Count me among those still scoffing, to an extent, at the contract Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli gave center Chris Kelly to keep him Boston last summer. The veteran will count for $3 million against the salary while he plays the pivot on the Bruins' third line for the next four seasons. At the time, a deal like that for a bottom six forward with the impending lockout, which almost certainly meant a lower salary cap, seemed a bit irresponsible.
It still is in many ways, as the Bruins will end this season with a shade more than $7 million available to sign two goaltenders, a defenseman and a forward. The crop of prospects making its way in Providence suggests there may be a few cheap options to plug these wholes. Still, Chiarelli and his colleagues will need to get a bit creative to make the moves they'll need to heading into next season.
After three games of the lockout-shortened 2013 season, though, it's pretty clear that Kelly will have to justify his inflated cap hit in a pretty difficult manner. With an 82-game schedule, a three-game sample size is hardly big enough to infer much. With just 48 on the docket, three games is a bit more telling.
Perhaps more than anything this side of Tim Thomas' all-world goaltending, the Bruins' depth throughout their roster is among the factors most indicative of their success. Kelly fit perfectly in the third-line center role he inherited when Chiarelli traded for him at the 2011 trade deadline. His presence and performance earned him an assistant captaincy after just a few months with the club and later became justification for a hefty salary bump. Now, with so little time between the beginning of the season and the playoffs, Kelly's performance may eventually decide the Bruins' fate this year.
Through three games, Kelly leads the Bruins in shorthanded time on ice. His 9 minutes, 45 seconds of penalty killing are 2:05 more than Patrice Bergeron's. Last year, Bergeron led the Bruins in average ice time among forwards seeing 18:34 a night. Kelly was eighth at 14:44. However, when killing penalties, Bergeron and Kelly were basically even, playing an average of 1:48 and 1:47 a night respectively.
Bergeron's role with this Bruins team is obviously vital. He's does pretty much everything, and that isn't going to change. However, Kelly's performance on the penalty kill must be near perfect. With 48 games stuffed into about three months, Bergeron will need all the rest he can find if a championship is going to find its way back to Boston. Kelly needs to offer these occasional respites for Bergeron and the Bruins coaching staff with steady play on the penalty kill and some contribution from his line.
Through these first three games, Kelly's group hasn't been great in even strength play just yet. History suggests this will come, given the Bruins' dominance in five-on-five play a season ago. His penalty-killing, however, has been perfect. The Bruins are 14-for-14 down a man this season. A portion of that goes to Tuukka Rask's strong play, especially in New York on Wednesday. But Kelly's consistent excellence in every aspect of penalty killing gets just as a big share. Given the Bruins' comically predictable struggles on the power play, Kelly's shorthanded work is even more important.
Since Julien arrived prior to the 2007-08 season, killing penalties has been a strength almost every season; the exception being Julien's first year when the Bruins ranked 28th in the league. His insistence on defensive excellence is part of the Bruins' success. Players like Bergeron and Kelly, however, are more than just players doing their job within a system. From faceoffs to skating to acumen, the traits of these two players are suited perfectly for killing penalties.
Kelly typically skates alongside Peverley when killing penalties, while Bergeron usually plays with Brad Marchand. Gregory Campbell and Daniel Paille make up the Bruins third unit. Each of these pairings is made up of the same general parts: a smart center that wins faceoffs and a speedy winger that makes life difficult for point men. With Bergeron and Marchand seeing more even-strength and power-play ice time than Kelly and Peverley, the latter's significance will only grow as the season progresses. In almost two years in Boston, Kelly's play has made him a valuable player and person for this organization. It awarded him with a four-year, $12 million commitment. The Bruins are better for it, and Kelly will show us all why this season.