BOSTON — Brian McGrattan sat back on July 1 and saw his fellow tough guys cashing in with big contracts in free agency and figured things would work out fine this summer.
He was surprised and disappointed when Calgary didn’t offer him a new deal, but remained optimistic when the Rangers signed Derek Boogaard to a four-year deal worth $6.5 million and the Flyers added Jody Shelley for three years and $3.3 million, then the Capitals traded for D.J. King in response.
But McGrattan, one of the most feared fighters in the NHL over his five-year stint in the league, found himself still without a deal as the start of camp neared, and eventually settled for an invitation to Boston’s camp without any guarantee of a contract.
“I got a call about 3-4 days ago,” said McGrattan after his first practice with the Bruins on Saturday. “Sitting around all summer was getting a bit tough, so I was willing to take whatever came along.
“For one, I was surprised I wasn’t re-signed by Calgary,” added McGrattan. “Then seeing a couple of the big boys go right off the hop, I thought something was going to happen. But that’s the way things work. Sometimes the hard way is the better way.”
McGrattan, 29, has certainly become accustomed to doing things the hard way. He was drafted by the Kings in 1999 but never came to terms with Los Angeles, eventually signing with Ottawa in 2003. He literally battled his way up to the NHL with the Senators, setting an AHL record with 551 penalty minutes in 2004-05 before earning a spot with Ottawa the following year.
Since then, he’s established himself as one of the top fighters in the league, but has been limited to just 182 games over five seasons by a series of shoulder injuries and a stint in the league’s substance-abuse program. Both issues appear behind him now, as he made it through last season with Calgary without incident after surgery to fix his shoulder last summer.
“I thought I did well,” said McGrattan. “I thought I did a good job for them last year. I was a bit surprised when they didn’t re-sign me, but that’s pro sports man. Nothing’s fair.
“My shoulder has been great,” added McGrattan. “I haven’t had an issue with it, knock on wood, since the surgery. It held up fine and I had some big tilts last year. At least you know it’s working.”
McGrattan had 86 penalty minutes and 14 fighting majors in 34 games last year. He also chipped in four points and was a plus-3. That last number may be the most important, as being able to play without being a liability on the ice will be the key to his quest for a job in Boston.
“Obviously Brian’s a guy who is very respected around the league for what he does,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “He’s also a guy who actually skates well and we’ve always talked about players here [having to do that] if they’re going to play that role. The Terry O’Reillys played that role and scored lots of goals. We still want to keep that role for those kinds of players, but you don’t want them to be just one-dimensional players.”
The Bruins have one player like that already in Shawn Thornton, but adding another true heavyweight like the 6-foot-4, 235-pound McGrattan could still be useful now that so many of their rivals in the East have bulked up.
“That’s what Thorny does well for us,” said Julien. “We can throw him out there and it’s not one of those things where you’re holding your breath hoping nothing bad is going to happen. Those guys have to be capable of playing. We’re giving [McGrattan] an opportunity to remain in the NHL. He’s in on a tryout and he’s going to get a fair chance. … If he deserves to stay here we’ll make room for him.”
That’s spot is not likely to come at the expense of Thornton, who was re-signed to a two-year deal worth $1.625 million this summer.
“I don’t know,” said Thornton when asked if he thought McGrattan would be competing for his spot in the lineup. “I’m pretty sure management is happy with what I’ve been doing here. They rewarded me with a two-year deal. If he’s going to come in and help out in that role and they feel it’s needed, that’s great. I have respect for him. He’s a good guy.”
McGrattan isn’t looking to replace Thornton, but instead to help him. And that help could come in handy with the heavyweight’s now in the Eastern Conference after this summer’s moves.
“It’s just like how the West was last year, plus they have the guys they already had over here,” said McGrattan. “It’s going to be interesting. I’m here to do what I do. I’m not here to take guys’ jobs away. I’m here to fill a need. I think the team needs a guy like me. I know my role. I’m very happy with it. I love being a part of a team. I’m a team player. If they want me, I’m here. I know what I have to do and I’ll be ready.”
With Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara and Mark Stuart battling injuries much of last year, Thornton was often the only guy in the Bruins’ lineup capable of taking on opposing tough guys, and he finished with a career-high 21 fighting majors while the rest of the team combined for just 26. He’s willing to handle the bulk of the fisticuffs again, but he isn’t opposed to getting a hand from a noted pugilist like McGrattan.
“We have a tough team, so I don’t want to take away from the guys that were here last year,” said Thornton, who won a Cup with the Ducks in 2007-08 while riding shotgun with heavyweight George Parros among others. “I don’t mind doing the job, but it depends on the situation I guess. Every year is different. In Anaheim we had 10 guys that did it. Here we have four or five. It’s different year to year, but help is help and that’s not a bad word.”
It would also be a refreshing change to be on the same side as McGrattan after numerous battles between them over the years. They clashed frequently in the AHL, and also met up once in Thornton’s first year in Boston while McGrattan was in Ottawa.
“Yeah, a ton,” said Thornton when asked if he had McGrattan had any history. “He was in my division when I was in Norfolk and he was in Binghamton. We fought maybe 10 times? I have no clue, but it was a lot. We’ve run into each other a lot.”
“Oh yeah, a bunch of times, since I was a young buck, first [year] in the league,” confirmed McGrattan. “We’ve had our fair share of battles. It’s funny how things come around and you end up playing with guys you’ve fought a lot. It’s happened to me with a couple guys. But it’s good. I’m looking forward to having a chance to show my stuff here and hopefully making the team and maybe I’ll end up playing with him on the same line some nights.”
McGrattan has other ties to the Bruins that helped pave the way to getting this opportunity in camp. Bruins assistant Geoff Ward coached him in junior, while Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli was Ottawa’s assistant GM when the Senators signed him.
“He’s an interesting guy,” said Chiarelli. “In Ottawa we’d had him, he kind of came through as one of those guys who shines a little bit as an invite at a rookie camp, and works hard, and he’s obviously a tough guy, but he can play a bit and he called looking for a look. I’d spent more than a few years with Brian. So we are going to have a look at him.”
McGrattan was also Chara’s roommate in Ottawa during McGrattan’s rookie year in 2005-06. They became friends, and McGrattan also gained some respect for just how dangerous an angry 6-foot-9 man on skates can be.
“I remember my rookie year in Ottawa, Z fought [then-Penguins defenseman] Eric Cairns and he hit him with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen,” said McGrattan. “The whole rink went quiet. I thought he killed him.”
McGrattan also noted that Chara broke his hand with that punch. That’s not something the Bruins wish to see happen to the former Norris Trophy winner again, so maybe having a specialist like McGrattan to handle some of those duties could prove very valuable indeed.
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