April 13, 2011

Fischler Report: Bruins stack up well in East

Zdeno Chara (photo: Getty)

Our national correspondent, Jared Lane, examines the top Eastern Conference finishers and evaluates the championship hopes of the Boston Bruins:

Behind a historic season from Tim Thomas, the Bruins ran away with the Northeast Division title. Their physically dominant play combined with their consistent defensive approach makes them a tough match for any playoff opponent.

Despite the loss of the highly skilled playmaker Marc Savard, the Bruins were top five in the league in goals scored. The emergence of Milan Lucic has gone a long way in solidifying the Bruins’ position near the top of the Eastern Conference.

Coach Claude Julien has his players performing as a team; all for one, and one for all.

Rookie Brad Marchand has infused energetic youth into the Boston lineup and will be a key cog in the Bruins’ quest for the Stanley Cup.

Arguably, no defenseman in the league has been more dominant than Zdeno Chara over the past few years. The 6-foot-9 juggernaut brings an element to the game that is unmatched in the NHL. A lethal combination of aggressiveness and high hockey knowledge has made Chara a perennial Norris Trophy candidate.

The trade deadline acquisition of Tomas Kaberle from Toronto helped the Bruins’ power play down the stretch. Surveying all successful playoff teams since the lockout, the common denominator is a high power-play conversion percentage. The Bruins will prove to be difficult to keep out of that success group.

Observations

Jacques Lemaire will go down as one of the NHL’s all-time most beloved and successful coaches. In that regard, he stands right next to Al Arbour.

Jacques-Be-Nimble never wanted to come out of retirement this season. He did it as a favor for his pal Lou Lamoriello (Providence, R.I.) when the Devils were in deep trouble. Lemaire’s record (29-17-3) after replacing John MacLean (9-22-2) says it all.

When he took over on Dec. 23, he required at least two weeks to diagnose the problems and put the team on track. The fact that New Jersey actually pulled to within six points of a playoff berth was miraculous, to say the least.

Amiable, amusing and astute, Lemaire truly was one of a kind. Replacing such a jovial genius will be a summertime challenge for the New Jerseyhigh command.

Appreciation

A gentleman, scholar and all-round good hockey guy no longer is with us. E.J. McGuire has passed away. John Vogl of the Buffalo News offers a good point about his impact on the game.

It had become a late-spring tradition. Every year around draft time, hockey executives, scouts and media members would look to Buffalo, N.Y., native E.J. McGuire for his thoughts. He always had plenty with 40 years in the business, including the past six as the director of NHL Central Scouting.

McGuire’s planning strategies helped Central Scouting grow into a well-respected organization. He joined as an assistant in 2002 and was named director in 2005, leading 23 full- and part-time scouts who ranked draft-eligible players several times a year.

He was a man who didn’t seek out glory other than personal satisfaction of a job well done, setting the standard 25 years ago for what is commonplace today.

McGuire also had stints as an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins, and as the head coach of the AHL’s Maine Mariners and Hartford Wolf Pack.

Gossip

* Canadiens forward Scott Gomez on goalie Carey Price: “He has set the standard so high now. He’s up there now with (Martin) Brodeur. He’s the best goalie in the world right now and we know he’s going to come up with the big save when he has to.”

* From the Good Idea Dept: How about widening the rink size two feet on each side to allow more room for players to skate? The rinks haven’t been changed since 1917 and the players are almost twice as big now than they were then.

* While commissioner Gary Bettman considers the NHL’s many TV options, the folks at ESPN are still hopeful of joining VERSUS and NBC in the mix. As one ESPN insider reports, “If the NHL gets us, the league could be on American TV every night of the week. They need our reach.” In the end, for Bettman, Inc., the decision will come down to a matter of dollars and sense.

* The Blue Jackets have many questions to answer and none bigger than which players will return. Expensive veterans Ethan Moreau and Chris Clark (South Windsor, Conn.) – who were supposed to form a fierce checking line with center Sammy Pahlsson – almost certainly won’t be back in Columbus next year. *

* Toronto coach Ron Wilson (Riverside, R.I.) on his club’s future Cup chances: “We’re probably two or three pieces from being a true Cup contender.”

* A total of 293 former college players played in the NHL this season, or 29.96 percent of the league. That total is up 8.9 percent from last year and 34.4 percent from 10 years ago.

“College hockey has a long history of sending players to the NHL, and it’s not surprising that its influence continues growing with it,” said College Hockey, Inc. executive director Paul Kelly (Newton Highlands, Mass.). “Our college programs are producing exceptional athletes and terrific young men who are well equipped to make an impact at the NHL level.”

The numbers could continue to grow as well – 36 college players have already signed NHL contracts since their seasons ended. Plus, there are 94 current or future collegians on the Central Scouting Services final draft rankings.

Stan Fischler can be reached at FischlerReport@aol.com.