There are definitely better things to do on a warm Friday in August, but I just can’t help myself. The recent signing of former Boston Bruins center Stephane Yelle with the rival Carolina Hurricanes and the start to the Swedish Elite League season, featuring former Bruins winger P.J. Axelsson skating for his hometown Frolunda club, has me wondering: is the Bruins’ penalty-killing crew due for a drop-off in 2009-10?
Without Yelle and Axelsson, the Bruins are prepared to go into the new season without their best two penalty killers from a year ago. And I think it’s going to be difficult for the Black and Gold to match, let alone exceed, their 82.4 percent success rate (ranked 12th in the NHL) from a year ago.
Let’s remember that when head coach Claude Julien first took over the Bruins, his defensive philosophies translated into a drastic reduction in the team’s goals against but didn’t prevent the penalty kill from finishing 28th overall with a 78.6 success rate. So general manager Peter Chiarelli set out to rectify that with the addition of Yelle. And then it turned out center Marc Savard could actually kill penalties better than anyone ever expected and rookie Blake Wheeler arrived adept at skating shorthanded as well. Suddenly, Boston’s power-play extinguishers were able to make a quantum leap in effectiveness.
Now Yelle will be skating for last spring’s conference runner-up and Axelsson is back where his “Zoolander” attire actually blends in among the common folk. The Bruins, meanwhile, might be back to square one.
Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci (when he’s healthy) and Savard will carry an added shorthanded burden once the new season dawns. All three will be asked to not only up their ability to win crucial faceoffs the way Yelle did, but also match the former Cup-winner’s ability to sacrifice his body when squared up against a rocket shot from the point or an oncoming puck-carrier.
The return of Marco Sturm from his injury should provide a bit of a boost to the penalty kill, along with the signing of Steve Begin, who was a prime killer for Montreal before he fell out of favor there. Sturm’s speed makes him a shorthanded scoring threat, but he’s never been lauded for his defensive prowess. And neither player can match Axelsson’s savvy in defensive situations. For all his offensive faults, Axelsson’s anticipation and his decision-making under pressure were extremely valuable and will be tough for the Bruins to duplicate.
There will be other options for Julien and his staff to ponder, including the possible inclusion of rookie Vladimir Sobotka (if he makes the team) and veteran Chuck Kobasew (who struggled as a PK player in 2007-08) among the Bruins’ killers. Phil Kessel, if he’s still around, could also be an option. He gained some experience shorthanded toward the end of the last regular season.
The departure of Yelle and Axelsson has done more than cause a decrease in the talent on the kill. It also creates significant chemistry problems that have to be resolved. While Krejci and Wheeler should get a chance to regain their fine form once the center is back to active duty, it’ll be up to Bergeron, Savard and the rest to find the right blend in their pairs.
Once training camp opens in three weeks, the Bruins will have to resolve these penalty-kill issues in a hurry. Remember, sometimes your penalty killing is only as good as your goaltending. While Tim Thomas should again be a star, he’s a year older and can’t be expected to match his Vezina-winning production of a year ago. And rookie Tuukka Rask can’t be expected to go the whole season without some hiccups. You also factor in the absence of defenseman Aaron Ward’s perennial puck-blocking and the Bruins could risk going into the regular season with a penalty kill that’s not ready for primetime.
The Bruins prided themselves on being one of the least-penalized teams in the league last season. Should they continue that, it’ll take some of the heat off their new-look penalty kill. But they learned two seasons ago how much poor shorthanded play can hold back an otherwise solid club. How well the Bruins fill the gap left by Yelle and Axelsson in 2009-10 will go a long way toward determining if the team will again be looking down at the rest of the East.