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Comfort zone isn't good place for Bruins

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By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / October 27, 2011

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WILMINGTON - By now, three weeks into the NHL season, we’ve all grown tired of the word “hangover.’’ It has become almost as synonymous with the 2011-12 Bruins as the term “Stanley Cup champions’’ is with the 2010-11 Black-and-Gold version.

OK, they’re not good right now. We get it. Right? To a degree, yes, but not if we look beyond the catch-all, generic term “hangover’’ and try to identify the root cause of the team’s melancholy.

From where I am watching, which is six floors above the playing surface when the Bruins are on home ice - as they are tonight against Montreal - it looks as though they suffer most from a lack of competition for jobs. It’s not that they are fat cats, or a bunch of prima donnas gone soft from a summer diet of high carbohydrates and higher adulation.

But they look comfortable. Far too comfortable. And that’s how they’ve played for most of the first eight games. If we need a statistic to underscore that, here’s one: Their lead time in those eight games totaled a meager 89:41. In 485 minutes of action, they were ahead on the scoreboard slightly less than 20 percent of the time. Over five of their last six games, in fact, their lead time was 0:00.

Urgency? What the heck do you mean, urgency? To quote old pal Tom McVie, and a million other coaches from peewee to senior hockey, catch-up hockey is losing hockey. Witness the current 3-5-0 record.

None of which proves, of course, that these guys have grown too comfortable in their long-sleeved sweaters and short pants. That’s a subjective read. By my eye, an unfair share of the 18 skaters coach Claude Julien rolls out on a nightly basis are playing without the least bit of fear that their jobs, or the minutes they play per night, are truly on the line. They’re going to dress, they’re going to play, and that’s going to be the entitlement tune around here no matter what numbers accumulate under the columns “W’’ and “L.’’

Too many of these guys seem to be of the belief that membership has its privileges, the main one being that they get to keep going out there even if at the end of the night their contribution reads either “doing nothing’’ or “nothing doing.’’

Over the course of some 18 hours the last two days, I asked both Julien and general manager Peter Chiarelli their read on the existing competition for jobs on the Boston roster. In each case, I think their words were a subtle admission of the problem.

Now, granted, that can be your faithful puck chronicler hearing what he wants to hear, but I don’t think so. I think they know the comfort/entitlement factor has burrowed into their squad’s psyche, and they are both cutting their guys a lot of slack in hopes that their patience, at least as stated publicly, ultimately will provide a passage back to bountiful.

Chiarelli went so far as to say, “I have to get over it,’’ after noting a manager’s reluctance to “meddle and tinker’’ with the roster of a Stanley Cup champion.

Chiarelli exhibits tremendous patience, and that virtue was rewarded last spring the way no GM here has known since Milt Schmidt in 1970 and ’72.

But he’s right, he has to “get over it,’’ and in a hurry, because history shows how brutal the 82-game regular season can be for teams that don’t stake out a claim on one of the 16 playoff seeds by Thanksgiving. If the Bruins win at a 3-of-8 rate over the 12 games leading up to Thanksgiving, they’re not relegated to the scrap heap, but they will have to scrap and claw through December, January, February, and March just to pick off one of the East’s playoff seeds.

Julien, following yesterday’s hour-plus workout at Ristuccia Arena, initially didn’t sound concerned over a perceived lack of competition for jobs. But as he spoke in the media scrum, he referenced how “doing the right thing for the team’’ sometimes “leads to a tough decision - but as long as it’s the right one, it doesn’t matter to me.’’

The right thing being perhaps a call-up from Providence?

“Providence . . . or even sitting [a guy] out,’’ said Julien, conviction growing in his voice. “It’s easy to sit out a guy on the fourth line, but if they are doing their job, then hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.

“I’m not suggesting anything right now. But I am telling you we’ll do what we have to do to make sure the team stays on its toes and not on its heels.’’

This is a team, a defending Cup champ, officially on its heels, comfortable, at times acquiescent.

To be specific, top wingers Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton haven’t come close to being the forces they can be out there. Newcomer Joe Corvo, the heir apparent to the power-play Mr. Fix-It position that Tomas Kaberle failed to fulfill, hasn’t added much pop to the man-advantage and is a minus-4. Slick pivot David Krejci has tallied but 1 point, a goal, in five games, and is sporting a team-low minus-5.

He is supposed to be their elite, impact center. Not right now. Not even close.

Of that bunch, Lucic has shown some signs of recovery of late, but collectively those four guys are on the books this year for $15 million and have compiled a weak line of 5-9-14 and minus-8 to a troubled bottom line. Ex-Hab Benoit Pouliot has dressed for seven games, but you wouldn’t know it from his 0-0-0/minus-2 line.

One encouraging sign the last two games was Shawn Thornton’s willingness to get down and dirty, the hard-rock right winger taking on tough guys Colton Orr (Toronto) and Jim Vandermeer (San Jose). Though I may not care for fighting’s place in the game, it’s still there, and Thornton totally fulfilled his job description.

Even more impressively, he did it knowing full well no one else in Boston colors, even the powerful Lucic, would be inclined to get that fired up or try to steal his job.

Another concern, though, has been that Thornton’s crash line, which includes Daniel Paille and Gregory Campbell, now stands minus-10 for the season. As a group, they have to be much better.

Seventy-four games to go. All we can say about the defending Cup champion Bruins this morning is that they’re not what they were just a short time ago, and it’s obvious they need a shake. They know, or should easily remember, that comfy doesn’t win Cups.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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