December was all things considered another good month to be a Boston Bruins fan. The way the month ended with a very lucky win against the Coyotes and forty plus minutes of sleeping and most of a period of passable effort for the sedated in a loss to the Stars shouldn’t overshadow the month as a whole.

Stars:

Brad Marchand: Continued his strong play on the year climbing into a tie for the team lead in goal scoring. Added his first short handed goal of the season, a powerplay assist, and two game winning goals while being a point per game player for the month. The month included being named NHL’s first star of the week when he had a five point game 3g 2a.

Benoit Pouliot:  Turned in the best December of his career in goals. Continued to make Julien and Chiarelli look like they own the Midas touch, played a smart game throughout the  month and moved from being a reactive part of the team going only where the system told him to being an active player and leveraging his teammates.

Andrew Ference: Boston’s favorite tree-hugging pitbull only doubled the number of points he had on the season in December. In addition to that he turned in more blocked shots than either October and November and did all of this while only taking two PIMS.

Stumbles:

Jordan Caron: He who hesitates is lost. Jordan Caron is he.

Johnny Boychuk: The Prince Of Pinchestan continues to disappoint offensively acquiring just two points in the month, turning the puck over on numerous occasions. When he’s at the height of his prowess his play can be described as “high risk high reward”, at this point the reward portion is present in a portion statistically indifferent from zero.

Tyler Seguin: Numbers down across the board. Not just offensive numbers but things that show effort as well. No one sane expect the results of a month like November when he was over a point per game to continue, and a season long 28 shooting percentage is not sustainable. The physical, neutral zone and defensive zone play however fell into the toilet. As I’m sure someone pointed out to him, the sooner the puck leaves the defensive zone and gets to the offensive zone the better chance one has to score.

The Bruins have half a lot of choices to make between now and July first. They are on a pure rampaged through the league with a roster very little changed from the one that one them the Stanley Cup. Most of the team is fairly young, and it’s hard to argue that any of the unsigned players are having a negative effect on the team. Of players currently on the roster, there are two RFA, and six UFA’s.

The restricted free agents are Tuukka Rask and Benoit Pouliot. If you stretch the list to Zach Hamill who has done well in his call up games this year, and would likely be less expensive than most players that could be signed from outside. Rask has the most variables attached to his potential deal, he’s got great numbers and is arguably the best backup or 1b option in the NHL. On the other hand he’s yet to have a solid pro playoff season, has never started more than 39 games in a season. Additionally he’s had knee surgery before his 25th birthday.  Given the lack of depth in the system, unless he starts looking for over 3.5 million, I suspect he’s resigned. Realistically, a two year deal at 2.25 a year is desirable from both ends.

Pouliot is in an odd position, if he does well, even if he doesn’t live up to the hype of a fourth overall pick, he can probably get signed just about anywhere for an increase over this years contact. He’s currently on pace for his best pro goals performance, but that’s not exactly world beating. From his point of view, if he does well this season, there’s a lot of incentive to stick around given Julien’s known preference for older players over rookies, he’s likely to improve more in a second year in the system. Hamill, who has been a top scorer in the rather disorganized Providence system for the last two season. Either one could sign for as much as $1.75 depending on the role envisioned.

The unrestricted free agents are where the likeliest roster changes will be made. Chris Kelly is the UFA to be making the most noise at this point, and is one of four UFA forwards including entire fourth line. Campbell and Paille will both be 28 when next season opens, and have been important parts of the penalty kill, with limited offense. Campbell is more gritty, and can usually be counted on for solid faceoff numbers, Paille is much faster and can nearly kill a penalty himself if the other team makes one misstep. Shawn Thornton will turn 35 after his contract will go into effect. His offense isn’t what has Thornton in the NHL, but in that category he dwarfs most similar players. I honestly have no idea what the three could be signed to, but if anyone of the freeMerlot Line signs for as much as two million I’ll be surprised. Kelly, was discussed recently at length.

The defensemen due new contracts monetarily might do best to let the market set their value. With Suter, Brad Stuart, Josh Gorges, Chris Campoli, the resurgent Sheldon Souray and other leading the pack if they sign close on the heels of those players, they might do well for themselves, wherever they sign. Johnny Boychuk is 27, and a former AHL defensemen of the year, last season he didn’t have the offense expected of him, but has bounced back pretty well so far this season. Joe Corvo will be thirty five when his next contract starts and has been very uneven in games this year, he was picked up for a for 4th round pick. Depending on where Boychuk finishes the season points in points and minutes and length of deal, his contract will probably be in the three million neighborhood. With zero goals, and the implications of a 35+ contract, I’m expecting to see Corvo in another uniform next season.

The Bruins escaped their visit from the Columbus Blue Jackets with two points and that’s about all that can be said for the home team in front of the crease. Tuukka Rask made the most of his appearance and gave the Bruins a chance to…not lose badly. Curtis Sanford as the other end of the ice was impressive. Good rebound control, good positioning, and some good luck. I think it’s safe to say that two more starts by Sanford of that quality will make the call to go to Mason a very tough thing.

The Blue Jackets are a better team on the ice than they are in the standings. They had excellent defense front of their crease tonight and broke up far more passes than they allowed to be made. At center ice they held their own with the Bruins for stretches, something teams a good distance above them haven’t done much of even when the Bruins have lost. The offensive zone was not pretty for the visitors, they never managed to get any sustained pressure. Despite their managing to score, the power play was something that must have fans covering their eyes.

With Johnny Boychuk out with flu-like symptoms, something I more than suspect he was not the only player on the roster with, McQuaid slid into his spot along side along side the teams recently exonerated captain.  In sixteen pretty solid minutes of play he got the only goal, played sound defense and generally looked good against Nash and the Blue Jackets top forwards. It was interesting to note that McQuaid and Chara played within the offensive zone tonight where as many nights Boychuck and Chara line up just outside the blueline. I’m not 100% sure if this is an adjustment to the opposition or owes to the speed advantage McQuaid has over Boychuk.

Despite a game that can only be generously called sloppy, the Bruins will head to Long Island Saturday knowing they won all five games of their home stand, and have a chance to maintain one of the NHL’s two seven game win streaks. The other belongs to the New York Rangers who the Bruins will host on January 21st.  My stars of the game: 3: Sandford 2: Rask 1: Mcquaid.

How broken can they be, they just won the Stanley Cup? Very. They are two wins below the next worst team in their division, and one bare point off the league basement. They aren’t scoring goals, they aren’t hitting. They aren’t blocking shots, and surprise surprise they aren’t winning. The last possible route has two lanes for fixing it although the first one often leads to the second.

Fire everyone below ownership. Get rid of everyone from Neely down to the third assistant stick boy. Many would say that if they didn’t prepare a team ready to compete after winning everything they clearly can’t be trusted with long-term stewardship of one of the NHL’s oldest teams. Coaches gone. Trainers gone. General manager and assistants gone. Jeremy Jacobs has stressed in recent years how much he and his son love the team. Is it time for them to show it by giving it a shot in the arm?

Getting rid of Julien is probably pretty easy. Coaches take the fall all the time. The Bruins powerplay is awful and has been for years. He’s blamed for driving the NHL October 2011 first star out of town for being overly demanding and stifling of young players. He’s characterized as overly defensive and inflexible. He can go and take the little dogs with him.

Chiarelli is even easier. With a history of bad trades and worse free agent signings he’s literally cost the team millions of wasted salary dollars. No one needs to be reminded he strengthened a division rival by sending them the current AHL points leader Joe Colborne, an additional first round and second pick in a disastrous trade for Kaberle who was clearly the wrong choice to fix the powerplay. Then there are trades like the Bochenski for Versteeg “deal”, the acquisition of Patrick Eaves for Aaron Ward, only to buy out eaves before the ink was dry.

Thirty goal scorer Michael Ryder came to Boston and his goal scoring touch was on life support the whole time. Manny Fernandez was an aging old goalie with knee and back problems brought in to “solidify” the goaltending position. In two seasons Fernandez played in all of 32 games. The 2008-09 season saw him ride Tim Thomas’s coattails to a share of the Jennings award despite being 25th in Sv% and 20th in GAA. Some other names that will make Bruins fans cringe that we have only Peter to thank for: Schaefer, Begin, Allen, Montador, Lashoff and more.

Worse in the eyes of many who would advocate just blowing everything up he’s failed to build a farm system that can regularly feed players to the parent club. The AHL affiliate is bad enough that it’s playoff record going into last seasons final weeks was worse than the parent clubs and has had a revolving door for coaches. Then there is the fact he’s failed repeatedly to find fixes for the powerplay.

Traveling the second option is possibly harder but almost certainly closer to necessary. When a coach not known for throwing players under the bus publicly does so in an unprompted manner, they may have just punched their ticket out of town. Given that questions of commitment have followed one of them since being drafted, and injuries have followed the other a change of scenery might just do the trick. This seasons powerplay bandaid Joe Corvo is third in PPTOI, but has not out performed Andrew Ference who is playing less than one third the minutes on the man advantage.  Former AHL defenseman of the year Johnny Boychuk has clearly stagnated with his points per game tailing off over his three seasons in Boston. The numbers don’t lie. When you look at the backup goaltender, not only does Tuukka Rask get uninspired play in front of him, his performance in the playoffs is noticeably worse than his regular season numbers across his career.

Something has to give. When you go from first to worst without significant changes in on ice personnel, the problem needs to be addressed. Nuking the team or off ice leaders, trades to fill needs, or simply a shakeup it is past time to live up to fan expectations of a creditable title defense. The season after a championship win shouldn’t be a sedate victory lap it should be a tour de force that shows why the team is the top food chain.

The Bruins are in an unusual place in that they have all the cap room they need to make internal tweaks to the roster. It has been ten games, and it’s clear not only are some players doing better than others, but some are trying harder than others. I’ve been to Bruins practices where the effort was more game worthy than some of the shifts various players have put in this season.

If the problem is a S****** C** H******* then maybe some players need a day or two of rest. With the collective bargain agreement expiring, and so many unsigned UFA’s to be at the end of the season it is never too soon to start evaluating what is in the pipeline at the NHL level. Some of them can just be given maintenance days, anyone late for practice or to the arena for games can be suspended by the team.

Two Providence Bruins forwards are clearly leading the way in the AHL. One is a rookie currently second on the team in scoring, the other is an AHL veteran who was second on the team in points last year despite a call up to Boston, and has to be considered a key driver behind their being in second in their division. Carter Camper is the rookie out of Miami of Ohio, currently playing wing. Zach Hamill has through ten games improved his points per game from .63 to .82.

We have forwards making more than the combined cap hit of these two who have only one or two points through ten regular season games. It is time to let them rest, and let these two into the opportunity to shine at the NHL level as they’ve earned.  Even if they are eventually sent back to Providence or dealt to bring in a different element the NHL time can hardly hurt them, and the odds of them being less effective than certain players who have been on the ice but not in the game this year are small enough to make the lottery look like a good investment for everyone.

Defensively there has been slightly less dismaying play, but it should be noted goals against is up over last year and the teams goalie tandem can’t really be blamed for that. Boychuk who didn’t turn the puck over that much last year is on pace for his giveaway total to increase by over a third.  Of the defensemen to have played each game so far none has a lower hits and blocked shots number than Joe Corvo, this despite being third for ice time.

If you thought you noticed the Bruins are blocking less shots than last year, you’d be right. Overall the forwards and defenemen are doing a much worse job at blocking shot this season. They are currently 17% below last years number.  Changing players out at defense from the AHL could be a bit more difficult, but the vote of confidence Colby Cohen or Kevin Miller would get by playing 12-14 minutes at the NHL level in two or three game can’t hurt their game. Equally true, if rookies and young players can benefit from a dozen or so games a year in the press box watching the X’s and O’s take shape the refresher course for seasoned veterans shouldn’t take nearly as long.

The Bruins played a great first period putting shots on Ward early and often. Unfortunately Ward looks to be back in the form that helped the Hurricanes win a Stanley Cup a few years ago. The second period was mostly more of the same. Then things got ugly. Chara reacted to two members of the Hurricanes throwing punches at Nathan Horton playing in just his fifth game since getting cold cocked and being lost to a concussion by Aaron Rome.

Jeff Skinner continued the aggression he displayed against the man who won the Calder Trophy the year before. The nearly as large as Tyler Myers was lucky enough to have the calls made down the middle. Fair officiating being all any sane fan, player, official or league wants. The Bruins on the other hand were not. Chara was called for high sticking when the stick never made contact. Marchand was given a misconduct for pointing out there was no actual contact. Later the head coach would be tossed from the game for shaking his head at the announcement of a Milan Lucic misconduct that might have deserved a two minute roughing call.

On to the Bruins failures. I’ll leave the failures and faults of Paul Devorski and Wes McCauley to others. Bartkowski made it clear why he was out of the line up with a couple turnovers and ended up playing just 4:29. With Chara receiving one of the NHL’s near mythical instigator penalties, a misconduct and his five for fighting that left Boychuck, Corvo, Ference and Seidenberg to do the heavy lifting.

The lack of depth on the blueline lead to some overly cautious play. At any given point when the Bruins gained the offensive zone, the defense could be seen at least three or four feet outside the offensive zone. Given the aggressive play of the Carolina Hurricanes and their group speed this can be useful to contain chances or with inexperienced defensemen when trying to keep a lead, But of all four of them Boychuck who has played over two season in Boston plus the Stanley Cup run. At least four or five times a period the Bruins would send or lose a puck back to the blueline and only find lots and lots of space.

Next up was a lack of support along the boards. This was largely due to the defense being passive and highly defensive. But there were also breakdowns that saw the breakup of the top three lines as we knew them. By the end of the game Caron was skating with Bergeron and Marchand. Pouliot and Lucic had switched places by the start of the third. And Chris Kelly skated more than one shift, including the one just before his fight, with Milan Lucic on his wing.

Chris Kelly had a good fight, his first as a Bruin in the game. Jordan Caron had several good passes a nice hit and sweet dish to the crease right as the forward there was being cleared. The Bruins even got their second powerplay goal of the year with Peverley putting one past Ward from Corvo and Seidenberg. Amazingly despite the monster minutes both would play in a game that got ugly, neither Boychuck or Seidenberg were minus players.

Overall it was an ugly loss with several good things embedded in it. Despite multiple and successive five on threes the Bruins killed much of their interestingly acquired penalty time. Best of all they finally showed some life. Chara, Lucic on down to Kelly, Rask and the rest showed they are fully engaged, possibly for the first time this season. With luck this is the Dallas game the Bruins fused in last year.

For those wondering I asked what the last time a coach was tossed out of a game. Here’s the answer I got.

@ most recent one I can recall is Tortorella in Nov 2006
@TSNResearch
Kevin Gibson

The best thing that can be said about the Boston Bruins as a team this week is that they got less bad as the week went on. Certain individuals shined and, some were invisible.

The Columbus Day game against the Avalanche showed the worst of the team. Tuukka Rask is the only reason they were in it at all. Even Seguin and Marchand looked to have come back to earth a little. While the Avs are off to a very good start, I don’t think I’ve seen a single creditable prediction they would make the playoffs and are simply rolling with one of those early season runs while better teams are finishing their shakedown cruise. Non existent puck protection and an unending audition for zombie parts in the next Night of the Living Dead remake made it amazing they only lost 1-0.

When it was time to throw down with the Hurricanes they were against collectively sluggish. Marchand and fellow sophomore Jeff Skinner introduced themselves with some just short of penalty festivities.  Marchand and Seguin would both score goals in the third. It looked suspiciously like Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic actually remembered what the two hundred dollar twig in their hands was for as each managed three shots on goal and Horton got an assist on Seguins goal.  Tim Thomas was the goalie left out to dry this night as Jiri “The Big Picture” Tlusty, and Anthony “Six Minute Man” Stewart would be handed pucks by sluggish defenders to tuck into the net.

Against the Chicago Blackhawks things were slightly better. Calling it a sixty minute effort would be more than a stretch, but there were times when you remembered this was almost the entire Stanley Cup winning roster. Lucic, Horton, and Boychuck all had their best games of the season. Boychuck was key on Horton’s goal skating hard behind Crawford’s net and sending a hard, flat pass to Horton for a quick shot over the goal line. Unfortunately the sustained good efforts didn’t really start until the second period, and were undermined by a boarding penalty by Bergeron, and a Tony Romo like pass to the opposition by Andrew Ference.  Bergeron’s boarding penalty was just dumb, he and the Blackhawk were alone and he didn’t even try reaching around or going in from the side. Chris Kelly got the teams first shorthanded goal of the season off a Ference feed. With a little more effort, like say any time in the first period, the Bruins could have done in a BlackHawks team that includes former Bruins Steve Montador and Sean O’Donnell on it’s blueline in regulation. Instead, they needed to go to the skills competition. Thomas closed the door to three pretty damned good Chicago players, Seguin got the only goal needed for the Bruins.

Top Players:

Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin, Tuukka Rask, Tim Thomas all looked good.

For the first time in decades there are very few questions to be answered in terms of personnel on and off the ice. We have two time Vezina Trophy winner, and Conn Smyth holder Tim Thomas returning in goal with the well regarded Tuukka Rask backing him up. The defense is nearly as well stocked with the hulking Zdeno Chara and his oft overlooked but indispensable wing-man Dennis Seidenberg as the go to duo. Slated to return was are last years breakout defender Adam Mcquaid, the snarling wolverine to Chara’s loping wolf Andrew Ference, former AHL defenseman of the year and newlywed Johnny Boychuk. The well traveled Joe Corvo is the only new guy likely to be in the top six on October 6 when the banner goes up.  At forward Brad Marchand recently resigned and will almost certainly resume his “I Felt Like It.” behavior along side the teams best skater Patrice Bergeron, and leaving just one forward slot among the four lines in doubt.

With studs like Jared Knight and Ryan Spooner headlining the list of those who hope to turn pro this year, some might just pencil one of their names into the lineup and go back to counting down until the puck drops. That would be a mistake. The biggest question left after Marchand reupping and Savard being down checked for the season is where Seguin will play. This is the question that affects every other decision that will be made this year and going forward. If he is going to play at center going forward, for now that means the third line and likely with one or both Peverley and Kelly. If he’s going play at wing, he could still end up with last seasons late acquisitions, or he could slide up and join Marchand in flanking Bergeron. If he does, as some have speculated land next to the dynamic duo the question become what role the third line will take. If you’re expecting the lines centered by Bergeron and Krejci to carry a hefty percentage of the offense, the third line becomes a checking line by default.

If the third line is to be a checking line with Kelly and Peverley making up two thirds of it, then Pouliot is likely in the lead for the third spot on the line. Another option is to put a rookie who may not be ready to play in all situations on that line and use them sparingly while double shifting other forwards to leverage their capabilities. If that is the case the door is wide, wide open and the list goes well beyond Arniel, Caron, Suave, as front runners and allows for anyone such as Camper, Cunningham or Khokhlachev to blow the doors off management and earn a chance to grow into a well rounded player.

One of the other options that I haven’t seen talked about for Bergeron’s second winger is Peverley. Peverley was used in every situation and on every line during the playoffs last year. He’s a high end skater in both speed and agility, he’s a good passer and has even taken faceoffs on a regular basis. If he’s slotted in on the second line, the third line is possibly even more interesting. Pairing Seguin with Caron to fill out the line with Kelly gives a good amount of size, speed and skill and makes the Bergeron’s line even more effective as a two way production and scoring line. Seguin and Caron would be able to come along at a reasonable pace earning additonal ice timeand give each of them familiarity with a player likely to be in the organization a long time.

On defense the question of who is number seven is possibly more interesting. Steve Kampfer looked great for parts of his time prior to his injury last season, looked good at others, and looked entirely out of his depth on more than one occasion. Still, he played more time among the six defensemen put on the ice last year than any of the other options. David Warsovsky is a possibilty as he’s an offensive specialist and might be looked at to help improve the powerplay. Ryan Button intruiged me at prospect camp with his skating, reflexes and hands and shouldn’t be overlooked when taking notes the next couple weeks. Matt Bartkowski was the other semi-regular member of the Bruins defense last year. While his time wasn’t particularly impressive, it’s hard to lay that entirely at his skates as most of the game he played the club was mired in a funk that made the team painful to watch.

Given how little was done to address the powerplay from outside the team over the offseason, and the cap position of several teams don’t be surprised if the Bruins make a move or two between now and the start of the season. The Buffalo Sabres have heavily retooled since Terry Pegula took over, are currently well over the cap and a very dangerous team, the Calgary Flames are still in desperate need of a center who can stay within shouting range of Jarome Iginla as well. Not to be left off the list of teams yearning for a playoff spot are the recently uptooled Columbus BlueJackets and the Minnesota Wild. Columbus hasn’t made the playoffs in their history, and the Wild have not been in the post season the last two seasons.

There aren’t many questions to be asked about roster spots this year, but what questions there are will keep us all watching.

I pointed out one or two players recently I certainly didn’t want to see land in a Bruins uniform, there are some moves I’d really like. I’ll get to those free agent pickups in a moment, but the the bigger question is, do the Bruins really need to make any major moves to be as strong as they were last year, or stronger? Probably not. Mark Recchi and Michael Ryder combined for just thirty two goals last season, Kaberle added just one.  Its a reasonably safe bet Brad Marchand will re-sign.  It’s highly unlikely Marchand will spend a quarter of the year on the fourth line. Tyler Seguin put on some muscle, got a lot of experience, and played with just about everyone on the roster at some point last year. David Krejci will not be entering the season off of wrist surgery as he did last year. Johnny Boychuk will probably not have his arm broken, miss ten games and turn in the lowest goal total of his professional career.

If we go with conservative estimates for the increase of  these four players over last year, most of that difference will be made up.  Boychuk had as many goals in the 25 game playoff run as he did in the 69 times he suited up in the regular season.  David Krejci who ended the season with his lowest full regular season goal total was just one goal short of matching that in the playoffs. Between these two players we can safely estimate two additional goals for Boychuk,  and an additional five for Krejci which is still several goals below his best season.  I would be surprised a great deal if Seguin or Marchand increased their goal totals by less than six each.

Leaving aside production increases by any other players on the roster this is 19 goals.  Of the rest of the roster only Lucic and Thonton set career highs in goals. Chara, Bergeron, Horton, Peverley were all well below their career highs as well. With the odd goal that can be blamed on Tuukka’s knee the Bruins find themselves in pretty good shape. Based on this highly simplified math the Bruins need about 14 goals this season. If they fill both Ryder and Recchi’s slots with rookies (Arniel, Caron, Hamill, Knight, Spooner, Suave) its almost inconceivable that Julien and Co couldn’t squeeze seven goals out of any two of them.

I suspect that if the right UFA deal comes along, the Bruins will grab them. One of the cheif reasons for this is that its a “hard cap” this year with a players bonuses figured into their cap hit counted against the cap. Entry level deal like Seguin’s, any of the players mentioned above would actually leave less available cap space than signing a player like Chris Drury to a $2million deal for the season. Another concern has to be victory disease. Even throwing out the ups, downs, travel, illnesses, and injuries of last season just wining the Cup and the summer of celebration has got to be both exhausting and undermining to motivation. What more can Tim Thomas have to prove? Rich Peverley was undrafted and two goals against a Vezina finalist in the Stanley Cup Finals. Chris Kelly went from the a lottery team to the promised land in less than fifty games. Adding in a hungry veteran either by free agency also allows them to be moved closer to the deadline be it for picks, prospects or other players.