office for reconsideration.
But this ain’t going to be that kind of report card.
The Bruins are cruising through the regular season, setting the pace in the Eastern Conference and appear to be a strong candidate to lock up home ice through the entire Stanley Cup playoff run. The numbers across the board are astounding. First in the NHL entering the weekend with 70 overall points, second in the NHL behind the high-powered Red Wings attack with 159 goals scored and trailing only the trap-happy Minnesota Wild in the NHL with only 98 goals allowed this season – the B’s have seemingly figured out this regular season thing and continued their pace despite a host of injuries.
In fact, even if the Bruins finished with a .500 record over the second half of the season the team would still finish with well over 100 points this season and be primed and ready for a long playoff run.
That says something about the big cushion they’ve fashioned for themselves going forward. B’s General Manager Peter Chiarelli is going to be shopping for a top four defenseman or left-handed shot for the power play leading up to the trading deadline, but this squad doesn’t need a lot of wholesale adjustments headed into the playoffs.
Many of the questions that linger about this team remain strictly in the playoff format as the B’s proved quite a bit when they limped out of the dressing room against a highly-motivated Montreal Canadiens team earlier this week and took a playoff atmosphere 3-1 win over the Habs.
That, more than any other win this season, showed the kind of guts, courage and puck chutzpah that this team of skaters is armed with headed into the second half of the season. Much of that good will could get wiped away if the B’s have a short one-and-done playoff run once the “real season” begins, but that’s a story and argument for another day.
On to the grades…
Marc Savard (A-): The playmaking center began his transformation into a hard-working, two-way player last season under Claude Julien and he’s been in finishing school this year. He’s sixth in the NHL in overall points (54), fifth in overall assists (38) and he’s fired off 120 shots during the first half of the season. He’ll be in contention for a Hart Trophy with a big second-half, but it could be a bit of a tough adjustment without a great finisher like Phil Kessel riding shotgun with him for more than a month. Savvy recently played his 200th game for the Bruins and has the third-highest point total (227) in his first three seasons as a Bruin in the last 30 years behind only Adam Oates (300) and Barry Pederson (253). That’s impressive.
Hidden Stat: Savard averages 19:30 minutes of ice per game, with only Zdeno Chara and Dennis Wideman logging more ice time on the Bruins this season. That’s how valuable he is to everything this team is doing. His highlight moment this season was going after Sean Avery when he hit Milan Lucic from behind in that signature win over the Dallas Stars.
David Krejci (A+): The feeling heading into this year was that Krejci would be a very good offensive player and centerman for the Black and Gold in his second season, but he’s hopped right over that and stepped into the elite NHL category rather quickly. The Czech Republic native makes teammates around him better with his puck genius-level passing ability and can’t-be-taught instincts on the ice, and he’s modest, quiet and diligent off the frozen sheet. The only problem: the NHL obviously hasn’t yet caught on just how to just how good he is. You heard it here first: David Krejci will be setting up and scoring goals for the Boston Bruins for a long, long time and will go down as one of the all-time greats.
Phil Kessel (A-): Kessel’s game seemed to be starting to slack a little bit over the last few weeks, but that’s highly understandable given the entire mono thing that’s sidelining him for the next month. The 21-year-old is still tied for fifth in the NHL with 24 goals scored and gives the Bruins something that Savard and Krejci aren’t capable of despite all their obvious ability to create: the skill to snipe from anywhere in the offensive zone. It’ll be interesting to see if the Bruins can live without Kessel for a month because goal-scoring ability isn’t something you can simply replicate with minor league reserves. Kessel leads the team with seven power play goals and can also do the Kessel Run in 6.5 parsecs. Not sure which stat is more impressive.
Michael Ryder (B+): He’s a typical scoring winger that will bury goals in bunches and needs a skilled set-up man riding with him on his line, but his physicality and willingness to play strong along the boards has been eye-opening. I had him pegged as JAM (Just Another Muzz), but he’s given them more away from the puck than the long-in-the-tooth Glen Murray ever did.
Ryder Fun Fact: The free agent acquisition leads the NHL with seven game-winning goals this season.
Dennis Wideman (B+): Wideman has had another solid season and been – along with Zdeno Chara – a stalwart blueliner for the Bruins, but he still occasionally shows the trick-or-treat game from time to time. It certainly may be due to a bit of a wear-down factor from the 25:45 of ice time he averages on a nightly basis for the B’s. It would be beneficial for Peter Chiarelli to make a move in the second half to supply the B’s with another D-man – a move to keep both Wideman and Chara from burning out or fading away. He’s in line to give another season much like last year, but he gets bonus points for leading the Bruins with 50 blocked shots this season. That, as much as anything else, proves how much Wideman stepped up the grit in his game when Aaron Ward went down.
Blake Wheeler (A): Given the fact that he was a long shot to make the B’s prior to training camp and he’s become an outside candidate for the Calder Trophy, there really isn’t much to criticize or deconstruct thus far. He’s noticeably raised his physical presence in games over the last month as he’s become more and more willing to use his size and strength in creating mismatches on the ice. Wheeler still has the second-best +/- on the team which is a testament to his two-way hockey tendencies at such a tender young age. The sky is the limit for a kid with his size, skating speed, hands, shot and stick skills, and the B’s can thank their player development for netting the big winger in the first place.
Milan Lucic (B+): The Looch gets high marks simply for how much of a presence he’s become in each and every game in only his second NHL season at 20 years-old, and he’s stepped up his offensive game as well. He earned some national criticism for not dropping the gloves with Georges Laraque in the last go-round with the Habs at the Bell Centre, but it was a proper show of restraint by a young bull that was more than raring to go. He’s on pace for 20 goals, 50 points, a bevy of knockout fights against NHL heavies and he’s been a physical presence that’s had opposing teams looking over their shoulders. When Lucic was on the shelf at the end of the first half the B’s had to call up Byron Bitz from Providence because they were badly missing the size, strength and brute force elements that Lucic lugs to the table. That says a lot to me about how important he’s become to this team’s identity in a short time.
Zdeno Chara (A): The big blueliner missed pretty much all of preseason recovering from labrum surgery that badly affected him down the stretch last season. He’s bounced back in a big way after a deliberate start to the season and is sixth in the NHL with 26:28 of ice time per game -- with Wideman ranking right behind him with 25:45 on ice per game. The two names directly in front of Chara and Wideman: Anaheim Ducks blueliners Chris Pronger and Scott Neidermayer, the NHL blue print that every team has attempted to copy over the last few years with limited success. The B’s are coming close with Chara matching Pronger in the areas of on-ice toughness, defensive shutdown ability and opportunistic offense. The entire package makes him a strong candidate for the Norris Trophy, and this could be the year he finally gets it. More importantly, the team has taken on much of Chara’s team-first, tough guy mentality, and connected with the Boston hockey fan base in the process.
Chara Fun Fact: tied with Savard for second on the team with 120 shots taken this season.
Chuck Kobasew (C+): The scrapper of a forward has had some good moments and some stretches where he’s battled injuries and bounced between several different lines this season. But he’s also a guy that managed a single goal and two assists during a month of December that included a 10-game scoreless stretch while skating with lower line players. He’s looked pretty good since getting matched up with Savard up on the top line, but he’s on a pace for 13 goals this season. His ability to play the pinball roll at 5-foot-11, 192-pounds while banging bodies make him a rarity among Boston’s skill forwards
Patrice Bergeron (B-): The 23-year-old deserves high marks for courage in the face of a second concussion and the comeback he made from the first train wreck hit into the boards against the Philadelphia Flyers last October. But let’s face facts: he wasn’t the same player this year that he was BC (before concussion). He had shown brief flashes and he still played an underrated game (good in the face-off dot, useful on both the PK and PP units) while giving the B’s a very strong up-the-middle presence at the center position. Perhaps in the coming weeks we’ll see the Old Bergie now that Bergeron knows a concussion doesn’t necessarily mean a year-long trip to hockey hell and back. He has an entire city standing behind him rooting for him.
P.J. Axelsson (C-): Axy has given the Bruins exactly what he’s given them in past years: a dependable, conscientious, responsible forward capable of being plugged into just about any spot, but he’s given less on the offensive this year than in season’s past. Axelsson deserves some professor emeritus status for being the elder statesman in the B’s dressing room, but count this Bruins grade-maker among those furiously scratching their heads with his placement along a top line and top power play unit. It’s not his fault that he’s been placed there, but he doesn’t have the offensive chops to skate with Savard. There have already been several times this season when he was set up perfectly, but couldn’t pull the offensive trigger. Axelsson fun fact: two of his three goals this season have been empty-netters.
Matt Hunwick (B+): The 23-year-old defenseman started off like a house of fire and has cooled off a bit (a single assist and a +/- of zero over his last 10 games) in the last portion of the first half, but the kid was looked at as a fringe blueliner heading into this season. He impressed in training camp and he’s now proven that he’s an NHL defenseman once injuries afforded him an opportunity to strut his hockey stuff. Extra bonus points for forcing me to deem him Matt “One Punch” Hunwick when he laid out Justin Williams in his first NHL fight last week. Hunwick has proven to be a great value in the 7th round of the 2004 draft by the Bruins.
Marco Sturm (C): This grade is based on what he was able to produce when he was healthy. The 30-year-old managed one goal in his first 11 games, heated up for a short period of time and then went out with a concussion/neck injury before a torn ACL wiped out his entire season. This ends up being a year to forget for the German forward, and there haven’t been many of those on the Bruins’ squad this year. Raised his grade from C- to C because he authored the Sturm Face.
Stephane Yelle (B): It took the wily veteran a few weeks to get adjusted to the Eastern Conference after spending his long and decorated career with the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche, but he’s blended in well amid the Causeway Street Youth Movement. He’s winning 50.1 percent of his face-offs, he’s chipped in with his modest amount offensively, he’s killed penalties and he’s been a placid, quiet, veteran presence in the dressing room. That description is exactly what was expected and a nice last minute sign by Peter Chiarelli.
Shane Hnidy (A): Hnidy was looked at as a spare-part defenseman when he was brought in last season in the Brandon Bochenski trade (remember him?) and again during training camp this year. But injuries have pushed “The Sheriff” into a larger role with the Bruins. The 33-year-old has been playing almost 16 minutes per night and is on pace for the highest offensive numbers of his career. He’s also given Boston another gritty player willing to drop the gloves and scrap if he doesn’t like what’s going down on the frozen sheet. A very underrated piece that kept the B’s from being forced into a panic trade once Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward went down. Hnidy is tied with Mark Stuart for second on the team with 44 blocked shots.
Mark Stuart (B): Stuart has been a solid physical, stay-at-home defenseman that’s been able to stay healthy – something not all of his backline teammates can boast. Stuart will always be a bit limited offensively and more of a meat and potatoes defenseman. Stuart logs the shortest amount of ice time among the defenseman on the Bruins, and is developing at a deliberate pace. The 24-year-old is still improving and gaining confidence every day, however, and has a great role model in Aaron Ward to learn his game from.
Shawn Thornton (A-): Many scratched their heads when Thornton was one of Peter Chiarelli’s first moves when he took over the reigns on Causeway Street, but people aren’t asking or scratching any more. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Thornton routinely takes on enforcers much bigger than him in his role of ice pugilist, and he’s able to contribute occasionally on offense. The fourth line has struggled a bit more in recent weeks after getting off to a great start this season, but Thornton’s presence and leadership puts a great deal of the courage and fearlessness into his teammates. Thornton is a key personality in the dressing room along with what he gives on the ice.
Andrew Ference (B+): Ference was Boston’s most effective defenseman and the second power play unit was humming when he was quarterbacking it along with Dennis Wideman, but once again the 29-year-old suffered an injury that’s kept him out for a prolonged period. Ference is great when he’s healthy, but a knee issue also really hampered him during the second half of last season as well. The absences of Ward and Ference may force Chiarelli to make a depth move for another blueliner just in case more injuries hit in the second half. Ference gets the extra half-grade for staying out on the ice after he broke his tibia and continuing to kill a penalty before limping off with a broken leg earlier this season. As dandy Don Cherry said, he showed “the fighting Canadian spirit” during the sequence of events.
Aaron Ward (B): Ward continues to provide a solid physical presence and serves as a steady defensive partner for Chara when he’s healthy. Ward has missed 13 games with injuries, however, and has been hampered all year by leg problems that don’t seem to be completely going away. Bonus points to Ward for averaging 18 plus minutes of ice time when he is healthy, and for sucking it up last week and playing when he clearly wasn’t 100 percent. But his team needed him, so he was there.
Petteri Nokelainen (C): The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder is solid on face-offs (has won a team-high 63 percent of his draws) and draws penalties at an amazingly high rate, but is without a goal in 27 games and has a -3 rating. The coaching staff likes Nokelainen’s size, grit and physical play, but he’s experienced some real difficulty finishing and producing around the net.
Incomplete: Martin St. Pierre, Matt Lashoff, Vladimir Sobotka, Byron Bitz, Martins Karsums, Johnny Boychuk.
Tim Thomas (A): With a little bit more rest and a fellow veteran pushing him, Thomas has been as good as he’s ever been with such a talented cast skating in front of him. The 34-year-old will have moments when he takes over and dominates a game with his athletic, competitive style of goaltending, and then other times when he’s simply watching his teammates pour on the offense. Thomas deserved All-Star honors this season and seems like a fixture with the Bruins after becoming a fan favorite over his first four years here. Thankfully he seems to be starting to get the national attention he deserves as well. Perhaps he’ll even get on the All-Star ballot next year, but let’s not get too crazy.
Manny Fernandez (A): Fernandez has been every bit as good as Thomas between the pipes, and has served as a model teammate while dealing with the equal partnership in goal. Many hockey observers had questions as to how the 34-year-old would react to sharing time with Thomas over an 82-game season, but he’s been an excellent teammate. Fernandez could have very easily been an All-Star right along with Thomas, and both goaltenders will be a factor in the postseason.
Coaching (A): Claude Julien, Doug Houda, Bob Essensa, Craig Ramsay and Geoff Ward were impressive in their first season installing systems and evaluating the strengths of weaknesses of their players. They’ve been even better building on that foundation this season. Julien’s up-front, no-nonsense style has helped foster the relationship/partnership between Fernandez and Thomas, and he sparked a fire under Phil Kessel during last season’s infamous playoff benching. Julien has pressed all the right buttons at the proper times and has helped keep the team afloat when injuries really began to erode the team roster. He’s the best hockey coach the Bruins have had since Pat Burns.
Management (A+): Trades that were once maligned like the Manny Fernandez deal and the Brad Boyes/Dennis Wideman swap have turned into positive factors for this year’s club, and – more importantly – the deals that Chiarelli didn’t make have turned up aces. Kessel has turned into the most feared sniper in the league after his name was bandied about in trade rumors last winter, and the patience displayed in the development of youngsters like David Krejci and Matt Hunwick has transformed this hockey club into a force to be reckoned with. The Blake Wheeler signing was a coup, and even minor deals like bringing Shane Hnidy in last winter and signing Yelle right before the season have been essential. It’s time to acknowledge the job that this front office has done and reward them with contract extensions.
Joe Haggerty covers the Bruins for WEEI.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.