Tyler Seguin’s third NHL season is a couple of weeks along, but thus far it has been more a mirror of his intermittent 2010-11 rookie run than his tantalizing breakout sophomore campaign (29 goals/67 points). That’s not to suggest that he has taken some giant slide back on his career curve, but as coach Claude Julien made clear last week, the kid is “out of synch.’’
Well, if you want to buy the conventional spin and wisdom, which I don’t, the 21-year-old speedster is still in a readjusting-to-the-narrower-NHL-rinks phase. He was among the 200 or so rank-and-file Players Association members who drifted overseas for the lockout, playing in Biel, Switzerland, where he lit up the scoring charts with 25 goals and 40 points in only 29 games.
That production caused a lot of stir on this side of Atlantic, though few Black-and-Gold faithful were nearly as gobsmacked by Patrice Bergeron’s near-identical Swiss precision in Lugano, where he turned in an 11-18—29 line in 21 games.
Not to go all Sabermetric plastic-pocket-liner here, but . . . Seguin connected for 1.3793 points per game, while Bergeron clicked for 1.3809. Barely this much of a difference, the way I see it.
But Bergeron returned to the Hub and immediately reactivated his ever-steady, nearly metronomic presence at center, both on offense and defense, as well as at the faceoff dot. As for points, Bergeron headed into Saturday night’s game in Toronto with a line of 1-4—5 , while The Amazin’ Seggy was a notch below at 1-3—4.
If these two keep up the same pace, their production in lockstep, that’s not bad for Bergeron, but it will be a buzzkill for Seguin, who was lavished with a new deal over the summer that in October will boost his cap hit to just under $6 million for the next six seasons. He has been positioned as an offensive dynamo/superstar-in-waiting, and for good reason, given his plus speed, plus stickhandling, and plus shot. He has everything to be right there perennially with the game’s elite point producers.
The issue with Seguin, again, is where he dials in his compete level, his willingness to battle for pucks and zip in and out of the sticky areas at the net. Not being better at all right out of the gate really isn’t connected to being back in a narrow North American work rink. In fact, tighter sidewalls should make the fight even easier.
The early absence of his shift-to-shift compete factor, by my eye, is simply about his somewhat laissez-faire discipline and commitment and determination, his tepid “get after it’’ factor, especially when fighting for loose pucks. He needs to take his great skills and apply them, with each and every 35- or 45-second shift.
We saw how Joe Thornton, the top pick in the 1997 draft, needed until his fourth year in Boston to become a point-per-game player. His really big breakout (101 points) didn’t come until his sixth season. Phil Kessel, still fighting the assertiveness bug in Toronto, had two Bruins coaches, Dave Lewis and then Julien, trying to make him focus on puck battles, defensive responsibilities, and the general accountability package that includes such things as the give-and-take of checks. In both their cases, their talents never fully bloomed here. They never fully applied themselves.
If Seguin can focus, if he can disengage from the laziness of the gifted that plagued Thornton and Kessel on Causeway Street, then he quickly can be one of the game’s elite scoring talents. Frankly, he can be very much like Steven Stamkos, who connected for a league-best 60 goals last season with Tampa and has rocketed out again (seven games, 5-9—14) here in 2012-13.
When I asked Julien last week if Seguin could reach the Stamkos heights, he said, “Time will tell. I think he’s got the potential. I’m not sure that they’re necessarily the same style. I think when you look at Steve Stamkos, he shoots the puck extremely well, but he also finds those areas where he gets the puck.’’
Valid point there. Brett Hull was among the best at seeking “those areas,’’ popping up out of nowhere on the ice, especially during power plays, to rip off his screaming one-timers — often off the silky-smooth dishes of Adam Oates in their St. Louis days.
Seguin has yet to develop that “shake free” ability, which is equally a function of someone feeding him the puck to those open spots. Bryan Trottier had a great knack for it, his name on many of Mike Bossy’s 573 goals. Like Hull and Stamkos, Bossy also possessed a mesmerizing sleight-of-hand release.
Seguin’s release doesn’t match those three, but it is exceptional. If he remains at wing, then we’ll see whether Bergeron or David Krejci ultimately can start to develop that kind of magic with him. But he first has to move to those spots, fight to get there when necessary, and then they have to execute.
“You’re going to see Tyler skate more,’’ said Julien, continuing the Seguin-Stamkos comparison. “He’ll probably make more plays and use his feet a little bit more than just stand in certain positions. And Steven Stamkos has some pretty good players to dish him the puck. And you know that he’s got a great shot, he’s certainly using that to his advantage.’’
Seguin was a career center before arriving here, and it’s possible he would be a more assertive player if moved to the pivot. I doubt it, but there is that chance.
For now, he is assigned right wing. He can stay there and be one of the game’s greats. To become that, no matter what the position, means embracing a more consistent, determined effort than we’ve seen here the first two weeks. Time now for him to get in synch with that part of his game.
Fights need reexamining
On the same night that Shawn Thornton was sent to Palookaville in a tussle with Buffalo’s John Scott, Panthers forward Scottie Upshall also headed to the sidelines for a month or more when he wrenched an ankle during a dustup with Winnipeg winger James Wright.
Repeat after me: No one ever gets hurts in a hockey fight.
Look, neither Thornton (concussed, expected to miss 7-10 days) nor Upshall will ask for anyone’s sympathy. They are grown men playing an adult sport, and both are held in great esteem by their teammates. Injuries, for those guys, are simply the cost of doing business in an industry that condones, even encourages, fighting.
But for all of the NHL’s advances in recent years, why does it continue to clutch so dearly to the fight game?
The most common response, of course, is that a ban on fighting will increase stick work and any number of cheap hits, often victimizing star players, and that will be the sport’s death knell. So why, I ask, does the league bother with two referees and two linesmen to work every game? If four officials can’t provide assurance for law and order to prevail, then maybe it’s time for the Lords of the Boards to consider adding more zebras (I hope not) or handing the whistle to more competent zebras.
Truth is, I think the current referees and linesmen are fully capable of officiating a fair and safe game, and they would be even more capable of it if they didn’t have to contend with the fight game as a sort of outlaw justice within the system.
Fighting remains in the game not so much because the owners feel it keeps everything on an even keel (some irony there, no?), but simply because they feel that violence sells. Hard to argue that point. Fans love fights. Not all of them, but enough of them that owners don’t want to alienate them or their dollars.
NFL owners and fans are much the same, as we’ll see in Sunday night’s Super Bowl. Football doesn’t condone fighting, but it is the most violent of all professional North American sports. However, with lawsuits mounting from former players contending that the game damaged their brains, the NFL appears to be in an even more precarious spot than the NHL.
The NHL isn’t going to disown its Original Six fighting roots today or tomorrow, but with the advances in brain-damage research and hockey’s overall need to dial back its seek-and-destroy mentality, the injured Thornton and Upshall are just the two latest reasons for everyone to reexamine where the game is today. And if the Lords of the Boards can’t figure out how to lead the discussion, the guess here is that the courts and eventually a pile of lawsuits will do it for them.
Spezza’s injury a major blow
Kyle Turris has become Ottawa’s No. 1 pivot now that star center Jason Spezza has exited the lineup for surgery to repair a herniated disk. Like the Celtics sans Rajon Rondo, the Senators will have to fill Spezza’s scoring and puck distribution by committee. No one, noted GM Bryan Murray, is going to ring his phone off the hook offering “high-end skill’’ in a trade. “Not the way the business works,’’ said Murray.
Name that Boychuk
“Boychuk claimed by Penguins.” That headline caught the attention of many Bruins fans last week, but the Boychuk in question wasn’t Johnny, but rather Zach, a forward whom the Hurricanes selected in the first round (No. 14 overall) in the 2008 draft. Zach, no relation to the Edmonton-born Boston version, never found his game with the Former Forever .500s. Now he has a shot with a much better lineup in Pittsburgh.
Bruins could see Subban
The Bruins on Wednesday will make their first visit of the season to Montreal, where the Habs finally came to contract terms last weekend with defenseman P.K. Subban (two years/$5.75 million total). That’s one heck of a bargain for Les Glorieux, although Subban will have a $3.75 million salary figure in Year 2 to use as his baseline negotiating price on his next deal. Meanwhile, his $2.614 million cap number ranks him fourth on the Montreal blue line, behind Andrei Markov ($5.75 million), ex-Bruin Tomas Kaberle ($4.25 million), and Josh Gorges ($3.9 million). Subban should be in the lineup Wednesday. By the way, at last look, his brother Malcolm Subban, Boston’s top pick in last June’s draft, was 19-8-3 with a 2.11 GAA and .933 save percentage with his Belleville (Ontario) junior team.
Time off for bad behavior
Raffi Torres, banished for 21 games for his heavy hit to Marian Hossa’s head during the playoffs, finally was eligible to return to the Phoenix lineup Saturday night vs. the Dallas Stars. Torres has long been one of the game’s dirtiest hitters, and the rulebook finally caught up to him. Torres in recent days has been sitting with Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, the two viewing videotape in hope that the winger can adapt his game to the league’s current standards. “He can be an effective power forward,’’ Tippett told the Edmonton Sun. “He just needs to take the reckless out.’’ Torres sat out 13 games during the playoffs, the remaining eight tolled ahead to this season. “I just have to make some changes,’’ Torres told the Sun, “and play within the lines.’’
Vanek proves his worth
Thomas Vanek has had many good games vs. the Bruins but none better than his 5-point performance Thursday at the Garden. Wonder how different life would have been for both clubs if the Sabres had not matched Edmonton’s seven-year, $50 million offer sheet in the summer of 2007. Vanek, by the way, will reach UFA status for the first time in July 2014, when he will be 30. If he stays hot, he might land another deal of, say, 4-5 years at $6 million per, provided the Sabres don’t extend him.
Ex-Boston University standout defenseman Brian Strait, a 2006 draft pick by Pittsburgh, last week signed a three-year contract with the Islanders. The former Northfield Mount Hermon backliner will make $775,000 per season . . . A very rocky start for the Panthers, even before they lost Scottie Upshall to the ankle sprain. Center Stephen Weiss was out with a groin injury, followed by big blue liner Ed Jovanovski (knee). By midweek, they were a lackluster 1-5-0 and owned a league-worst minus-14 goal differential . . . Hat tip to old pal/faithful reader Kevin Vautour for passing along info and pictures last week pertaining to Bobby Orr wearing No. 27 when he reported to Boston training camp in 1966 . . . Ex-Bruin Brad Stuart put a big hit on Colorado’s Gabe Landeskog, knocking him out of the lineup and decimating that offense. The Avalanche dropped three in a row when he exited, and were outscored, 11-1, on the first three stops of an extended road trip . . . Former Boston College standout Chris Kreider has been out of the Rangers lineup because of a chipped ankle bone sustained while he was playing with AHL Hartford during the lockout . . . Former Bruin defenseman Dennis “BMW” Wideman (a.k.a. Big Money Wides) quarterbacks the Flames power play these days with a combination of four forwards, including Jarome Iginla, Alex Tanguay, Mike Cammalleri, and Curtis Glencross. Coach Bob Hartley to the Calgary Sun on Wideman: “He’s bringing us a totally new dimension on our power play and from an offensive standpoint, also. Plus, from a defensive standpoint, he’s been outstanding.’’ Why do I think Hartley ain’t seen nothin’ yet?