June 15, 2013

If 'safe is death,' Bruins should turn to Soderberg, not Caron

By Jesse Connolly

Carl Soderberg is among the candidates to see action in the Stanley Cup Final if Nathan Horton's shoulder injury keeps him out of the Bruins' lineup. (Getty Images)

On the afternoon of May 14, 2010, just hours before he watched his team become the third in league history to blow a 3-0 lead in a playoff series, Claude Julien sounded like a man ready to grab the bull by the horns.

"The biggest thing I know is, you go out there and you play to win," the Bruins coach said during his media availability at TD Garden that day. "And sometimes they say the term, 'Safe is death.' If you want to play safe, it's not going to help your chances of winning."

Unfortunately for Julien, his injury-riddled club tried and failed to sit on an early 3-0 lead over the Flyers in Game 7 that night, as Philadelphia capped off their historic comeback when Simon Gagne buried the game-winner late in the third period. A multitude of other factors aside, playing it safe on that night yielded death for the Bruins.

While that decisive game was a do-or-die situation for the Black and Gold, I can’t help but return to the term Julien highlighted more than three years ago, with Boston now facing one of those we-don’t-absolutely-have-to-win-but-realistically-we-do scenarios at the moment in the Stanley Cup Final.

With Nathan Horton’s shoulder injury knocking him out of the last 13-or-so minutes of Game 1, leaving him as a question mark heading into Game 2 in Chicago, it’ll be decision time for Julien if No. 18 isn’t fit for duty.

The Bruins’ bench boss will have to pick from a short list of three forwards that could dress in Horton’s place: Jordan Caron, Jay Pandolfo and Carl Soderberg. If safe is death, here’s why you go with the latter:

In this equation, Pandolfo and Caron are the safe choices. A Burlington, Mass., native, Pandolfo is your prototypical strictly-good-for-defense-at-this-point-in-his-career type of forward. He looked every bit his age (38) during his 18 regular-season appearances for Boston in 2013, during which – to the best of my calculations – the Bruins never scored a single goal when he was on the ice. He managed just 11 shots and was minus-2.

Sure, Pandolfo’s experience (two-time Cup winner in New Jersey), his defensive acumen and “responsible game” aren’t bad qualities to have in a 13th forward over the course of the year, but they’re not what the Bruins need at this current juncture.

This brings us to Caron, who probably enters this race as the favorite in the minds of most scribes and, in all likelihood, the key decision-makers for the Bruins.

It’s hard to be overly critical of a 22-year-old forward, but after making the team out of camp as a rookie in 2010, Caron has seemingly regressed during his three pro seasons. While injuries have played their part, the facts are the facts: The Quebec native got off to a wretched start in the AHL this year and, upon taking Chris Bourque’s place on Boston’s third line, scored just once in 17 NHL games in 2013. That means he’s got just one goal in the last 31 games with the big club.

While Caron might be the most rugged of the bunch – a good trait to have come playoff time – the Blackhawks are a team oft-praised for their speed. Caron is a decidedly slow skater.

Boston’s bottom six took a big hit with the loss of Greg Campbell, especially from an offensive/at-least-keep-the-puck-down-the-other-end perspective. No combination of forwards outside of the top two lines has been able to get anything going.

Think about this: Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley have combined for one single, solitary point in 17 playoff games, during which they’re collectively minus-15. Maybe even Wayne Gretzky in his prime couldn’t get these guys to bust out of their slumps, but Caron’s skill-set, his underwhelming numbers and his body of work as a whole don’t leave me clamoring to get him into the lineup. At best, he won’t hurt you, but calling on No. 38 seems like a move with little-to-no upside.

That leads us to Soderberg, whose naysayers believe will get eaten alive in his first taste of NHL postseason play. They say Caron’s more familiar with the system, the more experienced choice of the two and less likely to cost you a game. Many of them fail to admit that, at the same time, Caron’s also far less likely to win you a game.

Soderberg wasn’t spectacular in his six regular-season appearances upon making his long-awaited arrival from Sweden. He played sufficiently, notching two assists.

But if you’re looking for offense and pure talent, he’s the clear-cut winner. Soderberg led the SEL with 31 goals in 2012-13 – 10 more than the league’s second-leading goal scorer, Par Arlbrandt, a teammate of his for Linkoping.

Soderberg is no stranger to big games. He’s played in the SEL playoffs. He scored four goals and added two assists at the World Juniors in 2005.

And here’s another thing many folks lose sight of: Soderberg’s been practicing with the team throughout the entirety of these playoffs. Sure, no practice session can perfectly emulate the intensity of the NHL playoffs, but the Swedish forward has had more than two months to learn Boston’s system, adapt to a smaller rink and all the other elements of making the transition from Europe to North America.

Soderberg’s got speed and has proven he can score. Say what you will about his physical prowess, but he’s got a 6-foot-3 frame to work with. He can inject some life into a third line that’s had damn near no pulse all postseason and add, at the very least, some hope that the bottom six could do something offensively going forward. Furthermore, he could aid a power play that – though they did score in regulation – squandered two precious man advantages in overtime.

Heck, based on the oft-mentioned hopelessness of the much-maligned third line, maybe you even consider giving him a shot regardless of whether Horton is ready to roll.

Ultimately, maybe this is all a giant waste of words for some of you reading this. Maybe you, like many others, have decided Soderberg would be too great a liability on the ice, and that Caron, indeed, is the least likely of the bunch to hurt you in the short term.

Or maybe, just maybe, Julien’s words prior to that Philly game resonate with you just as they have for me. If you want play-not-to-lose hockey, by all means, take your No. 2 pencil and shade in the circles next to Pandolfo or Caron’s names on your ballot.

If you’re playing to win? I say it’s time to unleash the Swede. 

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com