Wings haven’t given Bruins much of a lift
In theory, the presence of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Marc Savard — and perhaps Tyler Seguin — should make center a position of strength on the Bruins.
But this season proved that the Boston centers require offensive assistance from their wingmen far more than, say, the Pittsburgh threesome of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal.
“If I’m playing armchair quarterback and looking at the Bruins situation, this team, to a certain degree, is built on a similar model to the Penguins, with depth in net, on the blue line, and up the middle,’’ said an NHL source who is based in Greater Boston. “But I don’t think the Bruins have the kind of centermen who can play by themselves.
“Take Jordan Staal. With his game, he can play the style he’s currently playing [shutdown center and penalty-killer] and doesn’t need a lot to play around him. We know about Crosby. I’m not sure that Malkin would be that much better with good players because he plays his own game.
“But Marc Savard needs the right players. So do Bergeron and Krejci.’’
Crosby (109 points) and Malkin (77) are self-starters who don’t need premier wingmen to create offense. With his never-quit motor and recent willingness to shoot, Crosby, who had first looked to Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin, has become more selfish (and not in a pejorative sense) with the puck. Malkin’s skill, speed, and puck-protection ability make him a threat to weave around or bull through opponents en route to the net.
But the Boston centers don’t have that kind of element in their games. This past season, Bergeron read and reacted off Mark Recchi, chasing down the veteran’s dumps and looking for the graybeard in front of the net. But with no offensive-minded left wing to play with, Bergeron was just as effective, if not more so, as a matchup center.
Savard battled foot, knee, and head injuries and was limited to 41 games. But even when healthy, he never had the left-right threats he did in 2008-09, when Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel clicked with the center to create a near-perfect blend of brawn, playmaking, and finish.
Krejci, the most offensive-minded of the bunch this season, shook off a slow start while recovering from offseason hip surgery. But where Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder thrived with Krejci in 2008-09, the line rarely found its chemistry. By year’s end, Krejci had his best results with midseason addition Miroslav Satan riding on the right side.
With the ever-streaky Marco Sturm (22 goals) leading the lukewarm charge on the wing, the Bruins didn’t get nearly the kind of punch from the left and right sides that they require with Bergeron, Krejci, and Savard — three centers who aren’t the hardest forwards to play against and don’t have the puck-carrying presence through the neutral zone to send defensemen scrambling.
So as management goes about its offseason tweaks, perhaps the most pressing issue is how to build around the three centers — if at all. The Bruins are assuming good health and greater determination from Lucic, who projects to play a top-six role. Recchi, if re-signed, should bring the same straight-line approach.
But after that, the hard-to-play-against factor — something general manager Peter Chiarelli has sought since assuming the wheel — drops off significantly.
“If you’re going to soft-dump all the time and chase pucks, you’ve got to have bodies who can get on pucks,’’ said the source. “You need speed and physical guys to win battles and generate offense. That’s part of why they didn’t score a lot of goals this year.’’
With hardly any players who can carry the puck through the neutral zone and gain the offensive blue line, coach Claude Julien’s philosophy has been to gum up center ice, force turnovers, soft-chip into the offensive zone, then win races to play a puck-possession game. But unless the existing crew can toughen up in 2010-11 or Chiarelli can acquire such players via trade (the Bruins, as currently assembled, don’t have enough cap space to be major players when free agency opens), that style will only lead to opponents gaining control of the puck and going the other way.
“I want to add these types of players with this element of the game to their whole game,’’ Chiarelli said of adding harder, tougher, thicker players. “I don’t want a whole team of them.
“We’ve got some players of interest that have these types of things in their game. It’s part of the master plan. We want to continue to have this identity.
“We faltered a little bit this past year. But it’s something we want to continue to have and always play.’’
One Eastern Conference front office man noted that because of some of the contracts the Bruins are locked into (Savard, Ryder, Tim Thomas, Dennis Wideman, Andrew Ference), moving Bergeron could be a wild-card option. Bergeron, who carries a $4.75 million annual cap hit, will be an unrestricted free agent after 2010-11. On July 1, a no-trade clause will go into effect for Bergeron. Given the strength of Bergeron’s two-way game, he could bring an offensive-minded winger in trade.
“He is what he is,’’ said the executive regarding Bergeron’s offensive potential, citing his age (he will turn 25 July 24).
To trade Bergeron, arguably the team’s best all-around player in 2009-10, would be a high-risk move. While the return could be a top-six wing, Bergeron is a team leader who is a favorite of Julien’s because of his ability to fill multiple roles. While the Bruins would be wary of giving Bergeron a significant raise, the sentiment around the organization is that they would prefer to extend the center instead of trading him or letting him walk after next season.
But with the lineup shortcomings the team faces and the playoff loss to Philadelphia still causing heads to shake, few scenarios are considered outlandish.
“Great kid,’’ said McEachern. “He makes everyone so much better. He backchecks. He competes so hard at both ends of the ice. He’s always been like that.’’
Such are traits that McEachern, Blaise MacDonald’s assistant at UMass-Lowell the last two seasons, will bring to the Rivers School, where he was recently hired as varsity hockey coach and assistant athletic director. Rivers, which is in Weston, has approximately 450 students in grades 6-12.
“After being an assistant coach for four years in college,’’ said McEachern, who also served as an assistant to Greg Cronin at Northeastern for two seasons, “it’ll be fun to have your own team.’’
The 41-year-old McEachern will take over a Rivers team that went 9-13-4 in the ISL in 2009-10. As a recruiter at Lowell, McEachern found himself scouting local youngsters. Even amid the movement of players toward junior leagues, McEachern believes prep school hockey has a place in getting boys into college programs. McEachern cited recent Hockey East stars such as Boston College’s Cam Atkinson and Boston University’s Nick Bonino, who both played at Avon Old Farms.
“There are high-end kids coming out of prep school,’’ said the two-time Bruin. “It’s great hockey.
“As a college recruiter, I’d watch the prep schools play, and all the games mean something. Pride is on the line. They play for their schools.
“High school kids are fun to be around. It’s fun to help the kids move on to good colleges, and maybe get a chance to play college hockey in Division 1 or even Division 3.’’
Fluto Shinzawa 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.