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Bruins' Beleskey not shying away from expectations

by Matt Kalman

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Autumn in New England has suited Boston Bruins forward Matt Beleskey.

"I found a ton of good spots," said Beleskey, who signed a five-year, $19 million contract as an unrestricted free agent with Boston over the summer. "The restaurants are unbelievable. We've had a blast just walking around seeing everything. There's free concerts going on, people playing music everywhere, yoga classes outside. There's lots of stuff going on. It's pretty fun to see the city and be able to take it in."

Beleskey had better enjoy the perks that come with playing in Boston while he can, because the next several months and years don't shape up as a walk in the park. Off the ice, the Barrie, Ontario native is prepared for temperatures to take a biting dip. He brought his truck down from home last week.

On the ice, he's going to deal with a litany of expectations after he scored an NHL career-best 22 goals last season with the Anaheim Ducks. Beleskey was one of the most sought-after players in free agency, and when it opened July 1 he weighed his options before agreeing to terms with the Bruins that evening.

Days before signing Beleskey, the Bruins traded forward Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings. Lucic had 18 goals last season for a Bruins team that ranked 22nd in scoring. He had 139 goals in eight seasons for the Bruins. It was impossible to not look at Beleskey as a Lucic replacement in July, and that thought has been reinforced since the start of training camp because Beleskey has been skating on center David Krejci's left wing, the spot Lucic filled for most of the past five seasons.

For the most part, Beleskey and Krejci have been joined by second-year forward David Pastrnak, who played some with his Czech Republic countryman Krejci last season.

"It's coming along pretty well," Beleskey said of the chemistry after practice Friday. "The more times you're out there with them the better it gets. And you're starting to see how they play."

Krejci said he doesn't expect Beleskey to play exactly like Lucic.

"I want him to play the way he can play and he'll be effective for our team and for my line," Krejci said. "So we're going to talk a lot off and on the ice. Hopefully we can create some chemistry early on and play really good hockey as a line and help the team win hockey games."

If a breakthrough season like the one Beleskey had in 2014-15 wasn't enough to raise his profile, the hefty contract he signed guaranteed the spotlight is going to be on him. Many players have wilted and failed to meet expectations after signing rich contracts in giant hockey markets. Things never worked out for David Clarkson with the Toronto Maple Leafs and now he's with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Martin Lapointe turned out to be a solid role player but never lived up to the contract he signed with the Bruins in 2001. Beleskey is well aware of such cases and the pressure that's going to be on him to help turn the Bruins around after they missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

"Yeah, I'd like to take a lot of responsibility for helping this team," he said. "Coming in and making a difference, that's what I want to do. They went out and gave me a great contract, and I was very grateful for that, and I'm going to work hard and do my best to repay them for that."

Beleskey's ability to make an impact will be equally dependent on him earning playing time in key situations and the Bruins' willingness to cast him in a big role. So far in camp, he's been in the top six. Beleskey hadn't scored more than 11 goals in a NHL season before 2014-15, when he matured and was rewarded by Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau with the chance to be an impact player.

"One, [I learned] the procedure of becoming a pro, learning how to play, learning my game and trying to find my groove out there," Beleskey said. "Plus opportunity. Coach Boudreau gave me a lot of good opportunities, [I] played with some great players and worked hard. I worked hard to get where I was and get into those situations, be in the shape I was, keep myself healthy. That's something I find if you're doing the right things and working in the right directions, good things will start happening for you."

Beleskey, 27, is entering his prime. He should get every opportunity to prove his 22-goal season wasn't an aberration but the new norm. Matching his goal total will be another source of pressure.

"I've always thought of myself as a 20-goal scorer. I know I can score goals," he said. "It's just having that confidence, sticking with it, doing the right things, get in the right spots. Last year it paid off and I'm going to try and keep doing the same things to make it happen again."

Beleskey will be tasked with continuing to score at a high clip and helping the Bruins offense out of the doldrums. Playing as a top-six forward in Boston comes with another expectation though. Terry O'Reilly, Cam Neely and other Bruins of old set an unfair precedent for Boston forwards in the toughness department. In recent seasons, Lucic, Jarome Iginla and Nathan Horton, among others, have had to do their best to match that toughness. Beleskey falls into that category this season.

He had one fighting major last season but four the year before. Beleskey was third on the Ducks in hits the past two seasons. There should be just enough grit in Beleskey's game to please the locals, even if his goal scoring drops off a tad.

"I never got by by skill," Beleskey. "That's a thing that I can't take a night off because it's noticeable when I take a night off because I'm not hitting, I'm not getting on the forecheck, going hard to the net. That's a game I've got to play, it's hard work and that's something that I try to pride myself on."

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