Bruins again have title hopes

BOSTON -- The professional sports landscape in Boston has taken a turn for the worse.

The Red Sox went from last place in 2012 to a World Series title in 2013 and returned to the basement in 2014, creating an emotional wave that would have Sigmund Freud second-guessing himself.

The New England Patriots recently have turned into a soap opera. It's unusual for Bill Belichick to allow outside distractions to affect his team to the point where he needs to address the chatter.

The Celtics continue to rebuild in hopes of some kind of resurrection.

Then we have the Bruins.

Last season, the Bruins were the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. They won the Presidents' Trophy as the best regular-season team in the NHL, but then they fell agonizingly short of their goal when they lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Montreal Canadiens.

A new season has arrived and once again the Bruins are considered Stanley Cup contenders. When the puck drops on the 2014-15 season, with the Bruins hosting the Philadelphia Flyers Wednesday night at TD Garden, Boston's roster will look a lot different than it has in recent seasons.

Throughout his time in Boston, general manager Peter Chiarelli has kept the core of this team intact. But having to deal with salary-cap constraints this season, the Bruins will need to rely on younger players to complement the veteran presence.

"We've been fortunate to have a good group stick together as long as we have," veteran forward Chris Kelly said. "The core group seems to be in place for a good while, but we have a great team and we want to stay together as long as possible. We know we have a good opportunity to do well and succeed, and hopefully that happens this year."

Last Saturday, the Bruins lost a key contributor and a popular teammate when Chiarelli traded veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders for a pair of draft picks and an additional conditional pick.

There was a lot of disappointment among Bruins players, and even coach Claude Julien, after the trade was finalized. But they had no choice other than to put down the box of Kleenex and focus on the task at hand.

As the Bruins enter the season, they are projected to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference once again. Prognosticators have made their predictions. At ESPN, 10 from our panel of 13 hockey "experts" have picked the Bruins to reach the Stanley Cup finals, with four foreseeing victory for Boston in June.

For the second straight season, I have picked the Bruins to win the Cup. Last season, I had them beating the Los Angeles Kings, who eventually won the championship with a victory over the New York Rangers. This season, I have the Bruins hoisting the Stanley Cup with a win over the Colorado Avalanche.

Here's why: The Bruins, like the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks, are built to be perennial Cup contenders. Boston's defensive structure starts with reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask in net. In front of him, captain Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg make it difficult on any opponent. Dougie Hamilton is poised for a breakout season, and I believe that to the point that I've picked him to win the Norris Trophy (yes, I'm that confident).

The Bruins will miss Boychuk's presence, but this will be an opportunity for a healthy Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller to make an impact. One of the main reasons the Bruins lost to the Canadiens in the second round was due to Boston's inexperience on the blue line, but Hamilton, Miller, Torey Krug and even Matt Bartkowski all should make strides.

"I think everybody is as confident as they've ever been," Krug said. "I think we're going to see special things out of Dougie, Bart's going to do his thing and Millsy's going to be hitting guys. It's going to be great. It's a great group to be a part of and I'm excited to be in it."

Offensively, the Bruins have the weapons to do some serious damage. Boston's top line enters the season a work in progress. Center David Krejci will miss the first three games after he was placed on IR with an undisclosed injury. That means Carl Soderberg likely will replace Krejci between Milan Lucic and Loui Eriksson for the time being.

The Bruins' second line is going to have a phenomenal season.

Brad Marchand is on a mission. Patrice Bergeron is Patrice Bergeron. And Reilly Smith should also have a breakout season. Julien loves consistency, and that line will deliver it.

Boston's bottom two lines likely will see some mixing and matching before Julien finds something that works. Matt Fraser should have a strong first full season in the NHL. If Kelly can remain healthy, his presence on and off the ice will have a major impact. There's no doubt had he been healthy and in the lineup during the playoffs, the second-round exit could have been averted.

Energy-line center Gregory Campbell will start the season on the non-roster injured reserve list with a mid-core injury. Once he's cleared to return, and if Julien has Campbell and Daniel Paille playing together, the addition of Bobby Robins will add some excitement to the fourth line.

There's a lot to be excited about this season for the Bruins. But they need to find their identity and consistency quickly. They have seven games in the first 11 days of the season and will need to set the tone. The last thing Boston needs is to play catch-up later in the season.

"I usually have high expectations," team president Cam Neely said. "We had a successful regular season last year as we all know, we fell short of what we wanted to accomplish in the playoffs.

"I know the guys are hungry. We have a lot of returning players that want to improve upon what we did last year. Based on what I've seen and the way they're talking, I think they're excited about getting the season going. The expectations are high."

This season, the Bruins will be the team to keep Boston's championship hopes alive, while their brethren watch in envy.