The Boston Bruins began the 2006-07 season with a new regime in the front office, as well as behind the bench, but for the second consecutive season, the team would miss the playoffs. While a new era under the watch of new GM Peter Chiarelli may have begun with its share of disappointments, there are some positives that can be taken from the season. With a talented group of young players, some ready for the big show and some right on the cusp, the Bruins are building towards a promising future.
The most notable young player within the Bruins organization to make the jump to the NHL this season was undoubtedly Phil Kessel. Those looking for a Crosby-like rookie campaign from the 19-year-old may be disappointed, but his progression from the beginning of training camp to the end of the season was anything but disappointing. Kessel had his share of battles as he acclimated himself to playing in the pros. During the first 27 games of the season, he tallied a total nine points. In early December, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, but following surgery and a brief recovery period, he was back on the ice within a month and seemingly recharged. It’s a scary and life-altering diagnosis for anyone, but Kessel’s battle with the disease and his resolve to get back on the ice, speak volumes about his character.
Like any young player, there were adjustments to be made, and ice time needed to be earned. Kessel proved that he was willing to do the work necessary, however, and by April, he looked like a completely different player. He tallied 20 of his total 29 points in the latter half of the season, and scored the shootout deciding goal on four different occasions. Over the course of the season, he evolved into a player who made better decisions with the puck, and he demonstrated a willingness to use his linemates to create scoring chances. Going into the 2007-08 season, Kessel could benefit from continued strength training, as he was at times overpowered physically. His tremendous speed, skating ability, and willingness to drive to the net, however, have made him a continued scoring threat. After a rookie season of tremendous growth and perseverance, Kessel has created the beginnings of a successful NHL career.
Things did not go smoothly for goaltender Hannu Toivonen, who, after a highly promising debut in the 2005-06 season, wasn’t able to grasp the starting role coming out of the gates in the 2006-07 season. The biggest issue for Toivonen was the time missed from the ankle injury suffered last season. When he entered training camp in September of 2006, he hadn’t made a start since January. With his share struggles early on, Toivonen wound up spending more time on the bench than between the pipes. He was sent to Providence to get playing time, only to return to Boston, where his chances to play were few and far between. Toivonen only appeared in 18 games for Boston in the 2006-07 season, during which he had a record of 3-9-1 with a .875 save percentage and 4.23 GAA. When the Bruins claimed goaltender Joey MacDonald off waivers from the Detroit Red Wings in early March, Toivonen would be sent down to Providence for the remainder of the season.
Despite the step backwards this season, Toivonen is still young, with a bright future ahead of him. His inexperience coupled with the lack of playing time hurt his confidence early on and as a result, it never really allowed him to get going. The Bruins continue to express their confidence in the young netminder, however, and after seemingly getting back on track in Providence he was rewarded with a one-year contract. As the P Bruins battle to extend their playoff run, Toivonen is gaining more experience, and hopefully building towards a successful NHL season for 2007-08.
It looked like rookie defenseman Mark Stuart was going to find a regular job in the NHL, but following offseason knee surgery, he needed some work to get back where he was at the and of the 2005-06 season. Stuart only appeared in 15 NHL games for the 2006-07 season, but Bruins Assistant GM Jeff Gorton expressed confidence in the young defender.
“I think he’s right there,” said Gorton. “He’s very close to becoming an NHL player — if he’s not already. I think it comes down to opportunity, and once he gets the opportunity to play on a regular basis, the next time he’ll probably stick.”
According to Gorton, Stuart has shown improvement both in his skating and puck-handling, and with the intensity and leadership that he brings to the rink, he’s a player with a bright NHL future.
Another player who made his mark late in the season was right wing Petr Kalus, who had spent the majority of his rookie season in the AHL with the Providence Bruins. By the time he got the call to Boston, they were already out of the running for the playoffs, but in his brief nine-game stay, he tallied a total five points, four of which were goals.
“You know, for a 19-year-old to bring the speed and scoring ability he’s brought, it’s impressive,” said Gorton. “To go into a team that’s out of it, and the spirits are a little low, I think Petr’s been a bright spot.”
Kalus is a goal scorer with a solid physical game, both of which will help him going into the future, and he’s another player with a legitimate shot to stick to Boston in the fall.
Providence Bruins leading scorer David Krejci was among the other prospects to make their debuts this season, along with Nate Thompson, Jonathan Sigalet and Matt Lashoff. With the exception of Lashoff, who had a total 12 NHL games, none saw more than a few minutes of playing time, but all are players who have left a favorable impression.
Bruins European Prospects Notes
Of the prospects currently playing in Europe, there are really only four with a legitimate shot of wearing a Bruins uniform. Goaltender Tuukka Rask is the most well-known, and perhaps one of the most anticipated. He played his second full season in Finland’s elite league with Ilves, where he consistently kept his team in games. Rask finished 11th overall in the league among goaltenders, appearing in 49 games and finishing off the season with 2.38 GAA and .928 save percentage. Rask, along with Finnish wing Mikko Lehtonen and Czech forward Vladimir Sobotka are players that the Bruins plan to sign and bring over for the 2007-08 season. Lehtonen tallied a total 15 points in the 39 regular season games he played with the Espoo Blues (FNL), while Sobotka had 7 goals and 6 assists in 33 games with Slavia in the Czech Extraliga. Eighteen-year-old Yuri Alexandrov completed his second full season in Russia’s top tier league, playing for Severstal. The young defenseman appeared in a total 45 games with two points and 38 penalty minutes. All four players represented their respective countries at the 2007 U20 World Junior Competition.
“I liked what I saw over there,” Gorton said of the tournament. “Lehtonen was very good, he’s the big Finnish winger we have over there — he tied for the lead in scoring for the tournament. Sobotka was probably the best Czech player, and Rask, I think it’s pretty well publicized what kind of player he is. I think we were really encouraged by what we saw over there from most guys, and we look forward to hopefully getting these guys in Bruins uniforms pretty soon.”
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