Bruins

Do the Bruins need to add toughness to protect Marchand?

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Do the Bruins need to add toughness to protect Marchand?

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.

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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.   

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Morning Skate: Kovalchuk thinks there's still plenty left in the tank

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Morning Skate: Kovalchuk thinks there's still plenty left in the tank

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while heading into late July where nothing at all happens in the hockey world. 
 
-- Ilya Kovalchuk thinks he’s still got some prime NHL years ahead as he readies for his return with the Los Angeles Kings. Maybe so, but would he ever admit he thinks he’s lost a step and won’t be a game-breaker in his late 30s?

 -- Larry Brooks says history shows the Rangers have picked the wrong man for their enforcer role in Cody MacLeod. 
 
-- A couple of pieces memorializing retired NHL goalie Ray Emery, who tragically lost his life at age 35 in a drowning accident last weekend. He was one of the toughest goaltenders in the history of the NHL.  
 
-- Pro Hockey Talk asks what the right contract extension is going to be for Washington Capitals rabble-rouser Tom Wilson. 
 
-- A nearly 20-minute video of NHL players mic’d up during the Stanley Cup playoffs, which is always high entertainment. 
 
-- For something completely different: This teaser for Stranger Things season 3 shows it was inevitable they were going to the mall
 

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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