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Bruins breakdown: The fast lane

02.24.10 at 12:22 pm ET

We continue our Bruins breakdown at the break with the men in the passing lane. On Monday the centers got their attention and Tuesday was for the men riding shotgun. Wednesday is for the men who like to skate fast and hit hard — the left wings.

The group is split by two players who like to let their speed make statements, Marco Sturm and Daniel Paille, and two men who often let their fists do the talking, Milan Lucic and Shawn Thornton.

On Thursday we will look at the top three defensemen on the roster and the three back blue liners on Friday before finishing up with the goaltending situation on Saturday.

Without further ado  . . . .

Sturm — Last September the Big Bad Blog took a look at what Sturm would mean to the Bruins offense this year. The idea was that Sturm would be able to fill in the goal-scoring production of the departed Phil Kessel and, if the rest of the team played to its 2008-09 levels, then the Bruins would still be near the top of the leading in scoring.

So much for that.

Last season the Bruins were second in the league in scoring with 3.29 goals per game, almost all of which was done without Sturm because of a knee injury. This year the Bruins have receded to below 2006-07 and 2007-08 levels when they scored 2.56 and 2.51 goals per game, respectively. At 2.35 goals per game this season the Bruins are dead last in the NHL in scoring with the next closest team (Edmonton at 2.43) almost a full tenth of a point ahead of them.

Call it the curse of Sturm.

Sturm had 27 goals in both 2006-07 and 2007-08 when the Bruins could not find the net to save their lives. He had seven in 19 games last year when Boston rained pucks in opposing nets like they had blown up a Brazilian rubber factory. With a team-leading 18 goals this year the Bruins are back to the bottom of the barrel. Coincidence? Probably, but that does not distort the facts.

Sturm is very much a leader for the Bruins. Even during his absence from the rink last year he was always around the team and even designed the “Stay Hungry” hats Boston sported in the playoffs. He is the last holdover from the deal that sent Joe Thornton out of town and most of the reason the Bruins have kept him around is because of his goal scoring acumen. He is not an elite scorer and in an ideal world he would serve as a compliment to a top-notch scorer. His career-high in goals was 28 with the Sharks in 2002-03 and as he gets older and puts more wear on his knees he is likely never to eclipse the 30-goal mark.

Sturm is the perfect representation of what the Bruins have and what they do not. They have a fair amount of decent goal-scorers but nobody in the upper echelon that creates depth through the lines that creates better match ups for the rest of the team. Without Kessel (or somebody like Ilya Kovalchuk) the brunt of the Bruins attack is on the sticks of players who are ill-equipped for the role of top dog. In basketball terms, the Bruins do not have a shooter to spread the floor to open up lanes for the rest of the team. This hampers every forward, from Sturm to David Krejci.

Lucic — Three years into his professional career, the Bruins really need to figure out what they want from Lucic. Do they want him as a primary goal-scoring threat, the thunder to Marc Savard’s lightning? Or would it better for him to focus on being a great two-way forward, a big body to team with Patrice Bergeron to help shut down opposing teams’ top lines?

The problem with Lucic is that he is not terrific at either of these roles. The conundrum for the Boston staff is that Lucic’s third year, the year where a team really learns what it has in a player, has been marred by various injuries. The evaluation process, as well as the hulking forward’s progress, has been retarded as he has not been able to find a groove this season.

In straight production terms, Lucic is never going to come anywhere near the Cam Neely hopes that the Bruins fandom has for him. He has certain skills but superior goal-scoring is probably never going to be one of them. Yet, to measure Lucic on a stat line does not do the left wing justice. Despite the post-lockout rules that have opened up the game, there is still room for intimidation in the NHL. Ask Mike Van Ryn. One of the most tangible benefits of Lucic is that, on a scoring line, he creates space for the skill forwards so that they have time to work around the goal. Coach Claude Julien talks a lot about time and space in the offensive zone and part of Lucic’s duty is to create that. Though the Bruins would probably like to see it less often (because of potential injury), Lucic is also a fierce fighter and an emotional player that will stand up for his teammates. Opposing enforcers know that they will have their hands full if they make Lucic angry, all the better reason not to do so.

Yet, the greatest attribute that Lucic brings to the Bruins is excitement. At least for now, the fans love him. In business terms (if not production) that merits his contract extension that cost Boston an approximate $4 million cap hit for the next three years. To be relevant in Boston again, the Bruins need players like Lucic and in that regard he serves his purpose admirably.

Paille — As a role player, the speedy Paille is a good member of the Bruins roster. Before Boston acquired him on Oct. 20 from Buffalo, the Bruins were struggling on the penalty kill and were near the bottom of the league in the category. With Paille the Bruins have risen to third in the league (and have led at times) at 86 percent and are second with only 30 power play goals against.

Of course, this is not all laid directly on the feet of Paille, but his presence does help. He is a responsible two-way player who has the versatility to play on different lines according to need. In the Bruins four-game road winning streak before the break Paille scored two goals in a game against the Sabres while on the first line with Savard. He is not a great goal-scoring threat (his best year was 19 tallies in 2007-08) but has enough talent to be a 15-20 goal scorer and provides decent depth.

Paille’s problem is that he will be held to the Chuck Kobasew Standard as long as he is in Boston. After the Bruins sent Kobasew to the Wild they went out and got Paille to fill the roster. There are similarities: both are high-energy players, both are good, but not great, defenders and both have a decent knack for the net. Kobasew was more physical but Paille is significantly faster. To this point in the season the swap has actually worked for the Bruins as Kobasew has only played in 27 games for Minnesota while battling a knee injury and put up four goals and five assists. There is no telling that if the Bruins had kept Kobasew around whether he would have been injured but a healthy Paille has been better than an injured Kobasew. In baseball Paille would be considered a super-utility player (a la Mark DeRosa?) and as such has significant value.

Thornton — The Bruins nominal enforcer is probably the most undervalued and under appreciated member of the roster. Yes, his role as tough guy is important but Thornton brings more to the table besides fisticuffs and a big smile in the dressing room.

Thornton is the type of player that will always be measured in his deficiencies. He is not a great skater, shooter and only an average passer. What Thornton does have is a high hockey IQ. As a fourth line checking forward he is just about always where he needs to be and not all of the fourth lines’ defensive inefficiency can be laid at his feet. In simple terms, the Bruins are a better, deeper hockey team when Thornton his playing his role well.

At the same time, Thornton is the type of player that the Bruins could shed at any moment. The trend in the NHL is to get away from enforcer-type players who do not skate well. Fourth line checking forwards are plentiful and cheap. Yet, Thornton is not expensive ($516,667 cap hit the last two years) and perhaps it is worth it to keep him around. He plays his role, he does it well enough and he is a good presence in the dressing room. There are worse options in the NHL (and on the Bruins current roster) than Thornton.

Read More: Daniel Paille, Marco Sturm, Milan Lucic, Shawn Thornton
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