Bruins

One new Bruin (Anders Bjork) has connection to old-time B's

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One new Bruin (Anders Bjork) has connection to old-time B's

When Anders Bjork signed with the Bruins last summer, he was headed into a situation without much personal history with the Original Six franchise having grown up in Wisconsin, and played his collegiate hockey at Notre Dame.

He’s making up for lost time now, though, on the ice with three goals and seven points in his first nine games while settling into his right wing spot alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. The 21-year-old might have had a little bit more history with the Bruins franchise than he let on at first, however, given that Bjork’s dad, Kirt, and former Bruins forward Dave Poulin were teammates at Notre Dame back in the 1980’s.

Bjork and Poulin have remained close over the years, so the younger Bjork was at least able to get a little taste of what it’s like to be in the Black and Gold before he was. . . well. . . in the Black and Gold.

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“He’s reached out a few times through my career in college and even before that to give me advice, or let me know what he was seeing if I was struggling. He’d send me texts of encouragement sometimes, and it was always really cool to get that from a guy like Dave,” said Bjork.
“His advice would always be really helpful. His main thing [about playing for the Bruins] was to just enjoy it, and he told me how great that the people are here.

“He told me not to be shy and to be myself, and that it was all great people and a great organization.”

One thing Poulin didn’t give Bjork was any good “old time hockey” stories about his GM Don Sweeney and club president Cam Neely from their days playing together in Boston.

“Not yet,” said Bjork with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll try to find those out.”

According to Poulin, Bjork has similar high end skating wheels and offensive skills to his old man when he was an All-American at Notre Dame.  It’s the ability to defend and play the 200-foot game that’s made the younger Bjork an NHL prospect, and somebody worthy of installing in the prime right wing spot alongside Bergeron and Marchand even as a fresh-faced rookie.

“I think he’s probably a little more responsible defensively. [Anders] seems to know his goaltender’s name and sees him on a regular basis. Kirt had an incredibly high skill level and was one of the fastest players I ever played with at any level, but it was just a different day and age for the game,” said a laughing Poulin, describing the difference between father and son as players. “[Anders] is responsible defensively, but there’s a side to that where defensively there are a lot of learned things in that league. I learned from players I played with as much as any coach I played for. Early on [in Philly] I had Bobby Clarke and Darryl Sittler as guys I could watch firsthand.

“With Anders getting that opportunity, I may be the biggest Patrice Bergeron fan in hockey. He is one of my favorite players in the league for how he plays the game. He’s got a real cerebral ability that’s off the charts, and his knowledge of the game and the way he competes on a regular basis. If you put a young player in that grouping, sitting beside those guys and the communication level after every shift [is so beneficial]. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the guy on the left side has learned a lot from the centerman as well. Talk about going to get a Ph.D. or a Master’s Degree in hockey, those are some pretty good mentors.”

The family friendship between the Bjorks and the Poulins has been an enduring one steeped in the worlds of hockey and Notre Dame where things like tradition and loyalty are much more than just words. That’s allowed Poulin to be a good sounding board for the family throughout Anders’ hockey career as it began taking off in the U.S. National Team Development Program, and hit an early high note when he was selected by the Bruins in the fifth round of the 2014 NHL Draft.

“Starting around the Bantam age when he was playing with the Chicago group out of Milwaukee, you could see that he had a chance to be a pretty good player,” said Poulin. “The game change has come at a really nice time for Anders with the emphasis so much on speed and skill, and youth for that matter. So those things have all come together at the same time for him.”

That friendship has also had its share of interesting situations like when Poulin was working the first round of the Bruins/Senators playoff series for TSN. The Bruins were pushing to sign Bjork once his Frozen Four run with the Fighting Irish ended, and Poulin had both his strong ties to the Bjork family as well as tight friendships with former Bruins teammates in Sweeney and Neely.

Poulin largely stayed out of that situation when Bjork took some additional time to mull over his decision to turn pro, but Anders has always appreciated any advice he’s passed along from a 13-year NHL career with the Flyers, Bruins and Capitals, or as a hockey lifer that coached at Notre Dame and served as a hockey ops executive with the Maple Leafs for most of the last 20 years. But he certainly had no problem telling Anders and his family that they would truly enjoy life as a member of the Bruins when he did decide to sign on for the NHL experience.

“I had a really, really good experience in Boston. I was there less than four full years, but those were some really close teams,” said Poulin. “Part of it was because we won a lot. You lose twice [in the conference finals] to Mario Lemieux’s Cup teams [in Pittsburgh], and you’ve got a pretty good group there.”

Now Bjork is hoping this rookie season is the start of his own great book of recollections, relationships and experience with the Black and Gold just like the ones Poulin relayed to him during his own memorable four-season stint in Boston.

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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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