Every season brings change. We say goodbye to old friends, find new ones, and face different expectations. So I hereby present my top four changes to the Boston Bruins to start the 2009-2010 season:
No. 4 -- we say goodbye to PJ Axellson. PJ was one of the last reminders of the Joe Thornton / Mike O'Connell era. Number 11 played 11 years for the Bruins, his only NHL team. In that time he impressed me, as well as many head coaches, with his defensive play and versatility. When team Sweden won the Gold in the Olympics it was PJ out on the ice as the clock ticked down with a lead. I had always hoped that he'd see a similar role one day in a Bruins cup win. I am a huge fan. He was the unsung hero and the guy who the more ignorant and fickle Bruins fans loved to pick on. You know the type--the ones who would trade away the entire team for Dany Heatly or whomever the hot goaltender is this year. Like that alone would make the B's Cup winners. PJ was a player for the thinking hockey fan to appreciate. He didn't score a lot of goals, but man could he make a difference in the outcome of a game. This was no more apparent than when he played on the No. 1 PK unit. He usually played the high position in the slot. How many times did he craftily tip a pass out of the zone last season alone? The B's are going to miss him on the PK, that's for sure. But in the current era there simply wasn't a place in the lineup for a shutdown defenseman, and his departure was inevitable. The good news is that other players, particularly Bergeron, have stepped up and can fill much of his role on the PK. So in the end, although I will miss him, I don't think his departure will have a big impact on the team.
No. 3 -- we say goodbye to Aaron Ward. Wardo was a grizzled leader who played hard, tough and smart. He brought the perspective of a veteran player who had won a cup or two. He was an example of winning by giving your all, and then some. But the aging Ward wasn't the most skilled Bruin on the blue line. Hopefully the lessons he had to teach the younger players will remain after his departure. And what a departure! The respect that Chiarelli showed by sending him back to Carolina to finish his career was astounding. That's what was missing in the O'Connell era. To be successful today players must want to play for your team and you must treat them with respect for that to happen.
No. 2 -- the apparent departure of Phil Kessel. I think Kessel has a bright future ahead of him. I have watched him grow from a timid kid who looked like he was scared he'd get hit to a fearless player who is strong on the puck. And I am convinced that he still has a long way to go. He will never be Cam Neely, but you can't win a cup with an entire team of Neely's. You need a good mix of talent. And Kessel is no Samsonov either; he's not a one trick pony with speed and single curl move. Should Kessel stay in Boston I believe he will become one of the top players in the league. But to stay the Bruins would have to give up at least two other players (like Sturm and Kobasew) to stay under the cap. That would likely be a greater loss than losing Kessel alone, particularly come playoff time. Unfortunately I suspect that Kessel will never become the great player he was destined to be with another team, where the expectations will be to simply score. And the Bruins will miss his speed! Kessel gave them a second way to enter the zone against teams that were able to shut them out. That is going to hurt them, and without Kessel I see fewer goals in the B's future. But that may not be a bad thing, come playoff time. The fast, high-flying goal scorers don't usually win you a Cup. In one of the great ironies of the game, it is the third and fourth line guys who usually make the difference in the end.
No. 1 -- raised expectations. Some Bruins fans--particularly those riding the bandwagon late--forecast a cup win for the B's last season. But as last season opened most felt the B's would make it to the second round. Others suggested they would't even make the playoffs. This season the pressure is really on, for there is talk all across the hockey world of a cup run.
I caught a replay of game one against Carolina recently, and the reasons the B's lost that series all came flooding back. In my opinion, the Bruins lost to Carolina because they had become too accustomed to rolling over opponents with high scoring wins. The B's breezed to victories all season long, often running away with the score before the 3rd period, and they started the playoffs with five wins in a row. They were ripe to be thrown off their game by a strong defensive showing, and that's what happened in game 2. If not for a fluke they might have won game 7 in overtime, and I think they would have taken the Penguins. But it was not to be. In the end, the B's let that series get away from them by getting frustrated after game 1 and paid the price for it. They were learning on the job how to face a tough opponent, something they would have been better off knowing well before the playoffs began.
In my mind the perfect season for the B's would have more struggle to it, perhaps even finishing 3rd or 4th in the conference. Or maybe fighting their way up through the pack at the end. I'd like to see fewer goals and closer games. They have the goaltending. They have the coaching and system. They can play defense well, and move the puck up the ice. They can score. If it all comes together right, this really could be the year!