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Notes from a Wilmington frozen sheet 10.22.08 at 10:59 am ET
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A few notes from practice this morning:

–Swedish winger and the longest-tenured Bruin P.J. Axelsson skated at practice this morning, and related afterward that he felt good. Axie has missed three games with unspecified muscle spasms, but it’s hoped he’ll be ready to go against the Maple Leafs in a big divisional “four-pointer” Thursday night.

“I felt good. We’ll see how it reacts and how I feel tomorrow morning,” said Axelsson following practice. “It’s not nice [to miss games], but at least I’m making progress.”

–B’s goaltender Tim Thomas said his wife told him this morning [quick Haggs' aside: you've got to love the

 ultimate hockey family where the wife is telling her NHL player/husband what's going on between the pipes around the league] about the Toronto Maple Leafs switcheroo in net on Wednesday night during their overtime shootout. For those that weren’t in the know or didn’t happen to be in the booming Metropolis of Toronto last night, coach Ron Wilson lifted Vesa Toskala after the overtime, and instead placed 41-year-old veteran Curtis Joseph between the pipes solely for the shootout.

Thomas said he had heard of similar moves before in the AHL and Claude Julien thought that Edmonton turned the trick last season with Mathieu Garon and former UMass-Lowell netminder Dwayne Roloson. Thomas admitted that it might make sense in some instances. One of the biggest questions Thomas had was, who gets the loss when that happens?

Logic would dictate it would be CuJo after losing to the Team Formerly Known as the Mighty Ducks in the shootout, and this time logic wins. Toskala gets zeroes across the board after allowing two goals through the first 65 minutes of hockey, and Joseph gets an OT loss after hopping onto the ice cold turkey for the shootout session. The Leafs are coming to Boston on Thursday, so perhaps the B’s will get to see this for themselves tomorrow night.

“I’ve heard people talk about doing it when the shootout first started. Does CuJo get the overtime loss, and then Toskala gets a no-decision? CuJo must have known beforehand and been loosening, so he’d be ready to go  in for the shootout. You’ve got to loosen up your muscles, and I think you’re not worried too much about the mental part of it. Especially at CuJo’s age. You’re worried about making sure your body doesn’t pull a muscle.

“Being a goalie in that situation would be kind of weird. I don’t think it would be too much pressure because they’re putting you in there because they think they’re going to lose to the other guys anyway in the shootout. Know what I mean. It’s an easy opportunity to be a hero. In a way it’s kind of relief if you’ve played well in net [like Toskala] and it’s a 2-2 games when you come out.”

Patrice Bergeron was among several Bruins that addressed the B’s alarming 0-3 record in shootouts thus far in the young season — a campaign in which they seemed as if they had a pretty good chance to improve on last season’s 6-7 record in OT shootouts. Bergeron admitted that it might be time to mix things up a little bit among Boston shooters — Bergeron himself has gone to the five-hole tuck move several times already in the young season — but also felt that the Black and Gold had the makings of a good shootout team. Also credit Julien for bumping David Krejci into the top three shooters, as the 22-year-old scored in the final round of the top three to extend the shootout two more rounds in last night’s eventual loss. It was a crafty little quick shot that Ryan Miller clearly wasn’t ready for as he slowly made his way down the slot.

“Things haven’t worked out for us [in the shootout] the way we would like them to. You’ve got to keep working at it,” said Bergeron. “We’ve won some games in shootouts and we have a lot of talent up front, and the back side can do a lot of things out there too.

“Because we didn’t so well in three games doesn’t mean that we can’t start getting good results. Yes, I am trying to create some new moves and sometimes it takes a while to get them ready for the shootout. I think practicing it is one thing out on the ice, and then bringing it into the games is something that’s a little different. You just have to go out there and take whatever the goalie is giving you.”

After all this shootout talk, it’s clearly time to include the best shootout goal of all-time. This one comes courtesy of former Boston College winger Ryan Shannon, who perfected the spin-o-rama move with the Vancouver Canucks last season and used it to help win a game for them against the Chicago Blackhawks. The best part was the shove in the back from the Bullin Wall that he got after scoring the goal. Shannon is toiling with the Binghamton Senators in the AHL right now, so maybe it’s time to make a move and bring the shootout specialist back to the Hub for specialist duty. You can never have enough spin-o-ramas. Enjoy the video and let me know what your favorite shootout move/goal is.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Curtis Joseph, P.J. Axelsson
Hockey Notes: Good things from Kessel 10.18.08 at 9:38 am ET
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It might be time to stop haphazardly tossing Phil Kessel’s name aroun whenever the NHL trade winds start blowing in Boston this winter.

The 21-year-old puck prodigy has a pair of goals in the first three games this season and has clearly shown a willingness to start paying a higher price to score points and make things happen for the team. The 6-foot, 192-pound Kessel has always been blessed with a ridiculously fast release and it still looks somebody hit the turbo button on a Nintendo controller whenever the winger gets his legs churning and gains some speed. The difference this season is that he’s also starting to flash a little grit and tenacity in his hockey tool box.

Kessel’s #1 responsibility should be putting points on the table and lighting up the red lamp like it’s Main Street in Amsterdam, but the willingness to “take a hit and make a play” is something that the Bruins organization has been waiting to see. Bruins coach Claude Julien sees a player that’s simply growing up before his eyes and mixing the strength, speed and skill package necessary to be an effective, responsible player in his system — a maturation that some unfairly expected to see when he was still a teen-ager but is happening on its own schedule. Something that is just fine with the B’s.

“With time and experience, he just keeps getting better,” said Juien, who really seems to be the perfect coach for a young hockey club that’s both reaping explosive bursts of hockey skill and enduring necessary growing pains during an 82-game hockey schedule. “That’s why you have to be patient sometimes with young athletes. You don’t want to turn the page or overreact. I think that’s paying dividends right now in Phil’s case.”

Kessel is certainly someone that holds a lot of value around the NHL world given his “can’t be taught” physical skills and precocious age, but the gist of Julien’s words isn’t lost. The Bruins had ample chances to deal Kessel last season if they deemed that the youngster wasn’t a good fit with their team philosophies, but it’s always a risky roll of the dice with somebody young enough to change their habits and raise their potential ceiling as a player.

Was the benching last season in Boston’s first round battle against the Canadiens something that finally got Kessel’s attention and brought about the change? Was it simply the maturation of a young guy that started playing men’s pro hockey as 19-year-old and faced off cancer in his rookie season along with everything else?

Kessel’s not telling, but it’s clear that he’s beginning to “get it”, as Bill Parcells is wont to say: “I worked hard this summer and I want to do well this year. It’s all about helping this team win games and get better. I don’t think I learned anything from sitting down in the playoffs. It was a decision that the coach made. Playing in the playoffs just makes you want to get back there again.”

Kessel went from 11 goals and 29 points in his rookie season — along with a tough -12 to set the numbers to sobering reality — but improved to 19 goals, 37 points and a -6 last season in Julien’s defensive-minded system. With time and confidence on his side, is a 30 goal, 50 points season a possibility after watching Kessel weave through defenses in the early going and mystify goalies with his snapping wrist shot? It would be a big step forward, but it’s a step that the Bruins are hoping to see become reality as Kessel keeps learning to harness his considerable talents.

“When Boston was here [in Minnesota] I was talking to [Peter] Chiarelli in the stands because they practice [at the University of Minnesota] before they play the Wild,” said Golden Gophers head coach Don Lucia, who coached both Blake Wheeler and Kessel during their collegiate hockey careers. “We were talking about how [Phil] has matured and gotten better. People forget that he just turned 21 years old, that Phil is really just still a pup. He’s going to keep getting better. He’s an outstanding player now, and he’s going to be even better three or four years from now.”

Scouting report on Lukacevic

I’ve heard a lot of questions over the last week about the minor league player involved in the Andrew Alberts trade with the Philadelphia Flyers: Ned Lukacevic. The 22-year-old winger was packaged with a conditional draft pick to the Bruins for the brawny Bruins blueliner to clear off some room under the salary cap, and Lukacevic promptly reported to the Providence Bruins.

Lukacevic has bounced between the ECHL and AHL levels over the last two seasons and potted 36 points for the ECHL’s Reading Royals last season before getting dealt to the Flyers in the Dennis Gauthier trade over the summer. Here’s a scouting report on Lukacevic from an NHL talent evaluator that’s watched the 6-foot, 200-pound winger several times over the last few years: “His best asset is his skating. He’s a great skater with a lot of speed. He really needs to work on his grit and paying the price going to the net. Sometimes he would do it and other times he wouldn’t. He needs more consistency in that area.”

Tough Break to Break Out

Prior to the start of the season, veteran Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward credited Rod Brind’Amour with really helping light his competitive fire while sharing a rigorous off-season workout schedule with Rod the Bod. So it must have been truly disappointing for Ward to hear that Brind’Amour needed arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in September after reconstruction surgery for a torn ACL wiped out the final six weeks of the season for the Carolina sparkplug.

The Heart and Soul is back with the ‘Canes following the second surgery that wiped out much of his training camp, however, and has a pair of goals and an assist in four games with Carolina after playing only one preseason game. The 38-year-old is obviously back in a big way with Carolina, but he also deserves an assist for providing a little spark and inspiration to help get Ward’s 35-year-old skating legs churning again this summer.

“I started skating in June with Rod Brind’Amour and he’s the kind of guy that’s just piss and vinegar. That’s just the type of guy that he is and he just lives for hockey. So he got out there in April and I got out there in June and started skating with him. It’s weird,” said Ward, who played in his 700th NHL game against the Canadienslast Wednesday. “I never had a mental need to play hockey, but Game 6 of last season also really helped propel me back out there [to skate with Rod.]

“I don’t know if it was anxiety or just excitement that got me out there skating again [so early.] But as an older guy that’s a good sign. Because when you start feeling like it’s tough to get the pads on, and I’ve gone through that before, that’s not good. It was rough when I was in New York and I came here in the second half. It was tough to get that mental switch going where you wanted to be out on the ice, but last year I wasn’t ready for [the season] to be done. That’s a good sign.”

 

Read More: Aaron Ward, Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes
Sobotka, Hunwick pumped to be back 10.14.08 at 11:24 am ET
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As expected, Matt Hunwick and Vladimir Sobotka were both appropriately happy to be called back up to the

Bruins Tuesday afternoon after a trade (Andrew Alberts) and an injury (Chuck Kobasew) cleared up a pair of spots on the active roster.

Sobotka was a monster down in Providence in his two games for the P-Bruins (four points and his first professional dropping of the gloves) and Hunwick said somebody told him it was like “watching a man among boys” while Sobotka was tearing up the ice at the AHL level. Hunwick is the potential quick-skating, puck-moving defenseman that is vital in this day and age of the NHL, and should be competing with veteran Shane Hnidy for minutes. Sobotka is a “gritty, in-your-face player” who “plays like he’s six foot plus” no matter size he really is according to head coach Claude Julien. The coach said that both players can expect to see ice time in the near future, if not immediately. The long on-ice practice seemed to indicated that at least one (Sobotka) — if not both — will be active Wednesday night against the first grudge match of the season at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

“When you look at Matt Hunwick everybody notices that he’s got good mobility and he’s a great skater. He’s gotten stronger over the year since the beginning of last year and his decisions on the ice have to be a little quicker — let’s put it way – in order for him to improve the way that we want him to,” said Julien after Tuesday’s practice. “He’s still doing a good job at it, and when you look at players improving, it’s something that if he can get better at it he’s going to be a really good defenseman in the this league.

“With Vlad we talked about the numbers game and he had to go down there for a while when we had to cut our roster down, but he’s a gritty player,” added Julien. “He’s in your face. No matter what size he is, he plays six-foot plus every single night. He works hard, plays gritty and that’s part of our team identity. I haven’t made my final decision for tomorrow [night's line-up], but we didn’t bring them up here to put them on the shelf. If it’s not tomorrow then it’s some point [soon].”

Also for all those wondering, Sobotka did drive his nice, new BMW 3 Series up to Boston after learning of his call-up. The 21-year-old Czech was summarily excited to be back up with the B’s big club, and he would have likely never left the club if not for the numbers/salary cap tightness that was a part of the equation.

“They send me down and they told me I’d be back after a short period. I’m going to play NHL and try to stay here for whole season. I had maybe more ice time in Providence,” said Sobotka, who scored a goal and six assists in 48 games last year. “I play PP, PK and it’s good for now that it’s changed and I’ll be on fourth line and maybe have less ice time. I’ll just play one game at a time up here.”

Hunwick had just finished eating lunch with his parents at the Cheesecake Factory and was book-shopping at a bookstore on Newbury Street when he heard the good news about getting called back up to Boston on Monday. The 23-year-old blueliner has 12 career NHL games under his belt — and one lonely assist – so he bolted quickly from the bookstore without buying the latest John Grisham novel  and didn’t waste any time getting his gear ready to bring back to Boston.

“It’s an opportunity to prove I can play at this level and also help the team win,” said Hunwick. “I was playing 20 minutes a night in Providence and killing penalties and getting power play team. I got some key minutes in those areas in case I’m ever needed on those units up here. I had my phone off and it was kind of a day off so I could get away from things. But then I turned it on and had a few text messages from friends that gave me a clue this was happening, so here I am today.”

Read More: Add new tag, Andrew Alberts, Boston Bruins, Chuck Kobasew
Ready to drop the puck! 10.09.08 at 5:38 am ET
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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.

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

 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!

Read More: Andrew Alberts, Boston Bruins, Cam Neely, Claude Julien
A few minutes with the Captain 09.27.08 at 11:10 am ET
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 Towering Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara held a State of the Chara Address with the media following Saturday’s morning skate, and talked about — among other things — the status of his surgically repaired left shoulder and his impending return to the lineup. Chara hopes to play in one of the remaining four preseason games on Boston’s schedule.

Chara is aiming to be back on the ice when the Bruins open the season in Colorado on Oct. 9, but only time will tell with Big Z. Here’s a few of the 6-foot-9 blueliner’s thoughts from this morning:

How are things shaping up for you in camp and how is your shoulder feeling? ZC:I’m feeling better. Every day is better. We’re making progress and it looks good right now. Obviously today was not a good day, but if I’m not keeping up the pace that I’m at right now things should be pretty good. I’m not putting any timelines, but it’s getting better every day.

Where do you see the most progress? ZC: In the strengthening. That’s one thing where you see the most because you are working most of the time to get the range of motion back, and once you get that then you have to make sure you’re getting your strength back. Obviously the timing on the ice, you can’t really jump one right in front of the other and you have to follow the steps of the rehab. Obviously it doesn’t make sense to lift the weights before you have the range of motion, so slowly it’s getting better.

Do you see yourself getting into a game before the preseason starts? ZC: That’s what I’m shooting for. I really want to play before the regular season and we’re going to have to make that decision when it comes to that time. I can’t really make decisions or promises right now, but I would like to get at least one game in.

What does one game do for you? ZC: Obviously it’s not much, but it’s better than none of the games. You’d like to get a little bit of that camp tempo and timing, and being around the guys and trying different situations. Obviously getting to the system that we’ll be playing. It doesn’t do a whole lot, but it’s better than nothing. It’s timing. Having the puck in a game-speed and tempo and reacting with split-second decisions that you don’t have on the ice when you’re practicing.

It must help to already know the system, though? ZC:Yeah, but still if you’re not playing in hockey games for a long period of time then you need some time in games to feel it and everybody kind of feel comfortable with each other when you’re playing.

Coach Julien said that last year was really about learning the system and this year might be more about the D joining the rush and stepping up in certain places. ZC:Yeah, you can see that the hockey is improving so much that you’re always trying to add another aspect to your system. I think that one of the things that we need to add or improve is to have defenseman more involved in supporting the attack while at the same time being in a good position defensively. But you’re right in that last year we were kind of buying into the system and now everyone should know where we’re playing last year and tweak a little bit here and there while we’re getting used to each other. That’s what training camp is here for: to build on what we were doing last year and then follow that step.

If you don’t play in any preseason games would that preclude you from playing in that first game against Colorado? ZC: I’m not going that far ahead. Like I said I want to play and we’ll see.

Claude [Julien] and Peter [Chiarelli] both said that you had tried to do too much in your first year here, so you go into your second year trying to do a little less and you have great success. Do you guy into this year thinking that you’re going to build off that? ZC: You can’t really push and put pressure on yourself that you need to do more or prove something else, you just have to be on the ice and play well defensively, play hard and be hard to play against, be physical and be involved in the game and really react on the ice. You really need to just follow your instincts and really can’t think too much about other things. You just really just to have to go out the ice, play, enjoy it and react to things that are happening.

Difficult for you to watch instead of playing, even if it’s just preseason? ZC:Well, yeah. You want to play and it’s preperation for the season. It’s always frustrating when you’re not with the guys in the locker room right before the game and you’re not on the ice. You would like to play and it’s a little harder…but I also know that it’s not the most important time of the year. It’s just the preseason and the regular season is when things start to count.

Michael Ryder said that part of the attraction of him coming here was that he wouldn’t have you clobbering him six or eight times a year. Did he say anything to you about that? ZC: No, but it’s part of my game obviously to be physical and be involved and effective on the season. I was glad when Michael came to our team. I think there is a lot of potential and he is a great goal-scorer. I’m sure

he’s going to be working hard and he’s going to be a great addition to our team. We need a player like that, and I’m sure Claude knows him as well as anybody after having him in juniors and in Montreal. He knows him really well and knows what he’s capable of.

When you look at guys coming down like him coming down, or anybody, what’s more difficult for you: a guy with size and strength or a guy with speed and shiftiness? ZC: It’s hard to pick. You can’t underestimate anybody. You know with a smaller guy that he could be shifty, but you also know that a bigger guy can make a move too. The game has improved so much that even bigger guys can make moves and be really skilled. Michael, I think his strength is really when he’s in the high slot because he’s got a quick release. He’s been really effective in that area on top of the circles and in the slot, and he can find openings and put the puck in the net.

Read More: Claude Julien, Michael Ryder, Peter Chiarelli, Zdeno Chara
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