When the puck drops on their new season Thursday night, the Bruins hope they’ll be a different, speedier, quicker-thinking, faster-playmaking version of themselves.
The new Black-and-Gold mantra is speed, not only to be faster afoot, but Mercury-like in thought and deed.
“Everybody wants that. It’s just a new game,’’ said team captain Zdeno Chara, now with some 1,400 games of NHL experience and perspective on his résumé. “It’s a new NHL.’’
“I want us to be a real good, smart team this year,’’ noted coach Claude Julien, a point he emphasized to his staff and players alike from the very start of training camp. “Our goal is to play fast. Every coach in the league will tell you that’s where it is now.’’
But perhaps it’s best to take half a step back here, before everyone expects the Bruins, a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 with its hard, grinding, sometimes plodding style, to turn NHL 2016-17 into a NASCAR Sprint Cup series. In context, speed isn’t just about skating faster from one point on the ice to another. Mainly, it’s about moving the puck faster, be it passing it or carrying it more decisively.
To that end, Julien not only has implemented what he calls minor “tweaks’’ in his tried-and-true defense-rooted playing systems, but also tried to imprint on his players’ minds the need to be quicker and more aggressive in identifying opportunities on offense. Speed is as much in the eye of the beholder as it is in the feet.
“It’s a mind-set of the players to play that way,’’ said general manager Don Sweeney, his club falling short of a playoff berth the last two seasons. “I think the players would like to play that way — to dictate rather than being on sort of a retreat mentality. We’d hopefully like to spend as much time in the other team’s end as possible and that generally comes from moving your feet.’’
The preseason, in which they finished 4-2-1, offered glimpses of what the Bruins are looking for over these next 82 games, and ideally more. They played a lot of kids, none faster than zip-line center Austin Czarnik, who remained on the roster throughout camp. Another whiz kid, first-round pick Zach Senyshyn, was sent back to his junior club, his burning speed off the wing making him a strong candidate for future NHL employment.
Overall, though the Bruins continued to struggle to put pucks in the net (increasingly a league-wide issue), Julien’s charges clearly emphasized faster decision-making in their defensive end and particularly in transition opportunities in the neutral zone.
As always, the preseason, with its ever-changing personnel and roster experimentation, didn’t offer a true measuring stick. It likely will take weeks or months to discern just how much of the speed mantra has taken effect.
“It’s a copycat league, so we’ve just seen Pittsburgh hound the puck, hound the puck, chase the puck,’’ said ex-Bruins defenseman Bob Beers, the club’s longtime radio analyst on 98.5 The Sports Hub, noting how the Penguins last spring used the speed game to clinch a Cup.
“When they didn’t have the puck, they were all on defense as a unit. That’s playing fast. When you don’t have the puck, it’s taking away time and space all over the ice, but working in unison as a five-man unit.’’
It starts on defense
Chara, who will turn 40 years old next March, has been around long enough to witness the long timeline of the league’s full immersion to the speed game. He was an Islander when the trap-happy Devils won the Cup in 2000 and a Senator when they did so again in 2003. He watched as the Red Wings perfected the left-wing lock, the defensive mechanism that aided them greatly in winning Cups and bringing the moribund franchise back to life at the end of the 1990s.
Today, noted Chara, such defense-based systems haven’t been totally abandoned, but speed has become the constant point of emphasis throughout the Original 30. Wide-shoulder, thick-legged teams need not apply.
Just as the fight game has all but left the building, so too has the idea that defense, trapping, and shot-blocking are the route to success.
“You were facing different types of styles,’’ said Chara, harkening back to the late ’90s and the start of the new millennium. “Now it’s almost like everyone plays the same way. Here and there it may be different, but overall everyone wants to play fast, or with speed or high pace.’’
Yet by Chara’s eye, there is a nuance to the speed game.
“We all want to be fast, we want to be fast, playing with speed and high pace,’’ he said. “But what actually happens is going to depend on situations. The main thing is, you want to be able to make quick plays and sometimes you have to skate the puck. That’s when you are using your speed.
“Or you just need to move the puck fast, because you can’t skate it, because there is no room or a strong forecheck. So then you have to be playing fast, or quick. Find your option, make the play quickly.’’
Every club’s six-man defensive unit is among the bigger keys in dictating faster play. Since arriving here nearly a decade ago, Julien has preached a layered approach to defense, with one of those essential layers having a defenseman nearly always no more than a stick-length removed from the goalie.
One small tweak this season, at least to start, will be allowing the club’s stay-at-home defensemen a little more room to roam. That won’t mean Chara, Adam McQuaid, and Kevan Miller will be looking to make end-to-end rushes, but they’ll be asked to identify more quickly the chances where they can disrupt plays in the defensive zone, ideally leading to broken plays, repossessions, and fast transitions out of the zone.
“It’s just a matter of tweaking how you are playing and the plays you make,’’ said John-Michael Liles, one of the defensemen who will be looked upon to help spring offense out of the back end.
“I came from Carolina last year and we had a really young D core there, but through some little system stuff, and I guess little tweaks and the mentality of how you approach exiting your zone, when that panic button starts to go, it can change the ability and how effectively you come out of the zone.
“I think we have a great D core here, a nice mix of some puck movers as well as some guys who are really effective stay-at-home guys. I think it’s a nice mix.’’
Even in only his eight years in the NHL with the Bruins, goalie Tuukka Rask has seen the game change. The speed game, he said, has led to a entirely different approach in how clubs attack the net and individual shot selection.
“It used to be big guys running wide and taking shots from a bad angle, and shooting [to develop] rebounds,’’ explained Rask. “Now it’s more like criss-crossing and trying to find that best scoring chance in front of the net.
“It’s definitely more challenging, but it’s also more entertaining for the fans, I think. You’re always up for the challenge.’’
A new season begins Thursday for the Bruins, who first took the ice 92 years ago in the NHL. They say they’ve found some jump in their step, a new way of walkin’.
“We want to play fast,’’ said Julien. “It doesn’t mean speed. The puck’s got to move fast. The transition has to be fast.
“We think with some young players coming in and some of the tweaks we make in our game will allow us to play fast.’’
We’ll find out if it’s true. Quickly.