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With little turnover, Bruins remain a Cup favorite

After 39 years filled with near-misses, the Stanley Cup again belongs to the Boston Bruins.

Younger generations of hockey fans in Boston no longer have to live on stories of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito -- they can tell their own tales about Tim Thomas robbing Sean Bergenheim, Brad Marchand's one-legged leap and the night Tyler Seguin looked like a future superstar.

The Bruins became the first team to win three seven-game series en route to the Cup, with Nathan Horton scoring the series-winning goal against Montreal and Tampa Bay, and then becoming an emotional rallying cry for the team in the Final after Aaron Rome knocked him out of the series with an illegal hit.

Boston was not the best team in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, but the Bruins pulled away from Montreal to win the Northeast Division and rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to beat the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs -- the first time in franchise history they'd won a series after losing the first two games.

The Bruins swept Philadelphia in the second round and outlasted Tampa Bay in the conference finals. The home team won the first six games of the Stanley Cup Final, but Boston's Game 7 victory against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena was an exclamation point on a series the Bruins dominated for long stretches.

Now the Bruins have a new challenge -- become the first team to repeat as champions since Detroit in 1997 and '98.

Unlike the mass exodus from Chicago last season, and even the losses Pittsburgh incurred two years ago, the Bruins will return much of their Cup-winning club intact. They have three key players to replace: Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle.

Recchi defied time in the Cup Final, authoring a vintage performance and finishing the 2011 postseason with 5 goals and 14 points. He embraced the role of steady, veteran leader and spent much of the season on the second line. He slumped early in the postseason, but came on strong to help win the Cup for the third time in his career before announcing his retirement on the ice after Game 7.

Ryder was one of several Bruins who elevated his play during the Cup run. He had only 18 goals in each of the past two regular seasons, but racked up 8 goals and 17 points in the playoffs and earned a hefty contract from the Dallas Stars.

Kaberle struggled for much of his time with the Bruins after arriving in one of the marquee deals of the 2011 trade deadline. The power play was awful during the postseason, and that was expected to be the one area where he helped. He did finish the postseason with 11 assists, but was mostly a third-pairing defenseman in tight games. Had Boston not won the Cup, the trade would be considered a huge disappointment. Kaberle signed with Carolina as a free agent.

Boston also lost depth defenseman Shane Hnidy, and the future of center Marc Savard remains uncertain -- he only played 25 games for the Bruins last season while recovering from a concussion.

Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli essentially traded Kaberle for Joe Corvo. The Hurricanes sent Corvo to the Bruins for a fourth-round pick, then used that cap space to sign Kaberle. Corvo didn't fare very well the first time he left Carolina (in a trade to Washington), but he will almost certainly be able to give the Bruins more minutes a night than Kaberle was trusted with.

The likely replacement for Ryder in the top nine forwards is Benoit Pouliot, who was signed after a disappointing season with Montreal. Pouliot was the fourth pick in the 2005 Entry Draft and has underachieved for most of his career, but he could give the Bruins 15-20 goals on the third line. The move away from Montreal could serve him well.

Corvo is probably the key addition, but the Bruins are likely to receive some key contributions from young players to help replace Recchi and maybe even improve the team's depth at forward. Seguin is the most likely candidate to play on one of the top two lines on a full-time basis, and a big step forward from him could be exactly what Boston needs to keep pace with the top teams in the NHL.

While the Bruins dealt promising center Joe Colborne in the Kaberle deal, top prospect Jordan Caron could find a permanent role with the big club this season. Zach Hamill might also be able to contribute.

Chiarelli went into the offseason knowing there would not be a lot of holes to fill. Recchi's retirement was expected, as were the departures of Ryder and Kaberle.

Corvo should be an upgrade on defense, and Seguin could very well surpass Recchi's production from last season (with Caron replacing Seguin as a potential top-six guy in training). Pouliot could be something of a wild card, and the same goes for Marchand -- will he be able to avoid a sophomore slump?

The health of Horton, who is expected to be ready after the concussion suffered in Game 3 of the Final, will be a big key. Savard's return would be a bonus, but the Bruins probably aren't counting on him, and they proved they could win a Cup with David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron as their top two centers.

Boston had room below the salary cap ceiling to make a big move, but Chiarelli opted not to. The Bruins could very well be better this season, especially if the kids continue to improve. They will also be a team to watch at the trade deadline, as Chiarelli will likely have lots of cap space and plenty of young assets to move.

The core of the Stanley Cup champions remains intact, with upside to improve. Even if Thomas can't repeat his magical season, Tuukka Rask is one of the League's top backups and could give him some extra rest this season.

Pittsburgh will be better if Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are healthy. Washington has improved its roster this summer. Philadelphia now has a goaltender.

Those three franchises were something of a big three in the East before last season, but Boston has wedged its way into that elite group. The Bruins are likely still the team to beat in the conference.