The 2011-12 NHL season is just days away, with the Boston Bruins opening their Stanley Cup title defense Thursday night in Boston against the Philadelphia Flyers. After winning their first Stanley Cup in 39 seasons, the Bruins enter this season as Cup contenders once again, and with the Red Sox out of the playoffs and the Celtics in the middle of a lockout, the Patriots and Bruins are the only act in town. That means a brighter spotlight and increased expectations on the Bruins, who made Boston a hockey town once again with their Cup win in June.
With that in mind, it's time to make some predictions for the 2011-12 Bruins. Can they repeat as Stanley Cup champions? Can Tim Thomas have another historic season? Who will shine on offense and defense? Will the power play be better? How will Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin perform in their sophomore campaigns? Let's take a dive into the crystal ball with five predictions for 2011-12:
Tuukka Time Again
After winning the Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies and having one of the best goaltending seasons in NHL history, can Thomas be even better at age 37? The belief here is no. But thankfully for the Bruins, they have 24 year-old Tuukka Rask as Thomas' backup. After heading into the 2010-11 season as the starter, Rask lost the job when Thomas got off to an amazing start. Thomas went 6-0-0 in October, allowing only three goals in those six games, and never relinquished the starting job, finishing 35-11-9, with a 2.00 GAA and an NHL record .938 save percentage. Meanwhile, Rask struggled in the backup role and never seems to find his rhythm, finishing 11-14-2 with a 2.67 GAA and .918 save percentage.
But factoring in Thomas' age and the fact he played 82 games last season, including playoffs, I think he'll have a hard time repeating his success. By the end of the season, look for Rask to at least be splitting time with Thomas, if not have outright passed him as the No. 1 goalie. Rask has looked very sharp in the preseason, coming back with more muscle on his slight frame. If he stays mentally sharp and gets off to a good start, don't be surprised if he resembles or surpasses the Rask of 2009-11, who went 22-12-5 with a 1.97 GAA and .931 save percentage.
Krejci shows he is a No. 1 center
In 2008-09, Bruins center David Krejci had a breakout season with 73 points in 82 games. But he slipped to 52 points in 2009-10, before moving back up to 62 points last season. But the difference between Krejci last season and the previous two was that he delivered when it counted, with 23 points in 25 playoff games. With Marc Savard out for the season, Krejci enters 2011-12 as the No. 1 offensive center on the Bruins. Many are wondering if the crafty Czech can be productive enough for a full season to play that role. The prediction here is that he can and with Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic back on his wings, Krejci will surpass the 80-point mark if he stays healthy. Krejci has proved he has the necessary vision and puck skills to be an elite center for years to come, as well as the compete level to hold onto the puck and win battles.
Marchand suffers sophomore slump while Seguin shines
Having been drafted No. 2 overall by the Bruins in the 2010 draft, Seguin entered the 2010-11 season with plenty of hype and high expectations. But Seguin quickly learned that life in the NHL isn't easy and finished with just 22 points in 74 regular-season games and seven points in 13 playoff games.
Meanwhile, winger Brad Marchand -- who played 20 games in 2009-10 but was still considered a rookie in 2010-11 -- came into the season under the radar and ended up playing a pivotal role in the team's run to the Stanley Cup. Marchand had 41 points in 77 regular-season games and 19 in 25 playoff games, including two goals and an assist in the Cup-clinching Game 7 in Vancouver. He entered the summer as a cult hero among Bruins fans and enters this season with a new, two-year contract worth $5 million. But the fact that Marchand didn't sign a contract until right before training camp, combined with a summer of admittedly enjoying being a Stanley Cup champion, could make the pesky winger in line to struggle some this year. It's hard to blame a 23-year-old for enjoying his summer after winning the Cup, but the question now is, can he remain focused and grounded?
Seguin on the other hand, hasn't been in the spotlight much during training camp or even during the summer. He has returned bigger and in better shape and is holding himself more accountable for his actions on and off the ice. After a tough season of learning the hard way under head coach Claude Julien, Seguin appears ready to break out no matter what line he ends up on. Look for Seguin to crack the 45-point mark, maybe even 50. Don't be surprised if he is back in his natural position centering the third line, or he could end up on the wing of the second line with Patrice Bergeron and Marchand.
Corvo does what Kaberle couldn't
When the Bruins acquired defenseman Tomas Kaberle at the trade deadline last season, they figured they had the answer to their ailing power play. But the power play didn't get better -- instead, it went on life support and stayed there throughout the playoffs. Amazingly, the Bruins were still able to win the Stanley Cup despite going 10-for-88 on the man advantage in the postseason. Kaberle just never seemed to fit in and his pass-first mentality didn't work on the power play. Enter Joe Corvo who was acquired from Carolina over the summer. Corvo is the shoot-first antithesis of Kaberle. He had five power-play goals last season and has made it clear throughout the preseason that if the shot is there, he will take it. Look for the Bruins power play to be drastically improved from last season with Corvo rifling in shots from the point.
Bruins suffer Cup hangover but recover to make the finals
There is a reason why they call it the Stanley Cup hangover. Just ask the Chicago Blackhawks, who barely made the playoffs last season following their Cup run and were ousted in the first round. Every Bruin who has returned from the Stanley Cup-winning roster has referenced the short summer and offseason and admitted to being fatigued. They're saying all the right things like "turning the page" and "this is a new season," but they're still human and a slow start is very likely. But if they can stay healthy during the first quarter of the season, this team has enough skill and leadership to recover better than the Blackhawks did and still finish high in the standings and make a run in the playoffs. The prediction here: The Bruins finish second in the Northeast Division and fourth in the Eastern Conference, and then make it to the Stanley Cup finals, where they will lose to the Los Angeles Kings.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Ask a question for his next Bruins mailbag here.