a year or two away from being a $10 million player.
Jozef Stumpel was traded back to Los Angeles before the draft in what amounted to a cost-cutting move. The Bruins knew that they needed to give substantial raises to arbitration-eligible center Brian Rolston and defenseman Hal Gill, so Stumpel was sent packing. With Stumpel gone, Rolston will be asked to fill the second-line center role and hopefully surpass the 27 goals he netted last year.
Boston walked away from the $2.51 million salary an arbitrator awarded to Berard on Aug. 12, despite the fact this was the same arbitration figure it had submitted during the hearing. The Bruins maintain the right to match any offers up to $2.008 million and have offered him a two-year, $3.4 million deal. With little interest in his services from other teams, Berard likely will return to Beantown for a second season.
"We have a few guys we have to get signed, but hopefully we can improve on what we did last year," Murray said. "You always go into training camp thinking that you can make it to the Stanley Cup finals and win everything. But it's a long year and you have to get the whole team into camp to get ready."
It's unlikely the Bruins will suddenly turn the free-spending Rangers, Blues or Stars, but their fiscal responsibility could be held up as an example by the league once collective bargaining agreement negotiations begin.
Hanno Toivonen, G, 6-2, 190 pounds
The Bruins have plenty of impressive youngsters in the organization, with Andy Hilbert, Martin Samuelsson, Sergei Zinovjev and Ivan Huml ready to compete for jobs up front, and Shaone Morrisonn and Mark Stuart among the future staples on the blueline.
But Finnish netminder Toivonen may be the best long-term prospect of the bunch. The Bruins signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract this offseason after he went 16-2-4 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .911 save percentage with HPK Hameenlinna of the Finnish first division last season. Though overshadowed by countrymen and Thrashers prospect Kari Lehtonen, Toivonen's athletic ability and quick feet make him a good bet to potentially push Raycroft for the top job in Beantown within the next few years.
"He makes it look easy," O'Connell said. "He has very quick feet and is incredibly athletic. He has good size and he's very young -- just 19. He does go down to play the butterfly, but he's a little different from the classic Patrick Roy-type butterfly goalie. His athleticism reminds me of Martin Brodeur."
Toivonen was among the stars of a recent junior tournament in Lake Placid, N.Y., so Boston is pleased with his continued success against players in his age group. The Bruins will give the 19-year-old the bulk of the work in Providence this season and hope he can stick with the big club in 2004-05.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.