By the end, the Bruins had reservations about Milan Lucic.
They weren’t sure how, with one year remaining on his contract, they could re-sign a power forward whose career sweet spot may have passed. They questioned whether he could consistently crank up his game to full boil. They wondered whether allocating their money elsewhere on other segments of their roster was a wiser investment.
The Bruins had zero questions, however, about Lucic’s organizational value as a drawing card.
Still, they had to send Lucic out. He got it.
“I understood the situation leading into the offseason,” said Lucic, who was wheeled to Los Angeles last June for Martin Jones, Colin Miller, and a first-round pick. “Sometimes things don’t last forever. I was ready and prepared for anything. I was ready and prepared to come back here. I was ready and prepared, if I had to, to move on.”
He moved on to an ideal situation. The Kings are Lucic’s kind of team: big, strong, belligerent, and persistent. During Tuesday’s 9-2 clobbering, the Kings were more comfortable in the Boston zone than on any California beach. They repeatedly kicked sand in the Bruins’ faces. The Bruins hid under their towels.
“That’s the way the Kings have been built over the last five years,” said Lucic (one goal, one assist, one postgame solo lap around the Garden ice). “I think that’s what’s given them success in the playoffs with winning two Stanley Cups. We pride ourselves on playing that heavy, ground-and-pound, down-low game. But also, we try to make quick plays out of the D-zone and neutral zone so we can establish that O-zone play.”
The trade improved the Bruins’ depth and cap situations. But their home rink has suffered amid No. 17’s departure.
In eight Black-and-Gold seasons, Lucic was many things: singular left wing, boisterous presence in the dressing room, fearsome fighter, history and statistics whiz, and Stanley Cup champion.
Above all else, he was an entertainer.
He literally checked opponents through the TD Garden glass, Mike Van Ryn being the unfortunate piñata to Lucic’s Louisville Slugger. He turned Sabres goalie Ryan Miller into roadkill. He went bananas against the Canadiens, and not always in a good way. He helped turn a three-goal Game 7 deficit against Toronto into one of the organization’s signature wins.
Lucic did all of this with a knuckle-cracking, stink-eye-giving, freight-training exuberance that has left a vacuum within the Garden’s 200-by-85-foot dimensions.
The rebuilding Bruins are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference, three slots ahead of where they were on Feb. 9, 2015, Lucic’s last season in Boston. But the Bruins are smaller, less colorful, and not as fun to watch without Lucic’s kettle threatening to bubble over on any shift.
When Lucic made the varsity in 2007-08, the rink felt more like a museum. Back-to-back years of lousy products, preceded by the lost 2004-05 season, prompted fans to stay away. By the time Lucic was traded, sellouts were guaranteed.
“I got to be a Bruin,” Lucic said, “in probably one of the best times to be a Bruin.”
As a 19-year-old, Lucic helped perform CPR on the organization with his enthusiasm, ruggedness, and joy of making the varsity roster. He quickly became a favorite of the team’s hard-hat fans. His most important tools in doing so were his fists.
A first-period video tribute included some of Lucic’s greatest hits: the pasting of Van Ryn, fights against Chris Neil and Nick Tarnasky, and the hoisting of the Cup in his hometown of Vancouver. It was no accident that physical play was front and center in the clips. They’re what made Lucic one of the most popular Bruins of his era.
Lucic liked fighting. He still does. As a rookie, he dropped the gloves 13 times, according to hockeyfights.com, including in his NHL debut. That night, he fought Dallas’s Brad Winchester. A week later, he capped his first Gordie Howe hat trick by taking on Los Angeles behemoth Raitis Ivanans. The two bouts were important thresholds in turning a would-be junior wearing No. 62 into a full-time NHLer in No. 17.
Lucic doesn’t scrap as much anymore (two fights this season). Nobody does, including his former employers.
Lucic used to be a ruffian on a roster full of roughnecks. If things got out of hand, Lucic’s throwing partners included Shawn Thornton, Adam McQuaid, Shane Hnidy, Gregory Campbell, and Mark Stuart. When they had to, Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference, and Nathan Horton were willing to drop their gloves.
On especially angry occasions, it was neither safe nor enjoyable to play the Bruins. Those were some of their most memorable nights, especially two against Dallas: the brawl that Sean Avery touched off by belting Lucic from behind in 2008, or the three fights in four seconds (Campbell vs. Steve Ott, Thornton vs. Krys Barch, McQuaid vs. Brian Sutherby) against the Stars in 2011.
People watched those games. They talked about them afterward. Customers got their money’s worth. Within the room, conflict brought teammates closer together.
The Bruins aren’t built that way anymore. Of the 18 players picked to face off against Lucic on Tuesday, only two qualified as chuckers: Tyler Randell and Kevan Miller. Unlike some of the tough guys Lucic used to dismiss with his thunderous right fist, Randell and Miller have other things they’re asked to do first before dropping their gloves.
Randell fought Kyle Clifford. Matt Beleskey took on Andy Andreoff. They were among the only examples of pushbacks against the heavyweight Kings. Once LA set up down low, the Bruins did not have enough muscle to get them out of the way. The Bruins had no answers against widebodies such as Lucic, Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Vincent Lecavalier, and Dwight King.
Of all the teams in the league, you’d think the Bruins would be holdouts against the game’s shift away from the dinosaurs. Around here, we do ill-tempered well.
But like every team, the Bruins know it takes two to tango. Through attrition, rule changes, the NHL’s crackdown on fighting, and general managers wising up about maximizing their rosters, players tough enough to stand up to Lucic no longer roam the ice in abundance.
“When we had a big, strong team, we really enjoyed the battles on the walls, grinding it out, and wearing other teams out,” Julien said. “Right now, it’s not as much as it used to be. Right now, I think the pace of the game is what we look for.
“Trust me, every team likes big players. Big players are always important. But I think there needs to be a good blend of big players and also those smaller, skilled players. If you ask any big player, they’re hard to defend against. You always hope you’re going to get that good blend of both of those guys.”
Players are safer without strongmen like Lucic doing damage with their knuckles. The sport is shifting away from violence. That’s probably a good thing.
But safety doesn’t necessarily mean entertainment. The danger that Lucic brought to his former workplace sold tickets and made people watch. It’s not the same place without him.