Wearing a big target
Orchestrating a repeat performance will be difficult thanks to growing parity around NHL
Brendan Shanahan has been there a number of times, and knows it’s not easy. To be the defending Stanley Cup champ, as the Bruins became on the night of June 15, brings with it the burdensome expectation to win again, the demand to summon bountiful energy and desire after a brief offseason respite, and to deal with opponents on a nearly nightly basis who measure their standing in the hockey world by whether they can beat last season’s best in show.
Shanahan believes what makes repeating these days the hardest of all is the pervasive parity in the league, a factor that has intensified greatly since 2005, when the NHL dramatically lowered the age of free agency and implemented a mandatory salary cap. During the big winger’s salad days in Detroit, when he and the Red Wings won the Cup three times (1997, ’98 and ’02), Shanahan heard myriad theories on what made it so difficult to repeat. All of them held some merit, he said, except one.
“Complacency, you can forget that,’’ said Shanahan, now 42 years old and the NHL’s chief disciplinarian. “Anyone who thinks complacency is part of [what makes it difficult to repeat] has never won the Cup. Winning the Cup the first time turns you into this lion that’s lived its whole life as a vegetarian. Suddenly, he finally gets a steak and thinks, ‘What was I doing only eating veggies all those years?’ From that day on, all he wants is steak.’’
Back to work Thursday night when the Flyers come to town for the 2011-12 opener, the Bruins soon will discover what their appetite level is to win a second Cup in a row, a feat the franchise has never accomplished. The Big Bad Bruins of the Bobby Orr era were supposed to follow their 1970 win with another, only to be foiled by their own high-falutin’ résumés as well as the high shoulders and quick hands of Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden.
Of the many variables the Bruins expect to encounter this season, the first will be the energy/fatigue factor. It took them 107 games, including three playoff rounds that went the full seven games, to win for the first time in 39 years. To do it again means a minimum 98 more games, which would include an unprecedented 16-0 romp through the playoffs. Not likely. Not in a game that arguably demands more physically from its players, over a longer haul, than any team sport.
“Your guys climbed Mount Everest for you,’’ said Leafs general manager Brian Burke, recalling what he told fellow GM Peter Chiarelli about his Bruins this summer. “Not only did that leave them physically exhausted, it has two potentially devastating mental effects. No. 1, they are drained emotionally. No. 2, they had success. They have now achieved the ultimate goal [some] have ever had professionally. For some guys, one Cup is enough. The effort that went into that one Cup represents the supreme sacrifice an athlete can ever make. For some guys, they won’t pay that price a second time.’’
According to Burke, his close pal Bill Polian, vice chairman of the Indianapolis Colts, once told him, “The key after a title is figuring out who is satisfied with one ring - and getting rid of them!’’
Chiarelli, entering his sixth year as Boston’s GM, said Burke, whose Anaheim Ducks won the Cup in 2007, was among a handful of GMs and ex-players he discussed the “repeat’’ subject with over the summer. Like Shanahan, Chiarelli feels increased parity is probably the reason no club has repeated since the Wings did it in 1997-98.
What Chiarelli came away with from those discussions, he said, was an understanding that some drop-off in play will be inevitable at some point.
“The common thread was, you can’t avoid it,’’ said Chiarelli. “It is going to show itself in some shape or form - a hangover, letdown, whatever you want to call it. It may be over a stretch of two weeks where the guys are spinning their wheels. It may be a month. It may be early, it may be later. I think you have to acknowledge it, but you don’t want to dwell on it, turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time, you don’t want to completely dismiss the accomplishment. So there is a balance there. We made the guys aware of it. We’ve talked it over with our coaches. We’ve made the guys aware of it, and that’s all you can do.’’
Initially, say both Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien, the club probably will ease the physical burden on their players who log the most ice time, specifically captain Zdeno Chara and goalie Tim Thomas. For Big Z, that could peg his nightly ice time closer to 20 minutes than 30. For Thomas, it could mean more of a job share at the start of the season with backup Tuukka Rask.
“Anyway, we are sensitive to it,’’ noted Chiarelli, his 2011-12 roster minus veterans such as Mark Recchi (retired), Michael Ryder (Detroit), and Tomas Kaberle (Carolina). “You think you can split the atom and figure out a way to respond to it, but . . . I think you have to deal with it and tweak things along the way, and just know that it’s there.’’
Ex-Bruin Bill Guerin won the Cup as a young gun with New Jersey in 1995, then again as a valued senior handyman with Pittsburgh in 2009. Winning the Cup, said Guerin, delivers the player to training camp still in need of conditioning and short on focus.
“I can tell you, in my case I was better at getting back the conditioning part when I was young, and better at the focus part when I was older,’’ Guerin said.
Only 24 when he won with the Devils, Guerin posted a then career-best 53 points the following year, but the reigning Cup champs went 37-33-12 in the regular season and failed to qualify for the playoffs. A deadline acquisition in ’09 by the Penguins, he added a valuable 7-8-15 line to their championship run that spring, and performed at an even better rate the following playoff season, only to be left disappointed when the Penguins were bounced in Round 2.
“Different teams, different times,’’ said Guerin, who this summer began a new career as a player development coach with the Penguins. “What sticks in my mind, though, is that year after we won in New Jersey. We won, I think, because we had guys playing in specific, defined roles. But when we came back the next year, I’m not going to say guys forgot that, but a lot of guys we had wanted to have breakout seasons. That can be tough. Say you have a young player who was on the third or fourth line, now he wants to be on the first or second. It just doesn’t always work that way.’’
Derek Sanderson, one of the linchpins in the Big Bad Bruins years, recalled that the 1970-71 team had such great success (franchise-record 57 wins, 121 points), that everyone, players included, believed a second Cup would be a cakewalk.
“We were just going to keep on rolling,’’ said Sanderson, now 65. “We thought the playoffs would be easy. That’s where you need the coach to bring you back to earth, tell everyone, ‘Hey, look, calm down!’ ’’
The Bruins bounced back quickly from their 1971 disappointment, winning the Cup again in ’72. Tom Johnson was a rookie coach in 1970-71, and, by Sanderson’s eye, spent the regular season and playoffs in “hands-off’’ mode, the club failing to come up with the adjustments needed around the net to beat Dryden, the ex-Cornell goalie whom Phil Esposito not so affectionately called, “That big octopus in net.’’
“TJ was leaps and bounds better as a coach that second year,’’ said Sanderson. “He was like, ‘OK, I’ve had enough of you jerks . . . I gave you the benefit of the doubt and you failed.’ It was a whole different show. And the key for Claude Julien now, I think, will be that he has to humble them and at the same time not break their spirit. He’s got to bring them back to earth. Guys will want to come back now and want to score, get points . . . they’ve won, it’s human nature to want to strut a little bit out there, right? So it’s get them to compete and humble them at the same time. Tricky.’’
Ex-Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward, now a hockey analyst with TSN, was one of Shanahan’s teammates in Detroit. He was there for the back-to-back titles in 1997 and ’98, and remembers how the club’s leadership group - guys such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman, and Shanahan - kept everyone focused.
“There was this constant message from those guys of, ‘OK, there’s no time here to sit back and absorb it,’ ’’ recalled Ward. “It was always about being back and being ready to play the next season. Of course, we also had a guy in [coach] Scotty [Bowman] who never let anyone get complacent.’’
Ward played here for three seasons, 2006-09, and figures it will rest with his ex-teammates, Chara and Patrice Bergeron, now to be the “whips in the room,’’ commanding everyone’s attention and keeping them focused.
“They’ll make it clear, there can’t be any fat cats in that locker room,’’ offered Ward. “That’s key. They’ve got the respect in there to do it. I saw that in the daily grind with Yzerman, listening to him. He knew just when to step in and say something, and when to let it go. It took so much to get there, win the thing, and then to do it again you’ve got to make sure everyone is all in, all the time. That’s the players and the coach, of course. But I can tell you, if I can think of one guy who can keep everyone focused and going in the right direction, it’s Claude Julien.’’
The puck drops Thursday night, sometime after 7, once the franchise’s sixth Stanley Cup banner has been hoisted to the rafters. The Lightning will be in town Saturday night, followed by a matinee visit Monday by the Avalanche. The beat begins, following a season that bears worth repeating.