Haggerty: Bruins need to address third-line weakness

Haggerty: Bruins need to address third-line weakness
March 6, 2013, 10:45 am
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WASHINGTON, DC -- Before Tuesday's game against the Capitals, Claude Julien spoke about needing more production and better play out of his bottom two lines.

The Bruins coach appeared to be holding an encouraging pep talk with third line center Chris Kelly as the two chatted together following morning skate at the Verizon Center so there was optimism things were turning the corner.  

Julien inserted Chris Bourque back onto the third line after a healthy scratch against Montreal, and undoubtedly made the move looking for an offensive spark from a trio that has struggled. But it’s back to the drawing board for Julien and the Bruins as the third line of Bourque, Kelly and Rich Peverley were far from good in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center.

The Bruins third line has become an issue this season, and it’s far more pronounced now that they’re losing games.

“We’ve got a lot of guys now that need to be better for us, and that’s something we can all see,” Julien said. “Kelly was on the ice for three goals, one of which was that face-off play when he’s out there with [Patrice] Bergeron. But somehow if you’re not going to produce you need to be able to at least keep the puck out of your own net.

“Right now we’re not getting either from that line, so it’s a concern that we need to look at.”

Kelly was actually on the ice for three goals against as he was also tapped for face-off duty in the defensive zone when Patrice Bergeron was kicked out of the circle. Kelly has won over 60 percent of his face-offs this season, but lost a draw cleanly to Nicklas Backstrom that led to Tomas Kundratek’s first-career NHL goal from the high slot.

The 32-year-old was a team-worst minus-3 in defeat, is a minus-5 in his last two games and sits at a minus-7 for the season after being among the most effective two-way centers in the league last year with a plus-33 rating.

It also took Kelly 15 games to score his first goal of the season after posting a career-high 20 last year. The meager offensive production combined with a series of uncharacteristic defensive miscues have formed a toxic combination for Boston's third line.

“It’s a little frustrating. You can live with not scoring or even getting scored on when the team is winning,” said Kelly. “But it’s frustrating when it goes the other way. Like anything in life, if you continue to work through it and work hard good things will happen.

“If you dwell on the negative and sit there and feel sorry for yourself, then nothing good will happen. Our line and myself are going to work hard, put in the extra time at practice, talk in order to do the things we need to do to get better.”

The full Kelly, Peverley and Bourque line was on the ice for two goals against, and it’s pretty clear that something has to give.

Both Peverley and Kelly were taking the puck to the net with some notable oomph against Washington, and finished with five shots on net combined between the two of them. But there was still no goal production, and Bourque was a ghost on the ice against his former hockey club in 15 shifts through the overtime loss.

The three forwards weren’t getting much help from the defensemen on the ice with them, but the B’s third line also wasn’t doing much to slow down attacking Capitals players through the neutral zone.

Once the Capitals got a little momentum in the second period it turned into end-to-end chaos on the ice. Kelly said it’s about communicating more effectively between the three players.

“I think it’s about more communication,” said Kelly. “We’re all good players in our own end and we know where we’re supposed to be. I think it’s about communicating, talking to one another and knowing where you’re going while letting the other guys know where you want them to go. If we do that we should be fine.”

Perhaps Kelly is right.

Maybe the answers are within the players on the roster to solve a season long issue that’s put altogether too much pressure on Boston’s top two forward lines. Maybe the Bruins coaching staff can again promote Daniel Paille to the third line and give that combo some time to gel offensively and defensively as the fourth line forward has enjoyed an underrated season.

Perhaps the Bruins should call up Jordan Caron from the AHL Providence Bruins roster despite a rough season as the former first-round pick has the size and strength around the net that the third line desperately needs. The trio of Kelly, Peverley and Bourque simply don’t have the size or strength component to win battles in the offensive end of the ice and sustain possession with a cycle game that pressures the opposition.

Instead it’s one shot aimed for a corner that usually goes high and wide off the glass, and then right back out of the zone again. It can be a challenge to sustain momentum when that’s the case.

More likely Bruins management has targeted the problem area on the team’s roster for the April 3 trade deadline: The B’s need a winger that can solve some of their third-line problems. Florida Panthers forward Stephen Weiss is off the list after being shut down for wrist surgery on Tuesday, but there still could be worthy candidates out there if teams fall out of the playoff race.

The Bruins have had multiple scouts trailing the San Jose Sharks over the last couple weeks, and Peter Chiarelli has always had a fondness for the size, toughness and skill package of left winger Ryan Clowe. He’s in the last year of his deal with the Sharks and has struggled out of the gate, but a move to Boston could be exactly what both parties need to address their needs.

Jarome Iginla, Brendan Morrow and Ryan Smyth are the other names on the short list of ideal trade solutions, but it remains to be seen how available either player will be over the next month. There will be other names that pop up on the radar screen whether it’s Vinny Prospal or other more readily attainable talent playing out the string on bad hockey clubs.

But it’s clear the Bruins need to do something as the compressed schedule becomes a burden on the Black and Gold, and begins to unseal some of the cracks in the team’s foundation.

The third line needs a left wing with size, strength, experience and some offensive ability, and it’s very difficult to argue otherwise.

Dougie Hamilton needs to get better in the defensive zone, so the Bruins feel freer to put him on the ice in pressure situations like overtime when the 19-year-old and Dennis Seidenberg let Eric Fehr split them for the electric game-winning goal.

The Bruins also need to find another gear in the final minutes of the third period when awarded the kind of power play they’ve been lobbying for publicly over the last few weeks.

These are all problems that need to be solved, but Chiarelli knows the third-line issue is the one he can most easily address through a trade.

It’s time for Chiarelli to redouble the efforts to bring in a forward that gives the Bruins coveted forward depth they’re accustomed to rolling on all four lines. Otherwise the third line could become a chronic weakness for a Bruins that can’t afford to protect a soft underbelly when it comes to the playoffs.

By then it will be far too late.