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A little gamesmanship would go a long way

P.J. Stock was assigned to puck purgatory Wednesday when he and Andre Savage swapped AHL roster spots, Savage landing with the Providence Bruins and Stock assigned to the Philadelphia Phantoms. It wasn't a trade, but a loan, which means it's 99.9 percent certain Stock won't play again for Boston. For his many fans here in the Hub of Hockey, that's not good news. But the truth is, Stock wasn't very effective in terms of point production or causing any legs to quake on the opposition bench. He was genuinely appreciated in his own room, fearless in his approach, but not feared in the opposing dressing room. For a guy trying to live the enforcer's life in the NHL, that's not only an unsavory way to make a living, it's an express ticket to the unemployment line, and a bed with a name on it in a hospital emergency room.

Meanwhile, there remains plenty of room on the Boston roster for a bona fide energy forward, a guy who wakes up in the morning just aching to wash his leather-palmed glove in an opponent's kisser, fire off a few lines of profanity, tuck a neatly placed butt end deep into a guy's armpit. Had Stock shown the ability or gumption to do all that, and have the added skill to get away with it on the ice, he likely would have played here last night against the Canadiens. At age 28, he could think about another 5-7 years of doing that in the NHL, especially here in Boston, where agitators of years past like Johnny "Pie" McKenzie and Ken "The Rat" Linseman still warm the fans' hearts.

What the Bruins wanted for Stock was a makeover. He is a little guy with a big heart and fast hands. When the front office went out and got a bigger, badder dragon slayer in Sandy McCarthy, they turned to Stock and asked him to stop dropping his gloves, learn to snarl, and make himself, well, more Linseman- and McKenzie-like.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? But it's not. Heck, if it were as simple as one of Oprah's Magic Makeovers, no doubt a few of the league's true heavyweights would be running full throttle for the opportunity. Who really wants to make a living the way McCarthy does, knowing that the moment will come this season when he'll have to drop 'em and dance with the likes of Peter Worrell or Georges Laraque? Now there's a blast.

"Whether it's the heavyweight, or the pest, they're both extremely hard jobs," said veteran Bruins forward Ted Donato, following yesterday morning's workout. "And the guys who do those jobs are extremely appreciated in the locker room. You think of some of those guys who've done the heavyweight job over the years -- like Dave Brown in Philadelphia or Ken Baumgartner here -- that's not easy. A guy like Brown, in his Philly days, there could be a scrum out on the ice, and all he would have to do was stand up on the bench -- that's all, just stand and stare --and that alone had an impact on the game."

An effective agitator won't draw that kind of attention, but his influence on the game can be equally as profound. The Bruins saw it earlier this month in Los Angeles when the Kings' Sean Avery was running around, checking, yapping, and generally making himself the focal point of the game. For the first half of the game, the Bruins were looking at Avery more than the puck.

"I'd say he's about the best at it today," said Nick Boynton, who faced Avery many times in junior hockey. "He's always done that job well. Matt Cooke in Vancouver is pretty good at it, too. Oh, they can get to you, and in LA, you could see Avery was getting to us. Eventually, it stopped, though . . . we just let him go around, and we got back to playing."

But there was an interesting and telling subplot to the turnaround that night in Staples Center. According to one Bruin, it was an incensed, growling Martin Lapointe who brought Avery's game down a few octaves and, in turn, put some spring back in his teammates' legs. Lapointe had enough of Avery's cheap shots and cheap words, and told him so at the penalty box. What did he say? According to another member of the Black 'n' Gold, Lapointe told Avery that he didn't care if he got suspended, he'd do whatever he had to do to shut him up. In the end, that was enough.

What we may be seeing here, two-plus years into his residence on Causeway Street, is a more, shall we say, engaged Lapointe. He was hired on in the summer of '01 to be a presence, and for a price of $5 million a year, everyone expected points, too. The points haven't come, not in abundance, and his presence has been intermittent -- in part because of injuries.

For the moment, Lapointe is riding on a line with Sergei Samsonov and rookie Sergei Zinovjev. He is not going to match them for skill and dazzle, but it's their skill that can make Lapointe more effective. He has the legs, strength, and game enough to be the best in-your-face agitator in the Boston lineup. Perhaps that's not the reason he was brought here, and it's hard to place a $5 million price tag on a job that is usually considered a low-rent way to live. But there was nothing low-rent about Linseman, or McKenzie, or even the nastier Dale Hunter, who was the game's prototype pest for years with the Nordiques and Capitals.

But Hunter finished with 1,020 career points.

Stock simply couldn't make the makeover. Lapointe, intentionally or not, may be in the midst of one. In a season already with a few surprises, he could be the biggest of all.

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