Monday, November 30, 2009

Tuukka's Take: "No grudge" Against Toronto for Trading Him

Had a chance to talk to Boston goalie Tuukka Rask this season, and he wasn't about to vent against Toronto Maple Leafs and former GM John Ferguson, Jr. for trading him three years ago.

"No, I don't hold anything against them or anything like that," Rask said after a B's practice. "It was a long time ago and I've moved on from that, and I think they (Toronto) have too."

Still, one has to wonder where the Leafs would be today if they had insisted that the Bruins take Justin Pogge for Andrew Raycroft. (Which of course begs the question- would Boston have done the deal?)

"It was a surprise (to find out I'd been traded), but I'm very happy with the way things happened for me here in Boston, and so I don't think too much about Toronto anymore. It's all part of the game, and nothing personal. You have to be a professional and deal with it and worry about playing hockey, not things you don't have control of."

Tuukka may be over it, but I seriously doubt the folks in Toronto are. The way they defend the inconsistent play of rookie Jonas Gustavsson reminds me of the famous phrase, "Methinks thou doth protest too much." Rask is the kind of talent who could have them in the thick of the playoff hunt, a player who could have stolen some points when they really needed them back in October.

Ah, c'est la vie. All is fair in love and hockey.

But, there's a chance this week to see where these two teams stand when former Bruin Phil Kessel and Rask get a chance to stick it to their old clubs. They may claim it's nothing personal, but let's face it- human nature is human nature. These guys will be jazzed, and with two home-and-home games, five days apart, you can bet that Rask will start at least one of them.

Should be great drama, regardless of what side of the fence you happen to be on.

November Gives Way to December...Boston Bruins 1st, 2nd Round Draft Picks Updated Nov. 30th

Well, the 2009-10 NHL season's second month is about in the books and so I'm back with the latest on Boston's first five picks in the draft if the season ended today.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are on the move: they skipped past the moribund Carolina Hurricanes this week with a nice come-from-behind win against the close-to-moribund Florida Panthers (two goals for Phil Kessel, giving him eight in 12 games- definite bang for the buck for sure). The guess here is that the Leafs won't drop past Carolina in the standings again, and they're probably about to leave Anaheim in their wake at the rate things are going.

On another note, the Bruins leapfrogged the New Jersey Devils and their 35 points to take the third spot in the Eastern Conference, thanks to the win over Ottawa Saturday night, which gave them sole possession of first place in the Northeast Division. So, that'll take a toll on the pick position for the B's, but it's all about winning, right? It's a tight race in both conferences, though, and any team that gets on a roll this week can turn the standings upside down.

So, once again- here's where your intrepid team is picking, B's fans. No soapbox discussions today.

2010 Draft

1st round

2nd overall- Toronto (19 points- four ahead of Carolina four behind Minnesota, five behind Florida, Anaheim, Edmonton)
20th overall- Boston (31 points)

2nd round

32nd overall- Toronto
45th overall- Tampa Bay (28 points- three behind Boston)
50th overall- Boston

So- that's picks 2, 20, 32, 45, 50- still a heck of a haul if it came to pass (and can you imagine the Bruins landing either Cam Fowler or Tyler Seguin or even Taylor Hall if the 1st overall is spent on Seguin or Fowler?), but time for Bruins fans to start preparing for some adjusted expectations if the trends hold true and the Leafs and Bruins both keep moving up in the standings. Kessel and Mikhail Grabovski are a threat to keep Toronto in every game even if the team surrenders a softie, and their goaltending is better than it was in October for sure.

I don't see a lot of evidence that Anaheim, Florida, Minnesota or Edmonton are going to be better over the long haul. Tampa looks much-improved over last season, largely thanks to Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and solid goaltending.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Potvin: "Do We Dare 'Rask' What Is Wrong With Tim Thomas?"

To answer the Hall of Fame defenseman's quip during Saturday night's "NHL On The Fly" broadcast: No, we don't.

But at the same time, Denis Potvin's point is well taken given how terrific Tuukka Rask has been in Tim Thomas' absence since Boston's No. 1 went out of the lineup with an undisclosed upper body injury Nov. 14.

Boston's reigning Vezina Trophy winner returned to action against Ottawa at the TD Garden Saturday night, and he carried an 8-0-1 record in his last nine starts against the Senators with him. After giving up a goal on the first shot he faced (compliments of Bruins killer and captain Daniel Alfredsson) and then surrendering a weird goal to Milan Michalek in the first period and spotting the Sens a 2-0 lead after 20, he got help from his power play in the second.

David Krejci and Michael Ryder scored with the man advantage to pull the score even, and Dennis Wideman tallied another power play marker in the third period to put the home team ahead. With goalie Brian Elliott pulled, and after Mark Recchi (twice) and Blake Wheeler missed empty net chances in close, the game looked eerily like Thomas' last start in Pittsburgh, when he gave up the equalizer late.

Michalek struck again with under 20 seconds remaining in regulation (not quite the 0.04 that Bill Guerin crushed B's fans with), but the shot he put past Thomas was from a sharp angle and really ridiculous when you get down to it. Thomas has to stop that. Has to.

Luckily for the Bruins, he was up to the task in overtime and carried over to the shootout, where he made a couple of nice stops, got help from missed nets and Ryder (who scored only his third career shootout goal) before closing out Carrie Underwood beau Mike Fisher with a nice right leg pad stop on the deke to earn the win and extra point.

Now, I had to get off of HFBoards, my favorite internet forum to discuss Boston hockey, because the blamers and haters have once again gotten the better of the place. I know that criticism comes part and parcel with fandom, but some of these guys really put the j-e-r-k in knee-jerk, over-the-top commentary, sometimes. And that's a fray I'm, just going to stay out of on this night. So, I'll post my thoughts on Thomas and Rask here because, well- it's my blog and I can pretty much do what I want.

Thomas could have blown the game tonight, but he didn't. That's what gamers do- they overcome their mistakes and get things done when it's on the line. There was clearly some rust on the B's vet's game tonight and it showed, but after surrendering what was a life-draining, back-breaking goal, he stepped up and got the job done. It's no secret that I have long admired Thomas, and it isn't just because I took in a Bruins game next to him on the 9th floor of the then-FleetCenter in March, 2002- before he'd even seen a minute of NHL action. Yes, he's someone I respect because he's never given up on anything in his life and plays the position the way he's existed in his 35 years.

Has he been shaky this season? Yes. Has he also been in Vezina Trophy-winning form? Yes. Anyone who expects perfection from their goalie in each and every game is either bound for major disappointment, or living in a fantasy world. Thomas has played out of his mind at times this season and still lost because his team couldn't score on the other guys. That hasn't stopped his detractors for blaming him for everything under the sun, and so naturally, when his backup took the ball and ran with it going 4-1-1 in six games, you just knew the sharks would be circling on this night.

Tuukka Rask is everything Boston management and fans have hoped for. I remember a scout friend of mine seeing him at the Viking Cup in Camrose, Alberta way back in December 2003 when he was just 16, a full 18 months before Rask was even eligible for the NHL draft. He told me then that this youngster from Finland was not only going to be a first-round pick in '05, but that he had the makings of a top-notch NHL netminder eventually.

I still recall sitting in stunned disbelief at GM Place in Vancouver at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft when the announcement was made that the Bruins had traded disgruntled goalie Andrew Raycroft even-up for Rask. I couldn't believe that Toronto would give up such a blue-chip prospect (fresh off top goalie honors in the '06 WJC just six months earlier in the same city) for a player who was coming off of a train wreck of a season and appeared to have some serious flaws in his game. One scout in attendance even went so far as to say that the Bruins would have won the deal had they dumped Raycroft for "a bag of peanuts" nevermind the world class goalie prospect they got in Rask, but at the time, the deal was still a toss-up either way.

Well, three years later, it certainly looks like Boston won the toss. Raycroft's tenure in Toronto did not go well (to put it charitably), and he's already played in Colorado and now calls Vancouver home, while Rask has posted some of the best numbers in the NHL in Thomas' absence. Rask, who spent two years as a starter in the SM-Liiga with Ilves Tampere and two more in the AHL as the No. 1 for the Providence Bruins before making the jump to the NHL as the B's backup this season, has shown off the pure skill, athleticism and mature poise that many of us expected to see from him. Now, I know it's early, but the sky appears to be the limit for the 22-year-old, who also inked a two-year contract extension last month, a very prescient move by Boston GM Peter Chiarelli, who no doubt would have seen the going rate rise with the kind of production Rask has come up with in the last two weeks.

But, even with the tremendous showing by Rask, does this mean you simply cast Thomas aside like so much rubbish? Definitely not. The two goalies account for about $6 million on the cap which is middle of the pack with the rest of the NHL's 30 clubs, and for now, having an outstanding tandem is a great problem for Boston to have.

Now, make no mistake: Rask has made a strong case for more playing time, and Claude Julien should have the confidence to go with him more than once every 6 or 7 games. But those fans who think the Bruins should just get rid of Thomas because they don't like the contract or think he's cooked don't have it right, either. The grass always looks greener on the other side, and the fact of the matter is: the Bruins are a much better team with both Thomas and Rask than simply one or the other.

The Bruins were a top contending team every year from 1988-92 when they had the goalie pairing of Rejean Lemelin and Andy Moog between the pipes for them. The team hasn't had a duo even remotely close to Moog-Lemelin in 17 years. Why be so quick to break up this tandem? My advice to the anti-Thomas contingent: Be patient. If Rask is the real deal, his time will come. Until then, enjoy what the team has and expect there to be plenty of work for both players to handle in the coming months.

Bruins are currently in first in the Northeast...12 points ahead of the idle Leafs. Enjoy the win, then go back to work for the next test, the reinvigorated Tampa Bay Lightning.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Bruins Sweaters of the Past #4: Steve Kasper (Turkey Edition)

CENTER, Boston Bruins; 1980-81-1988-89
5-8, 170
BORN: September 28, 1961 in Montreal, Quebec
Games Played: 564 Goals: 135 Assists: 220 Points: 355 PIM: 450

OK, OK- calling this the "Turkey Edition" is a bit of a cheap shot, I know, because when he was a Bruins player, center Steve Kasper was one of the more respected and appreciated guys on the team by its fans. Even when he was traded to Los Angeles for Bobby Carpenter, B's fans grumbled because Kasper had been such a stalwart two-way presence over the life of his Boston career (and to date- the only Bruin to ever win the Frank J. Selke Award as the NHL's premier defensive forward).

When Kasper replaced Brian Sutter behind the Boston bench for the start of the 1995-96 season, it seemed like a match made in heaven, but things went south on a night when the rookie coach dressed Cam Neely and Kevin Stevens, then humilated both by keeping them on the bench for the entire 60 minutes of a game without letting them see a shift on the ice. For most Bruins fans, it was an unforgivable sin, especially since we would soon find out that Neely's degenerative hip condition would force him to retire from the game at age 31, well before he was ready to say goodbye. Neely was gutting it out, but like the warrior he was, didn't let on how badly he was hurting, so for Kasper to do that to him was something that created a massive furor. One can only imagine how much bigger/worse the outcry would have been if people were as widely connected to the internet back then.

But, as much as I disagreed with Kasper's coaching decision, and the fact that he is one of the more unsuccessful coaches in team history over his two-year tenure, I don't think his issues behind the bench should detract from his legacy as a player.

He was Boston's 3rd pick, 81st overall in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft, a former junior teammate of Ray Bourque's with the Verdun Black Hawks of the QMJHL, and actually made the Bruins out of camp as an 18-year-old that year, whereas first pick Barry Pederson was returned to junior. Kasper skipped the minors and went straight to the big time, where he flourished, winning the Selke Trophy in 1982 after gaining notoriety for shadowing and shutting down Wayne Gretzky, at the time as unstoppable an offensive force in the NHL as any in history.

Kasper centered the "Buzzsaw Line" in 1987-88, between wingers Randy Burridge and Bob Sweeney, becoming an effective unit that chipped in 75 goals between the three of them. During Boston's run to the 1988 finals, Kasper was one of the big heroes in the Adams Divison Final series against Montreal, scoring a pair of goals in the clinching fifth game at the Montreal Forum, the first time a Bruins team had beaten the hated Habs in the playoffs since 1941.

After going out to L.A. with Jay Miller, Kasper was decent, but injuries caused him to miss significant action for the first time in his career, and he bounced around to Philly and Tampa Bay before retiring in 1993.

In 564 career games with Boston, he tallied 135 goals and 355 points (with four 20 goal seasons between 1981 and 1988).

This home sweater of Kasper's is from the 1986-87 season, one of two in which the Bruins wore the ultrafil/knit material. (With the exception of Cam Neely, who had his sweaters custom-made out of the material when the rest of the team went with Airknit fabric- more on that in a later edition) It is a grand throwback to the days when the low Boston Garden dashers transferred the red paint to players' shirts, and smaller guys like Kasper and Burridge always carried that paint transfer on their game sweaters like a badge of honor. You can see the paint smears on this one's sleeves and even on the sweater's body, proof of his willingness to fight for pucks along the boards. This one has the assistant captain's 'A' on it, a smaller font signature of mid-80's Bruins sweaters when Terry O'Reilly and Rick Middleton were the team captains. Once Ray Bourque put on the 'C' for good in 1987-88, the team went to a bigger font for the 'C' and 'A' letters on the front.

This sweater is a nod to the older, rough-and-tumble days when the Bruins played in the small confine of the old Garden with its obstructed view seats and where just about anyone could afford a ticket.

Kasper may have blown it as a coach, but as a player, he was one of the best at what he did, and his on-ice contributions should not be completely forgotten.
Off to watch some football- hope you all have had a nice Thanksgiving today!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Kibbles n' Bitz

The Bruins got out of Minnesota with two points thanks to Tuukka Rask's brilliant goaltending and a goal from Byron Bitz (his third on the year), plus David Krejci's beauty of a backhand in the fourth round of the shootout.

Boston won all four games on their road trip, catapulting them into first place in the Northeast Division, but the bad news is that Milan Lucic suffered what looked like a serious left knee injury when he was hit by Marek Zidlicky and as he pinwheeled backward, caught his skate into the ice and appeared to seriously twist it on the way down. He hobbled off the ice and had to be helped to the dressing room- doesn't look good, but more on that later when he has an MRI and the severity can be established.

Rask was the story of the night, though- he made 28 saves after the B's were outshot 29-16 and the Wild got the advantage in hard work, skating and overall play. It sure is nice when you have a goalie who can steal a game as Rask did for the Bruins tonight.

But another story of the game was Bitz, who tipped a Derek Morris point shot to give Boston the early lead. It's amazing how far the Cornell alum has come when you consider where he came from.

He was a largely unknown quantity at the 2003 NHL Draft when the Bruins took him with the first of three fourth-round picks (acquired from San Jose in the move down from 16th that year) out of the BCHL. He wasn't in attendance, so I called up his junior team, the Nainaimo Clippers and talked to his coach, Bill Bestwick, who, like most coaches who are advocates for their players, raved about Bitz's size, skill, smarts and attitude. He was kind enough to pass Bitz's home phone number to me in Saskatchewan, so I dialed it up.

I recall that Byron wasn't there at the time, but his dad answered and we had a great conversation. From him, I learned that his son was taken completely by surprise that he'd been picked as early as he was, and was thrilled that it was Boston, because he had grown up a huge Bruins fan and admirer of Cam Neely's as a youngster. His love affair with the Big Bad B's was such that he had his dad put a spoked B at center ice of their backyard rink in Saskatoon.

When I finally did catch up with Byron, I could sense the excitement in his voice and he couldn't wait to get to New York to begin his college hockey career. Based on what I was hearing about him, I had high expectations for him offensively. But, things wouldn't quite work out the way I and others thought for him at Cornell.

Bitz spent four years with the Big Red in the ECAC, and after a very promising freshman campaign, I thought he regressed in his final three seasons. He never did manage to score at a point-per-game pace as a collegian, but to look at the numbers obviously didn't tell the whole story about his experience at Cornell, as Byron told me last year when he first came up to Boston that he learned a great deal about playing defense and being a responsible three-zone player in that program. In retrospect, Bitz grew more as a hockey player as he developed in Cornell's defensive system than anyone really imagined.

To Boston's credit, they signed the Big Red captain after graduation and gave him a shot. However, Bitz's pro career didn't exactly get off to a blistering start. Demoted quickly to Providence, he managed to work himself into coach Scott Gordon's graces with his strong two-way game and toughness. By the end of that first year, he was sporting an assistant captain's 'A' and had impressed both Gordon and assistant Rob Murray to a great degree. When Murray took over at Providence upon Gordon's departure for Long Island, Bitz became one of his go-to guys early in the 2008-09 season.

I even had to eat some crow with Bitz, because going into it, I had him ranked near the bottom of all Boston prospects and even deemed him "the most disappointing" player in the system. How foolish of me. Injuries forced his callup last January and he's been here ever since, an integral part of the fourth line, who is now playing part time on the top unit with Marc Savard.

What has allowed him to flourish in the NHL with the Black and Gold is his size and intelligence. Make no mistake- if he were 6-feet and 190 pounds, he'd be nowhere near an NHL rink. But, as you can't teach size and strength, he creates a tough matchup for opponents. Look at the way he bulled his way to the net in scoring his first goal of the season this year against the Islanders. When he gets a full head of steam going, there aren't many defensemen who can knock him off the puck.

Bitz told NESN correspondent Naoko Funayama tonight in between periods that he's now starting to feel comfortable playing with Savard. That feeling won't likely last, as you can't imagine Bitz staying on the top line for much longer, but Claude Julien is famous for rewarding his players who earn the ice time with opportunities that may exceed their pure talent threshold.

Boston fans love Bitz because he's an honest hockey player who uses his size well and will fight on occasion, but mostly plays it clean and tough. He wasn't a highly-touted prospect who was expected to succeed, but managed to do so after many (present company included) had written him off. To reinforce what an unknown he was, even when he made the big time, one HNIC host referred to him as "Byron Ritz" for an entire game broadcast.

The one they call "Bitzycat" will never score 30 goals in the NHL, or likely even 20. But to win in this league, you need guys like him. The Bruins made a great pick in the fourth round more than six years ago, and Bitz is rewarding their patience with him by providing consistent and solid contributions to the team's success.

How do you root against a guy like that?


Toronto won against Tampa Bay tonight, moving them past Carolina in the standings. The loss helps Boston, thanks to owning Tampa's second-round pick, but every B's fan would rather have seen the roles reversed tonight. Matt Stajan got a goal late in the second period to give Toronto a 4-3 win, with Jonas Gustavsson in net to register the victory. Boston taking the Wild to the shootout also helped in the standings, as the Wild need every point they can get to keep ahead of Toronto.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I hope you have a great day spent with good family, friends and food- in whatever order you wish. B's are back on the ice at the TD Garden Friday at noon against the New Jersey Devils. We're all hoping that Lucic is there with his teammates when the puck drops.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bruins Win, Leafs Lose...What Else Is New?

The Bruins got great play from their special teams (2 PPGs and a shortie), Patrice Bergeron (4 helpers) and Tuukka Rask, who made it look easy in a 4-2 win (their third in a row) on the road to move them past Tampa Bay and Philly in the standings to sixth in the conference.

The Leafs, on the other hand, got another front row seat to a goaltending clinic, this time given by Islanders goalie Dwayne Roloson in a 4-3 OT loss. Unfortunately for Bruins fans, the Leafs came back from a three-goal deficit to tie the game before falling in sudden death, meaning they got yet another point to help them in the standings. Their 15 points in 22 contests (4-11-7) pulls them equal with Carolina, but they do have a game-in-hand on the Hurricanes.

Former OHL star Josh Bailey put the dagger into Toronto's hearts with his sixth goal of the year at 4:17 of the extra session, but you have to think that with the way Roli was playing, the Isles would've pulled it off in the shootout. For the record, the Leafs outshot their opponent 61-21, and still lost...just a gut-wrenching kind of game to come up short in. Roloson posted a .951 save percentage on his 58 saves in regulation and OT while under siege. Like Miika Kiprusoff last week, it was a brilliant performance by a visiting netminder to the ACC.

As for the Toronto goalies: Vesa Toskala...not so much- getting the hook after allowing three goals on 15 shots (.800 save percentage). Ditto Jonas Gustavsson, who only faced six total shots in parts of two periods and OT- but gave up the winning goal (.833 save percentage) to Bailey. As Dana Carvey used to put it when he impersonated George H.W. Bush on the old SNL skits of the late '80's/early 90's: Not. Gonna. Do. It.

Big kudos to the Isles this year: GM Garth Snow has improved the club's talent and character, and he made the right moves in net to stabilize that team after Rick DiPietro's injury problems really deep-sixed the team last year before the season really got underway. And, I can't say enough about Scott Gordon- Flash has proven himself to be the absolutely right coach for that young team. He was a tremendous influence on Boston's prospects when he was the bench boss in Providence for five seasons, and he's showing the same kind of skill and smarts in his second NHL season. The Islanders put a whuppin' on the Bruins last week, and they came into Toronto and hung in there after the Leafs threw the kitchen sink at them. Those are the games that a young team truly learns and grows from, and Islanders fans have to be thrilled with what they've seen from their team thus far.

Leafs Nation: Still think that Tuukka Rask wouldn't be a help to you this year if he was one of your guys? He's 6-2-1 with a 2.27 GAA and .919 save percentage in nine starts as Tim Thomas' backup.

Looking ahead, big game for draft watchers on Wednesday night: Toronto takes on Tampa. The Bruins own both teams' second-round picks, but on this night, B's fans will definitely be cheering the 'Bolts.

Boston wraps up the road trip in Minnesota, and they've never fared well against the Wild. Even with Minnesota's struggles this year, don't bank on this being an easy two points for the B's.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bruins 2010 1st, 2nd Round Pick Position Updated Nov 23rd

Happy Monday to you all...better week than last, when I was still getting over the crushing Patriots' loss to Indy. Anytime you can see the Pats beat the New York Jets, it's a good thing, but I have to admit, seeing it happen against Rex Ryan, who has embarrassed himself and the Jets organization with his constant bloviating and arrogance early, which gave way to blubbery emotion and tears in recent weeks, is the icing on the cake. But, I digress. This is, afterall, a hockey blog.

The Toronto Maple Leafs got a big win against the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals at home on Saturday (only their second home victory of the season) in the shootout to give them 14 points on the season in 21 games (4-11-6). Phil Kessel ripped a shot past Semyon Varlamov and Vesa Toskala (who played his best game of the season) stopped Eric Fehr (who broke his stick) and then lucked out when Alexander Ovechkin whiffed to send his shot over the net. The win wasn't enough to get the Leafs out of the basement, but pulled them to within one point of Carolina, and three of the Western Conference cellar-dwelling Anaheim Ducks.

The Bruins got wins on the road against Atlanta and Buffalo primarily thanks to Tuukka Rask's cool and poised netminding. Unfortunately, the Tampa Bay Lightning beat Atlanta on Sunday, pushing them ahead of Boston for seventh in the standings. If the season ended today, the Bruins would be the eighth seed. They are only seven points out of first in the conference (with all teams ahead of the B's in the standings except for the Pens and Caps having games-in-hand on them).

Anyway- as you'll see, the B's projected picks are getting lower on the board as they, along with Tampa, continue to win games. Toronto's stumbles last week thanks in large part to Jonas Gustavsson, were great news for Boston fans.

So, without further ado- the picks:

1st round

1st overall- Toronto (14 points)
13th overall- Boston (24 points)

2nd round
31st overall- Toronto
43rd overall- Boston
45th overall- Tampa Bay (25 points)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bruins Sweaters of the Past #3: Vladimir Ruzicka

CENTER, Boston Bruins 1990-91- 1992-93
6-3, 215
BORN: June 6, 1963 in Most, Czechoslovakia
GP: 166 G: 66 A: 66 PTS: 132 PIM: 105

The Bruins are playing the Buffalo Sabres tonight, and that reminds me of the single greatest goal I've ever seen scored live by a Boston player.

That honor goes to forward Vladimir "Rosie" Ruzicka, who scored an amazing coast-to-coast goal at the Garden against Darren Puppa and the Sabres in a December, 1990 game I went to with my dad while I was on Christmas break from my first year of college.

Ruzicka, who had been acquired from the Edmonton Oilers for fan favorite Greg Hawgood, had been a star of the Czechoslovakia Extraliga, '84 and '88 Olympic Teams and had at one time been a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick. His rights traded to the Oil, he came over to the NHL from Eastern Europe at age 27 in the spring of 1990.

Possessing ideal size and skill, Rosie didn't speak a lick of English, but boy- could he ever play hockey! He couldn't find his own end with a compass, but he had a dizzying array of stickhandling moves and wicked shot he could get off from anywhere.

One of his finest moments as a Bruin came in Game 2 of the Prince of Wales Conference Final series against Pittsburgh, when he scored the game-winner in overtime after assisting on all four previous Boston goals to give the B's a 2-0 series lead. Painfully, the Bruins lost the next four games to get bounced from the playoffs unceremoniously, but that was the moment that Boston fans started to realize that they had a bona fide scorer on their hands.

In 1991-92, Ruzicka led the team in goals with 38, which was important because Cam Neely missed all but nine games that year to the serious knee injury Ulf Samuelsson gave hm in Game 6 of that aforementioned playoff series the previous spring. Ruzicka continued his winning ways against Pittsburgh and Tom Barrasso that year, scoring four goals in a single game during the regular season. Unfortunately, he couldn't find that magic in the playoffs, and Boston was swept by Pittsburgh in the Wales Conference final again- the last time a Bruins team has made it to the Stanley Cup semifinal.

Ruzicka, who did well under Boston coach Rick Bowness, landed squarely in successor Brian Sutter's doghouse (along with Dmitri Kvartalnov) and was unceremoniously dumped after the 1993 season, with GM Harry Sinden not even extending Rosie a contract offer.

He signed with the moribund Ottawa Senators for the 1993-94 campaign, coached by none other than Bowness, but this time, the two clased as Ruzicka's less-than-stellar practice habits grated on the former Boston coach, who had a much inferior team in Ottawa.

Ruzicka left the NHL for good in 1994, and returned to his native Czech Republic. He was captain of the gold medal-winning Czech Olympic Team at the Nagano Games in 1998 and retired as a player. He now coaches the Czech National Team and will be in Vancouver this February. His son, Vladimir Jr., a toddler when his dad played in Boston, was a Phoenix Coyotes draft pick a few years back.

This Boston Bruins away sweater is from the second set worn by the Bruins during the 1991-92 season, Ruzicka's best in the NHL. It has the distinctive NHL 75th Anniversary Patch and a set stamp inside the hem, plus Rosie's autograph on the fight strap inside. There is some decent wear in the form of stick marks, pilling and unrepaired holes on the sleeves. This one is photomatched to the photo of Ruzicka on his profile page inside the 1992-93 Bruins Yearbook (but not to the one of him on the cover). In it, he is featured in game action against the New Jersey Devils, whom the B's played only once on the road that year in March, confirming that it would have to be from the second set.

This sweater is a sentimental favorite in my collection, even though Ruzicka's numbers as a Bruin were never much to write home about. In my mind's eye, I can still see him gliding up the ice, weaving in and out of the skating lanes, leaving befuddled Buffalo players in his wake before firing a bullet shot past an equally stunned Puppa to ignite the Garden crowd.

It's how I prefer to remember the talented, but enigmatic Ruzicka, who was the cat's meow on Causeway Street- even if just for a brief but unforgettable time.

War of the Wimps...Part Deux

Carolina vesus there a worse matchup in professional sports today?

I would probably take the over/under on the Cleveland Browns versus the Kansas City Chiefs personally, but last night's Hurricanes-Leafs extravaganza was a microcosm of how both of the NHL's least successful teams to date this season have fared.

In the second meeting of the year between the teams (the first of which Toronto won handily) the Leafs, on the road, roared out to a 3-0 lead, only to drop the game in a shootout by a 6-5 final score (h/t to former Bruin Stephane Yelle, who scored his 1st on the year in the rally).

The great Jonas Gustavsson, whose plaque some Torontonians had already engraved for the hallowed hall downtown, has continued to falter of late, and if you're a Leafs fan who is truly honest with yourself- the thought of this guy carrying your team to a playoff spot plays much more like the next Mission: Impossible sequel than anything else.

Last night, Gustavsson was in net when his team blew the lead and then got schooled in the shootout. Now, I'm not saying that the Monster can't be a good NHL goaltender, but the fact is- he's been thrown into the fire, and his lack of experience at this level is costing his team points they can ill afford to give up.

I know Leafs fans don't want to hear about Tuukka Rask, but compare and contrast Gustavsson's performance last night (both played in shootout games) to that of Boston's rookie and onetime Leafs castoff. Rask isn't costing his team their season, and the presence of Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas means that Rask isn't under the suffocating pressure that Gustavsson is under right now. After watching a cool Rask stone Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk in the final shootout attempt last night to preserve a point for his team, is there any Leafs fan out there who is still honestly going to say that they'd not have more points than 12 if their top pick in '05 was their goalie today?

One of the more misunderstood maxims of hockey goaltending is this: it isn't how many saves you make, but when you make them that matters. On the face of it, Gustavsson stopped 40 shots, but when his team needed him to make a big one to preserve the lead and win, he couldn't do it against Erik Cole. Rask surrendered the lead in regulation too, but he stood tall at crunch time, stopping all three shots in the extra five minutes and stoning Rich Peverley, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Kovalchuk in the shootout. The performance raised his record to 4-2-1, with a .911 save percentage and 2.49 GAA. Gustavsson: 3-4-4, 3.23 and .901. Not much of a margin for error.

Last year's darling Luke Schenn is having a rough year and has taken a beating both by his coach, who has dramatically reduced his ice time and role, and in the court of public opinion. Schenn was the franchise's future face and golden boy, but how quickly the tide has turned against him this season is a barometer for how bad it has gotten in Toronto of late. He's a good defenseman and will bounce back, but it couldn't be a worse time to have a sophomore slump.

The Leafs were a weak team on paper going into the season, but going 3-17 in their first 20 games is beyond what anybody in Leaf nation had to envision for the club at the quarter mark.

In losing to the injury-ravaged 'Canes who are without their two most integral players, the Leafs are now back in the NHL's basement, and barring a major shakeup, what are the team's options?

Phil Kessel has delivered the offense this month, which is great news for the team, but will he be able to sustain it over the course of the campaign? If he can, then Toronto may be able to climb closer to the top of the NHL's bottom 10, but if not, they're in big trouble. Even with his scoring, the team is still losing a lot of hockey games. What happens to the Leafs if he goes into a slump? Who picks up the slack?

The goaltending has been poor, the defense mediocre and offense carried by a couple of overachievers. This is a recipe for sour times, and to be honest- I don't have the faintest idea of what Toronto can really do. Fire Ron Wilson? Send some of the weak links packing? What then? It's a tough Catch-22 to be in right now whether you're Burke or a fan of this team.

And things aren't going to get any easier in the near future. Next up: the Eastern Conference-leading Washington Capitals tomorrow night at the ACC.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Few Thoughts on Central Scouting's Preliminary Rankings

The NHL's Central Scouting Service released their preliminary domestic and international rankings on Tuesday, adding those to the watch lists for the other lower-end North American leagues published last month.

The first thing that jumped out to everyone is that Central shares Red Line Report's opinion on Tyler Seguin. The Plymouth Whalers (OHL) pivot was No. 1 overall- one spot ahead of Windsor's uber-skilled winger Taylor Hall.

Not surprisingly, Seguin, Hall and Windsor d-man Cam Fowler are 1-2-3 on Central's OHL list, and I wouldn't expect much movement there by the end of the season, except for a flip-flop between Seguin and Hall depending on how things go. Injured defenseman Erik Gudbranson and Barrie forward Alexander Burmistrov (both mentioned by Kyle Woodlief in the interview earlier this week) round out the OHL's top-five. Burmistrov is the real deal, and he looks like legitimate blue-chip stock.

One curious OHL omission I thought was Owen Sound's Joey Hishon, who, like Gudbrandson has been injured, but to leave him off the list completely seems a bit strange (he was an 80-point scorer last season). He's someone to watch this year if he can get back into the swing of things, but a team with multiple second-round picks (hint, hint) could end up getting good value with Hishon if he somehow drops out of the top-30 (which I would doubt- some team would do well to snag him in the bottom third of the 1st at least).

Another OHL player I really like and disagree with Red Line about (they have him outside their top-20) is John McFarland of the Sudbury Wolves. He's right behind Burmistrov, and unless something drastic happens between now and June, I can't see him dropping much beyond the top-10.

In the Quebec League, the Moncton Wildcats are like the Windsor Spitfires (Hall and Fowler) in that they have a pair of prospect gems playing for them, both of whom could possibly end up in the top-five come June.

Defenseman Brandon Gormley, who was the top pick in the QMJHL midget draft two years ago, sits atop Central's list for Quebec players. The slick skater with size and good offensive instincts has a high upside, but Woodlief doesn't quite see him in the same class as Fowler, who projects as a legitimate two-way, shutdown defender in the NHL. Still, Gormley has a lot of skill and potential and is someone to keep an eye on.

Kirill Kabanov is right behind Gormley as the top QMJHL prospect, and if you haven't read Woodlief's comments about him in the interview I did, take the time to check them out. He's highly complimentary of the Russian, and pretty much torpedoes any of the rumors that Kabanov is having issues with Danny Flynn (Moncton coach) and problems adjusting to North America. He had a brilliant spotlight profile on Kabanov in the November issue.

Another Russian and player to watch from the Q this year is Saint John winger Stanislav Galiev, who jumped up a level to major junior after skating in the USHL last season.

The WHL is curious, with injured Prince George winger Brett Connolly at the top, followed by underachieving Edmonton Oil Kings defender Mark Pysyk. Connolly can be forgiven his slow start, but I've had at least one source who scouts the WHL tell me that Pysyk has the talent to be a big leaguer, but just doesn't seem to demonstrate the intensity, consistency or hockey sense that you want from a top defenseman.

California native Emerson Etem was the fourth-ranked WHLer, but if he keeps scoring goals at Medicine Hat, he'll end up higher on the final list.

Another WHL player I've been following since last season when his name caught my eye is Swiss winger Nino Niederreiter, who plays the North American-style hockey already and has impressed onlookers with the Portland Winterhawks. He's got a great name, but that game of his is nothing to sneeze at, either. Central has him sixth in the Dub, and if he keeps it up, he'll keep anyone trying to knock him down the rankings at bay.

The USHL list has a real-world Mutt and Jeff in the top-two spots: Huge and skilled Minnesota defender Derek Forbort, who left the HS ranks to play for the U.S. NTDP (Under-18 Team) at Ann Arbor, Mich., with the small but dynamic Jaden Schwartz of Tri-City behind him. Schwartz is another guy I meant to ask Woodlief about but ran out of time, so I'll follow up later on this season. Red Line has him just outside the top-10, so he's got some legit skills.

Aside from Finland's Mikael Granlund, who I understand reminds some of a young Saku Koivu, I'm not overly familiar with the European entries for this year's draft. Russian Vladimir Tarasenko of Novosibirsk is the other player vying with Granlund for top international billing.

That will change when I get a chance to see the WJCs and start talking to my scout contacts over there, but the bottom line is: the North American crop of players is stronger this year, with some of the best Euros over and playing major junior (Kabanov, Burmistrov, Galiev, Niederreiter, Petr Straka), the domestic lists are going to dominate draft conversations between now and the big event.

Additional Tidbits from Woodlief Interview

I appreciate the feedback I've gotten from the talk I had with Kyle Woodlief. It's the kind of post that gets the juices flowing right before Thanksgiving as the weather gets colder and the hockey races heat up.

One question I did ask him was what he thought about the trade that sent Phil Kessel to Toronto for the high picks in 2010 and 2011. He didn't want to go into the psychology behind what motivated the Bruins to move Kessel other than saying that they obviously saw something about him they didn't like to trade a 22-year-old coming off of a 36-goal season, and one who, had he not been sidelined with mono at midseason, very likely would have potted 40 or more.

That said- Woodlief said that if Toronto's pick hovers around top-five, the Bruins will get a player of comparable value, because he sees the 2010 top-five as being very close in terms of upside to the class of '06, when Kessel was taken fifth overall. The real issue lies with how long it make take whomever the Bruins choose to make the team and have an impact. Kessel was in the NHL at 18, and although it took him until his third season to show off the consistent scoring we all know he brings to the table, he was someone who paid immediate dividends.

Tyler Seguin, Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler all look like players who could be skating in the NHL a year from now, but beyond those guys, the crystal ball is a little cloudier.

In any case- it's an interesting discussion that is going to take years to play out before a definitive case for which team won the deal can be made either way. If the Leafs stay in the tank and the Bruins can land a skilled, talented player who is a little more socially adept and committed to the organization- a better fit overall than Kessel was- then I think they'll be happy.

Kudos to Kessel for how well he's played in Toronto so far, but he can only put the puck in the net or help his teammates to do so...he can't keep them out of his own net. Every point the Leafs lose in the standings pushes Boston closer to landing one of the real draft bonanza players in the 2010 class. Brian Burke, in going out and surrendering three high picks for Kessel, has essentially robbed Peter to pay Paul. It's a tough challenge for him to overcome this season, because he doesn't have a lot of tradeable assets he can use to make his team better with.

That's why I think this blog is going to continue to gain followers as the season rolls 1997, this draft year will have more buzz for B's fans than any other in history.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Interview with Red Line Report Chief Scout Kyle Woodlief

Today I had the pleasure to have an extended talk with Kyle Woodlief, Chief Scout and Publisher of the Red Line Report, the premier independent scouting service for hockey. Kyle has been running the show at Red Line since 1998, and I've enjoyed getting to know him and his scouts since becoming a subscriber in 2000 and attending many of the NHL drafts each June.

Regardless of what you happen to think of Kyle's and his staff's opinions on players, you can be assured that they are seeing an enormous amount of hockey games across the globe and are in attendance at all major international tournaments as well as major junior, college, tier 2 and junior B, prep hockey games and so on. These guys leave no stone unturned, so there is always a wealth of information in every monthly Red Line Report bulletin.

I talked to Kyle about a variety of subjects today, so without further ado, here is the transcript of our chat:

Bruins2010DraftWatch: How is the Class of 2010 shaping up overall?

Kyle Woodlief: I think it's a pretty good crop, a fairly deep crop and I really like a few of the players at the top. (Center) Tyler Seguin is going to be a top forward someday with his outstanding two-way game and upside. (Taylor) Hall (LW) is a high-end skills guy who can score and bring a lot of speed and offense to any situation, and there's (Cam) Fowler if you're looking for a top defenseman who can do everything and run your power play, so this is a draft group that is as strong at the top as any in recent memory.

B2101DW: Like Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian, does Cam Fowler have the same kind of potential to be an impact NHL defenseman right away?

KW: Yes- absolutely. I think he does. In this class, I see Fowler as the only d-man I would compare to that crop of defensemen who came out in 2008. What I like about him, beyond his obvious skills and potential, is the fact that as a late '91 he played a full schedule with the U.S. NTDP last year, and this year, could play close to 90 games. You figure that he's going to get about 70 with Windsor in the regular season and I'd be shocked if they didn't at least reach the conference finals. If they win the OHL, then they'd play in the Memorial Cup, so between the regular schedule, the full slate of international tournaments he played in last year and then the games he'll get with Windsor this season, you're looking at about 160 games of high-level hockey in the past two years. I don't think he would need that extra year of major junior eligibility, and it's likely that depending on which NHL team drafts him, he'll be able to make the immediate jump.

B2010DW: Red Line has Tyler Seguin over Taylor Hall as the top player available in the draft;(Editors' note: So does Central Scouting, who released their midterm rankings today. More on that later) Why Seguin over Hall, who has certainly been a fan favorite to be the No. 1 pick in June?

KW: (Seguin's) just a smarter, better player overall. He's got the two-way game and is a tremendous hockey player who thinks the game as well as he plays it. Hall's skills are elite and he's more polished at this stage of his career, but in my opinion, Seguin does more to win hockey games on a nightly basis than Hall does. His developmental curve is a straight line heading upward right now, and I just really like his upside and potential to be a star performer at the NHL level one day.

B2010DW: What are your thoughts on Moncton's Kirill Kabanov (LW) and his upside? (Kabanov is ranked 4th overall on RLR's Nov. list)

KW:He's got a huge upside; his puck skills are ridiculous- his stick is like a magnet for the puck. He makes plays at top speed and will control the offensive flow of the play. He's got some filling out to do- he's only about 172 pounds right now, but when he does, I think you'll see something special because he's got incredibly soft hands and is unselfish with the puck. He's very creative and is silky smooth out there with the puck. He's got a funky-looking stride, but he's really fast and always seems to get to the puck first. I also like the fact that he plays with a chippy edge, even though he doesn't have the strength right now to really be able to get away with playing that kind of style. It will come for him when he adds the pounds to that 6-3 frame of his. One thing that is a bit of a problem for him right now is that he tends to let his emotions get the best of him at times. He's got to work on his discipline and not getting too involved emotionally when things aren't going well, but other than that, he's got a tremendous skill level, speaks English very well, and has really fit into that Moncton dressing room. He's a guy who missed the first month or so of the season while waiting for the IIHF appeal to go through, but he didn't miss a beat, and you can see his potential whenever he's on the ice.

B2010DW: You have Kingston (OHL) defenseman Eric Gudbranson ranked closer to 20th than 10th. Is it because of his injuries that he's fallen off a bit, or is there more to it

KW: No, it's because he's been hurt- he just hasn't played much this year. He's been out for three weeks or so, so that injury has held him back a bit. He's not quite the sum of his parts yet. He's a huge kid who makes a good first pass, but he hasn't fully asserted himself in the offensive end yet in the limited amount of time we've been able to see him, so when he comes back, we'll be looking at how he does in that regard. He certainly has the potential to climb above 20, and if he can come back strong and assert himself more, you might see that. But, he's not playing, and other guys are and have gotten off to good starts, so you have to put him down a bit when you have other players performing at or above expectations.

B2010DW: Who do you see as some of the biggest risers in this year's crop?

KW: I think Emerson Etem (Center- Red Line's 10th overall player for Nov.) is a real riser. He left the U.S. team to go to Medicine Hat of the Dub, and I thought it would take him a while to get used to the physical aspects of the WHL, but he's come through like a champ. He's scoring a lot of goals and competing hard, which is something I just didn't see him do a lot playing on the U.S. Under-17 team because he was more talented than a lot of the players he skated with and against. But, to his credit, he's been bringing a high effort level so far, and you're seeing it pay off for him on the scoresheet. Another player I really like as someone who has risen up the rankings is the Russian Alexander Burmistrov (C- 19th), who is off to an excellent start with the Barrie Colts (OHL). He's a little on the small side, so we wanted to see how he handled himself in the OHL and our early rankings reflected that, but he's played extremely well and really done a good job for Barrie, so I've been impressed with him. Probably the biggest surprise so far has been the play of another Russian in the OHL: Saginaw's Ivan Telegin (C- 28th), who, coming into the season was someone we saw as someone who had the tools, but lacked the scoring and finish to be a top-six kind of forward. We saw him last year in Russia, and we liked his skills except for the fact that he just couldn't seem to finish, so the question was- is he more of a third-line checking guy? But this year, he's been lighting it up with Saginaw (16 goals in 22 games) as a rookie, so given the tools he's already shown, it's very much a pleasant surprise to see him finishing as well as he has so far.

B2010DW: If the season ended today, the Bruins would be picking 2nd and 9th overall. Going by Red Line's rankings, they'd be looking at Taylor Hall (2) or Cam Fowler (3) and huge, skilled defenseman Derek Forbort (9) or Emerson Etem (10). Let's assume they were to pick Fowler 2nd and Etem 9th. In your opinion, what would the Bruins be getting with those two?

KW: In Cam Fowler, you have a defenseman who can come in right away and apprentice under Zdeno Chara, but not be the focal point of the defense for his team right away. He wouldn't have the kind of pressure of being a high pick and the team needing him to step up right away and run the power play and be everything to that back end, and plus- it's a pretty good situation for Fowler to learn the game from a someone who's a pretty fine defenseman in his own right (laughs). I think not having that added pressure of having to perform as a No. 1 d-man right away would be the right kind of environment for Fowler, and I would expect he'd respond to it pretty well. Etem wouldn't likely make the club right away and would go back to junior for one more year of seasoning, but the Bruins would be getting a guy who will add a lot of speed to the attack. He'd be a nice replacement for Phil Kessel's speed, although I don't know that Etem possesses the same kind of dynamic scoring ability that Kessel does. Still, he's an excellent prospect, and for Boston to get those guys would bode well for the team in the future.

B2010DW: Who are some of the players who might be flying under the radar a bit for you?

KW: A couple come to mind: Ryan Johansen (LW- ranked 47th) of Portland in the WHL was playing Tier 2 last year in the BCHL, but has made a seamless transition to the Dub and has impressed early. Another player I like is the big German defenseman Konrad Abeltshauser (42nd) of Halifax (QMJHL). He had a broken wrist early in the year and was expected to miss 4-6 weeks, but came back in three, which shows me that he's got some real toughness and commitment to his team. He's quarterbacking the power play and has shown some good skills playing on a bad team. Again, I like the fact that he worked hard to get back into the lineup, which shows me he's a tough kid who really wants to play. That kind of thing matters to NHL teams, who are looking for dedicated players.

B2010DW: Looking ahead to 2011, how does that class stack up in the early going? Is it as weak as some have said it is?

KW: It's still pretty early in the season, and I haven't turned my attention to the '93s all that much yet. I probably won't focus on them until I go to Timmins, Ont. next month for the World Under-17 Challenge, but there are a few guys who have caught our attention: German forward Tobias Rieder is someone we'll be watching closely, and there are a couple of late '92s on the U.S. team who have some potential as well. Matthew Nieto, Nick Shore, whom I like better than his older brothers, and Michael Mersch are three forwards who represent some pretty good talent coming out of that program. Shane McColgan is speedy kid with a world of talent who is doing well in the WHL, and one more native Californian in a growing line of really talented players to come out of that state.

We also talked about Moncton defenseman Brandon Gormley, Red Line's 7th-ranked player and second defender after Fowler. Kyle saw him last night in the QMJHL vs. Russia game in Drummondville and was impressed with the former top bantam pick two years ago. Of course, the caveat to the assessment was that the Quebec team hammered the hapless Russians, and Woodlief said just about every player on the 'Q' squad stood out/had a good game (to include current B's prospects Max Sauve and Jordan Caron).

Here's how Woodlief sees Gormley as of right now: "He's a solid d-man with good hockey skills and sense. I don't think he has the mindset to be a shutdown, physical defender at the NHL level, but he'll be a solid two way guy who can put up about 50 points, but not a 60-70-point, shutdown type of player."

As always, I want to thank Kyle for being so generous with his time and free with his opinions and views on the players. As the season progresses, I'll talk to Kyle again, as well as some of his regional scouts, who are so integral to Red Line's rankings and final draft guide in June.

If you are interested in what Red Line has to offer, you can visit the website at:

I'll be back a little later with comments on Central Scoutings preliminary rankings once I've had a chance to digest them. Thanks for reading!

It's Time to Pay Attention to Boston's Scoring Woes

Those of you who know me understand that I am not the typical knee-jerk alarmist, but after the Bruins dropped their game last night to the New York Islanders by a 4-1 score, the team's inability to find a consistent scoring presence is an issue. At the 20-game mark, the Bruins are a mediocre 8-8-4, and bear little resemblance to the team that won the Eastern Conference last season and came within a point of winning the President's Trophy for the best regular season record overall.

I know, I know- it's not breaking news. After all- we're six weeks into the season and the B's are in the bottom five for goals scored in the NHL. Luckily for them- they're in and around the top-ten for goals allowed (the biggest difference between the Bruins and Maple Leafs, IMO) right now, or they'd be down in the Eastern Conference basement as opposed to middle of the pack.

Losing Marc Savard has been a major blow; Milan Lucic's absence from the lineup has hurt as well, but it is Savy who is the straw that stirs Boston's scoring drink, and he's the only player close to scoring at a point-per-game pace, with seven points in as many games before his broken foot forced him out of action.

The fact of the matter is: David Krejci, Marco Sturm, Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi, Blake Wheeler and Dennis Wideman simply have not stepped up offensively this season. I'm not going to play the blame game and single out any one of those guys as being more deserving of the team's collective failure on the scoring front; all players to one degree or another, simply haven't been able to get it done.

Krejci has become the focus of opposition checking, and has not been able to muddle through it. He has recently gotten on the scoreboard, however: he tallied on Boston's 5-on-3 power play against Pittsburgh, then made a terrific move to set up Daniel Paille for the team's only score against the Islanders last night. But overall, he's not had the Midas touch he exhibited last season with just two goals and 8 points in 18 games.

Sturm is possibly the most disappointing of all: after missing much of last season with injuries, he has his speed back, and certainly looks physically capable of returning to form, but simply hasn't. His four goals and 9 points in 20 contests are a pittance compared to what he should be generating, and he's gotten plenty of ice time to produce. His 8 percent shooting percentage only tells part of the story: when I watch Sturm, I see his blazing wheels on display, but he takes an inordinate amount of shots from the outside at sharper angles, which translates into opposing goalies making routine saves. I don't see much movement into traffic by Sturm, nor do I see him playing in the dirty areas of the ice, two factors that I believe explain his lack of production.

Recchi is the frequent whipping boy by Boston fans, and while I've defended him in the past, there is no denying that he is not performing in a top-six role the B's require him to play right now. At this stage of his career, he's not able to generate the kind of consistent production and offensive flow that a top team gets from their top-two lines. At the same time, those who simply take the easy way out by blaming the 41-year-old don't get it, either. Recchi was never seen as a go-to guy for offense this season, he's simply been forced into the responsibility because of injuries. To hold him solely accountable for Boston's scoring woes is not seeing the forest for the trees...he's absolutely not getting it done, nor is he the one on whom you hang your team's hopes.. If you honestly came into this season counting on Recchi's offense to keep the Bruins in contention, then you didn't get it in the first place. In year 21 in the NHL, he's a complementary player and specialist, not a top-two line scorer...unlike the aforementioned and others like Wheeler and Ryder. What's their excuse?

Wheeler and Ryder have shown flashes of what they're capable of, but Wheeler has just 38 shots on net, while scoring on 13.16 percent of them. He's got to shoot the puck more and stop overhandling it in the offensive zone. Ryder got off to a good start, but has cooled considerably and has just seven points in 20 games. The B's are paying him way too much for that paltry a scoring load. True- he's always been a player who depends on a good center to get him the puck, but the Ryder we've seen over the past 15 games or so is a shadow of the player we saw dominating play against Montreal in the first round of the '09 playoffs.

Finally, Dennis Wideman has been a train wreck this year. His defense has always been subpar, but his offense was what made him a solid No. 2 in this league. This season, he's been lousy in both aspects. The defense is about where it was when he first came to Boston in the spring of '07 (read: horrific) and the offense has been virtually nonexistent (1-3-4 in 17 GP). Yes, he's banged up, but surely he can do better. Thank goodness for Derek Morris, who's tied with Zdeno Chara for the lead in scoring for defenseman with 11 points (good for third overall on the team behind Chara and Patrice Bergeron), but just think: where would Boston be if Wideman were actually contributing? He's not, and if he doesn't get it going, the B's are in big trouble this year.

Right now, the Bruins are sitting at 20 points, good for 10th in the conference. They're nine ahead of Toronto (who face Ottawa on the road tonight), but quietly slipping out of the playoff hunt. The Islanders are much-improved over last season, but what we saw last night from Boston was about as poor an offensive showing as you can get. Dwayne Roloson wasn't tested much, and the B's didn't show much of a sense of urgency in the game. When your leading scorer has just six goals in 20 games (Bergeron), then you're not getting it done, period. The Bruins should be grateful that they have the tandem of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask in net otherwise things would be far worse.

Make no mistake- things will improve when Savard and Lucic get back, but how much the team can turn it around depends on whether the team's higher-priced veterans and skill players can get things going. If they don't, then the Bruins won't sniff the postseason this year.

That's good news for draft fans, but terrible news for the state of this team, which is built to win now, but is doing anything but.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Bruins 2010 1st, 2nd Round Pick Position Updated Nov 16th

I'm back on the blog this Monday, the 16th, and I gotta tell you- still reeling at the way the New England Patriots lost last night to the mighty Indianapolis Colts. It was like watching a train wreck...couldn't take your eyes off it, even though you knew what was coming. Hat tip to Peyton Manning and the Colts on that one- they executed the big plays when they had to have them and stunned the Pats, who were reminded of how tough they've had it ('07 aside) in this recent rivalry after blowing a big lead like the 21-3 advantage they held in the 2006 AFCCG.

OK- enough about football. On to hockey and where the B's picks would be in Rounds 1-2 if the season ended today:

2nd- Toronto (11 points: Two consecutive losses and a major falter from the Monster on Saturday)
11th- Boston (20 points: Between the Pittsburgh and Indy games, just a crushing weekend for Boston sports fans)
32nd- Toronto
41st- Tampa Bay (20 points: One spot above Boston with one fewer win)
42nd- Boston

Coming soon: A comprehensive review of the 2010 Draft Class from one of the best in the scouting business, Red Line Report Chief Scout Kyle Woodlief.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Now Playing in the Toronto Nets: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

So much for the Monster.

The Toronto Maple Leafs saw what great goaltending can do tonight firsthand, and unfortunately for them, the guy who put on a clinic was wearing white and red.

The Leafs lost to the Calgary Flames on home ice by a 5-2 score in a game they pretty much dominated (outshooting the Flames 40-22, limiting Calgary to just 4 in the second frame), but Miikka Kiprusoff showed off his 2006 Vezina Trophy-winning form on this night, stoning Toronto to the tune of 38 saves and a .950 save percentage.

The home fans were treated to a horror show in their net, though. Starting goalie Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson gave up two goals on the first two shots he faced, helping Calgary put up a 2-0 lead in the first 1:37 of the game. He was chased from the game after just 9:54, giving up three goals on five total shots (that's a .400 save percentage for you scoring at home- yeeouch!) with his team down, 3-1, meaning he also got tagged with the loss, dropping his record to 3-4-3...that save percentage and GAA will really take a hit.

Vesa Toskala came in and was better, but not by much when you really get down to it. He stopped 15 of 17 shots, but only faced four total in the second period and gave up a back-breaker on Jarome Iginla's second of the game (from almost the same spot on the outside, I might add) to make it 4-2, Calgary at 2:30 of the second.

Tonight, the goaltending lost the game for the Leafs, and this when they were a significantly better team than their opponent. This is important, because Toronto just isn't that good a club to begin with, so when they overachieve up front and on D, they've got to have their goaltending in top shape. It wasn't, and it cost the Leafs two important points that they can't have back to help them in the standings.

One more thing about Gustavsson: I know Leafs fans love him and all, but maybe some of them come back down to terra firma a bit after this loss. He simply Was. Not. Ready. To. Play. And that, my friends, is one unforgivable sin as a first-year player, nevermind on a team that can't afford to throw away any points.

HNIC play-by-play man Craig Simpson (who put a dagger in Bruins fans' hearts in 1988 and 1990 when he was a member of the Edmonton Oilers) related the story that Gustavsson blew off the optional morning skate today in Toronto. He made it clear that in his opinion, veteran players have earned the right to do that, but first year NHL goalies...not acceptable. Now, you can make excuses for him if you want, but I watched him on all three goals he gave up and they were just bad ones that not only put his team behind before the game was really underway, but sucked the life out of his players as well. Gustavsson, for whatever reason, opted not to skate, and I think it was a mistake. If you don't believe that might have played into Ron Wilson's quick hook of him in period 1, then give it another go. He's a taskmaster like coach, and even though his team was late getting in from Chicago, he undoubtedly expected Gustavsson to be there. Message sent. Question is- was message received?

The Monster was scary bad in net tonight...and let's rest assured he won't get the option to miss any more skates from here on out. In his first chance to show the coach he was ready to go out get a key win at home after the Leafs dropped a tough loss on the road to Chicago, he took the path of lesser resistance. And it was he who was the horror show instead.

Speaking of horror movies, what on earth was that abomination of an ending in Pittsburgh tonight? For a second there, I thought I was watching a remake of the Blair Witch Project, but alas, no- it was the surrendering of a sure point by Boston at the last second.

For those who missed it, Bruins are up, 5-4 after battling back from 1-0, 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3 deficits thanks to a Marco Sturm deflection of Big Z Chara's point shot in the third. With 9 seconds left and the Bruins hemming the Pens in their own end with goalie Brent Johnson pulled, Patrice Bergeron gets the puck at the point and shatters his stick, allowing the Pens an all-or-nothing jailbreak up the ice. Former Bruin Bill Guerin takes the perfect pass and blasts the shot off the post and into the net with- get this- 0.04 seconds left on the clock to send the game to overtime. Predictably, with all that momentum, a misplayed puck by Tim Thomas behind the net ended up on Pascal Dupuis' stick facing an open net for his 100th career goal and the game-winner in OT. 6-5, Pens and they were dancing at the Igloo tonight.

Just a brutal ending to what should have been two points for Boston.

Unlike the Leafs, the B's at least got a point (and while Thomas deserves the blame for the OT goal, he helped his team steal a point in regulation with some excellent saves, including Sidney Crosby on a shorthanded breakaway), but boy- this Olde Towne Teame just isn't getting it done with any modicum of consistency. Bergeron's broken stick was as confounding as it was unforgivable given the timing of it.

If I were a coach, I would outlaw composite sticks in the final minute of any game when leading and force the players to use wooden sticks. It's inconceivable that a veteran of Patrice's experience and stature would allow something like that to happen when all he needed given the time left on the clock was a soft dump to the corner instead of trying to wire it into the empty net, placing the kind of torque on the shaft which snapped it in two. Maybe the soft dump was what he was trying to do, but once again- we've seen one of these $100+ sticks shatter at a critical moment, and tonight, it contributed to costing the Bruins a point in the standings. These stick manufacturers ought to pay the NHL teams serious money when things like this happen. As Bill O'Reilly likes to say, "It just might be...ridiculous."

B's take the ice next on Monday against John Tavares and the resurgent NY Islanders, while the Leafs travel to Kanata to take on provincial rival Ottawa on Tuesday. Both clubs have some soul-searching to do between now and then.

I'll have the pick updates for you on Monday.

Leafs Drop Previous Pair, Kessel Scoring and Carolina is Reeeeeally Bad

The good news for Boston fans is that Toronto lost consecutive regulation games for the first time since the second week of the season. The bad news is: So did Carolina (er- they've actually lost 14 straight not including overtime/shootouts; they haven't actually won a game since October 9th against the lowly Florida Panthers), and they're resembling the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest these days. Sorry, 'Canes fans- I'm not telling you anything you aren't already aware of.

First up is the post mortem on the Leafs, who are now 3-9-5 on the season, good for 11 points and second-to-last place overall.

They lost an important game to the Minnesota Wild, 5-2 on Tuesday of last week. It's important because the injury-decimated (and talent deprived) Wild will compete with the Leafs all season for lottery status and positioning, so to gain two points on the Leafs was important for the standings watch.

It was a lousy game in net for Jonas "The Monster" Gustavsson, whom many Toronto fans have ludicrously dubbed a franchise savior in his first year. He stopped 26 of 30 shots for an .867 save percentage, bringing him back to earth a little bit after an admittedly impressive run over Tampa Bay, Carolina and Detroit. However, before we pencil him in for the Vezina Trophy, even with his excellent SEL pedigree, he's still seeing his first North American action on what is a mediocre team at best. He's going to have some more rough nights this season, so before Leafs fans proclaim him the second coming of Henrik Lundqvist, let's see how he looks at mid-season before we place any stamps on his endorsement.

On Friday, the Leafs lost to Chicago by a 3-2 score, with Phil Kessel scoring both Toronto goals, giving him 4 on the season. He's doing a great job for them offensively, but he simply doesn't have enough help up front or on the back end to maximize his scoring potential, I'm afraid. Vesa Toskala was in net for Toronto and if I'm not mistaken, it was the first game that he posted a save percentage above 90% this season (.912). Unfortunately for him, it wasn't enough to get his first win of what has been a horrific season. Toskala is posting an .836 save percentage and last night's start was his first action since Halloween.

Speaking of scary, is Carolina really this bad? The answer: Uh, yes, yes they are. They've lost the two players they could ill afford to: Eric Staal and Cam Ward, and the subsequent free-fall has been predictable. Last night, they got torched by John Tavares and the improving Islanders, who scored his 6th and 7th goals on the season, while Kyle Okposo got the winner in overtime. Veteran journeyman goalie Manny Legace was a horrorshow in net, and if he keeps playing like that, 'Canes fans have nothing to hope for this season. The team is bad enough as it is- if the goalie plays like garbage, then it's like getting a kick to the crotch.

The most telling stats: Carolina is 29th in goals for, and 30th in goals against, which tells you the story of the season thus far.

Even if Toronto goes into a tailspin, they're not likely to sink as low as the Hurricanes, so B's fans can only hope that the Leafs will continue to stay behind Florida, Minnesota and Anaheim for the time being. Expecting them to fall below Carolina's horrific Mason-Dixon line is the proverbial bridge too far.

I'll be back Monday will updated pick slotting for rounds 1-2. Also working on lining up several interviews with scouts about the 2010 player talent, so stay tuned. The latest Red Line Report came out this past week and I'd love to get Kyle Woodlief on record about a few things.

Keep checking back and thanks for reading the blog!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Honoring Veterans

Today is Veterans Day. In Canada, it is called Remembrance Day to honor those brave Canadian souls who have made the ultimate sacrifice in battle, some of the most bloody and vicious in history.

This day is just one out of 365 which honors those men and women who have served their nation(s) with pride and determination, often sacrificing a great deal so that their fellow citizens can live free.

It's an honor to be a part of it, and I'll never forget those who came before me to help establish this country and preserve our way of life.

Thanks to all veterans, past and present, who served the country in peacetime and in war.

And thank you, Canada, for being our strong friend to the north for so many years.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bruins Sweaters of the Past #2: Rick Middleton

BOSTON BRUINS (1976-77- 1987-88)
Born: December 4, 1953 in Toronto, Ontario
GP: 881 G: 402 A: 496 PTS: 898 PIM: 124
Rick "Nifty" Middleton is one of the all-time great Boston Bruins forwards.

Although he never made it into the Hockey Hall of Fame, No. 16 was the straw who stirred the offensive drink for Boston for a decade after Phil Esposito was traded to the Rangers.

B's GM Harry Sinden pulled off a heist when he sent Espo's buddy Ken Hodge to Broadway in exchange for the 14th overall pick in the 1973 draft, who had shown flashes of brilliance, but was not yet the sum of his parts. Obviously had Emile Francis realized what he had in Middleton, he would have never shipped him up to Boston.

Middleton scored a hat trick in his first game with Boston (with Bobby Joyce becoming the only other Bruin to turn the trick in his Hub debut in 1988). In 1978, Middleton began a run of seven consecutive 30 or more goal seasons, with eight in nine years before he retired at the conclusion of the 1988 season. Middleton finished his Boston career behind only Johnny Bucyk and Esposito as the third-best goal scorer in team history with 402 tallies in 881 games wearing the spoked-B.

This particular jersey was worn by Nifty during the 1981-82 campaign, the year he posted a career-high 51 goals in a single season (and was named to the NHL 2nd All-Star Team), the only time he would break the half-century plateau. He won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL's "Most Gentlemanly Player" as well as the Elizabeth C. Dufresne Trophy, which recognized Bruins MVP that year, receiving the award from Boston Globe and Hockey Hall of Fame writer Kevin Paul Dupont while wearing this garment. It is a heavy mesh home sweater manufactured by the Sandow SK company, who succeeded Stall & Dean as Boston's uniform maker after the 1980-81 season.

The sweater has multiple repairs, several unrepaired holes, stick marks and the always distinctive red-orange Boston Garden paint transfer on the sleeves and shoulders from where Middleton was jacked into the right wing boards all season. It also features the Sandow SK stamp on the back hem and is photomatched to a picture of a young, leisure suit-wearing KPD giving Middleton the Dufresne Trophy (which I can't post because of copyright laws). The jersey also has a slight pink tinge on the front material and crest, which I think was likely caused by spilled red Gatorade or some other sports drink.
This is one of my collection's true gems, and has incredible sentimental value for me, as I was a fourth-grader the year he wore it. Those Big, Bad Bruins teams of old were a real treat for those who can remember them, with Nifty being a consistent and valuable offensive finesse talent with a real flair for the game.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bruins 2010 1st, 2nd Round Pick Position Updated Nov 9th

In our Monday ritual, here are Boston's updated pick slots for Rounds 1-2 in this June's draft if the season ended today. As always, my disclaimer is that the lottery is not taken into account.

2nd- Toronto (11 points)
9th- Boston (16 points)
32nd- Toronto
39th- Boston
42nd- Tampa Bay (17 points)*
Tampa tied with Islanders, Oilers, Red Wings for points. Slotted behind Isles, but ahead of Oilers and Wings by virtue of tie-breakers.

Toronto Wins Over Hurricanes, Red Wings Get Them Out of the Cellar

I funny thing happened when I traveled to South Carolina for my 15-year college reunion this past weekend: the Maple Leafs posted consecutive victories over the sinking Carolina Hurricanes and struggling Detroit Red Wings, moving them out of the NHL's basement.

I didn't see the games, but Jonas Gustavsson must have played pretty well for them, as he posted strong 30+ saves efforts in both games, helping his team overcome a 2-0 deficit against Carolina to prevail 3-2, and then helping Toronto to post a dominating score of 5-1 a night later against the defending Western Conference champions.

The wins give the Leafs a 3-7-5 record (3-3-4 in their last 10) for a total of 11 points (tied with Florida, but trailing them by virtue of two fewer wins) and second-to-last place overall in the standings (behind Carolina, who are in deep trouble).

If Gustavsson continues to play like this, he'll keep Toronto in a lot of games this year, and Phil Kessel looks good in the early going. B's fans will be extremely sad if the Leafs become a middle-of-the pack team, but so far, at least, the team is still in the running for the Taylor Hall/Cam Fowler/Tyler Seguin sweepstakes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Leafs lose (again) in OT to 'Bolts

The good news for the Leafs and their fans is- the team got a point and a boost from the arrival of Phil Kessel, who made his debut for them Tuesday night against visiting Tampa Bay.

The bad news is- even though they outplayed Tampa, they still lost. Thanks to an inordinate amount of power play opportunities (eight) they finally cashed in with the man advantage when defenseman Ian White got a flukey goal off of standout Antero Nittymaki when he banked a pass off of Lightning d-man Matt Walker's skate. Every other shot that the former Flyer netminder saw, he stopped, including 10 from Kessel. Without the gifts of some real ticky-tack calls that went their way, the Leafs would not have even gotten the point, even though they played much better as a team than Tampa did.

Ryan Malone put the puck past "the Monster" Jonas Gustavsson to break the 1-1 tie (with Vinny Lecavalier scoring the Tampa goal) and give his team their first win on the road. The victory kept the Leafs still looking for their first home win.

As has been the case in all of Toronto's games save one this year, the opponent scored first after Lecavalier put home a rebound in the high slot off a shot from Mattias Ohlund, but the Leafs pulled even with about 10 minutes to go in the third.

Kessel played very well, and if he shows up every night like that, he's going to score a lot of goals for Toronto. He did get rocked in the first period on a hit by Ohlund that cut his lip, but he bounced back and showed no ill effects. Kudos to him.

The point gained gives Toronto seven points (1-7-5), which ties them with Carolina, but they stay in last place by virtue of having one fewer win. That said, the Leafs won't be in last place for long given the way they've played of late.

It was Gustavsson's best game to date in my opinion as he showed very good lateral movement, making several stops on bang-bang cross-ice shots, but he probably should have had that last shot by Malone.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Bruins Sweaters of the Past #1: Nevin Markwart

5-10, 180
Boron: December 9, 1964 in Toronto, Ontario
1983-84-1987-88; 1989-90-1991-92
GP: 299 G: 39 A: 67 PTS: 106 PIM: 769
As some of you may know, I collect gameworn jerseys primarily of Boston Bruins players or Bruins prospects (though I do have a killer collection dedicated to Mike Liut, never a Bruin but my favorite hockey player of all time).

I thought this might be a good place to periodically (every week) highlight a Bruins player of the past and post photos of one of his jerseys.

First up is winger Nevin Markwart.

This undersized (listed at 5-11, 175), but tough-as-nails forward was Boston's top pick in the 1983 draft, selected 20th overall out of the Regina Pats of the WHL. He was a wolverine on skates: pound-for-pound one of the toughest players in the NHL when he was healthy enough to play and always willing to drop the gloves, no matter how much he gave away to opponents in terms of size and reach.

Born in Toronto, Markwart's parents named him for Bob Nevin, a Maple Leafs player in the early 60's (when Markwart was born in 1964) before going to the Rangers, where he had the best years of his career from 1964-71.

Markwart made the Bruins at age 18, and had a strong rookie season, posting 14 goals and 30 points in 70 games with Boston, adding 121 penalty minutes. He went on to split time between the big club and minors (Hershey, Moncton, Maine) for the remainder of his career, but led the B's in penalty minutes during the 1986-87 with 225 in just 64 games.

He finished his NHL time with the Calgary Flames after the Bruins moved him out west during the 91-92 season. In the end, his penchant for playing a punishing style took its toll on his small frame, forcing his retirement before he reached the age of 30. Markwart finished his NHL career with 41 goals and 109 points with 794 penalty minutes in 309 games (all but 10 of them spent wearing the spoked B on his chest.)

This game-worn jersey of Markwart's was made for the 1989-90 season, as evidenced from the sublimated gold 'Custom Crafted' stamp on the rear hem. This stamp is a feature of the 89-90 set of Bruins jerseys, before the NHL issued a cease and desist order to the North Attleboro, Mass. company to put its logo on the outside of the jerseys where they would be visible. However, the moderate to heavy wear on this jersey leads me to believe that Markwart may have worn it in both the 89-90 and 90-91 seasons, as he only played a handful of games in 89-90 (eight total) and 23 more the following year. There are stick marks, pilling and some obvious fight abuse on the left sleeve, with four unrepaired holes likely caused when he fought Luke Richardson in a game in Toronto that year, his only recorded fight of the season.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bruins 2010 1st, 2nd round pick position Updated Nov 2nd

It's Monday, so that means I'm back with the updated Bruins pick position in rounds 1-2 for the 2010 draft if the season ended today. As always, I am not taking the lottery into account.

The Carolina Hurricanes have been absolutely putrid of late, and Toronto will overtake them in the standings soon if the 'Canes continue to redefine the term "underachievers." It's hard to fathom after watching Carolina this season that this is the team who knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs last spring.

OK, onto the picks:

1st (Toronto- 6 points)
12th (Boston- 13 points*)
31st (Toronto)
38th (Tampa Bay- 12 points)
42nd (Boston)

Islanders, Predators, Red Wings tie Boston in points, but gain higher draft position on tie-breakers. Flyers also have 13 points, but Boston has tie-breaker.

And just a friendly reminder- Boston's third-round selection was traded to Buffalo for Daniel Paille, who's done a pretty good job on that line with Blake Wheeler and Vladimir Sobotka.

Leafs Show Spark Late in Two Extra Session Losses

I've been highly critical of the Toronto Maple Leafs on this blog ever since I started it last month, so I'm here to give some credit where it is due.

Although still in last place, Brian Burke's creation has managed to battle back from what looked like regulation losses in Buffalo and Montreal on Friday and Saturday to tie the games before falling in overtime (against Buffalo) and shootout (to the Habs).

More impressive was the Saturday night game at the Bell Centre, when with about four minutes to go, the Canadiens held a 4-2 lead, but defenseman Tomas Kaberle continued his outstanding offensive production, assisting on one, and then scoring the equalizer to pull the Leafs even (his 16th and 17th points on the season) at the 19:02 mark.

Vesa Toskala gave up goals to Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, giving Montreal the extra point, but give Toronto credit. As was the case against Buffalo, the Leafs battled back and salvaged a point from what should have been a pair of losses. Their record stands at 1-7-4, still in last place, but they are slowly creeping up on other teams near the bottom of the standings.

The late Herb Brooks once said, "You don't have enough talent to win on talent alone," and in Toronto's case, this is absolutely true. Coach Ron Wilson has his guys playing hard, at least, and for them to move up in the standings, they'll have to play like their lives depend on it each and every night.