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Bruins return with shutdown mentality

Stingy defense is first and foremost to team’s success

The Bruins hope speedy Marco Sturm can adjust quickly to right wing on the No. 1 line. The Bruins hope speedy Marco Sturm can adjust quickly to right wing on the No. 1 line. (Elise Amendola/Associated Press)
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / September 30, 2009

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Tim Thomas won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender a year ago. He played behind Zdeno Chara, who took home the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman. Both played for Jack Adams Award winner Claude Julien, who preaches defense first, last, and everything in between, with the best evidence being the Bruins’ 2.32 goals-against average, lowest in the NHL last season.

Don’t expect Julien’s philosophy to change in 2009-10.

Thomas, who is entering the first season of his four-year, $20 million contract, will be aided in goal by Tuukka Rask, the Finnish hotshot once considered the best goalie outside of North America. Chara will have a more mobile partner in Derek Morris, signed to a one-year, $3.3 million contract once Aaron Ward was shipped to Carolina. Dennis Wideman, who logged 24:38 of ice time per game last season while scoring 50 points, should see his workload ease with Morris’s addition.

Up front, Julien is coaching a four-line group that general manager Peter Chiarelli considers some of the NHL’s best backchecking forwards.

“You build from the back end out,’’ Chiarelli said.

This season, at least to start, “defense first’’ will be the mantra because it is the known commodity. In goal, Thomas and Rask give the Bruins an effective 1-2 punch of veteran savvy and youthful excitement. Chara, counted on to mask some of Ward’s shortcomings, could become even more effective as a shutdown defenseman and offensive threat. Julien will deploy the veteran threesome of Mark Recchi, Patrice Bergeron, and Chuck Kobasew against dangerous forwards - look for the No. 3 line, along with Chara and Morris, to see plenty of reps against Alex Ovechkin tomorrow - in hopes that their close-quarters checking will stifle opposing attacks.

Defense is what Julien and assistant coach Craig Ramsay, who supervises the defensemen, know best.

“He’s back there on the bench, and he’s talking to you when you come off the ice,’’ Wideman said of Ramsay. “Rammer has a way of getting his point across and you get it right away. There’s no confusion. He has a way of explaining something or making you see something that you can’t help but be like, ‘Yeah, I see what you mean.’ He has a way of teaching that is above any coach that I’ve had.’’

The Bruins will be looking to their defense because their offense, in all likelihood, won’t be as potent to start the season as it was last year. By playing their puck-possession game - quick transition from defense to offense, then using their size, speed, and skill to keep the cycle going - the Bruins pumped home 270 goals last year, second-most in the NHL. Six players (Phil Kessel, Michael Ryder, Marc Savard, David Krejci, Blake Wheeler, Kobasew) scored 20 or more goals, with Chara adding 19.

But Kessel is gone to Toronto for draft choices. Because of his defense-stretching speed, Kessel was the perfect right wing for Savard, the clever playmaker who must find some chemistry with Marco Sturm, first up in a possible rotation of right wings to skate on the No. 1 line. Julien likes Sturm’s speed alongside Savard, but the 31-year-old has been a left wing since he arrived in Boston from San Jose in 2005-06. Sturm is coming off major knee surgery (torn ACL and meniscus), and he also suffered head and neck discomfort last season. Sturm missed some of the preseason because of a groin injury.

As Savard aims to find a new recipient for his soft passes, Krejci, a lethal No. 2 center last season, will need time to find his touch. Krejci underwent hip surgery June 4 and didn’t appear in a preseason game. Krejci got bigger and stronger during the offseason, but his game still revolves around being shifty and elusive - he likes to slow the play down more than Savard - and will undoubtedly bear some summertime rust on his wheels. Krejci’s absence may be the underlying explanation, but Wheeler and Ryder didn’t have much jump in the preseason.

On the No. 3 line, Recchi punched in 10 of his 23 goals last year in the 18 games he dressed in Black and Gold following the deadline deal in which he made a desperate escape from Tampa Bay (he came with a 2010 second-round pick for Matt Lashoff and Martins Karsums). Recchi also scored four power-play goals for the Bruins, serving as the lefthanded net-front presence the team needed following the loss of Sturm.

Recchi, however, will turn 42 in February. Bergeron, his center, scored only eight goals last year as he recovered from a Grade 3 concussion from the previous season, then suffered another head shot that slowed his progress. Bergeron was one of the team’s top performers during training camp - he threaded passes through traffic to Andrew Ference and Brad Marchand for power-play goals - and showed his bent for offensive creativity, but it remains unclear whether he can become the point-per-game player he projected to be before his injury.

“We’re confident with the team that we have here,’’ Julien said. “We’ve got Marco Sturm back and healthy. As a group, there’s no doubt that we’re a strong team and feel stronger with young guys that have matured. Marco Sturm is in, who was out most of last year. David Krejci, hopefully we’ll be seeing him in the opener. I think all in all, our team is in great shape.’’

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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