Long constructed to be hard on pucks, heavy along the boards, and billy-goat ornery when necessary, the Bruins opened training camp Thursday with a change in message and purpose for the 2016-17 NHL season.
Just as they have taken the Spoked-B logo off the floor of their Warrior Ice Arena dressing room, and mounted it in the ceiling, they want to lift their game to new heights. Coach Claude Julien said he is intent on getting his club to a higher elevation via the speed game.
“Our goal,’’ said Julien, “is to play fast.’’
To that end, Julien and his boss, general manager Don Sweeney, will not necessarily be looking for faster skaters. Speed is fine, but more to the point, they want quicker thinkers, players who are quicker to execute their duties.
They’ll want a faster transition game, more alert forechecking, and overall commitment to quicker decision-making in the million-and-one scenarios that arise over the course of 60 minutes in the world’s fastest transition sport.
Your granddaddy’s Bruins succeeded on toughness, guile, and broad shoulders. These guys in Black and Gold want more of an IT approach, with everyone fitted with faster intel processors.
“I think it starts in practice,’’ said Sweeney. “I think you practice the way you are going to play. Our coaches have spent an awful lot of time this summer in looking at the drills and some of the things they are going to do to incorporate that. It’s the mind-set of the players to play that way. I think the players would like to play that way and to dictate instead of being in a retreat mentality.’’
After two seasons of not qualifying for the playoffs, something in the approach must change. The Bruins scored often enough to make the playoffs in 2015-16, but their defensive scheme, particularly late in the season, fell stale and ineffective, often in prolonged stretches. In and of itself, thinking or playing faster won’t guarantee a more effective defensive corps. But it’s clear that Julien and Sweeney see the change as essential, albeit with a slower, 39-year-old Zdeno Chara still the blue line kingpin and team captain.
Big Z, strong and with a gargantuan reach, was never built for speed. If there’s a push to be made from the defensive corps, it will have to be shaped around his skill set, which remains centered on size and strength, not pass and fly.
“We’d like to dictate,’’ repeated Sweeney. “Hopefully, we’ll spend more time in the other team’s end and that generally comes from moving your feet.”
At times last year, added Sweeney, the team became too “loose’’ in some defense areas and failed to contest the puck as a five-man unit.
“It’s a whole teamwide thing,’’ he noted. “That is what Claude is talking about, a teamwide philosophy to play faster-paced hockey, especially when you have the puck and you can dictate as opposed to when you are trying to get the puck.’’
Defenseman Torey Krug, among the club’s faster skaters, will be among those expected to improve the pace. Now a key member of the club’s top four blue liners, he’ll be placed in game situations where his speed and reaction times could prove pivotal.
“The pace is tremendous,’’ said Krug, noting the speed of play in the ongoing World Cup. “Going back for pucks last year, maybe we weren’t as quick as we could be.
“[Julien] doesn’t mean skating up and down the ice, because in the NHL, guys get up and down the ice in relatively similar speed, but he is talking about pace of the puck and movement as a five-man unit.
“We can definitely move the puck better and hopefully our transition game will benefit from it. Faster thinking, faster execution, and your team seems faster in that regard.’’
Easing back in
Friday will mark the club’s first full workouts (in two groups), and on-ice sessions are expected to include Krug and David Krejci, both of whom are working their way back from offseason surgery (Krug, shoulder; Krejci, hip). It’s likely both will be held out of contact drills and possibly scrimmages . . . Rookie blue liner Matt Grzelcyk was held out of Monday’s final rookie game in Buffalo, and Sweeney said he will be evaluated again Friday morning to determine his level of participation in drills. He sustained an upper-body injury in Sunday’s game at Buffalo . . . Defenseman Linus Arnesson, his play limited the last two seasons because of a shoulder injury, was hurt again late last week during practice in Buffalo. Also with an upper-body injury, Arnesson will be evaluated on Friday morning.
None of the rookie camp noncontract invitees advanced to the varsity camp. The only noncontract player will be Peter Mueller, the 28-year-old former first-round draft pick who spent the last three seasons in Europe (Switzerland and Sweden). “Everybody knows he’s a high-skill player,’’ said Julien regarding the 6-foot-2-inch forward. “He’s a good player. Right now, I think, in places he’s been, the knock on him has probably been his work ethic, so I think he has matured as an individual and as a player as well and we’d like to see him get a second chance here. And if that’s the case, we have an opportunity to have a good player in our lineup.’’ . . . All practice sessions are open to the public on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, with puck drop each day at 10:45 a.m. (Group A) and 12:45 p.m. (Group B). Warrior doors will open at 10:15. There are only some 660 seats, substantially fewer spots than what the bleachers accommodated at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington.