There are some unmistakable warning signs when it comes to the Boston Bruins, and opponents taking liberties with their best players on the ice.
It actually might seem like a non-story right now because the Bruins are very close to achieving a fully healthy lineup for the first time all season. But it may not stay that way for very long if the B’s don’t make sure they’re protecting their best players with everything they’ve got in the team toughness department.
In fact, it should make you wonder if the Bruins need to dig a little deeper into the available tough guy/enforcer supply to make certain they’ve got every manner of protecting for their high-end skill guys. The Bruins actually had Ryan White with the team for weeks on a tryout while they mulled over their roster, but in the end both sides opted to go in different directions with the Bruins keeping their young fourth-line guys intact.
That was before Brad Marchand started getting targeted with big hits from nearly every team the Bruins played, and missed 8-of-10 games with two different stints where the B’s indicated that he was in the concussion protocol. It all started when the Bruins got pushed around by the Washington Capitals while losing to them last month, and Tom Wilson clobbered Marchand with a hit that dazed the left winger. Later on in the same game John Carlson clipped Marchand with a hit aimed at his knees that was well behind the play, and left the B’s agitator angry on the bench as he shattered his stick against the boards.
Marchand proceeded to miss the next two games before returning for the Hockey Hall of Fame weekend home-and-home against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He once again got clocked by Leo Komarov and then missed the next six games before again coming back for a big statement win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Marchand has been lighting it up with a goal and five points along with a plus-5 in three games since coming back, and is clearly feeling better given how involved he’s been in everything happening on the ice. But Marchand once again got smashed by a massive Ivan Provorov hit when he got caught with his head down in the neutral zone, and was forced to miss the rest of the first period while getting checked on in the dressing. Marchand returned to the game and factored heavily into the shutout win, but what if he never made it back from that big hit?
What if Marchand ended up in the concussion protocol for the third time within a month’s time where repeated head injuries can spell real problems for NHL players, and their long-term health and well-being could be in jeopardy?
Bruce Cassidy mentioned after the Flyers win that the general rise in abuse heaped on Marchand by opponents this season would be a topic of discussion for the team. Marchand himself certainly noticed that he was catching a higher rate of big blows this season, and that’s not something you want to hear if you’re a Bruins fan.
“I’m just frustrated,” admitted Marchand after the Philly game. “I’ve been hit more this year than every other year combined in my career. I just need to do a better job of keeping my head up. Sometimes that’s just the way things shape up during the game.”
Some big hits and some concussions can’t be prevented, and there is a limit to how much anything can discourage or deter those types of consequences. But it seems just as clear that the Bruins, as currently constituted, aren’t putting a lot of fear into the other teams when it comes to squarely targeting Marchand for punishment. Marchand will always put himself into harm’s way with the fearless style that he employs on the ice, and it’s part of what makes him one of the best all-around players in the NHL right now.
Maybe the Bruins will have enough in the team toughness department now that David Backes is healthy and back in the lineup, and feared pugilist Adam McQuaid is slowly approaching a return while on the ice rehabbing from a broken leg. Add them to Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller, and the Bruins still have players that can stick up for their fallen teammates when necessary. Backes certainly thinks the Bruins have what’s required within their group to protect their teammates, and that’s something he takes very seriously.
“I don’t think we need anybody to take advantage of our best players. That’s for darn sure. The new NHL isn’t necessarily intimidating that guy [throwing the big hit] so he stops it, but it’s going after their best players to make them uncomfortable,” said David Backes. “They can tell their own guys that ‘If you’re going to be hard on Marchand then they might kill me out there tonight, and I don’t like that.’ I don’t necessarily think it’s fear, but you’ve got to have that counter-action or repercussion as at least a threat so they don’t start taking liberties with [Marchand].”
But perhaps the Bruins need more to ensure that ultra-valuable skill players like Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Charlie McAvoy remain upright and free of egregious cheap shots for the rest of the season. White, by the way, has 43 penalty minutes in six games for the San Diego Gulls after signing a minor league deal with the Anaheim Ducks, and certainly looks like he could have been exactly that guy when he was hanging around with the Bruins. The Providence Bruins actually have a big, hard-hitting 5-foot-10, 234-pound defenseman/forward named Sena Acolatse, who leads the AHL with six fighting majors this season, and doesn’t look like the type of player that would be shy about protecting his teammates.
In all he’s got 42 career fights during his seven-year AHL career, and has racked up well over 600 penalty minutes while still showing he can actually play when he’s not duking it out with an opponent.
The debate for the Bruins would be the same as it is for most NHL teams in this day and age. There is limited NHL roster space for players that are one-dimensional tough guy types, and that goes doubly so for a Bruins team that’s already got an NHL roster stocked with forwards climbing over each other for playing time.
The bottom line is this for the Bruins: If they can unearth an intimidating player that can discourage even one massive hit that might knock Marchand back out of the lineup for a significant portion of time, it would be well worth having that player around. Nobody is asking these Bruins to turn back the clock to the Big Bad B’s Bullies that won it all back in 2011, and the current NHL climate wouldn’t allow it anyway.
But the players in the Bruins dressing room should be getting a little tired of other teams feeling like they can take runs at Boston’s best players whenever the mood strikes them, and not pay any price as a result of it.