BRIGHTON, Mass -- The final few weeks of last season might have been a flaming dumpster fire for the Boston Bruins, but perhaps they learned a little something along the way that’s going to pay dividends this time around.
Actually on second thought, the last few weeks of last season were absolutely a flaming bag of garbage for the Black and Gold and the lessons learned from that experience of going 3-8-1 down the stretch are coloring a great deal of what the B’s have been doing this season. It became very clear to Claude Julien, Don Sweeney and Cam Neely, along with a great many others that watched the team, that the Bruins simply ran out of gas at the end after riding a small group of core B’s players right into the ground.
To boil it down to simple terms, it was a case of too many minutes, too many responsibilities and simply too much burden placed on their shoulders to finish up strong for the Bruins.
It’s the reason why the Bruins signed David Backes to take some of the pressure off 31-year-old Patrice Bergeron, and it’s also behind the influx of veteran players like Dominic Moore to create balance among the forward group.
“What we did this year is we looked at the roster, and we tried as best to make certain every player has a certain role. Up front there’s maybe one player that hasn’t played power play or PK. When I look at my roster on a nightly basis maybe one guy only plays 5-on-5. Most of them are penalty killers or power play guys,” said Julien. “It’s the same thing on the back end. We’re really trying to manage not just the ice time of one player, but of everybody. Our top players are averaging about 18 or 19 minutes for the most part.
“We discussed it at the end of last year. We had to have players that could play different roles, so we weren’t relying on the same people all the time. That was definitely part of our assessment of last year [and what went wrong].”
It’s also been the driving force behind the deployment of players in games thus far this season, though that’s also a byproduct of the compressed NHL schedule thanks to the World Cup and this season’s bye week. It was noticeable when Zdeno Chara was out on the 5-on-3 power play in the Saturday night win over the Winnipeg Jets because the hard-shooting D-man hasn’t really been on the power play at all this season for the Bruins.
That’s all part of the plan: the 39-year-old Chara was given a role at the beginning of the year that was shutdown defender, penalty killer and mentor for 19-year-old Brandon Carlo as a top pair defenseman. It was something to give the Bruins captain focus on exactly what was most important in his game, but it’s also about conserving energy and ice for a player that looked visibly fatigued last season when the schedule got heavy.
It might have been a bit of a bitter pill for Chara after routinely getting power play time with the Bruins since arriving in Boston, but it’s also allowed him to get off to his best start in Boston over the last handful of years. The lack of trips back-and-forth lugging the puck on the PP after it’s been cleared, and the easing up of special teams responsibility has clearly worked for the 19-year veteran, who didn’t show many signs of fatigue even with the Bruins playing a brutally rugged five games in seven days last week.
“I’ve always had him pegged for the 5-on-3 [power play] because they have to respect his shot. At one point we had him on the second unit, but I decided to put him on the first unit. They have to pay attention to that shot, and it opens up things for other players. I keep saying you manage the team the best you can, and you want to utilize the players the best you can,” said Claude Julien of Chara, who is averaging 40 seconds less ice time this season than last year when he was stretched far too thin for the Black and Gold. “You don’t want to over-utilize players. It’s going to be a long year. So you want to manage the ice time there too. One thing I know is that he can definitely play the power play, but on the other hand he’s the best defender we have as well.
“So you use the best strengths they have as a player. I look at the compressed schedule and it’s so important not to over-utilize players. Right now it’s okay, but when we get into the second half of the season then it’s going to show if we start to over-utilize players. So you’ve got to look at the big picture, and the small picture right now is giving us some wins. I also think the guys are respecting the fact that we’re all playing a part in the success we’re having right now, and enjoying the fact that we’re winning hockey games.”
Going down the line, you can see other players that are specializing in other areas. Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak, when he was healthy, were used early and often in games for their offensive abilities, and for the speed factor that put tremendous pressure on other team’s defenses. But Julien changes things around with his group when the Bruins are holding a tight lead late in games, and that’s when Backes can be shifted up to replace Pastrnak alongside Bergeron and Brad Marchand for a true shutdown trio.
Similarly, at times Moore has been pushed up to a wing spot with David Krejci as another responsible defensive replacement for Spooner late in games when the Bruins are protecting a lead. It’s tough to argue with the results for Julien and the Bruins thus far this season: the B’s are a lockdown 9-0-0 while holding a lead after two periods this season, and they are a similarly excellent 11-1-0 when tied or leading after two periods.
Some of that is elite goaltending from Tuukka Rask right from the very first game of the season, and some of it is an energized Chara and Carlo giving the Bruins their best shutdown pairing since Johnny Boychuk left town a couple of years ago. Credit the players for buying in and, at times, accepting roles that are less than they might have been in year’s past, but also credit Julien and his coaching staff for making a significant adjustment they hope will make them better, faster and stronger down the stretch this season after collapses in consecutive stretch runs over the last two years.