By now the tale of Tim Thomas is well known to hockey fans. Overlooked, under appreciated, often undervalued and constitutionally incapable of giving up. Well, the Flint Michigan boy has made good. Real good. That may make this the most interesting season of his career for observers.

After all, what does he have left to prove? He’s picked up not one but two Vezina trophies in three years. He owns a Jennings Trophy. He snatched up the record for post season saves this spring. He played in the Olympics he’s practiced in the Lake Placid Olympic facility where his dream was born. He’s got his name on the Stanley Cup. And the list of honors wouldn’t be complete without noting he got the Conn-Smyth which isn’t just an award for being the best goalie, but th best of all the players in the post season.

With all that accomplished many will wonder how he motivates himself this year. Its pretty simple, despite having topped all the levels of success he dreamed of, there are still a few questions left. There are still a few things he can do. The most obvious is punch a sure ticket into the hall of fame. Sure, Chris Osgood is likely to get in so how hard can it be? That said Tim Thomas has yet to hit 200 career regular season wins. He hasn’t yet had a 40 win season either. By some quirk of fate he does have a chance to hit both marks this season. He could even, at least in theory improve upon last seasons save percentage. Another statistic he could stack up is shutouts. He’s not yet finished a season as the shutout leader.

This season, Tim Thomas is just one of the stories PuckSage.com will be following and updating throughout the hockey year.

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

Out with the (not so) old, in with the new. If any team has had more turnover, particularly among its top players than the Flyers did this off season I don’t know who they are. It is hard to argue the city of Brotherly Love’s favorite team is stronger immediately, but they may be better three years from now than the team that was chased from the playoffs by the Boston Bruins in an inglorious sweep last spring.  Shipping out one of the top two way centers in Mike Richards, and a goal machine in Jeff Carter is a big gamble. The rest of the people they let walk are almost negligible after the former team captain and his running buddy.

High Card:

James Van Riemsdyk was anointed the future of the franchise even before the playoffs came to an end. The media love-in for JVR was about what one would expect of someone who found a cure for cancer that can be made from sugar water and bacon. When the suits in Flyerland moved Richards and Carter and let half the roster walk then for an encore made him the longest signed skater on the team it was clear the media had red the feelings of team management right. So all the third year player has to do is somehow justify the contract he signed in the off season. True, this contract doesn’t kick in until next season, but hey since when do fans in certain cities pay any attention to things like that? Realistically the three lettered man probably needs to crack the sixty point plateau to stave off fan wrath and drag the team into the playoffs.

Wild Card:

With the former official captain no longer on the team Chris Pronger is freer to work his wiles upon the team. Unfortunately there are two factors at play that might prevent him from doing so. One is the wonky back that derailed his season last year. The other is how new many faces are on the team and the baggage they may bring with them. Jaromir Jagr is back in the NHL and not likely to go with the prevailing wind if he doesn’t like its direction, even if it comes from a figure like Pronger. Wayne Simmonds seems to have brought a cloud of controversy with him out of La-La-Land. And Ilya Bryzgalov is newly signed goalie who is expected to be the best goalie in team history, get used to a new city and team, and probably save kittens from trees in his spare time. Those are just some of the personalities that could cause spiritual drift in the locker room

This series will cover all thirty teams and go over the most important player, and player who’s performance most needs to improve to help the team succeed.

 

As talented as some of the Avalanche forwards are on the surface it is amazing that they finished both out of the playoffs and in the lottery. Unfortunately for fans in Colorado forwards aren’t the only players who affect the outcome of a game. Last year they were dismal on the penalty kill, and had the defensive prowess of a hobbled sheep.  Goaltending is best left unmentioned save to say that they did make several changes.

High Card:

Last year Matt Duchene made the jump from rising star to All Star. This year he needs to assume an even larger and more responsible role for his team. With more than fifty goals in just two seasons in the NHL it is easy to see how many had him going number one in his draft year. As the current points leader for the 2009 draftees it’s hard to say he doesn’t live up to the billing, or see him getting anything but better in his third year.  Duchene led the team in takeaways last season, if he can further round out his game good things will follow.

Wild Card:

Semyon Varlemov is the hole card in the Avalanches hand.  This season is when he’ll get flipped over and at some point we’ll all figure out where in the deck he sits. In the three seasons he’s appeared in the NHL thus far he’s had passable stats on a not very defensive team in Washington, but never for very long. To date he’s played a high of 27 NHL regular season games in a season. He does have some playoff experience with a solid .915 Sv% through 19 games, but he’s also had issues staying healthy. To date at just 23 he’s suffered kneed and groin issues. He also threatened to return to Russia just days before he was traded to Colorado.

The Boston Bruins haven’t been shy about making trades in the Peter Chiarelli era. While many of them were the type of under the radar, no immediate impact trades like picking up AHL defensemen, or bringing in an aging veteran in exchange for some guys who were never going to be regulars, those aren’t the only trades we’ve seen. One need only look to last summer with the departure of Dennis Wideman and a first round pick for Nathan Horton and Greg Campbell.  Some trades have worked out better than others, few are for the player that everyone wants but they happen on a pretty regular basis.

When you look at the team a few things spring to mind immediately. One is the extreme and superfluous depth at center. This is the most obvious one, and half of the reason I suspect we’ll see a trade between now and the middle of October with it being more likely sometime from October 7th on. Another is how certain teams, mostly outside the conference are in desperate need of a penalty killing captain. For those teams, having someone who could help them against last years conference champions in 5 on 5 play as well would be a bonus.

On the backend things are a bit murkier.  The blueline has clearly been the general manager’s favorite place to tweak. Not one of the blueliners currently on or likely to make the opening night roster played for Boston before his arrival. Add in the movement of Andrew Alberts, Matt Hunwick, Matt Lashoff, Jeff Penner, and half a dozen others and it’s clear something motivates the man in the corner office to stir this pot frequently.  If you look at the Bruins scoring from defensemen last season, and compare it to other teams well, the ranking is quite similar to the powerplay, only not quite as high.  If you look for someone who may have failed to live up to their billing, or regressed since arriving under coach Julien’s eye the odds of someone being moved seem a little higher.

Given that Jordan Caron and Steve Kampfer spent enough time in Boston both playing and practicing with the big club for them to be known quantities, if a move is going to be made in their favor it shouldn’t come as that big a surprise.  They would in fact be following directly in the footsteps of Brad Marchand and Adam McQuaid who came up the previous year for some games and stuck to the roster. You could also say they would have an advantage over  McQuaid and Marchand in having been around to watch the big club prepare for and recover from playoff games. Assuming the coaching staff and management have faith in them, this would give them an entire season to integrate with the defending champions.

Given all the cryptic and in some cases naked remarks of Julien, Chiarelli and club history one or two prospects who might find greener pastures elsewhere might be moved as well. Sobotka, Bitz, and Nokelainen are just a few of the names who went from fringe players here to full time or regular NHL players in other cities. Currently the Bruins are at 49 contracts according to CapGeek.com, if they do need to make a move later in the year having another free contract spot could be make or break for a deal.

In order of likelihood I’d say we’ll see one move at forward, then a single move at defense, and least likely a larger deal involving two or three roster players and or prospects.

Given how little turnover was expected for the remaining roster spots after the signing of Pouliot and the acquisition of Joe Corvo I’m honestly surprised by how many of the AHL players are still in camp. Add in Chris Clark lingering around and you have a genuine mystery if all you do is look at the surface of it. One forward position to fill, and a seventh defensemen to weed from the pack. A coach who just wanted to get thing set up and start working on the regular season lines could be forgiven for making an easy call and going with Jordan Caron who was here for twenty games last season much as Brad Marchand was the year before, or Jamie Arniel who led the Providence Bruins in goals and points and calling the forward position filled. Likewise, Steve Kampfer was in the midst of a promising rookie season before being sidelined, and Matt Bartkowski was called up for six games.

Yet, it is down to ten days left before the banner is raised and the puck is dropped on the new season and ice is littered with other players. Part of this is no doubt an effort to give the key players like Tim Thomas, Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and others who did the heaviest lifting throughout the championship run as light as workload as possible. But that can’t explain it all. It’s only when you pull up a site like NHLNumbers.com or CapGeek.com that it becomes apparent that you’re looking at plans for later in the season when it becomes expedient to move players who won’t be brought back either because of their contract demands or their performance, as well as next years potential roster.

As of today, the number of players signed for the 2011-12 season is disconcertingly small. NHLNumbers lists just four defensemen from the Cup run signed beyond this season, Chara, Seidenberg, Ference and McQuaid are a lot of minutes covered but not enough for a full season. Up front the numbers are even worse, excluding Marc Savard, there are just five forwards signed for the 2012-13 season. Worse, of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Tyler Seguin, only Bergeron is not due for contract renewal after that season.

This also explains the early dismissal of the bright junior prospects. Not a few fans were genuinely shocked to see the departure of the top CHL players before allowing them even token appearances in the middle preseason games. While only one or two of the forwards were even close to NHL ready, they weren’t collectively close enough to make distracting from the AHL prospects reasonable. Sauve and Arniel are entering their third year out of juniors. Zach Hamill who had a cameo last season in his fourth year out of Everett Silvertips is one of just two of the two ten picks in the 2007 draft to play less than 100 games in the NHL.

Two of the defense pairings that have emerged through camp and the preseason games draw attention to themselves. The first is veteran Andrew Ference and Colby Cohen who was brought over in the Matt Hunwick trade. Cohen despite being traded for a roster player was not among the defensemen called up during the season. The former BU Terrier has shown some offensive prowess as an amateur but in sixty-six total professional games has just two goals. Cohen’s fellow Keystone State native Matt Bartkowski who was part of the filling on the Seidenberg acquisition has been seen skating with Johnny Boychuck. Bartkowski did manage to be on the ice for six games for Boston last season in with limited ice time.

Add in the return of Zach McKelvie and David Warsovsky’s first full professional season and you can see eleven different defensemen jockeying for seven positions. Warsovsky left school to join Providence last season, and put up three assists in the final ten games of the AHL season.  Warsovsky was acquired for Sobotka and is looked at as a potential powerplay quarterback. McKelvie is fresh off two years with the Army and looks steadier than most expected after two years away from the professional game.

One can’t help but speculate on if we will see one or two of last seasons roster moved. With the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement set to expire at seasons end, the Bruins pitiful powerplay, and the cachet of a fresh Stanley Cup run these might present the perfect storm for getting or moving players for the Bruins suits. Some teams may be nervous the labor dispute will get as bad as the NBA’s. Even a work stoppage that is settled as relatively quickly as the NFL’s could have a negative impact on some struggling franchises ticket sales and advertising revenue. Because of this there is a chance that swapping out a player or two could become irresistible.

With just two preseason games left and a solid dozen players vying to fill two roster spots it is anyones guess who will be on the opening night roster. Given the moves the Bruins have made in recent years in the early portion of the season that have moved players like Matt Hunwick, Jeff Penner and Andrew Alberts the odds of the roster being the same on January 6th as it will be on opening night aren’t very high.

Training camps exist for two reasons. The first is to get everyone in sync, the second is the one that is even more exciting; stirring the pot and seeing what stands out. As is the case in training camps across sports the highest draft picks, newest free agents and biggest stars get the lions share of attention, but if those people were all that mattered Ray Bourque would probably have won half a dozen Stanley Cups and not one.

Coming into this summer I had expected to watch no more than half a dozen of the young forwards vie for the last of the roster spots. With the poor showing of the Providence Bruins last season, and a draft that was likely successful, but not something we’ll be able to answer definitively for four or five seasons the attention of nearly all Bruins watchers turned to the guys who led Providence in one offensive stat or another. Some focused on a particular physical type as well. And as usual the prospects still playing in juniors who looked best back in development camp had their own spot on the watchlist.

I’m guessing very few of these lists included Lane MacDermid. His goal scoring doesn’t explain his being drafted. His assist totals are no more spectacular. Many people probably wrote him off with a dismissive comment about his PIMs totals. And yet after the intersquad scrimmage and first preseason game, he sits with the highest point total of any Bruins player. Twice assisting on goals in the scrimmage and being the lone goal scorer for the black and gold in their loss to the division rival  Ottawa Senators.  This is clearly a case of what the biggest difference between the Bruins and Canucks. Specifically, the triumph of will over skill. It may only be two games, but MacDermid has clearly decided to make the most of every moment on the ice. Equally clearly others have not.

The other prospect playing better than many expected is this years fortieth draft pick. Center and left wing Alexander Khokhlachev certainly entered camp in the shadow of the older players at camp (all of them). The young man hoping to make himself a Windsor Spitfire’s Alumni is making a good case for himself. At development camp he showed himself adept at faceoffs, passing and was willing to travel the whole ice service to make plays. In the intersquad scrimmage he potted two goals past a #1 goalie, and did it with guys who were probably not on anyones short list to replace the departed Recchi and Ryder in the top nine forwards.

It is still early days with a lot more camp left, but watching the drive of these two players has certainly made the preseason more interesting.

Last night in London Ontario Canada a disgusting thing happened. Wayne Simmonds a hockey player who happens to be a black man was the subject of a racist attack. Simultaneously across the web condemnation of the incident spread as fast as Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and all the bloggers and news sites could put together words. Almost inevitably the sympathy and out rage slipped over into condescending pity. Intentional or not, this is the type reaction that can be worse than the attack itself, particularly in a case like this where there was no physical danger to Simmonds.

Like Wayne Simmonds, Kevin Weeks, Chris & Anthony Stewart, Evander Kane and several others I’m a black man who has come to love hockey. Like each of them I’ve faced racism in numerous forms. For a well meaning person to say of another adult:

That poise is incredible, that a 23-year-old kid can endure such an ugly situation and focus on the upside of the impact on his team, it’s truly praise-worthy.

is quite vulgar. There is no way in hell this is the first time Simmonds has had to deal with racism in one form or another in public or private. It’s also not the second or the fifth or fourteenth. Quite honestly no one with poise it takes to become a professional athlete much less get drafted in the top two rounds of any league should be expected to have any less poise. For a minority who has had to live with this sort of nonsense their who life to be expected to go to pieces over something non-threatening is in the kindest possible words inherently absurd, painfully ignorant and worse in no way surprising.

I’m not surprised because unless you’re confronted with a reality frequently and intrusively, it might as well not exist. I can no more imagine living in a war zone like the Israel/Palestine area than I can being white or fine boned and small. I know that no matter what I accomplish, no matter who I associate with the first thing anyone will notice about me when they see me is the color of my skin. Wayne Simmonds knows this, its a reality that comes with a set of baggage that makes incidents like this more disgusting than hurtful, more pitiful than painful. The type of attack, and the egregious pity spring from the same well. The assumption that this non threat was going to shatter the world of an adult is absolutely inane. World shattering, or at least world altering is reserved for things that will cause death or damage, dealing with this sort of human produced filth is for any reasonably well balanced adult about as traumatizing as a bad case of the flu.

Wayne himself said:

“When you’re a black man playing in a predominantly white man’s sport, you’ve got to come to expect things like that,” Simmonds said. “Over the past 23 years of my life, I’ve come to expect some things like that. But I’m older and more mature now, I kind of just left things roll off [my back]. I try not to think about stuff like that.”

While I’m highly disgusted at the banana thrower, and note it was big enough news that even a national radio show like JT The Brick who normally skips hockey all together was commenting on the issue, the focus needs to be on finding the asshat who threw the banana not on anything else. Hockey is still too much of a niche sport in a lot of places to let this type of incident become as common in North America as it has been at various times in soccer in Europe.   It should be noted I am not calling Eric T. a racist. I don’t believe he is, I also don’t actually care. But, ignorance is damning, and ignorance is what is shown in his choice of words. Fortunately mild cases of ignorance are curable with a bit of effort.

With Marc Savard down-checked for at least the season, the Bruins have an opportunity at third line center. Tyler Seguin who many believe to be a franchise quality player appears to be in the grooming process in this his second season. Not to be overlooked are returning veterans Rich Peverley who has looked top notch thus far, or Chris Kelly who was a defensive juggernaut last year assuming Herculean penalty kill time and responsibility for being  catching the defensive lapses of then rookie Seguin and the offensive minded Michael Ryder.

In all likelihood Seguin will be slotted in to third line center duties for at least the first ten to twelve games of the season. There’s also a high probability Chris Kelly will be riding shotgun on this line. That leaves two major questions for this line. The first is which player will make the team. And the second is who will play this position the majority of the early going considering that much as many Bruins fans would like to you can’t overlook Benoit Pouliot.

Jordan Caron is to many the clear front runner as he made the team last year before fading out, then recovered his game in Providence. Jared Knight is a favorite of those who are concerned about the powerplay and want a player who has no issues driving the net. Max Sauve is a slick handed player who has struggled to stay healthy but was both productive in Providence and one of the few players with a positive +/-. Jamie Arniel was a late cut last year and was the first call up among forwards as well, he also led the Providence Bruins in most offensive categories. Zach Hamill has reopened some eyes to him this preseason and was the second leading scorer. Worthy of mention for pure skill is Ryan Spooner who like Knight was a second round pick in 2010 who looked good in both development camp and early pro-camp.

As talented and engaging as they are both Spooner and Knight have to be considered dark horses. Spooner is quite small and spends his time at center where the Bruins have a lot of depth, Knight while physically larger is still a risk to hit a serious slump that could stunt his growth if he didn’t manage to break it quickly. The Providence crew all have their own strengths and weaknesses. Hamill who led the P-Bruins in assists and had a very high +/- in comparison to the rest of his team, he’s not a particularly adept goal scorer and hasn’t sustained a high level of play yet. Caron had one of the worst +/-‘s but is a productive big body who can skate well in a system that lacks players with all three qualities. Arniel is another mid-sized to small forward with good skating, great work ethic and the ability to put up points at the AHL level.

Given the coaches inclinations, I just don’t see Knight or Spooner making it as much because of the older players as because of how young they are. That said, Bergeron, Lucic, Kessel, and Marchand are all guys who weren’t expected to make the team straight out of juniors and did. If i had to go with an older player (Arniel is worn and spent 21 and Caron is creaky and dusty 20 while Hamill is nearly social security eligible at 22) I’d have to lean towards Caron or Aniel (in no particular order) over all the others simply based on goal scoring.

That leaves six forwards to make up the top two lines assuming Paille Campbell and Thornton reprise their roles as the NHL’s best fourth line. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Nathan Horton, and Rich Peverley. While it is possible that last years lines will remain intact with only Peverley replacing Recchi, I don’t see it as especially likely. One of the issues with the top two lines last season was that the two lines were a bit unbalanced. The Bergeron line was fairly small with his own 194 lbs being the largest on the line giving them good speed but not a great deal of heft. The Krejci line had good size and physicality, but Horton was the lines best skater and they were occasionally victimized by this.

One of the interesting parings in camp was Lucic and Marchand practicing as a pairing in two on two drills. I can imagine some opponents having fits just at the thought of the two of them on the ice at the same time, Montreal in particular.  While I don’t mind this paring, both players were at left wing last season and each had a good year in that position in order to be together one would have to make a transition that might soften their production. For me ideal lines for balance of assets would be something like Marchand – Bergeron – Horton and Lucic – Krejci -Peverley. Each line gets a healthy dose of size, scoring, speed, attitude and three zone commitment. With those configurations you can put either line out against any opposing line and be able to both contain them and create offense.

Day two opened with group B attacking the ice first. Lots of simulated game play. Rushes and drills almost the whole session.

Peverley, Hamill, Knight shined brightest among the forwards in the first session. Sauve and Caron were definitely noticeable with good body position on the powerplay/penalty kill drills.

Cheers at the beginning and breaks during sessions were warm. As group b did ended closing stretch

Chara - Peverley

Training Camp 2011

with Rich Peverley leading, the crowds cheering was as loud as you may hear during games in other markets.

Group a had a much crisper feel today. Colby Cohen looked good on defense, Kyle MacKinnon continued making himself known at forward. Alexander Khokhlachev showed a lot with hands, wheels and puck tracking. Nathan Horton appears 100% and is moving well. Jamie Arniel was a late cut last season and the first forward called up last season and looks like that’s not an acceptable turnout this year.

One time Jennings Trophy winner, reigning Conn-Smyth winner and two time Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas got by far the biggest pop from the crowd when he walked on to the ice. The buzz lasted until he’d made his first lap. He moved well but like the other goalies isn’t in mid-season form yet.

The special teams drills in the second session were much more physical than the first session. Some of those dishing out the hot sauce were a surprising. Jamie Arniel and Tyler Seguin handed out some hits and shoves in addition to the warm welcome Thornton, Campbell and Paille greeting specialize in.

Training Camp 2011 1

special teams drill

Colby Cohen and Andy Ference were paired for all the drills and looked good. Cohen moves a lot better than some of the 200lb defensemen I’ve seen. It was notable that when Ference was working the penalty kill he was directing traffic for his unit even over the forwards who might spend a bit more time on the PK during the regular season.

One of the nice things about the practice was the huge number of fans there. At a guess it peaked at over 3000 fans. Quite a few of them clustered around the tunnel, and players stopped to autograph for several minutes. After shedding his gear from the early session the final piece of the Phil Kessel trade Dougie Hamilton returned to the tunnel mouth to sign autographs. he was there signing for at least twenty or thirty minutes.

Dougie Hamilton signing

Dougie Hamilton signing pics at Bruins camp 2011

It was a good show overall. In a similar manner to development camp there were players who stood out in a good way, but not more than one or two who didn’t look like they could compete for an NHL job either now or in the future. I do have a few favorites to make the team that I’ll share later in the week at forward where two or three players have elevated above the others. The defensemen have been a tighter knot and are a bit complicate by who was called up at some point last year and how they performed. The goalie situation I suspect will remain unchanged from last year.