Five core players from last year’s Bruins are not with the 2013-14 version that will start off the season against Tampa Bay on Thursday night. Of the five, the ex-Bruin whose departure created the most significant vacancy is a skilled, Formula 1-fast right wing who can also play center.
Rich Peverley will be missed more than Tyler Seguin, Nathan Horton, Andrew Ference, and Anton Khudobin.
Peverley was the No. 3 right wing before the Bruins traded him to Dallas. Before they slumped last year, Peverley and Chris Kelly teamed as one of the game’s best third-line duos. They were penalty-killing partners. The left-shot Kelly and the righthanded Peverley, who won more draws than they lost, gave coach Claude Julien options on important defensive faceoffs.
Peverley was one of the team’s fastest skaters. He played on every line, both center and wing. Peverley was a point man and a down-low guy on the power play. Reilly Smith, Kelly’s new right-hand man, does not possess Peverley’s versatility.
Otherwise, the Bruins head into the season opener as though it’s business as usual. A team that replaced three of its four right wings will hum along as if no roster churn happened.
“We’re trying to build a winner,” said general manager Peter Chiarelli. “That’s where our expectations are.”
The 2013-14 team is not one assembled via happenstance. This template, formulated by Chiarelli, president Cam Neely, and assistant GMs Jim Benning and Don Sweeney, is one that worked in 2010-11. Two more wins last year would have been further confirmation of the blueprint’s staying power.
The Bruins had no intention of changing their formula, even amid the offseason turnover.
Horton wanted out. The Bruins itched to trade Seguin and his six-year, $34.5 million contract. The Bruins couldn’t afford Peverley’s $3.25 million average annual value. Cap-wise, they couldn’t write the check for Ference that he deserved on the market (four years, $13 million from Edmonton). The Bruins believed they could land a cheaper backup goalie than Khudobin.
Hockey operations identified and targeted the best replacements. Chiarelli pulled the trigger on the transactions: trading Seguin and Peverley for Smith and Loui Eriksson, signing Jarome Iginla and Chad Johnson. Free agent signee Torey Krug, Ference’s fill-in, developed in Providence last year under the watch of Bruce Cassidy and Kevin Dean.
The result is a lineup that has undergone surgery. Seventy-five percent turnover on the right wing — voters might demand a similar percentage in Washington in the next election cycle — is not insignificant. The stitches, however, are invisible.
Iginla shares Horton’s assets: bite, north-south speed, joy in shooting the puck. Iginla and Milan Lucic will be flanking strongmen for David Krejci, who plays bigger every time his linemates flex their muscles.
Iginla is a natural leader, one the Bruins considered naming their alternate captain before pasting the “A” on Krejci’s sweater. While Boston could be his final NHL team, Iginla’s final landing spot will be in Toronto at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The tool that could make Iginla even more dangerous than Horton is his one-timer. Horton’s go-to piece was his wrist shot — a heavy, accurate snapper. Iginla can snap the puck off the rush, but his trademark is his one-timer, usually from the left circle. Iginla unloads it often and with pleasure.
On the power play, the Bruins haven’t had a similar right-shot one-time presence during Chiarelli’s time. When Iginla winds up, either at the left dot or in the high slot, he will spread out the offensive formation. Teams will have to respect Iginla’s shot. If they cheat his way, shooting lanes will open for Krejci, Lucic, and Krug.
The uncertainty regarding Iginla is how he’ll pace himself until the playoffs. Horton had a history of regular-season cruise jobs. But in the postseason, when healthy, Horton was one of the Bruins’ best. Iginla, primarily a left wing with Pittsburgh last season, submitted a 0-0—0 playoff line against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals. The three previous years, Iginla’s Flames didn’t qualify for the playoffs.
The Bruins acknowledge that Seguin, formerly their No. 2 right wing, could tear apart the ice in Dallas. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that Seguin will outscore Eriksson. But Eriksson’s superior hockey sense and skill set — fast, strong on the puck, crafty in close quarters, dependable defensively — will make the second line better.
“You’ve got a smart player in Eriksson that understands the two-way game,” Julien said. “With Bergeron being such a good two-way player, he’s certainly going to complement that.
“Let’s not kid ourselves. He’s a highly skilled player with real good vision and shoots the puck well. He finds holes. I think it’s just a matter of time before you see those guys really be a force game in and game out.”
Krug does not have Ference’s experience. Ference plays a more physical game. But Krug plays at a higher tempo. Krug is a natural power-play quarterback and will direct the attack from the point on the first unit.
Johnson, who has backed up top-flight goalies Mike Smith and Henrik Lundqvist, will be in a similar position. Tuukka Rask will make 60-plus starts. The Bruins are asking Johnson to be dependable, if not spectacular, every fourth game or so.
“There are still questions for me that have to be answered,” said Chiarelli. “But I like what I’ve seen so far. Whenever you can bring in new faces and young faces, it helps the outlook of the room and of the team. I feel it energizes them. I see that happening.”