Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Hardware Haul

Wow, as far as consolation prizes go, the Bruins couldn't have done much better. In an incredible and unlikely sweep, every Bruins nominated for an NHL award won. And honestly, I can't argue with any of them. All very well deserved, and I'm pleased to see the voters make the right call.

Norris- Zdeno Chara looked as surprised as anyone in the room when his name was called. The big man is always a modest guy but you really got the feeling he was humbled by the honor. His respect for Lidstrom is well documented, and I'm sure it means a lot to Z to win the award while the classy Swede is still playing.
People knock Chara very often (as I've been known to on occasion), but simply put, he is by far the premiere shut-down DEFENDER in the game today. He puts up reasonable offensive numbers, which gets him into the Norris discussion every year. But it's his suffocating defensive play that separated him from the rest of the nominees. Lidstrom, clearly, is an excellent defensive defenseman. But not quite as intimidating a presence as Chara.
Mike Green, while a potent offensive threat who did great things, shouldn't even be in the conversation. A one-dimensional defenseman, who frankly, is terrible in his own end, should never be up for the same award as Lidstrom or Chara. Once again, it may be time to start up the "they need a special award for offensive defensemen" debate. But I disagree. Voters just need to do what they did this year: select the premiere all-around defenseman.

The scary thing about Chara winning this award is, I get the feeling he's going to work extra hard now. His pride won't allow him to rest on his laurels. He'll be motivated now by proving he is worthy of the honor, and will do everything he can to retain it.

Jack Adams- Claude Julien is as good as it gets. A class act, intelligent, media-wise and damn near a mind reader, he has all the tools to milk the most from his roster. He came to Boston with a well-earned reputation of a defensive minded coach. While that is fair, it sells him far short. He looked at the Bruins roster last year and quickly realized they weren't going to win too many games playing a wide open style. So he implemented a defense-first system and forced everyone, from star to fourth liner to adhere to it.
Fast forward to this season, and we see some major, yet somehow subtle changes. The defensive theory was still strongly in place, yet he allowed a bit more creativity to creep in. He encouraged his defensemen to get more involved in the offense. What he did was essentially show trust in his players. They showed him they could play a sound defensive game, so he eased off the reigns a little, and let his horses run. And what do you know? Those horses ended up scoring the second most goals in the league (Detroit) and giving up fewer than anyone else. His ability to recognize that he had players willing and able to make the sacrifice on the defensive side, allowed the Bruins to break out for an unexpected offensive bonanza.
Beyond the X's and O's, Julien was his usual masterful self when it came to motivating players. Be it by a sly comment to the media (while never mentioning names or specifics), or by a benching, demotion or any number of tricks. He always seemed to strike the right note at the right time (sure, I wish he sat Wheeler sooner in the playoffs, but I guess I can't hate him for loyalty). And it wasn't all negative-reinforcement. Far from it. He had a knack of knowing when the guys either needed a day off, or if a "fun" practice was in order. He earned himself a lot of respect among his players the last few years.
Finally, he won the award he's been earning since he came to Boston.

Jennings- Not a lot you can say about this one, as there was no suspense. This goes to the goaltending tandem of the team with the lowest GAA. Since we knew going in who it was, it wasn't exactly compelling TV. But it was nice to see a couple of Bruins up there, picking up some hardware. I was also pleased for Manny Fernandez, who, through no fault of his own just hasn't had much to brag about as a Bruin. To his credit, through all the dark days as a Bruin, he was a class act. Never once did he complain about not playing enough. He never whined when he was close to returning, and went out of his way to say that he had no problem backing up Tim Thomas since he, and the team were going so well.

Vezina- Honestly, has there been a bigger feel-good story winner of any NHL award in recent memory? Tim Thomas, Joe Everyman, walks away with one of sports most prized individual awards. His is a tale of perseverance, struggle, determination and an iron will to prove he belongs. Never getting a whiff of the NHL until he was 30 years old, he's an inspiration to everyone who's ever been told "you can't" or "you aren't good enough". Deep down he knew he was, he just needed someone to give him the chance to prove it.
The amazing thing to me is, people still doubt him (especially north of the border, in particular in Quebec Province). All Thomas has done since coming to Boston (after clearing waivers, when all 29 other teams passed on him for a song) is stop the puck and give his team a chance to win every night. Last I checked, that was the job description. Stop pucks. Nowhere in the rule book does it say a goalie has to be 6' 3" of technical precision. There are many many goalies around the league who "look" much more like a Vezina winner. But Tim Thomas is the only one who IS the Vezina winner. I guess some people would rather their goalie looks great than plays great. Maybe it's me, but any time Timmy "flops" "dives" or "scrambles" around to make a stop, it's a thing of beauty. And for the record, Thomas did WAY less "flopping" this year than he ever has. But hey, jealous haters will never see that.

Through it all, Thomas has handled it the way he always does. With class, a sense of humor and humility. That didn't change when he was handed the trophy in Vegas. Instead, he had the line of the night when he said "I've been more worried about getting my name on a roster" ...than on the Vezina. He's never come out and said "I told you so", nor will he. But be sure, he feels it. And he'll continue to use that chip on his shoulder to his advantage. He knows the haters out there will scoff at his Vezina as some sort of fluke, or "gift". That's fine. They only fuel his desire to be the best he can be.

So while the Bruins fell FAR short of the ultimate prize, they at least garnered plenty of respect around the league. Now the hard up to the heightened expectations. Honestly, at this point I'm still not sure how I feel about their chances next year. But that's for a later post. For now, all good vibes and a sincere Congratulations go out to all the Bruins who walked away with hardware the other night.
Go B's- Kynch

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