Thornton, Boynton will play bigger roles

Pity Boston Bruins general manager Mike O'Connell. Pity long-suffering Bruin fans. All trapped in a kind of cruel Groundhog Day cycle of regular-season success and unbridled optimism followed by inexplicable playoff disasters.

Behind rookie-of-the-year netminder Andrew Raycroft and an imposing set of forwards led by Joe Thornton, Glen Murray and Brian Rolston, the Bruins surged to their second Northeast Division title in the past three years, finishing last season with 104 points, tied for the third-best record in the NHL.

Normally frugal, the Bruins beefed up for the playoffs by landing the top available defenseman at the trade deadline, Sergei Gonchar, and Michael Nylander. The B's promptly followed up those significant achievements -- and the not insignificant anticipation that they might be poised to erase 32 years of Stanley Cup futility -- by blowing a 3-1 series lead in the first round against heavy underdog Montreal.

The series, the first time ever the Bruins had choked away such a postseason lead, was marked by sharp criticism of captain Thornton, who went pointless in seven games although it was later revealed he played with a painful rib injury.

The offseason hasn't been any more pleasant, as the Bruins have endured an exodus of top players via free agency. Mike Knuble went to Philadelphia, Rolston went to Minnesota, Sean O'Donnell is now a Phoenix Coyote and Murray continues to search for a new home. The exodus sparked rumors of unhappiness from Thornton, who became one of the first prominent NHLers to sign on with a European club, HC Davos of the Swiss Elite League, if there is no NHL hockey.

O'Connell, who has downplayed the reported rift with Thornton and suggestions his captain wants out of Boston, spoke recently with ESPN.com about last season and what the future might hold for the B's.

ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season, regular season and playoffs?
We finished first in arguably the toughest division in hockey with a rookie coach (Mike Sullivan) and a rookie goaltender. We had started pretty good and then faltered and then quickly righted it. But it was the same old story of the past three years in the playoffs, a poor performance. First off Joe was injured. It was tough for him to play the way he can play. But we had enough talent. We just did not play hard enough at critical times. The other team wanted it more. We had the series in hand and just could not finish it.

Along with Raycroft, who was the sixth-ranked goaltender in the NHL, the Bruins were also blessed on the rookie front with the emergence of Patrice Bergeron, whose 39 points left him fifth among rookie scorers. Bergeron was a surprise member of the club out of training camp but made an almost seamless transition from major junior hockey, helped in part by living with veteran and fellow Quebec native Martin Lapointe.

ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation or had the biggest impact on your team?
Raycroft. It wasn't a surprise. We all knew that he was going to be a good goaltender based on his performances the last two years. He's done it at every level. He's got a good head on his shoulders. Great family. His mom and dad are very focused people. As Andrew is. He knows when to play hard. He tries hard.

(The Calder Trophy) was a great reward. And if Bergeron hadn't missed time, his name might have been on the ballot, too.

Given the exodus of players from the Bruins' everyday lineup and the cautiousness with which O'Connell has approached the free agent market, it has become almost leadership by subtraction with Thornton and imposing defenseman Nick Boynton under the leadership gun.

Thornton saw his regular-season production drop 28 points from his 101-point turn two years ago, when he finished third in league scoring, to 73 points last season. Still, it was good enough for the team lead, the third time he has led the Bruins in scoring in the past five years.

Boynton, the Bruins 6-foot-2, 210-pound defenseman, was plus-17, tops among Bruins blue-liners, and chipped in 30 points. He had two assists in the Bruins' seven-game loss to Montreal, logging an impressive 24:43 during the postseason.

ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
I don't know. We don't know what kind of team we're going to have in place. It's been very confusing. Probably Thornton and Boynton, two guys who are really going to have a say in how we fare.

ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
We like defenseman Milan Jurcina. He'll get a good look. He's got good size, strength. He has good skill.

Jurcina, a 6-foot-4 native of Liptovsky Mikulas in the Czech Republic, appeared in 73 games for Providence in his first AHL season chipping in 17 points.

The one guy we're really counting on is Jonathan Girard. He's coming along. Hopefully he can do it. We were counting on him last year and he lost a year of development. He's doing great. He's ready to go."

Girard suffered a career-threatening injury in a car accident in July 2003. Girard missed all of last season while rehabilitating after appearing in 73 games and chipping in 22 points in 2002-03. O'Connell recently signed the 24-year-old to a one-year contract.

ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
I think our work ethic has to improve. It's more of a mental approach I think.

ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
I don't know. I've never been one like that. When we won the division, I guess. But any success in this business, unless you win it all, it's nothing.

ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Game 7 against Montreal. No question.

ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
I'm going to go to Cape Cod for a little while. And I've got a trip with some golfing buddies to Wisconsin. Kohler. It's a great place. It's a beautiful place.

ESPN.com: Hockey buddies?
No. Just golfing buddies.

ESPN.com: Time away from the game then?

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.