Before the lockout began, you'll remember Peter Chiarelli's spending spree that became the story for the Bruins during the summer. The general manager didn't throw cash as free agents or cook-up scenarios to land any stars through trade. No, Chiarelli opted to lock up the club's future with extensions that paid players for performance, but also for their expected contribution in the future and to keep the locker room intact.
The real impact of chemistry is impossible to gauge and even more difficult to assign a dollar value. Regardless, Milan Lucic was just one of the players Chiarelli re-upped to a deal many questioned when they heard of it. For the 2013 season, Lucic will play the final year under his deal that pays him a shade more than $4 million annually. Next season, he begins the first under the three-year, $18 million contract he signed in September.
It's easy to forget that No. 17, despite five full seasons in the NHL, is still just 24 years old. Even now, he isn't quite the finished product he will be -- few 24-year-old players are. Ultimately, that's what Chiarelli counted on when he made Lucic the highest-paid Bruins forward. Last season, Lucic scored 26 goals and assisted on a career-high 35. A 61-point season is hardly a down year for any player. However, if Chiarelli insists on giving Lucic money earned by the game's most dynamic players, the winger must be that kind of player.
The most recent memory of Lucic for many Bruins fans is his forgettable seven-game performance against Washington in last season's players. The lone image of Lucic that resonates these 10 months later is Washington defenseman Karl Alzner mocking him as "crybaby" following a scrum. More noteworthy was Lucic standing idly by on the shot that preceded the scrum, allowing Braden Holtby to make the easiest save of his life on a Bruins' rush. Lucic finished the series without a goal. He assisted on three and was even a plus-2 for the series. Still, a first-line winger, seeing more than 20 minutes of ice time in a contested, seven-game playoff series needs to score goals. A year earlier, Lucic wasn't exactly otherwordly during the Bruins' run to a championship. However, the intangible element that Chiarelli insists on overpaying to keep was present through the tournament.
Looking ahead to Saturday and the 47 games to follow, Lucic's intangibles and grit and everything else Don Cherry says Canadian kids have won't be enough. Even with the comedy that results from every Northeast division team trying to fit some terrible giant into their lineup to deal with Lucic, he simply must be better this season.
Naturally, his choice to remain in Boston during the lockout has caused some to worry about his conditioning. The personal decision to stay here was likely due to expecting his first child, who was born on Thursday. Claude Julien and Bruins management seem generally pleased with the team's overall conditioning, so rumors about the winger being out of shape have likely been exaggerated. Either way, there isn't time for excuses given the compressed schedule. The return of Nathan Horton and the further development of Tyler Seguin should give the offense and power play a lift. It's Lucic, though, that can transform the Bruins' top six into one of the league's best. There just aren't many players who can impact a game as well he can. Moreover, there are even fewer defensemen that can a player like Lucic.
His problems come when he takes himself out of the positions in which he excels. Like we saw against Washington in the playoffs, Lucic's wandering and occasional spell of timid play deem him entirely ineffective. During the postseason, few teams are as willing to engage Lucic physically as they are during the regular season. His physical presence seems to disappear entirely when this happens. Loafing near the net, instead firmly battling in front of it, rarely results in the same scoring chances for Lucic in the Bruins. Given his age, the idea that Lucic is still finding himself as an NHL player is well received. Disappearing entirely during the playoffs is simply unacceptable.
These stretches come for most players, and it's impossible to make the best decisions every shift. When you sign an extension that pays you $6 million annually, though, people expect the right decision to come more than not.