Before last year, it had been a while since the Hub of Hockey could say that its team was a legitimate offensive powerhouse in the National Hockey League. In 2006-07 the Bruins finished with 210 goals (2.56 per game), ranking them 25th in the league. The 2007-08 team was slightly worse, with 206 goals (2.51 per game), ranking 24th in the league, as Boston captured the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, due mostly to its tough, defensive-minded game plan.
Last season? The Northeast Division champions finished second in the league with 270 goals (3.29 per game) and regularly abused opposing goaltenders. They did so with a mixture of ascending youth (Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Milan Lucic) and crafty veterans (Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara, Mark Recchi), finishing the campaign with astounding balance as seven players finished with more than 20 goals (six if you do not count Recchi’s 13 goals with the Tampa Bay Lightning before being acquired at the trade deadline). Chara and Lucic both came close to 20 (19 and 17, respectively).
It was all done without Marco Sturm.
The veteran wingman figured to be an important part of Boston’s goal-scoring mix going into last season, balancing the production between the proven producers and the aspiring young guns. Yet, because of injuries, Sturm’s force never materialized. He had been a staple in the the B’s scheme in those offensively challenged years (27 goals in each of 2006-07 and 2007-08) yet tallied only seven last year in 19 games before going down with a knee injury on Dec. 19 against Toronto. He went from the player kids idolized before the season with “The Perfect Sturm” posters to the quintessential Forgotten Man. One would be hard pressed to find many Sturm posters floating around TD Garden this time around.
Through the frustration of last season, Sturm stayed active with the team. It would have been easy to hide in the rehab room and disappear to the Land of The Lost, but he did not. He supported his teammates all year to the point where he actually designed the “Stay Hungry” hats that were the trademark of the Bruins’ postseason run. That is in the past, though. It is a new season, and Sturm is ready to go come opening night on Thursday against the Washington Capitals.
“It feels great. You know, it was a long time ago that I played to this crowd, so I really look forward to Thursday night and hopefully a good start,” Sturm said.
The big question for the Bruins this year is how to replace Kessel and his 36 goals after the young winger was traded to Toronto. The answer comes in a couple of variations, but it looks like Boston’s front office is counting on Sturm to make up for at least part of the slack. Mix the 31-year-old wingman with gains made by the young corps, and Boston probably will have the firepower to stay near the top of the league in the lamp-lighting category this year.
“We are confident with the team that we have here, no doubt,” coach Claude Julien said during media day on Monday at the TD Garden. “We have Marco Sturm back and healthy, so as a group we are a strong team. We feel stronger as well with some young guys having matured and Marco Sturm in.”
It appears that at the beginning of the year Sturm will be a direct fill-in for Kessel on the right wing of the first line with the Savard (center) and Lucic (left wing). Sturm plays a similar game to Kessel — both are speedsters, have a good shot and have a nose for the back of the net. Savard is excited to give the pairing a shot.
“We lost Sturm all of last season and it looks like he is going to start on wing with us, so we are excited to have him,” Savard said. “He brings a ton of speed, like Kessel had, and he can finish when he has the opportunity. We are excited for that, we have a good mix and hopefully we can produce those goals that we are going to lose. It is going to have to come from a lot of people and I think we are capable.”
Sturm will have to earn it, though. No player on Julien-coached teams gets free passes for jobs well done in the past. The right wing spot is probably Sturm’s at the start, but as Julien said, “Nothing is carved in stone.”
“We’d certainly like, to a certain extent, put some speed again on that wing, and [Savard] is good at finding those guys so we will give [the speedsters] a try,” Julien said. “We are going to put the best lines together as we can possibly find and if that means tweaking them and moving them around, we will until we find the right combination. I think right now it is worth having a look at, and Marco has played the off wing before and he feels comfortable there. So, again, there is a guy who hasn’t played in a while, so we have to take that into consideration whether he’s on top of his game or whether he is trying to find it again.”
Make no mistake about it, there will be rust. Not many players in any sport can miss tw0-thirds of a season (as Sturm did last year with his 63 DNPs) and come straight out the next year as if nothing happened. NHL hockey, especially after the lockout and the new rules to open up the ice for skill players, is a flow game. Before going down last year, Sturm had lost his flow, probably due to his balky knee. Despite his plus-9 rating, it appeared that he was out of sync at times, either by making a bad pass or just being out of position.
It will be difficult, at least at the start, to come back as the same player he was in 2007-08. It is hard to get back into mental shape while in the workout room or during the summer. For that matter, Sturm has only played in two preseason games for the Bruins this year (with no goals and two assists). Not that it will stop him from trying to get in rhythm with Savard in the early going.
“You know, obviously with Savvy in the middle, playing on the right side I will have a lot of chances,” Sturm said. “He will give me the puck, so I have to use my speed, use my game, and the puck will come to me, I know that. So I just have to find the rhythm with him, and hopefully we click pretty soon.”
The Bruins feel that they have the talent to compete in the highest tier of the NHL this season and shoot for a Stanley Cup. If Sturm is on top of his game, they just may be right.