Friday, January 18, 2013

Things to Look For in 2013

The lockout wasn't all bad. Some of us have long felt that the NHL plays too many games and the seasons drag on too long. Although I'd prefer to have seen the season start/end earlier, playing only 48 games will be interesting. And hey, we won't need to refer to this as the 2012-2013 season, given that it will only be played in 2013. So that's something.

I'll be watching for certain things early on and I'd thought I share them here. So without further ado:

1. Brad Marchand. "Marshy," as he's called in the room, is a well known pest. He plays hard and never stops the trash talk, getting under opponents skin. But it seemed to me that the NHL got under his skin last season when they suspended him for a monster hip check that led to an injury. I thought the NHL overreacted badly, and afterward it seemed like something was missing from Marchand's game, particularly in the playoffs. I understand that he also didn't play in the off season, which is going to mean a slow start. I'll be looking to see him get the edge back into his game.

At the start of the 2004 lockout I vividly recall reading that the Bruins GM had decided not to let their fine young goaltender, Andrew Raycroft, play in Providence. I am still mystified by this decision. "Razor" decided not to play in Europe and lost his edge (um, sorry). After struggling badly he was traded to the Leafs for Tuukka Rask. I'd hate to see the same sort of thing happen to Marchand.

2. Milan Lucic. "Looch" can be a powerful force on the ice who can be a game changer, with a big hit or a big goal at just the right time. But like Marchand he chose not to play during the lockout. His performance in last year's playoffs was a huge disappointment to me. He literally stood around in game 7, looking beaten. It reminded me of the last playoff game that Joe Thornton played for the Bruins. That's not good.

3. Goaltender Interference. The goaltender interference rule was created to stop players from intentionally pushing or blocking the goaltender in such a way that he would not be able to make the save. It was not intended as a safety measure. But after the Lucic hit on Miller last season this rule started to be enforced too broadly, in my view. As far as I'm concerned, when two players are out in open ice, fully aware of each other, and going for the puck, then contact is only fair. Last season we saw far too many penalties and suspensions that came on legitimate hits (see above) but resulted in injury. People get hurt. It's not always someones fault. The NHL should simply stick to their rules. One result of the "new and improved" interpretation of the goaltender interference rule was that far too many penalties were called on players who had been clearly shoved into the goaltender by their opponent. That needs to stop. More food for thought: many Bruins fans may not be aware of this story by ex referee Kerry Fraser about the goal that put the Bruins out of the playoffs. Consistency. That's all we ask. It it really that difficult?

4. Bruins Power Play. The Bruins may well have been the worst power play team to ever win a modern Stanley Cup. Last season they were no better, and it may well have been the difference in not making it out of the first round. Coach Julien has stated that they are going to work on the power play this season, so I'll be looking for innovation and ultimately improvement in this important area.

5. Tuukka Rask. A headline stated that the Bruins will be "just fine" without Tim Thomas. While this may well be true, some of us want more than "just fine." We want another Stanley Cup. Can Rask elevate his game? It's certainly possible. His talent is undeniable, particularly his speed from side to side. But his play has been inconsistent, he has suffered from injuries, and he has yet to prove that he can make the long haul. I was most impressed with his play when he first came to the Bruins. His positioning had machine-like precision and he had excellent control over his side to side movement. In recent years his style has changed to be more like that of Thomas, and I am not sure that's a good thing. I'll be watching for two things from Rask: consistently sharp play and some hint of the heart that made Thomas one of the Bruins greats.

6. The Bad Guy in the Media Eye. These days the Boston media have no more access to what's going on inside the Bruins organization than we do. This leads to some pretty poor behavior, one of which is the desire for a person to dump on when things go wrong. Tim Thomas made the perfect foil for them for years, but now he's gone. Who will they try to run out of town on rails now? Who will they make the snide remarks, innuendos and speculative trade rumors about? Will it be a player? Coach? The GM? The answer may be painful for some. My early guess is Tuukka Rask.

7. Nathan Horton. "Horty" was one of the reasons the Bruins won the Cup in 2011, even if he didn't make it to the end without being injured. He showed that he could be an unstoppable goal scoring monster in big games. But he has been plagued by injuries, including a season-ending concussion in January 2012. He claims he's back to normal, but the worry is that he's just one hit away from watching from the stands. His game requires a certain recklessness and I will be looking to see if retains his edge.

8. Dougie Hamilton. At just 19, this promising young rookie is looking to break into the NHL. He's played the last four seasons with the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL. It will be interesting to see how he performs and progresses, regardless of where he ends up playing this season. 

9. The New Kids on the Block. There are other "new" faces at training camp as well. They include Ray Borque's son, Chris, Jay Pandolfo, Lane MacDermid, and Aaron Johnson. Will any of these guys stick around and make a contribution?

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