As we are in the midst of the holiday season and looking ahead both to 2016 and The Winter Classic, here are 12 takes on The Boston Bruins season thus far.
Claude Julien - Coach of the Year
For my money, Claude Julien has to be the front runner for coach of the year honors in the NHL this season. Are there really any other clubs having unexpected new found success? Not that I can see. And sure, Lindy Ruff clearly has a focused and dangerous group down in Dallas. But that was expected by a lot of folks around the league headed into the year.
There was no team in the league that rivaled Boston in terms big picture question marks ahead of the 2015-2016 campaign. Organizational direction, philosophical alignment between front office and bench boss, and decisions regarding style of play all loomed large over the club, and specifically coach Julien. And in the first three games of the season, the worst fears of the Black and Gold faithful looked to be manifesting as the club earned no points in three downright ugly outings.
Since then? All the B’s have done is post a very respectable 19-6-4 record good for 42 points and sit in second place in the Atlantic Division, just one point behind the arch rival Montreal Canadiens (with two games in hand). Thanks largely to Claude’s transparent brand of accountable, hard working leadership. Great work from the Bruins coach thus far positioning Boston for a playoff run.
The Winter Classic
Allow me to paint a picture: The Bruins have a floundering, unimpressive start. Wallowing in mediocrity and stumble into January 1st outside of playoff contention and unable to muster a competitive season for themselves and the Boston faithful. Meanwhile, Montreal looks like they have all year, sit atop the standings and come in primed and ready for the showcase at Gillette Stadium. The home of the New England Patriots is overrun by “le tricolore”. “Olay olay" chants fill The House That Brady Built. And Boston’s dismal campaign is stamped as officially over while Montreal has their way with the B’s on the ice.
Scary, right? This was a not-too-far-off masochistic vision of many a Bruins fan entering the year. Thankfully, this will not be the case (seriously, I almost lost sleep over that scenario - especially after the first week of the season). In fact, this outdoor game could very well be for first place. Something the league and the fans are certainly happy about.
Will Boston Be Buyers?
This is a great question for Boston’s rookie GM Don Sweeney to have in front of him. It’s safe to say the Bruins are in position to be buyers heading into 2016. But what price will they be willing to pay to help this club as of now? It’s no secret the team lacks a true number one defenseman (Another reason Claude is COY in my eyes). However, guys like that don’t grow on trees, nor are they given away at a discount when a club does decide to move a legitimate shutdown blueliner. The Bruins have two first round picks in the upcoming draft, but given the struggles at the draft table over the course of former GM Peter Chiarelli’s reign, it’s not crazy to assume Sweeney and Team President Cam Neely would want to restock the Boston farm system with fresh young talent. This will be an interesting narrative to follow as the trade deadline nears and it becomes clear just who might be on the block leading up to February 29th.
Okay, this is overstated. Although, after those first three games of the season, it really wasn’t that overstated (Matt Irwin, we hardly knew ye).
There is really no arguing, though; the Bruins simply no longer have a number one defenseman. Captain Zdeno Chara has been just incredible over the years for Boston. For essentially a decade now, chewing up minutes and spitting out the failed attack of opponent after opponent (meaning their most effective forwards, of course). The big man is now in the autumn of his career at 38 years old, and it’s really starting to show. Chara was never exactly fleet of foot, and that lack of get up and go is probably the most glaring chink in the once unfailing armour of the 6’9” Slovakian. As a top 3-4 defender, I think he’s still incredibly effective and could help any club looking to make a deep playoff run. But without another clear cut number one, or even top pair quality, blueliner he may not quite have enough gas left in the tank to carry a club into or beyond a Conference Finals.
Note: This is an important add for me - going into the year I thought Adam McQuaid had been given a vastly inflated contract from the Bruins, and that a role beyond the bottom pairing would expose no.54’s shortcomings. Now, I still think the McQuaid contract is a hefty one at $2.75mil per season. But, “Quaidder” has been remarkably solid this year. In fact, had he not been a steadying presence for a shaky young D core earlier this season, who knows where the blueliners would be now as a group. There’s a full serving of crow on my plate, and I’ll eat it without hesitation - stick taps for Adam McQuaid.
Brad Marchand. Need I Say More?
If you’re reading this from anywhere other than a Bruins fandom, I already know: you hate this dude. I get it. He has aptly been described as “a rat”, amongst other things, over the course of his career. But is there any denying that Brad Marchand is playing his tail off this season? His 15 goals in 30 games played are good the team lead as well as 9th in the league. He’s an intrical part the league’s best power play (28.9%), he’s on the penalty kill, he's under the skin of every player in an opposing sweater, and he’s been absolutely buzzing around the ice 5-on-5. At 27 years old no.63 seems to be really hitting his stride as an NHL scorer - his current pace has him finishing with over 40 goals. We’ll see if he can get there (his previous high is 25 in ‘13-’14). Either way, he’s been nothing short of electric and as a B’s fan, an absolute blast to watch light the lamp so far this year.
Boston Is As Tuukka Does
It was the opinion of myself and many others who follow the club that heading into the year, there was one certainty surrounding the Bruins: they will go as far as Tuukka Rask takes them. The entire club got off to a rocky start, Rask included. Looking over his numbers thus far, there’s almost nothing that jumps out at you from Tuukka: a .918 save percentage ranks only 20th in the league. His goals against average sits at 2.42 and is only good for 23rd in the NHL. However, in his last five starts no.40 is 5-0-0 with two shutouts - making it 4 shutouts on the season, good for second in the league.
Since the club has settled into a more stable defensive posture Tuukka has delivered timely saves, a combination that sees the wins piling up for The Black and Gold as of late. There’s a bit of a chicken / egg argument in terms of where the credit goes for Boston’s turn around, and I certainly think Claude Julien has done more than his share of fix-it work to this point (have I mentioned I think he’s the coach of the year yet?). But Boston’s franchise goalie seems to be returning to form, which hopefully means more wins as he and the rest of the team rolls into 2016.
Graeham Henderson writes The Eight Spoked Blog - follow along on twitter: @hendersonchef