The narrative would be better, perhaps, if the rise of Carl Soderberg could be attributed to the fever, the chills, the weight loss of Ryan Spooner: an illness, a chance, a reborn centerman.
It can’t, though. Not really.
Because while the Bruins had installed their Swedish import on the left wing for the first few months of the season, they always knew they would use him at center at some point. And as soon as they did, he took off.
“I was lucky that way,” Soderberg said of the Spooner illness that forced him into the middle, with Chris Kelly also out at the time with a fractured fibula. “But I think if you’re meant to be a center or whatever, sooner or later you will be it.
“You always get your chances. Just you have to take them.”
Before the move, on Jan. 25, Soderberg had 6 goals and 17 assists in 41 games, averaging .56 points per game. Since then, he’s had 10 goals and 15 assists in 32 games, averaging .78 ppg. He has been a perfect fit for the Bruins system, acquired seven years ago in a trade for goalie Hannu Toivonen that general manager Peter Chiarelli once called “a broken toy for a broken toy.”
The Bruins had seen Soderberg play both center and wing in Europe, and knew that he could play in both spots. He had expressed an interest in playing center to Chiarelli and the Bruins, and they expected that he’d see time there. As Chiarelli said, “He made it clear — he is a natural center.”
That he moved over on Jan. 25 was an accident. The concept wasn’t.
“I knew it,” Soderberg said, of his game translating better as a center. “Because I’ve played hockey professionally for 12 years now and all of my games is as a centerman. But in the NHL there is a lot of good centermen, and a lot of good centermen have to play wing, so I had to give it a shot.”
He gave it more than that, staying late in practice to work on being a wing, to work on his defensive game. He would “work on his hard rims, kicking the puck off the boards on a hard rim,” said Chiarelli. “He just kept working on and working on and working on his starts because he had trouble starting. It wasn’t natural to him.
“So I don’t know if I can say he embraced it, but he accepted it and he knew he would help the team. There was always that interchangeability. We always knew that we could put Chris back there. That option always existed.”
It was the option that Soderberg had wanted all along, the option that gave him comfort and confidence. As he said last week, “Hoping one day maybe I get a chance as a centerman. Hope I do it good enough to stay there.”
‘A hope trade’
His size and strength were what intrigued the Bruins initially. As Chiarelli said, “We knew he wasn’t a lock — he had two strikes against him.”
Soderberg already had washed out in St. Louis, leaving after training camp, and he had suffered an eye injury that cost him much of the sight in his left eye.
Strike one. Strike two.
Still, Soderberg had some NHL assets. He had some abilities that might just fit in with what the Bruins were trying to do, with the style they were trying to play. It was part foresight, part shrewd scouting that brought him to Boston. And, of course, “there’s an element of luck,” Chiarelli said.
“He was a big guy that had some skill, some hand skill and some foot skill, and ability in creating points,” said Larry Pleau, the former Blues general manager who drafted Soderberg in 2004 and then traded his rights for Toivonen in July 2007.
“I think the skill level that he showed in his draft year, I think you would say that you would draft him as a top-three-line player. He had enough skill to hopefully someday play on your top three lines.”
But the Blues needed a goaltender. The Bruins wanted Soderberg. There was no guarantee it would work out for either team.
“The luck [was also] that Carl had the character to persevere and to keep improving in light of those two events that had happened,” Chiarelli said. “So kind of the attributes of Carl that attracted us are still there and really are some of the main reasons why he’s succeeding. But I would think at the time it was a hope trade for both teams.”
By the time Soderberg moved from Malmo to Linkopings in the Swedish Elite League in 2011-12, the Bruins could see what they had acquired years earlier. He was still big, still strong, and finally, finally seemed ready to play in the NHL, despite some remaining questions.
He had bloomed late, had found his readiness to come to the NHL later than most. So, as teams banged on Chiarelli’s door asking about Soderberg, the Bruins GM wasn’t interested in giving up on a player with the potential to fit so well with his team.
There were a couple of concerns, though, starting with the speed of the NHL game. Though Soderberg was and is a strong skater, Chiarelli needed to know whether he could make plays at high speed, especially as the game got harder and faster at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
And there was something else, too.
“The question marks that were really relevant were: Could he play under our system? He has the talent and the ability to play in the NHL, but can he play under our system?” said Chiarelli. “There’s a lot of intricacies and trust things that you have, and the real stuff that you have to learn and trust the coaches and your teammates.”
Both questions have been answered, and the Bruins have found their 2014 answer to the success of their 2011 third line. The line was a difference-maker in the first-round series against the Red Wings — outplaying the Bruins’ top line through the first couple of games — and could continue to do what Kelly, Rich Peverley, and Michael Ryder did in Boston’s last run to the Stanley Cup.
But it wasn’t guaranteed.
“It was unique because he is an older player who’s had international success, who’s had success in Europe on the bigger ice and a different system over there, a completely different system,” Chiarelli said. “So sometimes those guys don’t adapt when they come over.
“Every other year, there’s an older European who’s a star over there, comes over — there was [Roman] Cervenka that came over and it didn’t translate. There’s always a 27-, 28-year-old that has a great year in Europe, a great year at the worlds, that someone signs. And I would say more often than not, 75 percent don’t have success here.”
Now 28, Soderberg has, and has left his general manager full of praise.
“He’s just so strong, he’s strong on the puck, and his passes, he may be the hardest passer on our team, forehand and backhand,” Chiarelli said. “His backhand pass can be so hard, I haven’t seen it like that in a while from a player, and they’re right on the tape.
“So he’s got good sense, and he’s so strong, he protects the puck. A lot of his play fits into how we play, and there’s room to improve.”
Part of the reason Soderberg has been different, at least in the eyes of the Bruins, is that he joined them at the end of last season, coming in for a playoff run that opened his eyes to the differences he would face.
He learned where he was — out of shape, not quite ready — and he figured out where he needed to be.
“I think he really saw the level of commitment, he saw the level of play, he saw the hysteria — if you will — of the playoffs,” Chiarelli said. “And I think it really conditioned him and it really forced him to really learn the system and to fit in.”
He found a place as a left wing, found a home on the third line, and then the right spot found him. As Patrice Bergeron said, “I thought when he switched to the middle he looked more comfortable. I think that’s the position that he’s played his whole life, and you really could tell the difference right away.”
He was comfortable. He was confident. He knew that center was right, that the Bruins were right, and he showed it.
“I remember talking to him in the offseason, and he said, ‘I know what to expect,’ ” Chiarelli said. “He said, ‘I know I can have very good success in this league. I know I have to be in better shape,’ and it was like he knew what he had to do. I asked what his goals were, and he came pretty darn close to getting them.”