Kalman’s Column: Bruins’ flame has burned out

It was just 18 months ago when Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli declared his love for Darryl Sutter’s Calgary Flames clubs, in particular the 2003-04 Stanley Cup runner-up club, at the outset of the Bruins’ 2008-09 season.

Then if it wasn’t enough of a tribute to those Flames that Andrew Ference, Chuck Kobasew and Stephane Yelle already dotted the Bruins’ roster, on their way to winning the Eastern Conference in the regular season the Bruins also picked up Steve Montador. The ’08-09 Bruins played with the heart and grit that was synonymous with that championship-caliber Flames team as much as the best Bruins clubs of the previous 35 years.

In the days since Matt Cooke sent Marc Savard off the ice on a stretcher and the Bruins responded as though they thought their big brothers were going to come out of the stands to stick up for them, the question has echoed throughout New England: what’s wrong with this Bruins team? Well, take a peak at the subtle changes Chiarelli made between last year’s club and his current team and look for those hard-nosed Flames.

Well, Ference is hurt … again. Unfortunately, the Bruins haven’t been able to benefit much from Ference’s combination of skill and toughness because of a groin that has obviously turned to butter. But when you think about the Bruins and toughness the last couple years, Ference, pound-for-pound, has to be up there as a personification of that philosophy. The fight with Sidney Crosby was of course Ference’s handiwork. And we all know which Bruin was the first to respond to Sean Avery’s antics in that famous game against Dallas in Nov. 2008.

Montador and Yelle were both allowed to leave via free agency. And then Kobasew was dealt to Minnesota. For all intents and purposes, those three guys have been replaced by Steve Begin, Johnny Boychuk and Danile Paille. Begin is supposed to be a sandpaper-type guy, but whether it’s because of injury or just indifference, he hasn’t been much of a help in any department — let alone toughness — since the first month of the season.

Add in the loss of Aaron Ward’s championship pedigree, the quiet toughness of Shane Hnidy (he didn’t earn the nickname “The Sheriff” by wearing a badge), and the leadership and smarts of P.J. Axelsson, and now you have the answer to what happened to the Boston Bruins. Instead of building a team that resembles the Flames, Chiarelli has built one made up of comfortable players with long-term deals — and in some cases no-trade clauses — that’s a little less likely to go the extra mile to win. Any salary-cap constraints that forced Chiarelli to let the Bruins’ best role players leave are, of course, of the GM’s own making.

Where the Bruins go from here is anyone’s guess. Blowing three one-goal leads en route to an overtime loss in Toronto Tuesday wasn’t exactly the way get back on track after coming up short in Pittsburgh. And now every Bruins player knows that if someone hits him in the head with a cheap shoulder, the other guys in black and gold are under no obligation to come to his rescue.

In hockey, the “all-for-one, one-for-all” attitude is as important as power-play efficiency and goaltending. We now know the Bruins can add the lack of that to their inability to cleanly move the puck past the red line and put the puck in the back of the net.

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