As a native New Englander, Paul Mara knew all about Chris Drury's big-game reputation.
The Belmont boy was familiar with Drury, raised in Trumbull, Conn., and his Little League heroics, the NCAA championship and Hobey Baker Award he won at Boston University, the Calder Trophy he nabbed as an NHL rookie, and the Stanley Cup he lifted in Colorado.
During the 2007 NHL playoffs, Mara found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of a big-time Drury play.
Mara, swapped out of Boston at the trade deadline, joined a streaking Rangers team that strutted into the postseason. New York marched over Atlanta in the first round, then faced off against Drury and the Buffalo Sabres in Round 2.
In Game 5, after the teams had split the first four matches, New York took a 1-0 late into the third period. But with time ticking away, you-know-who scored the tying goal.
"We're up late in Game 5, then Mr. Clutch came through with seven seconds left," said Mara with a grumble. "They tied and won in OT [Maxim Afinogenov netted the winner] and that's what broke our backs. We played extremely well and we tired them out. It was a harder battle than they thought they were in for. You could tell in the Ottawa series that they were pretty worn out."
Over the summer, New York general manager Glen Sather ensured that Drury wouldn't ruin the Rangers again, signing the former BU captain to a five-year, $35.5 million contract. Then Sather and the Rangers opened eyes around the league even wider by reeling in another top-notch center in Scott Gomez (he'll earn $10 million this season), instantly making the boys on Broadway a playoff favorite heading into 2007-08.
"There were definitely rumors swinging around," Mara recalled. "They were among the top three centermen. Right away, when I heard the news that two of them signed in New York, it was extremely exciting. You couldn't help but think about the future and what adding these two incredible players to our lineup does to what we're building on."
While the Atlantic Division should be loaded this year - Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren has performed miracles in retooling a last-place team, Martin Brodeur will always make the Devils contenders, and who knows what Sidney Crosby is capable of in Pittsburgh - the Rangers should be in the thick of the race.
Up front, the Rangers (42-30-10 last season) should be among the most explosive teams in the league. Drury and Gomez join a core that already included the likes of Jaromir Jagr (96 points), Brendan Shanahan (70), and Martin Straka (62). They have some grit in Sean Avery and Ryan Hollweg, and should have up-and-comers like Ryan Callahan and Nigel Dawes pushing for full-time jobs at Madison Square Garden.
The Bruins learned all about New York's flammable offense last season. On March 17, the Rangers routed the Bruins in a 7-0 bludgeoning that had the well-lubricated MSG fans howling.
But as dangerous as New York's attack will be, Mara knows the team's success begins with the man guarding the back end. This offseason, fearful that a club might send out an offer sheet, the Rangers wisely took Henrik Lundqvist to club-elected arbitration, preventing the restricted free agent from bolting Broadway.
Then the sides agreed to a one-year deal worth $4.25 million this year, and Lundqvist will undoubtedly agree to a long-term extension before the expiration of his current contract.
Last season, the fiery Lundqvist established himself as a top-10 goalie, posting a 37-22-8 record with a 2.34 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage. With journeyman Stephen Valiquette and prospect Al Montoya bidding to serve as the No. 2 goalie, Lundqvist should see a heavy workload again.
"Going into New York, I knew they had a good goalie," said Mara. "Now after playing with him, you know what amazing talent and focus he has, both on and off the ice."
Like every team, New York has its question marks. The Rangers are over the $50.3 million cap, meaning they'll have to shed some salary (sending defenseman Darius Kasparaitis to Hartford would be one solution). Aside from Michal Roszival, they don't have shutdown guys on defense. They're in big trouble if Lundqvist breaks down.
"First and foremost, we want to win the Stanley Cup with the team we put together," said Mara, who'll be unrestricted at the end of the season. "If we go out and play the way we're capable of playing, anything short of that will be disappointing."
Game of checkers?
To these eyes, the revelation of last spring's Stanley Cup finals wasn't the brilliance of Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, the defense of Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, and Francois Beauchemin, the emergence of hotshot forward Ryan Getzlaf, or the slipperiness of center Andy McDonald.
The series started and ended with the checking line of Travis Moen, Samuel Pahlsson, and Rob Niedermayer. So while the Bruins have cribbed the in-your-face style from Anaheim's 2006-07 game plan, will they also go with a traditional checking threesome?
Coach Claude Julien, who had one of the best checking units in the game in Jay Pandolfo, John Madden, and Sergei Brylin in New Jersey, said he'll wait until training camp to determine whether he has the tools to deploy checkers.
If he wishes, Julien will have a defense-first winger in P.J. Axelsson, who was used on Boston's No. 1 line for the first time in his career last season.
"No clue," Axelsson said when asked if he knew what kind of role he'd play this season. "We'll see in camp. I haven't talked to anybody about it."
Based on initial chatter between Julien and general manager Peter Chiarelli, Axelsson will serve in a hybrid role depending on the opponent. While Peter Schaefer promises to bring some jam to the top line - he's considered one of the top along-the-boards grinders in the NHL - the Bruins might put Axelsson with Marc Savard and Glen Murray when the unit requires some defensive presence.
Since the lockout, teams such as Buffalo have rolled out three scoring lines, going with the philosophy that a checking line represents old-school hockey. But if more clubs than Boston view Anaheim as a model, checkers will be part of the new NHL once more.
In trying to punch up the Bruins' lineup, Chiarelli has had some hits and misses
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli classifies himself as the conservative type, more inclined to take his time and evaluate situations than to act quickly.
But in the year and change he's spent in Boston, Chiarelli has been quick on his trigger finger. Since last July, Chiarelli has pulled off 13 trades (not including draft-day deals to move up), second-most in the NHL behind Anaheim's Brian Burke.
In honor of the rough-and-tumble style the Bruins promise to play in 2007-08, we'll evaluate the trades in three categories: KO, draw, and dropped.
Stanislav Chistov from Anaheim for a third-round pick in 2007 or 2008: Draw. The skilled Chistov (13 points last year) has bolted for Russia and is under suspension by the Bruins, who have cleared his $800,000 salary from the books.
Philippe Sauve from Phoenix for forward Tyler Redenbach: Draw. Sauve appeared in only two games for the Bruins. Redenbach had a stint in the ECHL.
Wade Brookbank to Pittsburgh for future considerations: Draw. Brookbank didn't do much in Boston and is now with Carolina.
Yan Stastny to St. Louis for a fifth-round pick in 2007: Draw. Stastny is a career fourth-liner who'll always be fighting for big-league employment.
Brandon Bochenski from Chicago for forward Kris Versteeg and a 2008 conditional pick: KO. Bochenski had 22 points in 31 games last year and should be a second-line right wing. Versteeg might be a year away from cracking the NHL.
Milan Jurcina to Washington for a 2008 fourth-round pick: Dropped. No reason to dump a 6-foot-4-inch defenseman who played big minutes for the Capitals.
Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew from Calgary for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and a 2008 conditional pick: KO. Stuart is gone (signed with Kings), Ference projects to be a top-four defenseman, Kobasew should be a third-liner. Credit Chiarelli for trading Stuart before the defenseman's stock plummeted even more.
Dennis Wideman from St. Louis for Brad Boyes: Dropped. Tough to give up on a forward in only his second NHL season who scored 69 points as a rookie.
Aaron Ward from New York for Mara: Draw. Both are going into contract years and are unlikely to re-sign with their respective clubs.
Adam McQuaid from Columbus for a 2007 fifth-round pick: Draw. Let's see how McQuaid performs in camp.
Manny Fernandez from Minnesota for forward Petr Kalus: KO. Never hurts getting a proven goalie for an inconsistent youngster who might not have broken camp with the big boys.
Peter Schaefer from Ottawa for forward Shean Donovan: KO. Schaefer had 46 points in an off-year under a coach who didn't like him.
Carl Soderberg from St. Louis for goalie Hannu Toivonen: Dropped. Soderberg probably won't attend camp this year, while Toivonen will fight to back up Manny Legace.
They don't have to wing it
Since July 2006, Detroit general manager Ken Holland has made the fewest deals in the league: only two, both coming at the 2007 trade deadline. That's because the Red Wings have been among the shrewdest drafters in the NHL, using low-round picks to nab their three star forwards: Pavel Datsyuk (sixth round, 1998), Henrik Zetterberg (seventh round, 1999), and Tomas Holmstrom (10th round, 1994). One of Holland's priorities will be to lock up Zetterberg, who has two more years on his current deal, to a long-term extension, most likely at a tick under Datsyuk's annual pay of $6.7 million.
Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has thrown down the gauntlet for his captain, calling Zdeno Chara one of the top three defensemen in the league, presumably in a group with Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer and Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. Chara led the league in minutes per game, but he was a significant disappointment in his first year in Boston, perhaps not even qualifying as one of the NHL's top 10 blue liners. "I have to rely on history," Chiarelli said. "Physically, he hasn't had a breakdown. If anything, he's probably gotten stronger. I've seen him for a number of years prior to last year. He was still a dominant player last year. Maybe with the minutes he logged he was overplayed. I know his character. I know how he feels about things. There's no reason why it can't be back to what I've seen over a number of years."
Window is closing
The Senators have a handful of big-time players who will reach the end of their contracts upon the conclusion of 2007-08, which is perhaps the most significant reason why former GM John Muckler was given the boot. All at once, forwards Dany Heatley (UFA), Jason Spezza (RFA), Mike Fisher (UFA), Antoine Vermette (RFA), Chris Kelly (UFA), and ex-Bruin Shean Donovan (UFA), and defenseman Wade Redden (UFA) will be looking for new deals. Both Heatley and Spezza will likely ask for something north of $6 million apiece. Fisher is a character guy (one of the few Senators to show up for the Cup final against Anaheim), Vermette is a rising star, and Kelly is a core player, meaning Donovan and Redden are probably entering their last years of service in Ottawa. To make matters worse, Ottawa has done a rotten job of restocking the pantry. Binghamton, Ottawa's farm team, had the worst record in the AHL last year, and the organization has had a rough time developing its players. "I think it was a bad year down there," GM Bryan Murray acknowledged. "We had few, if any, prospects. We revamped the whole team this year. I think we're bringing back two or three players only."
When the Bruins asked the Wild for Manny Fernandez, Minnesota GM Doug Risebrough wanted David Krejci in return. But Krejci, probably the organization's No. 2 prospect behind Tuukka Rask, will be a keeper, although the Bruins aren't sure whether the center will return to Providence for a second season. "Part of me thinks it would be kind of a waste for him to play in the American League another year," said Chiarelli. "You can develop bad habits." Minnesota, of course, settled for forward Petr Kalus and a fourth-round pick . . . Stick salute to Vancouver forward Ryan Shannon, who proposed to longtime girlfriend Jessica Goldmark last month on the same day he hosted the Stanley Cup in New York and his hometown of Darien, Conn. Shannon, a former Boston College captain, and Goldmark have been together since their prep school days at Taft . . . Best wishes to former Bruin Tim Taylor, who underwent major hip surgery last week and is facing a five-month rehabilitation, according to the Tampa Tribune. The Lightning are now down two ex-Bruins (the other being Rob DiMaio, felled by a concussion) who once skated on the same checking line in Boston . . . Not sure why rumors continue about Atlanta ditching sniper Marian Hossa, who'll be unrestricted after 2007-08. If goalie Kari Lehtonen can rebound from the spanking delivered by the Rangers in the playoffs and a leader emerges on defense, there's no reason why the sharp-shooting Thrashers won't make another postseason run. Now if they stumble early and Hossa is looking for a bank-busting contract, GM Don Waddell will have a host of his counterparts lined up, eager to pull off a heist . . . During several of the informal practices at Ristuccia Arena, Chara tried using a Bauer model stick. But he will go back to his Warrior this year. There's another brand the 6-foot-9-inch hulk has yet to try that might serve him well: Redwood.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.