Another NHL regular season is closing. All 30 teams are in action. Some players are auditioning for parts next season in late call ups, some are just hoping to break out of a slump before the post season starts. Some two or three will never play in the NHL again. Retirement for some, permanent assignment back to the AHL for a few, and time overseas will take some of the players who make every season worth watching will be gone.
For those going forward, players like Mike Richards and Jonathan Quick will face their opposite numbers on the San Jose roster tonight as both teams seek to decide their own fate. Nick Foligno of the Senators knows he’s headed for the playoffs for the third time in his career, while younger brother Marcus will attempt to finish the season with a little pride against the Boston Bruins. Joel Ward enters the playoffs for the first time in his career without an All Star quality goalie behind him, and with the certainty that next years squad will be very different if the team doesn’t make it deep.
Who will backup Tim Thomas is still a mystery wrapped in an enigma as Rask continues to recover, the true status of Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is just as shrouded in darkness, Randy Cunneyworth has been the consummate professional dealing with the well stirred chaos that is the Montreal Canadiens and he probably has no idea if he’ll be coaching the team next season, or working anywhere in the NHL. Kevin Dineen on the other hand might just lockup the Southeast Division title and the Jack Adams award with a win, steering a team with only two 20 goal scorers, and with just two key players to have skated in every game is amazing, doing it with a roster that saw 35 skaters and 4 goalies take the ice is simply remarkable.
The New York Rangers last won the Stanley Cup when they won the Presidents Trophy. A win today will give them the Presidents Trophy. A win today would also lock in a first round matchup with today’s opponent the Washington Capitals who all things considered would probably rather play the Boston Bruins in the first round.
Jared Spurgen finishes his second NHL season today one point from doubling his rookie numbers, and while again he finds himself on the outside looking in the former Spokane Chief has the chance to play spoiler two years in a row, if he can rally the Wild over the Coyotes it’s likely the Phoenix team loses out on home ice in the first round. Phil Kessel has gone from hero and savior to scapegoat in a couple short years in Toronto and has only a game with the Canadiens in which he might extend his career high in goals.
So what’s left to play for today? Pride, position a new contract, hope for the future, and the chance to go home on a positive note.
Tim Thomas has had an interesting season. He opened the season playing behind a team with five players who were showing up skating in front of him. He played well through that. In October he had a less than modest .929 sv%, and then he got better. In November and December his numbers were off the charts, even by his standards. Since he was part of the backslide that will end up costing the team the nearly meaningless President’s Trophy. Faced criticism for how he chose to spend a day off, and had his popularity on Facebook go from modest to major. He’ll probably eclipse 20,000 likes before the playoffs start.
While whispers have floated that he would retire at the end of the season have surfaced, I’m not entirely certain I believe them. Looking at his last three or four games played he looks to be back to something like the form he was in last season. While it’s hard to imagine him simply seeking more material for his hagiography, it is worth noting that he is six wins from his 200th career regular season win. He’d have to play and win all six of the remaining regular season games to do that. With Marty Turco having played well on the west coast there may not be a need for that. Given how many games he’s already played this season it might even be counter productive.
As of today he sits 4th all time in wins for the Boston Bruins, not a bad accomplishment for a perennially discarded goalie derided as a flopper right up until he won his first Vezina. With 37 wins he would leapfrog the legendary Gerry Cheevers and Frank Brimsek to take sole possession of second all time in wins for the oldest American franchise in the NHL. If healthy there is no reason he couldn’t do that before the end of next season. His best season to date was 36 wins in 54 games. Should he be extended beyond the one season remaining on his contract, the all time wins lead is 59 games away. If he goes through next season as the number one goaltender, and hits the 37 between now and the end of next season needed to move into #2 all time, even taking a fifty fifty split of games the following season that all time wins total would only be 21 wins away.
Going forward the rest of the season, and post season it is unlikely he plays more than four of the remaining six even with only one back to back. Tuukka Rask has yet to resume skating, and even the lower end of the 4-6 week range puts him as back April 5th, the date of the second to last Bruins game of the season. With Turco unable to play in the post season, it will be up to Thomas, and possibly Khudobin and Hutchinson. It would be dismaying to see either of the latter two in a game, barring the ridiculous it’s unlikely even Rask plays this post season. Tim Thomas fearless rider of Boston cabs, will one way or another be among the most talked about players from April 11th until at least the draft.
The Boston Bruins 7th Player Award is one of those awards that is so hard to judge. If you look at any given to week span of the marathon you could award it to a good dozen players in a deep team. Other years you wonder if anyone deserves it. This year is another hard year to judge. Many players have been what they are expected to be. Some have been better for parts of the year, and at or below expectations the rest. Some of been good but not way over expectations.
Player has to consistently do what they are expected to do.
What they do outside that role has to be positive and fairly consistent.
Must play Bruins hockey.
Exceed at least a third of the other players at that position, minimum.
Off the top of the list we have the positively eliminated:
Patrice Bergeron he’s the team MVP, which isn’t what the 7th player award is.
Zdeno Chara, has been up and down this year, but still worth every bit of his pay.
Brad Marchand, he came in and has handily exceeded last years numbers, not hugely but done slightly more than expected.
The negatively eliminated:
Tyler Seguin, hot and cold, hot and cold, hot and cold…
David Krejci, see above.
Joe Corvo, ah no. No ones expectations were that low.
Benoit Pouliot, his numbers are worse than last year when he was with the Habs.
If we toss out the goalies who most Bruins fans seem to think are guilty of something north of murder and not quite as bad a child molestation or not liking hockey if they let in two goals in a night we are left with a small pool of guys who have performed about to expectations or above.
Chris Kelly is playing 30 seconds less shorthanded time than last year, but has had an uptick in offense and faceoffs, but he’s been quite hot and cold offensively.
Dennis Seidenberg is an interesting choice too, he’s playing more ice time than last year, has tripled his +/- despite not playing much of the year with Chara.
Shawn Thornton would be all sorts of fun to give the award to, he’s having his second best career offensive season, had that truly filthy shorthanded goal, and has earned his PIMS with 19 fighting majors and better kept his peace when getting egregiously bad calls against him.
In truth either of those three would be a more than acceptable winner. At one point it looked like Chris Kelly was going to run away with the award. He leveled off a bit when Rich Peverley went out, but has picked up lately with the addition of Brian Rolston. If you ignore October and the first week or so of November Lucic has been stellar this season, playing as a one man line more nights than are fair to him but it is unlikely he hits 30 goals again this season. Which leaves just one man clearly worthy of the 7th Player Award.
Andrew Ference. Despite missing ten games with an injury he’s exceeded his best offensive year as a member of the Boston Bruins by 25%, with games left to play. He’s been as solid as we could hope for defensively. He’s increased his shorthanded time on ice, over last year and has brought the fast, physical game we’ve always expected of him. On and off the ice he’s a contributor.
Looking back at the last several weeks of Bruins play there are some things that are readily apparent, like:
less capable replacements
mid season boredom
some atrocious calls by on ice officials and the office of Player Safety
What’s less apparent is that up until his injury, the Bruins were sliding Tuukka Rask into just about every other game. It started in late December, and continued on from there. Unlike years past where Thomas would get six or seven games then Rask one or two, Thomas for five or six, then Rask in one half of a back to back, then Thomas again for several games. The rinse and repeat continued unless one of the two had a much better record against a given opponent.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or Jack Adams winner to notice Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas have different playings styles. Rask is a methodical butterfly goalie. He very rarely goes even one step outside the crease and the number of times he’s gone two steps outside the crease while play is below the dots can probably be counted on one hand. He plays upright, and in a very similar manner to goalies like Lundqvist. He’s also played well so far playing just the few games at a time and seems to wear down after five or six. In comparison to his crease crony he’s pretty passive in game play. Sure milk crates fear his very shadow, but other players?
Tim Thomas on the other hand uses what some have called the “battlefly” style. He’s aggressive. He’s athletic. He’s rarely still. He’ll come three or four steps outside the crease if he feels more confident about making the save half a dozen times a game and not consider it worth noticing. He’ll initiate contact with opponents. If he figured out how to do it and thought it would help he’d split himself in three to make saves.
While neither goalie is anyway an adept puck handler, where they leave the puck for their defenseman is often a little different. In addition to their playing style there’s a couple physical differences. Thomas looks like the “Tank” he is sometimes called. He’s shorter than Rask, barrel chested, and about thirty pounds heavier. Rask is whipcord over bone, tall, gangly and absolutely needs to make sure his shoulders are square on every shot to have a chance at saving it. He’s got much the same physical body type as David Krejci, but is even skinnier and several inches taller. The biggest similarity between the two is that both catch with their left hand.
All of these differences present adjustment difficulties for the skaters. Standing three strides out of the crease with Rask in net means you’re well clear of his comfort zone and likely have room to pivot and retrieve any pucks that leak through or hit him and fall straight in front of him. That same distance out is well within Thomas’s comfort zone. Then there’s the height difference. Neither is going to be able to see over Chara, McQuaid or Lucic, but if Ference, Bergeron, or one much of the team have their edges set for a puck battle either should be able to see over or around them depending on the angle, but Rask will have a slight advantage. Thomas has a better lateral range of the two by virtue of having a better glove, and rarely going down into a butterfly until a puck is inbound.
Most of the the time the two have shared the crease there has been a much wider split in games played, and barring injuries one subbed in for the other only intermittently. As different as their physical attribute are, and their playing styles making the adjustment two or three times a month at most may have kept players more aware of the difference and what they meant for their play. The constant back and forth in the weeks heading up to the Rask injury may have thrown all parties off.
Chara, Ference, Seidenberg, Boychuk, McQuaid, Corvo have as a unit sucked ass not played to their potential of late. The most telling is Chara who has not only made poor decisions but been knocked down more often than Steve Rogers before he gets zapped and juiced into Captain America. He’s not skating well, he’s not shooting well, he’s not thinking well, and well you do the math. The rest of the defense, and much of their team plays to a similar level as their captain. He honestly looks nearly as sick as he did when he was held out of the Montreal series last spring.
Ference had his injury we all hope isn’t a return to the bad old days of the hobbled by a hinky groin Captain Planet. McQuaid and Seidenberg who are generally quite reliable defensively have just been off lately in a way that’s hard to nail down, it could be exhaustion, frustration or disgust, the shifts the two played together the other day made them significantly less than the sum of their parts. Boychuk has finally found his offensive gear again, but is also getting battered physically and not doing the battering.
Corvo for all that he often plays like a second pairing AHL guy has had several games where he looked like a legitimate NHL defensemen lately. Which is problematic in that it means much like another defenseman I could name you never know what you’re going to get from him.
As a group they are showing up and displaying the worst of their habits, they dally, shirk and shuffle across the ice without purpose or volition. It doesn’t take a hockey genius to know this is not a winning formula.
What’s wrong with the Bruins goaltending?
As a pair, I think the biggest issue is they have lost confidence in the team in front of them. Particularly the dallyfense. No ones hitting guys in or around the crease, no ones crushing anyone along the boards. guys aren’t getting chased down in the slot for the puck. Despite their faults, both have superb save percentages this year and say what you want neither of these two is responsible for the teams issues.
Rask: I don’t think that his knee was at 100% to start the season, and I’d lay money there was soreness a couple times during the year. Before the injury he’d lost six straight games. That isn’t normal for any good goalie. Whether you believe he’s “the goalie of the future and elite” or “an above average backup and second teir #1″ six in a row is a bad thing, and you can’t blame him for most of it.
Thomas: Fatigue is part of the problem here. With last seasons games, the cup run and now this season, he’s played about as much action as many goalies will see in three seasons in just the last eighteen months. A bigger part is not getting into a rhythm. As a rule Thomas has played his best hockey in the regular season going seven out of ten or more. With the management choice to play Rask more, this hasn’t happened often.
What’s wrong with the Bruins as a whole?
There are three major issues with this team as group:
1: Injuries both those keeping people out, and those lowering performance theres a lot of downed talent. Of all the guys who missed the last game, or went out and didn’t finish the last game they have $18,332,143 in this cap space out of action. To put that in perspective, the three stars of the week 1: Ilya Kovalchuk, 2: Ilya Bryzgalov and 3: Jaroslav Halak have a combined cap hit of $16,083,334, meaning you could add them and still not equal the whole in the roster.
2: Fatigue. It’s true for the goalies, and just as true for the skates. The last game was a perfect example of why. Chara took at least two big hits per shift, as did Boychuk. Marchand gets leaned on, grabbed and shoved on a regular basis, Lucic as well. Add in the stress of knowing the team isn’t as deep as it should be due to other injuries and you’ve got enough to slow anyone down.
3: A certain us against the world fatalism. The suspensions to Bruins players for plays identical to or worse than their own contribute to a strong and justifiable belief that nothing is going to happen to anyone who crosses the line against them and that they will be punished out of proportion to their own actions. If you think the Marchand hit was suspendable, that’s fine. But in the same week, the same department handed out a shorter suspension for a blatant head shot.
No matter what danger a hit to the leg might cause to someones career it in no way exceeds a flagrant attempt to decapitate someone. Add in the Ference suspension, and then the fact that there weren’t even hearings for the hit by Sestito that may have ended Horton’s career, and the hit by Malkin that left Boychuk reeling to the list. Confusion is the most charitable thing the nicest of the Bruins has to be feeling, but given the level of assertiveness on this team disgust is probably a bit more common and hadly the most warm and cuddly. Whichever emotions they are, they all have a physical cause to maintain.
What’s wrong with the Bruins Coaching?
If you think a team that’s seen one third of the opening night roster off the ice for a quarter of the ice has a problem with coaching you need better drugs. When the teams speed is pulled out from under it, when the unit that it draws it’s identity from, it’s defense, is both damaged and saddled with at least one sub-professional player that is not a coaching issue. Line changes have been proactive, defensive pairs have been tried, but no coach can make players healthier or more skilled.
Like most New Englanders there’s not a lot in the way of college sports in my life. I do try and remedy that by flicking on a game here or there. Tournaments always draw my attention. Tournaments that feature some prominent NHL prospects more so. New York Rangers prospect Chris Kreider, Chicago BlackHawks Sophomore Kevin Hayes, and Boston Bruins blueliner of the future Tommy Cross headlined for the counts of the Conte Forum.
The visitors from Umass Amherst were a little lighter on NHL prospects. The final count for NHL prospects on the rosters was nine for Boston College and one for UMass Amherst. Teamwork, good coaching, and heart are more important in hockey than in any other sport. In the the first two periods the Boston College dominated play, aided by a five minute major to Steven Guzzo of UMass in the early first period.
The best player of the game was not a however a player who had their name called in the NHL draft. It was wasn’t even a member of the Eagles. Manapalan New Jersey’s Kevin Boyle stood between the pipes for the Minutemen. He was all UMass needed to make it a game at 6 foot 1 he’s smaller than the current trend towards gigantic goalies in the NHL, but about the same size as the last three men to win the Vezina, Tim Thomas, Ryan Miller and Martin Broduer. With an average goalie the game would have been out of hand by the end of the first period as the Eagles kept UMass hemmed in for most of the major and then rest of the period as well.
The third period belonged to Boyle and two other UMass players. Don Cohoon took his best skaters and barred them from the bench. Michael Marcou and Joel Hanley probably put in over twelve minutes a piece in the third period, after taking regular shifts in the first and second. In their own zone they got to pucks first and got them out. In the offensive zone their passing and puck protection was key. With just a little more luck, or Guzzo not getting tossed for hitting from behind minutes into the game Boyle, Marcou and Hanley would have stood equal to or better than all the NHL prospects on the other side.
Final score Boston College Eagles 3 – UMass Amherst MinuteMen 2.
The Bruins are in a decent position in the standings. They do have injuries to two key forwards and have shown little ability to replace them internally. It’s likely that Peter and Cam will want to add without subtracting again (even if that is unlikely) so I don’t expect anything huge. Here’s a look at some of the players and prospects who might attract some attention or who fans might be worried could be moved:
Negative move potential:
Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Tim Thomas. These four are the magic smoke in the machine and without them the team does nothing, and goes no where. It isn’t that there aren’t teams with the assets on paper to buy one of them it is that they have more value to the Bruins because of who they are than any even moderately insane return could provide.
Tuukka Rask, Brad Marchand, Dougie Hamilton, Jared Knight, Dennis Seidenberg. Either for today and the playoff run or the future these are key pieces. None is quite irreplaceable but the return would have to be unequivocally in the Bruins favor and have an immediate and long term impact.
Ryan Spooner, Alex Khoklachev, Chris Kelly, Adam McQuaid, Tyler Seguin, Andrew Ference. This group is all players the Bruins would like or very much like to keep, but who have enough value without being completely indispensable either because of depth at that position, contract status or time on ice for the team.
Johnny Boychuk, Daniel Paille, Shawn Thornton, Tommy Cross. The first three have value to the Bruins, and while other teams might want them none is likely to be the center of a trade. Cross is in the end of his senior season in college and the Bruins have invested a lot in the local guy and have to be expecting some return on it next season either in Providence or with the big club.
David Krejci, 1st round pick this year, Jordan Caron, Justin Florek, Krejci has been moved from center to wing lately and appears to have come alive, a first round pick this year if the team plays well will be somewhere in the 20+ range so a player who could he had for another year is a reasonable return, Caron probably doesn’t fit the Bruins system despite some flashes of high potential and good hockey sense. Justin Florek is having a good senior season at Northern Michigan University, and owns more than enough potential to be a key component in a trade for a team retooling.
If the Bruins do make a move, anyone expecting a blockbuster move will be sorely disappointed. From the pieces already taken off the market by trade or new contracts there is a chance they don’t make any trades at all. If they do make a trade look for guys who are going to play second or third line roles for forwards, or 3-6 rang defensemen. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see a retread come through the door.
The Boston Bruins need a tweak or two. That’s undeniable what they don’t need is a large scale or large salary swap out. Injecting the wrong player, or removing one who is a key contributor is counter productive. It amounts to pouring sugar in the gas tank in the final smoke test before a race.
So who are the key components? In any order you care to put them the core of personality, ability and on ice impact are: Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, and Tim Thomas. Each of these four is a huge part of the teams identity.
Bergeron is the every thing man on the team. He hits, he blocks shots, he scores he makes passes and plays in all three zones and all situations. Zdeno Chara is the Zeus upon Olympus tossing down titans and defending what’s his in a way no one else can. Tim Thomas is an emotional catalyst, an elite goaltender and capable of stealing games and series. Milan Lucic is a monster, when he’s got his legs he’s the heartbeat of the team. His physicality spreads up and down the line up.
Each of these guys would be very difficult to replace with any other single player. Bergeron for Toews is passable, but the Blackhawks wouldn’t part with their captain, and the trade improves neither team significantly. A Lucic for Perry trade would be a similar level of physicality, and an offensive upgrade but complicates the already neck deep center position and greatly weakens the Bruins left wing.
Rick Nash is a goal scoring forward who’s having a down year, and also has a huge contract. He’s not especially physical, so flipping him for Lucic means a loss in one category for a noticeable but not really needed upgrade in another. Swapping him for Krejci probably means you end up with a line with not enough pucks to go around unless you’re looking at Lucic left with Nash sliding to center and a role player at right wing, much as say Byron Bitz is filling with the Sedins.
When a team has an identity, and success changing it’s core or threatening it’s identity is not how you make it better. The teams in the NHL that don’t have an identity aren’t very successful. The Montreal Canadiens this year are to put it kindly, in flux and need to figure out a recipe for success and hold on to it. Similarly the Washington Capitals have no unified identity and most of the best known players play like individuals. Trades for a team that has held the first spot in their division for most of the season, have some good prospects in juniors college should be players that compliment or enhance who the team already is, not radically change it.
Assuming the Bruins are adding a forward, it should be someone with a bit of snarl to their game, reasonably similar ability to Horton and good size. Ideally they would develop similar chemistry to Lucic and Horton, but other pairings are possible. In the unlikely event they developed a bromance that rivaled Jared Knight (@JKnight97) and Ryan Spooner (@RSpooner2376) so much the better, having more than one player you sync with on the ice never hurt a team. A defenseman is probably needed as much as a forward for depth. Since a certain Bean Pot champions captain is unlikely to be available, they need someone who can come in like Adam McQuaid and push other players to be better. For my money guys on expiring deals, or reasonable deals with one year remaining make a whole not more sense than big name guys.