Bruins look ahead after rough season

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BOSTON (AP) – The Boston Bruins lost captain Joe Thornton, general manager Mike O’Connell and 32 games by one goal.

Now they have a long offseason to figure out how to win again.

“Obviously, it’s been a trying year. There was an expectation coming in that we didn’t live up to. We all take that personally,” said coach Mike Sullivan, who managed to avoid the ax but may not be back under a new general manager.

The Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001, although they weren’t a postseason threat after that, losing in the first round in the next three seasons.

But after the 2004-05 season was canceled due to a labor dispute, the Bruins decided to decrease the number of players under contract so they would have flexibility in signing others.

The strategy didn’t work as forwards Mike Knuble and Brian Rolston signed elsewhere and newly signed players Alexei Zhamnov and Tom Fitzgerald didn’t work out.

The Bruins also were hurt when goalie Andrew Raycroft and defenseman Nick Boynton held out and missed an important part of training camp, made even more critical by the need to acclimate themselves to new rules that penalized hard hits that once were allowed.

One of the hardest hits the Bruins absorbed, though, was the trade of Thornton, one of the NHL’s best players, to San Jose on Nov. 30. The players obtained by Boston – Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau – all played well, but Thornton has a shot at the scoring title and MVP award with the playoff-bound Sharks.

The Bruins continued unloading their most recognizable players, trading left wing Sergei Samsonov to Edmonton on March 9. He was an exciting skater who was prone to injury but his departure was another loss on a team loaded with newcomers.

And when Boston kept struggling, O’Connell was fired on March 25.

“Ever since training camp, there’s been one challenge after another,” Sullivan said. “We made a concerted effort to keep focused and give the team a chance to be successful.”

There were some bright spots, however. When Raycroft played poorly and backup Hannu Toivonen was injured, veteran Tim Thomas stepped in and played such outstanding hockey that he was rewarded March 18 with a contract for the next three seasons.

“It was one of the best worst seasons I’ve ever had,” said Thomas, who finished with a 2.77 goals against average. He ended it Saturday on his 32nd birthday with a 4-3 loss at Atlanta in which Boston squandered a 2-0 lead.

“This game was a microcosm of our season,” Thomas said. “We had a chance to win every game. The last 20 games, we have not been able to pull it out.”

The Bruins ended the season by losing their last five games, all by a one-goal margin. Three of them were in overtime.

In another good sign, youngsters Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes established themselves as solid scorers.

The 20-year-old Bergeron became the youngest Bruin in history to score at least 30 goals, finishing with 31. Boyes, who turns 24 on Monday, was second on the team with 69 points. And the 28-year-old Sturm was second with 29 goals.

In addition, the defense also has some good young players who are still developing.

But Glen Murray, who relied on Thornton’s passing to score goals, struggled after the trade. He also was one of three key players lost to injuries, missing 18 games with groin and foot injuries.

Checking forward P.J. Axelsson missed the rest of the season after hurting his left knee March 1. Boynton, the Bruins’ best defenseman, was limited to 54 games by kneecap and shoulder injuries.

“There’s no denying it’s been a difficult experience,” Sullivan said.

O’Connell, who became general manager on Nov. 1, 2000, was replaced by his assistant, Jeff Gorton. The Bruins are expected to look elsewhere to fill that position for next season.

But management isn’t expected to break the bank for a new general manager, since owner Jeremy Jacobs is not known for spending freely.

Still, the Bruins played hard most of the time and, despite finishing far out of playoff contention, were competitive through Saturday’s finale.

“I was looking forward to showing some character by giving a good effort all the way to the end of the year,” Thomas said. “I thought there was a good chance that maybe we could end the season with a win and feel good about ourselves. But it wasn’t to be.”

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