They grow up so fast, don't they? That's the lesson the Bruins
learned last season when new coach Pat Burns, who was brought in
to oversee a rebuilding project, coaxed 39 wins and a playoff
appearance from a group of players who looked as if they should
have spent their time watching Teletubbies rather than video of
their opponents. Burns played the stern parent--pulling ears,
administering verbal spankings--and the Baby B's added 30 points
to their NHL-worst 1996-97 total of 61.
That improvement was partly due to the breakout play of the
Bruins' young stars and partly to the fact that their season was
pretty much a sneak attack on everybody. Boston won't have that
advantage this season. "This year teams aren't going to say,
'The Bruins are in town, and they're easy,'" says Burns, who was
the league's coach of the year. "They're going to say, 'We have
to work to beat these guys.'"
To do that opponents will have to keep up with a group of
skaters who put the fleet into the FleetCenter. Mighty mite
(5'8") left wing Sergei Samsonov, 19, scored 22 goals and won
the Calder Trophy. His linemate, 23-year-old center Jason
Allison, led the team in scoring with 83 points and blossomed
into one of the most dangerous players in the league. Quick,
burly 21-year-old Kyle McLaren has proved that he's ready to
anchor the defense if Ray Bourque, who comes back for his 20th
season, ever retires.
To return to the postseason the Bruins, who had only two
50-plus-point scorers last season, have to find more balance on
offense. They would love 19-year-old center Joe Thornton (the
No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft) to live up to expectations after a
disappointing rookie season beset by injuries and inconsistency.
He spent the summer improving his less-than-stellar conditioning
habits and added 15 pounds of muscle.
Expecting repeat performances from so many kids is risky,
though, especially since at week's end Allison, McLaren and
winger Anson Carter had each missed all or most of camp because
of contract squabbles. But Burns's defensive system and
goaltender Byron Dafoe should smother opponents--and get the
Bruins back into the playoffs. They'll have to grow up a bit
more to have any success beyond that.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
Last season 37-year-old defenseman Ray Bourque led NHL players
in ice time, with 2,462 minutes, 18 more than Blackhawks
backliner Chris Chelios.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--The Bruins must find a way to keep their older defensemen--Ray
Bourque, 37, Dave Ellett, 34, Grant Ledyard, 36, and Don
--Boston won't sneak up on anybody the way it did last season, so
the younger Bruins must continue to outwork the opposition.