Claude Julien has been around the game of hockey long enough to know when a line becomes stale.
Most recently, the Bruins’ coach believed he needed to refresh two lines. Milan Lucic was moved down to the third line with Stephane Yelle and Chuck Kobasew, while P.J. Axelsson was bumped up to the top line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel.
At first glance, that looks like a demotion for Lucic and an upgrade for Axelsson. In reality, it’s a demotion for no individual, and an upgrade for the team as a whole.
Since the first day of training camp, Julien has made it clear that he would switch lines and move players if things weren’t working out. And since that first day, the Bruins have been the most productive team in the NHL.
Standing alone in first place in the Eastern Conference, the team gets consistent production from all four lines and entered the week leading the league in goals. The Bruins’ 10-game winning streak — which Buffalo snapped on Jan. 3 — marked the organization’s longest such streak since 1973. And it wasn’t done by standing pat.
“Just to change it up is usually something coaches do during a year to maybe get a spark or get something else going on,” said Axelsson. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
In this case, it worked for both Axelsson and Lucic. They had been held pointless in the two games before Julien made the switch, for the Dec. 30 game against Pittsburgh. In the first three games with their new linemates, they combined for two goals and four assists.
“I was looking for a response from lines,” said Julien. “I know we keep asking about Lucic — well, yeah, Lucic, Savard, and Kessel I thought weren’t playing as well as they could. Neither was the Yelle, Axelsson, and Kobasew line. I was kind of talking about all six of those guys, on their units, and didn’t think they were generating much.”
Julien continues to push different buttons, and it’s paid off. Only one even-strength line — Blake Wheeler, David Krejci, and Michael Ryder — appears untouchable.
Ryder’s recent success is the perfect example of Julien’s will to change something that’s not working. Ryder began training camp on the right wing with Savard and Lucic. Since then, he’s been matched with centers Patrice Bergeron and Krejci. The moves have left Ryder with 14 goals (matching last year’s total) and 13 assists through 39 games, after he started the season with just three goals in his first 18 games.
“Everyone’s comfortable playing with anyone,” said Lucic. “We’re just going out there focusing on what we have to do, and stick to the game plan. It’s no accident why we won 10 straight.”
Lucic scored what turned out to be the game-winning goal in a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh on Jan. 1 at the Garden, the last win of the team’s streak. His line finished the game with one goal, three assists, and a plus-4. And it’s not the first time he’s been moved from the first line. Lucic began training camp alongside Savard and Ryder, but he played the first three games on both the third and fourth lines.
Axelsson went down with an injury after the third game, moving Lucic back to his projected first-line, left-wing spot. Lucic now finds himself back on a checking line.
“I don’t think [my game] needed to change at all,” said Lucic. “Just because you play with two other players doesn’t mean anything needs to change. We played well the last few games with each other.”
Said Julien, “With Lucic and that hard-working line, it’s certainly helped him find his identity again, as far as being a grinder. And being a grinder doesn’t stop you from scoring.”
Axelsson admits to enjoying the line change because he’s “seeing a little bit more offense out of it.” But even with a goal and three assists after three games back on the top line, his current center said he believes the switch is only temporary. And why not? The more Julien tweaks his lines, the more production he sees.
“Axy’s one of the smartest players, I think, in the league, and he doesn’t get a lot of credit,” said Savard. “He’s in the right spots. He makes the defensive zone a lot easier on the guys he’s playing with, too, because he doesn’t mind coming back and taking control down low.
“He’s been great for me and Kessel. We needed a little switch, as the old line went a little stale. I’m sure we’ll see Lucic back there at some point.”
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at email@example.com
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