While the arbitrator?s decision on Monday to uphold the rejection of Ilya Kovalchuk?s contract has the hockey world bracing for another round of bitter labor battles, there are some more enjoyable battles to discuss coming even sooner.
The Bruins open training camp in less than six weeks, and that means a spirited competition for the limited number of jobs up for grabs.
Head coach Claude Julien will insist, as always, that no player can take his spot for granted coming into camp, but the reality is that barring injuries, only a few positions are truly open.
So which roles should camp-goers pay special attention to?
The most important may actually be a temporary position, though like many temp jobs a strong performance could make it permanent. The Bruins have one obvious spot open on a scoring line with Marco Sturm sidelined until at least mid-November as he recovers from knee surgery.
If Michael Ryder stays with the club, the Bruins won?t need anyone to fill the void. With Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin already penciled in, Boston has a top nine set with those three, Marc Savard, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Blake Wheeler and Mark Recchi.
But Ryder might be playing for his NHL future in this camp with his $4-million cap hit putting a bulls eye on his back after a disappointing 2009-10 campaign. Ryder will need to impress early to stay in Boston?s plans, or at least improve his stock enough to draw interest from another NHL club either in a trade or on waivers to avoid the possibility of being buried in the AHL.
Pressuring Ryder will be a host of youngsters looking to break into the NHL. Former first-round picks Joe Colborne, Jordan Caron and Zach Hamill will all be vying for the spot, while Brad Marchand will be trying to show he?s worthy of being more than just a fourth-liner or spare forward. Daniel Paille could also slide up the lineup from the fourth line, while youngsters Max Sauve, Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner are longer shots to earn a look.
The other spot at stake up front is for the 13th forward, as general manager Peter Chiarelli has indicated that he plans to carry a healthy spare forward to start the year. Marchand would appear to have the inside track on this job, with his main competition coming from the likes of veterans Jeremy Reich and Trent Whitfield.
Reich and Whitfield have the advantage of possessing the kind of experience that Julien often prefers in a role player, as well as the kind of minimum contracts that could give Chiarelli a little extra breathing room as he sorts out his cap problems. Youngsters like Colborne and Co. aren?t likely to fit into the mix in this role, as their cap hits and bonuses would be tough to carry and their development would be much better served playing regularly in Providence than seeing limited ice-time and frequent press-box duty as the spare forward in Boston.
Those considerations will also be a factor in the third key camp battle, where Adam McQuaid will try to hold off challengers for the seventh defenseman role. The top six is fairly well set with Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference, Mark Stuart and Matt Hunwick all returning, though Hunwick will have to show that he has rebounded from his struggles last year and Ference will have to stay healthy.
Those concerns make the seventh defenseman an especially important role in Boston. McQuaid filled in admirably last year and was re-signed this summer to a two-year deal. The first year is a two-way contract, but McQuaid would still have to clear waivers to be sent down. The Bruins, who thought highly enough of him to give him a one-way deal in the second year, aren?t likely to risk that unless McQuaid really struggles, so his competitors face an uphill battle.
Russian import Yuri Alexandrow could be the biggest challenger as he comes to North America with pro experience in the KHL, while Andrew Bodnarchuk and Jeff Penner each had cups of coffee in Boston last year and offseason addition Nathan McIver has more extensive experience with Anaheim and Vancouver.
The final key camp battle may be the most intriguing, even if neither player involved stands to lose his spot on the big club?s roster. For the first time, Tuukka Rask comes to camp as Boston?s No. 1 goalie after supplanting Tim Thomas last year and leading the NHL in both goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.931).
But Thomas has thrived in the underdog role throughout his career, and is sure to come to camp looking to reclaim his top spot. He led the league in those same two categories just one year before en route to winning the Vezina in 2008-09. With the competitive nature of both goalies, this battle may be the most entertaining to watch throughout camp and all season long. And it might prove the most beneficial to the Bruins if Rask and Thomas can push each other to new heights.
NESN.com will answer one Bruins question every day in August.
Monday, Aug. 9: Can Shawn Thornton hold up against the new heavyweights in the Eastern Conference?
Wednesday, Aug. 11: Can Tim Thomas rebound from last year?s disappointing season, hip surgery and ongoing trade rumors?