BRIGHTON, Mass. -- In most respects, the NHL is a copycat league with the 28 other teams paying close attention to the lucky ones hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end, and then pushing at varying levels of diligence to pattern themselves after the final two teams standing.
It might be a little difficult when it turns out to be a couple of Cinderella-ish surprise teams in the Penguins and the Sharks left dancing in the Final last season: a talented Penguins group came out of nowhere after replacing their coach, and the Sharks’ run still feels like something of an aberration after the usual West teams, like the Kings and Blackhawks, bowed out earlier in the tournament.
That could be good news for a team like the Boston Bruins, though, who is in most respects modeled very closely to the Pittsburgh Penguins group that last season that magically melded a proven, Cup-tested core group with an influx of young, talented players ready to take over.
“Who saw San Jose [getting to the Cup Final] last year? I sure didn’t. So circumstances evolve, and we could well be a serious contender,” said Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs. “Every day there’s a mandate [to win]. Whether or not they hear it is something else. No . . . our expectations are high and I talk to [team president Cam Neely] quite a bit. So I think we all share that [as our goal].”
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Clearly, the sight of older champs like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang hoisting the Cup once again provided motivation for a handful of teams, like the Bruins, Red Wings and Rangers among others, that are slowly reloading while turning over portions of their roster to youth, skill and skating speed-oriented players.
Bryan Rust and Connor Sheary didn’t spit out eye-popping statistics after rising to Pittsburgh from the AHL, but they did provide speed and perfectly aggressive, young attacking players for a new coach in Mike Sullivan that wanted to suffocate opponents on the fore-check. Clearly, rookie Matt Murray was a giant factor in all of the proceedings while stepping up to replace Marc-Andre Fleury as the goalie of choice during Pittsburgh’s playoff run.
So put that all together with Sullivan replacing an ineffective Bob Johnston in the middle of the season, and it was amazing what Pittsburgh was able to do with a change of philosophy along with an influx of speed-oriented youth. Claude Julien said the Bruins weren’t specifically modeling themselves after Pittsburgh, and that’s probably a good thing since it means a coaching replacement would be one of the catalysts to catapult them into greatness.
It’s also clear that the Bruins are missing one of Pittsburgh’s key pieces in Letang, who is a clear No. 1 defenseman in the prime of his career. Zdeno Chara is a proud, proven warrior and a former No. 1 defenseman, but it’s difficult to envision him playing an effective game at 30 minutes a night during a two-month playoff run. There really isn’t anybody else on the roster, unless a young like Carlo really over-delivers on his considerable promise, that brings that element to the Black and Gold this coming season.
“We have to get better, and those [young guys] right now are giving me reason to think that we’re going to be. All of this competition has made our group better than we were at this point last year, so hopefully that trend that I’m thinking [we’re seeing] is going to come true,” said Julien. “To be honest with you, I don’t need to look at Pittsburgh for encouragement because we already believe that we have what we need.
“What we’re seeing right now is proof that can happen. Even if [the young guys hadn’t flashed in camp] I can go back to 2007 when we had a team where we brought some young guys in, and we had to build it that way. We’ve done it before, and now we’re going to do it again.”
The Bruins are indeed engineering their own youthful makeover of the group this season, and that means Danton Heinen, Austin Czarnik, Rob O’Gara and impressive Brandon Carlo all playing supporting roles for the Bruins as the season opens Thursday night in Columbus. The 19-year-old Carlo appears to be opening the season as Zdeno Chara’s partner on the top defense pairing, and that is a mighty big responsibility for the 6-foot-5 D-man with a grand total of eight games of AHL experience at the end of last year.
But you know what they say about desperate times, right?
“It’s always about the wins. That’s the bottom line. That’s the business. But, when we’ve done it correctly and you speak about the core players that we have in Patrice [Bergeron], Brad [Marchand], David [Krejci], and Tuukka [Rask], they were drafted and developed and they’ve become our core player,” said Sweeney. The expectations are the players that we’re trying to integrate now, when they’re ready, will become equally the same and grow into those same responsible roles and have a chance to win.
“You want to surround your players that have won because they want to win again. You see your players going away to the World Cup and how excited they are to be a part of that. That’s what fuels everybody. Our younger players have sort of pumped a bit of energy into that group as well because they recognize an opportunity. Now, it comes down to as I said before, the performance part and if [the young players] can handle it. Robbie O’Gara is a 23-year-old college player. There are plenty of players who have stepped out of college, I was one of them, and into the National Hockey League and can play. I understand it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to stay there, but if you can seize a hold of it, then good on you. That means you’ve probably taken somebody’s job as a result of it. It might be sometimes through injury that you get that opportunity, but it’s up to you to take advantage of it. The next player is coming behind it. But, when our players walk through the door this year, our younger players in particular, feeling like there was an opportunity there. It’s not about rewarding them, and it’s about taking advantage of that.”
One area where the Bruins expect major improvement keeping in line with the Penguins resurgence theme is between the pipes: B’s President Cam Neely and GM Don Sweeney haven’t been shy about challenging goalie Tuukka Rask to be better than the player that posted a .915 save percentage last season. Given the youth and challenges still present on their back end, the Bruins will have their moments of weakness defensively this season again and will need their former Vezina Trophy winner to be at the top of his game most every night.
Right or wrong, Rask might be the single reason that the Bruins hold even a shred of belief they can potentially go on a playoff run if everything goes right for them.
“I think you take a look at our core players and the goaltender we have, it gives you a bit of a leg up to say ‘Okay, we’ve got some players that can compete.’ If we can backload with some of the younger players to help improve our club, that’s what we’re going to do,” said Neely. “But, we certainly don’t want to stray away from what we think is going to build us for some long term success.
“We feel like we’re on the path to do this in a way that’s going to give us success for a long period of time. You’d like it sooner rather than later and we’ve had some surprises here at this particular camp, who knows where it will end up at the end of the year.”
The Bruins hope the end of the year brings the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in three years, and that this Pittsburgh-esque hockey cocktail they’ve mixed of veteran core group with promising, speedy youngsters will get the Black and Gold back into the game.