Savard bidding for Hart Trophy

Saturday, 01.17.2009 / 12:00 AM / 2009 NHL All-Star Game

By John McGourty - Staff Writer

Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien is normally unflappable. He takes things in stride and sticks to his agenda.

But Julien recently reacted as if a reporter had tossed him a hot brick when he asked if center Marc Savard was a leading candidate for this year's Hart Trophy that goes to the regular season's most valuable player.

Julien hates bragging more than he hates turnovers, but he still gave Savard his due, albeit a little reluctantly.

"Oh, you're not going to get me to talk about those things," Julien said, laughing. "I think he deserves a lot of credit for what he's done so far this year, there's no doubt about that.

"But really, we've pushed all those things aside as a group and we've focused on team accomplishments. If that happens, so be it, but we're just trying to stay away from all that kind of stuff."

Yet, the credentials for a Hart candidacy are there.

Savard, Boston's first-line center, leads the NHL with a plus-29 rating and is tied for third with 38 assists. His 52 points place him fourth in NHL scoring. Savard has 17 multiple-point games, including a high of four points on Dec. 18, an 8-5 home victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

For those reasons, Savard will be appearing in his second-straight NHL All-Star Game, on Jan. 25 at Montreal's Bell Centre (6 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio). He had the game-winner in last season's game in Atlanta, in his return to the city where he played for the Thrashers for three seasons before signing with Boston in 2006.

He's also played for the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames.

Savard is looking forward to next week's trip to Montreal.

"It's going to be great. You know I'm from Ottawa right up the road, so I'll have a lot of people from there," Savard said. "It's something I don't think about, but hopefully I'll have a chance to play and do well."

As usual, one of Savard's linemates is close to the top among NHL scorers. Savard, who has centered lines in the past that have featured either Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk, is playing with right winger Phil Kessel, who is tied for fourth in the League with 24 goals. Julien has used a variety of left wingers with that pair, including Milan Lucic, P.J. Axelsson and Chuck Kobasew.

Kessel is far more enthusiastic than the reserved Julien when it comes to singing the praises of Savard, the man who regularly puts the puck on Kessel's stick in scoring positions on the ice.

As a result, the 2007 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy winner has emerged as the great scoring threat the Bruins hoped he'd be when they used the No. 5 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft to select Kessel out of the University of Minnesota.

Simply, Kessel loves playing with Savard.

"He's playing good two-way hockey which you can see because he's up there as the plus-minus leader," Kessel said. "He's still putting up points, right up there with the leaders. He's playing really well this year. He wants to win. He plays to win every night and he wants our team to win. You can tell that. He goes out there hard every game to win it."

Savard praises Kessel's quick reactions and instinctive smart plays while Kessel loves catching Savard's passes right on the tape.

Kessel passed his career high in goals Dec. 20 and his career high in points Dec. 28. Although he'll be out of the lineup for a few games while battling mononucleosis, Kessel's season was a success even before the midpoint.

"I think we're getting a pretty good feel for each other on the ice," he said. "He's talking to me all the time. Stuff like, 'C'mon let's get it going. Ya gotta bury it.' That kind of stuff. We do it to get each other going. We've been playing together for most of the year. We just have to keep it going."

"Phil's got that great shot and every great scorer I've played with, whether it's Jarome, Kovalchuck, Glen Murray, they've all got that release and he's no different," Savard said. "He's got that speed that not too many guys have. I've played with a lot of fast guys but he's one of the quickest ones.

"I'm able to hit him in stride and he's got that snap. So we're gonna work like that. We're trying to get more down low and that's where we'd like to work. Right now, a lot of it comes off the rush but that's the way it's been working out so far."

Winger P.J. Axelsson isn't regularly paired with Savard, but he has experienced the center's brilliance on the few occassions he has been afforded first-line minutes by Julien.

"Sometimes, he throws passes that you don't think are going to hit your stick, but they do," Axelsson said.

The last Bruin to win the Hart Trophy was Phil Esposito, in 1974. Other Hart winners from the Bruins include Bobby Orr, Milt Schmidt, Bill Cowley and Eddie Short -- Hockey Hall of Famers all.

Savard was an enigma for many years. He's a coiled-up ball of intensity, living to produce points. For years he was faulted for his lack of defensive awareness and the criticism wasn't unwarranted.

He entered this season minus-76 in his 10-year career. Now, he leads the League in plus-minus. He credits former Atlanta Thrashers coach Bob Hartley for his improvement, along with Julien's effective system of play.

"I've been building every year since Coach Hartley helped me out in Atlanta and I came here and learned a lot from Claude," Savard said. "With our system, it makes it a lot easier to be a better plus player than what I've been in the past."

A better player that may just throw his helmet into the Hart Trophy race before the season finishes.