When Brad Marchand opened Bruins training camp by talking about how young teammates need to target a veteran player and take their job, Chris Wagner was an obvious example.
The fourth-liner enters this season with little job security. His combination of age (30), contract (two years left at $1.35 million), and production (five points in 41 games in 2020-21) leave him exposed in a salary-capped league that demands younger, cheaper, and more productive players.
This is not news to Wagner. He knows he must prove himself again.
“I’ve thought that in every camp I’ve been in for 10 years,” said Wagner, who started camp behind Curtis Lazar as the Bruins’ No. 4 right wing. “I don’t think I’ve ever come to a camp feeling comfortable. They’re always going to sign depth guys, bring in new faces, kids that come up.”
Wagner was once among them in Anaheim. As a pup playing preseason games in 2015, he tried to take a run at the baddest dudes on the ice, hoping to impress the brass that required toughness as much as scoring talent.
“Try to make a statement somehow, someway,” Wagner recalled. “I ran Looch [Milan Lucic, then with Los Angeles], and kind of made the team. My buddy [Josh] Manson fought him after. Stuff like that you remember.”
Players such as David Pastrnak needed to put their flash and dash on display to have a chance to make it as rookies. But a hopeful has always been able to put himself on the radar by showing he can handle the physical rigors of the league.
Dropping the gloves was Lucic’s one-way ticket to the show in October 2007, which saw him tangle with Brad Winchester in his debut in Dallas, and pummel Tampa Bay’s Nick Tarnasky in his first shift at TD Garden.
During his years as a wannabe Bruin, Marchand would lower his shoulder into oncoming traffic whenever he could. In 2008, he flashed a peach-fuzz grin after running a few teammates in rookie camp. “I try to be a little [expletive] out there,” he said. Two years later, in a scrimmage with his teammates, he took out veteran Dennis Seidenberg at the knees in the neutral zone, earning an angry slash to the leg.
No one would confuse Don Sweeney, the player, with Marchand, but the Bruins general manager brought his nasty streak in 1988.
Sweeney, 5 feet 10 inches and 185 pounds, was competitive in the corners “to the point it [ticked] you off,” then-teammate Cam Neely remembered. Sweeney recalls serving notice to the brass by standing up gritty veteran Keith Crowder in a scrimmage. Sweeney played 1,115 games in the NHL.
“I was abrasive enough to catch people’s eyes, and it went from there,” said Sweeney, who took his senior year Harvard classes on the road the previous spring, after joining the Maine Mariners for the AHL playoffs. “Injuries, Gordie Kluzak being hurt opened up a tremendous opportunity. Terry O’Reilly was coaching, so you knew how you were going to be required to play.”
Neely couldn’t remember which veteran defenseman he ran — possibly Harold Snepsts — during his first invite to Canucks camp. But he knows that’s what got the attention of the brass.
“There were all kinds of fights all the time,” Neely said. “For me, if I had someone lined up to hit, I was going to hit ‘em. When you’re new, it’s easier to be physical than it is to score.”
Sweeney and Neely were in Buffalo a few weeks ago, assessing their prospects in the rookie tournament. It was a fast-paced, though largely genteel affair. Even a few years ago, there were big hits and fights in those settings. They are not necessarily missed.
“Rookie games were a gong show way back then,” Sweeney said. “It was just bad.”
TAKING A SHOT
Some predictions to start the season
▪ Connor McDavid scores 130 points, but Nathan MacKinnon wins MVP.
No reason No. 97 can’t smash his previous high of 116 points, set as a 21-year-old. He scored at a 154-point pace last season, and is entering his physical prime at age 24. That said, I’ve got a feeling about MacKinnon reaching a new level. Maybe it’s the offseason interviews, maybe it’s the trio of second-round exits, but he strikes me as a guy who’s sick of losing enough to mash the pedal.
▪ Alex Ovechkin will pass Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull, but not Jaromir Jagr.
The Great 8 sits at 730 goals, one shy of Dionne and 11 shy of Hull. He should pass those two in the first half, but projecting a 37-goal season for the 35-year-old captain seems a (gray) hair too much. He’ll be chasing Jagr (766) early in 2022-23.
▪ This will be the most difficult Calder vote we’ve seen in a while.
Cole Caufield (Montreal) is the early favorite after 12 points in 20 playoff games, but Trevor Zegras (Anaheim) and ex-Boston College forward Alex Newhook (Colorado) have tons of skill. Marco Rossi (Minnesota), who led Canadian major junior in scoring two years ago (120 points), is back after a COVID-19-marred season and could skate with star Kirill Kaprizov. Moritz Seider (Detroit) was defenseman of the year in the Swedish Hockey League. Quinton Byfield (Los Angeles) has shown a sweet pair of mitts this preseason. Another ex-Eagle, Spencer Knight (Florida), could take over the crease. If goalie Jeremy Swayman is in the running with this crowd, the Bruins will be pleased.
▪ Taylor Hall will chase his career high in scoring.
He won’t have David Krejci feeding him the puck, but it’s easy to buy Hall as a big-time producer. He has cracked the 80-point barrier twice: in his MVP season of 2018 (93, with New Jersey) and in 2014 (80, with Edmonton). He’ll get his share of power-play points, with Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy toying around with the idea of a power-packed first unit of Hall, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Charlie McAvoy.
▪ Toronto’s Nick Ritchie scores 25 goals but doesn’t last the season on the top line.
The burly ex-Bruin has been riding with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner this preseason, filling the get-to-the-net role vacated by Zach Hyman (Edmonton). Ritchie’s hands are soft enough that he can pot a bunch of easy ones in front, but his two superstar linemates will be asking coach Sheldon Keefe for a little more pace come midseason.
▪ The Bruins keep Don Sweeney.
OK, not so bold here. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun reported Sweeney was among several GMs, including Marc Bergevin (Montreal), Bob Murray (Anaheim), Don Waddell (Carolina), and Rob Blake (Los Angeles), whose contracts expire at the end of the season. The Bruins have no pressing reason to move on from Sweeney, the 2019 GM of the Year who has made the playoffs five years in a row. Unless, you know, they miss the playoffs. But that’s extremely doubtful, even in a top-heavy Atlantic Division.
UHL made a bad situation worse
For speed and efficiency in making a bad situation worse, it’s difficult to match the Ukraine Hockey Federation.
When Andrei Deniskin made a racist gesture in a game toward a fellow player, the UHF’s call should have been easy.
Deniskin, playing for HC Kremenchuk, taunted HC Donbass defenseman Jalen Smereck, a Detroit native who is Black, by mimicking the peeling and eating of a banana. Deniskin should have been banned for life, given a hefty fine, and shunned by his organization and teammates. The UHF should have delivered a zero-tolerance message.
So what happened? The league tripped over its own skates.
It suspended Deniskin for 13 games. Worse, the organization let Deniskin pay down his suspension to just three games, for a cost of $50,000 Ukrainian hryvnia, or about $1,870 US.
They made an example of Deniskin, all right. An example of how people in power cover up for abhorrent behavior. An example of how hockey still fails its players of color.
“I felt terrible,” Smereck told WXYZ-TV in Detroit. “When I saw the suspension, my heart just dropped.”
“A complete embarrassment,” wrote Akim Aliu, the former NHLer and chair of the Hockey Diversity Alliance. “How are we as POC ever supposed to trust the system when at every turn it fails to protect us.”
“Sickening” was the word Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds used.
“It’s disgusting,” said Simmonds, who is Black, after a practice this past week. “I can see why people don’t want to play hockey. I can see why parents are completely afraid to put their kids into the sport. I’m the same way as well. I’ve faced a lot of these things myself, obviously.”
Evgeniy Kolychev, the former GM of the UHF, said he was fired for “[speaking] openly about racism in Ukrainian hockey,” and that his voice was “ignored” in the decision against Deniskin. He appealed to the IIHF to conduct its own investigation.
Smereck said he would not play in the same league as Deniskin, but he told TSN he plans to play in HC Donbass’s Champions Hockey League game next week. It appears a return to North America is likely.
It was encouraging, though perhaps not surprising, to see an array of voices speak out against Deniskin. Good on TNT, debuting at the right time, for going all-in on its preseason debut broadcast Thursday. During Bruins-Flyers intermission, host Liam McHugh and analysts Anson Carter and Rick Tocchet devoted a segment to it.
Carter, a co-chair (with P.K. Subban) of the NHL’s Player Inclusion Committee, said the league is committing $5 million over the next 18 months for diversity, equality, and inclusion efforts.
“We want players to understand, and fans at home watching, if you think about doing this here in North America, and you think you have a chance of playing in the National Hockey League, it’s not going to happen,” Carter said. “That kid should be done.”
McHugh called the suspension “weak,” noting it was “depressing that [the UHL] had an opportunity to deal with it, and they did not.”
Some hits, some misses for TNT
TNT’s maiden voyage as a home of hockey looked slick graphically and sounded familiar. It also had its technical issues, but hey, it’s the preseason.
The Bruins-Flyers game on Thursday featured five broadcasters who came over from NBC’s defunct hockey operation: Kenny Albert, Eddie Olczyk, and Keith Jones on the call at TD Garden, and McHugh and Carter in the studio. The latter pair was joined at intermission by Tocchet, the former power forward and coach, and like Carter an ex-Bruin.
The broadcast also debuted former official Don Koharski as TNT’s rules analyst. Koharski, who spent 32 years in stripes, is not a TV natural. He acknowledged he was more focused on the officials than the action on the ice. He did seem to relax by the end of the doubleheader, which saw the excellent tandem of Brendan Burke and Darren Pang call the Kings-Golden Knights late show.
A highlight came from Tocchet, who raised eyebrows — and caused more than a few to wince — when he gave a demonstration of how he would deal with cross-checks in front of the net. McHugh, standing behind him, got a surprise.
“My initial reaction is my leg’s coming up right there,” Tocchet said, as he kicked back his heel between McHugh’s legs. “I don’t know where it’s going. That was my trick. Trust me, he will not cross-check me again.”
McHugh, without missing a beat: “Frankly, I’ll never get up from the desk ever again after this.”
Jones, a player of Tocchet’s 1980s and ‘90s vintage, after a commercial break: “That’s why I tried to stay away from him. "
Other notes about TNT’s initial effort: The scorebug is clean and tight, if a bit too small … A recurring graphic of “time on ice” for players is a bit clunky, since it shows how much time the player has accumulated in the game. I’d rather see the more conventional clock for a particular shift, which shows a player’s potential tiredness if attached to someone who’s out there for 70, 80, 90 seconds or more … The studio show was holding an open fourth seat, for Wayne Gretzky. The broadcast made several references to the Great One’s forthcoming debut. If Gretzky’s studio game is as good as the dramatic TNT promo video it ran, it might have something. When was the last time Gretzky had to prove himself at anything?
Entering the weekend, restricted free agents Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson (Vancouver) and Brady Tkachuk (Ottawa) had yet to report to camp. The Canucks duo were rumored to be close to mid-length deals … It looked like Jakub Vrana was due for a breakout season with the Red Wings: finally out of the shadow of higher-profile wingers in Washington, set for top-line minutes in Detroit. That’s on hold after the team announced the 25-year-old needs shoulder surgery and will be out until February … Just four players selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft of 2017 — William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, William Carrier, and Brayden McNabb — are still with the team, as are pre-debut trade pickups Reilly Smith and Shea Theodore. The Knights turfed their coach (Gerard Gallant for Peter DeBoer) and made a management shift, kicking GM George McPhee upstairs for Kelly McCrimmon. The no-comfort approach has worked … No one can accuse the Islanders of lacking veteran leadership. Not only do they have the oldest GM (78-year-old Lou Lamoriello), they have four players on the roster who have been captains: Anders Lee, Zdeno Chara (Boston), Andy Greene, and Zach Parise (both in New Jersey). Only one other team, Vegas (Mark Stone, Alex Pietrangelo, Max Pacioretty) has more than two “C”-wearers … Six teams (Arizona, Buffalo, Calgary, Columbus, the Rangers, and Ottawa) entered the weekend without captains … Dates to circle on the calendar include March 26, when Chara and the Islanders visit TD Garden, and Torey Krug’s April 12 return with St. Louis. That’ll be an emotional tribute … Don’t miss Tampa Bay’s Dec. 7 visit to Montreal, either. Fans should have nice things to say about Nikita Kucherov … Coming clean: I find it hard to remember who’s on Seattle’s roster. Ryan Donato’s having a good camp, though, and could be in the lineup when the Kraken visit Boston on Feb. 1 … Nice touch by the Oilers in putting a small bust of beloved late staffer Joey Moss outside the locker room, hand raised for a high-five ... Best wishes to Peter McNab, a key figure of the late-’70s Lunchpail A.C. Bruins. McNab, 69, announced he will stay on Avalanche broadcasts while battling cancer … Happy 81st birthday to Jean Ratelle, the gentlemanly star who arrived in Boston in a blockbuster trade (Phil Esposito, Carol Vadnais to the Rangers, Brad Park, Ratelle, and Joe Zanussi to the Bruins). The 1985 Hall of Famer worked for the Bruins for 26 years post-playing days, as an assistant coach and a scout … A few preseason games, including both of Thursday’s TNT tilts, ended in prearranged shootouts. Didn’t mind this at all. Testing out moves against a No. 1 goaltender in front of a live crowd is a proper way to practice.