Blake Wheeler

This fight epitomizes Blake Wheelers season as a Bruin.

He tried hard, he meant well but the results just weren’t there. Despite seeing his TOI go from a respectable rookie average of 13:41 to a solid 15:47. he scored less, assisted less, and went from rookie sensation to a hairs breadth away from team scapegoat. Fortunately for Wheeler, Wideman, Ryder and other seemed to fail far more spectacularly far more often. While many have called his season “disastrous” that’s far from true. Despite spending the early part of the season with both the rushed back Krejci and Michael Ryder weighing him down he scored only three less goals. The seven less assists are clearly more indicative of the effort of his linemates last season. The one thing no one could accuse Wheeler of last season was giving up. He played with effort as he adjusted to the bulk he packed onto his frame.

Next season, assuming he follows in the footsteps of other college players turned NHL regulars, he’ll exceed either of his first two seasons. More than a few former college players have taken until their third season to adjust to the heavier, longer schedule, the more physical game and the quality of competition. My hope is a 32-35-67 line for Blake Wheeler this year, but I’ll be satisfied with anything over twenty-five goals.

Johnny Boychuck on the other hand did to fan, and team expectations what he did to the opposition in this hit.

Going from  seventh defenseman to top pairing in the course of season takes a lot of things, Boychuck seemed to have all of them working for him this year. Having started the year in the pressbox after winning the award for the best defenseman in the AHL, Boychuck had to wonder how much ice time he was going to get with the return of Chara, Wideman, Stuart, Ference, and Hunwick and the addition of veteran Derek Morris.  He played just three games in October, and none at all in November. With injuries attacking the Bruins blueline, December was to be his coming out party.  Potting his first two goals in the eleven game span and playing as much as 24:14 he took the jump from the AHL to the NHL and ended the question as to if he’d end up back in Providence.  Playing with Mark Stuart brought out the best in both players and several nights they were the best paring on the ice. Physical play, reasonable skating and a howitizer of a shot make Boychuck a creditable NHL defenseman, an even keel, willingness to play tough and work hard make him a must keep Bruin. By the time the playoffs rolled around with Stuart & Seidenberg on the shelf, no one had any doubt he was a go to player as he topped thirty minutes three times in the second season and looked competent and confident doing so.

For the next campaign Boychuck must fine tune his game to take better advantage of his defensive partner, and make smarter outlet passes.  He’ll not only be playing for a top four position, which he deserves, he’ll be playing for his next contract. With Sturm, Recchi, and Ryder likely gone at the end of this year there will be some money available. With both Chara and Bergeron also in contract years, and with Knight, Suave, Caron, Colborne, Alexandrov and some guy named Seguin in the mix that money is going to have to be hard earned.

Milan Lucic
Lucic’s season can be summed up in this clip.

After getting hit hard by one thing, he’d battle back and get knocked down by something else. Fourteen games were lost to a broken finger almost before the season started, and another eighteen came off the table to a high ankle sprain that didn’t seem to fully heal until the playoffs. With these injuries plaguing the bruising winger, the center he works best with off the ice twice, and last years opposite winger now on another team it’s hard to saw how much of Lucic’s failure to thrive his his third season is his fault. He was visibly slower after the ankle injury for a long time, but I’m not sure he came into training camp with the same fire as he had the two precious seasons.  By the end of the season he had turned the corner and took a four game point scoring streak into the playoffs.

Lucic’s challenges for his fourth season, in which a hefty contract kicks in are simple. One is stay healthy, two is provide the grit and aggression that makes him feared when his gloves are on his hands or the ice, and third adjust to whomever he plays with quickly. He is a huge fan favorite, but that could change. With Wideman out of town, and Ryder potentially demoted, bought out or traded the position of team scapegoat is wide open and disappointing fans is as quick a path to the outhouse as just being a bad player.

A series dedicated to a retrospective on the last season and a hope for next.

Mark Stuart:

Despite the Bruins continued failure to stock the jersey of the guy who hits with the force of his uniform number caliber, he’s a fan favorite. With good reason is Mark Stuart beloved by the Garden Faithful and the cavalry beyond the causeway. He epitomizes Bruins Hockey. He never takes shifts, much less nights off, he will stick up for himself and his team mates with out batting an eyelash and he does everything in his power to help the team succeed.  As a defensive defenseman he’s at his best blocking shots, taking away shoots, and breaking up passes.

This season was hampered by his first trip to the injury unit in his time as a Bruin. Worse, his second and third trips to the trainers table followed hard on its heels. Having entered the Bruins line up two full seasons ago and stayed there up until the time of his first injury he was the Bruins reigning Iron-Man at the time of his first injury a broken sternum. His second injury occurred after leveling one of the best and most underrated players in the NHL.

Next season is pretty simple for the man dubbed The Caceman, continue to improve his offense, keep his defense at at the level that made him the best defenseman on the ice in the Carolina series two years back and stay healthy. He’ll likely be paired with Johnny Boychuck for a good portion of the season. Several times last year they were the best pairing on the ice. With the additional seasoning both have received I can’t wait to see what havoc they reap on both ends of the ice.

David Krejci:

As the Bruins third center, he has mostly seen time against the number two and number three defensive units of other teams. This past season saw him spend time as either the number one or two center when injuries took Bergeron and Savard out of the lineup. The difference in quality of competition showed more than once as top defensemen and better forwards than the previous campaigns exploited his less than two seasons of NHL experience.

Lamed is the best word to describe Krejci’s second full season in Boston. Lamed by the recovery from a hip injury which he returned to the ice from ahead of time. Lamed by wingers either plagued with inconsistency and off ice issues or just buried in the midst of what admirers and management hope was a sophomore slump. Between the mud puddle depth on wing and a team that seemed to regard apathy as its first duty this young centers season had few highlights.

Next season he has to first hope for rejuvenated wingers or an upgrade in them. He also needs to keep his awareness of the puck and opponents high or risk another season ending injury like the clean and clobbering Mike Richard’s hit that took him out of the playoffs.

One of the latest rumors of where Marc Savard and Tim Thomas might end up is well Inane. Really. Both guys have no trade clauses, neither wants to leave the hub, and both are nearing the end of their careers. Neither has yet lifted the Cup, nor even played in a Stanley Cup Final series. Both have had to battle for respect, both are top shelf players.

While I think the Islanders are no more than three seasons from being ready for a good playoff run, they have too many weaknesses to be a viable destination for two guys hungry to drink from the Cup that Gretzky, Hasek, Bourque, Orr, Lafluer, Roy, and other giants of the sport have to take a step backwards.

Tavares is hugely talented and no one with the wit to recall that ice is cold can say otherwise. Moulson is a solid offensive threat. Streit is probably the most underrated defenseman in the NHL and they’ve drafted some impressive talent in the last two or three season, which is what happens when you finish in the lottery for years running. Nino Niedderreitter, Kyrill Kabanov, Kirill Petrov,  Travis Hamonic, Brock Nelson, and Calvin de Haan can’t help but improve the team. No doubt the Islanders management will snag a few of the right free agents to fill in the holes.

All that said, the reasons against going to the Islanders for both players are huge.  The Atlantic division may just be the toughest division in the NHL next year. The Penguins, Flyers and Devils are all dangerous, skilled and good at winning games. The Rangers have both King Henrik and Gaborik, with Del Zotto, Girardi and company in between and are all quite effective.

If either one were going to waive their NTC, it would be to go to a team with a lot of potential, and probably closer to their home towns. Thomas being from Michigan, and Savard from the Ottawa area leave the likelihood of the Islanders quite low. On top of that the Islanders had horribly low attendance percentage even without taking into consideration the small, broken down arena and low percentage of seats sold. The Town of Hampstead hasn’t shown itself to be a great friend of the ownerships plans to replace the oldest arena in the NHL either.

Some of the names still left in the UFA barrel are a bit surprising given some of the needs various teams have.

Ilya Kovalchuk is surprising, but not hugely so. He’s the best free agent to hit the market since the lockout. Everyone knows this, including him and his agent and he can essentially pick where he wants to live the next several seasons. I don’t blame him for taking his time, more than a week to evaluate multiple job offers isn’t unreasonable.

Marty Turco, a bit more surprising given the number of teams that many expected to jump into the goalie chase. It becomes less surprising when you remember how mediocre the goalies were in the last three Stanley Cup Finals were. Osgood, Fluery, Leighton, Neimi are hardly world beaters, except when put on damned good teams. Add to that the number of younger, cheaper goalies and the thirty four years olds continued availability becomes less of a shock. Truth be told though I stand in the number who would have picked him to be signed by an NHL team ahead of Jokienen on June 30th and considered it easy money for anyone who bet the other way.

Raffi Torres, for teams looking for depth scoring, and a little grit he might be the guy. I’m slightly surprised a team like Florida hasn’t swooped in to get someone with a touch of bite to their game for what the ownership complained of as a soft group. On the other hand they actually acquired Wideman.

Ruslan Fedotenko, given the complete lack of anyone on the left side, he’d be a cheap option for a team like the Kings. Given his two rings, including the Cup winning goal for Tampa, and his salary I’m baffled by his continued availability. With 132 recorded hits last season I’m guessing lack of physicality isn’t the problem.

Alexander Frolov, given a constant churning of the rumor mill last season that had him headed anywhere that wasn’t LA, Its odd that this two time 30 goal scorer isn’t sure where he’ll be playing yet. Admittedly some of the most goal starved teams are also some of the more cap strapped teams, but were 12 days into free agency at this point. People have talked about his lack of physicality but that’s not especially valid.  While the hits stat is poorly standardized, its safe to say that Sidney Crosby has more attention paid to him when on the ice than Frolov does. When you take the total hits for each player and divide the number of minutes played by it, Frolov managed a hit about once more often every three minutes of time on ice. Yet Crosby is lauded for his physical play, curious.

Andy Sutton. A defensive defenseman. In an NHL off season that finally discovered the utility of this season and deigned to notice its importance he’s still on the sidelines. Hall Gill, PK Subban and Josh Georges were a huge part of the reason both the Penguins and Capitals go to the golf courses ahead of them, yet a player in the same mold is twiddling his thumbs and waiting for calls.

I finally got to camp Friday, took extensive notes via WordPress for BlackBerry and had them disappear into the ether after hitting post.

Here’s what I saw and heard, as I recall it.

Alexandrov: Still skates damned well, seems to have added some mass as well. Made use of positioning, body contact, and stick in drills and scrimmage. He’s the most professional of all the players at camp. Not surprising since he’s played in the KHL which is about equal to the AHL. He’s economical and does what’s needed to do the job without overplaying the body, puck or shot.

Fallstrom:  From what I’d read around the internet I honestly wasn’t expecting much, I was pleasantly surprised. He can skate with the fastest of them, he kept his stick on the ice, and seemed to both pass effectively and contain passes well.

Cross: In someways he reminds me of a cross between Mclaren and Gill. He’s physical, big, very upright and uses stick and body to good effect.

Donald: Got a huge pop out of the crowd with a shootout goal in the scrimmage. I didn’t think he did that well in the drills as he made little or ineffectual use of his upper body and stick, but was very strong on his skates and well positioned. Good balance too. To a lesser extent than Cross, also reminds me of McLaren.

Cantin: Big hits, he was a wrecking ball in the scrimmage, it was fun to see and kept everyones head up. Otherwise I didn’t really notice him positively or negatively.

Knight: Comes as billed. He’s a crease front presence who will charge into and through traffic with and without the puck. I liked watching him in action. I’m hoping to see him in Boston if not this year (unlikely) than next year when contracts like Sturm, Recchi and Ryders have expired. I suspect he’ll end up back in Juniors this year but may finish the season in Providence if there run goes longer than his Junior team since he’ll be 19 in January.

Gothberg: Got better and better as the day went on. Looked shakey early, and then managed to just plain rob Seguin and a couple others in the shootout.  He was the youngest player in camp, he’ll probably not even get a sniff of the NHL for five years, which would make him a creaky 22 at that point.

Warfsofsky: He looked much better in game play than in drills. Reads plays well, positions himself well, good skater, and takes reasonable chances with his body.

Dalton: I only really got a good look at him when he stayed on the ice while Suave skated after the others.  Looks to have developed a bit more confidence, didn’t let in any bad goals that i recall.

Suave: While he didn’t participate in drills or the scrimmage he skated and took shots on Dalton after the rest had gone to the locker room. He didn’t appear to be favoring either leg and didn’t stop for at least 20 minutes. Nice quick shot.  I hope he’s 100% by regular camp because at worst it will light a fire under the backsides of certain complacent right wingers.

Seguin: I’m nearly certain he’ll make the NHL one day.  He showed more personality on the ice than I was expecting. He seems a touch cerebral/abstracted off the ice, it may just be a dislike of cameras but I got the impression he’d told a joke or two during scrimmage and drills.

There were obviously other players there, these are the ones I noticed more than twice.

The place was packed according to the Bruins the head count for observers was about two thousand.

Julien, and Chiarelli could both be seen laughing and enjoying themselves while watching.  I also met Darryl of Pro Hockey Weekly and RotoWire, good guy. We talked for several minutes as Suave and Dalton were on the ice. If you intend to go next year, plan on getting there a bit early if you want to sit, last years crowd was about one fourth the size. I should be at regular camp in a few weeks.

Entering last season as the Bruins ironman Mark Stuart was poised for a breakout season. The previous spring he’d been the best defenseman on the ice in the Boston-Carolina series. He’s always brought his desire to win, his focus and his ferocity. Not known as a goal scorer he is shut down defensive force who is fairly similar to the Flyers Brayden Coburn.

During the first month of the season he was a +2 with three points as the Bruins mostly spun the wheels. Later in the season he would break his sternum early in a game, and continue playing while dishing out more hits. Later after delivering a clean, devastating hit

on Anze Kopitar, is forced to defend himself against a visored Wayne Simmonds, breaking his hand in the process.

This same hand would come back to haunt him later taking a second month out of his schedule and limiting the big, physical bruiser who has been dubbed “the Caveman” for his strength, to just four games against the Flyers.

Having been resigned to a one year contract that will leave him an unrestricted I have to wonder how much he really desires to play here in the future. Andrew Ference who has only once played a complete NHL season and was a veteran when he arrived in the middle of the 2006-07 season, has played less games in that time than Stuart who was rookie and broke in that year. Ference in his time with the Bruins is a -16, and managed just three goals in that time, is somehow being paid half a million more. Stuart in that time has been a +29 with only his rookies year, in which he played 17 games being a minus year with a -1. Stuart also has 12 goals in that time.

To all appearances, a +/- differential of 45, three times the amount of NHL goals scored, and sixty nine more games played across five years is good for a $575,000 surcharge on your salary. Also of note is that the game differential is more games than Ference has managed to acquire in any one season with the Bruins and is more games than he’s played for any team in all but three seasons stretching back to his rookie year in 99-00.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Brayden Coburn a draft year mate of Stuart just reupped with the Flyers. Coburn is very comparable to Stuart with a touch more offense but less grit, and both play behind one of the best defensemen in the NHL. Coburn’s two year deal is for $3.2 million per season on an equally cap strapped team. Coburn now in his second NHL organization is a career +15.

I’m afraid it might just be time for this:

I won’t be watching LeBron James. Its not just that I don’t watch basketball and haven’t watched two games in the same season since Sir Charles retired. Its not just that my home town is unlikely to land King James. I just don’t care.

In hockey people are currently all agog that Ilya Kovulchuk has still not decided where he and his family will live the next several years. He’s been undecided since July 1 at least. But he hasn’t addressed the media, he’s let his agent handle that. His agent as talked about what teams may or may not be in the mix. No former teammate has come forward to say he’s landing in this city or that. He certainly hasn’t scheduled a huge, self promoting hour long television special to tell us where he will play. I suspect the first time #17 is televised will be sometime during training camp.

Brett Farve, for all his much talked about decision making inability, has never jerked the media around. He has wrestled with the weighing of will vs. skill, and desire vs. ability, hunger vs. endurance every off season. Its not about money, he comes back with an all consuming hunger. He comes back to win.

The only other person in entertainment who’s ego I can barely compare to LeBron James is Kanye West. And much as I despise, loathe and revile the self-serving, self-centered, attention seeking, media addicted behavior I can’t 1) imagine even that unadulterated fathead scheduling a press conference to announce where he signs his next record deal (even though he will get a bidding war) 2) I can’t imagine MTV, BET or another similar outlet catering to his wish.

The me, me, me limelight and liquor culture of the NBA is all is not for me. This is amazing since I like liquor. But for a team sport to revolve around an individual is a perversion of th highest order. Even back when Jordan returned to the court he got less attention. The NBA has sewn and fertilized the seeds of selfishness and self aggrandizment and have are reaping the whirlwind of falling TV ratings and attendance. Teams have been shuffled across the map as fanbases turn elsewhere for enjoyment, and yet no one in the NBA has figured out why.

Bruins Prospect Camp opened today. I expect to get to see some of it in person this week.  For several prospects this is possibly more important than their draft year combine. If they fail to make a favorable impression today they may just find themselves moved so far down the totem pole they could be dumped from the system, or traded off before they even get to the main camp once.

As usual the Bruins have brought in some young players unattached to any organization and while they bear watching, there are other players who will overshadow them with good play or bad. For the expected high performers, this is where we they will prove not only that they must be retained but that they are better option than players currently expected to return from last years roster or any potential free agent  or trade acquisition. Here are the five with the most on the line.

5) Tommy Cross. After knee injuries wiped out two years of potential appearances, the 2007 2nd rounder has to prove he’s capable of staying healthy for an extended period. As a big body who can, when healthy, skate well he’s got the potential to replace the as of yet unsigned Mark Stuart. While he’s likely to stay in college another year or two, it would be hard to imagine him saying “later guys” to an invite to the main training camp if it called especially in light of his injury history.

4) Jordan Caron. With his collar bone injury last year at the hands of WJC teammate Caron lost not just a chance to play at the international stage, but the opportunity to truly shine his fourth year in the QMJHL. With Joe Colbourne having left the University of Denver, Caron another of the Legion of Centers in the Boston organization has had his future turned a bit murkier. Even Colbourne’s acquisition is less of a potential stumbling block than the drafting of Tyler Seguin.

3) Maxim Suave.  Like fellow Legionnaires Caron and Colbourne the addition of Seguin plays heavily into his future. Given his modest size on a team trying to get bigger at forward, he will have to make sending him back to Providence a very, very hard decision if it is made at all. While he played six games in the AHL last year, its an open question if he’s ready to make the leap into the NHL ahead of some of the other Bruins prospects. He was one of the final youngsters sent home from camp last year and played in the Bruins preseason. I’d love to see a big push from this guy, he’s got speed, passion and a solid shot.

2) Yuri Alexadrov. This man was the buzz of the Bruins prospect camp last year. Unlike most players at prospect camp he’s been playing against professionals for two seasons. His last two seasons have been spent in the KHL where he lead all defensemen on his team in ice time. As a small, agile, and smooth skating two way defenseman it’s unlikely he’ll get short changed on opportunities to prove he can contribute at the NHL level. However he has more to prove than most with the “Russian Factor” hanging over his head. He did have a contract to playout and faithfully did so, but the KHL is not the NHL, and I doubt the Cherepovets use a system similar to the Bruins. Nor will his team leading ice time translate that well to the NHL, his 19:43 in the KHL was only 1 second higher on average than Andrew Ference. On a team that wasn’t overfilled with talent, only one player had twenty goals, Alexandrov was also second in +/-.

1) Tyler Seguin. Given his exceptional year in the OHL and the thousands of blog posts, news articles, videos, and press conferences that discussed him the prospect camp might seem like a formality. Hell, with the way management has discussed bringing him along similar to how Stamkos (or Thornton) was, the only surprise will be if we don’t see him in camp and on the roster this fall. But this week is more a matter of dealing with the, preliminary, success of having been drafted so highly. He will face some envy and resentment from some of the players who rightfully believe he is a danger to their career. Whether its a part of his personality to do so or not he will be expected to take some sort of leadership role as well. If all the posturing of the draft hype, and his accomplishments in the OHL last year with a rather austere supporting cast are pointing in the right direction he should be the best player in camp.  So on top of all the on ice drills,  off ice workouts, the packs of press, and getting to know a couple score new names and faces, he gets the joy of pulling miracles out of the faceoff circle and delivering a premier performance.