Heading into the offseason, Bruins know lineup strength comes in numbers
It was not lost on Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli that some of Washington’s key players in Game 7 - Joel Ward, Mike Knuble, and Matt Hendricks - are some of their biggest and toughest blue-collar boys.
Such is the template Chiarelli has always had in mind when assembling his Black-and-Gold rosters.
“You saw Washington’s third and fourth lines,’’ Chiarelli said during Friday’s breakup day at TD Garden. “Those are some big, heavier guys. The Wards, the Hendrickses, the [Troy] Brouwers - those guys lean on you. Over a seven-game series, when the teams are close, it makes a difference. Maybe there’s one play where our D pulls up because he knows he’s got 220 pounds coming down on his left shoulder.’’
The rough-and-tumble stuff might have been the difference-making element last year. The Bruins flattened Vancouver’s skilled players and imposed their will on the Canucks en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
This season, it might have been one of the elements that swung the favor in Washington’s direction. In Game 7, Hendricks scored the opening goal when the ex-Bruin tipped a John Carlson shot past Tim Thomas. In overtime, Thomas stopped Knuble’s first shot, but couldn’t recover to turn back Ward’s follow-up bid.
The skilled forwards were a wash. The Bruins didn’t get much pop out of Milan Lucic and David Krejci. The Bruins limited Alex Ovechkin to two goals.
Both defenses were stout. Washington’s Carlson and Karl Alzner were just as steady as Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.
In net, Braden Holtby was a touch sharper than Thomas.
But late in the series, the Capitals’ third and fourth lines outplayed their counterparts. In the playoffs, when just one goal separated the clubs, the difference between the plumbers played a part in Washington’s victory.
“You need depth,’’ Shawn Thornton said. “Last year was the same thing. To have success, you need depth. It doesn’t come from the top three guys all the time. You need depth to be successful also. It was tight. Both sides had depth going through. Their fourth line’s a pretty skilled fourth line, if you can call it a fourth line. You can flip a coin between their bottom six, depending on who’s going that night. I think everyone gets that nowadays. You need depth.’’
As usual, injuries played a role in one club advancing and the other cleaning out its lockers.
Luck was with the Bruins last year. Other than Marc Savard’s career-ending concussion, the Bruins were blessed with good health. In the Stanley Cup Final, they were able to survive Nathan Horton’s concussion. Rich Peverley assumed a first-line role. Tyler Seguin filled in on the third line. Thornton rounded out the fourth line with Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell.
There was no such fortune this season. The absence of Horton, who last played Jan. 22, left the Bruins without one of their two power forwards. In Games 6 and 7, Patrice Bergeron (strained oblique) had, by his estimation, only 60 percent of his capabilities.
The Bruins could never recover from the trickle-down effect. Peverley is most effective on the third line, but he had to assume second-line responsibilities, including most of the faceoffs. The No. 3 line of Benoit Pouliot, Chris Kelly, and Brian Rolston wasn’t as strong in the second half of the series.
Thornton was a healthy scratch for Games 6 and 7. The Bruins had to dress Jordan Caron because they weren’t sure whether Bergeron could finish either game.
The depth that had proved pivotal for the Bruins last year couldn’t come through again.
“Defensively, we had a good series,’’ Chiarelli said. “Offensively, we didn’t score at the times we had to score. I think we could have. So I think that’s an area we’ll have to improve. We’ll figure that out as the summer goes along.’’
Chiarelli was confident in his returning No. 1 line of Lucic, Krejci, and Horton. He knew Seguin would improve and could fill the second-line spot vacated by Mark Recchi.
But given how Holtby and Washington’s airtight net-front play stymied Boston’s attack, it’s clear the Bruins will be in the market for forward help heading into 2012-13.
Finding top-six help won’t be easy. The July 1 free agent market is thin. The Bruins will have better luck targeting bottom-six reinforcements.
Their first priority is to address the goaltending situation. If they move Thomas after his no-trade clause expires July 1, they can allocate part of his $5 million annual cap hit toward re-signing Tuukka Rask or acquiring more forwards. If they decide to keep Thomas, they won’t have as much free cash - not that Chiarelli, or any GM, has much clarity on that front.
The cap is currently $64.3 million. If this were an ordinary offseason, teams could expect the ceiling to rise based on projected league revenue. But the collective bargaining agreement is scheduled to expire Sept. 15. There is no telling what the next CBA will dictate with regard to the cap, contracts, buyouts, or otherwise.
“I have to be careful,’’ Chiarelli acknowledged. “I have to try and crystal ball-gaze a little bit on where we think it will end up. So I have to be cautious as far as summer additions.’’
The Bruins will attempt to re-sign Kelly, their No. 3 center, and Campbell, their fourth-line pivot. But they could let Rolston and Paille walk. Pouliot, a restricted free agent, will require a raise. At this point, Thornton and Caron are the only bottom-six forwards under contract for next season.
“It’s been an absolute pleasure playing with those players the last two years,’’ Thornton said of Paille and Campbell. “I wouldn’t be where I am - as far as a contract and coming back - without those two guys. I bought them dinner, so they know that, too. I’m very fortunate that I played with two guys that are probably third-liners on 20 of the 30 teams, I’d say. Us being the fourth line on this team shows our depth. I hope they’re back. I really do. I love playing with them.’’
Chiarelli did most of his major restructuring two summers ago and during the 2010-11 regular season. Despite a first-round exit, Chiarelli believes the Bruins can chase for the Cup again next year. As such, other than a possible Thomas trade, only tweaks will take place.
“Certainly, we’re not going to do anything to make over this team,’’ Chiarelli said. “You hear me talk about parity in this league. Our first-round loss in seven games this year could be another Stanley Cup Final next year. It’s that close.’’