September 17, 2012

From NEHJ: The Bruins' building blocks

By Jesse Connolly


While there’s no fail-proof plan for constructing a roster capable of winning a championship, an NHL general manager’s course of action is often as follows: draft a young, elite talent, label him the team’s “franchise cornerstone,” build around him and hope success follows.

In most cases, an organization needs time to find the right parts to accompany his budding phenom. Pittsburgh failed to make the playoffs in five of Mario Lemieux’s first six seasons. Only after adding key veterans — namely Paul Coffey and Tom Barrasso (Stow, Mass.) — and pivotal youngsters such as Mark Recchi and Jaromir Jagr did the Penguins achieve glory.

In other cases, the championship puzzle never comes close to being solved. Columbus’ string of dismal drafts and fruitless free-agent signings wasted 2002 top pick Rick Nash’s talents, as the Blue Jackets qualified for the postseason just once during his nine-year tenure (a first-round sweep at the hands of the vaunted Red Wings). Nash, 28, will be starring on Broadway for the Rangers in 2012-13.

The lesson, of course, is this: One game-changer does not a successful franchise make. Look no further than the unstoppable combo of Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh or Chicago’s dynamic duo of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, or even recently blossomed superstars Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick (Hamden, Conn.) in Los Angeles for proof. Every recent Cup winner has had two — and in some cases three — players worthy of that “franchise cornerstone” label.

All of that — as you’ve surely been anticipating — leads us to the situation here in Boston, where Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has put the team in a spot so enviable that the other 29 general managers must quiver at the thought of just how scary good the Bruins could be for years to come.

While the Bruins — just like every other Cup winner in the past 15 years — failed to repeat this past season and have since seen their Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Tim Thomas, say sayonara, the future still looks blindingly bright for the Black and Gold. Chiarelli not only has kept his championship core together, but he also progressively laid a foundation so strong, so talented and so balanced that the Bruins promise to be a force to be reckoned with, year in and year out.

If all goes according to plan, a trio that’s oozing with potential and played little or no role in that 2011 Cup run — players whom every other general manager would kill to build his club around — will have their coming out party in 2012-13, starting with Tuukka Rask on the goal line, Dougie Hamilton on the blue line and Tyler Seguin on the front lines.

As training camp opens this month amid the specter of a possible NHL lockout, New England Hockey Journal breaks down the Bruins’ three building blocks:

Handing Rask the reins

After what he accomplished during his official rookie season in 2009-10, leading the entire NHL with a 1.97 goals-against average and .931 save percentage, no one would have ever guessed we’d all have to wait another two years for the Rask era to begin in Boston.

But following a surgical procedure on his hip that proved to be revitalizing, Thomas showed he was anything but chopped liver, capturing the Vezina Trophy and all but single-handedly leading the Bruins to glory — essentially nudging Rask behind him and back into the shadows again in the process.

In the meantime, the Bruins’ netminder of the future struggled, going 11-14-2 with a 2.67 goals-against average. Following minor knee surgery that offseason, Rask’s numbers improved in 2011-12, but it wound up being an uneven season for the young Finn. Though he finished with a sparkling 2.05 goals-against average, Rask was winless in his last seven starts — a stretch that culminated with a groin strain that kept him out from the beginning of March until midway through the first round of the postseason.

While the Bruins expressed confidence that Rask can not only handle the role the of No. 1 netminder but also shine between the pipes for years to come, the two sides agreed on a one-year, $3.5 million deal in July.

“We just figured it’s best for both of us. If I have a good year, then maybe we sign up a longer deal; if I suck, then kick me off,” Rask quipped.

As for the possibility of him stinking up the joint this season, Rask is confident that won’t be the case in his first full season as the team’s go-to goaltender.

“I’ve never really sucked, so hopefully I don’t suck this year, either,” he said. “You go out there and you do your best, practice hard and work hard. You just play at your level, and I know that my level is not too low. I just have to work hard to maintain that level.

“You always think it’d be nice to play 82 games and have an awesome year, so that way you kind of want to prove how good you can be on a daily basis,” Rask added. “I’ve proven to myself that I can play in this league at a good level, so there’s no pressure (in that regard). It’s more of a challenge to have a good year and push yourself every day.”

The netminder isn’t worried about playing at a high level, nor is he concerned about taking on a considerably heavier workload. Rask said he’s felt healthy all summer and can’t wait to get rolling.

“Injuries happen, I guess, and sometimes it’s really unfortunate,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind I can play 50, 60 or even more games. Now it’s just a matter of doing it.”

Rask proved during that superb rookie run that — like many netminders — he performs dramatically better when given consistent playing time. With Thomas out of the picture and Rask now the king of the crease, a high volume of starts should yield a high number of wins for No. 40 in Black and Gold.

Outsider’s take: “He’ll have a solid defensive system in front of him and he just needs to make the simple saves,” one Eastern Conference scout told New England Hockey Journal. “I don’t think the dropoff from Thomas to Rask will be huge. The dropoff will come from the backup (Anton Khudobin).”

Seguin’s next step

Following an up-and-down rookie season laced with timidity and chock full of inconsistency, no one was ready to write “BUST” across Seguin’s forehead and promptly throw him in the nearest dumpster, but after all the hype surrounding him coming into the 2010-11 season, the No. 2 overall pick’s first pro campaign just felt like a letdown.

Sure, Seguin channeled Lemieux for two games at the start of the conference finals, highlighted by an electric four-point period against Tampa Bay, but he followed that up by notching just a single point over his final 11 postseason games. As he embarked on a celebratory offseason, the then-19-year-old winger knew he had a lot to work on in order to be better in his sophomore season.

He returned for camp with some extra muscle and — more importantly — added confidence, which showed right from the start of the season. On Nov. 12, just 15 games into the season, Seguin already had matched the 11 goals it took him 74 game to score the year prior.

Alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, he helped form Boston’s most potent offensive line. Together, they combined for 186 points, with Seguin finishing as the team’s leader in both goals (29) and points (67) — a 45-point increase from his first season.

Coach Claude Julien applauded the second-year pro for leading the team in scoring but was even more impressed by the improvements Seguin made down the other end of the ice.

“He’s committing more and more to a two-way game than people are recognizing,” Julien said. “The one thing we don’t want to take away is his offensive talent and his skill, and we’ll always push for that to be the first and foremost thing from his game. But for him to be able to add that (defensive ability) to his game was really impressive for me.”

Chiarelli commended the young forward for how much he’s matured since joining the pro ranks.

“He’s on the path of becoming a star in this league,” the GM said. “His maturity away from the ice has grown leaps and bounds also. It’s kind of cool to watch a young kid develop like that off the ice, too. And he has his moments, you probably see some of his moments on the Internet once in a while. But we whack him after that and he comes back smiling, and he’s figuring it out. He’s a good kid and he’s a really good player.”

Now entering the third year of his three-year, entry-level contract, if Seguin can even come close to making as big of a leap in 2012-13 as he did in his second pro campaign, he’ll have achieved superstar status and will command a hefty raise on his next deal. Given that he’s still just 20 and in the early stages of a career with sky-high potential, Chiarelli likely will look to lock him up long before the season is in the books.

Outsider’s take: “The questions with Seguin are never about his talent; he’s explosive, has great speed, can shoot and can create,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “The questions with him are always attitude and work-ethic related. … If he spent the summer working hard and getting physically and mentally ready for the season, we could see a real breakout year from him.”

Teach me how to Dougie

Heading into the upcoming season, Hamilton is the personification of a great big gift sitting under the Christmas tree you can’t take your eyes off of. Bruins fans are eager to yank away the bow, tear off the gaudy wrapping paper and find out what’s waiting for them inside.

Like Seguin and fellow prospect Jared Knight, Hamilton is a product of the return Boston netted in the Phil Kessel trade. Considered to be a steal when the Bruins selected him ninth overall at the draft in 2011, the 6-foot-5 defenseman took his game to a whole new level this past season for the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs.

After notching 58 points in 67 games in 2010-11, Hamilton was an unstoppable force during his third year of juniors, racking up 72 points in just 50 games. Not surprisingly, he was named the OHL’s Defenseman of the Year.

“I think I’ve gotten better at everything,” Hamilton said of his big jump last season with Niagara. “I’m a little bit bigger and stronger, and I think a bit more skilled as well. I think going to (development) camp and playing with the guys, and going back to the OHL with that confidence helped a lot. Any time you can get that confidence, I think it helps your game.”

Because he’s 19 and not eligible to play in the AHL yet, and that there seems to be little left for him to gain by playing in juniors, the assumption is that Hamilton will break camp with the Bruins and earn more ice time incrementally as the season goes along.

“He’s such an athletic player to begin with, with that size and how he moves, but I think overall he just became a dominant player at that level and he’s ready for the next step, the next challenge,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said. “Hopefully he continues to progress because that position is not the easiest thing in the world to learn at the NHL level, but we’re hopeful that he can come in and establish himself, but it’s up to him. Nobody gives him anything, but hopefully he can come in and make the next step.”

As for the Bruins hinting at expecting him to make the team, Hamilton is more than ready to face the challenge of battling for a roster spot.

“It puts a smile on my face and makes me want to work harder,” he said. “I’m just trying to do my best.”

Outsider’s take: “Having (Zdeno) Chara there as a mentor will be huge for him,” the Eastern Conference scout said. “It’s a big jump from juniors to the NHL, especially for a defenseman, but he’s big, mobile and can handle the puck. In terms of physical ability, he’s very good. Now the mental side needs to catch up.”

With their powers combined …

Before the Bruins mercifully ended their 39-year Cup drought in 2011, many claimed that their window of opportunity would soon be closing, as Thomas “was getting up there” and Chara was “no spring chicken,” either.

The Black and Gold surely were a bit blindsided by Thomas’ sudden departure, but their contingency plan, Rask, has been waiting in the wings for a few years now. While Chara and Hamilton promise to form one impressive top two at some point, the latter likely will be entering his prime and more than ready to become Boston’s bona fide No. 1 rearguard when the 6-foot-9 Slovak calls it a career. Given their superb depth up front, Seguin can continue to grow and hone his skills without having to worry about being the one and only goal scorer the Bruins can count on. However, when Julien decides that the time is right, No. 19 will be ready to make a smooth transition from his supporting role to that of a leading man.

Thanks to Chiarelli’s wisdom, patience and focus on the continued success of the club, the Bruins appear to be a team built for the long haul and poised to remain contenders in the coming years. With building blocks such as Rask, Seguin and Hamilton in place, and a nucleus just one year removed from a championship still intact, Boston’s window of opportunity hardly is shrinking.

In fact, it looks open wide enough to squeeze another Stanley Cup or two through in the foreseeable future.

This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly is the Bruins beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the editor of hockeyjournal.com.

Twitter:@JesseNEHJ
Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com