One excellent acquisition
If Thornton can't assume top spot, Nylander is willing and able to rise up for Bruins
National Hockey League teams don't have depth charts, per se, in part because the No. 2 left wing today can be a fourth-line fill-in tomorrow night, or he even can be riding the buses in the minors over the weekend, pondering how his No. 2 LW status morphed into a pothole in Penticton.
A clause on job security does not appear in the standard player's contract. The money is guaranteed, but job definition is open to interpretation.
Which brings us to today's Causeway Street pop quiz: Who is Boston's No. 1 center for the start of the playoffs tonight against the Canadiens?
The answer is, of course, Joe Thornton. We think.
Jumbo Joe was in uniform yesterday at the Vault, and was on the ice for the full 55-minute workout. Whatever ails Thornton -- be it wrist, ribs, back, or any of his other "above-the-waist" body parts -- he coped with it for the better part of an hour. At times, the 6-foot-4-inch pivot skated like a top-heavy bookcase, which could mean he has an aching rib or too many copies of Gray's Anatomy. He was present, but his abundant skills seemed muted.
If Thornton isn't the No. 1, then that make-believe depth chart will put newcomer Michael Nylander smack dab in the middle of Boston's first-line offense. Acquired a month ago amid the annual and frenzied trade deadline, the 31-year-old Nylander has been nothing short of a sensational fit in the offense. He had three multiple-point games and finished with an impressive 1-11--12 for his 15 games after arriving here from Washington for a second-round draft pick.
"I played against him when I was 16 years old," said fellow Bruin Brian Rolston, recalling when his USA squad faced Nylander's Team Sweden in the World Junior tournament. "And at the time, he was like the next [Wayne] Gretzky. He's such a great skater, and he can turn so fast, just turn on a dime -- he's given us that other center who can really make things happen."
Now 11 seasons into his NHL career, and playing for his sixth club, Nylander has not evolved into the next No. 99. For that matter, no one, not even Thornton, has matched the Great One's skills or productivity. But in his short time here, Nylander has flashed one unique trait, an uncanny ability to skip a beat when in control of the puck, and use that fraction of a second to make some magic.
Longtime Bruins watchers might remember how an aging Brad Park had that same "pause" switch built into his game, maintaining possession of the puck while at a virtual standstill, keeping his patience while everyone else seemed to be losing theirs.
"I remember that," said Boston's own Ted Donato. "Brad Park maybe didn't have the legs he had earlier in his career, but he had that way of looking a guy off, and the defender would go one way and Brad would still be there with the puck. Michael's game is a lot like that, deceptive, and he's so quick that one little move, or pause, helps to make him a tremendous playmaker."
If Nylander is the No. 1 center tonight, and Thornton remains on the mend, he could have Thornton's wingers, Mike Knuble and Glen Murray, as his riding mates. But coach Mike Sullivan might consider keeping Nylander and Sergei Samsonov hitched at the hip, and mix in a right winger (pick almost anyone from that ever-changing depth chart) as situations dictate. Perhaps Murray for scoring touch? Marty Lapointe for grit? Patrice Bergeron for speed? Travis Green for a little of this, a little of that?
"He may be the best playmaker I've ever been out there with," said Green, reflecting on some of Nylander's sleight-of-hand feeds to his wing. "He's certainly the best backhand passer I've ever seen, and he just has this way of getting you the puck in places, and at times, you don't expect it. Now I expect to get it from him, wherever I am, but it took a little while to get used to that."
A broken leg while in the Capitals' training camp last fall had Nylander saying his game would take some time to come around when he arrived here March 4. He picked up an assist in his debut, was blanked in the next two, and then lit it up for three assists March 11, including a cross-the-crease feed to Knuble for the OT winner against the Sabres. All in all, it looked as if it took about a week to get his game in synch.
"I feel pretty good on the ice right now," Nylander said the other day, focusing on his play when he has been paired with Samsonov and Green. "We haven't felt like we've been struggling to find each other. There's been some chemistry there. We joke a little that all three of us have had to come back from injury this year [Samsonov and Green both out with damaged rib cartilage]. We're kind of the Injury Line, I guess. It's good."
Had it not been for Washington's decision to pause and change direction as a franchise, a mission centered on purging payroll, Nylander likely would not have been dealt. In fact, he said general manager George McPhee left it up to him whether he wanted out of D.C. Making just under $2.7 million, and on target to be an unrestricted free agent July 1, Nylander did not present the kind of onerous, long-term commitment that, say, Robert Lang (dealt to Detroit) or Jaromir Jagr (dished to the Rangers) presented the Capitals. All things considered, Nylander asked out.
"When I was traded from Chicago to Washington, that was a total shock for me," he recalled. "But this time, I wanted it, I was prepared for it. And I'm glad it was to here, because I'm enjoying it."
As of this morning, Nylander and his Black and Gold brethren stand 16 victories from what would be Boston's first Cup since '72. For his time in North America, spent with Hartford, Calgary, Tampa Bay, Chicago, and Washington, he has played in only 24 postseason games. If the Bruins were to win that Cup, Nylander could more than double his career postseason appearances.
Come the offseason, Nylander is free to leave as one of Boston's dozen-plus unrestricted free agents. Like fellow ex-Capital Sergei Gonchar, he likes it in the Hub of Hockey but he isn't sure of his career path after the playoffs.
"I know I've always liked the city -- it reminds me a lot of Europe with its low buildings and streets for shopping like Newbury Street," he said. "When I played for Hartford, we visited a lot, and I liked walking around. It's got the Italian section -- the North End -- and I always felt it was a nice city to live in.
"And hockey-wise, it's a great team to play for, it has tradition and the crowd . . . they like sports in this town. I've said before, though, now's not the time to think of the future too much. These are important games coming up, and I don't want to make any comment. My focus is on trying to win a Cup."