The regular season is in the books, and the Canadiens are coming to town. As the Bruins use Monday to catch their breath from the regular season before preparing for the playoffs, so too shall we. Here are five things we learned from the regular season.
Note: this is a look back, not ahead. Any opinion formed is based on the regular season, and is by no means a prediction for what may transpire in the playoffs. What I’m trying to say is this: If the B’s win a 9-8 thriller in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in which a Tim Thomas stinker is covered by a Tyler Seguin Ovechtrick, don’t come back here and say I was wrong.
TIM THOMAS IS THE BEST GOALTENDER IN THE NHL
During the preseason, Tim Thomas wasn’t an afterthought, but he was far from the center of attention. Players were asked about the summer, their postseason collapse and any personal goals. When it came to Thomas, he had already gotten attention in the offseason, but only because of his contract. He’d lost his starting job, he was old and he was overpaid, and thus the summer was filled with media speculation of how the B’s could find a way to move Thomas and the $15 million remaining on his deal. Yet when training camp came, Thomas, who was coming off offseason hip surgery, put his work in seemingly knowing full well that he would begin the season as Tuukka Rask’s backup.
Luckily for Thomas, he was in a system in which it wouldn’t be far-fetched for a backup to play somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games. Even luckier, Claude Julien was going to use both of his goaltenders in the two-game set with the Coyotes in Prague unless Tuukka Rask stole the show in the opener, and both Rask and Daniel Paille’s struggles led to a 5-2 loss. Thomas got the start the next day, and he never looked back.
Yes, he has a point when he says he can thank Zdeno Chara for a lot of his numbers, but there was no goaltender in the league who dominated like Thomas. His season-long performance was so strong that even a bad month in February couldn’t prevent him finishing the season with the best save percentage in the statistic’s history at .938 (incidentally, if the month of February never happened, Thomas’ season save percentage would have been .942).
The awarding of the Vezina this summer will be as predictable as Alanis Morissette or Santana crushing it at the Grammys. There is no real competition for Thomas, as he also led the league with a 2.00 goals-against average. The Bruins have something potentially great in Rask, but the other guy proved to be the best in the business this season.
ULTIMATELY, TYLER SEGUIN WAS NOT A FACTOR
Everyone was guilty of some sort of far-fetched prediction when it came to projecting individual performances. Some thought Nathan Horton would score 40 goals until he became Casper the Friendly Wing (true on a couple of levels due to his ghost days of the middle of the season and his incredibly friendly personality), while some figured Blake Wheeler could take more of a step forward in his third year (guilty).
The most incorrect prediction on this end was a 23-goal rookie season for Tyler Seguin. He had everything else in common with Steven Stamkos, so after a four-goal preseason, why not predict that he would match the numbers of Stamkos’ rookie campaign?
Fast-forward to the end of the regular season, and Seguin finished with just three more goals than healthy scratches. With 11+11=22 totals and nine games in the press box (one of which was for a cold), Seguin impressed at times, but he was less than impressive.
That isn’t to say Boston didn’t catch Seguin Fever. When he had a big game, it became the biggest story. When he was scratched, there were questions about it. When he played after a scratch, his every stride was followed as people looked for signs of progress.
“It seems that every game he plays we need to know exactly how he did,” Julien said Saturday. “I mean, he’s a player that’s 19 yearsold, and we’ve been patient. … There’s still some areas where he needs to grow. Anybody who has watched him play knows he needs to grow and that’s going to come with experience and with time and we’re willing to give him that.
“I think right now it’s about giving him that opportunity, and there’s been times he’s had to sit back because we don’t want him getting comfortable. By sitting him out every once in a while, he gets hungry. And that’s what you want a player to be. You want him to be hungry, you want him to know that it’s not a given that he’s going to be I every night, he’s got to earn it. And that’s part of growing as a young player and that’s what we’ve tried to do with Tyler.”
The biggest issue with the youngster is clear: he doesn’t like contact. He doesn’t like giving it, and he certainly doesn’t like taking it. When he’s able to skate in open space, he’s dangerous. Get him in a shootout, and he’s money. Seguin’s talent is as advertised, but he still has adjusting to do. He admitted that he didn’t have to go in the corners often in the OHL, but he does now. Once he gets it, he’ll be able to take over games. That time just wasn’t the 2010-11 regular season.
MILAN LUCIC IS WORTH THE MONEY
By now, we’ve all beaten the story to death. Milan Lucic wanted to score 20 goals this season. He’d never done it before, and he hoped that with health could come more scoring.
The Bruins too hoped for more goals, but not just from Lucic. The addition of Seguin figured to help them in that department, but they brought in Nathan Horton from Florida to lead the scoring charge. The 40-goal talk ran rampant, but the always-smiling Horton simply hoped to do what he could.
It’s safe to say that while Lucic was hoping for 20 and Horton was trying to block out major expectations, nobody was predicting that Lucic would lead the Bruins in goals. That’s just what he did though, putting together a 30-goal, 32-assist and 121-penalty minute season that proved he is among the best power forwards in the game.
While Lucic’s production may have surprised some, it also validates his cap hit. Lucic’s three-year, $12.5 million contract extension was given to him before he’d had a 20-goal season, but he showed in the first year of it that the Bruins are getting bang (and a few goals) for their buck.
MARK STUART WAS EXPENDABLE
Whenever Mark Stuart and Adam McQuaid were in the lineup at the same time, you couldn’t help but think it was too much of one thing. Safe, strong, and that’s about it.
Stuart was given a one-year deal in the offseason, and it seemed that with a solid year would come a longer deal. McQuaid was the seventh defenseman, and that was that. It would take an injury for him to play, and given the injury of Johnny Boychuk and the trade of Matt Hunwick, he got his opportunity.
When Stuart returned from a hand injury in mid-January, he had trouble keeping a spot in the lineup. The play of McQuaid and Steven Kampfer led to Stuart being a healthy scratch in eight straight games, and the team ended up trading him to the Thrashers in the Rich Peverley deal. Now, the former first-round pick whose personality made him projectable to one day wear a letter is in Atlanta and happily locked up with a three-year extension that begins next season.
McQuaid is certainly in a good spot with the Bruins. The 24-year-old’s plus-30 rating led all rookies, while his hair and fists have made him turned both spectators and teammates into fans (for the latter, see Andrew Ference’s Darth Quaider t-shirt). The Bruins’ blue line seems to be in order, as Tomas Kaberle is the only one of their top six defenseman to not be signed past this season.
MICHAEL RYDER WON’T BE CASHING IN THIS SUMMER
The question of whether Michael Ryder would return following the season was never really a major argument, as it would seem the underachieving forward wouldn’t get big cash from the B’s after following a 27-goal 2008-09 season with a mediocre campaign last year.
It turns out that Ryder’s 2009-10 season was simply a preview of this season. He scored just 18 goals for the second straight year, and it seems regardless of what he does in the playoffs, he won’t be getting the cash he got in his current contract (three years, $12 million) from anybody.
Since the beginning of March, Ryder had just one goal over 17 games and was a healthy scratch three times. The Bruins will hope that he can have another postseason performance like he did in 2008-09 (13 points in 11 games), but even a good postseason performance won’t prove that Ryder can consistently produce during the 82-game schedule. If the Bruins don’t bring him back at a significantly lesser number, it seems only logical that they would use the money saved to ink Tomas Kaberle to an extension.
Ryder still has the playoffs to write his legacy in Boston, but if he walks once it’s over, he should be remembered as more than just the guy who got $4 million to be a healthy scratch at times. Ryder had a very good chemistry with Seguin early in the season (he assisted the rookie’s first goal along with Thomas), and even when he was playing well, he was accountable for the team’s struggles.
BONUS SIXTH THING: WHATEVER YOU WANT TO CALL IT, THE LINE AFTER THE THIRD LINE WAS DAMN GOOD
Shawn Thornton probably never had to worry about being a fan-favorite. His style of play and the way he's embraced the city had taken care of that well before this year, but now he's more than just a tough guy. Thornton wound up on the perfect line this season, as he, newcomer Gregory Campbell and rookie Brad Marchand developed fantastic chemistry from the get-go.
Thornton would wind up with a career-high 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points, while Campbell would finish with 13+16=29 totals. Marchand would graduate to the second line before long, but Daniel Paille's play with Campbell and Thornton down the stretch has returned the Merlot/Energy Line to its early eason form.
While the Campbell line produced more scoring than anyone could have anticipated, its best asset is that it is tough to play against. Julien repeatedly showed faith in them, and given how dependable they were, it was justified.