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Savoring Savard

It seems slick Bruins centerman Marc Savard has developed into a player who thinks less about himself and more about his team. It seems slick Bruins centerman Marc Savard has developed into a player who thinks less about himself and more about his team. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / September 29, 2009

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Marc Savard, the perpetual playmaker, would try to create offense. He would fail. Then Savard would take an absent-minded skate up the ice practically into the next province, daydreaming about his missed offensive opportunity instead of retreating to help teammates.

“While he’s doing that big loop and coming back, we’re battling in our own end to get it out,’’ said Derek Morris. “By the time we got it to him, we were all so exhausted that we couldn’t get up with him.’’

It was a play that took place with irritating regularity a decade ago, when Savard and Morris were wearing Calgary’s red and white. It was not Savard’s only transgression. He floated. He didn’t backcheck consistently. He was the first to swipe a postgame scoresheet to see how many points he piled up.

A decade later, now a completely different player with the Bruins, those early sins are still tugging at Savard’s jersey. There was no clearer evidence of his lousy reputation than what took place this summer, when Hockey Canada deemed Savard’s presence unnecessary at its Olympic orientation camp.

“That was a crime,’’ said general manager Peter Chiarelli.

“I think he got shunned very badly with that camp,’’ Morris said. “I think he got overlooked because of his years in the past.’’

For the franchise that writes his paychecks, however, the snub is just another variable that could prod greater production out of its No. 1 center. Savard, 32, is in the last year of a $20 million contract. After appearing in 659 regular-season games without a playoff appearance, Savard is desperate to continue advancing in the postseason. So being overlooked by Steve Yzerman, Doug Armstrong, and the rest of Hockey Canada’s staff can only be a good thing for the Bruins.

“I’m sure he’s got some incentive,’’ vice president Cam Neely said with a laugh. “I’m sure he has some incentive there.’’

Skilled but slow start
There never has been any doubt about Savard’s creativity, even going back to his childhood days in Ottawa.

“Even when I was a little kid, I was never a kid who would try to go through everybody and score goals,’’ Savard said. “I always passed the puck. It was just the way I’ve been my whole life.’’

In his draft year, Savard, piled up 139 points, including 96 assists, in 66 games for the Oshawa Generals.

“He’s always been a tremendous playmaker,’’ Chiarelli said. “He was an elite playmaker in junior. He was always an elite playmaker. He always had that. The other elements to his game are probably the reasons why he hadn’t jumped to the forefront sooner rather than later.’’

After only two seasons with the Rangers, Savard was traded to the Flames. Savard spent four seasons in Calgary, where he made friends with players like Morris but also drew the ire of leaders like Jarome Iginla when he didn’t buy into the team-first approach. It was probably no coincidence that Savard never appeared in the playoffs during his time in Calgary.

“There’s a select few, but I don’t think you come into the game as a young kid thinking, “I want to win,’ ’’ Morris said. “You don’t realize how hard it is to even get an opportunity to win. You’re young and you’re coming out of the playoffs in junior where you’re like, ‘We made the playoffs every time and we could win games strictly on whatever.’ Here, it’s so hard to win in the NHL. I’ve seen it myself, being on young teams.’’

On Nov. 15, 2002, Calgary traded Savard to Atlanta for Ruslan Zainullin. In Atlanta, Bob Hartley, who coached Colorado to the Stanley Cup in 2000-01, was the whip-cracking presence on the Thrashers’ bench. That’s where Savard started to get it.

Hartley, recognizing Savard’s creativity, paired him with Ilya Kovalchuk and leaned on the two offensive-minded forwards. In 2003-04, Savard averaged 22:19 of playing time per match and became a point-per-game player (1.16) for the first time in his NHL career. In 2005-06, his contract year, Savard averaged 20:30 of ice time per game and scored a career-best 97 points, triggering the four-year, $20 million deal he would sign with the Bruins the following summer.

“I think a lot of it was minutes, too,’’ Savard said. “If you look at minutes, I was a 13- or 14-minute guy at the start of my career. You have to earn your coach’s trust, and that’s what happened in Atlanta when I got there. Coach Hartley really trusted me out there and played me a lot.’’

When Savard signed with the Bruins, he had appeared in 503 regular-season games. He had yet to dress in the playoffs, a stretch of shame that would extend another year under ex-coach Dave Lewis. But under Claude Julien, like most teammates, Savard became a better two-way player. It was no coincidence that Savard finally dressed in the playoffs in 2007-08, a taste that would boost his development even more.

“I see a different Savvy,’’ said Morris, who called Savard when he was considering the Bruins this summer. “We were both young, cocky . . . He just wants to win now. He’s to the point where he just wants to win. I called him and said, ‘Sav, what’s the team like? I have an opportunity to come play there, which would be great for me. Am I going to fit in?’ He’s like, ‘We just want guys here who want to win. I’m at a point of my career where I just want to win.’ ’’

Two-way player
Whatever it is, maturation or Julien’s guidance, Savard enters 2009-10 as a top-shelf playmaker who has earned the trust to be on the ice for late-game defensive-zone draws as well as power plays.

“There’s only a handful of guys every year that can see the plays differently than other people and make those plays,’’ said Neely, who had Craig Janney and Adam Oates threading him passes during his Boston career. “In that regard, yeah, both Craig and Adam were able to find those seams like Marc. They’re one step ahead of most other players. There’s times when you see [Savard], and as soon as the puck’s on his stick, he knows where he’s putting it and moving it right away. That’s just natural ability that those players have.’’

He is the literal center of the offense, with Milan Lucic watching his back - the big wing bloodied Chris Neil last Friday when the Ottawa bruiser thumped Savard into the boards - and looking for his feeds. Phil Kessel was traded to Toronto, but Marco Sturm is trying to assume the position of Savard’s speedy right wing. On the power play, from his preferred position on the right-side half-boards, Savard conducts the flow of the attack, using his eyes and hands to thread passes to Zdeno Chara at the point, Patrice Bergeron on the other side, or Mark Recchi down low.

“When he’s coming down on you, he may see something that you don’t even see,’’ said Mark Stuart. “As a defenseman, when he has the puck, you’ve got to take care of him first. But you also have to watch what’s going on around you. He’s able to find that guy streaking in. That’s one of his biggest strengths, which is his vision. He plays fast. He likes to move the puck and keep the puck going. He’s such a good passer. Not many guys who can pass like him.’’

Savard has also become a regular on the penalty kill, where he averaged 1:36 of shorthanded ice time per game last season. It’s his two-way game that makes him one of the NHL’s best centers, and why he’ll be on the wish list of many GMs next summer.

Savard repeatedly has said he likes it in Boston. The Bruins will have some cap relief next summer when Glen Murray’s $1.383 million buyout number comes off the books, while Morris, Andrew Ference, Recchi, Steve Begin, and Shawn Thornton become unrestricted free agents. But the Bruins must also extend Lucic, Stuart, Blake Wheeler, and Tuukka Rask, who will become restricted free agents. Toronto could strike again if GM Brian Burke wants to reunite Kessel with Savard, whose summer home is in nearby Peterborough. Chiarelli won’t speculate on whether the Bruins will re-sign Savard. If they do, they’ll be locking up a center who, later in his career rather than earlier, committed himself to being a well-rounded player.

Better late than never.

“My feelings have come a long way,’’ Neely admitted. “It’s gone from being about, ‘OK, how many points can I accumulate?’ to, ‘How do we win hockey games? How do I help my team win hockey games?’ That’s Marc now.’’

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