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Strength In Numbers

The Search for the Ever-Elusive Right Wing

Krejc and Looch, looking for that third linemate.
Krejc and Looch, looking for that third linemate.

Since the day Jarome Iginla penned his 3-year, $16M contract in Colorado, the Bruins have been passive in replacing their regular season & postseason leading goal scorer. Don’t fault them for not signing a 37-year-old veteran to a multi-year contract at a high dollar amount—because they shouldn’t be investing in a guy through his 40th birthday, they should be getting younger. But you can pass judgment on them for not bringing in a body to help lessen the blow they took. He wasn’t in his prime, but he was an all-time player, desperate to raise the Cup. They lost more than Jarome Iginla the player, the talent. They lost Jarome Iginla the drive. The desperation. And they decided to fill the gap with their new credo…

Strength in Numbers

An NHL roster caps off at 23 men. But the Bruins believe they are roughly 30 deep. In addition to the 23 men currently traveling with the Boston crew, they have names like Justin Florek, Zach Trotman, David Warsofsky, Alexander Khokhlachev, Craig Cunningham, and Jordan Caron skating around the Dunkin’ Donuts Center down in Providence. All of whom have played in NHL games at some point. Most of whom they deem close to NHL ready. None of whom they’ve given up on yet. In a Bill Belichick-ian move, GM Peter Chiarelli has decided he is able—for the time being—to plug in Seth Griffith, Matt Fraser, and Bobby Robins, and play Bruins hockey, business as usual. As of Tuesday, add Simon Gagne to that list.

By my count, that’s a lot of bodies to fill not many roster spots. It’s not an unfamiliar problem for most teams, and it typically shows a good track record of your drafting and player analysis. But the main issue for the B’s is that teams typically build through their draft, and prospects advance up to the NHL squad, slowly moving up the lines when they’ve shown they can play a solid game. Remember the plight of Brad Marchand in 2010? He started on the 4th line with Gregory Cambpell and Shawn Thornton, skating alongside them for nearly 300 minutes that season. His play in the NHL advanced him up to play next to Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi. Even the number 2 overall pick Tyler Seguin, more by fault of the coach, was buried on the 3rd and 4th lines for the vast majority of his first season, not taking Recchi’s spot until the following year.

You don’t want to write your lines out in ink for the entire year.

This year? Matt Fraser and Seth Griffith, although unproven at the NHL level, are deemed worthy of skating next to David Krejci. I want the kids to play. I want to see Griffith and Fraser in the NHL, and flourish. But I want to see them earn it by playing their way up, because that will show they are succeeding. In the meantime, get a body in the door that you can trust. Get someone with 1st-line talent to skate on your first line.

One of the most recent examples of how to do it correctly, you’ll see tonight. Last year, Detroit’s Gustav Nyquist came up from Grand Rapids and appeared in 55 games. He scored 28 goals and lit the team on fire, all while appearing on three different line combinations. He skated on the left side of Riley Sheahan and David Legwand, before earning his mainstay next to Henrik Zetterberg and Justin Abdelkader for 16 games. And even after all that, there was discussion that when Zetterberg returned for the Playoffs against Boston, Nyquist would be the odd man out and become the healthy scratch. He ultimately played the entire series, but it was a prime example of great talent earning their way up, proving they belonged. As much as I’d love to see some of the P-Bruins succeed in Boston, I can’t be sure that they belong yet. They should be given their shot, just not with the added pressure of skating on what should be the teams’ most prolific scoring line.

Granted, the Bruins have typically had two "first lines", with both Krejci and Bergeron being top-line caliber. Reilly Smith was the deserving candidate last year, playing his way onto the team through training camp, and then capitalizing on the opportunity once Loui Eriksson went down. And this year, their 3rd line is looking to be as good as other teams’ 2nd lines, with Carl Soderberg coming into his own. But that doesn’t let you off the hook for plugging holes next to David Krejci and Milan Lucic with a revolving door of AHL platoons. It makes you the antithesis of the stubborn, never-budging line combinations Claude has rolled out in years past. Last year, the Lucic-Krejci-Iginla line was the most consistent line in hockey, playing over 1,000 minutes and skating together in 77 games. That’s 10 more appearances than 2nd place, Philly's Voracek-Giroux-Hartnell line. You don’t want to write your lines out in ink for the entire year.  But at the same time, you don’t want a different body on your hypothetical 1st line every 3-5 games, trying to see who could make it work.

It might not be as bad if last year's line wasn't so damn good. Among line combinations playing roughly 20+ games together (15:00 TOI/G), Lucic-Krejci-Iggy was the 14th-best in CF%. 9th-best line in GF%. That's ahead of Okposo/Tavares/Vanek. Ahead of Voracek/Giroux/Hartnell. And ahead of Hossa/Toews/Sharp. They collectively tallied 189 points. It was their best line in terms of points since Lucic-Savard-Kessel skated together for 190 points in 2008-09. And that wasn't a line for nearly as long as last year's top line.


prospects advance up to the NHL squad, slowly moving up the lines

But it's the lack of a plan, more than anything, that's disturbing about Chiarelli's current team. If they said, "We're going to roll with Fraser," or "We're going to move Loui up," or even "Smith will move from the 2nd to the 1st," I would've been okay with the idea, because it showed they were making a decision. Right now, it looks like it didn't occur to them that they didn't fill that roster spot, and they're scrambling.

As of today, Milan Lucic has 4 shots through 4 games, and is a -1. David Krejci only appeared in one game, but finished without a point, and only 1 shot on goal. Ryan Spooner, Krejci's temporary replacement, has 0 points, 6 shots, and is a -2. And the Griffith/Fraser duo they've had on their right side has combined for 3 shots through their collective 4 games played.

This line needs a boost. It needs to be more aggressive and less timid. It needs trust, certainty, and chemistry. All those fancy line stats mentioned earlier? Marchand-Bergeron-Smith was Top 5 in nearly every category, because of those elements. The elements that Horton and Iginla helped to build. The team as a whole may benefit from "Strength in Numbers", but that top line wing slot? It only needs one worthy candidate. I'm not sure if that person exists in their system just yet.