The Bruins are in a much different place with their goaltending than they were a year ago, back when Tim Thomas (still on the job) and Hannu Toivonen (now with St. Louis) were the two huge question marks in net.
Now the position, deemed secure by management, is for Thomas and veteran Manny Fernandez to have and to hold. They have 407 games of experience between them, and what should be the basis of a healthy competition - be it for one of them to surface as a bona fide No. 1, or be it more of a 50-50 job split.
Whatever the mix looks like, new coach Claude Julien is confident he has that gaping 24-square-foot hole covered.
"The duo is good," Julien proclaimed Friday, following his squad's first full workout. "We have a great duo, and a only a few teams have that. We have that advantage, or we have that luxury - maybe that's the better word."
Thomas, for his part, looks trim and tuned, following a summer under the day-to-day guidance of John Whitesides, the club's strength and conditioning coach. Thomas bought a house in the suburbs during the offseason, and for the first time spent his summer in the Hub of Hockey rather than heading back to his home state of Michigan.
"I've always stayed in shape," said Thomas. "But until this year it was always more of a do-it-yourself thing when I got home. So this was different, being with John all the time, and it led to a whole different kind of workout - you know, more all-around, because he tries to hit every part of the body. I had a good base of speed and strength, and a lot of these workouts were aimed more at endurance and stamina."
In large part because of Toivonen's protracted injury problems (ankle) and troublesome inconsistency last year, Thomas logged 66 games. This time around, he shouldn't be required to pull that kind of burdensome duty again.
Meanwhile, the 33-year-old Fernandez, acquired in the offseason swap that sent Petr Kalus to Minnesota, worked hard all summer on rehabbing the left knee he wrenched midway through last season. After spraining it Jan. 20, Fernandez played only three more times, which paved the way for Niklas Backstrom to take his job and make Fernandez an overpriced backup ($9.25 million over these next two seasons) on the Wild.
Relieved to be in a new town and given a new chance, Fernandez went home to Montreal in the offseason and worked diligently at regaining strength, stability, and flexibility in the knee. He made two attempts to come back in the second half of the season with the Wild, and both failed. It only served to set his recovery back.
"All through the summer, it was fine, no problems," said Fernandez, who spent two full weeks under the tutelage of goaltending guru Francois Allaire late in the summer. "So that's real positive."
Nonetheless - and this is where the story becomes a bit cautionary - Fernandez realizes he won't know the full extent of his recovery until he sees game action in the exhibition season, which the Bruins open Tuesday night in Newfoundland vs. the Islanders. His knee felt great in those drills at Allaire's camp and while performing his dry-land exercises (he cut back on his road running as a precaution). All encouraging. All as he expected.
But, to a certain degree, Fernandez conceded, he doesn't know what to expect when the game goes live and the knee must withstand the demands of goal-mouth action.
"Am I there yet? I don't know," he said. "That ligament still has to stretch a lot, and to get over that mental hump will be important - to feel comfortable that you can do it.
"Once you're engaged in the game, it's a totally different story. It's all kind of pointless until it's the real deal - and I kind of don't want to think about it any more. But honestly, I don't think it will be different. I think it will be OK."
In other words, there are no givens, a reality that Bruins fans have come to know all too well for the last 15 seasons. Thomas and Fernandez should make the Bruins better in 2007-08. But just as there were questions about the position a year ago, when Franchise Reform No. 1 got under way, there are still questions here at the start of Franchise Reform No. 2.
All we know this morning is that Thomas looks ripped and ready, and Fernandez is feeling as fine as he can feel without really knowing how he feels. Which, if nothing else, puts a little drama and requisite bit of Black-and-Gold anxiety into the upcoming exhibition season.
Pounding the point home
The new-model Brandon Bochenski, 18 pounds heavier and bulked up around the shoulders and biceps (think: Popeye/spinach), hopes he has begun a transition to power-forward status.
"It's a bit of a challenge to carry around the extra pounds," the 25-year-old right winger said. "I'm definitely going to feel it the first couple of practices."
Once adapted to his new frame, all 205 pounds of it, Bochenski figures he will be better able to handle himself in the corners, along the wall, and in front of the net. Those are the key areas to dominate, or at least break even, for anyone who aspires to be an NHL power forward, the prototype being Cam Neely.
"That would certainly improve his game," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, impressed by the improvements Bochenski made. "It should help him establish position out there to shoot the puck, because he is first and foremost a shooter. Of course, the key is, add the size and strength, but don't lose your speed."
During his exit interview last spring, Chiarelli and then-coach Dave Lewis emphasized the need for him to add weight and muscle. Mission accomplished.
"I did have to ditch a few pair of pants, and none of my T-shirts fit anymore," said Bochenski. "I keep telling everyone that I brought my bigger brother's body."
Along with everyday workouts, including a lot of free weights, Bochenski increased his caloric intake to upward of 6,000 per day.
"Not easy, I can tell you that much," he said when asked the secret to adding about one pound per week. "Obviously, anyone can gain weight, but you have to do that and keep your percentage of body fat down. I think I did OK with it."
Coach's message never lost in translation
Bruins coach Claude Julien, originally from outside of Ottawa, grew up speaking both French and English. But he considers his first language to be French, which he utilizes when having one-on-one conversations with the French-first players on his roster, including Patrice Bergeron, Manny Fernandez, and newcomer Pascal Pelletier.
"I see it as a respect thing," explained Julien. "It's their first language, and so I speak French. If they were Russian, and I spoke Russian, I'd speak to them in Russian."
Defenseman Aaron Ward is bilingual, but English is his primary language.
"He tries to speak to me in French, but I tell him to forget it," said Julien, noting that he likes to kid Ward that his French isn't quite up to standard.
Out on the ice, Julien speaks only in English, even when he's mad.
"And I do get mad, sometimes," said Julien, a trait that GM Peter Chiarelli says he likes in his coach. "But even then, it's always English, English, English."
Cam Neely, still without an official front-office title on Causeway Street, observed Friday's workouts from the Garden stands and quietly made the rounds in the dressing room. As for his would-be job, that's still in the works, according to general manager Peter Chiarelli. "He's a very busy guy," said Chiarelli. "But we should be able to get something done. We'll figure it out somehow." The job description, though, is still under construction. "Ideally, it would touch on all facets of hockey operations," said Chiarelli. "He stands for something that we've been trying to get back to. I've been preaching that I want a team that's hard to play against - so it's good to get input from someone who was hard to play against, right?"
For the first time in a training camp, the Bruins implemented a first-day shuttle run, held on the track behind the club's practice facility in Wilmington. The test, performed by every player, had three segments of 300-yard runs, each made up of a half-dozen 50-yard sprints. A pair of three-minute breaks broke up the three segments. "They knew it was coming, and everyone passed it," said Chiarelli. "In fact, over the summer, Don Sweeney and John Whitesides went on the road and worked with some of the guys to get them ready for it." Chiarelli, pleased by the results, said it will be held again in September 2008. "Hopefully," he said, "no one will need to hear my sermon on it again at the end of the year. We needed to be in better shape."
During the lockout, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas played in Helsinki (Jokerit), where fellow import Glen Metropolit was the best forward on a very strong team. "Heck, he might have been the best, or at least one of the best, forwards in the league," said Thomas. "He was great, our go-to guy on the power play, dynamic for his hands and creativity. His speed is good, but it's the overall package, and his ability to change directions on the ice, that set him apart." Metropolit, 33, reported to Bruins camp on a tryout basis, and figures to get a very good look in the exhibition season. "Based on what I saw of him in Finland, I was surprised he didn't get a job right out of the lockout," said Thomas. Instead, Metropolit spent another year in Europe (Lugano) before heading back to the NHL last season with the Thrashers (and later the Blues).
No room for gray with Black and Gold
Eliminate all gray areas. Such is Claude Julien's mantra thus far. The new Bruins coach is a stickler for structure, and straight from the Bill Belichick school of detesting penalties. "If you are thinking of beating us on power plays," mused Julien, "then you'd better come up with a different plan." Asked on the eve of training camp to give an example of where he wants to eliminate a gray area, Julien first began to provide his thoughts on backchecking, then reversed field and emphasized the forecheck. "You have to know who the first guy in will be, and when the second should be involved, and then how the third guy will react," said Julien. "But at the same time, that doesn't mean you are robotic. I'll want them to know what to do, when to do it, but also when to let their hockey sense take over."
Former Bruins assistant general manager Jeff Gorton, dismissed over the summer, along with veteran scout Daniel Dore, has joined the Rangers scouting staff . . . Scotty Bowman, rumored over the summer to be headed to Toronto as a general Mr. Fix-It with the Leafs, is back for another season with the Red Wings, continuing in an advisory role. Bowman, who will turn 74 Tuesday, said he would still consider a new job in another organization if it were a significant position . . . Harry Sinden, who turned 75 Friday, also was among the candidates considered for the job in Toronto . . . Bill Zito, agent for new Bruin Petteri Nokelainen, worked for nearly a year to find a match elsewhere for the former Islander, whose knee woes didn't get him off to a good start last September in Uniondale. "Nokie's got real talent, so he's not out of his element when you look at a kid who was drafted 16th overall  and wonder if he's an elite talent," said Zito. "Remember, he got hurt and didn't play for a year, so you can't look at that as a barometer for this guy. On a size, hockey sense, and ability ratio, yeah, it's all there. Now it's a function of giving him the time and chance to let it shake out." . . . Cycling enthusiast Zdeno Chara, who normally takes in the big European races, didn't make the vigil this summer. He split his time among Boston, Ottawa, and Slovakia, and trained on his bike quite a bit on the hills around hometown Trencin. "I didn't want something freaky to happen, like getting hit by a car," said Z, who claims to have had three or four close calls with cars over the years. "Drivers often only recognize other cars, and not bikes." Chara, who lives but a short walk from the Garden, figures he might take out the wheels a few times this season for the commute to Causeway Street . . . When a visitor to Friday's practice at the Garden mentioned to Chiarelli that he was surprised to learn that Fernandez was still uncertain about his knee, Chiarelli said, "I was surprised, too, to tell you the truth. I think he'll be fine, but he just has to work his way through it." . . . Boston-based agent Jay Fee said client Ben Walter, flipped for Nokelainen last week, had interest from a few clubs but was thrilled to end up on Long Island. "It became a numbers thing in Boston," said Fee, lauding the Bruins for their cooperation in moving Walter. "He'll have a fresh start and a fresh opportunity on Long Island."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.