To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights. For this week, we are trying to determine if Jarome Iginla was better suited to play with the Pittsburgh Penguins, as he did late last season, or if he made the right move in signing with the Boston Bruins for this season.
The Penguins won the Iginla trade sweepstakes last season as the former Calgary Flames captain was more enticed about the opportunity to play with Sidney Crosby than he was with David Krejci. Iginla famously invoked the clause in his contract that allowed him to choose where he would be traded and he spurned the Bruins for a shot at winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins.
That part obviously didn't work out.
The Penguins ran into the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final, scored two goals in four games and were swept away as Boston went on to the Stanley Cup Final. Iginla signed a one-year, $6 million contract with the Bruins over the summer.
"I had a great experience there," Iginla said of his time in Pittsburgh. "They're a top organization. Obviously at the time you wish you'd go further, but it was fun to be a part of it and be in the conference finals. Everything up until the conference final, it was great."
Iginla played a total of 28 games with Pittsburgh, regular season and playoffs included, and had 23 points on nine goals and 14 assists. There was a thought that he was acquired to play with Crosby, but that's not why the Penguins got him and it didn't have a chance to happen because Crosby broke his jaw one game after Iginla arrived and missed the final 12 games of the regular season.
When Crosby returned in the playoffs, he went back to playing with regular linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. Iginla tried to make a go of it with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal and it worked for a while, but he was moved out of the top six when the Penguins started struggling in the conference final.
He went pointless in that series against the Bruins just like Crosby, Malkin and Neal.
"It was obviously a sour ending for the Penguins and myself there," Iginla said, "but it was still, for me, it was still a lot of fun."
Iginla will get a chance to play his former teammates Wednesday in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins face the Bruins in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Does he fit in better with the Bruins than he did with the Penguins?
Let's break it down and form a conclusion:
After playing 1,219 games with the Flames, there was, as NBC analyst Pierre McGuire told NHL.com, "some sticker shock" Iginla had to get over when he went to Pittsburgh on March 27.
"Jarome was trying to fit in, but at the same time you're trying to fit in you're also trying to be productive," NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "I don't think that's easy."
Iginla, though, was productive. He scored four goals and six assists over the final nine regular season games. He had another 12 points in the first 11 playoff games before getting shut out in the four-game series against Boston.
"It worked almost as we thought it would in terms of the fit for our team and what we thought he would bring," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told NHL.com.
That's because the Penguins didn't acquire Iginla with the intent of playing him with Crosby, who prefers to play with Kunitz and Dupuis. However, Iginla's production couldn't mask the fact he never truly found his comfort zone with Malkin either. He was dangerous on the power play, where he scored six of his eight goals and had 11 of the 23 points, but his even-strength play was choppy and he never got into a groove.
Some of that could have been a result of change, of the culture shock of leaving the one team he knew and the fact Iginla was living in a hotel miles away from his family back in Calgary.
On the ice, though, Button thinks Iginla had difficulty meshing his style of play with Malkin's.
Button noted Iginla is better when he's playing with a center that has the ability to play off of him, to hold the puck so he can find the soft spots on the ice and get open. With Malkin, though, the wingers typically have to wait for him to carry the puck into the offensive zone and get established there, and then there is no telling what he'll do next. It's part of his unique talent, part of what makes him so unpredictable.
Neal is probably the only player in Pittsburgh who has a sense of what Malkin is going to do. Kunitz has played well with Malkin as well, but mostly because he's playing a straight-forward, get-to-the-net, simple game and doesn't worry about what Malkin is doing.
Iginla was somewhere in between.
"When you watch Jarome play, he moves to spots and that's how he's dangerous," Button said. "I thought last year he became more of a post-up guy in Pittsburgh, waiting for the puck. When you become a post-up guy and everybody knows the puck is coming to you, it's easy to defend you."
Iginla's production through 10 games this season is similar to what he gave the Penguins last season. He has eight points on two goals and six assists. He seems comfortable and is developing chemistry with Krejci and Milan Lucic, who played the past several seasons with Nathan Horton.
"I think it's fairly obvious that he's a consistent player," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "When you look at his first 10 games, you see him every game. You know we liked [Horton] and he's a highly skilled player, but we also know that he had his fair share of ups and downs. Some games he'd be really good, some other games he wouldn't have much of an impact. We're getting consistency out of Jarome."
There are many reasons for that.
Iginla had a full training camp with Boston and knew months in advance where he was going to be playing this season. He had only hours to prepare for the trade to the Penguins last season and just a few days to get to Pittsburgh and meet his new team.
His family is with him in Boston. They weren't with him in Pittsburgh.
And compared to Pittsburgh, one of the major differences in why Iginla looks comfortable and confident on the ice is because of Krejci and Lucic. It's quite a change from playing with Malkin because Krejci is typically going to hit Iginla with passes in areas he wants to be in, whereas Iginla sometimes had to figure out what Malkin was doing before he could even attempt to get to those areas.
"Jarome has great instincts for getting open and Krejci is thinking about moving the puck," Button said. "Krejci is a guy that can hit a moving player. Krejci is going to play off of you. The other part of it is Milan Lucic is a very good playmaker. That benefits Jarome as well as the power game that Lucic brings."
Krejci and Lucic didn't have to adjust much to play with Iginla because of their experience with Horton. Iginla and Horton are power forwards who move well, find the soft spots and are dangerous when given some time and space.
"Krejci has got the ability to hold the puck just a little bit longer and that can spring you free if you're a power forward," McGuire said. "Lucic is a savage on the forecheck and he creates so much space because he can get in. People know that, so they back off because they want to get to the puck before he does. They cheat a little bit back so Jarome gets more room."
Verdict: Nobody can blame Iginla for choosing Pittsburgh last season. Who wouldn't want the opportunity to play with arguably the two best centers in the NHL in Crosby and Malkin? It was too good of a chance to pass up.
However, Iginla's style is better suited for the way the Bruins play. He is getting better looks in 5-on-5 situations with Krejci than he was getting with Malkin. He's more comfortable and therefore more confident. He's not just a threat on the power play, as he was in Pittsburgh.
"So many people I talked to last year before he was traded felt Boston was a great fit for him," Button said. "I get it, Jarome says, 'What, I'm going to pass up the opportunity to play with two of the best centermen in the world?' That's exactly it. Jarome was excited by that, but there are more complements to his game in Boston than there were in Pittsburgh. His game is so much more well-rounded in Boston."