By Patrick O’Rourke
BU News Service
It’s hockey season again.
The NHL dropped the puck on Wednesday night with a slate of four games that was highlighted by the Chicago Blackhawks raising its third Stanley Cup banner in six years.
It all gets underway here in Boston on Thursday night, when the Bruins take on the Winnipeg Jets. It’ll the first meaningful hockey played at the TD Garden since Providence College skated off the ice as NCAA national champions at the expense of BU back in April.
It’s a different kind of year this year. Or at least a different kind of start. After years of going into the season as a shoe-in to make the playoffs, the Bruins go into 2015-16 with a new identity. Gone are Milan Lucic, Doug Hamilton, Reilly Smith, Carl Soderberg, Gregory Campbell, and Daniel Paille. General manager Peter Chiarelli was jettisoned out of town when the B’s missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
The core cast of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Zdeno Chara, and Brad Marchand remain intact. They’ll be surrounded by Loui Eriksson, Brett Connolly, David Pastrnak, Torey Krug, and Kevan Miller. New GM Don Sweeney added Jimmy Hayes and Matt Beleskey to improve an offense that produced the eighth-fewest goals in 2014-15.
Hayes, who grew up in Dorchester and played at BC, scored 19 goals and 35 points for Florida last season, his first as a full-time NHLer. Beleskey, who left sunnier pastures in Anaheim for a five-year, $19.8 million deal with Boston this summer, scored a career-high 22 goals for the Ducks last season before adding eight in 16 playoff games.
Tuukka Rask remains the Bruins constant between the pipes. The Finnish goaltender has the highest goals allowed average (2.16) and save percentage (.926) among netminders to make 200 starts since the start of the 2009-10 season. The 28-year-old will be expected to be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy.
Injuries befelled the Bruins last year. Krejci suffered a hip injury in the preseason and never got up to speed, then missed much of the second half with a knee injury. Chara tore a ligament in his knee in October, though came back to play 63 games. But he never fully regained his footing as the player who, just the previous season, was a finalist for the Norris Trophy, handed out to the league’s best defenseman.
The two players missed a combined 29 games from 2008-14. They missed an aggregate 54 in 2014-15.
Their value to the club unquestioned. Chara eliminates opponents best offensive weapons in the defensive zone while adding a stick of his own in the attacking end. Krejci is the No. 1 pivot and puck possession ace Julien’s system is built around. It comes as no coincidence that the only other time before last season where the Bruins finished lower than 11th in goal scoring since Julien’s second season in Boston was 2009-10, when Marc Savard — who was Krejci’s predecessor in the role — missed 41 games with an injury-plagued campaign. The B’s were 29th in scoring that year.
The expectation will be to make the playoffs. Missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons won’t be acceptable. Changes were made when the team missed the tournament despite finishing with 96 points, an unprecedented point total for a DNQ. More changes will be made if the Garden ice is down by mid-April. Head coach Claude Julien won’t skate by like he did last year. Pink slips will await others.
A finish in the neighborhood between the sixth and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference is realistic as things are constituted, but a top-four finish isn’t out of the question.
But hey, it’s why they play the games. And it all begins Thursday in Boston.
Pat O’Rourke is the sports editor for BU News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @patorourke_29.