They grow up so fast, don't they? That's the lesson the Bruins learned last season when new coach Pat Burns, who was brought in to oversee a rebuilding project, coaxed 39 wins and a playoff appearance from a group of players who looked as if they should have spent their time watching Teletubbies rather than video of their opponents. Burns played the stern parent—pulling ears, administering verbal spankings—and the Baby B's added 30 points to their NHL-worst 1996-97 total of 61.
That improvement was partly due to the breakout play of the Bruins' young stars and partly to the fact that their season was pretty much a sneak attack on everybody. Boston won't have that advantage this season. "This year teams aren't going to say, 'The Bruins are in town, and they're easy,' " says Burns, who was the league's coach of the year. "They're going to say, 'We have to work to beat these guys.' "
To do that opponents will have to keep up with a group of skaters who put the fleet into the FleetCenter. Mighty mite (5'8") left wing Sergei Samsonov, 19, scored 22 goals and won the Calder Trophy. His line-mate, 23-year-old center Jason Allison, led the team in scoring with 83 points and blossomed into one of the most dangerous players in the league. Quick, burly 21-year-old Kyle McLaren has proved that he's ready to anchor the defense if Ray Bourque, who comes back for his 20th season, ever retires.
To return to the postseason the Bruins, who had only two 50-plus-point scorers last season, have to find more balance on offense. They would love 19-year-old center Joe Thornton (the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft) to live up to expectations after a disappointing rookie season beset by injuries and inconsistency. He spent the summer improving his less-than-stellar conditioning habits and added 15 pounds of muscle.
Expecting repeat performances from so many kids is risky, though, especially since at week's end Allison, McLaren and winger Anson Carter had each missed all or most of camp because of contract squabbles. But Burns's defensive system and goaltender Byron Dafoe should smother opponents—and get the Bruins back into the playoffs. They'll have to grow up a bit more to have any success beyond that.