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Stuart confirms new position as B’s player rep 10.08.09 at 12:16 am ET
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WILMINGTON — Mark Stuart said it wasn’t official as of Wednesday morning, but confirmed he’ll be stepping into the NHLPA player representative role for the Boston Bruins in the next few weeks. The 25-year-old blueliner is actually one of the longest-tenured B’s going back to his first few rookies game with Boston in 2005-05, and he’ll be replacing veteran defenseman Andrew Ference as acting player rep.

“It’s not official yet, but I think so,” said Stuart, when asked if he was the team’s new player rep. “I’ve been the assistant for a while behind Andy, and he decided to step down. He put in his time and decided he didn’t want to do it anymore. I was the next guy in line.”

Stuart served as the assistant player rep along with Ference last season, and the young defenseman was the logicial first choice when Ference reportedly stepped down from the position this week. Stuart indicated Ference was giving up the post to spend more time with his wife and two children, but the B’s blueliner has also been under a burgeoning level of criticism for his key role in the dismissal of former NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly.

Ference was a part of the NHLPA ad hoc committee that investigated complaints about Kelly last summer, and ultimately made the presentation to the rest of the players before overwhelmingly voting to remove the executive director from his post. There appears to have been several reasons for Kelly’s dismissal — including reading unauthorized minutes from a players-only meeting — but there’s also been a continual stream of unsavory aspects to the swift union action. 

According to a report in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Mark Recchi was poised to run for player rep against Ference after being highly critical of the process leading to Kelly’s firing. When Ference agreed to voluntarily step down from his post, Recchi backed off and Stuart was able to assume the position of player rep.

With all that in mind, the NHLPA is clearly at a crossroads. Mistrust and sabotage seem to be high on the list of adjectives used to describe the NHLPA after the sacking of Kelly, and that’s not exactly a sea change from the union’s past practice. Stuart recognizes that it’s an important time for the hockey player’s union to change both their perception and their process, and readily concedes there’s quite a bit of work ahead.

“Yeah, obviously there’s a lot going on. So it’s important to be informed and to know what’s going on,” said Stuart. “I think for everybody to get involved at some point [would be good] because it’s been kind of a mess as of late.

“It’s interesting to me. I wouldn’t have [taken] the assistant [job] if it didn’t. Stepping into this role means there’s some pretty big shoes to fill, and I need to just inform myself as much as I can. Be a lot more involved.”

There’s the matter of choosing another director to replace Kelly, and serious alterations to the union’s constitution following the ridiculous 3 a.m. setting that served as Kelly’s backdrop for his unceremonious dumping. Further down the hockey road, there’s a Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire after the 2010-11 season and mandate to avoid another work stoppage at all costs.

One other thing Stuart wanted to confirm: there’s no divide in the Bruins locker room despite some differences of opinion on union matters. The turn of events leading to Ference’s departure and Stuart’s ascension have effectively put to bed any conflict over the issues — and it was reportedly a pretty level-headed conversation between all parties that ultimately led to the NHLPA position changes.

“Andy did some great work for us over the last two years. It’s a big time committment,” said Stuart. “He put in a lot of time over the last two years, and it was mostly about the time. As far as the locker room goes, there’s nothing going on. He stepped down and I’m taking over for him. That’s about it.

“Guys are getting more involved and want to know what’s going on, and I think that’s good. We need to work as a group. My role is like any leader — to be that voice between the guys in the group and the rest of the [NHLPA]. It’s not me just voicing my opinions on issues. It’s me coming to the group, getting their thoughts, forming an opinion as a group and then going from there.”

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ESPN The Magazine reveals the ‘Full Chara’ 10.07.09 at 5:42 pm ET
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ESPN The Magazine is debuting "The Full Chara" this month

ESPN The Magazine is debuting "The Full Chara" this month

Great get by the always enjoyable and thoroughly educational Puck Daddy hockey blog over at Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday afternoon, as they were able to unearth the “Full Chara” photos that will be a big part of ESPN The Magazine’s body issue this month.

Rumblings of the Zdeno Chara photo shoot in his birthday suit filtered through the B’s dressing room days ago, but this is the first photographic evidence of the minimalist photo spread with the Bruins Captain.

Can’t imagine what kind of grief the Norris Trophy winner is in store for when the magazine hits mailboxes and bookshelves all across the country. A fan base like Montreal, that boos Chara each time he touches the puck, could get awfully creative.

 But at least it’s a tasteful nude rather than something with a series of Austin Powers-esque strategically-placed pieces of hockey equipment.

It’ll be interesting to see what noted art critic Shawn Thornton has to say about “The Full Chara” when he gets a look-see at the sneak preview. To check out the full gallery of athletes chosen for the body issue — including Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson,  Texas Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz and tennis player Serena Williams – check it out at ESPN.com.

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Lucic, Bruins back to work this morning 10.07.09 at 11:55 am ET
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WILMINGTON — The Bruins are just wrapping up a full practice day in anticipation of the Thursday tilt with the Anaheim Ducks. Newly-signed Milan Lucic is out in front of one of the nets working on tipping and redirecting pucks that Derek Morris is firing at him from the right point.

Lucic’s production directly in front of the net in the offensive zone is one of the areas that the hulking left wing will be working to improve on now that he’s a $4 million plus man beginning next season. Lucic and B’s GM Peter Chiarelli are set to meet with the media momentarily at the B’s practice rink in Wilmington, and there will be full coverage at the Big Bad Blog.

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Morris has been a dead-on power play hit 10.06.09 at 3:50 pm ET
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Morris has added plenty to Boston's power play since escaping from the mess in the desert

Morris has added plenty to Boston's power play since escaping from the mess in the desert

WILMINGTON — It wasn’t a common sight last season, but there was at least one Bruins practice that involved the Boston defensemen corps firing pucks through bright orange traffic cones.

The traffic cones were placed near the right and left point areas in the attack zone, and the drill was designed to achieve pinpoint accuracy on the all-important power play blasts. The big gun shots from the B’s defensemen are oft-times the trigger to jolting Boston’s man advantage attack. With that in mind, there were times when a normally mighty power play lost some of it’s bite for the B’s last season when those point shots were nudged a little too far off the mark.

It wasn’t the sheer power of the long-range bids because guys like Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman have slappers capable of obliterating glass behind the net — with the assistance of some good wood, of course. But there were times when the shot would fade wide to either side, or an aggressive penalty kill would smother a shot with one brave sacrificial body.

“That’s the one thing that we lacked last year. At times we really had some trouble getting our shots through,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “Teams are blocking shots and getting into the shooting lanes, and its getting harder to get shots off.”

Despite the intermittent bouts of wildness with their point shots, the Bruins still boasted a 23.6 percent power play success rate, and ranked fourth in the entire NHL. Only the high-powered units in Detroit, Washington and San Jose ranked higher last season.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Big Looch is back at Bruins practice 10.06.09 at 11:10 am ET
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WILMINGTON — Milan Lucic is skating free and easy without any trace of a limp on the top line along with Marc Savard and Marco Sturm in Tuesday morning’s Bruins practice at Ristuccia Arena. Big Looch missed Monday’s session with a non-hockey related issue that was essentially a tiny facial abrasion that got slightly infected, and was addressed medically Monday. The original bump on his kisser wasn’t sustained playing hockey, and Lucic is back on the ice Tuesday morning.

 The “personal day” for Lucic had nothing to do with his legs or his right punching hand. Both were thrown out as speculation after Lucic abused Jay Harrison in a bloody brawl Saturday night during their win over the Carolina Hurricanes. But neither theory was the actual case with Lucic, who appears good to go against the Anaheim Ducks Thursday night.

–The Boston Bruins/Carolina Hurricanes fight-filled Saturday night opener for NESN earned a 3.9 household rating, which marks the network’s highest rated season-opening broadcast in 25 years of covering the Bruins. NESN’s 3.9 rating was also the highest average household rating recorded in the Boston DMA (designated market area) during the game’s 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm window, beating all other broadcasts and cable networks during that time period.

The network’s previous high rating for a season opening broadcast came during a Bruins 2-1 win over the New York Rangers on January 23, 1995 when the network earned a 3.8 rating for its first broadcast coming out of a lockout shortened season.

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Lucic not present at Bruins practice 10.05.09 at 2:37 pm ET
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Lucic wasn't present at practice, but he's expected to live amid ominous reports

Lucic wasn't present at practice, but he's expected to live amid ominous reports

WILMINGTON — Bruising Bruins winger Milan Lucic wasn’t present at practice Monday morning at Ristuccia Arena, but the 21-year-old winger wasn’t missing in action as a result of the fight-filled action against the Hurricanes. B’s coach Claude Julien confirmed following practice that it was a non-hockey related situation, and Lucic will be back practicing with the team Tuesday.

A Bruins source confirmed that the issue had nothing to do with his right punching hand or either of his legs — amid swirling reports that the big winger was seen limping out of the building Saturday night — and it was truly a very minor situation. Matt Hunwick, who bounced between defenseman and forward last season, replaced Lucic on the left wing skating with Marc Savard and Marco Sturm on Boston’s top line during practice.

If it were something more serious with Lucic, clearly the Bruins would have reconfigured the lines or called Vladimir Sobotka back up from Providence to rejoin the team. Neither of those things happened, and the lean, mean B’s fighting machine will be back in the practice fold tomorrow preparing for Thursday night against the Anaheim Ducks.

“He was excused for non-hockey related, personal issues,” said Julien. “He’ll be back tomorrow.”

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Hunwick learning to stay within his game 10.05.09 at 2:23 am ET
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It ended up being nothing but an afterthought as the Bruins went all FEMA in shuttering the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night, but it was a significant third-period goal for second-year defenseman Matt Hunwick in extended garbage time. The 5-foot-10, 187-pounder struggled to regain his feel early in the preseason, but all it took was one aggressive offensive play to conjure up images of the playmaking defenseman that carved a spot for himself by the end of last season.

Hunwick scored the seventh and final goal for the B’s in the rout over the Canes, and tasted a bit of on-ice revenge despite never making it past one playoff game against the Canadiens. Hunwick was crunched against the boards in that brutally physical Game 1, and the defenseman quickly bowed out of the series with a ruptured spleen.

That seemed like a million hockey years ago, though, as the 24-year-old logged time on the penalty kill and even earned a few power play minutes in the weekend rout. He’s still clearly not where back to the level he finished at last season, but he’s getting closer to form when he’s logging minutes on Boston’s man advantage in the third period while playing in Julien’s meritocratic team structure.

“It’s nice to know that my role on the team is appreciated, and I’m just going to keep doing the things that got me here in the first place,” said Hunwick. “I think physically coming into camp I felt great, and I think on-ice it took me at least a week to feel comfortable. During the summer you try to emulate what you’ll do [during the season], but it’s never the same. It took a little while [to feel good in camp] but it’s getting to the point where I’m feeling pretty good.”

Saturday night’s power play tally was a solid reminder of the dynamic, unpredictable presence that Hunwick can bring to the B’s defenseman corps when he’s playing with confidence and surety. It’s a look that’s pretty varied from the skill sets employed by the other members of Boston’s defensemen crew. Hunwick employs a loose, freelance style on the offensive end when it’s permissible, and picks crucial spots to pinch in from his spot near the blue line.

It’s exactly how the young defenseman converged on his power-play strike. Marco Sturm spotted Hunwick moving in toward the backdoor from his left point position, and the young defenseman didn’t miss his mark when Sturm zipped it on his tape at the far post. Perfect executive. Perfect offensive aggression. Pretty damned close to a perfect power play possession.

There was a legitimate, built-in excuse for Hunwick, of course, when he progressed a bit slowly in the preseason while coming off the splenectomy surgery. The blueliner endured a busy offseason that was probably a bit more jumbled than even he might have liked. Hunwick spent the first half of his summer gaining weight and muscle back after losing more than 10 pounds following his emergency surgery, and then spent several weeks waiting for a new contract with the Bruins.

It all worked out as Hunwick regained full health and was back near his playing weight by the time September arrived, and he worked out an amicable agreement with the Bruins for a two-year, $2.9 million contract. The deal served as a healthy pay raise for a defenseman that finished tied for top scorer among rookie defenseman in the NHL last season, but it also had its price. The shiny new contract perhaps raised expectations for Hunwick within a team that’s already living in a world of raised expectations this season, and the results have been a slow process. 

“Practicing with his teammates certainly helped, and he’s just got to keep going about regaining that confidence,” said Julien of Hunwick. “With some guys they’re out there looking to justify their new contracts and other guys are going into their contract years. There are a bunch of different situations, but the bottom line is that you need to go out there and play.

“What you do as coaches is bringing them back and letting them know that you shouldn’t do more because you’re looking for a new contract. And you shouldn’t be putting more pressure on yourself because you’ve got a new contract, and think you should be helping the team more. You go out there, and you’re either rewarded or you will be rewarded for your play. Sometimes less is more. You’ve heard me say that quite a bit. With [Hunwick] he wants to show that he’s a big part of our hockey club, and all he has to do is play the way he did last year. For me, he was as good a defenseman as we had for a while there last year.  

Julien recognized a player in Hunwick that was perhaps trying a little too hard to justify the extra zeroes in his bank account, but the young defenseman wasn’t any kind of lost cause. He was instead quick to say that it’s only a matter of time before Hunwick settled back into his second-half game, and his first goal of the season and 17:16 worth of ice time were both encouraging starting points.

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