With a month remaining in the NHL’s regular season, Linus Ullmark remains the Bruins’ MVP, the favorite to be the Vezina Trophy winner, and should be in the discussion for the Hart Trophy as league MVP.
But we know how that goes. Rarely do goaltenders get appropriate/due consideration for the Hart — after all, there’s that shiny Vezina thingy to assuage hurt feelings and, of greater consequence in today’s game, there is the long, dominant shadow of Oiler superstar Connor McDavid.
The Bruins on Thursday night slowed McDavid, the Edmonton bullet train, down to an Amtrak Northeast Regional pace. But there’s no denying he is the best player in the NHL. Prior to the Oilers coming to town, Bruins coach Jim Montgomery mused over what it takes on a nightly basis to contain “the beast” that is McDavid.
“It’s [going to be] McDavid’s league for a while here,” lamented the Bruins bench boss.
More to the point in the Hart discussion, the Oilers would be busted flat in an abandoned Alberta oil field without the near-every-night heroics of No. 97. Yes, McDavid is the NHL’s top performer, but the Hart focuses on the player who means most to his team.
McDavid is all of that for the Oilers, just as Ullmark is with the Bruins, and just as Erik Karlsson (leading all defensemen in goals, assists, and points) is for San Jose. But count on McDavid pocketing the Hart this spring for a third time in seven seasons — a pace better than the three Mario Lemeiux collected over nine seasons (1988-96).
Ullmark, in year season No. 2 of his four-year, $20 million free agent deal, entered weekend play with astounding league-best marks with a 32–4-1 record, 1.89 goal-against average, and .938 save percentage. He has a crack at becoming only the second Boston goaltender to win 40 (Pete Peeters, 40-12-9 in 1982-83) and time and again has been the main factor in the Bruins continuing their dominance at the top of the NHL standings.
But, not surprisingly, Ullmark gets it. He knows No. 97 is No. 1.
“You know, it’s nice to be in the discussion, but I don’t see anyone else taking it,” Ullmark said in a quiet moment following a recent practice. “To me, to be completely fair and to be completely honest, I love our team. I think we are a very good team … and my success and everyone else’s success is the definition of how we are as a group, how we are as a team as a band of brothers, friends, colleagues, you name it.”
And now, the “but”...
“I don’t see myself as above the group,” he added. “I haven’t carried this team. McDavid has carried the Oilers. Together with [Leon] Draisaitl, they drive the boat, they steer the boat, together they do everything for that organization.”
McDavid’s numbers (54-70–124 into the weekend) are “absolutely crazy”, said Ullmark, adding, “I’d be very surprised if he doesn’t absolutely run away with it by the end of the season.”
A smiling Montgomery, after being asked what case he could make for Ullmark or David Pastrnak as the Hart winner, in the end offered, “But McDavid’s going to take the MVP.”
Only seven goaltenders, beginning with the New York Americans’ Roy Worters in 1929, have taken the Hart. Dominik Hasek went back-to-back with the Sabres in ‘97 and ‘98, the first of those breaking a 35-year drought dating to Jacques Plante winning it with the Canadiens in ‘62.
Which means, if you’re flipping through the decades of those Habs-related nightmares the Bruins endured, Ken Dryden never put a Hart in his trophy case, though he does have those five replica Vezinas and half-dozen Stanley Cups. Then there is Martin Brodeur, with four Vezinas, three Cups, and zero Harts.
Two goaltenders, both Canadiens, have won it since Hasek: Jose Theodore in ‘02 and Carey Price in ‘15. Price had 44 wins en route to his MVP, his one season cracking the 40-win plateau. Brodeur did that eight times and … nothing.
It has been a quarter-century since Hasek,, then in his early-30s, pocketed the second of his Harts. A Blackhawks castaway, the Dominator was phenomenal, averaging about 70 appearances and 35 wins as part of a Sabres lineup that was nearly as deep and talented as the one Ullmark backs.
Ullmark could eclipse the career-high 37 wins Hasek posted in the first of those two seasons, and is on course to post a lower GAA and higher save percentage than Hasek produced in those years. If Hasek’s numbers alone provided the standard, Ullmark would have it in the bag.
Let the record show, too, that Hasek never scored a goal. Theodore is the lone goalie Hart winner to do that. Add just one more to that list of Habs-related injustices.
Hughes in good blue-line company
If not for the Pacific Time Zone and the protracted stumblings of the Canucks, many of us, particularly here in the East, would get more looks at the delightful wizardry in Quinn Hughes’s game.
The 23-year-old last weekend recorded his 200th career assist in only his 263rd game — the fastest any NHL blue liner has reached that milestone. Ex-Ranger great (and short-time Bruin) Brian Leetch had the standing mark of 264 games.
Hughes bumped Bobby Orr into the No. 3 spot. Let that thought linger, friends of the Big Bad Bruins era. Ray Bourque (311 games) dipped to No. 11. C’mon, who’s cooking the books?!
Hughes, son of former Bruins assistant coach Jim Hughes, is the quintessential new-age backliner, a dynamic puck mover and playmaker. Not all that long ago, his lack of size (5 feet 10 inches, 180 pounds) and stoutness likely would have been reason for scouts to slot him as a third- or fourth-round flyer on draft day.
Instead, the Canucks snatched him at No. 7 after his freshman year at Michigan, making him the second blue liner picked in 2018, following the broader, heftier (6-3/202) Rasmus Dahlin (6-3/202), who went No. 1 to Buffalo. Foolish to quibble with either pick, but fun to ponder how the Sabres would look with the darting, dynamic Hughes and ditto Dahlin in Vancouver, where he’d be working behind fellow Swede Elias Pettersson (currently making a quiet run at his first 100-point season).
In the Canucks’ two games vs. the Bruins this season, both losses, Hughes registered one assist. Entering the weekend, he ranked fifth among defensemen in points (61) and was second in helpers (56) to Karlsson’s 63.
The 10 blue liners now slotted behind Hughes in the fastest-to-200 club: Leetch (264), Orr (271), Gary Suter (276), Sergei Zubov (279), Paul Coffey (287), Al MacInnis (288), Denis Potvin (295), Mark Howe (298), Paul Reinhart (304), Bourque (311).
Gonchar the one that got away?
The recent acquisition of Dmitry Orlov from Washington might make a few longtime Bruins fans recall that the Black and Gold nearly 20 years ago swapped with the Capitals for an even more coveted Russian defenseman.
On March 3, 2004, then-general manager Mike O’Connell nabbed Sergei Gonchar at the trade deadline, surrendering defenseman Shaone Morrisonn (Boston’s first-round pick in 2001), along with first- and second-round picks in the ‘04 draft.
In the end, the Capitals got the best of it, converting the top pick (No. 27) into 6-foot-6-inch Jeff Schultz, who served seven seasons on their blue line. Gonchar, for circumstances beyond O’Connell’s control, proved to be a 22-game rental.
The Bruins were thrilled with Gonchar, then in his prime and yet to turn 30, and hoped to make him a Causeway cornerstone. It appeared the search to replace Ray Bourque as the franchise defenseman had ended.
But then the 2004-05 season was lost to a lockout, and Gonchar was one of the high-profile Bruins rendered unrestricted free agents as part of the new salary-cap-based CBA. The fine print of the new deal all but read, “Take that, Boston!”
Set free to sign wherever he pleased, Gonchar hitched on with the Penguins for an impressive $25 million over five seasons. He helped back Pittsburgh to consecutive trips to the Cup Final vs. Red Wings, including a title in ‘09. The day after acquiring Gonchar, O’Connell made another deal with Washington for slick center Michael Nylander. He bolted to the Rangers as a free agent even before the lockout began.
The Bruins also saw heavy forward Mike Knuble (he of the “Seven Hundred Pound Line” with Joe Thornton and Glen Murray) free to pick up sticks out of the lockout and sign a four-year deal with the Flyers.
Had Gonchar opted to stay with the Bruins, signed to a fresh deal for 2005-06, no telling how that might have changed the course of the club’s history. The following summer, with new GM Peter Chiarelli having replaced the fired O’Connell, the Bruins signed Zdeno Chara as the anchor of the organization’s rebuild.
So, you just never know, do you?
Moving goal lines could add excitement
Granted your faithful puck chronicler may have stared far too long at way too many NHL ice sheets (85 x 200 feet), but I’d like to see how (if?) play and scoring would change if both goal lines were moved 5 feet closer to center ice.
The idea would expand the length of each side’s offensive zone from 75 feet to 80 feet, and shrink the neutral zone from 50 to 40 feet. Nothing much fun happens between the blue lines, so if nothing else, the shift would make the Nothing Much Fun Happening Zone 20 percent smaller.
The goal lines, currently inked 11 feet from the rear wall (the same in the international game) would be at 16 feet, an increase of 45.5 percent in elbow room back there. It would effectively open up the sheet without having to enlarge the surface area.
Keep in mind: the NHL’s Lords of the Boards never will expand the sheet, be it by width or length. The cost of retrofitting existing buildings would be too high, and worse, it would mean fewer seats (all in high-cost loge territory) for box office inventory. If they ever make a change, it will be to shrink the area and add seats. That, friends of frozen water, you can take to the bank.
That added room behind the goal line would lead to offensive approaches not possible in today’s game. The extra space would encourage clubs, at even strength and on the power play, to design strategies for two forwards behind the net, likely force defensemen to chase them, and perhaps — praise be, ice gods — detangle that gnarled forest of legs, sticks, and skates in the high-percentage scoring areas in and between the faceoff circles.
Longtime fans may remember that Wayne Gretzky manufactured points from back there, in his tiny “office” behind the net, especially when he quarterbacked the power play. All these years later, no one has duplicated the Great One’s artistry. For the most part, space behind the goal line in today’s game is a seek-and-destroy zone, where forecheckers aim to drive defensemen through the boards and playmaking, particularly at full strength, is more a product of jumping on loose pucks than finishing well-constructed possession/passing plays.
Oh, and that guy with a head of steam, all alone with the puck on his stick once across the center ice red line? He is now 5 feet closer to the net, and the defender chasing him has 5 fewer feet to catch him. Kinda makes those home run passes, like the one Leon Draisaitl delivered to Connor McDavid when the Bruins recently were in Edmonton, all the more exciting.
From blue line to goal line, nothing would change. The slapper from the blue line would have to travel the same 64 feet to the net. The snap shot from the side wall still would measure 42½ feet from the invisible center line that runs the vertical length of the rink.
But for those who’ve long said the five-on-five game is too congested, typically sighting bigger, faster players squeezed into a small space as the reason, that extra 5 feet to roam just might do the trick. Same area, more space, like shifting the furniture in the family room.
Footnote to David Pastrnak’s new $90 million deal that kicks in next season: per puckpedia.com, Pasta will be paid $13 million each of the first two seasons, the Bruins forking over $4.5 million in the form of a signing bonus prior to puck drop each year. The overall figure drops to $12.5 million for ‘25 and ’26, when the signing bonus is $4 million. Over the course of the eight-year deal (cap figure: $11.25 million), he’ll receive $26.5 million in signing bonuses … Word around the Capitals was that Orlov, though well liked and appreciated, shot too high in asking price and term (between 6-8 years) for a new deal to stay in Washington. He will turn 32 a few weeks after the UFA period opens July 1. Hard to envision the Bruins, with Charlie McAvoy and Hampus Lindholm signed to rich, long-term deals, offering Orlov more than, say, four years at his current ticket ($5.1 million). Even then, it could mean wheeling Brandon Carlo or Matt Grzelcyk. GM Don Sweeney also has to find the dough to extend Connor Clifton, due a substantial bump off his current $1 million cap hit … Tony DeAngelo, given a chance by Carolina GM Don Waddell to reestablish his career, was a valued difference-maker last season and then signed (2 years/$10m) with the Flyers last summer following a swap from the Hurricanes. Like everyone in Philly, including recently fired GM Chuck Fletcher, it has been a tough season for the impetuous DeAngelo, one he made all the worse Tuesday night when he blatantly speared Corey Perry during a stop in play in front of the Tampa Bay net. Outcome: two-game suspension. DeAngelo said he preferred to fight, but Perry wouldn’t accommodate him … With five weeks to go to the finish line, the Sabres have capsized again, wrecked this time by injury to ex-Boston College forward Alex Tuch, the prize acquisition in the Jack Eichel flip to Vegas. With Tuch sidelined with a lower-body injury late last month, the Sabres were 1-5-0 in six games prior to the weekend, outscored, 31-17, much of that the 7-1 hammering dealt by the Bruins and Thursday’s 10-4 thumping by the Stars. Just not enough depth on the roster for the perenially-recovering Sabres, now on course for a 12th consecutive playoff DNQ … Look for the Sharks in June, prior to and during the draft, to renew talks to find a home for Erik Karlsson and the final four years on his megadeal (cap hit: $11.5 million). GM Mike Grier had deals on the line prior to the deadline, but the No. 1 impediment was an interested suitor’s reluctance (or inability) to absorb a high percentage of that cap hit (even if the Arizona dumping ground cared to take a share). The Oilers had legit interest, but only if it meant around a 40 percent discount. Every summer provides a reset, potentially expanding the field interested in adopting the slick Karlsson, who’ll turn 33 prior to the draft.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.