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?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bruins and NHL are Back (Finally)

I haven't posted here since June because of the lockout. A lot has happened since then (probably about 30 posts worth). There were times in the last few months when I was so mad at the NHL owners that I considered vowing to not spend a dime on the NHL in 2013. Even before the lockout I almost decided to quit this blog. I almost canceled Center Ice. It's been tough. Since the last lockout ended I have seen nearly every Bruins game. That's a lot of games. Some of them really sucked, but the 2011 playoffs made it all worthwhile. I have to admit though, that after finally winning the cup it was getting a bit old.

Then the inevitable happened. It was windy and biting cold and I was on an outdoor ice rink with my stick and a puck, wearing my Bruins hat; that's when I remembered just how much I love this game. A few days later the lockout ended, and, well, here I am again.

Before we get to the long and the short of the upcoming 2013 season, I need to address Tim Thomas. I doubt anyone reading this isn't up on the story. Thomas decided to take the season off to spend time with family and faith blah blah blah. I get that. I get that he wants to start for the US Olympic team. I get that his father has cancer. I get that he may have realized that the fire wasn't there anymore for him. I get that his snub of the President caused a lot of bad feelings and that he probably felt a bit of a pariah. I get that after so many years as a pawn it must have felt good to take control of his own career for once. And I get that he probably realized that he'd end up playing the season for some team out west, maybe Anaheim or Vancouver (ugh). Toss in a likely lockout and, like I said, I get it.

But he didn't need to be such a classless jerk about it.

Tim Thomas should have been a man about it. He should have called a press conference and read his little statement about family and faith. Then he should have told everyone how being a Bruin was the best thing that ever happened to him, that he'd miss the city, the fans, and his teammates. He should have stood tall and answered the questions from the press. People still would have been mad at him, but it least it would have been for the right reasons. The only good to come of his cowardly posting to Facebook and then slinking off to Colorado is that I am sure professional athletes all over the continent have taken note not to make a fool of themselves like he did.

And the politics! Don't get me started. He's a professional athlete in the public eye. He built his career on the ice and there is no place for politics on the ice. He should have donated to his causes and kept his opinions to himself. His hubris was astounding; it boggles the mind that he believed for a minute that his speaking out would make enough difference to make it worthwhile. But the same can be said of the people who have posted hateful things about him. They are making the exact same mistake by allowing their disdain for his politics to cloud their view of what he did on the ice. He won us a Stanley Cup for God's sakes! I read one blog over the summer that made it sound like the Bruins won the Cup in spite of Thomas, not because of him. I suggest people with such opinions go back and watch the 2011 playoff games for a dose of reality. Going into game 5 of the Cup Final the Bruins were facing elimination. Tim Thomas would allow only three goals in the next three games, against a team that had scored 242 goals in the regular season--an average of three goals per game.

Getting back to Tim Thomas on the ice, how does his decision to sit out the season affect the Bruins most? Some have complained bitterly about his 5 million dollar cap hit. Despite giving up his 6 million dollar salary, 5 million dollars will count against the salary cap for this season. Fortunately the Bruins are more or less under the cap and they have the option of putting Marc Savard on IR, which would cancel things out, leaving them with room to add a free agent should they need to. Others have suggested that he denied the team his value in trading him and that he was being selfish. But loyalty goes both ways. How much loyalty does he owe a management that wants to trade him? I say giving them a Stanley Cup should be enough "value."

The real loss for the Bruins is the one everyone seems too angry to acknowledge. Tim Thomas gave the team a chance to win games night in and night out. Sure, Tuukka Rask is a very good goaltender. But there is a key difference between a good goaltender and one of the all-time greats. It is in when the goals are allowed, not how many. A great goaltender rises to the occasion. The bigger the stakes, the more stingy he plays. There is a reason Thomas started most of the games over the last two seasons, and it's not some sort of misguided deference to the more experienced goaltender. When it's late in the 3rd and the Bs are down by a goal and Tukka lets one in--that's when we will miss Thomas. Or when the Bs are up by one late and the other team ties it up. No matter how well Rask plays, at some point the guys are going to look back there and think of what Thomas did for them night in and night out and they will miss it. I was about to write that they don't have a stat for that, but in fact they do.

It's called the Playoff MVP. In the years since the Conn Smythe Trophy was first awarded in 1965 only two Bruins have won it. Tim Thomas and Bobby Orr. So don't try to tell me the Bruins won't miss Thomas.