The number of times people have counted out Boston Red Sox star designated hitter David Ortiz are too many to count.
Other than this season, Ortiz seemingly started the year in a terrible slump that sent everyone headed for the closest microphone or telephone to declare he should be traded, released retired every season.
Over the last several Bruins seasons, Milan Lucic has seemingly morphed into the hockey version of David Ortiz. Although Lucic’s slumps haven’t been relegated to the start of the season, every stretch with little production creates clamoring for Lucic to be excommunicated from TD Garden, banished to the farthest reaches of British Columbia or worse.
If the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs have proven anything, it’s the Bruins observers need to start giving Lucic a lot more room to breathe when things aren’t going his way.
There’s no doubt that the 2013 lockout-shortened NHL regular-season was a disappointment of the magnitude of Lucic burying his knuckles in Mike Komisarek’s face. Lucic, a former 30-goal scorer, only lit the lamp seven times in the regular season. His physicality dipped. His forechecking, which resembles a heat-seeking missile when most effective, looked more like a tired dog waltzing after the 100th Frisbee toss.
To his credit, Lucic has yet to make an excuse for his lackluster play. General manager Peter Chiarelli earlier this week alluded to his lessened expectations for all his players based on the condensed 48-game schedule because of there being so many games in so few days, a one-week training camp and very few practices. That might’ve taken a bigger toll on Lucic both because he didn’t play during the lockout and because at 6-foot-3, 228 pounds, and playing hockey like he’s banging away at the line of scrimmage 15 to 18 minutes a night would wear down anyone during a shortened season.
There are also the matters that some players might’ve handled better. Lucic became a first-time father during training. Undoubtedly, that can take some getting used to and cut into a player’s rest.
And then there’s the mega-contract that’s been the undoing of many a great athlete. Last summer, Lucic signed a three-year, $6 million per season extension that begins in 2013-14. You could argue that making a lot more money shouldn’t be a hindrance to a player performing. Pile the contract pressure on Lucic along with the other possible factors I mentioned, you have to accept that the 48-game season probably was the exception, not the rule, when it comes to Lucic’s production.
Think about this: the Bruins have now played 60 games. It should be March. They should just be hitting the stretch drive. It would be the perfect time for Lucic to get himself going and salvage some respectable regular-season stats before the postseason. Instead, it’s time for the conference finals.
Throughout Lucic’s regular-season struggles, coach Claude Julien tried everything at his disposal to spark the left wing. He moved Lucic up and down the lineup, cut his minutes and took away his power-play time. Finally he took the drastic step of scratching Lucic for the first time since he was a rookie on April 20, coincidentally, against the Penguins. Both player and coach agree that the scratch was a turning point that saw Lucic begin to play his beastly game again, even if that didn’t instantly translate into production on the score sheet.
“I think it was just making it fun again. As much as there was a lot of negativity around that sitting and all that stuff, there was still a lot of getting a chance to clear your head and focus on the things that were most important,” Lucic said after practice Tuesday. “And in the long run, obviously it’s ended up being a good thing.”
Now through 12 postseason games, Lucic has been a multi-zone, multi-faceted force. He has 3-7-10 totals and a plus-9 rating. He leads the club with 55 hits. One big bit of body contact knocked Anton Stralman out of Game 3 and the rest of the series with New York. So Roman Hamrlik was in the Rangers lineup and on the ice for those giveaways that led to Boston’s game-winning goal in Game 5 because Lucic put Stralman in the trainer’s room. Lucic even won some key faceoffs in the Bruins’ Game 7 win against Toronto.
So Lucic’s career now reads in order: a 30-goal season, a 26-goal season and a seven-goal shortened season followed by a great playoff run. His 12 points in 25 games playing through an injured toe in the 2011 Stanley Cup championship run weren’t too shabby either.
There are many more positives to Lucic’s game and career than things to complain about. If he was on the open market – and you could debate whether he’s a $6 million player – 29 other teams would line up to sign him. You’ll really know Lucic’s value when you see how much David Clarkson gets as an unrestricted free agent this summer in a thin market.
Best of all, Lucic is still only 24 (set to turn 25 June 7). It might seem like he’s been on the Bruins forever and he should already be completely mature, because he’s done so much and experienced almost everything possible. But he’s still just a kid. He’s still learning the life of a pro, the life as a person with a family, and the life of a star.
It’s easy to look out on the ice and pick on the big kid when he’s struggling. After all, with his size and shape, no one looks worse when he’s in a slump than Lucic. It’s easy to ridicule a $6 million man because he didn’t have a Gordie Howe Hat Trick or three fights in a game when you think he should do something on that level every night. However that’s just unrealistic.
Accepting Lucic as a star that can go through slumps like any athlete, but typically comes through when it counts most, would be a wise idea. Otherwise the next three seasons with him in black and gold are going to be as painful for you as getting sandwiched between Lucic and the end-wall glass.