The Boston Bruins entered the 2007-2008 season with minimal expectations, but the team came together and earned a playoff spot with some young players growing into prominent roles.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at what the Bruins may do next season to exceed expectations that will be undoubtedly higher than they were a year ago.
That the Bruins managed to make the playoffs while missing one of their top forwards for almost the entire season is a credit to both head coach Claude Julien and the new Bruins who were able to make an instant impact.
"Now it's about being a good team and becoming a better team," Julien told the Boston Globe. "That's the situation we're going to be in next year. We realize we have to start from scratch. We've gained a lot of respect from around the league to the point where teams are going to play us even tougher. Those are all challenges we see ahead of us."
Having a good number of young players on the rise makes the Bruins likely to improve simply through maturation, but the team has some questions that need to be addressed.
Despite all their talent, for example, none of the Bruins scored more than 27 goals, so a finisher would be of some value. Furthermore, while the defence was solid enough, to take the next step among the contenders, an upgrade at the top end could help that process along.
Finally, there's the goaltending. The duo of Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez has the potential to be very good, but neither one has an established postseason record, so it's fair to question if they have what it takes to lead the Bruins beyond merely making the playoffs.
Given where the Bruins franchise was a year ago, these questions are relatively minor and are indicative of a team that is improving and should be on the way up.
Peter Chiarelli/Claude Julien
Top Prospects: Zach Hamill, Brad Marchand, Carl Soderberg
Marc Savard doesn't have the size or speed typical of an elite player, but he makes up for it with good hands and terrific offensive instincts. While his goal and point totals dropped some last season, he's still better than a point-per-game player and has done so without an elite finisher on either of his wings.
The Bruins' best finisher right now may be winger Marco Sturm, a strong skating winger who has topped 20 goals for six straight seasons, but he's still in search of his first 30-goal campaign.
If there is one single reason to expect the Bruins to be better next season, it has to be in the anticipation of Patrice Bergeron being healthy for the entire season. He already has two seasons of 70 points or more, production that would really give the Bruins' offece a jolt.
The talented playmaker was limited to just ten games after suffering a severe concussion, but he nearly returned to action in the playoffs, so the additional summer rest should put him in good stead heading into training camp.
Though a broken leg ended Chuck Kobasew's season prematurely, the quick winger had career-highs with 22 goals and 39 points, making him a nice complementary scorer on the second line.
20-year-old Phil Kessel has been under a lot of scrutiny -- dating back to his draft year -- and was a healthy scratch early in the playoffs, but his strong response (three goals in four games vs. Montreal) indicates that there is still reason to be optmistic about Kessel's offensive potential. Consistency and toughness are areas in which Kessel needs to prove himself, but that can come with maturity.
While many of the young Bruins are quick and shifty, veteran Glen Murray is anything but. The 35-year-old is slowing down and entering the final year of his contract, potentially making him expendable if the Bruins can find a team interested in Murray to work the slot on the power play.
David Krejci was pushed into a more prominent role late in the season and the 22-year-old responded favourably, giving every indication that he's capable of playing in a regular two-way role.
Veteran winger Peter Schaefer does solid work along the boards, but he fell out of favour with Claude Julien and his lack of production, at a significant salary, makes Schaefer expendable.
P.J. Axelsson is a heady, defensively-responsible player who has scored between 20 and 36 points for eight straight seasons. The Bruins know what they're getting out of the 33-year-old.
Milan Lucic entered the league as a 19-year-old enforcer but, after work on his skating, he was starting to look like a promising power forward by season's end. He'll only be 20 next season, so expectations need to be held in check, but it's not unreasonable to think that Lucic could find his way to playing among the top six forwards at times next season.
Another rookie, Vladimir Sobotka, earned his keep in a fourth-line role, hitting frequently despite minimal ice time. Another year of development, starting on the fourth line, should help determine whether Sobotka has the skills to climb higher on the depth chart.
Brought in from the Stanley Cup-champion Ducks, Shawn Thornton doesn't get a lot of ice time, but he plays the policeman's role well, taking on the heavyweights and not hurting the Bruins when he is on the ice.
As if Lucic and Thornton aren't enough muscle up front, the Bruins also have Jeremy Reich to bolster the arms race.
22-year-old Petteri Nokelainen showed some grit in a fourth-line role and, while that may not live up to his first-round draft status, it does give him a shot at regular NHL employment.
The Bruins could use an upgrade to their forwards, and it could come from Swedish prospect Carl Soderberg, another talented pivot who needs to take on the challenge of North American pro hockey.
Some free agent options that might work would include Ryan Malone or former Bruin Brian Rolston. If not, a trade could be in the works for a team that has plenty of bodies to round out the lineup.
Top Prospects: Matt Hunwick, Yuri Alexandrov, Adam McQuaid
After a rough first season in Beantown, Zdeno Chara responded with an excellent season in 2007-2008, notching a career-best 51 points. Big Z has such intimidating presence and can handle a lot of minutes, making him one of the league's best on the blueline.
35-year-old Aaron Ward is a steady presence on the back end and, as such, earned a two-year contract extension with his physical play and a career-best plus-9 rating in 2007-2008.
Matt Lashoff is a promising puck-moving defenceman who has already played 30 NHL games in his first two pro seasons, while getting experience in the AHL. He needs make better decisions in his own end, but Lashoff's offensive ability should earn him a long look next season.
At times, Andrew Ference has shown that he can be a mobile, puck-moving blueliner, but his career seems to have slanted towards a more defensive role; a role that is made more challenging because Ference is undersized compared to typical shutdown blueliners.
Shane Hnidy epitomizes the unsung defenceman. He plays hard and an ultra-safe style that has seen him reach double digit points just once in his seven NHL seasons.
Injuries held big stay-at-home defenceman Andrew Alberts to 35 games. He has value as a penalty killer and physical presence, but his lack of puck skills also limits the impact Alberts can make on the lineup.
Dennis Wideman is coming off his best pro season, scoring 36 points and finishing with a plus-11 rating while playing better than 25 minutes per game. Wideman's ability to move the puck and work the power play makes him invaluable to the B's.
Mark Stuart got his feet wet, with his first full NHL season, and he's making progress as a physical defensive defenceman.
Though the Bruins have enough NHL-calibre defencemen on hand, they could use an upgrade in their top four, with one more quality two-way defenceman.
If one isn't landed through trade, Boston might want to look at a free agent defenceman like Ottawa's Wade Redden or Columbus' Ron Hainsey.
Free Agent Goaltender
Top Prospect: Tuukka Rask
34-year-old Tim Thomas plays an unorthodox style that hinders his consistency, but also allows him to make some of the most spectacular saves in the game. Thomas might be an ideal backup, but his numbers in 2007-2008 (2.44 goals against average, .921 save percentage) should have him set as the starter when next season begins.
Manny Fernandez has a solid resume, but struggled in four starts with the Bruins before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The 34-year-old will be entering the final season of his contract and should be plenty motivated to compete with Thomas for the starting job.
21-year-old Tuukka Rask is the goaltender of the future and he had a decent first season in the American Hockey League. With two experienced guys in front of him, Rask figures to get another year of seasoning before he competes for an NHL job.
16th - Michael del Zotto, Zac Boychuk, Kirill Petrov
The Bruins have approximately $47-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: One top six forward, one defenceman
What I said the Bruins needed last year: One top nine forward, One top four defenceman
Who did they add? Glen Metropolit, Milan Lucic, Peter Schaefer, Petteri Nokelainen, Mark Stuart
Glen Murray, Peter Schaefer, P.J. Axelsson, Andrew Alberts
Scott Cullen can be reached at email@example.com