19 January 2006

struggles: Bruins and Penguins

Treasure Hunting, the Hockey Edition

By Rob Aquino


As we’ve passed the halfway point of this season, it seems a logical spot for teams to self-evaluate. Have they been successful to this point? Or has the season been a disappointment? For some teams who had high hopes, this can be a point at which they attempt to turn the tide – either by changing coaches, personnel, or even philosophy on building a team.

Two of the more disappointing teams this year would be the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins, both currently safely ensconced in last place in their respective divisions. I say “disappointing” in that many writers predicted both clubs to make the playoffs and even make some noise advancing in the spring. Yet in retrospect those were puzzling predictions – to me it seemed that both clubs had decisions to make: “do we focus on our very young talent and nurture it for a few seasons or do we make some noise with free agent signings and try to immediately jump ahead of our learning curve and “go for it” this year?” Well as you may know, both teams chose the “sign a bunch of free agents” route, fans and writers were blinded, and virtually none of those signings have worked out.

That hazy/unsure mix of “we like our young talent…but let’s still spend lots of money on aging veterans” rarely works, and I think often backfires on an organization. My philosophy would be to make a commitment either way (although I’d almost always steer towards building a young team), and stick it out. The New York Rangers – an active endorsement on how *not* to assemble an NHL team over most of the past decade, finally weren’t afraid to let their youth shine through this year and (along with a dramatic resurgence from Jaromir Jagr) it has kept them near the top of their division all season long. Aside from Jagr, their two most important players this year have been rookies Henrik Lundqvist and Petr Prucha. The Buffalo Sabres suffered a painful few years through bankruptcy and the departure of veteran stars. They claimed to have a plan in place, which didn’t sit well with fans but finally this season the club has gelled and after a cool start has been near the top of the league standings ever since. The team may not have the superstars that casual fans would recognize but they have an overloaded roster filled with skilled players - the franchise has been so deep, that call-ups like Jason Pominville, Dan Paille, and Derek Roy have stepped in due to injuries and the team has lost virtually nothing. If they can find a way to keep them all together they should be a force for the next few seasons.

Despite the disappointing seasons thus far by the Penguins and Bruins, there are still bright lights in their organizations. And they have both made mid-season moves, both minor and major, that perhaps point to them realizing their missteps and attempting to correct them midstream. If the moves have come too late to see postseason success this year, they should benefit the health of the franchises in the near future. Today we’re taking a look at a few of the youngsters on those teams….

Michel Ouellet, Winger, Pittsburgh Penguins

The Pittsburgh Penguins are a very bad hockey team right now. 11 wins in 46 games bad. I didn’t like the way they “built” the team in the summer – the multiple veteran signings smacked of desperation, when they have so much youth on the roster that I felt they should have let develop. Finally, to not let their goaltender of the future Marc-Andre Fleury even stay on the roster (due to his potential bonuses) and watch the team bury itself in the initial months…it must have been very frustrating for a Penguins fan who was fed so much hype on the heels of all the off-season activity, highlighted by Sidney Crosby’s arrival. The vets didn’t play well, Super Mario finally played like his age says he should, and their defence was abysmal. December rolled around, coach Ed Olcyck was fired and Michel Therrien was hired from their AHL team in Scranton. While the team’s overall fate hasn’t been any better at all, at least one bright light has been found – winger Michel Ouellet. Ouellet played three early-season games under Eddie O, but didn’t get much of an opportunity – averaging about 10 minutes per game. He was sent down to Scranton…and coach Michel Therrien…where he potted 10 goals and 30 points in just 19 games.

When Therrien was hired as coach of the Pens he called Ouellet up to the big club within one day. Ouellet responded immediately. He scored points in nine of his first ten games, including an amazing ten goals. He has cooled off in recent games to put his overall numbers at 11 goals and 17 points in 18 games. Incredibly, he’s only a -3 considering he’s only been on the Pens for four wins this year (against 14 losses). He has made his mark on the power play with nine goals and 13 points, perhaps not making him the next Tim Kerr (or even J.F. Sauve) but still producing at an impressive clip. Only twice since his recall on December 16th has he failed to register a shot on goal, and in fact his shooting percentage is an outrageous .355. Ouellet was a member of the Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Junior league (and a teammate of Brad Richards) where he racked up 118 goals over his final three seasons. He took that scoring talent to the next level with Scranton and over his first two seasons hit the 30 goal mark each time.

Due in part to the season being over three months old (his totals compared to other players’ season totals wouldn’t stick out) and the general ineptitude of the Penguins he’s still available in some leagues. Although I hardly expect him to keep up this pace all season, if the Penguins reshape themselves and continue to give young players like Ouellet a legitimate shot at being the future face of the team, I have high hopes for him and the Penguins in coming seasons.

Tomas Surovy, Winger, Pittsburgh Penguins

Wow, two Penguins? Could this youth movement be a return to the days of Pierre Larouche and Rick Kehoe (yes, I just wanted to drop those names)? Tomas Surovy was another mid-season recall by the Penguins - Surovy came up on December 11th. He played parts of the past two seasons with the Penguins, having some success in 2003-04 with 11 goals in 47 games. Yet possibly due to that previously mentioned Penguins inability to fully commit to a youth movement, he found himself beginning the season in the American Hockey League with Scranton (where he notched 28 points in 25 games). Noting a pattern here? Hello Mr. Therrien. Surovy actually made it to Pittsburgh about a week before Therrien – in the two games before the coaching change Surovy was held without a point and was a -1. In the first six games under the new coaching staff, Surovy had eight points and was a +2 (the team was 2-4).

Although Surovy has tailed off of late in Pittsburgh, this might be a time to keep an eye on him as other owners might not be noticing him. The young Czech was drafted in the fourth round in 2001 by Pittsburgh and spent most of the next four seasons assigned to their American Hockey League affiliate in Scranton, with the occasional cup of coffee with the big club in Pittsburgh. His second season in Scranton proved his best as he scored at a point-per-game clip and tallied 19 goals in just 39 games before being recalled. The troubling mark on Surovy’s career thus far might be his consistency. He seemed to take a step back the next few years in the AHL until this year before his call-up. A big attraction to Surovy is his linemates: Crosby and Ziggy Palffy – despite criticisms of Palffy, to me he’s been the only “name” addition who has done anything of worth this year. If Surovy continues to play alongside those two he’ll put up good numbers the rest of the way.

Yikes! Late news: Ziggy Palffy suddenly announced his retirement on Wednesday. You should note how this might affect line combinations on the Penguins.

Brad Boyes, Center, Boston Bruins

Continuing with our “lousy black and gold” theme this week, we move on to the Bruins. Brad Boyes is a very interesting player– he was a first round pick by the Leafs back in 2000 and then was shuttled in the Owen Nolan deal to San Jose, then finally to Boston a year later. Boyes’ game is offence – he twice won the Ontario Hockey League’s outstanding player award with the Erie Otters, amassing 167 points in his last 106 games in those two seasons – his last culminating in an incredible 22 goals in 21 playoff games while leading the Otters to the OHL championship. He also starred for Canada in the World Junior Championships that season, helping them win silver and ending up second in overall scoring with nine points.

Boyes’ statistics with the Bruins this year aren’t super: in 45 games he has 10 goals and 25 points. I think those numbers can and should rise. First of all, his average ice time has to this point been the second-least of any Boston regular. He’s shown a willingness to play a strong two-way game; some evidence of that is in his +4 efficiency rating - best on the team. Boyes has been moved between different lines a good deal this season as the Bruins try to find any identity. One good sign is that he has been matched up with Marco Sturm and Patrice Bergeron at times – two of their best offensive players.

On a larger scale, Joe Thornton’s departure should have sent a clear sign to Boyes and the rest of the club that they are the future. Speaking of which - while I don’t want to come out and say I necessarily liked the Thornton trade from a Bruins’ point of view, I hardly saw it as the disaster that so many in the media portrayed it as. It’s a new opportunity for the team. Thornton is a great talent but for a variety of factors it wasn’t happening in Boston. I don’t see Thornton as a player who can take a team by himself and carry it – that’s no indictment, only a handful of players in recent years could fall into that category (Peter Forsberg and Jerome Iginla come to mind – going back a few years: Ray Bourque and Dominik Hasek). Thornton is doing well playing with some like-minded players in San Jose. The Bruins may not have received “name-players” back in the deal but all three were former first rounders, including Brad Stuart who should anchor their blue line for a long time. The point I’m (slowly) getting at is that there comes a time when you have to realize that “the plan” (whatever it may be) isn’t working, and you have to start over. That’s not easy, least of all from a marketing or fan perspective. “Hey, we know we stink and it’ll take some time but we hope you stick with us as we blow it all up and start over!” – aside from being too long to fit on a billboard, you’re alienating your fans. But building from the ground up can be rewarding as it inevitably is the most efficient way of assembling a team that will compete year after year.

Boston’s top two centers now are Patrice Bergeron and Brad Boyes; two former junior superstars who should now expect to be the main men in Boston at center ice. Now is the time for Boyes to become the player he should be – a quality scoring centerman. I believe the rest of this season will be important to Boyes’ development, so keep an eye on his numbers, and especially if he gets an increase in ice-time (and power play opportunities). If he gets hot, he could be picking up confidence and he has the talent to keep a hot streak going.

Milan Jurcina, Defense, Boston Bruins

Milan Jurcina is another key to the future progress of the Bruins’ franchise. Jurcina was a low-risk gamble by the Bruins, taken in the eighth round of the 2001 draft while playing in the Quebec League for Halifax. He soon developed into a steady leader for the Mooseheads (yup, named after and backed by the famed brewery), and putting up decent numbers for the first-place squad in 2003 with 15 goals and 102 penalty minutes in just 51 games.

Jurcina will likely never develop into a top offensive defenceman – his strengths are his…strength (he’s listed at six foot four, 233 pounds) and defensive play. On a less-than-average team he has maintained a +3 rating, quite impressive especially for a rookie defenceman. Yet after scoring (gulp) just one point in his first 19 games, he has suddenly and shockingly turned up his offensive game with six points in his last five games. One reason for the stunning reversal is that he’s taking shots. In those first 19 games he took as many as two shots in a game only three times and averaged well under a shot per game. In these last five games he’s had 12 shots on goal, showing much more willingness to jump into the play. He recently admitted to being too nervous to be more aggressive earlier in the season and dumping the puck into the corner rather than take a chance with a shot.

While it’s unclear how much Jurcina will be counted on once Brian Leetch returns from a groin injury, the Bruins’ staff has had their eyes opened to the potential that the young Slovak brings to the Boston blueline (aside: Jurcina was named to next month’s Slovakian Olympic team). If he continues to be paired with the highly skilled Brad Stuart he may continue to see his confidence – and offensive contributions – grow.

Feedback can be sent to robaquino@sportsblurb.com.

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