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Hockey Notes

Shadows of themselves

Seasons changed, and so have Bruins

By Kevin Paul Dupont
March 22, 2009
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If there is a Bruins fan at your kitchen table this morn, he or she is probably longing not for the warm, sunny days around the corner, but for the cold and bluster of December and January, when the local NHL chapter dreamed of four rounds of playoff glory and a rollicking Stanley Cup parade in June.

Not quite the spring we anticipated, is it? Just about as Punxsutawney Phil crawled back into his hole (was that a Spoked-B on Phil's knit cap?), the Bruins' season went straight down there with him.

The Devils, on Causeway Street this afternoon, were just another speck in Boston's rear-view mirror around Groundhog Day, back when times were good for the Black and Gold, when one win followed another followed another, like so many Feb. 2's. The Bruins were on course to set a franchise record for points in a season, lock in home ice for at least three rounds of the playoffs, and force the shutdown of www.pleasesellthebruins.com.

Now? The Devils and Capitals have eaten up much of Boston's cushion in the East standings, with a combination of their own blistering play and Boston's lackluster, if not frightening, performance - including recent losses to tattered orphans Phoenix and Los Angeles. On Friday, general manager Peter Chiarelli dismissed any notion of firing coach Claude Julien, who was 79 games (and 102 points) into his lone season behind the Devils bench in 2006-07 when GM Lou Lamoriello kicked the milking stool out from under him.

That's good for Julien, and good for Chiarelli, too, because even though coaching can always be called into question (unless the coach happens to be Scotty Bowman), Julien has not been the problem during the current miseries (six wins in 19 games).

What, has someone been waiting for Julien and crew (including the perpetually censored Craig Ramsay, Geoff Ward, and Doug Houda) to send in a set of secret plays from the sideline? Wrong sport for that.

Maybe he should change the rotation? Well, Julien has done that, with the forwards and defensemen, and it was encouraging to see him finally redeploy Matt Hunwick on defense Thursday night. Hunwick is hardly Paul Coffey, but his skating skill and hockey sense provide a slightly different look to a very predictable Boston game plan.

Frankly, I've taken to thinking of Hunwick as the canary in the coal mine, which is to say when he isn't used, I think Julien, a conservative coach, is being too conservative for his own (and the team's) good. When he does use him, I get the feeling Julien feels he is being somewhat desperate.

Hunwick is a rookie and will make mistakes. But he should be in the lineup, now more than ever, because predictability plays into the opponent's hands, and it also works against the competition for jobs within a roster.

Hiring Julien has been one of the best decisions Chiarelli has made since taking over in June 2006. Now isn't the time to tinker with success.

The Bruins had a deal cooking on trade deadline day to bring Keith Tkachuk here, the Blues hoping to land Phil Kessel in the swap (with David Perron the added enticement to come here). These last six weeks have underscored Boston's need to add size at center, which the 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pound Tkachuk would have addressed.

By NHL standards, Boston's top three pivots (Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci) are small. Clever and skilled, but about 2 inches short and 15 pounds light. Of late, Krejci has been Lilliput little (24 games, 3-8 -11). Bergeron has been much better (3-9 -12 in the last 16 games). Savard's game has been pretty good all year, though mediocre of late. He must pick it up considerably if there's any hope of a decent playoff run. And if Krejci's game stays flat, that alone could be enough to scuttle any postseason success.

The back line was supposed to get better with the addition of Steve Montador. He could still help. If he had been plugged in here in December or January, he probably would be heralded now as a brilliant pickup. Overall, though, it's a group that needs a mobility-and-jump infusion, something more than the trusted, gritty hand that Montador brings to fill out a No. 3 pairing.

As for goaltending, that's all Tim Thomas now, and it's the least of their concerns. Manny Fernandez made himself a footnote with his erratic play March 8 at Madison Square Garden.

This is not a team that needs a new coach, and the parts are the parts, the same ones that were almost good enough 2-4 months ago to run away and hide. But it is a team that needs a surge now in its compete level (read: effort) and an attitude adjustment. Skill got them to a point, but they then turned a little lazy, and that led to confusion. Lazy and confused are the left hook and right uppercut that lead to quick KOs.

They have to play bigger and they have to play dirtier and nastier, which is always what makes for playoff success. This is a team with enough goods to extend the season into June. What the Bruins must find now is an inner anger, an emotion that will rain down on their heads in sheets and buckets, or else they've turned 2008-09 into nothing but a tease.

A read on the Charlie cards

Charlie Jacobs, the Bruins' executive vice president, met Thursday at NHL headquarters with John Collins, the league's top marketing guy, and came away with added hope that the league will stage its annual outdoor game here on Jan. 1, 2010.

"Here" could be Fenway Park, but it also could be Gillette Stadium.

"There's an upside to both venues," noted Jacobs. "Fenway, of course, has the intimacy of the park itself, while Gillette would be without some of the seating restraints of a baseball park."

Gillette, with nearly double the capacity of Fenway, would stand to generate at least double the revenue. However, would upward of 70,000 puck lovers make the journey to Foxborough to see a hockey game, no matter how rare the experience? If the Canadiens were the opposition, perhaps. Anyone else, even if it were the Rangers, might not entice enough out-of-towners.

According to the Sports Business Journal, by the way, the University of Michigan (once with Aaron Ward and Matt Hunwick on its roster), will play two outdoor games in the 2009-10 season, one at Wisconsin Feb. 6, the other at Ann Arbor vs. Michigan State (TBA).

Other Jacobs updates:

  • WBZ radio remains in the mix to continue as the Bruins radio outlet after the expiration of its deal this season. Jacobs said the club has completed talks with three potential partners - representing a number of possible outlets, AM and FM - and he suspects a decision will be made "ideally" prior to May 1. Jacobs reiterated that he would like the present announcing team of Dave Goucher and Bob Beers to remain intact.
  • The Bruins are still without a development partner for three tracts of land that Delaware North owns around the Garden. Permitting is in place, said Jacobs, for a 37-floor tower, residential and commercial, on the "rear" lot, close to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, while DNC is trying to finalize permits for a pair of similar towers on the two lots on the Causeway Street side of the Garden.
  • DNC remains hopeful that it will be selected again to own and operate the only casino in New York City, located on land around Aqueduct Race Track. DNC was selected last fall as the project's winning bidder, having promised a payment of $370 million in rights fees due March 31. With credit markets tight and DNC unable to secure the full payment in time, the Jacobs family attempted to stagger the payments. To do so, however, required the state to reopen the bidding, expected to be a two-week process.
  • Etc.

    Hot dog needs to cool it
    OK, I wasn't wild about Alexander Ovechkin's celebration last week in Tampa after he wristed in his 50th goal of the season. AO promptly dropped his stick flat on the ice and held both hands over it, as if it were just too hot to touch. What, did he steal that from Marcel Marceau's days in the Quebec League? Regular readers of this space know that I'm all for Ovechkin's enthusiasm, energy, and usually his celebrations. But, come on, Alex, leave a little room here for what might happen if, say, the Capitals actually win a Stanley Cup. I'm beginning to worry that you might try some Harry Houdini trick, strip down to your shorts in the neutral zone and have yourself frozen in the ice. Like forever.

    Vancouver has a nice ring to it
    There isn't much left for the Avalanche to play for - yes, even in the mediocre West, seven teams have to take a seat for the playoffs - but Joe Sakic could get in a final skate or two before the Pepsi Center is drained. As for next year, the Avs already have $44 million committed in salary, and that could make it tough for Sakic, about to turn 40, to find work again in Denver (where, he has said repeatedly, he wants to retire). The bet here is that the Canucks, with only $31 million on the books for next year, bring Burnaby Joe back home. He wants to play in a fourth Olympics for Team Canada. With the 2010 Games in Vancouver, he could walk to work.

    New venue for brother act?
    Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis, unable to tie up a deal last week with twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin, said he will resume talks with their agent, J.P. Barry, once the season is concluded. Meanwhile, the betting around the league is that the two talented Swedes will end up July 1 in Toronto, under the employ of Leafs GM Brian Burke, who was the guy at the controls in Vancouver when he orchestrated all the moves that allowed the Canucks to draft the talented Swedes with pick Nos. 2-3 in the '99 draft.

    Olli Olli in
    Olli Jokinen, now in Calgary, finally gets to dump the "best-player-never-to-play-in-the-playoffs" tag next month, nearly 12 years after the Kings took him as the No. 3 pick in the '97 draft, behind Mssrs. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. OJ surpassed the standing mark of career futility, 734 games, held by Guy Charron (ex- of Montreal and Washington). But now that Jokinen will have his day, Charron will reclaim the record (now there's some kind of glory, huh?). Meanwhile, the Kings' Derek Armstrong, with 462 career games, at the moment is the closest to Jokinen on the futility list.

    Loose pucks
    Yesterday morning's Eastern Conference standings had the Bruins first and the Canadiens eighth. The Trading Places series awaits . . . According to Charlie Jacobs, some 95 percent of the 2008-09 Bruin season ticket-holders have renewed for next season and the club has written accounts for an added 3,000 seats next season . . . Barely hours after setting the NHL record for career wins by a goalie (552), Martin Brodeur had it confirmed by the courts that he'll have to dole out $500,000 in alimony each year through 2020. But he does have three more years on the books at $5.2 million with the Devils, which means the ex will get her dough, and Brodeur is likely to push that career standard to upward of 650 . . . Looks like the Sabres are churrascaria for a second season in a row. In a struggling Buffalo economy, that could really mean a dent in their 2009-10 box office. All of which would be added bad news for any entrepreneur - someone with, say, a background in technology gadgetry - dreaming of bringing another NHL team to southern Ontario.

    Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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