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NHL Preview: Can the Bruins overtake Tampa Bay and Toronto?

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NHL Preview: Can the Bruins overtake Tampa Bay and Toronto?

 ATLANTIC DIVISION

1.     Tampa Bay Lightning – They didn’t land the grand slam attempt at Erik Karlsson, but the Lightning are still the class of the Atlantic Division. Adding Ryan McDonagh last season to what they already have should make them a force in the East for years to come.

2.     Toronto Maple Leafs – Obviously things are going to have to play out with a defense that’s still not quite top notch, but the Leafs are going to be able score goals and produce offense with anybody after adding John Tavares to the existing group.

3.     Boston Bruins – It’s amazing to think that the Bruins are relegated to third in the division after 112 points last season, but it’s going to be a nightly battle for the top three spots in this division. If some kids really make a leap this season, the Bruins could be second or first instead.

4.     Florida Panthers – The Panthers are a team that everybody is sleeping on and they probably shouldn’t be. Tons of young talent and depth at both ends of the ice, and they still have the inimitable Bobby Lou as their goalie. It will be tough to crack the top three, though.

5.     Buffalo Sabres – If Rasmus Dahlin is anything close to the real deal, then the Sabres should be a much, much better hockey team this season. Playoffs? Probably not. But they’ll take forward progress.

6.     Detroit Red Wings – It’s difficult to see much of a difference between any of the bottom three teams in the division because they’re all going to be roadkill this season. Maybe the Red Wings will be just a little less roadkill on some nights.

7.     Montreal Canadiens – The Habs dealt away another impact player in Max Pacioretty to Vegas and are paying an aging, breaking down goalie in Carey Price $10 million per season. Boy, would I feel bad for Claude Julien if he weren’t banking major money up there.  

8.     Ottawa Senators – The Senators might have some talent, but it will take some time to get out from under the storm clouds of last year. Bad owner, fans that are losing faith and you just traded your star player for pennies on the dollar. Yikes.  
 
METROPOLITAN DIVISION

1. Washington Capitals – The Capitals finally got over the hump last season. Now the question is whether Alex Ovechkin and Co. spend this year holding a season-long party to celebrate what they did last year. But clearly the talent is there.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins – Perhaps the Penguins will be re-energized after watching their mortal enemies in DC hoist the Cup. A shorter season must have also done them some good after long back-to-back Cup years. The Cup-level talent is still there, however.  

3. Columbus Blue Jackets – The Blue Jackets have the goaltending, they have the grit and they have a talent-loaded blue line to go with their workmanlike group of forwards. The only question is whether they finally get tired of working so hard for Torts.

4. New Jersey Devils – The Devils aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this season after a playoff year with Taylor Hall winning the Hart Trophy. They are also a year better as well, but the challenge will be a bigger one to stay among the top half of teams in the Metro.       

5. Philadelphia Flyers – There’s a ton of young talent (especially on the back end) and there are some very good veteran players like Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux. Like every year, though, it’s going to come down to the goaltending of Brian Elliott and Michael Neuvirth, and neither is a world beater.   

6. Carolina Hurricanes – The Hurricanes have a new look, a new coach and a new owner, and they’re even going to wear the Hartford Whalers uniform a couple of times. Unfortunately it’s probably going to be the same results for them in the standings.    

7. New York Rangers – The Rangers blew up as much of the team as they could have last season and dropped to the bottom of the Metro Division. It will be a long way back to the top for the Blueshirts, but there’s a limit to just how bad they can be with an admittedly aging King Henrik still around.  

8. New York Islanders – John Tavares left the Islanders holding the bag after bolting to the Leafs in free agency. It’s going to take them a while to recover from this one, but on the bright side they’re playing some games back in Nassau Coliseum this year.   
 
WESTERN CONFERENCE
 
CENTRAL DIVISION
1. Winnipeg Jets – The Jets took a pretty good leap last season and maybe they take another one to the cusp of a Stanley Cup this season. The one question about this team is whether some of the older core players are getting a little too long in the tooth for a Cup window, but they should have another season or two with Patrik Laine taking things over.

2. Nashville Predators – The Preds will once again be a tough out in the Western Conference, and should be involved in some pretty epic battles with the Jets over the course of the season. Would they already have won the Cup if they were going to win one? Tough to say with the talent up front, on the back end and between the pipes.  

3. Minnesota Wild – The Wild should once again be a playoff team with Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Jason Zucker, Matt Dumba and Charlie Coyle along with Devan Dubnyk, but does anybody really think they’re ready for a run to the Cup? Just a nice hockey team out in Minnesota.

4. Colorado Avalanche – Nathan MacKinnon is a legit NHL star and they have enough to get into the postseason, but once again they look a little light compared to the heavyweights in this conference. Mikko Rantanen really exploded on the scene for them last season.  

5. Chicago Blackhawks – I’m officially down on the Blackhawks after expecting them to return to glory the last couple of seasons. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews will still have their nights of going off, but they just can’t put together a playoff roster while paying the massive cap hits to that duo at the same time.

6. Dallas Stars – The Stars will score plenty of goals with Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, Alex Radulov and a whole host of others on offense, but they are way too run-and-gun to be taken seriously in the Western Conference. It will be interesting to see how Seguin plays after getting that massive contract extension this summer.     

7. St. Louis Blues – The Blues still have Vladimir Tarasenko, Colton Parayko and Alex Pietrangelo, but they’re a long way from the Blues team that ruled this conference. It could be a long year in St. Louis based on the competition. 
 
PACIFIC DIVISION

1. San Jose Sharks – Erik Karlsson is a game-changer for the San Jose Sharks, and he’s a game-changer for the entire Western Conference. This should be San Jose’s season to dominate with Brent Burns and Karlsson constantly on the ice, and this should also be the season they finally get to the Final and hoist the thing. We’ll see if it actually happens.  

2. Vegas Golden Knights – It was kind of a Cinderella year for the Golden Knights coming in as an expansion team, and they also probably had a lot of teams not quite prepared to play in their first team trip to Vegas. It will be a much together road for the Golden Knights, so we’ll get to see exactly how good they really are after last year’s magic.  

3. Los Angeles Kings – The Kings still have Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar along with wunderkind Tyler Toffoli, and they still have the heart of a champion. But they’re also getting a little long in the tooth, and they added 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk to that mix for a little more offensive punch. We’ll see how that works out.  

4. Edmonton Oilers – Things could really go one of two ways for the Oilers. Either they get back on track and finally start playing up to their talent level, or the pressure of expectations is going to eat them up, spit them out and changes are going to start being made. It should be fascinating to watch, and Connor McDavid should lead them out of the mess if he’s half as good as everybody says that he is.

5. Anaheim Ducks – Losing Corey Perry for a long stretch of time at the beginning of the season certainly is a bummer, and the Ducks are another team that’s hanging on with an aging group. Still a lot of proud competitors sprinkled in with some good, young players, but it’s going to be hard to keep up with the teams on the rise in this division.

6. Calgary Flames – New look in Calgary with Dougie Hamilton no longer in the Flames dressing room, and instead more onus on other talented youngsters like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, Keith Tkachuk and Sam Bennett among others. We’ll see if removing some of their core group shakes up the rest of the team after disappointing last season.

7. Arizona Coyotes – Certainly the Coyotes have assembled a talented group of youngsters and John Chayka should have the team in exactly the shape he wants them to be at this point. But it still feels the Coyotes are a long ways away even after having a breakout rookie like Clayton Keller last season.    

8. Vancouver Canucks – Who knows where things will take the Canucks this season? They have Brock Boeser and they have Bo Horvath, and that’s a good place to start. But a team that just lost Trevor Linden as Team President sure feels like it needs to bottom out before things are going to truly get better.    

PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS:

Tampa Bay Lightning over Pittsburgh Penguins in Eastern Conference Final – The Penguins get within a playoff series of getting back to the Stanley Cup Final, but instead they fall to a Lightning team that’s primed for big things this season. 
 
San Jose Sharks over the Winnipeg Jets in Western Conference Final – The Sharks aren’t going to be denied as they become an updated version of the Pronger/Niedermayer Ducks with Burns and Karlsson ready to control play against their opponents. It’s tough to beat that. 
 
Sharks over the Lightning in Stanley Cup Final – It would be fitting if the Lightning fell short in their efforts to land Karlsson (which was never going to happen in the same division as Ottawa) and then fall short to Karlsson and the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Final. We would get to see the Victor Hedman/Erik Karlsson pirate videos from the NHL All-Star Game all over again. 
 
Hart Trophy – Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers
Norris Trophy – Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
Calder Trophy – Rasmus Dahlin, Buffalo Sabres
Vezina Trophy – Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
Selke Trophy – Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Bruins Summer Series: Can David Pastrnak use playoffs as learning experience?

Bruins Summer Series: Can David Pastrnak use playoffs as learning experience?

Today’s piece on David Pastrnak is the last in a 10-part series over two weeks breaking down the core Bruins group of players, and where they stand headed into next season after last spring’s Stanley Cup playoff run.

When you look back at the numbers, they certainly didn’t tell the entire story.

David Pastrnak finished tied for the team lead with his nine playoff goals and he had a perfectly respectable 19 points in his 24 playoff games during Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup Final. But the 23-year-old Bruins right winger wasn’t nearly as dominant as he was while scoring 81 points in 66 games during the regular season. Worse still, he appeared to lose confidence during Boston’s postseason run and at points was turning away chances to shoot away and rip one-timers that he was scoring on frequently during the regular season.

How much of it can be attributed to problems related to the thumb injury he suffered away from the rink during the regular season? How much of it was battling through the playoff grind where mental strength is just as important as dazzling physical abilities?

It sure felt like a combination of both, and the Bruins are hoping that Pastrnak’s battle with his own self-confidence is something that will make him a better player moving forward.

“I go back to his first postseason against Ottawa and it wasn’t very good. Then the following year he was strong in the first round against Toronto and maybe slipped a little bit in the second round. Then this past postseason, I thought he got better and then it got even harder in the third round,” said Bruins President Cam Neely in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview with NBC Sports Boston. “So these are learning experiences for these young players to really understand what it takes as you advance in the playoffs. Each round is different than the previous one.

“Then you get to the conference final and the finals and it’s tough hockey out there. I look at Pasta and he’s grown from the first playoff experience to this last one, and I expect even more growth out of him moving forward. I understand losing confidence, but I don’t understand losing confidence and not shooting. That’s what I’d talk to him about.

"For me, if you lose confidence, it means putting more pucks on net if you’re counted on to score goals. But everybody’s different when they lose confidence and everybody thinks differently. Pasta came out and said that he wasn’t confident shooting the puck, so maybe he’d just give it to somebody else. From my perspective, you put pucks on net and then everybody has to turn around and find where the puck is. Maybe that creates two opportunities out of it. You could tell he was fighting it because he was struggling with the one-timer.”

So is the player based on his own comments following the season where Pastrnak called the 24-game playoff run “a big mental experience.” Certainly that was obvious as he flailed away at one-timer attempts and eventually turned down shooting opportunities when the laser shot from the face-off circles is his scoring bread and butter. Pastrnak vowed to be better moving forward, and it’s a good bet he will be based on his willingness to work hard, and his undeniable upward trajectory since joining the NHL as the league’s youngest player at 18 years old during his rookie season.

Pastrnak is an NHL superstar-in-the-making and his first run to the Stanley Cup Final is another opportunity to better himself as a hockey player.

Now it’s more a question as to how good he can be where he finished with 38 goals and 81 points last season, and clearly has the ability to get up in the neighborhood of 50 goals and 100 points if healthy and at his best.

The other question is where he’d be best at moving forward. It would appear the Bruins are comfortable keeping the skilled, game-breaking Pastrnak on the right wing with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand on the Perfection Line. But there’s always the option to move Pastrnak down with his fellow Czech David Krejci and diversify their scoring at times, while also potentially moving a bigger, stronger forward with Bergeron and Marchand.

This will be a daily question for Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins coaching staff on a game-by-game basis, but the bigger picture is about Pastrnak’s evolution into the best player on the B’s roster. The 23-year-old isn’t there yet and he showed during the long postseason run that there are still areas where his game can mature into the complete player he will become.

But there’s still no denying the bright future for Pastrnak after five brilliant NHL seasons, and that this past spring will end up being another formative experience that is pointed toward being the future of the franchise.    

Key stat: 81 – The career-high number of points in 66 games for Pastrnak, who is just scratching the surface of how good he can be at 23 years old. Now it’s about continuing to evolve during the regular season and becoming that kind of dominant player in the postseason as well.  

Pastrnak in his own words: “It was obviously challenging for me, but I had 25 guys to help pick me up just like I would do the opposite [for them]. It was the mental stuff, you know? In this kind of life, even if you don't want to see stuff, read stuff and blah-blah with the media, it's tough. You're always going to see it. And that's fine, you know? I will take a lot of positives from this. I'm just going to get stronger mentally. So it was a good experience. It's a big mental experience. I gained a lot this postseason. The mental stuff is what I learned the most. [I learned] that it doesn't [expletive] matter if you play a bad friggen' game. It's the playoffs. Or if you have a bad shift. It's the playoffs and you just need to come back to the bench and make sure you're ready for the next shift no matter what happened behind you. It's the tough part of hockey sometimes when you get back stuck on something instead of looking forward, and focusing on the next shift. Sometimes you get stuck on thinking what happened before and that brings you down kind of."

The biggest question he faces: Can Pastrnak evolve after admitting to losing confidence during the Stanley Cup playoff run? Was the thumb injury a one-time blip that the young right winger is going to learn from and become an even better pro as a result? Beyond that it’s a matter of Pastrnak becoming as good as he wants to be, provided he can continue to improve his two-way game, retain all his offensive gifts and learn how to do deal with being targeted by other teams on a nightly basis.

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20 Under 25: Jake DeBrusk hopes to salvage 2015 Draft for Bruins

20 Under 25: Jake DeBrusk hopes to salvage 2015 Draft for Bruins

Don Sweeney didn’t earn many fans when he got creative with three consecutive picks in the first round of the 2015 draft.

Jakub Zboril, the perceived safe pick, proved to be anything but. Zach Senyshyn hasn’t exactly proven those who called him a reach wrong. Meanwhile, the three players taken right after the Bruins were on the clock have become bona fide stars (Mathew Barzal, Kyle Connor, Thomas Chabot).

At least the second of those three Bruins picks has been really good. 

Truly, Jake DeBrusk has been. For a team that’s already got its share of regular 30-goal-scorers in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, DeBrusk is well on his way to becoming the fourth. In just his second NHL season, DeBrusk pushed for 30 by netting 27 goals in 68 games. 

While DeBrusk’s points have been consistent in each of his two years (43 as a rookie, 42 last season), he’ll have plenty of motivation to further break out as he enters the final year of his entry level contract. 

One unknown with DeBrusk: What kind of postseason player will he ultimately be? After first-round heroics as a rookie against the Maple Leafs, the left wing struggled in his second playoff run. His 11-point showing in 24 games left more to be desired. 

At 22, DeBrusk is already a solid top-sixer. If he becomes a star, it will really soften the blow of what was at the time a really rough draft night for the B’s. 

Click here to see this year's candidates for the 20 Under 25 list

Click here to vote for this year's 20 Under 25

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