Friday, October 7, 2005

Bruins Preview

I have volunteered to reprise my role as a Sportswriter and am contributing to the BSMW Power Play blog at Boston Sports Media Watch. Here is my first dispatch, a preview of the Bruins' defensemen.

Returning Defensemen
Looking ahead to the 2005-06 season, the Bruins’ corps of defensemen appears to be the biggest hurdle standing in the way of a Stanley Cup run. Young veterans are the lifeblood of most successful NHL teams. The Bruins only have two and neither of them will start the season in Boston, as Nick Boynton waits for the right contract offer and Jonathan Girard is in Providence working his way back from a career-threatening injury. The team will start the season with three rookies and four thirtysomethings behind the blue line, hoping that the youth bring enough athleticism and the vets carry enough experience to propel the Bruins past the first round for the first time since 1998-99.

Hal Gill
Love him or hate him, most Bruins fans would agree that among the returning defensemen, the anchor of the defense is the 31-year-old Gill. His family in Concord and close friends from Nashoba Regional High School in Bolton would argue that the mammoth defenseman keeps the Bruins safely in harbor. But many other Bruins fans realize it’s his cement-filled skates that drag the bottom of the sea, keeping the team from operating at full efficiency, and swamping their efforts at inopportune times.

At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Gill is one of the largest players in the NHL. As a young player, he gained a reputation as a future star on defense largely because of his success against then Penguins star Jaromir Jagr, who at one time called him “the hardest defenseman to get by.” Jagr may still be unable to get by Gill, but any such futility would have more to do with Jagr’s steep decline than with any improvement in Gill’s game.

Gill’s greatest strengths are his ability to rub forwards out in the corners and to use his size to clear opponents out from the front of the net. In the new NHL, where obstruction and physical play away from the puck will be scrutinized, those tactics will be penalized as interference. The emphasis in the new rules on open-ice skating and speed could expose Gill’s slow feet. Without the ability to be physical away from the puck, Gill could find himself being more traffic cone than traffic enforcer.

Gill has very limited offensive skills. He will be good for one ricochet-off-a-couple-opponents goal and a handful of assists. He has never been a presence on the power play and doesn’t figure to start now. Gill is on the books for $1.6 million in 2005-06 and will be a free agent at the end of year. He was the subject of trade rumors early in training camp, and could still be moved to free up space to resign holdout Nick Boynton if the team needs to match a high offer from another team, or could go to a contender late in the season if the Bruins fall out of the race.

Jiri Slegr
In contrast to the big defensive-minded Gill is the sneaky offense of the veteran Slegr, who returns for his first full season in Boston. Slegr came to Boston just past the midpoint of the 2003-04 season, and made a significant contribution, recording 19 points in just 36 games.

Slegr is a strong skater, has an above-average shot from the point, and could thrive offensively under the new rules if he stays healthy. Listed at six-feet and 200 pounds, Slegr is a tad undersized compared to many NHL defensemen, but the new emphasis on speed and playmaking ability should enhance his value to the Bruins. While his reputation has been built on offense, his defensive statistics are solid, with a career plus/minus of +34 and five seasons above a +10.

But health and consistency have been problems for the 34-year old Czech. Slegr has appeared in more than 65 games only three times in his 10 NHL seasons, and has bounced around since joining the Vancouver Canucks in 1992-93. He has played for the Oilers, Penguins, Thrashers, Red Wings, Canucks again and the Bruins. During that time, he also spent the ‘96-97 and ’02-03 seasons in Europe.

If Slegr is healthy, he should provide the Bruins an offensive spark from the blue line. In 2004, he played on the second power-play pairing, and may see some time there again this season if the Bruins go with two defensemen (they have been using Brian Leetch and a forward as point men with the man advantage through much of the preseason).

Slegr is coming off a strong lockout season in the Czech league (29 points, +7, and an uncharacteristic 135 penalty minutes in 46 games), and is a relative bargain at $950,000. He is on a one-year contract and will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

Ian Moran
Another short-money veteran in the final year of his contract is Moran, who returns to Boston after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in December, 2003 that limited him to just 35 games. The six-foot, 200-pound Moran isn’t known for his offensive skills, skating ability, or physical strength. In fact, he is unremarkable in most phases of the game. But like a pitcher who eats up innings and can spot start or pitch in long relief, Moran is most valuable for his versatility.

The 33-year old Boston College product has been playing more right wing than defense through the preseason and appears to be settling into a role on the fourth line, although he would be available as a seventh defenseman. With three rookies likely opening the season in the defensive rotation and the uncertainties that follow, the flexibility Moran brings to the lineup may be more a necessity than a luxury.

Regardless of his role on any given night, Moran will not be lighting the lamp frequently. In his nine NHL seasons, he has recorded double digits in points just twice, with a career high 12 points (4 goals, 8 assists) with Pittsburgh in 1999-2000. He is paid like a utility man, counting just $456,000 against the cap.

Nick Boynton
Of course, the elephant in the room (or maybe more appropriately, not in the room) is fourth-year defenseman Nick Boynton. Boynton is the big, young, veteran defenseman that any Stanley Cup contender needs and he’s sitting at home in Ontario somewhere, waiting to come to terms on a contract.

An October 1 story in the Boston Globe reported that the Bruins and Boynton were still $150,000 apart on a contract. Boynton is asking for the $1.9 million he’d have received if the Bruins had picked up the option on his contract. The Bruins have reportedly offered $1.75 million. Is this a case of Jeremy Jacobs and the Bruins brass trying to prove a point? Hard to say, but would it surprise anyone to see Boynton eventually sign sometime in November for $1,899,995? Or for $2 million plus if another team signs him to an offer sheet forcing the Bruins to match?

Assuming he gets into camp and can get into game shape quickly, the 27-year-old Boynton has the potential to be a game-changing player. projects his career potential as “a number one defenseman,” and his statistical curve suggests he is on his way. Entering his fourth full season, Boynton has increased his point total every year, registering 30 points last season, and is +45 over those 239 games. Boynton has also been durable, missing just seven games over his three full NHL seasons.

At 6-2, 220, Boynton is a force in his own end, yet he is agile enough to carry the puck and headman the break. He is an above-average stick-handler and is a threat to score from the point. He has been valuable both on the power-play and in the top defensive pairing killing penalties.

Jonathan Girard
The other young veteran defenseman returning to the organization is Girard, who will begin the season in Providence. The 25-year-old had become a valuable contributor on the blue line before a life-threatening automobile accident sidelined him after the 2002-03 season.

Girard broke into the Bruins lineup at the age of 18, and played parts of four seasons with the Bruins before sticking with the club for all of 2002-03. Before his accident, he was considered a strong skater and showed occasional flashes of offensive brilliance. He was the final player sent to Providence, and could be called back in case of an injury, or if any of the three rookies falter.

According to a September 30 report in the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, Girard must decide before he appears in 30 games in Providence or Boston whether or not to continue his career or retire. The report claimed that if Girard appears in 30 or more games, he will forfeit an estimated $3 million insurance settlement stemming from his crash two summers ago. Whether or not he is recalled in the first two months of the season could be a factor in his decision. If he spends the season with Boston, he stands to make $956,000 this season. If he spends the season in Providence, the Boston Globe has reported that he will make in the neighborhood of $75,000. Girard would set the AHL’s all-time records in every category before he’d accumulate $3 million at that salary. If Girard cannot crack the Bruins’ lineup by December, he may be facing a difficult decision.
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