Archive for October, 2008

Ready to drop the puck!

Thursday, October 9th, 2008
Which one of these doesn't belong?

Which one of these doesn't belong?

So, I’ll have a full-blown NHL preview up on PWH at some point today, but I just wanted to troll around the Internet and A) see if I could travel all the way to the end of it or B) find as many NHL previews as possible to get a sense of what the “National” sentiment is concerning the Bruins.

I imagine that most hockey experts are in one of two camps when it comes to the guys in the Spoked B’s sweaters: either they feel like the Bruins showed real improvement with a young cast of characters last season and should be better with ever-maturing prospects skating along with a healthy Patrice Bergeron. The other school of thought is that the Bruins overacheived on some level while sneaking into the playoffs, and they won’t be able to sneak up on unsuspecting hockey teams this season like they did last year.

Bobby Bobblehead says "Yay" to the playoffs

Bobby Bobblehead says "Yay" to the playoffs

I’m more inclined to go with the former theory that the Bruins are playoff-worthy with tight defense and an aggressive sandpaper style of hockey, but this season they should be a bit more potent offensively with Bergeron on the PP. But that’s just me. Let’s see what everyone else has to say:

ESPN’s John Buccigross (who I’ll give full credit to for being one of the few true “hockey guys” in Bristol) has the B’s finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference. An excerpt from his capsule on the Bruins: There is something about this team that I like. I sense a positive vibe around the Bruins that should be enhanced with the return of their best player, Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins have not won a playoff series since 1999, the only series they’ve won since the 1994 lockout. Not the 2004 lockout. They have been a sorry franchise. The Bruins are certainly not a lock to make the postseason, but for the first time in a while, Boston seems to have some organizational passion and a plan. The margin for error is small. The key players need to be healthy, and the young players need to be important players without a drop-off.

The Hockey News has the Bruins finishing tenth in the Eastern Conference: There isn’t much explanation behind their pick on the Hockey News web site, but they see the Bruins finishing ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers, Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Islanders. This is one prognostication that I would consider the “glass half-emptiest prediction.”

Sports Illustrated picks the Bruins to finish seventh in the East and again qualify for the playoffs while also picking Zdeno Chara as the Northeast Division MVP and Milan Lucic as the division’s “player to watch”: Don’t mistake these Bruins for the bruisers who famously carried the club in the 1970s and ’80s, but this is the Northeast’s most physical team, and Boston should bully its way to a second straight playoff berth.  Boston was 24th in the NHL in goals last season, something the addition of free agent Michael Ryder will help but won’t cure by itself. The Bruins’ real center of attention is mild-mannered pivot Patrice Bergeron (above), who missed all but 10 games of the Bruins’ 18-point revival last season. 

Yahoo Sports Hockey Editor Ross McKeon picked the Bruins third in the Northeast Division, but says they’ll

Dude...seriously.

Dude...seriously.

 be hard-pressed to again make the playoffs (one thing I would say is that he really needs to get over the Joe Thornton trade): The Bruins still miss Joe Thornton, whether they admit it or not. It seems like everything is going to have to go right for Boston to be a solid playoff team, sand considering all the bumps a team faces in the regular season, the guess is the Bruins will be in a dogfight to slip into a playoff spot again. 

CBS Sportsline’s Wes GoldStein has the Bruins finishing second in the Northeast Division and has coach Coach Claude Julien winning the Adams Award this season: The Bruins accelerated their building process with a surprise appearance in the playoffs last season and nearly upsetting Montreal in the first round. The expectations will be higher this time. The best news though for Boston has been the return of Patrice Bergeron, who missed almost all of last season because of a concussion, and has looked very good in the preseason. 

Inside Hockey’s James Murphy has the Bruins finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference and making the playoffs: The Bruins were one of last season’s most pleasant surprises, reverting back to the hard working, bruising style that defined them when the likes of Terry O’Reilly and Cam Neely wore the black and gold with pride. Much like those Bruins icons, sophomore winger Milan Lucic has become one of the faces of the franchise. The biggest additions are three players returning from injuries — center Patrice Bergeron, defenseman Andrew Alberts, and goaltender Manny Fernandez — all of whom could make a huge impact. If Tim Thomas can deliver a repeat performance between the pipes and Fernandez can provide a solid complement, the Bruins are fine in goal, and the Zdeno Chara-led defense is unquestionably stout. The biggest question is whether newcomer Michael Ryder and the returning Bergeron can conspire to make the Bruins’ offense click. 

Fox Sports’ Darren Spang sees the Bruins returning to the playoffs and Spector (apprently rock stars and hockey analysts are in the same boat when it comes to one name monikers) has the Bruins finishing seventh in the Eastern Conference: The return of a healthy Patrice Bergeron at center should provide a significant boost to their offense. A consistent performance this season by goaltender Tim Thomas should bolster the Bruins’ postseason hopes. The improvement of young forwards Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and David Krejci could also boost their forward depth, while head coach Claude Julien’s defensive system should make the Bruins tough to score against. Captain Zdeno Chara is still nursing a shoulder injury from last season and management is on the lookout for another puck-moving defenseman. While some gaps in the roster remain to be addressed, the Bruins appear in better shape this season than they were a year ago.  

Be back in a bit with my own take on the Bruins and the NHL this season…let’s drop the puck already!

Alberts not worried about trades

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008
"Hey Z...Don't let them send me to Altoona."

"Hey Z...Don't let them send me to Altoona."

Life hasn’t exactly been a bunch of icing-topped cupcakes for Andrew Alberts over the past month of his hockey life.

The 27-year-old defenseman got off a slow start after essentially getting tossed into a Bruins training camp that featured games within the first 72 hours of preseason’s actual kick-off, and he only just recently felt as if he was his normal hard-hitting, defensively-reliable self. Quarterbacking the power play or stealing the breath away from an arena crowd with his skating ability aren’t ever going to be in Alberts’ bag of puck tricks, but — as everyone’s favorite hoodie model/football coach is so fond of saying – he is what he is: a bruising 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman that’s at his best when he’s making the opposition think twice about going in the corners and utilizing his physical strength to steer players away from the front of the net.

McFilthy...

McFilthy...

It’s certainly true that Alberts hasn’t been quite the same since suffering a concussion at the hands of the McFilthy and McNasty Philadelphia Flyers mid-way through last season (for those unclear which dirty Scott Hartnell hit I’m talking about…here it is), but he truly felt like he’d begun to put things together last weekend.  Albie stepped up and unloaded a few shots, notched a few body hits and started feeling in the flow during a Saturday tune-up against the Islanders, but then he took a frustrating step back in Sunday’s preseason finale when he was a step behind the action, careless with the puck and finished with a -2 on the evening.

“It was a busy preseason with a lot of travel. Last year I got into a couple of

McNasty? Really?

McNasty? Really?

games at the end, but I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been,” said Alberts. “It took a while to get adjusted to thinking quickly on the ice and game situations, but it’s coming along. I thought I played my best game on Saturday [against the Islanders] but Sunday wasn’t very good.

“Obviously there’s so many good young guys here this year pushing for a spot, and it seems like it’s by far the most that we’ve had here in the three years that I’ve been here,” added Alberts. “Right now we have numbers and names being thrown around a lot. All you can do is come to the rink, do your work and not worry about things you can’t control. It’s up to the staff.”

The Bruins are roughly $250,000 under the salary cap with the 23 players currently earmarked to make the trip to the Pepsi Center in Colorado for the Oct. 9 season-opener, but Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli is surely looking to clear up more capital space under the cap. Alberts is a logical candidate to be moved because he’s in the last year of his rookie deal and his $1.25 million would give Chiarelli the kind of salary cap breathing room he covets. His name has been tossed around in trade talks with several teams, but none of these “hot stove” hockey rumors have gained much traction. Many of Alberts’ teammates lamented the annual tense, stress-filled uncertainty that accompanies the regular season roster deadline, but have made peace with that side of the hockey business.

“The toughest part about it as an athlete is remembering that there’s a facet of this job that’s all about economics,” said B’s blueliner Aaron Ward. “There’s so much that goes into making up a team. i think now moreso than ever players are uneasy about where they fit into a team. Your salary along with your personality and your skill has to fit into the team. No longer are you just simply good enough.”

Rosters must be “good enough” by 3 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon, so the answers for both Alberts, the Bruins and…well…the media will be forthcoming shortly. Alberts hopes to be in Boston when the ice chips clear, but he’s also well aware that the business of hockey could whisk him away to some other hockey city sooner rather than later. 

“You guys know more than I do,” said Alberts. “I try not to listen to the radio or look at papers, and I just come to the rink every day and do my job. I have friends texting me all the time asking if I’m going to Vancouver or going to Chicago, and telling what’s being said out there. I tell them I really don’t know anything.

“We’ll see what happens,” added Alberts. “There’s nothing you can really do. It’s part of the game.”

Cut-down day for the Bruins

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

 

Would you like #18, Mr. Wheeler?

Would you like #18, Mr. Wheeler?

The days leading up to the regular season are always a difficult time mixed with happiness and melancholy in the world of an NHL team, and the past several weeks have been more so for the Black and Gold given their depth situation. The Bruins haven’t boasted a team this deep or talented since prior to the NHL lockout, and the new salary cap wrinkle with regard to rookie bonus money has complIcated matters.

The emergence of 22-year-old rookie Blake Wheeler made it imperative that Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli clear room for the $2.85 million cap hit that Wheeler’s contract carries due to the rookie bonus money built into his deal. With that move in mind, forward Peter Schaefer ($2.1 million), Jeremy Reich ($487,500) and Nate Thompson ($500K) were all placed on waivers and young blueliner Matt Hunwick ($750K) was assigned to the Providence Bruins. It’s hard to imagine Thompson and Reich clearing through waivers given their hockey value and the affordable price tags that go along with them.

Chiarelli dilligently attempted to jettison Schaefer during the last few weeks of training camp, but Schaefer’s salary combined with last season’s underperformance (9 goals, 17 assists and countless DNP-CD’s in 63 games after notching 50 points and 46 respectively over the previous two seasons with the Ottawa Senators) left the Bruins GM without much a market. Give credit to both Chiarelli for essentially admitting that the signing of Schaefer turned out to be a free agent mistake, and to owner Jeremy Jacobs for agreeing to potentially swallow the entirety of Schaefer’s $2.1 million deal should he go unclaimed. It was obvious to everyone that Claude Julien wanted Big Wheeler on his roster from jump street, and both Chiarelli and Jacobs made difficult, appropriate decisions to make it happen.

According to an excellent site on NHL Salary Caps called Hockey Buzz the Bruins are now only $242,501 under the $56.7 million salary cap for the 2008-09 season, so expect another move potentially involving Andrew Ference,P.J. Axelsson or Andrew Alberts. Both defenseman and Axe would draw interest around the league and each is being paid in excess of $1 million — a sum that would give Chiarelli the room he’s looking for under the cap. I spoke with Alberts about recently hearing his name in trade rumors with both Vancouver and Chicago, and I’ll have a little something up on the blog about that in two shakes of a hockey stick.

In the meantime, here’s some thoughts from Chiarelli earlier this afternoon while addressing the B’s media corps about the roster moves:

PC: So we’ve made some roster moves to get us down to 23 on our roster. We’ve released Peter Schaefer and he’s on waivers today, and he’ll be designated for reassignment pending whether he’s claimed or not. We’ve put Jeremy Reich on waivers, so we’ll see if he clears in another 24 hours. Nate Thompson and Matt Hunwick. Nate will go on waivers too for 24 hours too, and Matt is a pure assignment with no waivers.

Was that a difficult decision with Schaefer or was that something that was pretty cut-and-dried? PC: Yeah, it was difficult. I have had a history with him in Ottawa and I brought him in here, but it wasn’t working out. I know he’s a good player and these things happen. We talked yesterday and we had a good talk. He may end up in another NHL city or he may end up in Providence.

Was there a lot of dissapointment on his end when you talked to him? PC: He’s been around the league for a while and I think he knew what was coming especially given the play of Blake Wheeler. He pretty much expected it is what he told me. He was disappointed that it didn’t work out here.

Was there a lot of trade feelers put out there before it came to this? PC: Oh yeah. It’s tough now. What happens is right now you’re looking at the roster and generally you’re really happy about it because you see all these competitions where somebody wins and somebody loses. So it’s tough now moving guys. But that changes in a week to a month when teams start not playing well.

Would you be open to using him on re-entry or is that not an option? PC: That’s something that down the road we might look at, but right now no. I need all the cap space I can get.

Did he have any insight as to why things didn’t work out with him here? PC: Yeah, but that will remain private. If you catch up with him he may say it, but I’m not going to talk for him.

So with these moves how much room do you have under the salary cap? PC: We’re still pretty tight. This may not be our final roster. There may be one more move before we leave tomorrow, but we’ll see how the rest of the day plays out.

Can you give us any indication as to what that move might be? PC: Ummm no. Not yet.

From the standpoint of depth within the organization, can you be hurt if somehow they all get claimed? PC: It speaks to two things: One that we’ve had all these difficult decisions and in my years here we haven’t had those kinds of difficult decisions, so it means that we have depth. We have teams calling about these players. Organizationally we’re in a good spot. But if we lose these players then our depth gets tested. But we have had some good perfromances in camp by guys that we’ve already released and sent down that I’d be comfortable with in certain instances.

Speak to how the loss of the bonus cushion has affected your decision-making? PC: Well it certainly has, but those are the rules we’re playing with this year. It might have saved a job or two, but I look at it like you’ve got to ice the best team possible. That’s how I look at it.

Speaking of Blake, preseason is obviously a very short window but do you feel like he’s good enough to be with this team over the long haul? PC: We still may have one more move, but Blake has made the team. We’re going to take it slowly. I liken it to Looch a little bit last year, but he’s a couple of years older. I want him to continue working hard and continue practicing hard and see a progression. The level of play really picks up now, so we’ll see how he does.

Did going through the development of Lucic last year help you trust your judgement a little more with Wheeler this year? PC: A little bit, but there’s a three-year age difference and that’s big at this point. What it does speak to is the coaching staff and their ability to help develop these young guys.

Is Wheeler making the team more or a surprise than Lucic last year? PC: Don’t forget that Blake was the fifth pick overall during his draft year, so he comes with a pretty thick resume. I guess as a third party you woud look down at this and expect him to make it rather than Lucic, with all things being equal.

How do you see the goaltending heading into the season? PC: I’m happy where they’re at. They both had good camps. Our objective was to have a strong duo and I think that’s what we’re getting.

Do you think in this day and age that any NHL team needs two goaltenders to get through a season? PC: I think it certainly helps. You can see the wear and tear with a couple of goalies that played a ton of games and you could see it impacted their playoff performance. So it definitely helps.

Don’t mess with the Looch

Thursday, October 2nd, 2008
Milan Lucic left a lot of hockey carnage in his wake last season

Milan Lucic left a lot of hockey carnage in his wake last season

Milan Lucic quickly became a bone-shattering, haymaker-throwing fan favorite in his first season donning the Spoked B sweater as a 19-year-old rookie. But the puck pugilist left Boston last April hungry for greater  personal and team success before heading back to the welcoming embrace of the Great White North of Vancouver for a summer of relaxation and off-season off-ice workouts.

While the hulking 6-foot-4, 220-pounder heads into his second NHL season expected to again project a looming physical presence and act as a battering ram on skates also capable of dropping the gloves when the situation dictates, Lucic spent the summer working on diversifying his game. He’s already shown a pretty good, soft pair of hands for a big guy and enough offensive instincts to register as a threat with the puck.

 The big winger is hoping to reach somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-20 goals as his offensive puck game continues to mature and improve along with the rest of his Bruins teammates. There’s no identity crisis brewing with the 20-year-old big B’s lug, however. Looch fully understands that much of his on-ice demeanor should be like something out of the pages of an Incredible Hulk comic book: Lucic mad! Lucic Smash!

“I’ve got to stick to what I do best and that’s really straight-line hockey. There’s no reason to take the physicality out of my game at all because I’m more successful when I’m physical and creating momentum,” said Lucic, who finished second on the team with 89 penalty minutes last season. ”You’ve got to keep the [fighting] in your game because you want to be that physical presence on the ice and you want to have an impact on the game.”

But the young left winger also knows that he flashed glimmers of offensive skill while putting up 9 goals and 18 helpers in 77 games. More will be expected of him — along with a bevy of his fellow young Bruins teammates – in Bruins Season 2.0, and Lucic targeted a few specific areas of offseason improvement with that in mind. With more shifts skating alongside offensive-minded linemates and a large helping of PP time, the big man’s point totals should rise right along with his PIMs.

With all that swirling around in his mind, Lucic recognized that his initial burst of skating speed wasn’t up to NHL snuff and is an area that could and should be improved. Big Looch was perfectly fine once he got those pistons firing in his skating legs and was churning at maximum power, but he felt like the explosive first step was missing.

“You know more of what to expect [coming into this season], but because I’m a young guy I’m still learning. In that sense, I think speed-wise I could have a quicker first step,” said Lucic.  ”Once I get going then I’m there but I really felt that first step was something I needed to work on.

“I feel like it’s there, but we’ll see where I’m at when the games really start. Hopefully I keep getting the minutes that I was getting last year. You do a lot of plyometrics and quick-feet stuff with the ladder and also explosive sprinting. I was doing parachute-work as well and going 40-meter sprints, 30-meter sprints, 20-meter sprints, 50-meter sprints with the parachute and then you rip the parachute off.”

Where did Lucic get the idea to use parachutes and other track-and-field style techniques to make himself a better hockey player, you ask?

This guy could use the power of the Looch

This guy could use the power of the Looch

Enter Ian Gallagher, Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Vancouver Giants. Gallagher has worked with Lucic from the time he was barely old enough to drive, and both coach and player tailored his off-season workouts around track exercises designed to improve his explosion and fast-twitch muscles. It was an easy assignment for Gallagher, who works with a large group of hockey players in the summer and always looks forward to his time with the blue collar kid from Vancouver.

Part of Gallagher’s joy comes from the tireless work ethic that Lucic lugs to the table with him, and the other huge part is some of the amazing feats of strength that the physical specimen puts on in the weight room. The legend started when Lucic was playing Junior Hockey in Canada for the Giants and it continued on into his first season with the Bruins.

“He certainly did a lot of his power speed-work and he’s getting older now…so his game is coming along appropriately fast. The first step is all about power that allows you to go from a stationary position to full exertion very quickly. So plyometrics are a big staple of his program and power cleaning is a big staple of his program. Change of direction is big with a lot of diagonal sprints where they’re stopping and going quickly.

“There was steady growth for Milan over the summer. He’s got great genetics and he’s a very committed person. He came back very motivated and very willing to improve, and his scores improved over the summer as you expect somebody would that’s got the proper motivation. Nothing surprises me with Milan though because he’s got a real disposition for growth.”

So just how eye-popping are the genetics of the tall and strapping winger, who defied the odds to crack the Bruins NHL roster as a 19-year-old last season and truly created an impact in Boston’s comeback campaign last year?

“He’s got a great frame to put on muscle mass and handle it. He’s got great levers and he’s got a very strong core and a good musculature to him that allows to excel,” said Gallagher. “His leg mass is tremendous. His leg press is well over 900 pounds for eight reps and his power clean for reps is 275 pounds, which are both really football player-like numbers.

“Which is a little amazing because he’s got a very unassuming musculature to him. Because you look at his arms and there’s not a heck of a lot of mass to them, but his core is just so bloody powerful. His legs are massive and his trunk is massive, and when he gets those big muscles going it demonstrates itself in a powerful way when he collides with somebody or when he’s shooting the puck. I think it’s one of his biggest assets.”

Those assets haven’t worked up to full-speed yet this preseason, but it’s only a matter of time before the 20-year-old turns those physical attributes into points and PIMs for the B’s this season.