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Yelle getting comfortable in the East 12.04.08 at 10:52 am ET
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Stephane Yelle drops the veteran's elbow on an unsuspecting Maple Leaf whippersnapper...

Stephane Yelle drops the veteran's elbow on an unsuspecting Maple Leaf whippersnapper...

It would have been pretty easy to assume Father Time had simply come calling a bit prematurely for veteran center Stephane Yelle when the thirtysomething pivot was slow-moving out of the gate this season. The 34-year-old seemed to be having trouble getting into the flow of the game and the faceoff specialist — targeted by the Black and Gold in the offseason for his ability to win draws along the dot and specialize in the little things needed to kill penalties – was uncharacteristically struggling in the faceoff circle while hovering around a 40 percent success rate.

Looking back in hindsight, it’s probably understandable that there was a healthy period of adjustment for Yelle, who has always been a Western Conference denizen and carries around hockey skill set that doesn’t exactly jump out and grab the unsuspecting fan.

In many ways Yelle is similar to P.J. Axelsson in his ability to go long periods of ice time doing all the little things without screaming out for attention with a teeth-chattering body check or a one-man dangle-fest through a host of defenders before scoring. Off the ice, he’s similarly quiet and reserved while also holding the respect of younger players that probably spent an ample amount of time playing Yelle in Sega Genesis or Playstation video game hockey. 

The 34-year-old simply had to make an adjustment to the Eastern Conference-style and tinker with his hockey dial to something with a great deal more aggressive physicality and dump-and-chase puck philosophy, and that adjustment seems to now be complete. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder was scoreless through his first seven games and sat at a -2 through that time period, but things finally started to slow down for the seasoned vet just as the Bruins team caught fire. 

 Yelle is back up to winning 49.7 percent of his faceoffs, and has quickly learned the habits and tricks of the trade employed by his new Eastern Conference draw adversaries. Opposing centers basked in the element of surprise during Yelle’s first time around the division, but the Old Rebel Yelle Dog has caught on to the new tricks.

“Yeah, there’s definitely always a transition period to a new team, but I feel like I’ve been around long enough to really be comfortable with the guys now,” said Yelle. “I’m comfortable with the systems and stuff. Usually you don’t want to get off to a bad start [with the faceoffs] because it’s a long climb up, but I’ve been working hard, doing different things and not being predictable. There are different little strategies you can implement to keep guys guessing.”

No. 1 fan of the Stephane "Rebel" Yelle Fan Club...and also a big fan of dancing with himself

No. 1 member of the Stephane "Rebel" Yelle Fan Club...and also a big fan of dancing with himself

Yelle will switch things up on opponents that feel like they’ve got Yelle pegged. The former Avalanche and Flames skater will take some draws with his backhand and go after others with his forehand – or just tie a guy up and attempt winning a one-on-one battle for the free puck — that all fits under the heading of the cat-and-mouse game played with the opposing centers that he’s customarily lining up with.

“Coming from the Western Conference, you play the same guys a lot and you don’t know the Eastern guys as much,” added Yelle. “You don’t know their tendencies and sometimes it becomes a guessing game. Now that I’ve played them a couple of times I’m getting an idea of what they intend to do, and hopefully it can help me out down the road.”

Yelle has 3 goals and 5 assists and sits at a +2 in his last 17 games and the Bruins coaching staff has taken note of him reaching his water level – even if his contributions aren’t easily pinpointed by a casual perusal of the postgame stat sheet. He’s on a pace for 10 goals and 17 assists this season, which would be perfectly acceptable numbers out of the middle man on the energy line.

“Our young guys have been getting better in the faceoff circle and Yelle really brings that experience when he gets in there,” said Julien. “We knew when we brought Stephane in here that he would have a veteran presence and a lot of experience along with his penalty kill and faceoff skills. He’s been a very good fit for this team.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Stephane Yelle,
Crushing the Canadiens 11.13.08 at 9:45 pm ET
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Bruins goaltender Manny Fernandez perhaps put it best after getting the start and earning the best seat in the house to watch his team trounce a shellshocked Canadiens outfit by a commanding 6-1 score last night. The Habs have owned the Black and Gold’s number over the last few years — and in particular last season when they demoralized the B’s by taking all eight regular season games from a plucky Bruins club.

Thursday’s Hab-stomping was the most lopsided win for the Bruins over their Montreal rivals since they dropped a 5-0 butt-kicking on the Habs on Dec. 20, 2001 — a time when guys like Bill Guerin, Rob Zamuner and Marty LaPointe still roamed the Boston ice wearing the Spoked B on their sweater. The white-hot B’s have also won an impressive five games in a row. 

“It seems like it’s a different page this year,” said Manny Fernandez, a riff on the “Turn the Page” philosophy that another pro athlete named Manny used to employ in the Hub. “From just watching last year in the playoffs we broke the ice there just a little bit. We showed each other we could actually win against that team. Today was huge for us. Any time you can back them off a little and make them think about…that’s big.”

“The next time we play them we’re going to show up twice as hard as we played tonight, but still a win [is huge] against that team knowing the history — especially last year when it was tough,” added Fernandez, who made 27 saves on the night, but was at his best early in the contest when tested on a two-shot rush by Robert Lang.

Bruins coach Claude Julien said he opted for Fernandez to give his potentially fatigued team — after they arrived back in Boston a few minutes before 3 AM Thursday morning — any edge they could possibly find against a rested Montreal Canadiens group. After the game, the B’s coach beamed at the prospect of having two goalies playing as well as both Fernandez and Tim Thomas both are between the pipes.

“We had an opportunity to put in a fresh goaltender tonight in case we got in the situation that we had some tired guys.  We had to give ourselves an edge somewhere.  We’re so lucky to have two goaltenders right now that are at the top of their game,” said Julien. “Right now it’s important for me to try and handle it in a way where both of them maintain that standard of goaltending. 

“They both deserve to play, but we all know goaltenders like to play as much as they can, and right now they’re both responding.  Not only that, I think they’re both very supportive of each other, and that’s something that’s important.”

The Last Shall Become First

The fourth line of Stephane Yelle, Shawn Thornton and Petteri Nokelainen had been lauded from here to Moncton over the first six weeks of the season for the energy and sandpaper-style they brought to the B’s fold, but the addition of a healthy Chuck Kobasew — and the subtraction of the hard-working Nokelainen – has admittedly brought some added offensive punch to the trio.

During Wednesday night’s 2-1 win over Chicago the “energy line” was kept off the ice for long stretches of a penalty-filled game and Kobasew (9:34), Yelle (13:43 largely due to his duties on the PK unit) and Shawn Thornton (3:32) all played short minutes. In a strange way the idle moments at the United Center might have helped the trio find their legs quickly last night against the hated Habs,and given them some jump that started up the B’s attack.

The fourth line grinders popped in the first two goals of the game and set the Black and Gold off and running in what became a Boston hockey celebration with 16,816 invites to the TD Banknorth Garden. The first was a great hustle play by the usually rough-and-tumble Thornton as he busted right through Mike Komisarek and Mathieu Dandenault, stole the puck from the half-hearted Canadiens duo and then rifled a five-hole backhand bid through the pads of Montreal wunderkind goalie Carey Price.

Yelle followed with a pure hustle goal and popped in a loose puck rebound in front of Price’s net with three minutes to go in the period, and all of a sudden a snake-bitten line was lugging both energy and points to the table. The fourth line outburst is all the more impressive as it — on most nights — gives Claude Julien and Co. four different lines that can strike offensively and clearly raises the team’s overall offensive potential this season. The Law Firm of Thornton, Yelle and Kobasew collected a whopping seven total points on the night.

“Did you see [Yelle] look me off on that 2-on-1…he’s lucky he scored right there I tell ya,” said a tongue in cheek Thornton after the game. “He’s looking awfully dangerous out there, and we’re getting along really well on and off the ice. Chucky too. He’s easy to play with because he’s always in the right spot and half the I don’t have to look because I just know he’s going to be there. He’s been a treat, and Chucky has been on the second line on just about every team that he’s played. He works so hard and he’s such a skilled guy. I think it’s been a while coming for us, and we’ve been working, working, and working and it finally paid off for us.” 

Hey I’m just a simple Irish guy living in the city of Boston,” said Thornton, who is in possession of more offensive skill than traditionally given credit for given his usual role as Bruins’ enforcer. “I think the fact that all 20 guys are going hard and we didn’t have any passengers tonight — and we haven’t had any in a while — and that’s the way we have to be successful.”

The Looch finds his first victim

Bruins left wing Milan Lucic was again an emotional and physical catalyst for the Bruins, and gave everyone another Neely-esque taste of the tone-setting, skilled hockey player he continues to develop into. Looch may not be Cam redux, but he’s as close as the Bruins Nation could possibly hope for in the sanitized era of the NHL.

 Canadiens captain Saku Koivu finally put the Habs on the scoreboard with 6:26 to go in the second period and took back a bit of momentum, but the Looch seized it right back in the third.

During a 5-on-5 faceoff in the Canadiens zone, Phil Kessel popped a faceoff draw directly onto the stick of charging Lucic gone mad, and the brawling 20-year-old drilled a wrist shot past an unsuspecting Price to make it a 5-1 hockey game. The score marked his fifth goal of the season, and later in the period — with the game well in hand — Lucic finally dropped the gloves with longtime nemesis Mike Komisarek. It had been a long time coming for both combatants as they’ve doled out plenty of face-washes and tough talk to each other in the recent past, but the two had never actually engaged in “The Dance.”

Komisarek is probably still wishing that he hadn’t.

The Looch went Berserker-style on the Habs defenseman and hit him with a series of vicious rights before one final roundhouse punch dropped Komisarek to the ground, and a victorious Lucic raised his hand and started excitedly screaming to anyone and everyone in attendance. He then stopped and smacked on the boards by the penalty box before entering the sin bin, and then left midway through to get a bevy of cuts on his right knuckles treated before returning to the game.

“We could have made excuses coming into tonight’s game after coming in late last night, but we felt like we had a good jump to our step,” said Lucic. “We knew the importance of tonight’s game. It felt like before the game we were more calm and cool and we weren’t overexcited like we’ve been sometimes in the past.”

And as far as his first bout of the 2008-09 season?

“We’ve had our battles in the past, and it was just a matter of time before something like that happened,” added Lucic. “First off the fans have been great for the first part of the season, and they’ve really helped us be a tougher team to play against in the Garden. [The fans] appreciating that physical play is just guys from the past that created that identity of the Bruins. It’s lucky for me that I just fit into that.”

Stops and Starts

Defenseman Andrew Ference has arguably been Boston’s best blueliner this season for the first 15 games, but he went down at the end of the second period when he took an Andre Markov shot off the foot. Ference gamely stayed on the ice to help kill of a Canadiens power play after dragging himself from the ice in obvious pain, but he didn’t return for the third period.

Bruins coach Claude Julien was tight-lipped about Ference’s status following the game.

“He’s fine.  He’s being evaluated,” said Julien.  Honestly, we’ll probably have a little more on his situation tomorrow.  Nothing’s clear right now and hopefully it’s just something minor.”

Lucic had a priceless response after he informed reporters that he’d had a negative X-ray on his right hand to make sure it wasn’t broken after he used Mike Komisarek as a punching bag.

 “There’s so many broken bones in there from before that you can’t really tell,” said Lucic of his oft-battered right hand.

Read More: Andrew Ference, Bill Guerin, Boston Bruins, Chuck Kobasew
Ward’s interview with Dale and Holley 11.12.08 at 3:38 pm ET
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"Z and I in a sequel to My Giant. What do you think?"

"Z and I in a sequel to My Giant. What do you think?"

Hey, all you hockey pucks as my old middle school math teacher [and Hall of Fame High School hockey coach] Mr. Burns used to call us…Here’s the full transcript from the Aaron Ward interview during this afternoon’s Dale and Holley Program on WEEI. As usual, Ward seems to be polishing up his oratory skills for a long and lucrative post-career run in hockey broadcasting that seems to be his destiny once the 34-year-old hangs ‘em up.

I think there’s one line in the conversation that was classic “Aaron Ward” and it’s something that he managed to slip right in there without the need for anybody to stop and take notice. Just a really quick dry delivery of a throw-away line that used Claude Julien’s follicles as the unwitting foil for Ward’s rapier wit.

See if you can find it in among the Q and A, and then wonder if Julien plans on recreating the Herb Brooks scene from Miracle with the mischevous Ward during the next B’s practice. Here’s one of my favorite scenes in a sports movie followed by the Ward interview:

 

I was going to thank you anyway, but we got an email that said: “Guys, from a military family please thank Aaron Ward for his donation to veterans during Saturday night’s game. I went with my veteran brother and it was a special night. The Bruins and Aaron Ward did a great job.” You put your money where your mouth is and a lot of people appreciate it. AW: Oh, thank you very much. I make the US my home in the summers and just through my experiences with my wife – and I said it in the papers the other day – I think the most underpaid and underappreciated jobs in this world are the teachers and the military. Any time I can help I am glad to do it.

Where did you get the idea to do it? If there’s a story behind the story please tell us what it is. AW: Well, it’s a two-pronged story. Over the summer I thought about doing something like this, especially after signing the contract. I think you waste an opportunity as an athlete if you don’t have some kind of effect on the community. I think that was one of the things that was instilled in us at the University of Michigan and when I signed my contract I contacted [Bruins Media Relations Director] Matt Chmura about wanting to do something. 

Whether it was a a suite and we bring in an active duty military family for each game or recognizing them because it’s for their family as well. When we go on the road for six days my kids are miserable, so I can’t even imagine being deployed for a whole year. And the effect it has on your family and the struggle it puts your family in. I was in Vancouver on the last road trip and I had seen a CNN piece on the deployment of an infantry unit from Taunton, Mass. There was a little boy during the drills when they stand up – and they’re obviously getting ready to go — and a little boy held onto his dad’s leg for an hour straight and they just kind of let it happen even though it was outside of normal military standards.

So I called Matt right after that and said that we’ve got to do something, and ironically enough he said it was military night [last] Saturday. It’s only money. That’s the funny thing you come away with at the end of it is that it’s only money. But it obviously had an effect and gave some people an opportunity to put their interests and their problems aside and give them a good hockey game.

This team is a point behind first place. What have the keys to your success been so far? AW:I think unity. We got off on a road trip in Colorado and played all right in Colorado and not great in Minnesota. Even though we’re a pretty young team I think we figured out early that we had to right the ship. And we played pretty cohesive. It’s one of the things you figure out right now is that when things are going well — and you start to be analytical about the state of your team – one of the things that’s occurred is that winning has just happened. 

It’s just one of those things where you go into games where you’re thinking about what they’re going to do or you’re hoping for two points. You go in, you play the game and inevitably the results end up working out in your favor. That’s the kind of state that we’re in right now. We’re a good team. We know we’re very good. It’s not going to be perfect every night, but the fact that you overcome some of the hiccups and maintain some consistency…then things start working out in your favor.

In talking about the Bruins before the season started, I thought one of the big things is that there wouldn’t be a lot of talk about learning the system or figuring each other out. You went through it last year. Has that been a bonus this year? AW:Yeah, I think we only had a couple of guys that we had to assimilate into the system this year. Stephane Yelle, who is obviously a veteran player and a smart player that can pick it up. But it becomes second nature and when you’re all playing on the same page it’s very obvious.

You talked a little bit about the rebirth of Chicago. We watched some video and it seems like the same thing is happening with them where they’re all on the same page whether it’s line one or line four. They’re all contributing and all playing the same system. It’s easy to plug guys in and pull guys out. I’m sure it causes coaches to lose their hair when they have to keep reminding and going back to fix things. Maybe that might explain Claude’s hairline right now [because of] his past teams, but hopefully we can help him right now.

One of the things that has stuck out to me has been that the defense has been more involved this season. Is that just circumstance or has Claude loosened the reigns a little bit with the defenseman? AW:I don’t think he’s loosened the reigns, but he’s basically mandated that the defenseman have to get up in the play. So it’s a two-pronged philosophy there. You’re going to add to the offense or you’re going to cut down on the gaps between their forwards which is going to make it more of a pressure situation where you don’t give those players all that time and all room to maneuver and be creative. When you take time away from good players then it adds time for you affect the overall game.

You talked about jumping in offensively, but one of the things that I think has happened is that we’ve maintained our patience defensively and it opens up opportunities. You see [Dennis] Wideman going out and getting on the scoreboard, and we’re getting more contributions from out defenseman because we’re taking care of our responsibilities and everything is just flowing.

I know pro hockey players don’t like to talk about moral victories, but what did the loss to Montreal in the playoffs do for your team — if anything? AW:I think it quickly matured our team. You can’t discount the fact that we even had some veteran guys that have never gone through the playoffs. When you go through a pressure situation — especially if you through a series that’s gone seven games — you realize you can get a perspective on things where during the regular season there really isn’t all that much in terms of pressure.

You go out and play the games because you have the skill and you’re there for a reason, but you don’t think so much about the game and you don’t put too much into it. To get a guy like Looch, Kessel and Krejci and you get a chance to see what it’s like to be in the NHL playoffs…I think it’s priceless. So I think we’ve added that into our game where we can find a level of emotion or excitement and it’s self generated. We don’t feel as though we have to go around the rink and look in the stands, but hopefully derive some sort of motivation from that.

The NHL has become such a special teams league — maybe too much of a special teams league in my opinion — and the power play has been pretty good, but the penalty kill has been nowhere near good enough. What has to change there? AW: Well actually if you look at the stats — and unfortunately we can’t do this and it’s not available to us — but if we could forget the first two to three weeks of our penalty kill and you could just look at what we’re doing now, there’s been a philosophical change in our penalty kill.

We had played so tight on the penalty kill, and it was positionally sound but it just wasn’t working for us. So we made a philosophical change that the moment there’s a hiccup, or a turnover or a bobbling of the puck and one guy goes, then the other three guys go. So we are now providing more pressure and I think you can see our penalty kill starting to climb. I’d like to say that it’s obviously not good enough because I think the last time I looked we were 26th in the league, but we had been 30th. So you’ve got to look at the progress and hope the philosophical change has righted the ship at this point.

With the new rules in hockey you heard a lot about the rules making it hard to compete for defenseman, but you never hear about it anymore. Is it that the defenseman are tired of talking about it, or it that you’ve just adjusted to it? AW:I think it’s both. We’ve both evolved and adapted and it’s a war of attrition where those that haven’t kept up have fallen by the wayside. The defenseman we’re talking about were not really mobile and were usually filling the role of a tough guy position, and now it’s opened up to a skill position.

There is still that element of fear where as a defensman you could have a guy like Looch on your back and you saw it against Buffalo in the last game where [Tony] Lydman — rather than dealing with maybe a separated shoulder or a concussion from a hit he was going to throw — he just opted to go to the front of the net. Now I wouldn’t advise that for a defenseman from a morale standpoint on your team, but you see that players are adapting and figuring it out. And rule changes have also helped. On the touch icing there’s a penalty now if you’re going in without responsibility and trying to kill a defenseman because you know he’s going to be vulnerable going for the puck.

The game has evolved and the players have evolved and adapted sufficiently to make the game a better game.

You alluded earlier to fan support and what it means. When the stands are full at the Garden and the place is jumping, what does it mean for you guys? AW: You go back to the word priceless. We used to joke in the first two years when I got here that the fans dressed up as stadium seats because there were so many empties. But when you walk out for the first period and the National Anthem and you see it full, it’s an intimidating force. I know as an opponent when I go into other buildings — and I’ll use the example of Montreal — they’re irate. The fans are crazy and they get into the game and get behind their team 100 percent and it just provides an added boost.

In Boston as an athlete — and you want to talk about egos — it’s not that you want to matter as an athlete but you want your team matter. You want your team to matter to the city. It’s a big boost to know that when you get there that people are talking about you, people are there to support you and people are behind you 100 percent.

Read More: Aaron Ward, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Dale Arnold
Some Saturday postgame thoughts 09.27.08 at 5:31 pm ET
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A few hockey thoughts after watching the Bruins fall by a 4-3 score to the Washington Capitals in their first home game of the hockey exhibition season:

*Blake Wheeler is the real hockey deal and there doesn’t seem to be any way to keep the 22-year-old

Could Wheeler be this preseason's Milan Lucic?

Could Wheeler be this preseason's Milan Lucic?

Minnesota native off the B’s roster this season. The 6-foot-5, 208-pound beast showed tenacity and an instinctual nose for the puck in the areas around the paint, and also flashed a very good set of hands while faking out defenders and popping in his first goal of the preseason. The best part of the goal was watching Caps defenseman Karl Alzner hanging off the mighty forward like a piece of carry-on luggage as he banged home the rebound.  Wheeler and Bergeron displayed pretty good early chemistry in their very first game skating together, and the rookie is quickly becoming the rising star of this camp. A fellow hockey hack thought he saw a little Tomas Holmstrom in him, but when I look at him and watch him play…I must admit I see a lot of Mike Knuble, possibly my favorite Bruins player during my time covering the team. “It doesn’t seem like he’s young,” said Bergeron after the game. “He seems like a veteran out there. I’m very impressed with the way he’s playing.”

*Veteran pick-up Stephane Yelle showed many of the “little hockey skills” that he’ll be offering the Bruins this season, provided he makes the final roster. Yelle screened Jose Theodore on Boston’s first goal of the game — an Andrew Ference strike from the point, won 8 out of his 12 faceoffs after starting out with five straight wins in the circle, and set up a bevy of prime scoring chances down the stretch. Saturday afternoon was a big game for the 34-year-old and the Yelle/Sobotka/Nokelainen line began taking on the makings of a formidable energy line over the course of the season.

Umm dad...you never said anything about the minors.

Umm dad...you never said anything about the minors.

*You can’t take the Boston out of the Boy with Chris Bourque. In his last game at the TD Banknorth Garden he won a Beanpot Championship for BU with an OT goal during his one-and-only season in the Scarlet and White, and he did it again on Saturday afternoon with a forceful wrist shot from the high slot with less than three minutes to play. It was a proud moment for the 22-year-old with daddy Ray in the crowd of 13,000 plus (not sure how many were actually disguised as yellow seats, but such is life). “It’s kind of like going back to the glory days. It doesn’t even seem real right now,” said Bourque. “This is basically where I learned how to skate, here and in the other building. This is my first game in Boston being in the NHL. It’s just a little weird, but it’s pretty exciting.”

 Bourque had a tiny cup of coffee with the Capitals last season, but is pushing to stick with Washington in his pivotal fourth pro season. “I view it as a big year. I feel that I am ready for the next step. That’s what I’m trying to prove right now in training camp,” said the younger Bourque.

The Bruins will now take off for Vermont for three days of practice and team-building exercises in Stowe, but I’ll be hoping to keep you busy with some bloggerific stuff over the next few days. Have a good Saturday night and we’ll check in tomorrow while I’m double-dipping at Fenway Park.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Chris Bourque, Mike Knuble, Patrice Bergeron
A championship signing… 09.03.08 at 2:51 pm ET
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With the opening of training camp coming up in two weeks, the Boston Bruins added some veteran firepower on Wednesday, with the hope of also tapping into some Stanley Cup championship karma.

General manager Peter Chiarelli announced the signing of center Stephane Yelle to a contract. Terms of the deal were not released.

The following, however, was by the team…

A 12-year veteran of 844 regular season games and 154 postseason contests, Yelle comes to the Bruins having won two Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche in 1996 and 2001.

Yelle won two Cups with Avs.

Yelle won two Cups with Avs.

Yelle made his NHL debut during the 1995-1996 season with Colorado and played in all 22 of the Avalanche’s playoff games during their Stanley Cup title run. During his rookie year in 95-96, Yelle tallied a career best 13 goals and 14 assists in the regular season and added one goal and four assists in the playoffs. When the Avs captured the Cup a second time in 2000-2001, Yelle again appeared in every playoff game (23) and registered a goal and two assists in the postseason to go along with 4-10-14 totals in the regular season.

He played a total of seven seasons in Colorado, appearing in 505 games with 54 goals and 89 assists.

Yelle spent the last five seasons with the Calgary Flames. On October 1, 2002, he and Chris Drury were traded by Colorado to the Flames in exchange for Dean McAmmond, Derek Morris and Jeff Shantz. During those five years, Yelle contributed 31 goals and 65 assists. Last season, Yelle tallied three goals and nine assists in 74 regular season games and added two goals in seven postseason contests.

The 34-year-old Ottawa, Ontario native was originally drafted in the 8th round (186th overall) of the 1992 NHL Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils, Yelle was dealt to Quebec on June 1, 1994 and then relocated with the franchise to Colorado on June 21, 1995.

His team has missed the playoffs only once in his 12-year NHL career (02-03 with Calgary).

Read More: Boston Bruins, Stephane Yelle,
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