Much has changed in the new NHL. The game is faster, the goals fewer, and the hits don’t necessarily keep on coming, certainly not as many of those big, explosive, seek-and-destroy hits that 5-10 years ago were the stock footage of video montages played on arena big screens across the league.
What happened to all that thump? The overall emphasis on the game’s speed, hand in hand with coaches preaching puck possession, have altered the dynamic of the hitting game, particularly for the six blue liners who suit up each night to protect the back ends of their respective teams.
“I think there is still room to make hits, and being physical is still a big part of the game,” noted Bruins captain Zdeno Chara, who delivered more than 200 smacks a season from 2006-08, his first two years in residence in Boston. “But the last few years, the puck is the key — play the puck first. It is always nice to finish checks, and make big splash hits. But I think to be able to prevent the pass going through you, or stopping the play with your stick, is more effective or valuable [today] than going out there and making the big hit, and the puck goes through and someone makes a play. The puck is the key.”
Chara, the league’s elder statesman, will be 43 in March. Upon his arrival in the NHL as an Islander in 1997-98, defensemen leaguewide were ordered first to play the body. Across the NHL, dating to the Original Six days, the mantra for blue liners was to play the man, the puck be damned.
“Guys were being told, ‘Hey, finish the check, finish the check . . . that’s your job, don’t worry about the puck,’ ” recalled Big Z, whose 81 hits last season ranked third among Bruins blue liners, behind Brandon Carlo (134) and Charlie McAvoy (92). “Now, it’s a little bit different. You have to play the puck first. It’s the key. It’s No. 1 right now to play the puck, and then if there is room to add to that, and finish your guy and eliminate him with good body position or a finishing check, that’s when you do it.
“But the game is too fast now to just be chasing hits and going all over the place . . . the puck is the fastest player out there and you have to take care of it first.”
Black and Gold fans may be surprised to learn that David Backes, a rookie center/wing in St. Louis when Chara came to Boston to start the 2006-07 season, ranks No. 6 overall for total hits (2,641) these past 13 seasons, followed at No. 7 by ex-Bruin Milan Lucic (2,549), who debuted in Boston in 2007-08.
The league leaders of the hit pack, dating to the time Chara arrived in the Hub: Dustin Brown (3,141) and Cal Clutterbuck (3,015). Chara (1,940) ranks 19th over that stretch and seventh best among defensemen.
Before the Bruins picked up their playing pace — a major factor in their run to the Cup Final last season — they relied heavily on Chara and a couple of other fan favorites, fellow blue liners Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk, to set the club’s physical tone on the back end. Chara was the club’s top-hitting blue liner in six of his first eight seasons in Boston, with Seidenberg setting the pace the other two seasons.
For instance, in 2010-11, Seidenberg (161) and Chara (153) paired up for 314 hits. Three years later in 2014-15, the blue line trio of Seidenberg (212), Adam McQuaid (141), and Chara (125) piled up 478 smacks. Last season, Carlo (134), McAvoy (92), and Chara (81) tallied 307, a decided 35.8 percent drop in knocks back there among the top three defensemen only four seasons later.
Boston coach Bruce Cassidy, whose puck-control skills as a junior led the Blackhawks to draft him in the first round, has engineered his offense around his defensemen, particularly McAvoy, Torey Krug, and Matt Grzelcyk, regaining or retrieving pucks and making quick feeds to their forwards. McAvoy isn’t shy about hitting, but like Krug and Grzelcyk, he’s more keen on making the quick, smart play to advance the puck out of the defensive end. It’s a model followed by the vast majority of NHL clubs. Finesse trumps physicality.
“Possession, puck possession, nobody wants to give it up,” noted the 6-foot-9-inch Chara, whose expansive reach of arm and stick is more effective than his biggest hits. “Once you have it, you want to make a play, and keep having control of the game by having the puck on your stick — or putting the opposition in a position where it’s tough to make plays or have a low percentage chance of succeeding.”
Nonetheless, said the Trencin Tower of Power, he misses delivering those trademark board-rattling smacks. Upon arrival on Causeway Street, he was billed as a killing machine, the force and number of hits from his spot at left D causing countless NHL forwards to hook left like errant golf drives once entering the Boston zone.
“Oh, of course,” said Chara, acknowledging how much he’s enjoyed the hitting game over the years. “It’s always fun to battle. It’s been always part of my game. Like I said, there is always a part of the game that, hey — there’s a good hit, or you took a big hit, or gave a reverse hit, or something . . . but I think right now the game is so focused on, ‘Hey, where’s the puck? Do we have the puck? . . . we want to get the puck, we want to make a play.’ It’s all about the puck. You have to accept that it’s a puck-possession, puck-control game now.”
McAvoy, Carlo are dynamic duo
The deals this past week for Charlie McAvoy (three years) and Brandon Carlo (two years) leave the Bruins with their most talented young tandem along the blue line since the Ray Bourque-Brad McCrimmon days (see your 1979 first-round draft order).
Bourque (McAvoy in the current equation) went on to a Hall of Fame career, collecting more points (1,579) than any defenseman in NHL history. The more defensive-minded McCrimmon (Carlo in the current equation) was here for only three years, flipped by then-GM Harry Sinden in June 1982 for goalie Pete Peeters.
McAvoy was anointed as the next franchise defenseman even before he suited up for his first NHL game in the 2017 playoffs. He has the skill set, particularly the bold skating and passing, and his ascension to No. 1 status appears a fait accompli — as confirmed by his new deal paying $4.9 million a year. Meanwhile, the upside for Carlo (already with more games here than McCrimmon) is encouraging, though not as easy to project as McAvoy. Only 22 years old, he has built a solid résumé around the defensive part of his game, starting with his first-year full immersion with Chara on the club’s No. 1 shutdown unit.
“He takes responsibility to end games, close out games, protect leads . . . ,” said an admiring Don Sweeney, the Bruins GM ticking off Carlo’s assets, “. . . to block shots, to do things that other players might not be willing to do, he does well.”
Is there more offense to tap from Carlo? Quite possibly. For a stretch limo (6-5/212), he moves very well.
“He definitely has the legs,” said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. “His hands aren’t as quick as [Matt Grzelcyk and McAvoy]. Instincts, I think, are developing in all three of them. Charlie’s probably ahead there, he’s pretty good at sorting through stuff . . . staying in the moment and not letting it bother him. That’s where Brandon’s instincts — and we’ll keep working on it — probably aren’t as advanced as Charlie.”
By Cassidy’s eye, Grzelcyk and McAvoy, who both made their way to Causeway Street via the Boston University incubator, might be ahead of Carlo on the offensive side because they were asked to carry more of a production load in college and learned the art of quickly forgetting mistakes or plays that went upside down.
Carlo, noted Cassidy, would benefit by having a shorter memory.
“The offensive part of the game, we’re working on it with him,” offered the coach. “Some guys are just going to grasp it quicker and do it. Gryz and Charlie, probably because they did it younger, at college, and they came in and it didn’t take them as long to be assertive. Brandon, it’s a little bit longer process. He doesn’t get past some of the hiccups. If there is a fumbled puck or something, he is more reticent to do it again right away. Whereas the other two, I think, are a little more game right away.”
Moving that part of Carlo’s game ahead, said Cassidy, is partly on the coaching staff. Be it Claude Julien or Cassidy behind the bench, Carlo from Day 1 has handled whatever minutes allotted him.
“His minutes have never suffered here,” said Cassidy, building on how he believes Carlo’s offense can blossom. “And part of it is on the player to put it [mistakes] behind him. We’re going to keep working on it and hopefully he’s over that hump a little more.”
Carlo and McCrimmon, different players in different times. In his first three NHL seasons in Boston, McCrimmon totaled 17-37—54 (less than one-third of Bourque’s 187 points). Carlo has a more humble 8-24—32 line, albeit in an era when points are much harder to mine. McCrimmon went on to collect 403 points in 1,222 career games. If Carlo can approach that kind of output, it will be a substantial, meaningful step forward.
“There’s all kinds of open ice that he can take advantage of,” noted Sweeney. “That’s 4-on-4, 3-on-3. It’s not just from a pure shutdown [perspective]. He is a tremendous penalty killer. People do not like to play against him. His competitiveness, his appetite to continue to get better, is important for our hockey club.”
Three more years of labor peace
Monday brought word that the NHL Players’ Association would not exit the collective bargaining agreement this time next year — something the league decided two weeks earlier when it likewise eschewed its opt-out clause — leaving the current work agreement in place for three more seasons.
The “Amen!” you just heard in the background is from the veteran NHL puck chroniclers across the Original 31.
With both sides folding cards, the league ultimately will go nine straight seasons without a labor disruption once the current deal, a product of the 2012-13 lockout, expires in the spring of 2022. So, labor harmony, right? Yes, but with a persistent undercurrent of rank-and-file grousing. A number of the union stick carriers still resent the payroll escrow system that has been in place since the inception of the cap system 15 years ago.
It remains true that all NHL contracts are guaranteed, something players in the mighty, mighty NFL can’t claim, but all deals essentially can be discounted on a year-to-year basis, if annual HRR (Hockey Related Revenue) doesn’t meet preseason projections. The $5 million-a-year player who ends up yielding, say, 3 percent of pay when the books are settled, suffers a $150,000 haircut. It wasn’t all that long ago that $150,000 was a decent full year’s salary.
Now league commissioner Gary Bettman, 67, and union boss Donald Fehr, 71, can spend the better part of the next 36 months chewing over the escrow issue and to what extent the growing cash cow of income from legalized gambling will impact the CBA after the spring of 2022.
It is possible that Bettman and Fehr, each likely to be looking at their final CBA negotiation, will agree to an extension well ahead of 2022. Possible, yes. Likely, no. Despite the recent pleasant surprise to keep on keepin’ on, Bettman and Fehr have a history of finding the black lining in the silver cloud. Even when the industry is raining down the cash.
The offering parties remain unknown, but word out of Maple Leafs camp was that two clubs had offer sheets in Mitch Marner’s face before he finally came to terms with Toronto on his six-year deal with a $10.9 million average payout. Only four clubs — Columbus, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Colorado — still have that kind of cap space. But given that the Jets and Avalanche have been focused on tying up their own RFAs, that leaves the Blue Jackets and Senators as the two most obvious bidders, particularly with the market at large knowing where Marner’s deal eventually would land . . . Defenseman Alex Petrovic, in Boston’s camp on a tryout, worked on his skating over the summer at home in Edmonton with Oilers skating coach David Pelletier. Once one of Canada’s premier pairs figure skaters, Pelletier, 44, won a controversial gold medal at the 2002 Olympic Games with Jamie Sale, whom he later married. Pelletier and Sale initially were awarded the silver in Salt Lake, but a judging scandal quickly led to IOC officials reordering the finish, with Pelletier and Sale promoted to gold. The Brandon Carlo-Charlie McAvoy signings didn’t help Petrovic’s chances of landing a roster spot in Boston. His best bet might be a two-way deal, with, say, a $250,000 guarantee, that parks him in AHL Providence as insurance . . . While defenseman Cooper Zech works his way through his first varsity camp with the Bruins, older brother Zach Zech, a right-shot forward, is prepping for his junior season with Wisconsin Stevens Point. WSP trimmed Norwich in OT, 3-2, last spring to win the NCAA Division 3 title — its second national title in four seasons . . . His head not ready for the grind — at least that’s all anyone is saying in Winnipeg — Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, 34, was granted a leave of absence while he sorts out what condition his condition is in. Tough roster hit for the Jets, who have yet to settle contract extensions with prime RFA forwards Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. Byfuglien (6-5/260) is a force, although injuries the past two seasons have had him out of the lineup for roughly one-third of the Jets’ games. Big Buff has $14 million coming his way the next two seasons — part of his five-year, $38 million deal signed in 2016 — and the Jets have fingers crossed that he just needs a mental reset after 14 NHL seasons and 869 games. He was considered a long-shot curiosity in 2003 when the Blackhawks made him the 245th pick in the 2003 draft . . . Still the top-paid worker on the Boston blue line at $5.25 million, Torey Krug says he is “curious” and would “love to get some clarity” on his contract future, but also is content to enter 2019-20 with his expiring deal. Amid light speculation that the Bruins are testing the trade waters, Krug, 28, is but 282 days from reaching UFA liberation. Asked if there will be a cutoff point during the season, be it Dec. 1 or later, when he might decide to go the UFA route, Krug said, “I don’t have a hard deadline right now. I mean, maybe that is something that will come up at a later date, but as of right now, I don’t.”