Sunday, March 1, 2009

In Phil we trust...

After the 1967 season Phil Esposito approached the General Manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, Tommy Ivan and told him "We have a great team here, don't f*** it up!" (from the CBC's Life and Times). A month later, Esposito was on his way to Boston where he set scoring records and won two Stanley Cups with the Bruins. As he stated in an A&E Biography, "We could have won five cups in a row in Boston but we liked to have a good time too..." and then he smiles that famous Esposito smile. That is the challenge facing Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli as this year's trade deadline inches closer.

In his third season as General Manager, the Ottawa native and former Senators Assistant GM has his team firing on all cylinders. Leading the Eastern Conference by 8 points over Washington, the Bruins are 18 points ahead of Montreal in the Northeast Division after Saturday's games. Does he make a move to bolster his squad for a long playoff run or hold steady and ride the chemistry that Head Coach Claude Julien has brewing in the Boston dressing room?

There has been some speculation of a trade between the Ducks and Bruins that would see Chris Pronger come to Boston, with Patrice Bergeron and Phil Kessel headed West. This would create a formidable defensive pair of Chara and Pronger, perhaps the best in the league; certainly the biggest. While Chara struggled in his first season in Boston, he has worked harder than ever and become a leading candidate for this year's Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. The Bruins scoring leader Marc Savard, made this comment in a recent interview, "Z definitely sets the tone for everything we do. I've played for some great captains. Scott Mellanby in Atlanta, Brian Leetch in New York. It makes a huge difference when a guy like that goes out and does what he does."

Savard is becoming quite the leader himself. With 21 goals and 49 assists, he will surely garner an invitation to audition for Canada's Olympic team this summer while helping bring the Bruins to the land of legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Boston has scored 215 goals this season, a majority of them coming while playing 5 on 5. A look at their plus/minus stats is staggering - Savard +25, Krejci +33, Wideman +30, Chara +26, Ryder +25. Compare those numbers to the Rangers, who are in danger of falling out of the race for the cup, and you see why John Tortorella is the new coach on Broadway. New York's top plus/minus player is still Nikolai Zherdev at +5.

Among the Boston forwards, Patrice Bergeron is a tremendous talent when he is healthy, but will his $4.75 million contract become a problem if the salary cap comes down in the next few seasons as expected? Bergeron's first concussion was the result of a devastating hit from behind last season, while his most recent came while he was delivering a check in open ice and that is never a good sign. The Bruins second leading scorer, David Krejci (20-40-60 points) and Phil Kessel (26-21-47) are both restricted free agents at season's end and a decision will need to be made. Trade one in order to keep the other? Does the re-emergence of Michael Ryder (22-19-41) as a legitimate scoring threat make Kessel expendable in order to land Pronger? I guess we'll find out on Wednesday...

There has also been some debate as the trade deadline approaches about Boston's goaltending come playoff time. Despite yesterday's overtime goal from eighty feet out, Tim Thomas is indeed the man for the job and a long playoff run. The Flint, Michigan native is first in the NHL in goals against average (2.06 GAA) and save percentage (.933%), and sixth in wins. Over the past three seasons since he joined the Bruins as a UFA in 2005, his save percentage has steadily improved - .905%, .921%, .933% and his goals against has continued to drop.

To take a look at his career numbers, a road map of the hockey world is required. He has had stops at the University of Vermont, ECHL, IHL, AHL, Sweden, and Finland. Although he is only 34 years old, not being a number one goalie in the NHL until recently may actually help him. Goalies such as Dominik Hasek and Roberto Luongo have seen a lot of pucks sent there way from an early age and eventually knee, hip and groin injuries tend to develop. While Thomas has played a lot of hockey in his career, he hasn't always had to carry the bulk of the workload. A UFA at season's end, he's a steal at his current $1.1 million per year salary and he will be in the running for the Vezina Trophy as the leagues top goalie. Boston also leads the way in the Jennings Trophy hunt, allowing only 2.16 goals per game, (Minnesota is second at 2.33 gpg, San Jose is third at 2.36 gpg). At 5'11, Thomas will use any part of his body in any way necessary to stop the puck and there is no doubt in my mind his great play will continue into hockey's "second" season.

This Wednesday two things should enter Peter Chiarelli's mind. Phil Esposito's comments in 1967 and the time tested expression - If it isn't broke don't try to fix it. Have a great sports day everyone.

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