Tim Schaller is 27 years old, a big body (6 feet 2 inches, 219 pounds), and a certified NHL wood chipper, a presence on left wing who can deliver checks, mash pucks to the net, log 12-15 valuable minutes a night on a Bruins team that values his size and strength.
For Boston fans with a byte or two of history stored in their Black-and-Gold memory chips, the ex-Providence College standout may be developing into a latter-day Mike Knuble.
“Straight-line players,” noted coach Bruce Cassidy, picking up on the comparison between the big wingers. “They get from Point A to B. I wouldn’t call them dynamic, but effective . . . good team guys . . . guys that moved around in the lineup a little bit.”
And in both cases, a rare bit of offensive touch, which Schaller flashed Wednesday night with his highlight-reel goal vs. the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Racing up left wing on a dish to the defensive blue line by Matt Grzelcyk, Schaller barreled unimpeded toward the net and then zipped around defensemen Anthony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith to pop a doorstep forehander over the right shoulder of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
“What a goal by Tim Schaller!” bellowed Doc Emrick, NBC’s renowned play-by-play chronicler.
“Absolutely fantastic!” added ex-NHLer Joe Micheletti, Emrick’s sidekick that night, with the goal lifting the Bruins to a 4-1 lead — and sending Lundqvist to the bench. “How’s that for a fourth line?”
Two days later, after the Bruins prepped for their Saturday night faceoff with the Sabres, a modest Schaller was still beaming about the goal, his eighth this season and a career high. For a guy not known for his hands, he put the puck away with a panache even Knuble, who went on to log 1,068 NHL games, rarely displayed.
Are there more like that to come?
“Uh, I wouldn’t go that far,” said Schaller, who came here after three years in the Buffalo system, originally signed as a free agent out of PC. “I think [Cassidy] has done a great job with me, just allowing me to the be the player I can be — and that is playing simple, but at the same time, I can try things like that. It’s obviously not going to work every time, but he knows that I can make a play like that every once in a while, so he’s not going to get on me if I try that and I am still being consistent, getting pucks in deep and all that stuff. He’s allowed me to play my game, and if I get a chance to make a nice play, I’m going to make a nice play.”
It was a small but revealing window into how the Boston offense has changed under Cassidy’s tutelage. Encouraged to move pucks quickly out of their end (witness Grzelcyk’s feed up the left side), the Bruins in the last three months increasingly have picked up their offensive game. Schaller may not make that play again for the remainder of his career (the Rangers demoted Smith to the minors the next morning), but he will have the confidence to try.
Schaller teamed with Sean Kuraly and Austin Czarnik on the fourth line in the 4-2 loss to the Sabres on Saturday, putting one shot on net and totaling 12:44 in ice time. Noel Acciari is due back from injury and is likely to bump Czarnik off that line Sunday in New Jersey.
If there are mistakes along the way, Cassidy has shown a willingness to suffer them, provided his charges can justify them with work effort and intelligence. Schaller wasn’t freelancing on that goal. He drove to the net, knowing he had four teammates behind him if the play went upside down.
“You can encourage guys to make plays and attack,” said Cassidy. “I am certainly not going to sit here and take credit for what he did the other night. What we will take credit for is that we do encourage our guys to skate and attack, and if there is a play to make, make it. Always measure the risk and reward . . . so I had no issue with that play, he is attacking with speed through the neutral zone. That is our No. 1 priority. Once you are through the neutral zone, make a good play, whether that’s a a one-on-one play, whether it’s a turn-up hitting a defenseman late, or pounding it on net . . . that’s your call from there.”
Knuble, originally a Detroit draft pick, didn’t finally emerge as a legit offensive contributor until age 30, at which time he was in Boston, playing on what became known as the club’s “700 Pound Line” with heavyweights Joe Thornton and Glen Murray. It was then-Habs coach Claude Julien who gave the line its moniker.
Schaller isn’t likely to draw regular duty on a No. 1 or No. 2 line, centered by Patrice Bergeron or David Krejci, but the dynamic touch in his stick at MSG hinted that he may have an unexpected scorer’s upside.
He could be today’s 25-30-point producer who can work his way higher into the order, as Brad Marchand did, and contribute in the 40-50 range. In today’s game, that’s a $5 million-a-year payday.
Durable and hard-nosed, Knuble didn’t break the 35-pont range until age 30. He was 40 upon retiring after 2012-13, and in seven seasons scored more than 24 goals, and five times scored more than 50 points.
‘”I think I have a lot of confidence right now,” said Schaller. “I think that’s the biggest thing, having confidence holding on to the puck and making plays.”
David Backes has seen his numbers fall off of late, following his four-game, 3-5—8 flurry in late December. Prior to taking on the Sabres, he had chipped in with only a 1-3—4 line over the last 12 games. Saturday, Backes knocked home his 10th goal this season, tipping in Bergeron’s shot at 19:01 of the third with Tuukka Rask pulled for an extra skater.
“The rate they were going in that first month back was maybe excessive,” said Backes, referring to his first few weeks back after undergoing surgery for an intestinal infection related to an acute case of diverticulitis.
“I’m on the side of the ledger now that it’s just waiting for the dam to break. I’ve had some good chances, a couple of posts and it just hasn’t wanted to go in.
“I think we have to trust, though, as a team we are winning. Our line [with Danton Heinen and Riley Nash], while we’d love to produce, also takes some hard matchups and defensive-zone draws and we have to pride ourselves on doing the things that help our team win games. Even if you’re not the headline in the newspaper, it’s about what we are doing as a team.”
Cassidy’s view: “Right now it’s not finding the back of the net for him. It will. That line is around the puck a lot. It will probably take one of these greasy ones that go in off his leg or butt or something like that — a second chance around the net is usually how you come out of it. No issues there.”
Bergeron turned in another workhorse performance at the faceoff dot, winning 16 of his 24 drops. Ryan O’Reilly, who entered the weekend with the most faceoff wins n the league, won only 16 of his 39 draws. On a typical night, he would have 24 or 25 of those faceoffs . . . Anton Khudobin will get the start Sunday, allowing Rask a night off before he faces the Flames at the Garden on Tuesday night.