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The Bear Cave


July 10, 2009 8:23 PM

Kessel and Axelsson Still on Market Through One Week of Free Agency

A little more than one week has gone by since the beginning of the NHL's Free Agency Period last Wednesday. Despite a relative lack of moves in comparison to other divisional opponents, the Boston Bruins are still in solid shape going forward. So far, Boston has lost four players to other teams, brought in three new faces, and retained three other players within the organization.

The Bruins' free agent list consists of eleven players currently on the market. Phil Kessel has gained the most attention in terms of the media, but has yet to receive a qualifying offer from a team besides Boston. Matt Hunwick appears to be the closest one to a contract, as he filed for arbitration over the weekend, but will likely be signed prior to his hearing date. PJ Axelsson, Stephane Yelle, and Manny Fernandez are all unrestricted free agents, but also haven't been able to field an offer to their likings. Axelsson will likely be the lone player in the unrestricted category with a shot at returning to the Bruins. Boston already has three goaltenders under contract, keeping Fernandez out of the mix, while Steve Begin will serve as Yelle's replacement as the team's checking line center. Five of the remaining six free agents all spent time with the Providence Bruins this past season, while Carl Soderberg has yet to cross the pond from Sweden.

With the majority of last year's team back on Causeway Street, the 2009-10 Boston Bruins should be primed for another exciting run in the competitive Eastern Conference. Although there will still be a few moves between now and the beginning of training camp, it is a good time to review where the Bruins are at, and what they have left to do for their NHL club.

Thanks to this week's signing of goaltender Dany Sabourin, the netminding situation is steady and ready to start the season. Tim Thomas returns for his fifth straight season with the organization. Last season, the Flint, MI native had his best season with the Bruins, going 36-11-7, with a 2.10 goals against average, and a .933 save percentage, earning his first career Vezina Trophy. Thomas also combined with Manny Fernandez and Tuukka Rask to allow the fewest goals in the NHL, bringing the Jennings Trophy back to Boston for the first time since Andy Moog and Reggie Lemelin received the honor in 1990. For his career, Thomas has posted a record of 109-73-27, a 2.62 goals agaisnt average, and a .918 save percentage.

Thomas' backup will feature a competition, as Tuukka Rask and Dany Sabourin will each try to earn the role. After spending two full seasons with the Baby B's, Rask is the early favorite to make the jump up to the NHL. The 22-year old has picked up 60 wins over the past two years in the AHL. Sabourin has 47 games of NHL experience, going 18-25-4 with three different clubs. Last season, the Val-d'Or, QC native split time between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Springfield Falcons. Oddly enough, the winner of the backup role will likely only play between 20 and 30 games in Boston, while the loser of the battle should see between 50 and 60 games in Providence.

The Boston blueline should look extremely similar to last year's. Zdeno Chara, Aaron Ward, Andrew Ference, Dennis Wideman, and Mark Stuart are all still under contract, keeping the top five defensemen intact for yet another season. Ward and Ference will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, while Stuart will be restricted with an option for arbitration. Chara is signed through 2011, and Wideman's contract runs out after 2012. The final two defensive spots on the roster should belong to Matt Hunwick and Johnny Boychuk. Hunwick is a restricted free agent, but is close to having a deal done. Of course, this set of defensemen is assuming that Boston opts not to sign or trade for another piece to the puzzle.

Up front, the concern for most is what Phil Kessel will decide on for the coming season. 36 regular season goals and six postseason tallies will certainly have an impact on a team. However, this is an offense that still has the capabilities to be lethal. First, the line of David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, and Michael Ryder will all be returning, giving the Bruins three players with 20-goal seasons on their resumes. Marc Savard's 88 points could be combined with Milan Lucic, who could potentially reach the 20-goal mark in his third NHL season on the top line. Patrice Bergeron had a bit of a slow season in terms of lighting the lamp in 2008-09, but has had seasons with 31 and 22 goals respectively in a Boston uniform. Bergeron's production should stay high this season, especially if he is playing alongside Mark Recchi and Chuck Kobasew, who are both coming off of 20-goal campaigns. In case that's not enough scoring, don't forget that Marco Sturm will return to the lineup after missing most of this past season with an injury. Sturm had seven goals and six assists in 19 games, and isn't a stranger when it comes to finding the scoresheet. Steve Begin, Byron Bitz, and Shawn Thornton currently complete the group of forwards, with Vladimir Sobotka possibly cracking the final roster as well.

Generally speaking, a first line winger is the only void in Boston's lineup for 2009-10. Matt Hunwick's anticipated contract will likely give the Bruins a ballpark in terms of how much they have to work with against the salary cap. Obviously, Phil Kessel would be the ideal fit, as 36-goal scorers don't just become available. In order to be able to afford Kessel, the team may have to make a move to free up a bit of salary. If they opt to let Kessel go elsewhere, there are still talented forwards on the market in players such as Mike Comrie and Petr Sykora to name a few. If PJ Axelsson re-signs, one or two players on the fence could be deemed as expendable to make room for said forward.

Although transactions have slowed over the past few days, players are continuing to sign, as teams are beginning to get a good look at how they are shaping up for the upcoming season.

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