With Bruins Overseas, Puckheads in Boston Left With Concerning Questions


With Bruins Overseas, Puckheads in Boston Left With Concerning Questions We're in the Mystery Days now.

The Bruins haven't exactly blown the doors off their preseason opponents, and we don't really know what to make of that. We have seen Peter Chiarelli, Jim Benning and Don Sweeney pacing between periods of preseason games at the TD Garden. They are on their cell phones ("Yeah, I'll pick up a loaf of bread on the way home." Uhh, probably not.), tapping away at their handheld devices, and seldom smiling. One can almost see the comic strip thought balloons over their heads considering all the factors that will go into making this Bruins team into a team.

We have seen the rookies twice and large parts of the full team twice at home. The rookies were fun and energetic, but there are only a few of them left with a chance to make the parent club — too bad Ryan Spoooooner is going back to the OHL to tear up the junior leagues again. Public address announcer Jim Martin would have had some fun with his name.

How much fun is to be had this winter? A lot, we hope, but right now that hope is based on potential rather than performance — not that preseason games in any sport can be a good measuring stick.Ever been to spring training? The quality players pay attention for one turn through the batting order, and they're on the front nine before the game is in the eighth inning.

But baseball is, as many have pointed out through the years, a series of one-on-one confrontations: pitcher against batter, batter's speed against fielder's arm, etc. There are a lot of individual skills in isolation that are easy to examine.

Hockey, on the other hand, is the ultimate team sport. There have been a lot of Stanley Cup winners that haven't had the greatest collection of individually skilled players. So the Chiarelli/Benning/Sweeney brain trust looks at players and tries to project how they will or won't work within the greater scheme. Oh, and the math of the salary cap has to work, too.

The Bruins are in Ireland now, where they'll play a team that will resemble a decent AHL squad. What are Bruins followers expecting? 5-0? 7-1? Is there a satisfactory result? What can we learn if they beat up a team of UK All-Stars who aren't good enough to play in the NHL? And then, although the competition will be substantially better, what can we learn from their performance against a Czech team? If they lose, well, how many lifeboats were there on the Titanic, again?

There has been a really good feeling about the Bruins in the run-up to this season, but on the heels of Wednesday night's flatter-than-a-pancake effort at TD Garden, there is some creeping doubt. No, we should not allow a single preseason game to warp our perspective — it's better to have a stinker that doesn't count than to have one during the regular season (or, as in Game 2 against Carolina in 2009, at home in the playoffs). But here are the things we saw Wednesday night that can't begin to be answered until at least Oct. 9:

  • The defense doesn't look sharp. Zdeno Chara has fumbled with the puck frequently, Dennis Seidenberg seemed to be a half-step behind the play, Andrew Ference got beaten wide after seeming to have the rush under control, Matt Hunwick had a part in Washington's first goal, Matt Bartkowski didn't look ready to perform well in the NHL.
  • Blake Wheeler is trying, but does the style fit the player? Wheeler made everyone drool with his No. 5 overall draft status and his 6-foot-5-inch frame, but as his second-season slump dragged on, people began to wonder aloud why he couldn't at least hit opponents. He was hitting on Wednesday night and playing with a lot of gusto, but he didn't look comfortable doing it — he was on the ice a few times and saw the puck spring off his forehand at least once in what could have been a goal-scoring sequence.
  • Can the Bruins justify $4 million worth of cap space for Michael Ryder? His playoff performance was pretty decent, but that's a long, long time to wait. Even with the guillotine sharpened and the blade raised, he hasn't lit it up in the preseason.
  • Are we expecting too much of Tyler Seguin? At 18, he has shown a ton of poise, blazing speed, a nifty scoring touch (against Florida on NESN) and a ton of potential. There's no doubt that sending him back to junior (at 18, the B's either can keep him or send him back, but cannot season him in Providence) would do him little or no good in terms of player development. The Bruins need help at center with Marc Savard just beginning to spin the bike in his second comeback from Matt Cooke's cheap shot, but assigning that responsibility to a kid could end up shaking Seguin's confidence and delaying his arrival as a star.
  • The power play was bad until puck carriers came zooming off the half-wall. This team needs more of that stuff that Brick so openly praises. Entries into the attacking zone are a major problem. True, it takes a lot of teams a lot of time to sort things out with the man advantage, but the B's need to play more to their strengths by making smarter plays and keeping the puck on their own sticks while a man up.

Don't misconstrue (one of my favorite malapropisms is when an announcer says "mis-conscrew" during a college football game) this as pessimism — it's just legitimate concern. Maybe Wednesday was merely a tired-legs, who-cares effort before an all-night flight across the pond.

Teams can't win their divisions or conferences in October and November, but they can lose them. A bad start is a disaster: since the NHL went to its current alignment, very few teams outside the top 10 on December 1 have made the playoffs.

The Faithful all hope the Bruins have a great team-building time in Europe and come back with four points from their two games in the Czech Republic against Phoenix. We won't see them on Garden ice again until October 21, after they have visited New Jersey and Washington.

Here's hoping the B's have sorted it out well before then, because this sendoff into the Mystery Days doesn't feel too good, all of a sudden.

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