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Thursday, September 15, 2011
What to watch as Bruins open camp

By James Murphy
ESPNBoston.com

It seems like only days ago that the Bruins were streaming out of the TD Garden parking lot on duck boats for their Stanley Cup parade, but on Friday they will be back in Boston for the start of training camp. Veterans and rookies officially report to TD Garden on Friday for their physicals and rookie practice. The veterans will hold their first official practice on Saturday with the first preseason game coming just a few days later on Wednesday in Ottawa.

With hardly any turnover this offseason and Brad Marchand having signed this past Wednesday, there aren't very many question marks heading into this season. But here are 10 storylines to watch as the Bruins prepare to defend their Stanley Cup championship.

Can Tim Thomas repeat his amazing 2010-11 season? Does Tuukka Rask get more playing time?
After going 35-11-9 with a league-leading 2.00 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in the regular season and then leading the Bruins to their first Stanley Cup in 39 seasons, Tim Thomas was named the Vezina Trophy winner and then the Conn Smythe winner in what was one of the best seasons ever by an NHL goalie. At age 37, can he repeat that performance? It will be a hard task, and with Thomas so good at thriving off being an underdog, it will be interesting to see how he handles being on top. But as he has proved throughout his career, if he sets his mind to something and he's healthy, he usually succeeds. After all the naysayers he has proven wrong, it's hard to ever doubt him.

Tim Thomas
The Conn Smythe was just one award that Tim Thomas picked up during his amazing 2010-11 season.

But the biggest question mark between the pipes for the Bruins is how Tuukka Rask handles being the backup goalie again. After a brilliant rookie season in 2009-10 when he took the starting job away from Thomas, Rask was relegated to No. 2 duties early last season when Thomas stormed out to an historic start. Rask never really seemed to be able to recover from that. While showing shades of 2009-10, his confidence clearly wasn't there as he went 11-14-2 with a 2.67 GAA and .918 save percentage. It will be very interesting to see how Rask performs in camp and early on in the season. Will he be motivated despite Thomas clearly being the starter? Also, how will head coach Claude Julien split the starts between him and Thomas? Expect Rask to get a chance to play early in the season, but he must make the most of the starts if he ever wants a chance to take more time away from Thomas.

Can the team avoid Stanley Cup hangover?
The last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions was the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings and since the lockout began only the Red Wings and Penguins have made the finals in consecutive seasons, having played each other in 2007-08 and then again in 2008-09. With parity ruling the league now and the salary cap making it difficult to keep champion rosters together, as the Blackhawks found out last season, the days of dynasties are behind us.

But thankfully for Bruins fans, their team was able to stay relatively intact this past offseason. Only three regulars -- Michael Ryder (free agency), Tomas Kaberle (free agency) and Mark Recchi (retirement) -- departed. They return a solid core of young players in David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Tyler Seguin and Rask, players who now all have Stanley Cup experience and rings. If healthy, and if their attitudes are in check, this team definitely has a chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. The main key will be how much of a toll the shortened offseason and the wear and tear of the long playoffs took on the team. The Bruins play 13 of their first 17 games at home, which should help them get off to a fast start.

Who replaces Recchi as an alternate captain and leader?
While Mark Recchi seemed to wear down during the playoffs, he still showed up when it mattered most with seven points in seven games in the Stanley Cup finals. In addition to his production, his experience and leadership proved to be invaluable to linemates Marchand and Bergeron and all the other young players on the team. The question now is: Who steps up in the leadership role for the Bruins? Thankfully for the Bruins they have other veteran leaders like Shawn Thornton, Andrew Ference, Thomas and obviously captain Zdeno Chara. Recchi will be missed but there is still a solid leadership core there for the Bruins. As for who ends up wearing the vacant "A" left behind by Recchi, the bet here is Ference or Thornton.

Does Milan Lucic play like regular-season Lucic or playoff Lucic?
After an injury-plagued 2009-10 season, Lucic finally had a breakout season with a career high in goals (30), assists (32) and points (62). But after reaching the 30-goal plateau on March 22, Lucic went goalless in the final 10 regular-season games and first 10 playoff games. Yes, he played the majority of the playoffs with a broken toe and sinus infection -- the latter of which he had surgery for -- but Lucic clearly wasn't himself after scoring that 30th goal. He wasn't skating and his physical edge seemed to disappear. He is a key cog in the Bruins' offense and if he wants to remain on the first line, he will need play like the Lucic of the first three quarters of the 2010-11 season.

Can Brad Marchand have another great season?
After a surprising, 21-goal, 41-point rookie season, and now with a new two-year, $5 million contract, is Marchand due for a sophomore slump? Marchand admittedly enjoyed his Stanley Cup celebrations this summer and went until two days before training camp began without a new contract. It wouldn't be a huge surprise if Marchand struggles some. The pesky winger has always had to walk a fine line with his emotions on the ice, and while he learned to control them toward the end of the season and in the playoffs, continuing to build on that will be a test. Marchand has shown he has the goods to be more than just an agitator, but has the success gotten to his head? We will see.

Is Nathan Horton truly healthy?
Horton told the media earlier this week that he has been cleared to play and is symptom free from the concussion that he suffered in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Canucks. But remember, he also played with a shoulder injury during the playoffs and there has to be some concern that symptoms from either of those injuries could crop back up. Horton is a major part of the Bruins' offensive attack and his health will play a big role in the team's success.

Will the power play be better?
When you look back at the playoffs, it's still amazing that a team that went just 10-for-88 (14 percent) on the power play in 25 games won the Stanley Cup. The Bruins know that probably won't happen again and that they need to be better on the man advantage. They were ranked 20th in the regular season with a 16.2 percent success rate and that lackluster power play followed them into the postseason. While they won the Cup in spite of that, it would be nice to get off to a good start on the power play so the issue doesn't linger and get worse.

Tyler Seguin
Tyler Seguin scored two goals against the Lightning in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Does Tyler Seguin have a breakout season?
After being drafted second overall by the Bruins in the 2010 draft, Seguin entered the season with plenty of hype. But as a rookie, Seguin struggled with Claude Julien's system and the wear and tear of the season. He was a healthy scratch multiple times in the regular season and the playoffs, missing the first 11 games of the postseason. He had 22 points in 74 regular-season games and seven points in 13 playoff games. But in Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, while filling in for the injured Bergeron, Seguin showed the offensive potential that made him such a high draft pick. Seguin used his speed and shot to register two points in Game 1 and then four points in Game 2. But after that outburst, Seguin had only one point in the next 11 playoff games.

The question now is whether he's learned enough and adapted enough to the NHL level to show his skills on a regular basis. It will be interesting to see if Julien gives Seguin a chance to prove he belong on the second line with Bergeron and Marchand.

How will Benoit Pouliot and Joe Corvo fit in?
Forward Pouliot and defenseman Corvo were the only notable additions by the Bruins in the offseason, but where do they fit in? In Pouliot's case, this could be the final chance for the 6-foot-3, 199-pound winger to prove he deserved to be drafted No. 4 overall in the 2005 NHL entry draft. If Pouliot can consistently use his size and skating ability, he could find a regular spot in the lineup, possibly on the third line with Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly. But he will need to show that his work ethic is there in camp and the preseason and shake his role as an underachiever. As for Corvo, his cannon of a shot and power-play skills are the main reason the Bruins acquired him from Carolina in July. Unlike Kaberle, the man he essentially replaces, Corvo's first thought seems to be to shoot instead of pass. He should help improve the Bruins' power play.

Who will challenge for spots in the lineup?
There aren't many open spots in the Bruins' lineup, but as general manager Peter Chiarelli told ESPNBoston.com earlier in the month, if a player comes in and performs well enough, he'll be given a shot to make the lineup. "First and foremost, if someone is going to create an opening by their play, we'll gladly play along and make that opening," Chiarelli said. "We'll either send someone to the minors or trade them. We're able to carry 23 guys, so there's room to carry some extra players. We've got some young guys that we know are going to push some guys, and I expect that."

In that story Chiarelli went on to say that forward Jordan Caron is one player who could push for playing time. Caron made the team out of camp last season before being sent to Providence after 25 NHL games. Chiarelli also seemed to think defenseman Steve Kampfer has a solid chance to retain the seventh spot on the blue line. Other players to keep an eye on include forwards Ryan Spooner, Jared Knight, Jamie Arniel and Max Sauve and defensemen Matt Bartkowski, Ryan Button, Andrew Bodnarchuk and David Warsofsky. Any of them could challenge for a spot either coming out of training camp or during the season.

James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Ask a question for his next Bruins mailbag here.