Nearly three weeks into the new NHL season, the grand makeover on the Bruins’ blue line — life after Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug — has been a solid success, the new-look bunch of defensemen a dependable, efficient lot.

a person riding skis down a snow covered slope: Bruins defenseman Jakub Zboril played two NHL games two years ago before sticking with the big club this season.

© Toni L. Sandys
Bruins defenseman Jakub Zboril played two NHL games two years ago before sticking with the big club this season.

Is there an emerging Ray Bourque back there? Uh, no. Nor should anyone have expected that this season, or perhaps ever again.

Maybe someone with Big Z’s unique ability to shut down half of the opposition’s attacking zone? Nope. Son of Z is not walking through any of the NHL’s available 31 doors any time soon.

A power-play quarterback to replace the dynamic Krug? Not yet. Maybe never. In fact, coach Bruce Cassidy of late has been increasingly inclined to go with five forwards on the man-advantage — tossing point man, and tradition, to the West End wind.

Meanwhile, newcomers Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon have eased seamlessly into the six-pack, Zboril on the No. 3 pairing with a rejuvenated Kevan Miller, and Lauzon aside Charlie McAvoy on the No. 1 unit. Thus far, nary a wrinkle. As of Friday night, prior to their rematch with the Flyers, the Bruins were 7-1-2 and sitting atop the East Division. That lone regulation loss was a 1-0 trimming by the Islanders, a night when the defense helped stifle the Fish Sticks to a mere 17 shots on goal.

Zboril, about to turn 24 on Feb. 21, has not been flashy, but he has been remarkably poised and proficient. He logged a stout 18:18 in average ice time across his first 10 games, patrolled his end efficiently, delivered sharp first passes as requested, and, for the most part, looked like he’s been punching the clock back there for 200-300 games rather than 2-3 weeks.

“He’s playing with confidence, courage, and conviction up here,” noted Cassidy, “and that’s what has separated him now from two years ago [during a two-game stay with the varsity in 2018-19].”

Zboril, or “Z” as he’s known by teammates, said recently that he believes the NHL game comes to him more easily than what he experienced in his three AHL seasons. He finds there is more order here, more predictability, and, of course, better surrounding talent.

“Because you have more skilled players that are all at the level they are supposed to be,” explained Zboril, “and everyone is doing what they’re supposed to . . . so if you are smart, and if you just move the puck quick, and you get it in the hands of some other guys you know can do great stuff with it, it makes things a little easier.”

Zboril’s read makes sense, said Jay Leach, coach of the AHL WannaBs, for whom he toiled the last three seasons.

“The AHL is a really challenging league for a defenseman, especially young defensemen,” reminded Leach, “especially those who do really well in a controlled environment.”

By Leach’s eye, Zboril is a “cerebral” player who thrives when playing in control. In the AHL, he noted, a defenseman wheeling the net has maybe a 50-50 chance of finding a teammate in the right spot to receive a pass and advance play up ice.

“Whereas [in the NHL] it’s closer to 100 percent that option will be there — and he might even have another one,” added Leach. “Which makes him lethal. Because he’s always set and always able to make that crisp pass.”

Ergo, added Leach, it “makes complete sense” that Zboril feels more comfortable in his NHL surroundings.

Jakub Zboril feels like a great fit in Bruins revamped defensive ranks

The slightly bigger Lauzon thus far has displayed more of a hitting penchant than Zboril. Lauzon led the team with 25 smacks through the first 10 games, with Zboril clocking in with 18. Not a huge difference, but Lauzon generally has been more of a physical presence in riding with McAvoy, while Zboril has paired with Miller, the back liners’ alpha dog in the hitting game.

“The AHL, we call it the ‘Iron League,’ because it’s really physical,” said Lauzon, who spent the better part of three seasons with the WannaBs. “As a defenseman, you get hit, I don’t know, 10 or 15 times a night.”

By contrast, added Lauzon, the NHL is physical, but more of a “mental game” because of the greater amount of skilled players.

“So sometimes, yes, it feels easier,” he said. “But it’s two different leagues, and there are ups and downs in both leagues.”

Things are changing for the Bruins, and young Jeremy Lauzon is making sure he’s a part of it

As a coach, Cassidy has seen plenty of time in both leagues. He coached in Providence for eight seasons, five as bench boss, prior to graduating to the NHL, initially as one of Claude Julien’s assistants. There’s “some truth,” Cassidy said, to Zboril’s AHL/NHL read.

“I think what he means, and I’ve always felt,” explained Cassidy, “if you have the physical attributes to keep up in the AHL — the skating, the ability to be strong on the puck — then the [NHL] game can be easier if you see the game well. Because guys are in better position here, there’s better structure.”

Part of the grooming process for a young defenseman trying to advance to the NHL, said Cassidy, is identifying the structure that does exist in what sometimes appears to be mayhem. The next step is reacting to it.

“Eventually they figure out that less is more,” he said. “It’s, ‘OK, I need to be here, I’m part of a group of five on the ice, not just out here doing my own thing.’ I think that’s what he’s getting at — predictability at this level is higher and guys will be in spots when you want to make plays.”

All of which leads one to wonder if some AHL players, or even those in the minor pros, never make the NHL grade simply because they never get the chance to skate with the best.

“Usually, if you’re good enough, eventually you’ll get your shot — I really do believe that,” said Cassidy. “It just comes down to who takes advantage of it. Sometimes it’s the AHL guy who comes up, and you don’t think he has a chance because he hasn’t put up big numbers, and then he plays well, just because he’s a better fit. He sees the game and, physically, he’s able to do it. You’ll also see guys with big numbers come up, and you think they’re going to be automatic, and for whatever reason they can’t sustain it.”


Maurice won’t have any bad talk about his captain

Jets coach Paul Maurice (1,611 NHL games behind the bench prior to weekend play) came to the defense of his captain, ex-Bruins forward Blake Wheeler, during a Zoom news conference this past week, while pushing back vigorously on the analytics crowd.

“You’ll do your deep dives and analytics,” noted Maurice, 54, “and God, they do a [expletive] job of telling you what five guys do.”

To wit: Wheeler received heat for a goal against, said Maurice, in which his captain “got put in a real tough spot by a [expletive] backcheck by somebody else.”

It was a controlled burn for Maurice, who made clear he has grown tired of some in the media often “beaking on my captain,” often with numbers to support their criticism. Numbers are fine, but too often ignore, dismiss, or overlook critical nuance.

“I’m sensitive to it because I’ve been in awe of this guy since I got here — his work, his work level,” said Maurice, whose first NHL head coaching job was behind the Hartford bench in 1995-96. “He’s unimpeachable in his character and how he runs that room and how he plays.”

To top it all off, added, Maurice, “He’s got [expletive] 11 points in 10 games!”

“I’m not so much protective of Blake Wheeler,” added Maurice. “I’m more protective of the Winnipeg Jets. You get a guy in your town that plays that hard and is such a fine, fine leader and fine person — let’s be real careful if his plus-minus isn’t what you want.”

Ten years ago (Feb. 18, 2011), then-general manager Peter Chiarelli dealt Wheeler and defenseman Mark Stuart to the Thrashers for versatile forward Rich Peverley and defenseman Boris Valabik. Peverley proved a crucial addition to a Bruins squad that won the Stanley Cup four months later.

Warning, Bruins fans, what you are about to read could prove dangerous to your mental health:

Dating to the start of the 2011-12 season, his first with the Atlanta-Winnipeg franchise, Wheeler ranks No. 7 overall in total points (645). The only six players more productive than Wheeler in that stretch: Patrick Kane (734), Sidney Crosby (699), Claude Giroux (675), Alex Ovechkin (672), Evgeni Malkin (663), and John Tavares (659). No. 8 on the list: Phil Kessel (623).

How’s that for a cold and very broken Hallelujah?


Kuraly has special place for homegrown talent

Sean Kuraly, of the Dublin, Ohio, Kuralys, was in grammar school and among the first fans through the doors in Columbus when the Blue Jackets opened for business in 2000.

All of which added some context, and a bit of nostalgia, for Kuraly when homeboy Jack Roslovic, part of the blockbuster Patrik Laine deal that sent Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Jets, recently suited up for the Blue Jackets.

“I think it’s awesome for a guy like Jack,” said Kuraly, who at 28 is four years Roslovic’s senior. “I’m happy for him. I talked to him when he heard the news he was going to Columbus and he was really excited about it. Good kid. Great player. I think they’re going to be happy with Jack.’’

A former first-round pick, Roslovic, a center, had yet to sign a new deal in Winnipeg when he and the disgruntled Laine were dished for Dubois. He has made an immediate impact for the Blue Jackets (five games, 1-3—4). Laine picked up a goal in his first two games.

“When you get to go to your hometown team — and we’ve got some Boston guys on our team that love it — I think it just adds a little juice to your playing and the fans love it,” said Kuraly. “And I know in most situations I know of it ends up pretty well, at least in Boston. And I know Jack is excited about it.”

Kuraly, a starry-eyed 7-year-old when the likes of Geoff Sanderson and Steve Heinze took the ice for the inaugural season, couldn’t conceive then that one of their own would pull on the local red, white, and blue.

“I was at all the games, because one of my best friend’s dads was an assistant coach,” said Kuraly, whose pal Connor is the son of assistant coach Gord Murphy, the ex-Bruins defenseman. “So we got to be around the team a lot, which was cool. Sometimes we’d practice next door at the practice rink and try to get out of our gear as quickly as we could to get to the game.”

It was always his dream to play in the NHL, noted Kuraly, but he didn’t connect his dream with the players he saw in the Blue Jackets sweaters.

“I was thinking I’m going to do my best to be out there, give it my best shot, but you just never know,” he recalled. “I was a kid growing up in Columbus, Ohio, and there weren’t kids from Columbus, Ohio, that played in the NHL. I think that is what is special about Jack making the jump to the team — there are kids now in those stands, watching him, saying, ‘This kid played for the same [amateur] team I’m playing for right now, and one day I can do this if I stick to it.’

“I think that is the coolest part: They think now it’s something they can do. It’s something I dreamed of doing, but you’re never really sure can do it till you do.”

Connor Murphy, of the Dublin, Ohio, Murphys, is now in his eighth NHL season, a 6-foot-4-inch defenseman with the Blackhawks.


Orr sweater can be yours (for a price)

Montreal-based Classic Auctions, which late last year auctioned off Derek Sanderson’s personal collection, is in the midst of auctioning a Bobby Orr game-worn sweater from the legendary 1970-71 Bruins season.

Online bids for the black No. 4 sweater, with its classic white and gold trim, had reached nearly $100,000, as of Friday afternoon. Bidding closes Feb. 23 and the sweater comes with a letter of authenticity signed by No. 4 himself.

Orr, 23 when the season ended, won both the Hart (MVP) and Norris (top defenseman) trophies in 1970-71.

According to Marc Juteau, owner of Classic Auctions, Orr donated the sweater as a charity item in December 1993 and it is being handled now as private sale with no financial connection to the Bruins icon.

Loose pucks

Ex-Bruin Ryan Donato, dished from Minnesota to San Jose in the offseason, is showing some offensive spark. Prior to Friday’s action, he stood 3-2—5 in eight games. After an initial uptick in St. Paul, his stock collapsed, with new Wild GM Bill Guerin dealing him for a third-round pick in this year’s draft. Tim Burke, the Sharks’ assistant GM from Melrose, no doubt had a convincing hand in bringing Donato west. “Very good move for Ryan,” said his agent, Matt Keator. “They’re transitioning to a younger roster, and he’s finally getting ice time, and good players around him, so his talents can be best utilized.” . . . Blake Wheeler, by the way, is a plus-49, better than everyone but Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby among those top seven scorers mentioned above. The top three in entire NHL for plus-minus, dating to the 2011-12 season: Brad Marchand (plus-204), Patrice Bergeron (plus-195), and Zdeno Chara (plus-178). The worst three: Rasmus Ristolainen (minus-143), Jeff Skinner (minus-121), and Damon Severson (minus-105) . . . Pierre-Luc Dubois, a potential franchise center who wanted out of John Tortorella’s clutches, could make his Jets debut Tuesday in Calgary. He’s had two weeks in quarantine, spending some of his time studying tape of the Jets’ power play. His dad, Eric Dubois, is coach of the local AHL Manitoba Moose . . . Don Cherry turned 87 years old Friday. Grapes was 40 when he took over the Boston bench in the fall of 1974. Orr played his final 10 games in Boston the following season, and Phil Esposito logged 12 prior to being dished to the Rangers, Nov. 7, 1975 . . . The Rangers bit the bullet and informed problematic defenseman Tony DeAngelo he won’t wear the Blueshirt ever again. They’ll try to wheel him. If no takers, they can buy him out at season’s end for a friendly two-thirds reduction on his $4.8 million salary. The typical buyout is for only a one-third reduction, but players as young as DeAngelo (25) get lopped at the steeper discount . . . The AHL Bruins opened their abbreviated schedule Friday. Coach Jay Leach sees similarities between the 5-foot-8-inch Jack Ahcan, signed in the spring as free agent out of St. Cloud State, and Torey Krug. “Certainly wants the puck in his hands and wants to control the power play,” said Leach. “Wants to make plays from the offensive blue line. He’s got a lot of Krug similarities. I think they are almost built the same. Like Krug, he has that lower-body strength that allows him to get up the ice in straight lines. Jack is strong down low. He’s really impressive for a little guy, for his work in the corner. And as far as the power-play quarterback stuff, I’m sure Jack would love to get to where Torey is, but there’s certainly signs of that.”

Continue Reading