Will Chiarelli keep this roster intact?

Q. Which teams in the East do you think look like the Bruins' biggest challengers so far? -- Matty (Natick, Mass.)

With the return of Sidney Crosby, the Penguins are arguably the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup finals. The Bruins are right there with them. Until Bruce Boudreau was fired Monday, I didn't have the Capitals as a threat to dethrone the Bruins as Eastern Conference champions, but Dale Hunter could very well light a fire under a talented but underperforming team. I'd also keep an eye on the Flyers. If Illya Bryzgalov can find more consistency and the Flyers can stay healthy, they're in the mix as well. My dark horse remains the New York Rangers. They're a gritty, skilled bunch with a goalie who can get hot and steal not only games but a series in the playoffs.

Q. Do you think the Bruins would consider trading Tuukka Rask if it could get them a winger like Rick Nash? Personally, I don't think I'd do it. As much as having two goalies is sort of a luxury, I still think Rask is the future. I'd hate to trade him and then spend five years looking for another No. 1 goalie after Tim Thomas retires. But that said, what if Thomas plays at a high level for another two to three years? Can you really just hold onto Rask as a backup? -- Harvey (New York)

I think the Bruins would consider trading anyone if the deal made sense to them. But that being said, they are not considering trading Tuukka Rask right now and I don't see them doing so in the near future. As you said, at age 23, Rask is the future of the Bruins between the pipes. They would be forced to find one via free agency or trade. Rask has played well this season and has been a good soldier returning to back-up duties. Does he like it? No, but I think he'd prefer to bide his time with a contender and he doesn't mind that Stanley Cup ring on his finger. As for Thomas, he appears to be back in Vezina form and could have another stellar season. But if that happens and I was the Bruins GM, I'd trade him and get the premiere puck-moving defenseman (not a Tomas Kaberle but think younger and more defensively responsible) that they have coveted for so long or maybe a big winger. Eventually the future will arrive and it's not Thomas, it's Rask.

Q. If the Bruins finish with one of the best records in the league do you think Claude Julien might finally get some recognition for being a top coach? I don't think he gets enough credit. -- KT (Boston)

I agree that Claude Julien deserves more recognition but I do think he gets plenty throughout the league amongst his peers and the players. Some of his former players are still baffled that both the Habs and Devils gave up on him. He has repeatedly dispelled the myth that he is strictly a defensive coach. Yes defense is the foundation of his system, but he has adapted over the years and learned how to get his players to turn that defense into offense, as we have seen so many times this season. Fans and media can think what they want, but I agree with you that he is a good coach and hopefully the Bruins don't follow the path of the Devils and Canadiens and instead lock him up long term.

Q. After a couple of games where he turned things around, David Krejci is struggling again. Do you think Krejci is ever going to be as consistent as he needs to be? To me, he's a superstar IF he can figure out how to be consistent from game to game. Can he ever get there? And if not, do you see the Bruins giving him the big-money deal it's going to take to keep him? -- Billy T (Boston)

A. At this rate, I'm not sure if David Krejci can expect "big money." As you point out, he has been frustratingly inconsistent. I still wonder if that "core" injury he suffered early on is nagging him. But still, Krejci hasn't even been a shadow of the player I thought was a Conn Smythe candidate, getting 23 points in 25 Stanley Cup playoff games. The Bruins are deep at center and if he continues to be average at best they may need to explore what his potential can get them on the trade market. Tuukka Rask has been the popular name from the Bruins on the trade-rumor circuit, but I'd really keep an eye on Krejci. That all being said, I don't think the Bruins have given up on him just yet.

Q. Do you know if the Bruins are trying to lock up Chris Kelly? I know he probably won't keep up this offensive pace, but even beyond the offense, he's just a really solid player. -- Mike (Reading, Mass.)

As of now, I have no confirmation that the Bruins are indeed talking with Chris Kelly about a new contract but, as you point out, he has proven to be a very valuable and versatile player. And obviously with the team voting him an alternate captain, Kelly's leadership is valued as well. Knowing the way GM Peter Chiarelli has been calculated and yet proactive, I would imagine talks are underway. As he proved in the Bruins' Stanley Cup run, Kelly is one of those role players you need in the playoffs and that can't be underappreciated. He is one of the reasons the Bruins GM didn't spend more on the free-agent market this past summer despite having the money to do so.

After seeing consecutive shootouts this week (win over Buffalo, loss to Detroit), and two different shootout lineups (Seguin, Peverly, Krejci, Bergeron, and Pouliot vs. Buffalo, and Seguin, Peverly, Horton vs. Detroit), what factors go into selecting those lineups? Does the coaching staff put together a shootout lineup for themselves on game days in case the game goes that way? Or is it created on the fly in OT based on how players performed in that game? -- Russ (Reading, Mass.)

A. I can't speak for other coaches but Claude Julien does prepare different lineups in practice and has his staff and players study opposing goalies to learn how to beat them and who may have the best chance at beating them. I think you can also plan on seeing Tyler Seguin always be in there as a shooter, as he has proven to be a solid shootout player. Rich Peverley is also a guy who may see more chances in the shootout. But yes, Julien does focus on this in practice and plans his shootout lineup based on opposing goalies.

Q. I think this has always been the case, but I feel like the season Zdeno Chara is having is flying a little under the radar. He might have gotten off to a bit of a slow start, like most of the Bruins, but night in and night out, he's just a beast on the ice. -- TJ (Burlington, Vt.)

I'd have to agree with you TJ. Maybe it is because we have become so accustomed to seeing this consistency from Chara, but right now you would have to consider him a possible Norris Trophy candidate. He is tied for sixth in points amongst defensemen with 16 and is third in plus-minus with a plus-13. Chara has also been a key part of the Bruins' turnaround from the Stanley Cup hangover they suffered in the first 10 games. His leadership was huge in getting the team back on track and he has been worthy of the 'C' on his jersey.

Q. One player that I've been impressed with this year is Johnny Boychuk. I thought he was wildly inconsistent last season, but he's been really solid this year. Thoughts? -- Walter (Portland, Maine)

A. I'd like to see Boychuk use that cannon of a shot a little more but he has definitely made a commitment to creating more offense and pinching down low when needed. He has also been more physical, which to me is one of the most important parts of his game.

Q. Do you see the Bruins making a big trade around the deadline? Maybe for a big player such as Rick Nash or Jarome Iginla? -- Dan W. (Westford, Mass.)

A. Dan, it's a bit too early to tell if the Bruins will make a "big" trade at the deadline or if they will need to. Right now, they have their chemistry back and they're playing the hockey they played in the playoffs that led to them winning the Stanley Cup, so there is no need for a major deal. But I think that, yes, you should keep an eye on Iginla. There were many reports this past weekend that he may be getting close to considering a trade request and he would be the prototypical Bruin -- combining skill and grit. But if they ever wanted him, they'd have to be willing to pay a high ransom.

James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Ask a question for his next Bruins mailbag here.