WILMINGTON — On Saturday, assuming good health following games against Buffalo and San Jose, Jarome Iginla will appear in his 10th game of 2013-14. Iginla will then become much richer.
By playing in his 10th game, the No. 1 right wing will become eligible for a $3.7 million bonus payment. It will be a lot of cash for a player the Bruins signed to score goals but has yet to deliver in that category.
The Bruins signed Iginla on July 5 to put pucks in nets, like he did on 530 previous occasions heading into 2013-14. Iginla leads the Bruins with 24 shots. None has gone in. Through seven games, Iginla’s been more valuable as a penalty killer and fighter instead of as a finisher.
The smile on Iginla’s face, however, indicates a player who is otherwise satisfied with his game. Iginla is creating chances on the first line alongside Milan Lucic and David Krejci. On the power play, Iginla’s presence at the left circle on the No. 1 unit is freeing seams for his teammates. Iginla is playing on the penalty kill. He’s fought twice, both times against Tampa Bay’s Radko Gudas.
“At this time of year, I’m actually feeling pretty good,” said a cheery Iginla (0-2—2, 18:15 average ice time per game). “I’m feeling probably better than I have the last couple years at this time of year as far as shots and timing. A big part of it is being able to jump in there with Krech and Looch and their familiarity with each other. They’ve helped me fit in with them.”
Nathan Horton, the right wing Iginla replaced, also slogged through scoring slumps. During his three years in Boston, Horton’s regular-season valleys became commonplace. As a first-year Bruin, Horton went through a two-month skid when he didn’t score a goal in 19 of 20 games. In 2011-12, Horton had four stretches when he went without a goal in four straight games. Last March, Horton scored one goal in 15 games.
The issue with Horton, however, was how the rest of his game disappeared when his hands went cold. Horton didn’t hit. He didn’t skate with purpose. Horton’s coaches never trusted him with penalty-killing duties.
So far, it’s been a different script for Iginla. The 36-year-old is skating well. Iginla has five more shots than Torey Krug, the second-most trigger-happy Bruin.
The future Hall of Famer is even taking regular shifts on the penalty kill. When that last happened, Dougie Hamilton was 13 years old. Krug had yet to commit to Michigan State. Claude Julien was in his first year behind the Devils bench, oblivious that it would be his last.
A lot can change in seven years.
Iginla, meanwhile, is retracing ice he once skated seven seasons ago. Through seven games, the first-year Bruin is averaging 0:33 of shorthanded ice time per appearance. Iginla has not seen such regular penalty-killing time since 2006-07. That year, Iginla averaged 1:20 of man-down work per game.
The shoot-first right wing’s expanded portfolio is no accident. The Bruins lost an important penalty killer in Rich Peverley, formerly Chris Kelly’s PK partner. The Bruins needed a smart, right-shot forward to assume some of Peverley’s shifts. Iginla matches both of those categories.
“We knew that he could. We knew that Loui [Eriksson] can as well,” said Julien. “Those are two guys. And it depends on the situation — who I want to come back with, which line, who’s in the box. I know I can use Loui and I can use Iggy on the PK. He’s done a good job. He’s in good position. He plays it well. He’s smart.”
One reason why Julien’s tabbed Iginla is his previous touch on the draw. Since 2003-04, Iginla’s lost more faceoffs than he’s won in only one season: 2009-10 (47.1 percent winning percentage).
This year, Iginla’s lost all three draws he’s taken, including one that led to a Columbus power-play goal. With Patrice Bergeron serving a holding penalty, Iginla lined up at the right circle against Artem Anisimov. Iginla lost the faceoff. Moments later, Jack Johnson scored a one-up goal. It is the lone power-play goal for which Iginla has been on the ice.
“It’s felt good,” Iginla said of his PK work. “It’s a responsibility. You know the Bruins take a lot of pride in that and how stingy they are. You want to go out and continue that, make sure there is that responsibility to help out on it.”
In even-strength and power-play situations, Iginla’s had no puck luck. Iginla’s gone up against the defending Vezina Trophy winner (Sergei Bobrovsky), a dialed-in veteran (Jean-Sebastien Giguere), and a last-minute fill-in (Jonas Gustavsson, subbing for an injured Jimmy Howard) who made the most of his opportunity.
The goalies next in line are no cupcakes. Ryan Miller should be in goal on Wednesday in Buffalo. Antti Niemi will most likely start for the Sharks at TD Garden on Thursday. It’s possible Iginla will go into his bonus-activating game without a goal.
As poor as Iginla’s luck has been, pressure has bent his otherwise straight shots. When he’s hot, Iginla swings freely. Because he’s pressing to score, Iginla is putting too much muscle into his shot and powering them off target.
This is nothing new for Iginla. Last year, Iginla scored just once in Calgary’s first 16 games. Two years ago, Iginla had two goals after 10 games. It took 16 games in 2011-12 for Iginla to score his third goal.
The rest of Iginla’s game is fine. The goals will fall in line. But it’s a mystery, even to proven finishers like Iginla, why something that’s been so simple can sometimes be the hardest thing to solve.