The Bruins went into their European trip, which covered Belfast, Prague, Liberec, and an hour in Iceland, with just one thing in mind. Well, more like four things, but either way, despite not being able to get all four points that were on the table in their two games with the Coyotes, the Bruins seemed to come away from their 11-day excursion richer for the experience.
Some had done season-opening trips before, notably Nathan Horton, Gregory Campbell, and Dennis Seidenberg, the three players who opened in Finland as members of the Panthers last season.
"This one seemed better," Horton said of his second season-opening trip on Sunday. "I don't know why. Maybe it's because I'm so excited to be here [with the Bruins], but it's been fun."
Purely from a team standpoint, the Bruins feel they accomplished a lot. After losing the season-opener in ugly and inconsistent fashion, the team came back strong to shut out the Coyotes in a 3-0 victory. But even before the puck was dropped for the regular-season games, the players and management alike saw the good that could come of a trip overseas to open the season.
"It's a long trip for two league games, but it's a great experience," Bruins president Cam Neely said Sunday. "Guys get together early at the end of camp, start of the season. It's a great way to gel as teammates, spend some time together, get to know each other a little bit better. I've always felt it's helpful and could pay dividends throughout the course of a long season."
Horton, who had been around his new teammates plenty in captain's practices and in training camp, also seemed to get a lot of bonding in while in Belfast and Prague.
"It's been good for that reason," Horton said. "You get to know them, and off the ice, you hang out with them. It's definitely been good for me. I've liked it a lot, and it's really helped me."
Here are nine other things learned in a very exciting and tiring trip to Europe to kick off the 2010-11 season:
THEY'LL STICK AROUND
Mark Recchi jokingly said he asked Peter Chiarelli for a contract extension after thinking that the team was set on extending everybody in Europe. And frankly, there were moments when it seemed as if everyone might receive a new deal before setting foot back on U.S. soil.
Bruins fans can whine about seven more years of an expensive Zdeno Chara all they want, but they'll be wrong in doing so. A $6.917 million cap hit for six years and a $4 million hit for one are both steps down from the $7.5 million he'll make this season. Patrice Bergeron, who signed on Friday, will get a $250,000 bump as he'll make $15 million over the three years following the season.
The thing that should be taken from the two big re-signings on the part of the Bruins -- whether one wants to look at it as being a positive or a negative -- is that the Peter Chiarelli regime is clearly one that will not see its top players hit free agency. It's happened with Andrew Ference, it's happened with Marc Savard, and now it's happened with Chara and Bergeron. When key players have hit the open market (take Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk this offseason) the team has done what it needed to to keep them in the fold.
Two things can be drawn from this. First of all, the team isn't afraid to spend when it comes to keeping their own guys. They would rather pony up money early than watch a career year turn into a player's last in Boston. This obviously prevents them from potentially exploiting a player trying to play for a contract, but it also makes for a much safer situation.
The other thing it says, and it's a point that was made on consecutive days by Recchi, is that players simply aren't prepared to jump ship from what this team is doing. Recchi said with certainty that Bergeron could have gotten more money and more years on the open market than he did with the Bruins, and it's hard not to think he's right. Do you think Steve Yzerman and the Lightning, who will have over $19 million in cap space at season's end, wouldn't have minded giving Bergeron a blank check?
Recchi also pointed out that though seven years is probably in the range of what teams would have been offering Chara, the money would have been much better coming from another team trying to make a splash. The bottom line is that both players took less to stay in Boston, and the Bruins made it clear that they're not ready to close the window on their core any time soon.
SEG HAS BARELY HATCHED
[Not a huge fan of that nickname, but that's just about the only headline you can come up with using it.]
Tyler Seguin has all the skills to be a monster in the NHL, and his work ethic does nothing to suggest that he won't reach his ceiling at a young age. Even if he is developing, it does not mean the second overall pick in June's draft can't have a sizable impact on the offense as a rookie. Two days into his career, the 18-year-old has shown that while he continues to scratch the surface and unveil the elite right-handed center within, he can get by on talent alone.
Coaches and young players often talk about "the little things" and how it's always a process for the younger guys to pick them up. Seguin seems to be getting them even more quickly than the team may be willing to let on. He's still not as responsible in his own end as he needs to be, but if he continues to show that he's one of the more talented offensive players on the ice when he's out there, he may get a bit of a pass in the earlygoing. It's also hard to think that having Recchi as a linemate, as he did in Sunday's win, won't hurry along his development.
Following Seguin's first NHL YouTube-bound goal, he was predictably mild-mannered in the locker room and noted that his tally was nothing special compared to Jordan Eberle's balance-defying goal with the Oilers. In short, if you want Tyler Seguin to tell you what makes him such a great young player, you won't get much. With Seguin remaining modest with his words, his teammates, and particularly one who knows what it's like to be a top pick, aren't afraid to sing his praises.
"He’s such a skilled player," Horton, the third overall pick in the 2003 draft (Panthers, from Penguins), said. "He’s confident, and he knows he’s good and he’s going to score. It’s great for him to score and get [his first goal] out of the way. There’s going to be a lot more in the NHL for him to come. “
For what it's worth, Taylor Hall has yet to score through two games. Go crazy, Bruins fans.
GOALTENDING WILL BE GOLDEN
Tuukka Rask did not struggle on Saturday night, nor did he do anything to suggest that he's not one of the elite goaltenders in the NHL. Of the four goals he allowed in the 5-2 loss, there was only one -- the second goal, in which he was buried too deep in his net -- that could be placed on the goaltender. For that reason, nobody should felt his performance in the season opener was the reason why Tim Thomas got the start in Sunday's 3-0 shutout victory.
Claude Julien indicated prior to the game that the team had wanted their two netminders to each get a start in Prague, and the fact that Rask held his own while Thomas dazzled has to be taken as a very good sign for a team that is still getting its bearings defensively (not that the team isn't expected to be one of the top defensive clubs, but it's pretty apparent that the Bruins have yet to find pairings that they are comfortable will stick for the season).
To be fair to Rask, the Bruins' defense was far worse on Saturday and the Coyotes' offense was more lethargic on Sunday. With the Coyotes essentially taking the first 15 minutes of the second period off from offensive play, Thomas was left resting and leaning against the pipes.
“I’m 36,” he said after the game. “That’s going to happen all the time.”
NATHAN HORTON CAN BE ONE OF THE TOP WINGERS IN THE LEAGUE
Nathan Horton did not have a reputation for being a committed player in Florida. The rub on his tenure as a Panther was that the talent was there, but the top-flight production was not. The consistent effort was there in the weight room (teammates rave about the shape he keeps himself in) but it seemingly was not on the ice. It was a topic of discussion in the conference call with Peter Chiarelli following the team's trade for him. It was something he was asked about when he came to Boston.
The truth is, nobody really knew exactly what to expect out of Horton. It became pretty clear once he arrived from Florida and participated in each of the team's captain's practices that he was excited to be in Boston, but what of the reputation? Would his chipper attitude in the locker room be overshadowed by a tough adjustment to playing in a top market? Keeping in mind that he is just 25 years of age, could he handle the city of Boston's expectations that he would be the elite scorer the team was missing? There was plenty of intrigue with Horton, to be sure, but there was also a gaggle of questions.
Two games in, and the most popular question is how long he'll keep up the 123-goal pace he's on, or if the Bruins can settle for 40. Admittedly, this writer gave a conservative 33-goal prediction for Horton on the season, but the ease with which the former third overall pick has scored his first three goals (some might wonder if watching him score the same goal -- top shelf wrist shot from the circle -- 30- or 40-something times will get boring) should give Bruins fans every reason to believe that the top line will produce some big numbers thanks to Horton's arrival.
Though only so much can be learned from two games, the entire trip suggested a lot of things, perhaps none of which is more exciting for Bruins fans than the idea of the team's first line being one of the best in all of hockey. It isn't lost on anyone that the team's 2.39 goals last season were dead last in the league, but the chemistry between David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Horton is something that could develop into something scary. The players preach the mindset that each game they play together will be better than the next, as they're still getting used to one another, but being responsible for four of the team's five goals through two games is certainly encouraging.
HORTON ISN'T THE ONLY REJUVENATED PLAYER
Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder each received a heavy amount of criticism in the 2009-10 campaign, and each player took the criticism differently. For Wheeler, he worked on his shot and added physicality to his game over the summer, but the biggest change in what Wheeler has brought this season is confidence. He led the team in shots in the first game (though he did fail to register one on Sunday) and has taken the approach that if he does the little things, he'll be fine. He's looked good thus far with Patrice Bergeron and is another player from whom to expect bigger production this season.
What should one expect from Wheeler this season? It is worth noting that, at 24 years of age, Wheeler may have one of the more sophisticated musical tastes in the Bruins locker room, as he's a big Steely Dan fan. If a guy can appreciate a tune with a good sus2 chord, there's no way he can't score more than 18 goals in his third season. Though he himself won't throw out a number that he has in mind, somewhere in the 20-25 goal range would be a fair projection.
As for Ryder, the 30-year-old winger didn't draw too much attention to himself with his preseason play, but both he and the Bruins seem excited to see what he can do with Seguin. Ryder, who won't let himself get too high or low with each passing day, feels the two can make one another better, and he provided a great example of it by taking a Tim Thomas pass and flipping it over everything to a streaking Seguin. Ryder was also one of the bright spots in Saturday's loss by shooting the puck rather than seemingly joining the majority of the team by passing until a turnover was created.
EASE UP ON THE ROOKIE
No, not that rookie. While Tyler Seguin continues to refine his game and prove that he is ready to at least play a role as a scorer in the NHL (fun stat: It took Steven Stamkos eight NHL games to pick up his first point, an assist), Jordan Caron might not be quite as ready for the limelight as some fans are hoping.
Caron, selected 25th overall by the Bruins in the 2009 NHL draft, seemed destined to be on that second line with Mark Recchi and Patrice Bergeron, but jitters and overthinking led to a sluggish performance in Belfast and a demotion to the third-line mix when the team landed in Prague. Caron bounced back with a goal in the Liberec game, but it wasn't enough to get him on the ice Saturday.
Caron was scratched in the season-opener, but after the team shuffled its lines for the second game, Caron made his NHL debut on Sunday, playing with Bergeron on the second line, but taking the place of Mark Recchi, who jumped to the third line to play with Tyler Seguin. Caron logged a team low 9:42 of ice time, but was able to get two shots on Ilya Bryzgalov in his limited playing time.
It remains to be seen whether the Bruins plan to use the 19-year-old in each game, and a lot of that seems to depend on whether Daniel Paille, who did not play well at all on Saturday and was a scratch Sunday, makes himself a player to sit.
WHO'S WITH WHOM?
The defensive pairings seemed to be consistently inconsistent throughout both training camp and the first two games of the season. Any defenseman on the team will tell you that they have no preference about with whom they play, but it's anybody's guess how the pairings will look on Saturday in New Jersey.
Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk have to be assumed to eventually be a pairing, but from there things seemed to change, especially in the first game, as play went on. Matt Hunwick looked terrible in posting a minus-three in Saturday's loss, but to the team's credit, they stuck with him and got to see a solid, if not great, effort in Sunday's game.
CULTURE, CULTURE, CULTURE
One of these had to be about how beautiful the cities visited were. Some players, such as Blake Wheeler and Matt Bartskowski (who was sent to Providence during the trip and remained with the team despite not practicing), had never been outside of North America before. Cam Neely had been to Prague in the 1980s and remembered how "gray and depressing" everything was in the city prior to the Velvet Revolution. The Bruins president raved on Sunday about how much the city had changed into the colorful and lively place it is today.
The flight from Prague to Iceland was three and a half hours, but after a week of using the city's public transportation, this scribe may feel that the escalators are Praha's quickest mode of transportation. Steep, fast, and scary.
The trip was also about family for some. Shawn Thornton had 20 family members, including his mother, attend the game in Belfast, while Krejci had 20 relatives of his own in Prague. Various other members of the team, ranging from European players (Seidenberg) to North American (Boychuk, Lucic) had family members travel to take in the games.
David Krejci, as expected, was a hit in his home country of the Czech Republic. The Sternberk native was celebrated throughout the week, with the Liberec fans losing their voices as they praised the Bruins center. One would have to feel bad for what the extra attention did to his schedule, as he had separate lengthy media sessions with both Czech- and English-speaking reporters each day.
Krejci was also a big fan of Belfast, though it seems that as a guy who left home at a young age to head to North America, he has an appreciation for observing different cultures. He saw that some of his teammates were the same way when they allowed him to take them out for goulash.
MICHAEL RYDER IS NOT ANDREW FERENCE
There were quite a few scoring gaffes over in Prague, with Mark Recchi, David Krejci, and Michael Ryder all originally being stiffed out of well-deserved points before corrections were made.
The most obvious case of this was Seguin's goal. The goal was just as impressive for Ryder's hail mary pass as it was for Seguin's signature fanciness in open space, yet quite a few members of the media had raised eyebrows following the goal's announcement:
"Bruins goal scored by No. 19, Tyler Seguin. Assisted by No. 21, Andrew Ference, and No. 30, Tim Thomas. The first NHL goal for Tyler Seguin."
Ference? Ryder was a bit surprised himself upon hearing that the primary assist went to Ference, though the scoring was later corrected to have Ryder and Thomas on the assists.
"I've never worn 21 before," Ryder said with a laugh after the game. "That was weird."