Milan Lucic knows his penalty-minutes total is down.
Through 27 games, Lucic leads the Bruins in goals (15) and points (25) but his PIM total reads just 28. However, the 22-year-old left winger isn’t taking his depressed penalty-minute pace as a slight on his manhood.
“For myself, I’ve just got to work up and down that wall and try to be aggressive on the forecheck,” Lucic, whose PIM total was 136 in his most recent full NHL season, told TheBruinsBlog.net recently. “Sometimes it’s tough getting that hit when you’re first on the puck, so there’s no need to make that hit. Whatever it is, if it’s getting there late and getting that hit or getting there early and being first man on the puck, you’ve got to do whatever you can to establish that forecheck. I’ve got to do whatever I can.”
Just because his penalty minutes are down doesn’t mean Lucic is any less intimidating. He has engaged in two heavyweight bouts – with New York’s Brandon Prust and Washington’s John Erskine. He’s second to Shawn Thornton on the Bruins’ roster with 53 hits. And when you’re playing a regular shift on the team’s first line, and even earning power-play time, you’ve got to make some cutbacks to the seconds you spend in the sin bin.
Long gone are the days of Cam Neely personifying the term “power forward” by racking up 42 goals and 175 PIM in 1988 and 37 goals and 190 PIM in 1989. Even the days of Steve Leach accumulating 31 goals and 147 PIM in 1992 – the last Bruins player to reach 30 and 140 – are ancient history. Last season in the NHL, Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie was only one of four players with 200 PIM, and he was the only one with 20 goals (exactly 208, 22). Dallas’ Steve Ott was the only player to surpass 20 and 150 (22, 153).
While early on in his career the now 6-foot-3, 228-pound native of Vancouver had to roughhouse in order to gain respect and contribute in fewer minutes on the ice, now Lucic is expected to provide the offensive statistics and responsible defensive play expected from a player hitting the Bruins salary cap at a clip of $4.083 million per season for this year two more after this. If Lucic were playing an Ott- or Downie-like role for the Bruins – who have the likes of Brad Marchand and Thornton to take care of most of that stuff – they’d be getting ripped off.
Luckily, Lucic seems to be maturing into a front-line player with the ability to maul mostly just when provoked. And not too many are brave enough to irritate the burly wing. Not only is he meeting the Bruins’ expectations of him while fully healthy, after an injury-ravaged 2009-10 campaign, he’s also emerging as one of the best modern-day power forwards — both in terms of production, intimidation and bang for the club’s buck.
Comparisons between players are never perfect. And I find it odd that the best comparable “power forwards” I could find for Lucic all play in the West. Perhaps the balance of “power” really is shifting to the left of the NHL.
Anyway, maybe the most high-profile power forward out there is Corey Perry of Anaheim, who last season piled up 27 goals and 111 PIM. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Ducks winger is 25 and scoring at a point-per-game pace this season. But he also averages better than 20 minutes of ice time and kills penalties. In terms of cash, Perry certainly earns his $5.325 cap hit on a nightly basis. That doesn’t mean he’s a great value, and he lacks the intimidation factor that Lucic carries.
Then there’s Vancouver’s Alex Burrows, who unfortunately got off to a late start this season because of an injury. Last season, he rewarded the Canucks for the $2 million-per-year contract they gave him by producing 35 goals to go along with 121 PIM. Some were frustrated by his tendency to pick up those PIM at the worst possible times. Nonetheless, the 6-foot-1, 190 forward, who also logs penalty-kill time for the Canucks, was the leading goal-scorer among players with 100 or more PIM in NHL. Burrows has produced just four goals in 16 games this season, so there’s no telling which direction his career will go at 29 years old. And, again, Lucic is more apt to make someone flinch in a confrontation than Burrows.
At 28, San Jose’s Ryan Clowe is also much older than Lucic, but makes a solid comparable. Last season, the Sharks 6-foot-2, 225-pound winger popped in 19 goals and picked up 131 PIM. That was after signing a contract for $3.625 million a season. This year, he has 26 points in 28 games but just six goals. Clowe’s minutes this season are comparable to last, in addition to being on a higher fight pace than last season (he has six this year after scrapping 11 times last season). In terms of money, the Sharks are paying Clowe in his prime and probably expecting a little more than they’re getting from him.
Even at 30, Ryan Malone can still carve out the top of the crease as his own territory and drop the gloves now and then. He is in the midst of a seven-year contract that hits Tampa Bay’s salary cap at $4.5 million every season. His numbers are solid, but he makes more than Lucic without scoring at such a torrid clip.
I purposely excluded any player that plays exclusively center (St. Louis’ David Backes) from this discussion, as well as the ancient Detroit warrior Tomas Holmstrom, whose age precludes him from being counted among such youthful tormentors of goaltenders and opposing antagonizers alike. Jarome Iginla, once the consummate power forward, has mellowed in recent years, and his PIM total has decreased since he turned 30. Injuries have slowed Carolina’s Erik Cole’s pace, and David Bolland of Chicago might be able to climb into this mix with another big year after he took a while to return from injury last season. And, I’ll admit, I probably left out a player or two from this comparison.
Nonetheless, it’s hard to make a case for any of the players mentioned above packing a bigger wallop, in more ways than one, than Lucic. The Bruins are benefiting from his development well ahead of his prime. He’s getting better each week it seems, and there’s no telling how high his ceiling is. If it’s anything like his popularity, the Bruins might have a multi-faceted forward to build their team around in the years to come. Those comments from some about him being overpaid have sure quieted down lately.
Even if Lucic doesn’t manage to join the 30-goal, 100-PIM club or add many more bloody bouts to his lifetime fight card as he grows into his role with the Bruins, that doesn’t make him any less of a force – one that makes the Bruins a difficult team to defend and makes the Boston organization look like it spent its money wisely in retaining one of its own draft picks.