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One Thing the Boston Bruins' Top Stars Must Prove in the 2013-14 Season

Al DanielCorrespondent IISeptember 26, 2013

One Thing the Boston Bruins' Top Stars Must Prove in the 2013-14 Season

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    New and returning Boston Bruins players are primed to face at least one new challenge in the 2013-14 NHL season.

    The sources of those challenges range from being new to the team to playing a direct role with one of the new faces. They range from continuing in an increased role that came under unusual circumstances in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign to sustaining one’s place at the summit of the team depth chart.

    This week marked precisely three months since Boston’s quest for a title skidded to defeat a mere two wins shy of the goal. This Thursday marks precisely one more week before the Bruins resume meaningful games with their regular-season opener versus Tampa Bay.

    In light of the relatively brief offseason on top of a grueling grind, stamina will be a team-wide issue worth magnifying as they seek to match, if not exceed their achievements from 2013. Looking deeper, though, every key cog has a more customized question to answer in the midst of going through another grind after a short offseason.

    Here is what Boston’s premier two-way center, defenseman, scoring tandem, scoring acquisition and goaltender each have to prove this year. It is their individual priority in the team’s melting pot of X-factors.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this slideshow were found via nhl.com

Patrice Bergeron

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Not even three full months removed from playing through a checklist of injuries in last year’s playoffs, Patrice Bergeron turned in a fairly pristine preseason debut, health-wise and performance-wise.

    Only time will tell if this means no looking back on the injury front, although there is only so much Bergeron can do to control that. As long as he is available and within the neighborhood of 100 percent health, though, he has long-elusive heights to reach after.

    Bergeron does not need to prove much more, if anything, when it comes to the so-called “little things.” He is one of the definitive connoisseurs at the faceoff dot and is coming off back-to-back Selke Trophy nominations.

    There are, however, some areas closer to the surface of the stat sheet worth monitoring for progress. In the shortened 48-game season of 2012-13, Bergeron averaged 19:17 of ice time per night, his highest average since 2006-07, the year before he suffered his first major injury in October 2007.

    Can he inch back up to the 20-minute and 70-point range where he was as a younger, still-blossoming player while applying the same defensive prowess he has established more recently? If so, then by season's end, he will have proven himself a genuinely top-notch two-way, three-zone asset.

Zdeno Chara

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Over the final 10 games of the 2012-13 regular season, Zdeno Chara brooked a cumulative minus-three rating. Moreover, half of those games were “minus” outings while he elevated his rating in only three.

    Later, after an otherwise efficient three-and-a-half playoff rounds, Chara sputtered upon meeting his match in the quick and crafty Chicago Blackhawks. Each of his last three 2013 playoff games were “minus” performances with a cumulative six points melting off under that heading.

    Were those meltdowns a product of the unusually crammed schedule that amounted to a sprint of 48 regular-season games in 99 days followed by 22 playoff tilts in 54 days? Or is Chara, who will turn 37 in March, slowly becoming a less capable minute-muncher?

    The towering blueliner will have his chance to prove it was the former in 2013-14.

    Not counting the Olympic break, which likely won’t be a real break for the Slovak stalwart, the 82-game schedule will feature three full four-day gaps between games and three lasting three days apiece. There will also be 14 stand-alone pairs of two consecutive off-days, amounting to 20 total multi-day gaps, whereas Boston had only nine of those in 2012-13.

Loui Eriksson

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    Steve Babineau/Getty Images

    The Dallas Stars, who dealt Loui Eriksson to the Bruins over the summer, last made the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2008. That was the year before Eriksson had his big breakout, going from 31 points in 2007-08 to 63 in 2008-09.

    Eriksson’s rise to certifiable stardom on a team of generally plebeian achievements coincided with Boston’s rise to Cup contention. Now he is taking his reputation from a perennial playoff no-show to a team with its own collectively lofty expectations.

    This would be a good time to underline one of the cautions on Eriksson’s scouting report from The Hockey News, which states that he “plays a somewhat passive game in all three zones, so he needs to keep the fire burning at all times.”

    Does he have the adaptability to apply his skill set to the same effect as he did over three straight finishes in the 70-point range? Can he embrace his new environment through his actions during the season as much as he has through his words during the summer?

David Krejci and Milan Lucic

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Assuming their arrangement with Jarome Iginla sticks, David Krejci and Milan Lucic will face the challenge of unwaveringly matching their new veteran ally’s motivation.

    The 36-year-old Iginla came to New England via free agency for the self-explanatory purpose of pursuing the Stanley Cup. The younger two-thirds of the line may have a favorable playoff track record, particularly Krejci with his league-leading output in 2011 and 2013, but the preceding 82-game grind is another story.

    Just to name a couple of examples of their unsavory hibernation habits, Lucic turned in seven pointless performances in a span of eight games in March 2013. He was later unproductive in eight out of 10 contests in April 2013.

    Earlier, over December and January of 2010-11, Lucic had a seven-game scoreless skid and 10 pointless outings out of 11. Krejci overlapped that with eight unproductive outings in a span of 10, including five straight.

    More recently, Krejci put forth seven pointless outings in the first eight games of 2011-12, a five-game skid in November, five out of six in December and a seven-game skid in February. He closed out the last regular season by sprinkling a sparse three points over 13 contests.

    A little more consistency from that unit in those stretches could have made the difference in Boston’s losing cause to Montreal in the Northeast Division derby. Their placement didn’t hurt the Bruins in the 2013 playoffs, but with the new alignment and playoff format, there will be less room for error in the regular season going forward.

Tuukka Rask

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    Jim Rogash/Getty Images

    Tuukka Rask’s busiest regular season since coming to North America was in 2008-09, when he scraped the blue paint for the Providence Bruins 57 times and made one appearance in Boston.

    His first season as the clear-cut No. 1 netminder with a full-length 82-game schedule will likely come with no fewer than 57 or 58 starts. Given the modicum of proven options to serve as his backup, his workload could easily spill into the middle of the 60s.

    For what it’s worth, Rask did accrue 58 outings between mid-January and mid-June of 2013, with 36 in the regular season and 22 in the postseason. He happened to retain a .929 save percentage in the regular season and .940 in the postseason, and he kept his goals-against average at exactly two or lower in both.

    In addition, Rask has a cumulative regular-season transcript of 138 games played, a 2.15 GAA and .927 save percentage.

    Still, Rask will not cement his status as a dependable elite until he has turned in numbers in that range over a six-month saga against the broadest possible variety of competition.

    Remember: Boston did not face any Western Conference goaltenders or strike forces last year until it met Chicago in the Stanley Cup Finals.

    How will Rask fare when he is answering the majority of the calls while the team logs 29 stickers on its suitcase? That may be the most glaring of all of his unanswered questions.

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