Without getting into specific names of players, we know a few things about the Bruins’ offseason game plan.
General manager Peter Chiarelli is going to try to upgrade his league-worst offense, retain the services of his three solid free-agent defenseman and open some spots up front for the eventual No. 2 draft pick and a couple prospects by letting some free agents walk away.
Two players, however, that shouldn’t be allowed to even get on the open market July 1 – let alone leave – are wingers Mark Recchi and Shawn Thornton, who both provide elements to the Bruins on and off the ice that would be difficult to replace.
No two players on the Bruins play their individual roles any better than Recchi and Thornton. And even better, in this salary-cap era, they both do their jobs pretty much on the cheap.
Recchi gutted his way through 81 regular-season games on 42-year-old legs and then tied for third on the club in playoff scoring with 10 points after putting up 43 points in the regular season. His presence in front of the net, both at full strength and on the power play, made him one of Boston’s best offensive weapons in a down year for scoring. He helped Patrice Bergeron form a shutdown defensive line, was a threat to create a turnover every time he forechecked and even chipped in on the penalty kill. This after he re-signed for one year with Boston and figuring that he’d take the occasional game off in addition to skipping some practices. Instead he nearly played every game and his practice attendance wasn’t any different from any other veteran in black and gold.
Thornton might’ve dipped a bit in the offensive production department (just about every Bruins forward did), but he again put his nose to the grindstone and worked as hard as humanly possible for 74 regular-season games and 10 postseason contests. For months, Thornton joined Steve Begin and Byron Bitz to form the Bruins’ most effective two-way line. And then injuries juggled the Bruins’ lineup. That didn’t stop Thornton from fighting 21 times and proving he was by far the toughest Bruins player and the one most willing to sacrifice life and limb for the good of the team. When it came time to make Matt Cooke pay, everyone knew which guy would do it that night at TD Garden – and Thornton didn’t disappoint. Had he been on the ice for the brutal hit Cooke threw at Marc Savard March 7 in Pittsburgh, we all would’ve been spared the talk-radio barrage of criticism the Bruins endured in the aftermath of their non-retaliatory decision.
Now if on-ice exploits were all that Recchi and Thornton brought to the table, you could accept it if Chiarelli decided to try to get a younger, faster top-six forward to replace Recchi, or looked for a tough, grind-line player with a little more youth and better scoring hands. Of course, then Chiarelli would also have to replace the vocal leadership of two of the few Bruins players with Stanley Cup-winning experience.
You cannot overestimate what it meant to have Recchi in the Bruins’ locker room the last year-plus — keeping the slumping young forwards’ heads up, making sure guys battled through being hurt and then speaking openly and at length when he felt the team needed a fire lit under it in late March. Thornton is another guy that never shies away from the heat when things are going south and calls the shots the way he sees them, even though at around 10 minutes of ice time per game he’s rarely involved in what goes wrong in a particular game or stretch of matches.
The Bruins’ official leadership tandem of captain Zdeno Chara and alternate Patrice Bergeron are great leaders in their own way. And they’re both the same type of leader. They work harder than anyone and expect everyone on their squad to do the same. Even after logging 20 minutes in a game, Bergeron hits the bike. Chara’s off-ice workout regimen has been part of NHL lore for years. They answer questions and offer aid to teammates, but neither is going to criticize a teammate in public or private. It’s just not their nature. They’re too polite in a role that sometimes requires a player to forget his manners and make something happen with his mouth.
There are other guys that can bring bluntness to the Bruins. Andrew Ference is as analytical as they come and can articulate what needs to be said better than most. Had injuries not knocked him out of the picture this season, Mark Stuart probably would’ve really grabbed a leadership mantle (and still could if he re-signs). Boston’s other veterans, however, aren’t “fox hole” types of guys. Marc Savard, Marco Sturm, David Krejci – these are guys that if they wear a letter or earn a spot in the leadership hierarchy, it’s because of their performance and production, not those intangibles that separate the generals from the privates.
Boston’s intangibles took a blow this season in the aftermath of Aaron Ward, Stephane Yelle, Shane Hnidy and, maybe most importantly, P.J. Axelsson departing. Recchi and Thornton had to handle a larger load when it came to motivation and accountability. Should the veteran pair walk, the Bruins might find themselves with a larger leadership void that can be filled. Even a couple replacements with similar experience and leader qualities would take time to fit in with a new club among a new bunch of teammates. By all accounts, both guys want to come back and wouldn’t be looking to make much more than they did in 2009-10.
With Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin penciled into Boston’s lineup, along with some combination of Brad Marchand, Zach Hamill and Jordan Caron, next season, there should be a large rookie presence on the TD Garden ice. Then with Chara, Bergeron, Savard and Sturm (although injured) Boston will have plenty of star power to complement the phenoms.
Keeping Recchi and Thornton will make sure that the third group every team needs – the role players – will deliver a maximum amount of production, effort and leadership.