For a town starved for something good to happen on the ice, last April's seven-game set with the Canadiens still resonates nearly six months later. The Bruins didn't make it to Round 2 of the playoffs - and haven't since they partied in, like, 1999 - but amid that first round they got back a little bit of their badly needed pluck-'n'-strum.
That said, they need a whole lot more to be considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Black-and-Gold training camp officially opened yesterday morning at the Vault, and over the next three weeks, we'll find out whether the Bruins have fixed three critical areas. In order of importance:
1. Goal scoring. Coach Claude Julien's mantra is defense, first and foremost, and without question, a tighter, more cohesive defensive scheme is what delivered the No. 8 playoff seed. Had it been left to the offense, the train was never going to load, never mind leave North Station. Unable many nights to mount a consistent, pressured attack, the Bruins scored only 206 goals in 82 games, better than only the Rangers (205), Blues (202), Devils (198), Ducks (197), Blue Jackets (190), and Islanders (189).
The problem: Widespread inability to work the puck down low, then finish, especially when it came to establishing a circling game in the corners or maintaining position around the net.
The fix: They gave free agent Michael Ryder a three-year, $12 million guarantee, hoping he can be the player he was under Julien in Montreal and bury 90-100 pucks over the next three seasons. Ryder was hired to pick up all the bread crumbs Glen Murray left on the table.
The comment: "We've also got Patrice Bergeron back," said general manager Peter Chiarelli. "We also want more offense from the back end - not necessarily more goals by defensemen, but we definitely want them more engaged, more active in the offensive game. It's a mentality, too. We want more net drive, more net traffic, more play in and around the crease. Guys have to be there for the garbage goals."
2. Penalty killing. The Bruins killed 78.6 percent of the opposition's chances. Leaguewide, only Toronto (78.1) and the Kings (78) were worse.
The problem: They had decent legs out there (Marco Sturm, P.J. Axelsson, Glen Metropolit, among others), but they struggled at the faceoff dot and their goaltending didn't live up to the cliché that your best penalty killer has to be the guy in net.
The fix: First and foremost, the late-summer acquisition of free agent Stephane Yelle, long one of the game's better faceoff men, and an overall energy boost. Bergeron will be expected to help here, too, although Julien hinted that he might be careful about overburdening Bergeron early, given that the club's 1A pivot is returning from a Grade 3 concussion. Look for David Krejci, who assumed No. 1 pivot duties briefly when Marc Savard also was hurt, to aid the kill crew.
The comment: "We had a poor start in this area, and it put us behind the 8-ball all season," said Julien. "It's something we're disappointed in, even though I thought we were better at it in the playoffs."
3. Power play. Overall, the Bruins were a humdrum 17.6 percent on the advantage, landing them mid-pack, 16th overall. The Habs led the league with 24.1 percent proficiency.
The problem: They simply didn't get enough opportunities to play with the advantage. Across 82 games, they had 163 power plays, a fraction below two per game. Only the Rangers (160), Devils (158), and Thrashers (148) had fewer.
The fix: Overall, they need a faster attack, both in transition and especially in the offensive zone. Skating with the puck, then maintaining possession around the net (see point No. 1) forces the opposition to commit fouls. Teams with few chances are typically slower in all three zones, and uncommitted around the net. Julien will have to demand a faster approach, and that could lead to a couple of kids stealing jobs.
Comment: "We talked a lot about it throughout last season," said Chiarelli. "We're not drawing enough penalties, and to do that, we have to cycle more. Some of it is a function of size; we can't get in there and protect it long enough to get the cycle going. Ryder is good on the half-wall and corners. Bergeron, too. [Peter] Schaefer didn't do it much in the regular season, but he had it going in the playoffs."
Room for Thompson -- for now
Nate Thompson doesn't have a Boston roster spot, but on Friday, the 24-year-old center had his nameplate (No. 51) tacked among the varsity who filled the dressing room at the Wilmington training facility.
What did that little piece of valuable real estate mean for the proud son of Anchorage, Alaska?
"Well, part of it is just that there are only so many lockers," said coach Claude Julien. "But it's about earning it, and he's definitely earned it with his dedication and his commitment to the game. If it's a boost for him [to dress with the regulars], and he wants to use it that way, then it's to his advantage."
The 6-foot, 205-pound Thompson, drafted 183d overall by the Bruins in 2003, captained the Providence Bruins last season, his third in the AHL, and contributed a steady 19 goals and 39 points. He can play with energy, strength, and enthusiasm, which could make him a prime candidate to shimmy into a third- or fourth-line role, especially for a club that can use help on the penalty kill.
"I still have a long way to go, and hope I can make the most of the opportunity," said Thompson. "I had a spot in here last year, too. I don't know if there is really a significance to it, but it's a very nice gesture. And if you can earn your time out there, maybe it stays. But that's a long way yet."
Fly away: As expected, the Flyers, nearly $3 million over the $56.7 million salary cap, turfed Derian Hatcher by placing the veteran blue liner on long-term injury exception. Barring a miracle (the regrowth of knee cartilage and disappearance of bone spurs), Hatcher is all done, albeit with a $3.5 million going-away prize. Hatcher said he would still like to play. "But our doctors don't believe he can," said general manager Paul Holmgren. The Broad Streeters also inked a two-way deal with goalie Jean-Sebastien Aubin, who will offer insurance now that Antero Niittymaki has undergone yet another procedure on a torn hip labrum.
Ax still grinding: P.J. Axelsson, the longest-tenured Bruin, can be traded to 19 other teams, though he maintains the right to submit a list of 10 to which he will not accept a trade. With the Bruins having only roughly $1.5 million in cap space, that could make Axelsson ($1.85 million) vulnerable, especially if some of the younger, cheaper legs make an impact. Ax will be 34 in February, and was plus-11 last season, the best ranking of his career. It's a good bet that calls are already coming to Causeway Street, but given his experience and pay, he's likely to stay - unless a kid can fill his skates, and someone wants to overbid at the trade deadline.
Loose pucks: Contrary to years past when they failed to keep essential players (to wit: Chris Drury and Daniel Briere), the Sabres continue to tie up key personnel to long-term deals. The latest was Jason Pominville (five years/$26.5 million), a hefty boost over the pedestrian $1.375 million he will earn this year. Best of all, though, was GM Darcy Regier getting top goalie Ryan Miller to ink a five-year deal at a $6.25 million average . . . Chat room: Your faithful puck chronicler will fire up the airwaves again this Saturday, 11 a.m., and every Saturday through the NHL draft in June, as the New England Hockey Journal radio show makes its highly anticipated return on ESPN 890. It's the longest-running Saturday morning sports talk show in the Hub, where turnover runs at a Mike Keenan-like pace. Co-hosts include Mick Colageo and Matt Kalman. Live streaming audio is available on: www.hockeyjournal.com . . . Let it be duly noted that Nick Liatsos, who helped revitalize Bryan Berard's back, leading the veteran blue liner to a training camp invite with the Flyers, is a licensed physical therapist. Your faithful puck chronicler, whose own two-year odyssey with a bad back has no doubt boosted Ben & Jerry's stock by 617 percent, should have known better than to refer to Liatsos as only a "fitness trainer" . . . Before the puck was dropped to start training camp, the Hurricanes lost key forwards Justin Williams and Rod Brind'Amour. Williams, out for up to six months, tore an Achilles' tendon during off-site training. Brind'Amour tore up a knee last season in his 59th game, rehabbed like a madman, but still required surgery last week to repair cartilage. The Hurricanes hope he will ready for their Oct. 10 opener.
Marty Brodeur, 36 years old and winner of three Stanley Cups (1995, 2000, 2003), will be back blocking the Devils net, with his eyes locked in on the record books as well as opponents' shots. Consider:
His 538 career wins rank him second only to Patrick Roy (551). If he matches last season's pace, he could pick up No. 552 around the start of December, if not sooner.
His 96 career shutouts rank him second only to Terry Sawchuk's 103. He has averaged eight shutouts over the past two seasons.
Roy played in a record 1,029 games, and Brodeur will begin the season with 968. His 32d game will make him only the second goalie ever to play in 1,000, and if he plays in 62 this season, he'll eclipse St. Patrick, too.
Farewell, Jack Falla: Hockey lost a sincere and passionate voice last weekend with the death of Jack Falla, 64, a dear friend of your faithful correspondent, and once a Boston University professor of all-world Globe wingman Fluto Shinzawa (see Fluto's blog from last week. Both Fluto and I were in the rotation of guest lecturers at Falla's legendary 8 a.m. sportswriting class at BU's College of Communication. "I know, it's a tough wake-up call for you," Jack would say when requesting a visit. "But I like early starts, because only first-rounders with a little fire in the belly sign up for 8 a.m. classes." Of all of us in the pucks-and-prose business, Jack was truly unique. He wrote it, all the way from three-paragraph "shorts" to lengthy tomes (his latest, "Open Ice," was released just days before his passing). He lived it. My one twirl at his backyard rink in Natick, the Bacon Street Omni, with my then-5-year-old son, is a cherished memory. Jack would encourage visitors to lace on skates right there while sitting around the kitchen table. Above all, he absolutely loved it, and lived with the pleasure of knowing that it loved him back. BU's College of Communication has established a fund in Jack's name, with details to be determined. Donations can be sent to: Jack Falla Fund, College of Communication, Boston University, 640 Commonwealth Ave., Boston 02215
Still carrying a torch: Wayne Gretzky says he will "be involved" and will be happy to "lend a hand," but he is not interested in another twirl as Team Canada's executive director for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Gretz helped direct our northern neighbors to gold in Salt Lake (2002), but came home from Torino ('06) without a medal. Look for Steve Yzerman to get a good look at the gig, a job that Hockey Canada would prefer to have filled by the end of this month. Meanwhile, rumblings continue among a number of key NHL personnel, on the team level, that Vancouver will mark the end of NHL player participation at the Games (Nagano '98, was the league's debut). But NHLPA boss Paul Kelly made it clear last week, in comments to Canada's Globe & Mail, that the rank and file remain keenly interested in the Olympics. "NHL management," reminded Kelly, "does not have the right to make unilateral statements that we will not participate in the Olympics again. Players have strong views about the issue." Kelly is clearly being judicious about what fights to pick in his new role, and this is a clean, easy one to pick. The bet here: The guys stay in the Games, for at least as long as Kelly remains on the beat.
Wayne's worldly: A phone call from Jaromir Jagr, rumored to be banking $25 million for his two years of work in Russia, was all it took to convince Flames assistant Wayne Fleming to become the new coach of Avangard Omsk (where ex-Bruin John Grahame is the No. 1 keeper). Only six games (2-4) into the KHL season, Avangard ditched coach Sergei Gersonskiy and his assistant, Igor Zhilinskiy. Fleming over the summer had a feeler from a Belarus club, but opted to remain on Mike Keenan's staff. A longtime assistant with the Islanders, Coyotes, Flyers, and Flames, he now gets his first shot of being the top bench coach since his two-year tour with Leksands (1992-94).
More loose pucks: The Rangers have opened camp, but Brendan Shanahan remains in New York City, without a job for 2008-09. That's a whole lot of goals, and leadership, to keep out of the game. Shanahan is held hostage, in part, by the current status of the CBA, which the players can terminate following this season. While they decide, many clubs run the risk of getting stung financially in this "bridge" period, because older players such as Shanahan (39) could hit bonus incentives that pop team payrolls well over the $56.7 million max. Ditto for some entry-level players who possibly could score millions in performance bonuses . . . Ex-Bruin Brian Rolston, who has played the slot since his Boston days, began Devils training camp as a center, and possibly will fly this season with Patrik Elias and Brian Gionta as his wingers. His speed and strength are there, and he still has a tremendous shot, but it remains to be seen if the 35-year-old Rollie has the hands to be a No. 1 set-up guy . . . Not sure how long Denis Savard will remain the bench boss in Chicago now that Scott Bowman, the world's best coach ever, is one of GM Dale Tallon's chief advisers. A soft start for the Hawks, their expectations now lifted, could deliver Savard directly to the coaching spin-o-rama . . . Word along Causeway Street has is that Tom Songin, a longtime member of the Bruins scouting staff who was dismissed last spring, soon will begin duties in a key role with the club's community relations department. Tough to find a better guy than the Bomber . . . Andrew Raycroft, the ex-Boston goalie attempting to resurrect his career with the Avalanche after being bought out by Toronto, is under the tutelage of another former Bruins goalie, Jeff Hackett, who is now Colorado's goalie coach (a spot previously held by ex-Bruins goalie Craig Billington). What a trail of ex-B's tenders. Could there be room at the inn for Evgeny Ryabchikov? Hackett and Jeff Jillson came to the Bruins for Kyle McLaren in January '03. Jillson and Hackett combined for 67 games in Black-and-Gold. McLaren lives on with the Sharks, making $2.5 million this season, on course to be a UFA July 1. He has pulled on the teal for 302 regular-season games, and 43 more in the postseason.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.