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Bruins' resurgence started with hiring Chiarelli

Friday, 12.05.2008 / 11:00 PM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

These are not your father's Big, Bad Bruins. But who cares? Not many, following Boston's 11-1-1 record in November.

Today's Bruins are more like Big and Bold. Mobile. Puck-moving. And yes, still belligerent and tough when they have to be, still able to dictate the way the game is going to be played with a dash of that certain unalienable Boston guideline that was established a couple decades ago by Don Cherry's Lunch Pail AC mentality.

Remember, today's bad is good -- or rather multidimensional, fast-paced, free-flowing, transitional. In today's up-tempo, quicker-paced NHL, there is no longer that big, bad, hit-everything-in-sight mentality on successful NHL teams, and by golly, the Bruins have got it.

Today's Big and Bold Bruins were born in July 2006, when the Jacobs family hired Peter Chiarelli away from a good front-office job with the Ottawa Senators to be general manager in Boston. In a little more than two seasons, he has built a new infrastructure underscored by the tenants that are successful in the new NHL -- good goaltending, strength up the middle and a defense that can move the puck up the ice and join in the offense when necessary.

In the pre-Peter Chiarelli days, the scouting report on the Bruins was simple: Put pressure on the B's defense and they'll cough up the puck every time. That part of the equation was the toughest in a city where hand-to-hand combat and big hits were made so popular by Bruins predecessors. But big, bad defensemen who can knock the snot out of opponents but handle the puck like it's a hand grenade are an endangered species. And that fact became obvious when Boston's regular-season efforts in the last decade were dashed early in the playoffs by quicker teams. Only one Bruins team made it to the second round of the playoffs (1999), while five teams missed the playoffs in the last 13 seasons.

It was no secret that Chiarelli's intentions were to make the Bruins an up-tempo team like the Senators he left. The new GM quickly spent from the Jacobs family's bankroll to sign high-profile free agents Zdeno Chara away from Ottawa and Marc Savard from Atlanta as cornerstones to build a strong, skilled defense and improve the team's strength up the middle.

In his first season, Chiarelli also used the trade route to again concentrate on defense, acquiring Andrew Ference from Calgary, two-time Stanley Cup champion Aaron Ward from the New York Rangers and Dennis Wideman from St. Louis. Winger Chuck Kobasew was acquired from Calgary, and goaltender Manny Fernandez came in from Minnesota. Plus, it didn't hurt that the Bruins hit it big in the 2006 draft, selecting up-and-coming wingers Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic.

"At my age, I was looking for a team with a commitment to winning," the 31-year-old Savard said. "When Peter talked to me about coming to Boston, he told me he had already signed Zdeno and he explained his plans for re-building the Bruins. Obviously, he sold me on his game plan."

The master stroke to Peter's principle came before last season, when he hired Claude Julien, ex-coach of Montreal and New Jersey (where he directed the Devils to a 47-14-8 record before he was surprisingly replaced with just three games to go in the 2005-06 season). With Julien at the helm, the Bruins went from a sub-.500 record in Chiarelli's first season to a 41-29-12, 18-point improvement in the standings last season. While Boston fans might have been wondering what Chiarelli was doing with their team at first, they eventually saw an up-tempo, defense-driven system that transitioned the B's into a new era.

"Finding our team's identity was most important," Julien said. "Detroit has the puck-possession game. Peter and I wanted a hard-working team that played an up-tempo game, but was first and foremost accountable defensively. And we felt Boston fans wanted to see a team that works hard every night and plays with a lot of energy and passion."

Last season, the Bruins cut their goals-against by 67 to 222. But the team's 212 goals were second-worst in the Eastern Conference. No worry. With the return of Patrice Bergeron, the addition of Michael Ryder and the development of David Krejci, Kessel, Lucic and Wideman, Julien's up-the-ice game has been dynamite. At mid-week, the bold, balanced Bruins were tied with Detroit for first in goals with 82 and second to Minnesota in goals against with 55.

So you want to be a coach
-- Proving once again that life behind the bench of an NHL team can be a like walking on a tightrope -- out there by yourself -- the firing of Carolina coach Peter Laviolette left only Detroit's Mike Babcock and Anaheim's Randy Carlyle as the only Stanley Cup-winning coaches still on the job with their teams since 2000.

Laviolette was replaced by former Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice -- and assistant GM Ron Francis, who was named "associate coach" of the team that was 12-11-2 and just three points behind the first-place Washington Capitals in the Southeast Division at the time of the changes.

GM Jim Rutherford cited a more experienced Maurice, who was fired last summer after a stint behind the bench of the Toronto Maple Leafs, as the right guy for the job -- even if he fired Maurice in December 2003 and replaced him with Laviolette.

Why not bring back a good coach, reasoned Rutherford: "Ask the Yankees. They brought Billy Martin back five times, didn't they?"

When asked what he had been doing to be ready for this assignment, Maurice said he had been taking a business course at the University of Windsor. In what coach? Said Maurice, "In strategic management."

'Nuff said.

A new Peter Principle -- Call Petr Prucha a prophet. He told the New York Rangers he didn't need any time in the minors to regain his timing after being scratched from the team's previous 10 games -- and that proved prophetic Wednesday when Prucha scored the game-tying goal with just 5:57 left in regulation to tie the Penguins and send it to overtime and a subsequent shootout. And you know what usually happens when the Rangers go to a shootout -- bing, bing, bing, Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Fredrik Sjostrom all scored in the shootout, while Henrik Lundqvist helped the Blueshirts rally from 2-0 a deficit to win both times the Penguins have come to Madison Square Garden this season. The victory raised the Rangers' record in shootouts to 7-1 this season. ... Zherdev, who scored his ninth goal of the season in regulation, is now 5-for-8 in shootouts and 10-of-16 in Columbus and New York in the last two seasons -- the most by any player in the NHL. ... Rangers defenseman Michael Rozsival, who has heard some boos at Madison Square Garden this season after signing a four-year, $20 million free-agent contract last summer, feels he's finally gaining more confidence with the puck following offseason hip surgery. It hasn't hurt that coach Tom Renney reunited Rozsival with his normal defense partner, Marc Staal, either. Said Renney, "It's beginning to look like vintage Rozy out there." ... Evgeni Malkin's streak of getting points in 11 consecutive road games ended in the shootout loss at New York. The previous Pittsburgh record was 10-straight games with road points set by Paul Coffey in 1988 and matched in 1990 by Kevin Stevens. How good is Malkin? Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff recently said, "He's a modern day Jaromir Jagr." And who could argue with Malkin's size, ability to beat people one-on-one and League-leading point production? ... Flyers Mike Richards, Simon Gagne and Mike Knuble are so consistent that coach John Stevens would have to be crazy to break them up. And as long as Jeff Carter keeps scoring goals like he has Stevens can experiment with the Flyers' second line. ... Here's an oddity in scoring for a leader like Richards. His shorthanded goal in the third period and his power-play goal in overtime gave him a League-high 15 shorthanded goals in his four seasons in the NHL -- Daniel Alfredsson is second with 14 -- but only 13 power-play goals. ... The Islanders received great news when center Mike Sillinger played in two games at AHL Bridgeport on a rehab assignment and had three assists in his first game and had a goal in the second game. Sillinger, who hasn't played a game with the Isles since Feb. 5, reported no pain in his bothersome hip. ... Doug Weight kept insisting he wasn't finished last year, and maybe he was right after all. After playing a limited role in Anaheim, Weight had a point-a-game average in his first 22 appearances for the New York Islanders. He had only 25 points all of last season. Meanwhile, the player the Ducks signed to replace Weight, Brendan Morrison, had just five points in his first 22 games.

A pair of important dates
-- When the Sharks beat former coach Ron Wilson's Maple Leafs 5-2 on Dec. 2, San Jose's 43 points (on a 21-3-1 record) matched the best start in NHL history through 25 games that was established by the 1943-44 Montreal Canadiens, who were 20-2-3. It was San Jose's seventh win in a row and the Sharks had outscored opponents 35-12 in that run.

As usual, Joe Thornton keyed the victory, contributing 1 goal and 3 assists in the first period. It was the first time in team history that a player had four points in the first 20 minutes of a game. More important to Thornton and the Sharks, it was the third anniversary of Big Joe's arrival in San Jose from Boston. Since Thornton played his first game with the Sharks in 2005, the team has had a winning percentage of .681, second only to the Detroit Red Wings in that time frame. Even more impressive, since the trade Thornton is the leading scorer in the NHL, compiling 332 points. Washington's Alex Ovechkin, with 315 points, is second, followed by Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby with 211.

Down the middle of the fairway -- Maple Leafs executive Cliff Fletcher recently suggested that No. 1 goalie Vesa Toskala spend a little more time working with goalie coach Corey Hirsch, thinking that it was only a technical glitch that Toskala needed to work on to get back to form. After working with Hirsch, Toskala went 2-0-1, allowing just four goals in three games with a save percentage of better than .960. Said Fletcher, "It's a lot like golf, you have a couple of bad rounds and you start second-guessing your swing and that's when you can really get into trouble. You know, you get a little quirk in your swing and you have to spend some time on the practice range." ... Seeing his offense dry up of late -- the Canadiens had not scored more than two goals in their last nine games -- Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau may have found a good No. 1 line when he moved slumping Andre Kostitsyn to a line with rookie Matt D'Agostini with center Saku Koivu. Voila! D'Agostini, Montreal's sixth-round pick in 2005, netted his first NHL goal and Kostitsyn had 1 goal and 2 assists in a 5-4 victory against Atlanta on Dec. 2. D'Agostini is one of those youngsters with no fear of going to the net. His youthful exuberance could be the spark to get the Habs out of their scoring woes. ... Canadiens GM Bob Gainey has lots of work ahead. The list of Montreal players who will become unrestricted free agents if they're not signed by July 1 includes Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay, Mike Komisarek, Robert Lang, Steve Begin, Tom Kostopoulos, Francis Bouillon, Mathieu Dandenault and Patrice Brisebois. Potential restricted free agents include Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Guillaume Latendresse. ... Maxim Afinogenov has 1 goal in 21 games, is a team-worst minus-10, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. The 29-year-old has become too much of a liability defensively to suit coach Lindy Ruff, and with no offense, he is just playing out the final year of his contract. Rumors suggest the Sabres would love to trade him (he had 23 and 22 goals in the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons respectively, but he's being paid a whopping $3.5 million this season -- a contract no one would be willing to take until we get closer to the March 4 trading deadline. ... Ottawa Senators MVP? That's easy, it's journeyman (stints with Florida, Vancouver, Phoenix, Boston) goaltender Alex Auld, whom the Sens signed for just $1 million as a free agent this summer. Turns out, GM Bryan Murray's brother, Tim, now an assistant to the GM in Ottawa, suggested the Florida Panthers pick Auld in the second round of the 1999 draft with the 40th pick. His 2.02 goals-against average was second in the NHL on a team that was struggling to win.

No more Wild finishes -- Minnesota goaltender Niklas Backstrom said the normally hard-working, disciplined Wild learned the hard way that you're not going to get anything for free in the NHL after a 6-5 loss to Colorado at home Dec. 1. Next game? The Wild and Backstrom blanked St. Louis 4-0 two nights later. ... Antti Miettinen started the season for the Wild by flashing a potential 20- to 30-goal scoring touch. Of late, his passing has been even more impressive, particularly on the power play, where he had five man-advantage assists in two games. His 20 points in 24 games in Minnesota is already more than half as many as his previous career-high of 34 points last season when he was in Dallas. ... Checker Eric Belanger ran his recent hot streak to 3 goals and 3 assists in his last five games. Three of Belanger's goals this season have been game-winners. ... Doug Moss won't be confused with Jarome Iginla any time soon, but the Flames' 6-foot-3, 200-pounder is a power forward with an upside. He had eight shots on goal and scored the game-winner in the second of two straight wins against Vancouver recently and had 4 goals in a recent seven-game stretch. His 6 goals puts him on pace to surpass his previous NHL-high of 10 goals in the 2006-07 season. ... Yannick Hansen, a ninth-round pick in the 2004 Entry Draft has played a pretty good complementary checking role on a line with Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows in Vancouver this season. But the right wing is beginning to flash the kind of skills that helped him get 24 goals and 40 assists in his last junior season at Portland of the Western Hockey League and 21 goals and 22 assists in just 50 games for the Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate at Manitoba last season. ... Cory Schneider wound up in goal for Vancouver this week, with Roberto Luongo still out with a thigh injury and Curtis Sanford having to leave the net when his back seized up. No worry. Schneider, the Canucks first-round pick (No. 26) in the 2006 Entry Draft, stepped into the action and didn't look out of place even if he was filling the rather large, size-13 skates of Luongo. ... Missing their captain? You bet the Colorado Avalanche are missing center Joe Sakic. After thinking long and hard about returning for a 20th season after missing 38 games following hernia surgery last season, Super Joe was chipping in well before his back gave out. Now Sakic has been sidelined for at least six weeks to get treatment on a herniated disc. . .. Have you noticed that the Colorado Avalanche have extended their winning streak in shootouts to eight? The only teams that have won more consecutive times in the tie-breaker over the years are Dallas (11) and Minnesota (nine). ... With Robert Nilsson out with an injury, the Oilers recalled Robbie Schremp from the minors and put him in Nilsson's spot on Edmonton's kid line with Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner. The threesome was on the ice for two goals as Schremp displayed lots of flash and dash in a 5-2 victory against Dallas on Dec. 3. Said Schremp (who was playing his fourth NHL game over the last three seasons since being Edmonton's first-round pick in 2004), "I feel more like a professional now. That's a part of maturing and growing up and playing in the minors." ... Another couple of instances where coaches have the power to bench a player and not lose him for the season production-wise happened recently in Edmonton, when Coach Craig MacTavish sat last year's big free-agent pickup Dustin Penner as well as youngster Kyle Brodziak. Since returning from the sideline over questions of effort and desire, Penner had six points in six games, while Brodziak scored 2 goals after a trip to the press box. Scratching his head, MacTavish said of his team's up-and-down performance this season, "It's like being a gladiator, in the arena, you win one battle or solve one problem, and then a door opens and there's another problem to face."

 
 
One smart Duck -- Second-year Anaheim goaltender Jonas Hiller looks at playing behind Anaheim's No. 1 goalie J-S Giguere with the power of positive thinking. After posting a 4-0 record and 1.43 goals-against average in five recent starts, he explained, "My goal is to be a No. 1 goaltender somewhere, whether that is here or somewhere else." In the salary-cap era, Hiller is just short of a luxury. Only five teams pay their backup goaltender more than the $1.3 million Hiller makes -- and three of those teams (Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Chicago) would like to get out of those situations. ... Bobby Ryan is beginning to show off some of the skills that made him the No. 2 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft behind Sidney Crosby. The Ducks' 6-2, 208-pound power forward had his best minor-league season last season, when he had 21 goals and 28 assists in 48 games for Portland of the American Hockey League. During the offseason, he lost 20 pounds and looked quicker in training camp. But he still needed another stint in the minors to get hungrier before being recalled recently. Now, he's playing on the team's No. 1 line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and he had 2 goals and 4 assists in his first eight games. ... Here's a quirky number for you: Teemu Selanne's first goal this season was scored at even strength but all 13 of his goals since then have been power-play goals. Selanne's 13 consecutive power-play goals equals the second-longest such streak in NHL history. Camille Henry had a record 17 straight power-play goals for the Rangers from January to October 1954. ... In the absence of No. 1 center Olli Jokinen, the Coyotes are looking for centers Kyle Turris, Martin Hanzal and Kevin Porter to step up. Hanzal has been a big body up the middle both ways for Phoenix. And Porter, the former University of Michigan All-America, has really picked up his game of late. He led the Wolverines with 33 goals and 30 assists last season. ... Rookie winger James Neal is giving the Dallas Stars some strong play down low and along the boards. Neal had 3 goals and 1 assist in a three-game stretch recently playing on a line withe No. 1 center Mike Ribeiro. ... Following a two-goal effort in Edmonton on Dec. 3, Mike Modano had 11 goals and 8 assists. Modano, who recently scored his 1,300th career point, is on pace for his first 30-goal season since 2001-02. ... No, the Stars aren't going to give in anytime soon and play someone other than Marty Turco in goal -- in spite of his 8-11-4 record, .872 save percentage and 3.51 goals-against average. Seven times this season Turco has allowed five or more goals in one game, setting a personal single-season high just two months into the season. Turco allowed five or more goals in only three of his 124 games during the previous two seasons combined. Said coach Dave Tippett, "For us to move forward, Marty has to play, it's as simple as that. We're way past let's pull him out for a game and see if that motivates him. He's just got to get the job done."

Hab-not -- Jose Theodore, who played 353 games and had 23 shutouts for Montreal from 1996 to 2006, posted his first career shutout against his former team with a 3-0 win for the Washington Capitals on Dec. 28. In the NHL's expansion era, the only other goaltenders with shutouts both for and against the Canadiens are Tony Esposito, Jeff Hackett, Roland Melanson, Andy Moog, and Jocelyn Thibault. ... Defenseman Karl Alzner, Washington's first-round pick (No. 5) in the 2007 Entry Draft, stepped right into the NHL with a 21:06 workload and showed the poise that scouts told us he had prior to the draft. He was credited with two hits and helped the Caps limit Atlanta to just 18 shots in his debut. ... Streaky Sergei Samsonov. After getting just 9 goals for Montreal in 2006-07, he was traded to Chicago. Then, when he failed to score in 23 games with the Blackhawks, he was unceremoniously put on waivers twice before he was finally claimed by Carolina. When it looked like Samsonov had finally regained his goal-scoring touch with 14 goals in 38 games for the Hurricanes, he failed to get a goal in the first 19 games this season. Good news for the Canes -- it took Sergei just five games before he scored his next goal, a game-winner against Philadelphia on Nov. 28. ... Nine goals in the month of November. That's the impressive streak David Booth is on for Florida. What's more, all nine of those goals either tied the game or gave the Panthers the lead. ... Craig Anderson made 37 saves in the Panthers' 4-0 win against the Rangers on Nov. 30. It was Anderson's fourth shutout in 13 starts since March 1 last season. (He had only two shutouts in 56 career starts prior to that.) The only other NHL goaltenders with as many regular-season shutouts over that span as Anderson are Roberto Luongo (five in 37 starts) and Niklas Backstrom (four in 34 starts). ... Steven Stamkos is beginning to quietly show why he was the first pick in the 2008 draft recently as he broke the 20-minute mark in ice time for the first time, notching an assist. One night later, he played more than 21 minutes and had his second multi-point game of the season with a goal and assist. Said coach Rick Tocchet, "He's been strong on the puck as the first forechecker tracking down loose pucks and he's beginning to look like a 10-year veteran with the poise he shows on the point on the power play." ... Fifty-goal scorer Ilya Kovalchuk demoted to the fourth line by Atlanta coach John Anderson? Well, not quite. But the thought was there in practices as Anderson shook up his lines. When the Thrashers played their next game, Kovalchuk, who had just 8 goals in 23 games compared to 18 last season in a like number of games, had fire in his eyes. Though the line of Slava Kozlov, Todd White and Bryan Little has been Atlanta's best this season, it may be time for the Thrashers rookie coach to put Kovalchuk on a line that might give the 52-goal scorer from a year ago a little help in scoring. Just a thought.

Some things never change -- It couldn't have been more fitting. The puck just seemed to find its way in front of the net, where Keith Tkachuk has made his living as one of the game's best power forwards during the last 17 seasons. Tkachuk outbattled an opponent to get to the puck and then quickly put it behind goaltender Ondrej Pavelec on a St. Louis power play with less than five minutes left in the second period to even the score at 2-2 Nov. 30 in Atlanta. Tkachuk became the 72nd player in NHL history to score 1,000 career points and just the seventh U.S.-born player -- joining Mike Modano, Phil Housley, Jeremy Roenick, Joe Mullen, Brian Leetch and Pat LaFontaine. He accomplished the feat in 1,077 games while playing for Winnipeg/Phoenix, Atlanta and St. Louis. Said Blues coach Andy Murray, "That's how I picture a Keith Tkachuk goal -- in front of the net with the puck crossing the goal line." It was the 201st power-play goal for Tkachuk and his 102nd in the last eight seasons -- the most power-play goals in the NHL during that time span. ... Tomas Holmstrom is ready to return to his menacing ways in front of opposition goaltenders and No. 1 goaltender Chris Osgood's 2-1 victory against Anaheim on Dec. 1 was the first time in six games that Ozzie had allowed fewer than three goals. Osgood passed Andy Moog for 13th in career victories recently and he needed just one to tie John Vanbiesbrouck for 12th with 374. ... Mikael Samuelsson has been playing on Detroit's No. 2 line with Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. Nice job. But coach Mike Babcock thinks Samuelsson, with his size and skill, can be more than just a complimentary passer with those two. Wake-up call? We'll watch that one. ... Moving Martin Havlat back to the team's third line was either a sign that the Chicago Blackhawks were thinking that it could be the right time to trade the potential unrestricted free agent or a ploy to get him jump-started. Maybe a little of both. Trailing 2-1 mid-way through the third period to Anaheim on Dec. 3, the Hawks got a key goal by Havlat and then went on to a 4-2 triumph against the Ducks. Coach Joel Quenneville was trying to do something after Chicago scored just four goals in the final three games, all defeats, of their six-game road swing. ... Kris Versteeg continued his run for NHL Rookie of the Year with 2 assists in the game, raising his League-leading total for rookies to 22 points. ... Pekka Rinne's 2-0 win against the Sabres on Dec. 1 was only the second shutout by a rookie goaltender in Nashville Predators history. The only other one was the first shutout ever by the Predators: Tomas Vokoun's 2-0 win against Phoenix on January 15, 1999, in the middle of the team's first season in the NHL. ... David Legwand isn't giving the Predators any offense -- and that six-year, $27-million contract he signed last year looks awfully inflated for a center who has never had more than 50 points. Said coach Barry Trotz, "His leash is pretty short right now." ... Steve Mason's 6-2-1 start to his NHL career and 2.08 goals-against average and .922 save percentage is setting the bar pretty high for rookies. Not to mention, providing a pretty good challenge for incumbent No. 1 Columbus netminder Pascal Leclaire. ... Here's a sign of strength for Columbus: Third-period goals by Andrew Murray and Kristian Huselius helped the Blue Jackets overcome a 2-1 deficit and beat Vancouver 3-2 Dec. 1. Those goals gave the Jackets a streak of 14 consecutive games in which they've scored at least one goal in the third period -- the longest such streak by any team since Colorado did it in February/March of 2007.


Quote of the Day

I remember the first time at Wrigley Field all of us had the long johns, the turtlenecks and the extra equipment because we were afraid of being cold. Halfway through the first period everybody's ripping everything off and we just ended up wearing what we would normally wear for a game at the United Center.

— Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Sharp on the 2009 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic