|Bruins Dissapoint at the Trade Deadline||Bruins Acquire RW Brett Connolly||Patriots Linebacker Dont’a Hightower Out 6-7 Months||Connelly’s Top Ten: Celtics on Exciting Run but Lose 26-Point Lead|
We’ve just passed the quarter mark of the NHL season, and it’s time to hand out grades to the Boston Bruins.
The Black and Gold have started a revival of sorts in the Hub, and below you will find an individual report card for each Bruins player.
Marc Savard – The nifty center has been one of the best playmakers in the NHL for a number of years, but it seems this season may be Savard’s national coming out party, coinciding with the resurgence of his club. Savard leads the Bruins in scoring, with 8-19-27 totals in 21 games. Savard trails only Pittsburgh Penguins phenom Evgeni Malkin in the NHL scoring race, and it’s a good bet he’ll break the 100-point barrier for the first time in his career. Although he’s had a reputation as a one-dimensional player throughout his career, Savard has gone to great lengths in the last few seasons to rectify that, and his three-zone play is a testament to his hard work. He is 3rd in the NHL in +/-, with a +13 rating. He’s the straw that stirs the Bruins offensive drink. Grade: A+
Phil Kessel – Kessel has been a known commodity in hockey circles for years, so it can be a bit surprising to realize he’s still just 21 years old. The winger has been skating on Savard’s wing for most of the season, with fantastic results. Kessel is 2nd on the team in scoring with 16 points, and his 10 goals lead the club. Much like Savard, Kessel has improved tremendously in all three zones, and at times is Boston’s best forward in every facet of the game. He hasn’t yet found the point producing consistency needed to become a superstar in this league, but those days are not far off. Grade: A
Patrice Bergeron – It appeared as though his career might be over in 2007, when Flyers defenseman Randy Jones pile-drived Bergeron’s face into the dasher. The center suffered a severe concussion and missed the rest of the season, and many wondered if Bergeron would ever be the same player pre-injury. Although he hasn’t answered those questions emphatically enough for some, his play thus far has been strong. Bergeron struggled a bit out of the gate, and only recently started putting points on the board consistently. Nevertheless, he is 3rd on the team in scoring with 14 points, no small feat when you realize he’s been skating mostly with a lackluster Michael Ryder and defensive specialist PJ Axelsson. Bergeron has also been a beast in the faceoff circle, where his prowess gives Boston an impressive weapon on crucial draws. Grade: B+
David Krejci – The young Czech center plays a cerebral game similar to Savard’s, and his presence along with Savard and Bergeron gives the Bruins three legitimate scoring line centers. He’s tied with Bergeron in points, and boasts an impressive +7 rating. He’s shown a lot of chemistry with linemate Blake Wheeler, and that duo looks to be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Grade: B+
Milan Lucic - It’s hard to fathom this kid is still just 20 years old. The big winger is rapidly becoming a fan favorite throughout the NHL, sans Montreal, where he’s Public Enemy No. 1. Some said he struggled a bit in the preseason, and wondered if he’d suffer a sophomore slump in year number two. He’s done anything but that. Skating on the first line with Savard and Kessel, Lucic has become a force, delivering bone-jarring hits and literally changing the momentum of games by himself. He has 13 points on the season, and is 2nd among forwards in +/-, with a +9 rating. No place is his impact felt more than along the boards however, as Lucic leads the entire NHL in hits, with an eye-popping 82. He’s also undefeated on the season in the fighting department, delivering beatdowns to Mike Komisarek and Nick Boynton, who aren’t exactly creampuffs. Lucic is quickly becoming the face of the franchise, and he’s an All-Star in waiting if he continues to progress like he has. Grade: B+
Chuck Kobasew – Kobasew has had an interesting year, to say the least. The winger suffered a broken ankle in the first game of the season, and has played just 9 games on the year. Nevertheless, his impact has been felt. He returned to the lineup skating mostly on the 4th line with Shawn Thornton and Stephane Yelle, but delivered nonetheless, and has recently found a home skating alongside Wheeler and Krejci. All told, Kobasew is putting up more than a point per game, with 10 pts in 9 games. Extrapolated over an 82-game season, he’d finish the year with 90 points. Not too shabby. Grade: B+
Marco Sturm – Sturm was called out last month by coach Claude Julien, who said he needed to be more active in games. Up until that point, it was fair to say Sturm might be failing for the year. Since then, he’s been a model student, up until his “undisclosed injury” last week. Still, Sturm has played well since his “demotion,” and upon his return, the Bruins will have 12 forwards who can all play on the top three lines. Grade: B-
Blake Wheeler – The big winger made the jump straight from the NCAA, which is an impressive feat in and of itself. Still, his play could best be described as “inconsistent” so far, where some nights Wheeler dazzles the masses with his unbelievable skill set and other nights leaves a lot to be desired. The effort is there however, and he’s on pace to score 23 goals in his rookie year. Oh yeah, he’s pretty good in shootouts, too. Grade: C+
Shawn Thornton – The tough winger has had a good year by his standards thus far, generating offense on the 4th line and throwing his weight around. He’s on the team to primarily enforce however, and from this writer’s perspective, there have been times he could have done a better job in that department. Namely, Saturday night against Montreal. With reigning heavyweight champ Georges Laraque hounding Lucic all night, Thornton never stepped in for his teammate, who was noticeably tossed off his game for a stretch. Thornton needs to police situations like those, and if he’s not doing that, he’s not doing his job. For the most part though, he’s gone above and beyond his expectations this year. Grade: C+
Stephane Yelle – The veteran center was brought in mostly for his face-off prowess, and although he’s been overshadowed in that area by his fellow centermen, he’s played admirably on the 4th line, providing grit and leadership to a fairly young, inexperienced club. He’s even generated a bit of offense, too. Grade: C
Michael Ryder – Ryder was brought in to score goals, and although the effort in his game has been there all year long, the goals have not. The winger has just 3 strikes in 21 games, although his 60 shots on net put him 3rd on the club, behind Kessel and Bergeron. He’s getting his chances, but until he starts to bury them, he will be an underperforming aspect of an otherwise potent offense. Grade: C-
PJ Axlesson – I hate to harp on the old guard, and by all accounts PJ is one of Boston’s most respected players. He’s excellent in the locker room, and a solidifying veteran presence. Still, his play is leaving much to be desired thus far. The Swede has yet to find the twine in 18 games this season, and has just 6 assists in that time span, while skating on a scoring line with Bergeron and Ryder. Worse, the defensive play he’s known for has been lacking, as evidenced by his -3 rating, worst on the club. He’s one of two players on the entire team sporting a minus rating. I like PJ, and think he’d be a tremendous asset if utilized properly. Put him on the penalty kill and skate him on the 4th line with Yelle and Thornton where he could thrive. With Julien’s propensity to roll four lines, his ice time wouldn’t diminish significantly, and he wouldn’t be miscast skating on a scoring line. And for the love of God, please no more power play minutes, either. Grade: D+
Incomplete: Petteri Nokelainen, Vladimir Sobotka
Dennis Wideman – Wideman silenced many of his critics last season, who previously felt the Bruins were robbed in the trade that sent Brad Boyes out of town in favor of Wideman. In 2008, his play has only gotten better. Wideman leads all Bruins defensemen with a +11 rating, and is on pace to record 40 points while playing tremendously in all three zones. Many feel Boston needs a “legitimate” #2 defenseman, but Wideman has filled that role perfectly in the last year. He’s only going to get better, and I for one am ecstatic he’s locked up long-term. Grade: A
Andrew Ference – Ference was perhaps playing the best hockey of his life before suffering a fractured tibia last week, thanks to a shot off the leg from Habs defenseman Andrei Markov. He was skating well, making crisp passes out of the zone, and was perhaps on par with Wideman on performance thus far. Due to the injury, the B’s will be without the blueliner until at least January, and that’s quite unfortunate. Matt Hunwick has stepped up admirably since Ference’s injury, but the loss will still affect Boston. Grade: A-
Zdeno Chara - The big man stumbled out of the games a bit, at least by his standards. Coming off off-season shoulder surgery, it appeared his trademark booming slapshot was suffering, but of late, Chara is once again playing the Norris-caliber style most of us have grown accustomed to. He has 9 points on the season, and also sports a +9 rating. It’s hard to recall a single instance he has been beat one on one, and thanks to the emergence of Wideman, his offensive contributions don’t need to be where they were in the past. He’s played solidly if unspectacular thus far, and it’s a good bet his play will only get better over the course of the year. Grade: B+
Matt Hunwick – It’s a bit unfair to hand out a grade to young blueliner right now, as he’s played in just 9 games on the year. In those games however, he’s made his presence noticeably felt. Hunwick has looked like a mini-Ference, jumping into the play and providing offense from the backend. Further, his outlet passes have been superb. He still needs to work on his overall game, especially in his own zone, but so far his play has been a revelation, evidenced by his 5 points in just 9 contests. Grade: B
Shane Hnidy – Many B’s fans seem to like annointing Hnidy as their scapegoat. I’m not sure why. Hnidy is the epitome of a 6th defenseman. He provides a stay at home presence, and is tough as nails. He’s not going to light up the scoreboard, and he shouldn’t be expected to. Thus far, he’s performed nicely in a role that suits him, and is a better option than many at the back end of a defensive rotation. Grade: C+
Aaron Ward – Much like Hnidy, you know what you’re getting from Ward at this point. He provides a tough, veteran presence on the backend, and has continued to dish out body checks all year long. He hasn’t contributed much in the way of offense, and no one’s really expecting him to. He’s played well on the penalty kill, and I’m hard-pressed to recall too many mistakes on Ward’s part this season. Grade: C+
Mark Stuart – Stuart has been an enigma this season, and for much of his pro career. Drafted 21st overall in perhaps the best draft ever (2003), Stuart has watched many in his draft class achieve stardom, a number of whom were selected well after the defenseman (Shea Weber anyone?). Stuart, meanwhile, has had a rocky road to start his pro career, and this season has been no different. There are times when his snarl and physicality make you applaud his game, but other times it seems as though he’s lost in his own zone. He’s still just 24 years old with plenty of time to imrpove, but with just 1 point in 21 contests, it appears as though he’s going to keep Bruins fans wanting more for much of this season. Grade: C
Tim Thomas – What can you say about Tim Thomas? Snubbed throughout his professional career, Thomas settled in with the Bruins in 2005-2006, and has since routinely snatched the starting goaltending job from other “more qualified” candidates. His style of play can be alternately described as “acrobatic” and “out of control,” but for the better part of three seasons, he’s just gotten the job done. If Thomas were a painter, this season would be his work (in progress) of art. The jovial netminder leads all qualifying goaltenders in both goals against average (1.80) and save percentage (.944). Those are Vezina-trophy winning figures. Make no bones about it; Tim Thomas is once again the Bruins no. 1 netminder, and he’s well on his way to being a major player in the Vezina race. Grade: A+
Manny Fernandez – Although a much more traditional netminder than his counterpart, Fernandez has had his ups and downs in Boston. Still, he’s played the role of backup to a ‘T’ thus far, and appears to be one of the best backup goaltenders in the NHL. Fernandez’s numbers are nothing to sneeze at, as his 2.55 GAA and .910 save percentage would be worthy figures for many starting goaltenders. The only problem is he’s playing behind Tim Thomas. Still, his play gives Boston two very capable goalies, and the Thomas-Fernandez combination could be Boston’s next Moog-Lemelin duo. Grade: B
Coaching Staff: Claude Julien has quickly proven himself a worthy bench boss in his short time in Boston, instilling a defensive-minded ethos into his players that has resonated right on down the lineup. The players have bought into his philosophy, and he gets the most out of his charges each and every night. Julien still seems to make some questionable calls (Axelsson’s utilization immediately springs to mind), but for the most part he’s been everything you want from a coach. Certainly, he’s a far cry from his predecessor, Dave Lewis. If the former Bruins coach was still running the show in Boston, it’d be a good bet that the Bruins would be on the outside looking in, instead of sitting atop the entire Eastern Conference. Grade: A
Overall: It’s been a nice run for the Bruins thus far, and although it appears they might be playing a bit over their heads, they are quickly proven they are a legitimate threat to contend for a Stanley Cup. Season 1/4 Grade: A+
I’m not sure Nostradamus could have predicted a 4-0 run for the Bruins last week. I pegged them to go 3-1, and they surpassed my expectations. The Bruins continue to roll, and are now an eye-popping 12-1-1 in their last 14 contests. That’s other-worldly.
The B’s opened their week with a nice 3-2 win over Toronto on Monday, although the game wasn’t exactly their best effort of the season. Tim Thomas was once again spectacular in net, and taking two points on the road against a divisional rival is always nice.
Boston then came back to Boston to take on the Buffalo Sabres in one of the stranger hockey games in recent memory. The two teams combined for five goals in the first period alone, and Boston ended up prevailing 7-4. If nothing else, this tilt proves the Bruins can adapt their style of play for any opponent. They can win the tight-checking, low-scoring games when their goaltenders bring their ‘A’ game, and on the nights they don’t, they can light up the scoreboard. It’s a mark of championship teams, and thus far the Bruins have it.
On Friday night, the cellar-dwelling Florida Panthers came into town, and proved they were no match for the high-flying Bruins. The B’s played a solid game, beating the Cats 4-2, with the highlight of the night coming when Milan Lucic bloodied former Bruin Nick Boynton.
Saturday was the marquee matchup of the week, and for good reason. Old nemesis Patrick Roy was being honored in Montreal, and conveniently, Boston was in town for the ceremony. Once the puck dropped, Habs tough guy Georges Laraque hounded Lucic all over the ice, attempting to goad the young winger into a fight. Lucic declined, and it was later reported Claude Julien had advised Lucic not to fight Laraque, which makes sense, seeing as Lucic is a 1st liner player and Laraque is a 4th line player.
Still, the Montreal faithful had a field day, booing Lucic at every opportunity, and the events seemed to throw him off his game for a bit. Still, Lucic recorded a game-high 9 hits, and ended up tying the game by tipping a Phil Kessel pass past Price in the 2nd period. Standing with his arms raised, Lucic appeared to be taunting the Montreal crowd, much to the pleasure of this writer. The B’s ended up beating Les Habitants in a shootout, culminating in a nice 4-0 week for the good guys.
Three games on the slate this week.
Last week: 3-1
Record to Date: 6-1
Below is the Boynton-Lucic fight, in all it’s bloody glory.
Around the Rink is a weekly hockey column, published on Mondays. If you have any comments or questions for Reid, he invites you to e-mail him at reidATsportsofbostonDOTcom. Maybe you’ll make it into the next column.