Bruins

Bruins energy line continues to deliver results

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Bruins energy line continues to deliver results

Even mentioning the Merlot Line is approaching sacred ground when talking about a great fourth line for the Boston Bruins.

Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille were never statistical marvels or great scorers at the NHL level, and their fancy stats were never really all that impressive for those that judge hockey simply by bar graphs and esoteric puck possession formulas. But they were formidible enough to have their own nickname in the form of the Merlot Line, a nod to the maroon jerseys they wore in practice. They were also good enough to be the best fourth line in hockey for a solid three-year span during Boston’s best seasons.

Nobody will ever forget the way the B’s fourth line dictated the pace and energy level in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in Vancouver before the top lines started to role. They consistently provided the grit, energy and toughness when the Bruins needed an emotional lift. Eventually age and injuries chipped away and their time passed, but it certainly looks like the Bruins have found the best fourth line they’ve had since those days.

“They like to grind, they like to muck…whatever, pick your adjective,” said Bruce Cassidy. “And they’re big. 6-foot-2, 6-foot-2 and even though Noel isn’t as tall they’re all over 200 pounds. That’s a load to handle. With all of the smaller ‘D’ that are in the league now, that’s a tougher matchup for them to handle.”

Tim Schaller, Sean Kuraly and Noel Acciari don’t have a nickname yet (The NCAA grind line…the smaht kids line…Two Friars and a RedHawk…or maybe the SchacK Line?), but they’ve certainly begun to make a major impact on the Black and Gold. They took over this week’s win over the Islanders with grinding, blue collar puck possession in the offensive zone, and simply wore down the Isles defense with their 600 plus pounds of fourth line physicality.

“We’re just trying to be a line that can go out there in any situation and push the game in the right direction for us,” said Kuraly. “We all have the same philosophy about how we want to play the game right now. I think we’ve come in a with a pretty solid, basic understanding of how we need to play the game at the NHL [level]. We all come in with similar backgrounds about how we’ve been successful as hockey players, so it’s good that it’s working out for us.

“Sometimes you have guys that are just trying to play like [an energy line], but it’s not really them. With the three of us this is who are. I think you can grow from here, but you’ve got to start at square one before you go any further.”

Acciari is a fearless, big hitter that will draw penalties with his tireless, merciless style of play. He’s already broken multiple bones stepping in front of shots with the game on the line. Schaller is a big, fast winger with the ability to beat goalies with his big shot. There's also no doubting his willingness to drop the gloves and stand up for a teammate when it’s called for. Just ask Ottawa defenseman Fredrik Claesson after the New Hampshire native pounded him into the ice for his nasty head shot on Acciari.

Schaller has done that multiple times this season, and the Bruins can use all of that kind of snarl that they can get from the group up front.  

Kuraly is a big, strong and smart that’s shown an ability to disrupt other teams on the fore-check, and is certainly the right kind of pivot for the cycle game in the offensive end.

They’re certainly not quite as crash-and-bang as the Merlot Line was at its best, but they are more well adapted for the current style of play in the NHL overall.

“Noel is a body-checker that moves in straight lines and will get to the front of the net. [He’s a] shot blocker, and wins pucks along the walls. Kuraly has good straight line speed. He’s good at closing things down in the D-zone and turning over pucks on the fore-check because he’s so quick and willing to go there. He’ll go to the net with the puck. Timmy has the best shot of them all, and probably has the most skill in terms of over their careers. But he still plays in straight lines and really compliments those guys."

“He gets to the net too and some polish in tight. At the end of the day I think they all realize they’re going to score goals with second-efforts, second chances going to the net as opposed to line rushes."

“They’ve done a good job of just saying ‘Hey, let’s get it deep every time and be first on it.’ On the odd-time they’ll have a rush and they’ll make their plays, but they’re not waiting around to see where the third back-checker is.”

Schaller is on pace for 11 goals and 24 points as the best offensive option among the trio, but Acciari has as many goals (five) as celebrated rookie offensive defenseman Charlie McAvoy, and Kuraly is on pace for a respectable 17 points. More importantly, this young, college-educated fourth line is keeping the puck out of their own net with an aggregate minus-2 rating between the three forwards. That’s allowed Bruce Cassidy to roll all four of his lines, not worry about rolling them against another team's offensive unit, allowing them to rest his top guys like Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak.

In the win over the Islanders, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak all finished under 16 minutes of ice time and had relatively easy nights considering they were supposed to be facing a quality opponent. That’s the kind of development that will benefit the Bruins in the long term if Cassidy can continue to roll his forward lines on most nights.

“I think it’s very important. I think in the Washington game, with a lot of special teams play and overtime, we had Bergeron up around 24 minutes. That’s a heavy workload for anybody in this league, and specifically for a forward,” said Cassidy. “We don’t want to go down that road very often, but having [low minute games] like Ottawa and [Tuesday night in Brooklyn] allows us to push the envelope a little bit. It’s a long year and you’re playing and playing, so you need to be careful, so it’s benefited us and part of it is the way other players are playing."

“In a 2-1 game we can push Nash and Kuraly out there [on the first penalty kill] because they’re doing a good job. It’s a credit to the other guys in the room as much as anything. Guys like Marchand and Bergeron are better off for it.”

Clearly the selling point for guys like Acciari, Schaller and Kuraly is that carving out an effective fourth line role can keep them in the NHL for a long time. There’s always a spot for smart, hard-working and fearless player that bring solid two-way abilities to the table, and Bruins assistant coach Jay Pandolfo is a prime example of that.

But it starts with establishing themselves as fourth line staples for a good NHL team, and that’s what the SchacK Line has been doing over the last month for the Black and Gold. 

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Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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