Bruins Will Miss Phil Kessel Less Than Meets the Eye

Bruins Will Miss Phil Kessel Less Than Meets the Eye The Bruins will be better without Phil Kessel.

How can a team that lost its leading scorer improve on a season in which it finished first in the Eastern Conference?

Now that Kessel is wearing a Maple Leafs jersey, Boston has a complete roster of players that buy into Claude Julien’s dig-in, grind-it-out, protect-the-net philosophy. Sure, Kessel is one of the NHL’s top young offensive talents, but he never was a natural fit in a system that places a premium on defensive responsibility.

Kessel is a scorer first, and a scorer second. While the 21-year-old sniper did his best to adapt to Julien’s demands of playing a solid two-way game, getting a tiger to change its stripes is as easy as getting a leopard to change its spots. The Bruins no longer have to worry about forcing Kessel to conform and alter his style.

True grit is something that cannot be taught. Either a player enjoys mixing it up or he doesn’t. Either players enjoy doing the little things that help teams win hockey games or they don’t. There’s not a whole lot of gray area when it comes to doing the dirty work that doesn’t make headlines or box scores.

Blue collar is who the Bruins are at their core. Truculence is their calling card. They have become relevant again in the NHL – and the crowded Boston sports market – by staying true to their lunch-pail-gang roots and remaining focused on defense before anything else.

There were doubts whether Kessel could ever get with the program. That’s why it was better to cut bait with him before something happened to derail the Bruins, who have accumulated a great deal of goodwill capital off the ice and generated a boatload of momentum on it.

Why risk one potential rotten apple from spoiling the bunch, one potential bad attitude from poisoning the clubhouse, one potential drifter from straying from the organizational path?

Nobody knows if such a scenario would have played out with Kessel. He still is young and could develop into a solid leader. Then again, he also could turn into a monumental distraction. Now the Bruins won’t have to wonder whether he’d be an asset or liability. They can focus all their attention on winning a Stanley Cup.

The Bruins already have one essential piece of the championship puzzle in place. Last season, they allowed the fewest goals (190) in the NHL and surrendered a mere 2.32 goals per game, the lowest goals-against average in the league. If they can maintain that quality of defense and keep the puck out of their own net, good things will happen.

But this isn’t a one-note team. The Bruins are capable of lighting the lamp as well. Boston had six players score 20 or more goals last season: Kessel (36), Michael Ryder (27), Marc Savard (25), David Krejci (22), Chuck Kobasew (21) and Blake Wheeler (21). Take away Kessel’s 36 goals, and the 2008-09 Bruins squad — which ranked second in the NHL in goals with 270 goals – would have ranked 17th in the NHL with 234 goals.

That ranking might not seem too impressive, but remember, Marco Sturm – the Bruins’ leading goal scorer in 2007-08 with 27 goals — missed 63 games last season. In the 19 games he played, he scored seven goals. At that pace, he would have scored 30 goals in 82 games.

Sturm is healthy again and still has the skills to fill the Kessel void on the stat sheet. With all five of the Bruins’ other 20-goal scorers returning, the offense should be fine. If it isn’t, general manager Peter Chiarelli can use the two first-round picks and the second-rounder the B’s got from the Maple Leafs to swing a deal for another playmaker before the trade deadline.

Hockey is back in Boston. And so is every player who wants to be a part of restoring the glory.

This can only help the team.

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