Happy 2019- Winter Classic thoughts

2019 is here and the Boston Bruins helped ring in the new year in style with a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s annual (since 2008) Winter Classic outdoor game.

Boston’s third trip outside on New Year’s Day was played at the iconic University of Notre Dame football stadium in South Bend, Indiana, the first time a non-football event was played in the home of the Fighting Irish. The B’s were 1-1 in the NHL’s signature event, beating the Philadelphia Flyers at (Frozen) Fenway Park eight years ago on a Marco Sturm OT goal, but getting pumped by the Montreal Canadiens at the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, in 2016 by a 5-1 score.

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

For goaltender Tuukka Rask, the 2019 game was a chance for redemption, and he found it, playing well with 36 saves including multiple breakaways and grade A scoring chances. It was also a milestone event for the veteran netminder who has only known Boston as his NHL home since the 2007-08 season. He passed Hall of Fame goalie Cecil “Tiny” Thompson as the goalie with the most career appearances in franchise history. Rask will soon own the most regular season victories for the team as well.

The soon-to-be-32-year-old may be the most polarizing figure we have seen and covered in the 40+ years of following the team as fan and correspondent. A top talent and former 1st-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs before he was dealt to the B’s for Andrew Raycroft even-steven nearly 13 years ago, Rask is often a study in extremes. Ardent fans and supporters often pointing fingers at everyone else on the roster but the man in net when the team doesn’t win with him in the net, while there is an equally obnoxious segment of Boston fans who seem to revel in affixing blame to Rask at every opportunity and making him a convenient scapegoat for their frustrations with the club. There seems to be very little middle ground in the increasingly toxic social media environment when it comes to Rask, but at least in this space, we’ve always tried to be fair-minded in our treatment of the embattled veteran. On this day, he did his job well, and looked every bit the player the Bruins need him to be if they are going to secure a spot in the NHL playoffs for the third consecutive season this spring. The combat math is pretty simple: Rask and Jaroslav Halak give the Bruins the best 1-2 goalie punch in the league. When both of them are on top of their games, the team can beat anyone.

Which brings us to the next point- Patrice Bergeron. It never gets old watching the de facto captain play a textbook complete game of hockey. NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp talked yesterday after the game about how if you polled most NHL players about which player they would want on their team in a one-game, winner-take-all match for the Stanley Cup, you would probably see a large percentage of them vote for Boston’s consummate pro.

Yesterday, we all saw his greatness for what it is- a furious back check to deny a scoring chance at one end that would have opened up a 3-1 advantage for the ‘Hawks, and moments later, an effortless backhand shot that tied the game and opened the door for the B’s to win it on Sean “Clutch” Kuraly’s third period rebound marker (another backhand shot).

At this point of Bergeron’s career, we’re out of superlatives to describe him. He’s the hockey student of the game’s idol- a player who simply does everything right, all day, every day. Some folks are drawn to the sizzle that so many super talents of hockey provide with their speed, pace and skill- you absolutely need those guys. And, the players who rack up oodles of points are always going to get more positive attention than those with middle-of-the-pack numbers. Here’s the rub, though-  those who have careers with skin in the game- whose job security depends on being on the right side of the win-loss column- Bergeron is an inspiration. The Bruins may not have multiple Stanley Cup championships to show for it, but since Bergeron joined the club as a precocious 18-year-old rookie in 2003, it has been a prosperous era for the team despite setbacks and disappointments along the way.

It’s hard to believe because there were other players who popped offensively earlier in their careers, but Bergeron has quietly and steadily climbed to be the third-highest scorer in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft class, behind only Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf with his 769 career points in 989 games. He’s tied with Thomas Vanek (who will play his 1,000th NHL game on Jan. 4), but Vanek’s days of high production are over- Bergeron will blow by him and establish himself solidly in 3rd behind Staal and Getzlaf. What’s important about this is that offense has never really been the thing that has defined Bergeron’s Hall of Fame career, but he’s proven that the consistent approach of 50-60 points year after year, has helped to propel him to the top of one of the greatest collective draft groups in NHL history. He should have gone over 1,000 NHL games played about 2-3 years ago and would be closing in on 1,000 career points and might be the No. 1 scorer of the 2003 draftees had it not been for 1.5 years of  lockouts and almost 2 full seasons lost to injuries of various types. But even with all the missed time, Bergeron’s impact on the Bruins and the game of hockey cannot be undersold. He is the greatest defensive forward in NHL history. No disrespect to Canadiens great Bob Gainey, who inspired the very Frank J. Selke Trophy which rewards two-way excellence up front, but Bergeron hasn’t benefited from a dynastic machine that the Habs were in the 1970’s, and the offensive production isn’t close.

Simply put- No. 37 is the best there ever was, and he’s inspired a generation of players who want to do things the right way and focus on the habits and details that are lost on so many who can only really focus on the flashy stuff that makes the game so great. There’s room for it all of course, but if I’m in a 1-game knife fight for my hockey life, there’s one guy I’d sell my soul for to have in my lineup: Patrice Bergeron.

Brad Marchand is heating up at the right time. We of course love what David Pastrnak is doing, but the driving engine of Boston’s offense is the Lil’ Ball of Hate, and when he’s finding the back of the net, the wins are plentiful. He generated multiple scoring chances and in the waning seconds, hit the empty net- notching his 42nd point of the season to quietly move closer to Pastrnak’s team-leading 50 points.

Just like Bergeron, both of these forwards embody the luck of the NHL draft- had anyone known what kind of an impact they would have, you’d have seen them go off the board with the 1st or 2nd overall selections in their respective years, and yet, they both essentially fell into Boston’s lap. In a time where fans spend more time kvetching about who the team missed on, it’s sometimes nice to be reminded that the B’s scouting staff, long under the guiding hand of veteran talent chief Scott Bradley and Ryan Nadeau’s vision and leadership, has had some tremendous bargain finds over the years. And we haven’t even gotten into Charlie McAvoy, Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka and Jakub Lauko yet.

And like Bergeron, Marchand is ascending to the top of the 2006 draft’s scoring list. Of all the players from that class, only Niklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux and Jonathan Toews have more than Marchand’s 503 points and counting.

Finally, it was great to see Zdeno Chara out there after returning from injury. Like Tim Wakefield near the end of his MLB career, Chara is a lifetime Bruin, though he played elsewhere before making the Hub his home. He has quietly racked up nearly 1,000 games in the Black and Gold, and like Bergeron, is headed for a place in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s not the horse he was in his prime, but the steady play, experience and value he provides cannot be understated. Once he retires, whenever that is, the B’s will have a challenge to replace what he means to the club on and off the ice. Instead of rushing to anoint the next wave of youth (and there are some worthy heirs coming down the pipeline), we should all embrace the legend and enjoy him for as long as we can. Once he’s gone, we may not ever see another player quite like him.

Okay- that about does it. Here’s hoping you all have a great and prosperous 2019. Thanks as always for reading the sporadic posts on the blog- didn’t cover all the ground I wanted to on this one, but be on the lookout for more content as the season goes on.

Boston Bruins v Calgary Flames

The Tuukka Rask mea culpa

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Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

One of the nice things about having a blog is the platform it provides to put out opinions and in the process, be praised by those who agree with you and taken to task by those who don’t.

Last April, I/we wrote a post here at the Scouting Post called “Requiem for the 2016 Bruins” in which we attempted to break down what went wrong in a season that looked like a success with just one month left in the regular campaign before the wheels fell off over a disastrous 30-day window that saw the Philadelphia Flyers come surging from behind to knock the well-positioned (as of mid-March 2016) Bruins out of the playoffs on the regular season’s last day.

One of the major culprits in my/our mind was goaltender Tuukka Rask, who took ill and couldn’t make the start for Boston in their do-or-die game against the Ottawa Senators at home to close out the season. Before we continue- let us just say that nothing on this blog is personal. TSP tries to provide a balanced perspective on hockey (on mostly Bruins or Bruins-related topics) and goes to great lengths not to be seen as “clickbait” or a pot-stirrer that tries to generate controversy with outlandish views designed to provoke and inflame the emotions of those readers and Bruins fans who frequent this page. We have always had the utmost respect for Rask’s ability as an NHL goaltender- he was a 1st-round pick for a reason and a top prospect long before he broke into the NHL with the Bruins on a full-time basis during the 2009-10 hockey season. Having said that, Rask the person is a bit more complex- he can be aloof and prickly when things aren’t going well. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not exactly an ideal teammate at times either. This, coupled with his up-and-down play going back several seasons and the $7 million per year price tag he carries makes him a lightning rod of criticism at times.

Just as there is a segment of people who simply have never been on the “Tuukka Train” for whatever reason, there is a large cadre of Rask loyalists who have always seemed to take it personally whenever anyone questioned him, fair or not.

In the end, though, it is time to admit that TSP went too far last April in the position that the Bruins would be well served by looking into trading him. Here are a few “gems” from that post:

The Bruins were rumored to be discussing moving Rask on draft day last summer, and with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have and given the reins to the then still (but not now) unproven Martin Jones. The Hamilton trade furor and fan backlash is likely what stopped Sweeney in his tracks on moving Rask (assuming the rumor is true), but after this season of up-and-down play and a less-than-team first attitude to boot, while the goaltender doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame, he nevertheless played a key part in the collapse.

Hindsight being 20/20, it was far too easy to leverage Jones’ success in San Jose and wield it as a cudgel to brain Rask with. He didn’t get much defensive support last season, and while he had his own cross to bear at times, TSP took the lazy way out by pointing to the woulda-coulda-shoulda course of action by sticking with the untested Jones. Given the state of Boston’s defense, that could have been a catastrophe for the B’s, and while Rask didn’t play the best hockey of his career in 2015-16, he also stole some games for the B’s and did play a key role in putting them into a solid position going into the season’s final month. True- when the team imploded, Rask did so right along with everyone else, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you throw the baby out with the bath water.

Here’s more from last April:

For me, it’s simple- while I admire the hell out of Rask’s natural talent, I’m not sure I’d want him in a foxhole next to me. Right, wrong, indifferent- he’s the one core piece the Bruins could move to try and get out from under the situation they’re in. He’s not yet 30, will no doubt appeal to a multitude of teams that could see him as a critical piece to get them over the hump, and hey- he’s a talented player. Boston’s problem is that the teams with the most to gain from Rask and the most to offer (young, up-and-coming D) are all pretty well set between the pipes. Nobody ever said the life of a GM was easy…

Trading him certainly means there’s a good chance the B’s will take an even bigger step backwards next season if Rask is dealt, but maybe not. And what’s the real upside to keeping him for what looks to be another bridge/re-tool year even if the B’s can land one higher-end defender and maybe another capable player via free agency? We’ve already seen in two seasons that Rask was unable to elevate his play enough to negate the dearth of skill at other positions. So, depending on the return and how much cap space is allocated to other talent at other positions, it just might get Boston on the right track to sustained success sooner than many might think.

Wow, I even used the foxhole reference…as the old song goes: “nowhere to run to, baby- nowhere to hide…” The rationale was sound enough, but it looks nothing short of foolish after 1 month of the new season.

A funny thing happened on the way to burying the Boston defense for 2016-17 and Rask’s chances to do something important along with it- Brandon Carlo came along and has helped to reinvigorate Zdeno Chara’s play. The current defense is no threat to Stanley Cup blue line corps of yore, and they’ve certainly put Rask and the three other goalies who have suited up for Boston in the season’s first month in some pickles at times, but they appear to be an improved group from last year. When you consider that other than re-signing John-Michael Liles, there wasn’t one significant addition from outside the organization over the summer, that’s saying something.

The reality is- Rask has been able to elevate his play, reeling off 10 wins in his first 11 games for the first time in Bruins history since some guy named Gerry Cheevers did it 40 years ago. Cheevers, by the way, is a Hall of Fame goaltender and two-time Stanley Cup champion for the B’s, arguably the most identifiable goalie for the franchise given his iconic “stitches” mask and clutch play in the postseason (he is Boston’s all-time playoff wins leader ahead of other Cup winners such as Cecil “Tiny” Thompson, Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek and Tim Thomas). The skeptic will say- “Yeah, but it’s only been one month!” as a counter to Rask’s stellar play, but this blog doesn’t deal in “yeah, buts”- we call it like we see it and thus far, the 29-year-old Finn is the hands-down MVP and only one who’s posted a ‘W’ (repeat 10 times) to keep the Bruins above water. We’re not worried about what will happen if Rask slumps, because frankly- he’s playing some of the best hockey we’ve seen, and it’s giving both he and his teammates a major lift. If you want to know what elite NHL goaltending looks like, check out film on Rask’s starts this season.

Here’s where we probably should have just quit while we were ahead, but no- we/I just kept digging the hole deeper. To whit:

In the end, I just don’t feel that Rask is the right player for this team. His body language and at times perceived indifference doesn’t seem suited for the clear growing pains such a porous defense and inconsistent forward group is going to bring to the ice on any given night in Boston. It doesn’t make Rask a bad person, and he’s done some good things for the B’s in his tenure. Before the legion of Rask fans descend on this space to blast me for saying it- I truly believe a change of scenery would be best for him too. I have little doubt that with the right destination, he’d waive his own NMC to do so. Unfortunately, it also means Sweeney and Co. are selling low, but sometimes you have to swallow hard, cut your losses and do what you think is right for the club over the long haul.

Well, when you get it wrong, sometimes you just need to come out and take your lumps. No equivocating or attempts to rationalize or justify needed. Obviously Don Sweeney doesn’t need or want our help and he held the line, believing that Rask was capable of giving the team more than he did last year and even the season before.

Rask has been stellar, and how he goes, so will the Boston Bruins season. He’s talented enough to carry the team and he’s done it so far with the rest of the scoring balance on the lines starting to be restored and Torey Krug appearing to be getting closer to full health after a rough first 30 days. There are sure to be ups and downs, but as someone who floated the idea of trading Rask, here’s a mea culpa. Even if and when he inevitably comes down to earth a bit, Rask has shown what he’s capable of, and that has to instill Boston leadership with the belief that he can be a part of the solution going forward, even if the franchise might have to take a step or two backwards first.

Patience certainly can be a virtue and right now, the B’s are reaping the benefits of sticking by their man. At TSP, we’re big enough to admit that and offer our thanks that we weren’t in a position to sell low on Rask, which would have been a horrendous thing to do, especially if he was enjoying this renaissance in another team’s colors while the B’s took cents on the dollar for another high-profile trade.

So, there it is- we return you to your regularly scheduled Boston Bruins hockey season.

In his own words: Milt Schmidt addendum

In the birthday tribute post to Mr. Milton C. Schmidt, I referenced an article I wrote on him where I had the opportunity to speak at length with him about his NHL career and the game of hockey.

I went through my archives and found the draft I submitted to my editors at New England Hockey Journal 15 years ago, so here it is- unedited and in it’s original format. Enjoy!

Milt Schmidt- Boston’s Captain Emeritus

On February 10, 1942- the entire globe was plunged into the throes of the Second World War, but for one last magical night, the Boston Bruins’ famed “Kraut Line” dazzled spectators in the confines of the Boston Garden, treating them to an 8-1 thrashing of their hated rivals, the Montreal Canadiens, while giving the fans in attendance a final look at the team’s most prolific scoring unit of that time. Milt Schmidt, a strapping soon-to-be 24-year old, was the line’s centerpiece and one of the National Hockey League’s premier talents. Wingers Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer flanked Schmidt, and on that evening, the trio, also known as the “Kitchener Kids,” because they all came from the same part of Ontario, erupted for eight points in the rout. At the end of the game, both teammates and opponents carried them off the Garden ice on their shoulders, where the three friends left hockey for service in the Royal Canadian Air Force. It was a defining moment in Schmidt’s career, a mere snapshot of many glorious occasions he presided over both in uniform as a player, and as a member of the team’s management as coach and GM.

 

Milton Conrad Schmidt was born in Kitchener, Ontario on March 5, 1918 and wasted little time becoming a standout hockey player in his hometown. A 16-year old Schmidt caught the eye of Frank Selke, who was manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs back then, and Selke approached Leafs owner Conn Smythe about signing the talented center and adding him to an already impressive stable of players. Much to Selke’s chagrin, Smythe balked at the thought of bringing Schmidt on board.

 

“Mr. Selke had seen me playing in Ontario at the Maple Leaf Gardens and liked me very much, so he had Mr. Smythe come down and take a look at me and he (Smythe) immediately said that I was too small,” Schmidt, now 83 and living in Boston, told the New England Hockey Journal recently. “That opened the door for me to end up in Boston, but a few years later, I saw a quote from Mr. Smythe and he said, ‘Frank Selke didn’t tell me that Milt Schmidt was only 16!’”

 

Toronto’s loss was Boston’s gain, and the team successfully courted Schmidt at the urging of his boyhood chums, Bauer and Dumart. Coach and General Manager Art Ross inked Schmidt to his first contract, valued at $3,000. Schmidt’s debut late in the 1936-37 season was nothing spectacular statistically (2 goals in 26 games), but in short order, he and his friends got a feel for the speed and rhythm of big league hockey and the dynamic Kraut Line arrived to the cheers of Bruins fans everywhere.

 

“The first thing you have to realize about our line is that we were all very close friends,” said Schmidt of Dumart, who was also from Kitchener, and Bauer, who hailed from nearby Waterloo, Ontario. “We played junior hockey together and were as close as three friends could be. I might add that in Woody’s first year in the pros, he played as a defenceman. Mr. Ross made a forward out of him, and when I turned pro in ’36, we were put together on the same line. It was a natural chemistry.”

 

The Kraut Line didn’t limit their closeness to game situations, either. According to Schmidt, they were inseparable off the ice as well. “We roomed together at Ma Snow’s in Brookline, and that gave us the opportunity to talk after games. We used to stay up sometimes until one o’clock in the morning, discussing the game that night- what went well, what didn’t go well and so on.”

 

To Schmidt, what made the line so special was that each player brought something a little different to the table. “Bobby was very brainy,” he said. “He wasn’t the biggest guy around, but he was a great defensive player and was so smart. He could beat you a variety of ways. Then there was Woody…he had a real heavy shot for that day. In fact, one thing I clearly remember about his shot when I first came up from junior hockey, was that in practice, (Cecil) ‘Tiny’ Thompson, our goaltender, would just step aside and let Woody’s shot go straight into the net!

 

“Myself, I would say I was a little bit of everything. I was an aggressive player, but I was fair. I guess you could say that I had a little bit of something that helped me to be successful, but the credit belongs to all of us. We all helped to make each other that much better over the years that we played together.”

 

Schmidt won numerous individual accolades over the course of his playing career, all of it spent in a Boston Bruins hockey sweater. He led the NHL in scoring in 1940 (22 goals and 52 points in 48 games), was named the league’s most valuable player in 1951, and was a First-Team All-Star three times. Schmidt was also a winner, helping the Bruins to a pair of Stanley Cup victories as a player in 1939 and 1941, and two more as the team’s General Manager in 1970 and 1972.

 

More than sixty- two years after his Bruins won the franchise’s second Stanley Cup to cap the 1938-39 season, Schmidt still clearly remembers that evening, the night that the Boston fans brought the great Eddie Shore, in the twilight of his storied career, back onto the Garden ice with a stirring tribute.

 

“We had so many great players on the team that year,” he said. “Eddie Shore, ‘Dit’ Clapper, Bill Cowley– all great players. After the final game, Eddie Shore skated off the ice and the fans gave such a huge ovation. They absolutely would not let the President of the NHL present us that Stanley Cup unless Shore came out with the rest of the team. So, someone had to go into the dressing room and retrieve him. When Shore appeared, the ovation he received from the Garden crowd was like no other I have ever heard; it gave me goosepimples just being there and hearing it. Maybe the one night I can remember that even approaches it, was when Bobby Orr’s number four was retired. Anyway, in those days, we didn’t skate around the ice with the Cup and raise it over our heads like they do today. Back then, there was a table set up and the trophy was placed on it and the league president would come out and present it to the winning team.”

 

Schmidt recalls the similarities between the teams he won the Stanley Cup with as a player, and the Big, Bad Bruins clubs that won it all in 1970 and 1972 with him at the helm as GM by saying, “I like to compare the 1970 Bruins to the team we had in ’38-’39- they had a little bit of everything, including number four, and I don’t think I have to tell you who that is! They were such a great club- they could play Sunday School hockey, but if you wanted to go into the backstreets and have a brawl, well they could do that too. And they did a fine job of it!”

 

If Schmidt’s accomplishment as a player, which earned him induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961 weren’t enough, he added to his aura in Boston with a successful tenure as Bruins GM from 1967 to 1972. It was Schmidt’s great trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, one that brought Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield to Boston, which firmly placed the Bruins back in contention as the NHL’s true powerhouse team in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As he engineered that deal with Chicago’s GM Tommy Ivan, Schmidt really had no inkling of how truly one-sided the trade would turn out to be for Boston. It helped to define the term, “blockbuster.”

 

“I had no idea how well it would turn out for us,” Schmidt said. “But at the time I made the trade, I knew that we couldn’t help but improve the team by making it. Freddie Stanfield was an instructor at my hockey school in Penland Falls, Ontario, and I was very impressed with him. He had so much ability, but whenever we played against Chicago, he was always sitting up in their pressbox. Kenny Hodge was suiting up for the games when we’d play them, but he spent most of the time at the end of the bench watching. Finally, I had heard that Phil Esposito didn’t get along very well with coach Billy Reay, so from my perspective, we were going to improve our team with any one of those guys, not to mention all three of them!”

 

Consummating the deal was easier said than done, however. Schmidt continues: “Tommy (Ivan) called me from Key Biscayne, Florida at about three o’clock in the afternoon and we finalized the trade at eight o’clock that evening. It took quite a long time to get all the names in the transaction straight, but even then, I had no idea how well it would turn out. It was just one of those things where I felt that we couldn’t help but improve no matter what, so I went through with it.”

 

Schmidt’s long tenure in Boston has made him privy to generations of fans that have supported the team, from the Boston Garden years, to the current residence in the cavernous FleetCenter. Through it all, the fans haven’t really changed, according to Schmidt.

 

“Bostonians are great hockey fans,” he said. “And they do know their hockey! They’ve always treated me well, that much is certain, and they have always supported the team. They’ve proven that in recent years by still coming out to the games despite a lack of success. So much has changed since I started playing in 1936…back then, there were only three ice rinks in the area to my knowledge. But the fans in Boston have always been both knowledgeable and very loyal. It makes for a great combination.”

 

Despite the fact that Schmidt lost three of the best years of his playing career to the war effort, he returned to Boston to complete ten more seasons with the Black and Gold. Although he didn’t win any more championships as a player, he continued to lead by example as the team’s captain as well as its heart and soul. In one of the proudest moments in franchise history, Bobby Bauer came out of retirement to play one last game with the Kraut Line. On that night, March 18, 1952, five years after Bauer had hung up his skates, the trio confounded the Chicago Blackhawks on the Garden ice en route to a 4-0 win in front of the hometown faithful. Schmidt scored the 200th goal of his career, assisted by both linemates, placing an exclamation point on the legacy of that unit.

 

Schmidt’s career numbers as a player (776GP, 229G, 346A, 575PTS) may seem modest in comparison to the modern era players who play 80 or more games in a season, but to him, the statistics matter very little when you measure the success and happiness he had while a member of the Bruins. Few are more qualified than Schmidt to try and define in words the tradition that is Boston Bruins hockey:

 

“I think that the best Bruins players have always been hard working, but aggressive. Combine that spirit with ability, and you have the kind of guy that true Bostonians love and appreciate, along with the color of that hockey sweater. You know, I never really ever heard about guys wanting out of Boston, and I think that has as much to do with the city and the fans than anything else.”

 

Those fans wishing to understand Milt Schmidt’s place in Bruins lore need merely glance up into the rafters at the FleetCenter where his number 15 proudly hangs, a testament of his dedication to those very ideals he describes.