Bruins Mailbag: Top Line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton Still Has Room for Improvement

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Bruins Mailbag: Top Line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton Still Has Room for ImprovementAnother year is coming to a close, but this one won’t be forgotten anytime soon by Boston hockey fans.

The Bruins created plenty of special memories in 2011, ending the franchise’s 39-year Cup drought in June and ending the year on one of the club’s greatest runs in recent memory with a 20-2-1 record over the last two months.

All good things must come to an end, and it’s with a tinge of sadness that we present the final Bruins Mailbag of 2011. That doesn’t mean the good times are ending any time soon for the Bruins though, as they look poised to have an even better 2012.

There were plenty of questions about what the future holds for the club in this week’s mailbag, and I’ve tried to my best to peer into the crystal ball and offer some insight about what to expect. As always, I’d like to thank all the readers who sent in questions and apologize in advance if I wasn’t able to get to yours. Please keep submitting your questions and I’ll answer as many of them as I can as we continue on in the season.

Hi Doug, it seems that Benoit Pouliot has really been playing well. Do you think that he could be the next player promoted to a higher line if there were to be a suspension or injury, like Claude Julien did with Daniel Paille and Zach Hamill? Speaking of Zach Hamill, I think that if he keeps his playing level up, he could be decent trade bait or a third/fourth liner for the future. What are your thoughts on that?
— Jake, Simsbury, Conn.

Pouliot has definitely turned things around after a slow start to the season. He has goals in three straight games, including arguably the most impressive of the season by any Bruin with his tally against the Panthers last Friday when he went coast to coast, slid the puck through his legs and fired it home as he was going down. That was a memorable highlight, but his overall play has improved steadily. He’s a plus-6 in his last five games and has been a minus player in just one game since the end of October. Much of that has to do with the chemistry he’s developed with linemates Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley and the confidence he’s gotten from Julien’s faith in keeping him in that spot despite the early stumbles of his adjustment to Boston’s system.

For that reason, I would be hesitant to move him out of that spot at this point. He definitely has the talent to play on a higher line in a pinch, but the Bruins have a good thing going with that third line and with the versatility of guys like Paille and Hamill that can step in when needed, why mess with a good thing right now with Pouliot?

As for Hamill, I’ll let my thoughts on him bleed into the next question.

Hi Doug, I’d like to ask for your opinion on Zach Hamill. He has been playing well of late on the third line and is clearly very talented, but how much of his game do you think can be attributed to his own skill and work ethic (with an eye on his future development and a regular spot on the ice), and how much is it a result of simply playing alongside an incredible Bruins team, and what does he have that puts him ahead of Jordan Caron et al? If you plucked him out and stuck him in Columbus, say, would he still look so good? The Bruins are playing so well this season, the thought has crossed my mind that Claude Julien could just slot in any old rookie to cover an injury and they’d find a way to pull through regardless! Cheers.
— James, London, England

Thanks for checking in from across the pond. Hamill continues to impress. He’s currently filling in for the injured Peverley on the right wing of that line with Pouliot and Kelly and performed well there last Friday. He may never live up to the expectations originally placed on him when he was taken eighth overall in 2007, but he has developed into a valuable and versatile players who can play both center and wing in the bottom six and even slide up to a higher line if needed. He’s certainly not untouchable if the right deal comes along to improve the team and he’s needed to be included in the package, but I don’t think the Bruins are showcasing him for a deal. I think he’s earned the right to stick around with the big club for a while this time.

While I think he is certainly benefiting from playing with the talent around him in Boston, he’s also done much more to take advantage of that opportunity than Jordan Caron did. I believe Caron still has a future in the NHL, but right now Hamill is the more effective and versatile player. Caron is also better served by getting regular playing time in Providence rather than sitting in the press box in Boston. 

Would Hamill look as good in Columbus? Probably not. But then again, Jeff Carter isn’t looking as good in Columbus as he did in Philadelphia, James Wisniewski hasn’t matched his production from previous NHL stops and even Rick Nash is struggling there this season with how much of a mess the Blue Jackets have become. The only thing that really matters to the Bruins right now is that Hamill is finally fitting in here in Boston, and Caron’s struggles this season are proof enough that is not quite as simple as just sliding anyone into the lineup, so Hamill deserves a little credit too.

Are the Bruins peaking too early, or are they just getting all the breaks right now?
–via Twitter @mesomean (Matthew Wilson)

I’m not sure it’s really either of those things. While I don’t expect the Bruins to maintain quite this level of success throughout the entire season as there are bound to be some bumps along the way, I also don’t see their current run as simply a hot streak or a case of a team playing over its head or “getting all the breaks.” They’ve earned any breaks they’ve gotten over the last two months with their consistent work ethic and the depth, experience and chemistry they possess gives every indication of a team capable of sustaining this level of play. While there are a few players that may be producing more than anticipated, most notably Chris Kelly and Benoit Pouliot, their performances aren’t wildly out of line with the past skills they’ve displayed to give any hint that the bottom should fall out any time soon. The Bruins are simply playing their game and playing the system Claude Julien has implemented to great effect. Add in the confidence the Bruins gained from the success of that system in last year’s Cup run and there doesn’t seem to be anything fluky about this run.

If anything, I think there’s still room for improvement, most notably from the nominal top line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, which has really yet to put together an extended stretch of the kind of production they’re capable of contributing. Even without that line going at full throttle, the Bruins aren’t exactly squeaking out wins or doing this with smoke and mirrors. They are leading the league in goals (3.52 a game), goals against (1.88 a game), goal differential (plus-56), and 5-on-5 scoring (84), while ranking second on the penalty kill (88.9 percent) and even their much-maligned power play is in the top 10 (19.4 percent).

Hi Doug, any word on the NHLPA and the extension or renewal of the CBA? Doesn’t it have to be done by Sept 2012 to avoid a possible lockout?
— Peter Corrado, East Haven, Conn.

Yes, while it seems hard to believe that it’s been seven seasons since the owners’ lockout, the CBA does expire after this season. After losing that entire 2004-05 campaign to the last round of labor strife and seeing both the NFL and NBA shut down in the past year, I’m not going to downplay the seriousness of that situation. I’m also a cynic at heart, but I really can’t see how either side can let this get to a stoppage again. The NHL has managed to overcome the damage done to its brand from that lockout and lost season and has grown exponentially over the last seven years. They can’t afford to lose those gains and risk everything they’ve built with another stoppage.

Some have raised concerns over the NHLPA’s hiring of Donald Fehr as its new director last year, as Fehr does come with a reputation as a hardliner from his days leading Major League Baseball’s Player Association.

But baseball is the one sport that has enjoyed labor peace in the past decade, with Fehr negotiating two new CBA deals in 2002 and 2006 without any stoppages and baseball was again the only sport this year to avoid any strife in reaching a new CBA. Fehr has stated that he plans to begin discussions with the NHL some late in January, most likely just after the All-Star break. He has spent the opening months of the season meeting with players from each team to get a feel for the issues most vital to them in the next round of negotiations, while also familiarizing himself with the economic landscape of the league and rebuilding the union after the turmoil it has gone through in recent years. That still leaves plenty of time to hash things out at the bargaining table, and while these negotiations usually come down to the 11th hour, here’s hoping that hockey follows baseball’s lead and gets a new deal done before the current CBA even expires.

With the cap apparently decreasing for next season do you see [Peter] Chiarelli locking up [Chris] Kelly beyond this season? I think his heart and soul approach and leadership qualities are way underrated, and this year’s offensive emergence make him and the B’s that much more dangerous!
— Curtis, Montreal

I agree completely that the contributions Kelly has made to the Bruins have been considerable in his short time in Boston, and while some outside the organization may underrate him a bit, his teammates and coaches certainly appreciate what he brings as well. That was most clearly shown with his selection as one of the club’s alternate captains this year in just his first full season with the team.

I’m not sure what the future has in store for the cap. It seems like every year there’s talk about how it is expected to go down and it ends up rising again. Next year it may finally drop if there are significant changes put into the new CBA. That is no doubt a factor in Chiarelli’s patient approach in regard to Kelly, though he has shown a willingness to be proactive with new deals for Adam McQuaid, Rich Peverley and David Krejci. Waiting on Kelly could prove costly, as his price will go up if he continues this offensive surge for the rest of the season. In my opinion, Kelly should be the top priority for re-signing among the club’s pending unrestricted free agents, so it wouldn’t shock me if a deal gets done before the end of the season. If Kelly does reach the open market, it may be difficult for the Bruins to retain him as he will no doubt have many suitors with his success this season and Stanley Cup experience.

Is Shawn Thornton’s contract up soon and will he remain a Bruin?
— KC, Ascutney, Vermont

Like Kelly and most of the other third and fourth line players on the Bruins, Thornton is in the final year of his current deal and is slated to be an unrestricted free agent this summer along with linemates Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille, while Benoit Pouliot will be a restricted free agent. Thornton has made no secret about his desire to stay in Boston beyond this year. While his age (34) is a bit of a concern, especially considering the physical role he plays, he has remained a very effective contributor on the ice and key leader off it for the Bruins and he told me before the season that “if I stay healthy I can play another three or four years and be effective for another three or four years.”

The Bruins have a potential replacement in the system in Lane MacDermid, but another year or two of Thornton may be the more prudent course. That, of course, will be dependent on what Thornton is seeking in a new deal and what space the Bruins have available once the cap is set and they start making decisions on their other pending free agents.

Hi Doug, I have always enjoyed watching the hats come flying on the ice after a hat trick, which we saw recently courtesy of Brad Marchand. What happens to the caps? And another question – What did the NHL hope to accomplish with the trapezoid behind the net? It seems to me that if the goaltender could play the puck anywhere back there, a lot of heavy hits (and resulting injuries) on the end boards could be eliminated.
— Neil Hill, Ashland, NB

First, with the hats, the player scoring the hat trick gets first crack at any he may wish to keep. Players will often take one or two, not usually to actually wear but more as a memento of the accomplishment. Marchand stated after his first career hat trick on Friday that he would look through the selection and try to find one worthy of hanging on to.

“There was a couple of good ones there on the ice, so I’m going to go through them and pick one out and throw it up on the wall,” Marchand said.

Other than the ones the player chooses to keep, the remaining hats are usually either thrown away or given to charity if they are in suitable condition by most teams.

Like most recent rules changes, the trapezoid was brought in to help open up the game and create more offensive chances. The thinking was that good puck-handling goalies like Martin Brodeur were becoming like a third defenseman on the ice, making it harder for forecheckers to get in on the attack and create chances. Like the crackdown on obstruction which has left defensemen prey to big hits from forwards flying into the zone unimpeded, the restriction on where goalies can play the puck has had the unintended consequence of leaving defensemen vulnerable to more big hits when retrieving those pucks in the corner. It’s not a rule that I ever endorsed and maybe with the heightened concern for player safety it will be reconsidered in the future.

Have questions for Douglas Flynn’s mailbag? Leave them in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter @douglasflynn or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.

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