Tagged: P.J. Axelsson

Prove It, Joe

The San Jose Sharks jumped to a 3-0 series lead against their California rival Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but are now up 3-2. Last night, the Sharks were shut out on their home ice. That’s the San Jose Sharks’ last ten years in a nutshell. They always have a great regular season, but it’s only a matter of time before they choke it away in the playoffs. Fairly or unfairly, much of the blame falls on captain and superstar Joe Thornton.

Jumbo Joe was the #1 overall pick in the 1997 NHL Draft, selected by the Boston Bruins. He was a good player, or even a great player, but he had a leadership role thrust upon him too early in his career, in my opinion. He handled stardom in Boston a lot better than Tyler Seguin did, then again, while he was in Boston, the B’s spent most of their time as the fourth most relevant team in town while the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years and the Patriots won three Super Bowls of their own. The B’s drafted Thornton in a time when they were out of the playoff picture looking in for the first times since the 60s. After a few more years, it was sadly apparent that if longtime captain Ray Bourque wanted to win the Stanley Cup, it wouldn’t be in Boston. The Bruins traded #77 to the Colorado Avalanche and the rest is history, but the Bruins got back into the playoffs again soon.

The Bruins post-Bourque teams of the early 2000s were pretty good, headlined by Thornton, Sergei Samsonov (who was traded in 2006 for the draft pick that became Milan Lucic), Bill Guerin, and Glen Murray, but they never got out of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In 2002, the Bruins lost a tight series to the Montreal Canadiens, that is best remembered in my mind for Kyle McLaren’s high hit on Richard Zednik. After Jason Allison’s short stint as Bruins captain, Jumbo Joe got the ‘C’ before the 2002-03 season, although in hindsight, someone like Guerin, who had more year in the league and was a more natural leader, might have been a better choice.The Bruins weren’t winning in the playoffs, and the other teams in town were. Further proof of how irrelevant they were is how hard it is to find quality pictures that I can use for this blog in Google Images of the Bruins compared to the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics at the time.

In 2003-04, the B’s had a great regular season. They had Jumbo Joe, Samsonov, Brian Rolston, Glen Murray, Mike Knuble, P.J. Axelsson, and got strong contributions from Calder Trophy winning goalie Andrew Raycroft (who was later traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs for an 18 year old goalie prospect named Tuukka Rask) and an 18 year old rookie named Patrice Bergeron. At the trade deadline, they acquired veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, and they appeared to be in prime position for a deep playoff run. As usual, they were bounced in the first round by Montreal in a series they should have won. The following season was cancelled because Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs led the charge in the NHL owners’ hard line stance in the 2005 lockout. The Bruins did not pursue any of their free agents and the team fell apart. The Bruins did end up re-signing Thornton to a three year $20 million deal in the summer of 2005, after Jacobs got the hard salary cap that he wanted, but Thornton’s days in Boston were numbered.

When the B’s got off to a slow start in the 2005-06 campaign, GM Mike O’Connell traded Thornton to the Sharks for Brad Stuart, Wayne Primeau, and Marco Sturm. O’Connell questioned Thornton’s leadership and made the decision to rebuild the Bruins around Patrice Bergeron. While the trade ultimately cost O’Connell his job, and the trade did get a little better with age (Sturm led the team in scoring a few times and the B’s were able to trade Stuart and Primeau to the Calgary Flames for Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew), they got pennies on the dollar for one of the premier players in the National Hockey League.

With a core of Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau (who was taken by San Jose with the pick after Thornton in 1997), and Logan Couture, and strong goaltending over the years from Evgeni Nabokov and Antti Niemi, the Sharks have been among the top regular season teams in the NHL ever since he arrived there, but they have yet to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. Anything can happen in playoff hockey, and any team can beat any other team at any time, but when a team that good falls apart that consistently, it can’t be a fluke. John Tortorella spouted off on Thornton expressing that sentiment a couple of years ago when Torts was still coaching the New York Rangers. Right now, Jumbo Joe is one of the best players in the history of the NHL who has never won anything. That’s a tough distinction to hold and one that does not go away until you win. Joe Torre had participated in more Major League Baseball games that anyone else without getting to the World Series before finally managing the 1996 Yankees to a title. Steve Nash holds the distinction in the NBA as the only MVP (which he has won twice) to never play in the NBA Finals. Dan Marino may be the greatest quarterback of all time, but the fact that he never won a Super Bowl and only got to the big game once makes it a debate.

My inner seven year old Bruins fan is still rooting for Jumbo Joe a little bit. As a 24 year old Bruins fan, I’d love to see Joe come back to Boston at the end of his career in pursuit of a Cup, the way Ray Bourque went to Colorado or the way Jarome Iginla has made his way to Boston. He’s still one of the elite playmakers in the NHL and could still contribute, but I’m not convinced he can win it all as captain of the San Jose Sharks. Thornton is now 34 years old and his beard is starting to go gray. The kid who wore #19 and lined up between Milt Schmidt’s #15 and Terry O’Reilly’s #24 during the National Anthems is likely never to get his name and number in the rafters of the TD Garden, but I’d like to think that his story with the Boston Bruins is not yet over. In the meantime, he still has a lot of questions to answer about finishing in the playoffs.

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One Series Down

The Boston Bruins have defeated the Detroit Red Wings four games to one. At times it was a tighter series than that, but with another bounce of the puck, it could have been a sweep. The Bruins now get the Montreal Canadiens in the second round.

The Red Wings continued their streak of 23 years in the playoffs, but this was by no means a Red Wings team like the ones that won the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002, and 2008. They still had Zetterberg. They still had Datsyuk. They still had Kronwall. They still had Franzen. They had a lot of youth and inexperience, too. They fought the good fight, but they ran into a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011, and was in the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013.

The 2013-14 Red Wings reminded me a lot of the 2007-08 Bruins. The B’s had been bad in the first two seasons after the 2004-05 lockout, but with the hirings of Claude Julien behind the bench and Cam Neely in the front office, the B’s took a big step in the right direction. That team had a good mix of youth and veteran presence, and got strong goaltending from some guy named Tim Thomas, who would win two Vezina Trophies, an Olympic Silver Medal, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and a Stanley Cup before his tenure in Boston was over. Peter Chiarelli had more veteran leadership in the form of Zdeno Chara, Andrew Ference, and Marc Savard to go with the aging Bruins mainstays Glen Murray and P.J. Axelsson. They also got good contributions from Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Phil Kessel (who was traded to Toronto in 2009 for the draft picks that became Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton, and Jared Knight), and Mark Stuart. Patrice Bergeron missed most of that season due to a severe concussion he suffered in a game against Philadelphia. I still can’t help but wonder how far that team might have gotten if Bergy was healthy in the playoffs.

Claude Julien and P.J. Axelsson at a Bruins game earlier this season.

The 2008 playoff run for the B’s was the start of the run they have been on the past few years. They were the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, and matched up against a #1 Montreal team that nobody in Boston expected them to beat. The Habs were really good that year. In a year when the Celtics won their 17th championship and their first in my lifetime, the Bruins landed back on the map in Boston. That team had a lot to be proud of, and so does this Wings team. It’s a disappointing end for a guy like Daniel Alfredsson who does not have that many years left to win a Cup, much like Murray and Axelsson were in 2008, but there is a lot for Detroit to be excited about with Nyquist, Smith, and Abdelkader joining the party. Mike Babcock will be able to coach those players up and have them learn from this season, much the way Claude did here in Boston.

For the Bruins, it’s good to finish a first round series in less than seven games for the first time since 2010. These are series the Bruins should win, and while they did finish the job in 2011 against Montreal and 2013 against Toronto, there is always a chance that you will fall short like they did against the Washington Capitals in 2012 if you’re taking it to sudden death over time of a series deciding seventh game. The Bruins and their fans have know for a few days now that Montreal is waiting for them when the series is over, as the Habs disposed of the Tampa Bay Lightning in a four game sweep. It was reassuring to see the Bruins bounce back from a tough 1-0 defeat in Game 1, and to overcome a 2-0 deficit in Game 4. The scoring has come from many sources, and young players like Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, Justin Florek, and Jordan Caron have stepped up and put pucks in the net. While the veteran core of Chara, Bergeron, Krejci, Lucic, Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton, and Johnny Boychuk is still there from the 2011 team, it looks a lot different with the young players contributing who were not there before.

The anchor of the Bruins’ success, much like last year, has been goaltender Tuukka Rask. I’ve been a Rask fan since the first time I saw this video from his Providence days five years ago, and was excited when the B’s parted ways with Manny Fernandez to make room for Tuukka behind Tim Thomas. He had an excellent rookie year in 2009-10 and even beat Thomas out for the starting job in the playoffs, that was forgotten by many because of how that season ended (I’d really rather not talk about it again), and because of the historically great season that Timmy had in 2010-11. When Tim Thomas achieved cult hero status in Boston for bringing the Stanley Cup home for the first time since 1972, Rask gained himself many critics and detractors within the fan base for being the young replacement, when he had really been the plan for the future all along. Last year he shut a lot of those critics up, but the Bruins couldn’t finish the job, but it was enough to earn a big payday last summer. After a great showing in Sochi this February, helping Team Finland medal by shutting out Team USA in the Bronze Medal Game, and putting together a phenomenal regular season and has allowed just six goals through five playoff games. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was still playing for a contract.

There is still a long road ahead for the Bruins, but knocking off the Red Wings was an important first step.