While a second-round playoff defeat was difficult to swallow, the Boston Bruins have to recognize thee achievement of the 2008-2009 season, finishing second in the entire NHL, after just squeaking into a playoff spot the year before.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the options this summer for GM Peter Chiarelli, who now has a team that appears like it should be a perennial contender.
While every NHL team faces the prospect of change in the summer, the Bruins are one that will likely have to do so as a victim of their own success.
The emergence of so many quality young players last season, resulting in a pay raise for David Krejci and leaving Phil Kessel and Matt Hunwick at the door waiting for new deals, is going to force hard decisions for Chiarelli. The salary cap making it unlikely that he can keep everyone.
"I wouldn't want to be a GM, or for that matter a coach, in today's NHL with the decisions that have to be made," goaltender Tim Thomas told the Boston Globe. "You can't just keep people based on whether you want them on the team. It's crazy. Like Chicago - it's a young team, and if they don't win the Cup in the next couple of years, they'll get broken up also."
We'll get to the Blackhawks in due time but, for now, a look at the Boston Bruins.
Peter Chiarelli/Claude Julien
Top Prospects: Vladimir Sobotka (20-24-44, plus-11 in 44 GP; Providence-AHL), Joe Colborne (10-21-31, plus-5 in 40 GP; Denver-WCHA) Brad Marchand (18-41-59, plus-13 in 79 GP; Providence-AHL), Mikko Lehtonen (28-25-53, plus-5 in 72 GP; Providence-AHL)
An exceptional playmaker, who has four straight seasons with at least 60 assists, Marc Savard may have had his best all-around season in 2008-2009, putting up 88 points and a career-best plus-25. His all-around game has improved, yet there is the possibility that Savard could get moved if he's not signed to a new contract, since next season will be the last year under his current deal.
David Krejci emerged as a future star in his second NHL season, leading the league with a plus-37 rating, while scoring 73 points; production that could surely increase if he was on the first power play unit.
Since Krejci has already had hip surgery that could keep him out of the lineup for the start of the 2009-2010 regular season, he may not surpass those totals next season. On the other hand, he theoretically played that entire productive season with the hip injury, so a healthy Krejci could be better than a point-per-game performer.
Getting reunited with Claude Julien was just what Michael Ryder needed to get his career back on track. It seemed risky to give Ryder a three-year, $12-million deal last summer, coming off a terrible season in Montreal, but he's proven to be a shrewd investment.
There aren't many 42-point scorers who would rate as popular as Milan Lucic, the promising power forward who can take over games with his brawn (according to www.HockeyFights.com, Lucic has lost just three of 23 fights in his first two NHL seasons). Lucic is still working on his skating and bringing the high intensity game on a consistent basis, but if the 21-year-old puts it all together, he'll be a force, not to mention the toast of Beantown.
After missing 63 games thanks to a concussion then knee surgery, Marco Sturm could add another scoring option up front as he had put up six straight seasons with at least 20 goals before notching seven in 19 games last season.
Chuck Kobasew is a bit of a tweener, in that he has the speed that makes him a good fit on a checking line, yet he can also contribute offensively, scoring a career-high 42 points last season -- the third time in the last four seasons that he's scored at least 20 goals. As such, Kobasew is a solid top-nine forward, who is more than capable of filling in among the top six, when necessary.
Blake Wheeler's rookie season was exceptional, as his plus-36 rating ranked second in the league, but the college grad did fade down the stretch and into the playoffs, managing seven points in 26 games from March 1 through the end of the second round.
Though Wheeler could use his size more effectively, he has rare speed and hands for a guy who is 6-foot-5, which means there is potential for more once he gets more accustomed to the pro game.
Injuries -- more specifically, concussions -- have left Patrice Bergeron a shadow of his former self and he's scored just 11 goals in 74 games over the past two seasons. He's not yet 24, so there's no sense giving up on him, but the Bruins really need Bergeron to be a productive scoring centre.
If he's able to do that, it would give the Bruins some flexibility up front, when trying to determine who gets dealt and who remains in their top six forwards, as opposed to leaving Bergeron on what is effectively a checking line.
Enforcer Shawn Thornton played in a career-high 79 games and, while he's not going to climb the depth chart, he skated a regular shift (more than ten minutes a night) and scored a career-high 11 points.
As if the Bruins didn't have enough young talent up front, Phil Kessel enjoyed a breakout campaign, scoring 36 goals in 70 games and he did that while playing on the second power play unit, so the 21-year-old still has potential for much greater production. Given the Bruins' salary cap challenges, Kessel could be moved in order to recoup depth while Kessel shoots for a hefty raise as a restricted free agent.
Though he doesn't score much, Byron Bitz is a useful role player, using his size to get in and force turnovers on the forecheck.
Boston's forwards were among the league's finest last season and they should have Vladimir Sobotka joining the fray next year. If the rest of the expected cast returns, that leaves minimal need for the Bruins to add up front, perhaps a depth player or two, though needs could change if the budget forces a deal or two.
Top Prospects: Adam McQuaid (4-11-15, plus-1 in 78 GP, Providence-AHL), Andrew Bodnarchuk (19-10, minus-2 in 62 GP; Providence-AHL), Yuri Alexandrov (3-5-8, minus-8 in 26 GP; Cherepovets Severstal-KHL)
There isn't a more imposing player than Zdeno Chara, whose size defies hockey norms, and he's been outstanding over the last two seasons in Boston. Once again, though, Chara's postseason wasn't to the same level of his regular season performance. He's the leader on the Bruins blueline and has to come up biggest when the lights are brightest.
Dennis Wideman's career has taken off since he arrived in Boston and last season was a breakthrough campaign, as he was one of just two defencemen (Nicklas Lidstrom was the other) to notch at least 50 points and a plus-30 rating. Wideman's smarts and ability to move the puck will make him a valuable piece on this unit for years to come.
Shot-blocking Aaron Ward is a steady veteran who put up a career-best plus-16 last season. Ward doesn't offer much offensively, having topped 20 points just once in his 12 NHL seasons, but lays his body on the line.
Undersized Andrew Ference plays an intelligent game, though injuries have limited him to just 106 games over the past two seasons. When healthy, though, Ference has been able to handle a top-four workload.
Mark Stuart has developed into an effective defensive option; he has size and toughness and earned a more prominent role in the playoffs. Stuart is just entering his prime years so he can be expected to continue improving in the coming seasons.
A mobile defenceman whose skills appear to be well-suited for the modern NHL game, Matt Hunwick was an impact player when given the chance to play as a rookie. After proving he's got the goods, Hunwick should find himself in a more significant role next season.
Without great organizational depth, the Bruins should be in the mix for some economical veteran free agents, along the lines of their own free agents Shane Hnidy and Steve Montador. Kent Huskins or Matt Walker might be a couple of free agent options that would be worthy additions to a contender's defence corps.
Top Prospect: Tuukka Rask (33-20-4, 2.50 GAA, .915 SVPCT in 57 GP; Providence-AHL)
Critics be damned, 35-year-old Tim Thomas had the best season of his career, leading the league in both goals against average and save percentage and he didn't let down in the playoffs. The Bruins were impressed enough to ink Thomas to a four-year extension, a move that shows a lot of faith, but should be fine as long as there is a solid backup in place.
With Manny Fernandez headed for free agency, that backup job would seem to be ticketed for top prospect Tuukka Rask, who now has two years of AHL starting experience under his belt. Still just 22, Rask can gain experience in the backup role for a couple of years before he's ready to take over the starting job.
25th - Nick Leddy, Landon Ferraro, Stefan Elliott.
The Bruins have approximately $49.3-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Depth forwards, depth defencemen
What I said the Bruins needed last year: One top six forward, one defenceman
Who did they add? Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, Stephane Yelle, Matt Hunwick.
Marc Savard, Marco Sturm, Patrice Bergeron, Phil Kessel.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca