The unluckiest person in the Bruins organization after defenseman Zdeno Chara was injured wasn’t another defenseman or a coach or anyone in the front office.
The most misfortunate when Chara tore a ligament in his left knee fell on forward Milan Lucic.
For all his greatness as a Stanley Cup-winning captain and a perennial Norris Trophy finalist, Chara takes the most heat when things go south for the Bruins. Chara’s size and salary combine to give critics sufficient fuel for their fire. When the Bruins are losing, it has to be the biggest defenseman in the NHL and the highest-paid Bruins defenseman who’s to blame.
With Chara out, the next player most likely to cause fans and sports-radio personalities to get out their pitchforks is Lucic. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, Lucic qualifies in his critics’ minds as big enough to carry the Bruins on his shoulders and prevent every defeat on their record. Then there’s that $6 million contract, which this season ranks second among Bruins forwards. Of course, Lucic should’ve turned down that money if he wasn’t going to go out and score 40 goals a season or make every single puck carrier in his path into mincemeat. I mean, come on Milan, what are you human?
Suffice to say, Milan Lucic goes through as many slumps as the next player. He’s not perfect, especially for a first-line left winger, and his short temper can get him and the Bruins in trouble at times. He can be frustrating to watch when he’s not picking up a head of steam on breakouts or fails to be at least in range to intimidate on the forecheck. But the amount of blame and ridicule that gets heaped on Lucic, who has been as much a part of the Bruins’ success these past three or four seasons as anyone among the core group, is ridiculously out of proportion, whether Chara’s around or not. Especially this season, Lucic has been unfairly fitted for goat horns during the Bruins’ inconsistent 11-8-0 start.
Now Lucic is sure to be victimized by his own success again after he had six hits and plus-1 in the Bruins’ 2-1 victory against Carolina on Saturday. A physically dominant performance like the one that bruised the Hurricanes is sure to raise everyone’s expectation that Lucic is going to be putting guys in the hospital for weeks ahead. The thinking goes, “if Lucic can wreak havoc the way he did against Carolina, why can’t he do that 82 times a season?” It doesn’t matter how Lucic is feeling, who he’s playing on a line with or how the team as a whole is faring, in some eyes Lucic (especially in the absence of Chara) is a failure when the Bruins lose. And rarely does he get much credit when Boston wins.
Never mind that with center David Krejci out Lucic has had to play on a line centered by Chris Kelly and completed by rookie Seth Griffith. Kelly, who’s often razzed by the same critics that belittle Lucic for his lack of offensive prowess, is playing out of position. Griffith has scored some timely goals, but the Bruins have managed his minutes to keep him out of dangerous situations. And at Griffith’s size, he’s obviously not a viable long-term partner for Lucic in the bang-and-slam game.
When things went haywire on Thursday in Montreal, coach Claude Julien actually had Lucic skate on a line centered by deteriorating fourth-line center Gregory Campbell. And then just in case Lucic hadn’t gone through enough change lately, Julien put the power forward on a line with center Carl Soderberg and right winger Loui Eriksson for most of the Carolina game. This move, which I endorsed earlier in the week before it became a reality, might’ve been the extra push Lucic needed to truly come up big against Carolina. That it was forced by the ineffectiveness of some other forwards and a possible injury to Brad Marchand was beside the point. Lucic was finally given a line with players of his caliber and it paid off.
The Bruins talk all the time about putting players in a position to be successful. That’s why they watch Griffith’s minutes and make sure defenseman Torey Krug takes limited shifts against bulky forward lines and younger defensemen are often paired with a veteran. Players are given the benefit of the doubt, except usually when it comes from Lucic. In fact, Julien sometimes can sound like a talk-show caller when it pertains to Lucic. When asked about the challenge of finding a center for Lucic during Krejci’s absence, Julien had this to say:
“To a certain extent you’re right. When you’ve played with the same centerman for that long, you read off him so easily. But also, does that mean you can’t play without a certain guy? You still got to bring your game, you’re A game. So that’s how I look at things. When you have a player injured that complements another player, that player still has to bring what he can. And Looch can skate, he can hit, bang, still make plays. So you know, is he going to be a better player with Krech? Maybe, because of the chemistry, but right now he’s just shown us tonight that whether Krech is there or not, he’s still capable of being a good player for us.”
There’s no doubt that at a certain point a player, especially an important, high-paid one like Lucic, has to produce regardless of his surroundings. But chemistry takes time. And then there’s also the matter of talent. No one would dare put Kelly or Campbell in Krejci’s class as a two-way center. Sometimes you’re only as able as your linemates, and sometimes those linemates can drag a player down to their level.
The level of patience for Lucic’s attempts to perform at a high level is puny compared to the leeway given other players, especially Boston deity Patrice Bergeron. When the center went through a stretch where his Selke Trophy-winning resume was being tarnished by a negative plus/minus earlier this season, Julien threw out the life preserver for Bergeron by diverting criticism elsewhere.
“Right now I think there’s a guy, Smitty [Reilly Smith], that still is behind. You know he missed the start of camp and he’s still trying to find his stride,” Julien said after a game in late October. “I thought Brad [Marchand] played much better last game. So things are coming around with him personally. So you need three guys for a line to work well.”
A couple days later at practice, Julien had this to say about Bergeron’s minuses: “Well it could be a little bit maybe because we’ve talked about his wingers really struggling to find their games.”
Whoa, far be it for anyone to criticize Patrice Bergeron. But Milan Lucic, you can throw him to the wolves after one bad night or a stretch of tough games
Julien’s role as coach includes the responsibility to manage not just players, but men. After eight years on the job, Julien knows which players respond well to a verbal lashing and which needed a kinder hand. So his public words about Lucic compared to the ones he had for Bergeron might be more about cajoling those players’ egos than about giving an honest assessment. However, that doesn’t forgive the rest of the viewing public for skewering Lucic after he doesn’t dislocate every pair of shoulders he sees in an opposing sweater.
Lucic entered this season after wrist surgery that didn’t allow him to do even one pushup all summer. He’s been without the center that’s been his perfect fit for four years for much of the past several weeks. He still has three goals, seven assists and a plus-3 rating in 19 games. His best hockey is certainly ahead of him, but his recent past has been far from his worst hockey. He’s been working hard along the walls and doing what he can to drive the net and get open. But like 29 other teams, the Bruins can’t just replace someone like Krejci. And Julien is gun shy when it comes to breaking up certain lines, especially the one with Bergeron, Smith and Marchand. So Lucic is left to play mostly with Kelly, Campbell, Griffith and Simon Gagne, and somehow Lucic is supposed to score a ton of goals with players that can’t get him the puck on his line. Lucic can’t be blamed for this any more than he can be blamed that the Bruins overvalued grit and misread the market and bestowed him with a salary of $6 million per season. They also miscalculated what their lineup would look like for the life of Lucic’s contract, figuring that a healthy Nathan Horton, Jarome Iginla or a similar player would be on Lucic’s opposite wing.
There’s a track record with Lucic that constantly gets overlooked. You can be disenchanted with his untimely penalties and inability to control his temper. But you can’t argue with his record of being a physical force when the stakes are high and his history of coming up with important offensive plays when the Bruins need it. He might not be a 30-goal scorer, but when healthy and put in the right situation he can be one of the best two or three players on the Bruins. His 26 points in 34 playoff games the past two seasons should’ve erased everyone’s doubts about his ability to perform in the postseason. Yet Lucic just can’t seem to change public perception. And he gets no help from his coach.
When Chara comes back, the Bruins will be better, the defense corps will have a lot of pressure released from it and, ever so slightly, Lucic will be a little less of a whipping boy. The naysayers haven’t stopped Lucic from blossoming into a highly effective player, and he’ll probably successfully battle through it for the rest of this season and next.
Lucic needs to be put in a position to be successful, and too often this season he’s been left out of those positions.