Bruins

Haggerty: Longtime Julien targets get last laugh in Claude's return

Haggerty: Longtime Julien targets get last laugh in Claude's return

BOSTON – The lack of energy, emotion and urgency from the Montreal Canadiens in their coach’s return to Boston on Wednesday night revealed some things about that group of players. It also once again confirmed the particular brand of nowhere that Claude Julien’s Habs are destined for this season.

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On the other side, it was also mighty telling which Bruins players stepped up and made a major impact in the 4-1 victory over Julien and his hated Habs at TD Garden.

Almost to a man, it was the Bruins who faced the most criticism and scrutiny under Julien in Boston, who rose up and did the most damage against the Habs on a night their coach hoped for a triumphant return. Perhaps nobody in a Bruins uniform had a rockier road with Julien than Ryan Spooner, the speedy, skilled center who was never tough enough, aggressive enough or good enough at the little things to satisfy his demanding, old-school coach.

Some of that was clearly on Spooner as he developed his game in fits and starts in the NHL, but some of that was absolutely on a coach who never truly connected with the player, or gave him the room to grow and develop his confidence. There were many instances where Julien simply decided a player couldn’t help his team, and that would be that. In many instances, the former Bruins coach was spot-on in his determination, but there were many examples of speed, skill players such as Spooner where he was blind to their potential.

It’s been a different story under Bruce Cassidy, who has brought out the best in Spooner this season as evidenced by his game-winning goal against Julien and the Habs Wednesday. The goal gives the red-hot Spooner three in his past four games and has him on a pace for a career-best 16 goals and 40 points this season while also importantly turning into a plus player on the ice.  

Spooner carried the puck straight through the guts of the Montreal defense toward the net and attempted to make a centering pass toward Matt Grzelcyk at the far post. Instead, the puck bounced off Jonathan Drouin’s skate and into the net to give the Bruins a 2-1 lead in the second period.

Boston scored two more goals in the one-sided game, but it was Spooner’s goal that stood as the game-winner in Claude’s not-so-triumphant return. After the game, Spooner was asked whether it felt good to score against a coach that had doled out so much tough love to him in the past.

“It was just another game for me, I just want to help out,” said Spooner, who was clearly playing it down given some of his critical words for Julien in the past. “It was nice to score though...Yeah, for sure. I just think that we have a good mix here.

“We have some guys who are young that stepped up for us and that’s huge. I mean, to be one of the top teams in the league you have to have some guys that are 18, 19, 20 [years old] that are going to step up and we’ve had that so that’s been good for us.”

Clearly, Spooner had a little something extra in this one from the drop of the puck, though. The speedy winger led the Bruins with four shots on net and threw a whopping four registered hits perhaps in an effort to show Julien some of the hardness that he’s developed in his game. This has been a consistent trend in Spooner’s game this season, though, as he’s put up 22 registered hits in 23 games played this season, which actually gives him more than Brad Marchand (17) while No. 63 has even played in 12 more games than the Spoon Man.

Spooner wasn’t alone, however, in shining on Wednesday night in Rendezvous De Claude.

David Pastrnak was another young player that had his ups and downs with Julien in his first three seasons. He found himself on the bench on more than one occasion when puck management or defense became an issue. Pastrnak scored the Bruins first goal after doggedly chasing the puck and turning it over from Jeff Petry behind the Montreal net. He finished with six shot attempts, a goal and a plus-1 rating in 14:57 of ice time.

David Krejci certainly had his moments of frustration as a creative offensive player dealing with Julien in their long time working together, and once again he stepped up as well vs. the Habs. Krejci finished with a goal and two points along with a team-best plus-2. He also absolutely dominated in the face-off circle with a 16-for-20 performance and crushed young players Drouin and Jacob De La Rose.

Judging by his recent, pretty disconnected comments about seeing Julien behind the Montreal bench, it’s fair to say that Tuukka Rask was another Bruin not overly worked up about last season’s coaching change. Rask wasn’t exactly facing wall-to-wall challenges from a pop-gun Montreal offense that only managed to scratch out 22 shots on net, but he stopped 21 of them while standing tall as Boston killed a 5-on-3 power play in the second period.

Rask improved to 13-0-2 in his past 15 decisions dating to Nov. 29 and has surpassed Andrei Vasilevskiy (13-0-1 from Oct. 9 – Nov. 16) for the longest such run by a goaltender this season. So, Wednesday night’s showing in Julien’s return was yet another example of a Bruins player who appeared happy to make sure the coach’s much-hyped return was cloaked in defeat.

Just don’t expect any of them to publicly gloat about it, or hint that there might have been some motivation with Julien on the other side.

“Gain as many points as you can. They’re all important games, especially divisional matchups,” said Rask. “You try to get points like we have. Still a lot of games left, so trying to keep our game the way it’s going. Our effort and battle have always been there. Execution sometimes is not there, but I think that’s what it all comes down to. Just effort, battle level and how well your head is in the game…a lot of it is just being a smart hockey player.

“You know, you understand what you do right and what you do wrong and then you correct the mistakes. Then you go out there and execute them. I mean it’s pretty simple to say it, but I think the guys we have here are really smart hockey players. They understand.”

The “effort” and “battle level” Rask was referring to is something that was lamented as missing many, many times in Julien’s final couple of years in Boston. It clearly went AWOL for the Habs on Wednesday night in a game that should have been emotional and urgent.

It was telling so many of Julien’s former critical targets left with a victory and their former coach shuffled out of the Garden lamenting in two languages that his Montreal team “laid an egg” in Boston. While Julien might have deserved better given his long body of work, it’s clear his former Bruins players earned the better result as they received a little measure of revenge in the place it matters most, the scoreboard. 

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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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