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A status report on Boston's Big 4

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 3, 2010 10:10 AM

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Touching 'em all -- the Big Four local pro teams, that is -- while eagerly awaiting that Monday Night kickoff…

Bruins
So they've slumped a little. So did the Philadelphia Flyers. But if you’re looking for more positives as the Bruin negotiate their way through a regular season schedule that gave them great difficulty a year ago, there are plenty.

On the whole, unlike last year’s club, the Bruins thus far have met every challenge with a refreshing intensity. Yes, the first periods often have been maddening. But after opening the season in Prague, they returned to American soil and wiped out both the Devils and Capitals on the road. Then they came home and beat the Caps again. Phil Kessel came in and got beat. The Bruins went to Pittsburgh (home of Matt Cooke) and scored five goals in the third period to win there. On Wednesday, they faced the Flyers for the first time since You Know What and won, 3-0.

And then there was last night. Less than two weeks ago, the Bruins went into Tampa and played poorly in a 3-1 loss to a Tampa Bay team that has visions of making a postseason run. Know what happened last night? Tampa got its doors blown off, 8-1. Nobody can know for sure what is going to happen come spring, but the Bruins certainly seem more motivated than they did a year ago.

As for the salary cap issues, the Bruins landed on their feet by disposing of Matt Hunwick, and possibly Marco Sturm, after the general belief over the summer that they would have to part ways with Tim Thomas or Marc Savard – or both. Bruins management put itself into a precarious situation with some overly generous contracts, and the Bruins still might have to clear some room if they want to add the puck-moving defenseman they covet.

But on the whole, so far, the 2010-11 Bruins are now right where they need to be.

Oh, and did we mention that the continued struggled of the Maple Leafs currently have the Bruins positioned for the third pick in next year’s draft.

All together now: Thank you, Kes-sel.

Celtics
Thanks to the ego-driven issues in Miami, the door seems to be opening for the Green to reign supreme again in the Eastern Conference. Last year, remember, the Celtics finished fourth in the East, requiring them to play three playoff series without home court advantage. Maybe that wore them out, maybe it didn’t. But home court might have made a difference in the long run.

Currently, the Celtics are tied atop the East with Orlando (also 14-4). And with a healthy Kevin Garnett, nobody should doubt the Celtics’ ability to beat Orlando again in a series.

Garnett, indeed, looks far more like the player who arrived here in 2007-08 than he does like the player who played much of last season on a bad knee. His rebounding average is back up to where it was in 2007-08. He is also averaging 1.8 steals per game, up slightly from his 2007-08 number of 1.6. The point is that at least some of the burst has returned to Garnett’s game and the Celtics have been a far better team as a result of it.

Paul Pierce, too, seems to have been rejuvenated.

Whether those trends can persist remains to be seen, obviously, particularly given the age of the Celtics nucleus. That is where the continued improved play of Glen Davis can most help. Davis has been averaging better than 13 points and five rebounds in nearly 30 minutes per game thus far, which effectively has made him the fifth starter in the absence of Kendrick Perkins.

Patriots
Many of you were right about the Patriots-Jets game, which is a roundabout way of saying the following: I was wrong. As it turns out, Monday’s game is every bit as important to the Jets given the tie-breaking ramifications. If the Patriots win on Monday, there is a strong chance that New England would win the fifth and final tiebreaker (strength of victory) if both teams ended up 13-3. In fact, a win on Monday would allow the Patriots a loss against Green Bay or Chicago and still allow New England to win the division.

Of course, given the Patriots’ wins over Baltimore and Pittsburgh, a win on Monday would put them in prime position for the top seed in the AFC come playoff time. This would obviously be an enormous advantage with regard to a potential fourth Super Bowl title in the Belichick Era, something that seemed highly improbable when this season began.

Give Belichick great credit for that. And give credit, too, to Tom Brady, who should be the Most Valuable Player in the league. What would the Pats be without him? 6-5? Worse?

Red Sox
Everyone wants the Red Sox to sign good players, so nobody will complain if they bring in Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth. But with regard to Crawford, in particular, the Red Sox will likely overpay to get him. Crawford’s career slugging percentage is .444, which would put him in unique company if the Red Sox paid him an average of, say $17 million a year or more to come to Boston.

At the moment, there are 20 positional players in major league history who have averaged $17 million or more per season. Almost all of them have slugged .470 or better except for a handful of players that includes Ichiro Suzuki, who, given his skill set, may be one of the most overpaid players in the game. Suzuki obviously has unique appeal to the Asian market in the Pacific Northwest, but he is the most obvious exception in a salary class that almost exclusively includes power hitters and elite starting pitchers.

Crawford hit 19 home runs last year, including 11 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Of those 11, none were to the opposite field. This cannot help but make you wonder whether the Red Sox’ decision to expand the bullpens (and bring in the fences) has as much to do with a relative shortage of lefthanded power in their system as it does with extra seats.

Moving the fences in even 10 feet would make Crawford a better power hitter. Ditto for Ryan Kalish and Jacoby Ellsbury. When the Red Sox broke camp last year, Theo Epstein openly stated that the Red Sox might be vulnerable against good righthanded pitching. Might not the decision to alter the field have something to do with that?

As for the re-signing of Jason Varitek, again, nobody is complaining. The plan following the 2008 season was for Varitek to tutor Jarrod Saltalamacchia. It just took a little longer for things to crystallize. Grooming a catcher is a good idea, particularly if the Red Sox are willing to fill the other spots in their lineup with legitimate offensive talent. But they probably can’t carry Saltalamacchia with Jed Lowrie at third base and Kalish in left field.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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