Banner yet waves over new season
But Bruins will have to deal with soft power play, loss of veterans
Membership has its privileges. The Bruins return to action Thursday night as the defending champs, and guaranteed patience among the fans is just one of the perks that comes with entering a new season with names carved on the Stanley Cup.
But are there questions? Of course there are. Would we be Boston, the Hub of Hockey, without them? It only takes a moment’s reflection on the five Cup banners that hung in the Garden rafters last spring to realize how one championship season brings this Wall Street-like disclaimer: “Past performance does not guarantee future results.’’
The most obvious place in need of help is the power play. It was nonexistent (0 for 21) against the Canadiens in Round 1 last spring, improved slightly to 2 for 16 in the four games against the Flyers. It still struggled (3 for 24) in the conference championship with Tampa Bay. And it finally improved to “near respectable’’ in the Cup Final, connecting five times in 27 chances against the Canucks.
“It was a challenge,’’ general manager Peter Chiarelli acknowledged the other day, his roster cuts yet to be finalized. “No question, it was a challenge.’’
Defenseman Tomas Kaberle, acquired from Toronto at the end of February as the answer, only added to the problem. Marc Savard, the power-play quarterback up front, never made it back to the lineup after sustaining another concussion in January, leaving the Bruins without a halfwall, puck-distributing presence. The points were disabled. The front line was a work that never progressed. When the playoffs ended, the Bruins scored a paltry 11.4 percent on the power play.
The fix? The big-blasting Joe Corvo, acquired in a trade with Carolina, will take over Kaberle’s point on the top unit, partnering with Zdeno Chara. And up front, the likes of Tyler Seguin, Rich Peverley, and perhaps Patrice Bergeron will get their chance to play the halfwall.
“We want to get them together,’’ coach Claude Julien said last week, noting the various alignments he could use on the man-advantage, “and get them to execute right from the get-go.’’
One glimmer of optimism: Through their first four exhibition games, the Bruins had five power-play goals and were clicking at nearly a 30 percent success rate.
“If we could stick to that,’’ fantasized Julien, “we’d have a happy crew.’’
Beginning Thursday night, with the Flyers in town for the season opener, we also will find out what the losses of veterans Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder, and Kaberle will mean. Though all three had their, shall we say, imperfections, they took with them 3,464 games of collective NHL experience when they exited Causeway Street. That does not guarantee a void in senior leadership, but all three had assets, and it remains to be seen if 18 skaters can replace whatever it was they took with them.
Recchi had great presence in the locker room and retained remnants of his guile and touch around the net. Kaberle couldn’t shoot worth a lick, but he had velvety hands and helped in the transition game, especially in the back end. Ryder, frustrating in long stretches of the regular season during his three years here, typically woke up and produced in the playoffs.
“You are talking about three veterans,’’ said Chiarelli, specifically noting the “much maligned Kaberle’’ in the group. “The first two guys [Recchi and Ryder] performed for us very well in the playoffs, this year and last. Now we’ve got Corvo with that veteran’s experience and perspective, so you can say that’s a wash [with Kaberle]. But you are missing Rex and Rydes. So you wonder, you want to give young guys opportunities, but are they going to fill it? You’re relying more on a guy like Tyler now. We saw some things in the playoffs from him, but we want to see that on a consistent basis. It’s hard what he did last year, because he was in and out of the lineup, but expectations are going to be higher for him.’’
Though deep down the middle, the Bruins, with Savard likely unable to return, again start the season without a bona fide No. 1 center, someone with a point-per-game résumé. Well, they won without that guy, so the concern here isn’t equal to the power play and veteran presence issues. But it remains to be seen if Bergeron and David Krejci have the goods and durability to be 80- or 90-point performers.
For all the knocks he took for his lack of physical play and sometimes sketchy defensive work, Savard averaged 87 points his first three years here. Krejci’s career high is 73 and he has averaged 62 over the last three years. Prior to his concussion woes, Bergeron put together back-to-back seasons of 73 and 70 points. He has averaged 55 the last two seasons. The speedy Seguin might have the best toolkit to become a No. 1 pivot someday, but he remains untested and could play mostly at wing again this year.
“From our perspective, it’s important to be deep at center,’’ said Chiarelli, dismissing the need for a bigger, more prolific scorer at the position. “And we are deep. That started with Savvy coming here. A guy like [Chris] Kelly can play both positions . . . the same with Peverley. Seguin is more comfortable at center. And [Greg Campbell] centers our fourth line, on any other team he is on third line. Look, we’d all like to have that big centerman, but if you go team by team, you get guys like Eric Staal [Carolina] and Joe Thornton [San Jose]. It’s hard to find that guy who does it all and has size, too. I don’t know why. Maybe they become defensemen when they’re that big.’’
The Bruins again should rank among the best five-on-five teams in the league. Goalie Tim Thomas, the No. 1 reason they won the Cup, should be as reliable as ever. And team defense, with Julien directing a simple, disciplined system with captain Chara as the centerpiece, again will be the backbone of any success.
A Cup in the closet, a banner ready to be hoisted, the defending Cup champs are ready to play. They are in a very good place, yet imperfect as always.