This shapes up as a very interesting couple of weeks for the Bruins with the playoffs approaching the first week of May. Is this the club that ran off to its hottest start in decades, 14-2-2 (.833 winning percentage), in the opening six weeks, or the one that went a less-than-spectacular 12-8-2 (.591) prior to Saturday night’s game in Raleigh?
If it’s the latter, then they likely are headed for another first-round KO in the playoffs, even in a conference that has its issues — lead among them how effective Sidney Crosby will be when/if he makes it back to the star-studded Pittsburgh lineup after sustaining a broken jaw.
To get back to the 14-2-2 version, the Bruins first and foremost need concussed forwards Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand to return. Not just return, but return in or near top form.
Bergeron is the closest. He traveled to Raleigh, not intending to play vs. the soft-serve Hurricanes but to get more into the swing of things, including slightly stepped-up participation in Saturday morning’s skate.
Marchand, dinged Wednesday night in New Jersey by an Anton Volchenkov elbow, must remain off skates until at least the middle of this week, per NHL protocol.
It’s a reach to think they’ll both be back, and with their ‘A’ games, by the time Round 1 begins. In fact, both might not be themselves again until September’s training camp. Such is the nature of concussions. If they’re both off their games, not even Tim Thomas-like, Conn Smythe-worthy netminding by Tuukka Rask is going to produce another Stanley Cup this spring.
Of equal, if not greater, concern is the discombobulated Boston back end. Everyone was tired Thursday night, given that it was their third game in four nights, but the blue liners looked particularly sluggish and out of synch in the 2-1 loss to the Islanders.
Top prospect Dougie Hamilton appropriately was given the night off, his game dull of late, which is to be expected from a 19-year-old who has often looked like a forced-fit as a first- or second-pairing defenseman. He has puck-moving skills, instinct, and inclinations, but he needs development time. He is another example of a prospect who would be better served playing in the AHL, but that’s not how the system works. He either had to remain in the NHL or the OHL this season, and the latter wasn’t a realistic option. Too bad the NHL and the junior leagues can’t work out something better for such ’tweeners.
What’s wrong on the back end? The read here is that, as a group, the blue liners look frustrated and have lost some confidence, which has led to hesitation and second-guessing in their execution.
“No, I’m not going to say it’s frustration,’’ said team captain Zdeno Chara, who nonetheless acknowledged the group’s play has been out of whack. “What’s the right word . . . it’s . . . it’s . . .’’
Despite the lack of an articulated description, Chara’s summation came down to that precarious bad land between acting on thought rather than instinct. When successful, the blue liners adhere to coach Claude Julien’s simple template, the two defensemen often trading passes among themselves and advancing the puck methodically and assuredly, almost by rote. They haven’t turned into a bunch of freelancing renegades back there, but too often they have hesitated and/or botched passes. Bad breakouts have led to turnovers and/or consistently inefficient movement through the neutral zone and over the offensive blue line.
“It’s like we think that extra little bit of a second, and then the play’s not there anymore,’’ said Chara. “It’s like we’re wondering a little bit about what we’re doing instead of just doing it.’’
Whatever it is, it’s not good enough. Clubs such as the Canadiens and the Islanders, with small and nimble forwards, could make quick work of the Bruins if the back end isn’t fixed. So while much of the attention and criticism of late has been on underperforming forwards Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, the focus can’t be solely on those two. It’s a better all-around game that the Bruins need, and better needs to begin in back.
Old building remembered
In a town that for the most part worships 101-year-old Fenway Park, every other sports venue in Boston seems virtually brand spankin’ new by comparison. Easy to forget that TD Garden, which began life as the FleetCenter (nee Shawmut), opened its doors in 1995.
To underscore the point that the “new’’ Causeway Street building is settling into adulthood, consider this: Bruins newcomer Jaromir Jagr, who broke into the NHL with the Penguins in October 1990, is one of only a half-dozen of today’s NHLers who has played in the original Boston Garden.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, here are the six remaining players who played a total of 23 regular-season games in the old building: Jagr 9, Chris Pronger 5, Martin Brodeur 3, Roman Hamrlik 3, Teemu Selanne 2, Sergei Gonchar 1.
Pronger, whose five games in the building came during his Whaler days, played only 13 games last season because of post-concussion syndrome and has effectively retired.
Hamrlik, who broke in with Tampa Bay, began the season with the Capitals, then was acquired on waivers by the Rangers. As the weekend approached, he hadn’t suited up for the Blueshirts since April 1. Doubtful he’ll find NHL employment next season.
Brodeur, forever a Devil, remains Newark’s No. 1 shot-blocker and is under contract for $5 million next season.
Selanne broke in with Winnipeg as the Finnish Flash in Oct. ’92 and his contract ($4.5 million) with Anaheim expires at the end of this season. He will be 43 in July and hasn’t announced whether he’ll return for another tour. Selanne’s numbers have faded this year (11-12—23 entering Saturday), but his coach with the Ducks, Bruce Boudreau, covets his kind of skill. Not out of the question that he plays another season.
Gonchar, briefly a Bruin (22 games in 2003-04), was a Capitals blue liner when he played his one game in Boston’s old barn. He celebrated his 39th birthday Saturday and, until a recent quiet stretch, has been a vital contributor (2-20—22 in 38 games) on offense for the Senators this season. Of the list’s original six, he might be the odds-on favorite to be the last active NHLer to have played in the old building.
Jagr isn’t sure what he’s doing after this season. His $4.55 million contract, signed last summer with Dallas, is about to expire. The only thing he knows for sure is that he wants to continue playing, be it in the NHL, or perhaps home in the Czech League. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but his production thus far in Black and Gold could lead to an offer to stay, albeit likely at reduced dollars.
Campbell heats up
Gregory Campbell, more active in the Bruins’ offense lately amid the club’s mounting injury issues, scored twice Wednesday in Newark, first at even strength and then shorthanded. The gritty pivot has but two career power-play goals (one with Boston) since breaking in with Florida in 2003-04. Had he connected on the man-advantage that night, he would have been the first player this season to bundle up an ES, PP, SH hat trick. Once fairly common, it was achieved only once last season, by Ottawa’s Milan Michalek.
The Maple Leafs’ success has diminished rumors that they’ll look to move Phil Kessel in the offseason. He has one year left on the $5.4 million deal that helped make him an ex-Bruin (via trade, of course). He’ll only be 26 when the deal expires next spring, leaving him poised to cash in big again, this time as an unrestricted free agent. Meanwhile, the Leafs must figure out what to do with Kessel’s center, Tyler Bozak, and young star pivot Nazem Kadri, both of whom will be free agents — unrestricted for Bozak and restricted for Kadri. At issue is how they’ll both negotiate around the $6 million a year the Leafs must pay underperforming center Mikhail Grabovski. Bozak most likely will try to leverage off that deal, because he is, after all, the club’s No. 1 center with Kessel and James van Riemsdyk his wingers. Kadri, who finally had a breakout season with coach Randy Carlyle in charge, most likely won’t play the Grabovski card, but he is in line for a huge bump on his second contract.
Important to keep in mind that in October Patrice Bergeron, recovering from his fourth career concussion (No. 1 delivered in October 2007), will begin the final year of a contract that carries a $5 million cap hit. All of which could have Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli looking to sign the star center to a new deal this offseason, as he did in September 2010 when the club was in Europe to start the season. Ever since Kessel forced a trade to Toronto as a restricted free agent in September 2009, Chiarelli has opted to stay way ahead of free agency and sign players to pacts prior to the start of “termination’’ seasons. It probably makes sense for both sides to look longer term this time, perhaps with Tyler Seguin’s six-year, $34.5 million extension last summer a rough framework in Bergeron’s case. His annual payout will have to be at least equal ($5.75 million), and the term ranging from six years at the minimum to the league-mandated eight-year max.
Adam Oates, winding down his rookie season as the Capitals’ bench boss, has helped revive Alex Ovechkin’s career. The superstar went a blistering 6-1—7 over a three-game stretch, helping to catapult the Caps to the top of the Southeast standings and into the No. 3 seed in the East. Ovechkin, in a Washington Post story, credited Oates’s one-on-one approach as a big part of the turnaround. “It was a pretty hard time,’’ said Ovechkin, noting Oates’s help in shifting from left to right wing, “but now I get used to it.’’ Oates repeated his belief that it’s more productive for coaches to instruct than to yell. “I didn’t like screamers,’’ he told the Post. “I showed up for work. So teach me. Help me. If you don’t like me tonight, that’s your opinion. You’re the boss. I respect authority. But teach me. Don’t just [expletive] say, ‘Do that!’ Right?’’
Fading fast from playoff contention, the Devils, who made it to the Cup Final last year against the Kings, could lose both Patrik Elias and David Clarkson to unrestricted free agency in July. Losing both would be brutal blows, especially after seeing Zach Parise bolt for Minnesota last summer. But it has long been New Jersey’s M.O. to allow older, high-end talent to leave, including the likes of defensemen Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski, both of whom went on to win Cups — Niedermayer in Anaheim and Rafalski in Detroit. Elias turned 37 on Saturday and, though still effective, isn’t as essential to the club right now as the gritty, 29-year-old Clarkson. If both walk, the Devils have only $38 million on the books for next season, which would leave them poised to shop big in the free agent market. But it does not portend to be a very rich pool in July, with the likes of Derek Roy and Mike Ribiero up for grabs.
If the Leafs can deal Grabovski in the offseason, Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons theorizes that they’ll bring in ex-Bruins draft pick Joe Colborne to fill his spot on the varsity roster. At last look, Colborne stood 14-28—42 through 65 games with the Toronto Marlies, a scoring pace on par with the rest of his AHL work, including his Providence Bruins days . . . Colborne, by the way, moved to Toronto, along with a first-round pick, in the swap that brought Tomas Kaberle to Boston. The first-round pick, later flipped to Anaheim, netted the Ducks Swedish center Rickard Rakell, now finishing up what will be his final season at OHL Plymouth, where he’s collected 44 points in 40 games . . . Rumors continue that Joe and Gavin Maloof have an eye on owning an NHL team, possibly with the idea of parking it in Las Vegas. The Maloofs, owners of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, were the original owners of the Palms, the twin towers in Vegas that initially served as the site of the NHL Awards before the show was shifted to Steve Wynn’s properties on the Strip . . . The University of Denver is expected early this week to name George Gwozdecky’s successor as head coach. Two names with New England ties in the running: ex-UMaine star Jim Montgomery and BC associate coach Greg Brown.