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X-Factors: Marco Sturm 08.27.10 at 4:17 am ET
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Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their ‘€œX-factor’€ status entering the season. So far, we’€™ve taken a look at Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, Nathan Horton, and the goaltending position. Rounding out the group is Marco Sturm, who may be the biggest case of them all given the uncertainty that surrounds both his eventual return from injury and what type of impact he can have.

Things have been a bit strange when it comes to Marco Sturm this offseason. He’s been celebrated by fans, but not for anything he’ll do on the ice. Instead, Bruins die-hards cheer up during salary cap discussions when they realize that the winger will save the team $3.5 million in cap space to begin the season thanks to his long-term injury status.

Sturm has now had season-ending major knee injuries in each of the past two seasons. In 2008, he tore the ACL in his left knee and was shut down after just 19 games. Last season, of course, he tore both the ACL and MCL in his right knee in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Flyers. Injuries have become a big part of the discussion with Sturm, but if the Bruins can get him back(and that’s a big “if”) they could have themselves an offensive sleeper for the 2010-11 season.

The team doesn’t expect to have Sturm ready to go until late November, but with such an injury, nothing can be counted on no matter how “successful” the surgery could have went. The thing is, with the big additions to the offense in Nathan Horton and Tyler Seguin, the Bruins will have a chance in the time Sturm’s away to see how this new offense will gel. Plus, they’ll be able to go over the cap by however much he earns. This is awfully convenient for the Bruins, who just happen to be over $3 million over the cap before subtracting Sturm’s $3.5 million. Read the rest of this entry »

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X-Factors: Nathan Horton 08.26.10 at 12:29 am ET
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Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their ‘€œX-factor’€ status entering the season. So far, we’€™ve taken a look at Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, and the goaltending position. Up next is Nathan Horton, who is undoubtedly primed for a big season, but is there a point at which placing huge expectations on a top player can become detrimental?

The definition of “X-factor” could be called into question here given that Horton is expected to be a first-line winger and potentially the team’s top scorer. That certainly doesn’t sound like a qualifying case for this series, but the truth is that there are so many variables that come into play with Horton that it would be unwise to take anything as being a given. After all, huge expectations that were outside what Horton could do in the Panthers’ offense were what plagued his career in Florida.

For starters, it seemed quite clear when Horton first came to Boston that this is the environment in which he wanted to be. In fact, he appeared rather nervous when he was introduced alongside Tyler Seguin. So why is this good? Because Horton has appeared throughout his young career (he’s still 25) that he is ready to explode in the right situation. It seems he has that here with the Bruins, and it’s apparent that he’s excited to finally have the chance.

If Horton blossoms into the 40-goal scorer that many think he will become when placed to the right of Marc Savard, he will actually double his goals from last season. Whether or not such a feat is actually attainable remains to be seen, but playing on a team with what he called “stability” that the Panthers lacked could go a long way. A long way, yes, but far enough to make him one of the top scorers in the league?

The Bruins haven’t had a player rack up 40 goals in a season since the 2002-03 campaign, when Glen Murray finished fifth in the league with 44 (Joe Thornton wasn’t far behind with 36). How Horton gels with Savard will go a long way in determining whether he’s the next (it’s hard not to imagine Seguin getting to there within a few seasons) to do so. Horton’s spent his career with either with centers below Savard’s skillet or playing the position himself. Finally having someone who can set him up and also needs to be accounted for means big things should be in store, and that maybe those projections aren’t too crazy. Read the rest of this entry »

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X-factors: Blake Wheeler 08.25.10 at 6:00 am ET
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Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their ‘€œX-factor’€ status entering the season. So far, we’ve taken a look at Michael Ryder, as well as the goaltending position. Up next is a man who — fairly or unfairly — might have to win some fans back in winger Blake Wheeler following a streaky and up-and-down season.

Something’s being written about Blake Wheeler? This offseason? We know — given his arbitration case, Wheeler may have been the most blogged about Bruin this side of Tyler Seguin, so this one will stay away from the usual stuff. Unlike what seemed to be minute-by-minute updates of the whole arbitration process in Toronto last month, this will be more of a look at how Wheeler can be one of the offense’s top contributors or one of its bigger disappointments. For that reason, it’s impossible to keep Wheeler out of this series.

Wheeler is a similar case to Ryder in that he’s a winger who at times both underachieved and infuriated fans throughout the 2009-10 season. Unlike Ryder, Wheeler is not set to hit free agency following the coming season, but he is playing for a contract in that he’ll be restricted at the end of the season. The motivation is there for Wheeler to put up big numbers, but he seems motivated enough as he prepares for his third NHL season.

Wheeler’s value is as a scorer undoubtedly, but his lack of physicality left people with something to be desired. Factor in that he didn’t crack 20 goals (he chipped in 18) and the naysayers didn’t have much difficulty making an argument against a timid winger who had scoreless stretches of 15, 12, and nine games.

So will this be Wheeler’s breakout season? He’ll be 24 when the season starts and he’s armed with a 6-foot-5 frame that, if filled out and utilized, could serve as an advantage. Based on his offseason evaluations of himself, Wheeler doesn’t expect to warrant any complaints about toughness again.

‘€œI think for me it’€™s all about ‘€” especially on the forecheck ‘€” being more physical, more of a presence. I think I’€™ve gotten so focused on the offensive production and the numbers side of things, especially last year, where I think there’€™s definitely more ways to be a contributing factor out on the ice,’€ Wheeler said shortly after inking his deal. ‘€œIt’€™s just all about understanding your areas of strengths and your areas of weakness. I think if I can just assert myself more physically, especially on the forecheck and things of that nature, it’€™s going to create a lot more opportunities for myself and the guys I’€™m playing with to get more offensive opportunities. Sometimes it’€™s about less is more, and when you kind of take a step back from things, it’€™s a little bit easier to notice where you may be able to improve on things.’€ Read the rest of this entry »

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X-Factors: Tuukka and Tim 08.24.10 at 1:00 am ET
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Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their ‘€œX-factor’€ status entering the season. Monday, we took a look at Michael Ryder. Up next are the two men between the pipes in Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas.

Though it may be a bit strange to not consider strong goaltending to be a sure thing in Boston given the past two seasons, it is certainly worth looking into what type of production the Bruins can expect from their netminders. Each player has something big to deal with in 2010-11. For Thomas, its another year under his belt and for Rask it’s the dreaded sophomore slump.

For the Bruins, and this goes against most of the fans’ wishes this offseason, it would appear the right choice was made in not dealing Thomas and his $5 million salary cap hit. The fact of the matter is that though he is 36 years of age, is coming off hip surgery and did not show his Vezina form last season, Thomas is of utmost important to the Bruins’ operation. He started the majority of Boston’s regular season games and posted a respectable 2.56 goals against average last season. He didn’t get a single start in the postseason, but he played just as big a role as Rask in getting the team there.

So why all the negativity surrounding Thomas? One would have to guess it can’t be fun going into each season with fans expecting you to lose your job, something Thomas has undoubtedly had to deal with for quite some time. Though he made $1.8 million more than Rask (after the rookie’s performance bonuses), evaluating the position as a whole based on cap hit would actually suggest the Bruins are paying a fair price.

Entering the coming season, the Bruins will be paying $6.25 million for a tandem that gave them a 2.33 goals against average over 82 games last season. The team’s GAA was second to only the Devils. For a frame of reference regarding that $6.25 million number, that’s exactly how much reigning Vezina winner Ryan Miller will be making with the Sabres next season. Though Thomas’ cap hit may be alarming by itself, the Bruins are paying a manageable amount for perhaps the league’s best duo in net. Read the rest of this entry »

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X-factors: Michael Ryder 08.23.10 at 1:02 am ET
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Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their “X-factor” status entering the season. Michael Ryder is up first.

Who better to kick this series off than a guy who fans wanted gone in the offseason but could end up having a major offensive impact in 2010-11? No, it’s not Marc Savard, but rather right wing Michael Ryder. Given his $4 million cap hit and inconsistency last season, it has been rare to hear Ryder’s name in the past few months without also hearing “trade,” “buyout,” or “Providence.” To the contrary, the likelihood is that Ryder will indeed be with the club when the Bruins begin their season in Prague in just over six weeks.

Bruins head coach Claude Julien has been known for — in both positive and negative connotations — being a big supporter of Ryder. He spoke to the lack of appreciation and credit the winger has been given when he gave the “Michael just had one bad year” (2007-08) quote during the 2008-09 playoffs. Though he also pointed to him as a guy the team didn’t get enough of at times last season, he still seems to be one of Ryder’s biggest fans.

Though Julien’s fondness of Ryder dates back to their days in Montreal, Bruins fans aren’t quite as loyal to the now 30-year-old, and perhaps for good reason. After a debut season in which he finished second to Phil Kessel in goals with 27 and had 53 points, Ryder’s jersey sales likely took a major hit in the 2009-10 season.

Though the offense as a whole was never as powerful as it was when the team finished second in the NHL in scoring, Ryder was among those who took the brunt of it. The line that looked so good a season before consisting of him and Blake Wheeler with David Krejci in the middle wasn’t so hot the second time around and everybody took notice. Ryder finished the season with just 18 goals and his 33 points put him in a tie for seventh on the league’s worst offensive team. Read the rest of this entry »

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