That's right, the Stanley Cup playoffs are almost here, and just about everything is set for the Bruins. They have clinched the Northeast Division title and the second seed in the East, and it's almost a certainty they will be matched up with Ottawa in the opening round. And conveniently, they've even got one last tune-up against the Senators on Thursday to set the table for the upcoming postseason feast.
Still, there are plenty of questions surrounding the team as it prepares to embark on its quest to retain the Cup, and I've tried to answer as many of them as possible in the final regular-season edition of the Bruins Mailbag.
As always, I'd like to thank all the readers who sent in questions and apologize in advance if I wasn't able to get to yours. Please keep submitting your questions and I'll answer as many of them as I can as we transition from the regular season to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
What forward do you anticipate being the scratch in the playoffs?
— Anthony Amico via Twitter (@anthonyamico)
Assuming there are no further injuries in these final couple games of the regular season, Claude Julien is going to be in for a tough decision with this one. It's similar to last year, when he had to choose between Tyler Seguin and Shawn Thornton at the start of the playoffs. He went with the veteran Thornton on that occasion, and I think he may make a similar choice this postseason when the decision could come down to either Jordan Caron or Daniel Paille. While Caron has played well down the stretch and adds some size, Paille's experience and penalty-killing ability are even more valuable. The chemistry of that fourth line with Paille, Gregory Campbell and Thornton is undeniable, and Julien likes to roll four lines, so having a fourth unit that's experienced and reliable is important to him.
There could be other possibilities as well, but those seem less likely with how well Benoit Pouliot and Brian Rolston have played with Chris Kelly in recent weeks. Thornton could be squeezed out again too, especially if the Bruins are matched up against a less physical team. But a showdown with Ottawa appears all but inevitable in the opening round, and the Senators are a pretty rugged bunch with Chris Neil and Co. running around, so having Thornton in the lineup could be very useful. I think the Bruins also learned last year just what a difference Thornton can make with his energy, enthusiasm and experience when his return to the lineup in Game 3 of the Final really helped spark the club's turnaround in that series against Vancouver. Considering the fact that Boston just invested another $2.2 million to keep Thornton around for two more years after this one, I think Caron and Paille will be options for press-box duty ahead of Thornton.
Caron will likely still get his chance to play at some point, as injuries are almost unavoidable in the intensity of Stanley Cup play and Julien will have a shorter leash if others struggle with the stakes so high, but I think Caron is the leading candidate to open the playoffs in street clothes. Taking it one step further, the lines used Tuesday against Pittsburgh when Caron was out with the flu could very well be the combinations Julien employs to start the postseason. That would put David Krejci between Milan Lucic and Rich Peverley, with Patrice Bergeron skating with Brad Marchand and Seguin, Kelly with Pouliot and Rolston and Campbell between Paille and Thornton.
Doug, what is your opinion on Torey Krug? Do you think he will be a future blueliner for the Bruins or will his lack of size hurt his chances?
— Brett, East Bridgewater
It's a little early to judge Krug's potential after just one game and a handful of practices. His size will definitely be an obstacle that he'll have to overcome, but there have been other small defenders who have excelled at this level. That includes the guy who helped sign him, assistant general manager Don Sweeney, who enjoyed a pretty solid NHL career of his own with over 1,000 games in the league.
Claude Julien also mentioned Pittsburgh's Kris Letang as one of those undersized defensemen who has carved out quite a niche for himself in the league, though it's important to note that even Letang is listed at 6-foot, 201 pounds, which is quite a difference from Krug's 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. Despite his solid career at Michigan State, I don't think that Krug has the offensive upside that Letang has shown at the NHL level, but Krug does have the mobility and vision to play in the league. He'll need to improve his play in his own zone, but that's true of virtually every young blueliner starting out in the league.
With the Bruins' depth on defense, Krug will likely start next season in Providence despite debuting directly in Boston this year, but he is probably the organization's top defensive prospect not named Dougie Hamilton, so this late-season cameo is likely not the last you'll see of him at this level.
[Tim] Thomas is the fan favorite in Boston but, Tuukka [Rask] is the future for the Bruins. Do you think next season is the season Tuukka's starts increase and Thomas' decline and the Bruins make the transition into the Tuukka Rask era?
— Sean O'Connell, Narragansett, Rhode Island
It is going to be an interesting summer of decisions on the goaltending front for the Bruins. I think a lot will be determined by this upcoming postseason. If Thomas has another outstanding playoffs and carries the Bruins on another deep run, then it would be tough to see the club making that transition just yet. But if he falters and the Bruins exit early, there will be some tough choices to be made.
Thomas' no-trade protection expires on July 1, and the Bruins will have to decide if it would be worth exploring their options to create some cap space if they think Rask is ready to take over. How Rask recovers from his abdominal/groin injury will also play a factor into those plans. Rask is also a restricted free agent, so he will have to be signed to a new deal. Getting that contract done will cost the Bruins more cap space, as Rask's currently $1.25 million cap hit will surely go up significantly, and the Bruins will have to determine how much of their cap they can devote to goaltending since it could potentially shrink under the new CBA that needs to be hammered out by September.
Complicating things further is the fact that Anton Khudobin's contract for next year is a one-way deal. It's not huge money at $875,000, but he'll get that whether he plays in Boston or Providence. And if he is sent down to Providence, he would be subject to re-entry waivers. With the likelihood that he would be claimed and the Bruins stuck with half that salary on their cap, Boston may be hesitant to call him up, leaving them vulnerable again if either Thomas or Rask were to get injured.
Hey Doug Great column you have here. I just wanted to know if there is any truth to the rumor stating that Nathan Horton won't be returning to the lineup this year in the playoffs? Thanks and take care!
— Domenic Longo, Montreal
Thank you for the kind words. There has still been no final decision made on Nathan Horton's potential return this season. The Bruins are proceeding very cautiously with him, as they should. Concussions aren't like other injuries. There is no timetable that can be placed on how long it takes a player to recover from a brain injury, and the risks with such an injury are far too serious to take any chances.
It is encouraging that he was able to start skating again before practice in Wilmington on Wednesday. But Claude Julien was quick to caution that Horton was still nowhere close to returning to game action. Even if he suffers no further setbacks and is able to ramp up his workouts, with the time it would take for him to get back up to game speed and regain his fitness and timing, it would probably take a lengthy playoff run for him to even be able to consider a return this year. And if it reached that point, the Bruins coaching and medical staffs would have a very difficult decision to make about thrusting him back into the intensity of late-round playoff action coming off such a long layoff.
The fact that he is skating again and continuing to work toward recovery shows that a possible return hasn't been completely ruled out at this point, but it is an extremely long shot that he will be able to make it back this season.
Why not let that fourth line see some power-play time? They work so hard it would be a nice reward.
— Cheryl Fairbanks, Surprise, AZ
It would be a nice reward for a very hardworking group, and it might be possible to see for a shift or two in the final two games while the Bruins are resting some of their regulars. But it's not something we'll see in the playoffs and isn't the answer to Boston's struggles with the man advantage. Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton have combined for two power-play goals (both by Campbell) in 1,346 career games among them, and I wouldn't bet my losing Mega Millions tickets on that number going up anytime soon. The energy and hard work that line brings adds a lot to the Bruins and can provide a spark at even strength, and while all three are more skilled than many fourth-liners around the league and certainly more skilled than they're usually given credit for, they simply aren't the types to turn around a flagging power play.
The Bruins actually haven't been that bad on the man advantage for most of the season. They are right in the middle of the pack at 14th in the league (42-243, 17.3 percent). That's not spectacular, but it's a step up from last year (20th, 16.2 percent) and a dramatic improvement on their historically woeful postseason power play (10-88, 11.4 percent). The biggest concerns with the Bruins' power play are that it is slumping again heading into the playoffs (1-14 in the last eight games heading into Thursday) and that the Bruins do not generate enough chances with the man advantage (25th in the NHL with 243 opportunities). The best way for the fourth line to help the power play may be for them to continue their hard work at even strength and force the opposition to take more penalties so that the guys that can do some damage on the power play can get more chances to do so.
Have questions for Douglas Flynn's mailbag? Leave them in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter @douglasflynn or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.
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