NHL Notes: Let's see what Soderberg can do

NHL Notes: Let's see what Soderberg can do
October 21, 2013, 1:00 pm
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It’s been almost a decade in the making, but the Bruins will finally get to see how good Swedish prospect Carl Soderberg can be at the NHL level.

The 28-year-old Swede was finally healthy enough to play in a game this season on Saturday night, and flashed so many of the skills that became readily apparent throughout training camp this fall. Clearly he was happy to be back in the lineup for Saturday night’s 5-0 win over the Lightning and was doubly pleased to be reunited on the third line with Chris Kelly where much more offense should be expected this season.

“I felt good. It was great to be back,” said Soderberg. “I’ve played with [Kelly] before and I really like playing with him. [Marchand] is a great player, so I thought we played really good together. I’m just happy to be back. It’s really hard to stay out, actually. We played one of our best games of the season.”

That’s actually a mouthful for a unique character in Soderberg, who tends to give a lot of one word answers to questions to the media. It was to the point last week in Florida that Shawn Thornton gave Soderberg a congratulatory, “That’s the way to answer ‘em, Belichick!” after the Swedish forward gave a “yes” or “no” answer to a query about his ankle.

On the ice, it took one shift in the second period of the Tampa game to show much of the offensive arsenal the Soderberg will feature this season . . .

He stumbled hopping over the boards to the mock cheer of the crowd in Tampa Bay, but then he grabbed the puck as he crossed over the offensive blue line and dangled through the heart of a soft Lightning defense.

The sight of the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder closing in on the front of the net drew the Tampa Bay defenders toward him, and he spotted Loui Eriksson wide open on the doorstep waiting for the finishing tap. In one of the few signs of rust after not playing for the last two weeks with a sprained ankle, Soderberg’s bouncing pass skipped over Eriksson’s stick and the Bruins Swedish dynamic duo missed their first shot to hook up on a goal this season.

But it certainly won’t be the last chance they get. Soderberg understandably looked a little out of place when dropped into the heat of the NHL season last April after having not played for the previous month in Sweden. At one point he was even taken out from behind by the side boards at Philly’s Wells Fargo Center in a clear sign he hadn’t yet adjusted to the smaller North American rinks.

“The area where Linkopings plays in the Swedish Elite League is one of the biggest ice surfaces over there, so we all expected there would be those kind of adjustments,” said Bruins Finnish scout Jukka Holtari, in his seventh season scouting prospects across Europe.

Soderberg’s journey to Boston actually began in August 2011 when Holtari saw the Big Swede playing for the Swedish Elite League’s Linkopings during a preseason game against a Czech League team. Soderberg had played the previous five seasons in a lower tier Swedish League for his hometown Malmo Redhawks, and many wondered whether the 2004 second-round draft pick had the desire to play at the highest levels of hockey.

A serious eye injury and an unhappy experience during camp with the St. Louis Blues club that drafted him had perhaps discouraged him for playing at the high levels of hockey. At least those were the stories that had circulated about Soderberg throughout Europe, but those were pushed off to the side when Holtari actually watched Soderberg play in that game against the Czech team.

“Seeing that he was playing in the Elite League against top competition immediately gave you that stamp that ‘Okay, Carl is serious about testing himself against the best competition.’ Everybody had heard stories about Carl, but his Linkopings teammates said that he had been very good,” said Holtari. “They wouldn’t bull [expletive] me. They told me exactly how good he looked on the ice. 

“I still remember writing that report where I said it was time to start watching Carl a lot more closely because he was serious about his career. Once that happened everybody started to pay a lot more attention to how well he was doing in Sweden, and now he’s in Boston two years later.”

Soderberg had 14 goals and 35 points in the his first Swedish Elite League season, but then exploded for 31 goals and 60 points in 54 games last season before inking a contract with the Bruins that likely cost him a Gold Medal for Team Sweden at last spring’s World Championships.

Soderberg had a couple of assists in six regular season games and made a couple of appearances in the Stanley Cup Final when injuries hit Patrice Bergeron, but this is the year the NHL world gets to see how good the Big Swede can be. These eyes think he can be a 20-goal scorer while giving the Bruins a legit big body that can finish off the loose pucks around the net. They haven't had one of those in a while.

Judging by the shot, size, strength and penchant for getting to the painted area he showed in training camp, many more people are going to know all about the story of Carl Soderberg by the end of the year.
There was more than a bit of eye-rolling along Causeway Street last week when Nathan Horton’s comments filtered out of Columbus, and insinuated part of the reason he chose the Blue Jackets in free agency was because the Bruins waited until the last minute to negotiate with him. Horton signed a seven year deal worth $37.1 million shortly after free agency opened in July, and his agent, Paul Krepelka, had said that it was about “a new beginning” for his client somewhere that was a little quieter and more laid back than the city of Boston.

Horton had a bit of a different story when asked about it two weekends ago between periods of the Bruins/Blue Jackets game in Columbus:

“All year, nothing happened. I waited for a long time,” Horton said of last year in Boston. “When you wait until the last minute, what am I . . . I’m not going to wait around. I’m happy with the way things turned out. It just came down to, at the end, for my family, I wanted a place where my kids could be outside.

“That’s kind of what it came down to. I heard a little bit about Columbus. It’s not the Columbus that everyone knows. Columbus is up-and-coming. They’ve got a great team and great people in charge. It’s kind of what I was looking for.”

The insinuation is pretty clear the Bruins waited until the last minute to negotiate with the playoff hero, and it’s true that most players of Horton’s caliber are signed by Peter Chiarelli well ahead of free agency. But Horton’s concussion history made that an extremely unlikely scenario as the Bruins needed to see him get through an entire season healthy before opening up the Delaware North bank vault for him.

So what’s the truth from the Bruins perspective?

The Bruins weren’t going to offer the seven-year term eventually agreed upon by the Blue Jackets, but there were negotiations during the season about a five-year contract that would pay Horton in the $5 million a year neighborhood. The Bruins right winger would change his mind daily about whether he wanted to return to Boston, and ultimately it came down to his wife’s desire to be somewhere warmer and quieter after living in Florida much of Horton’s last season in Boston.

The Bruins were accommodating enough to Horton that they would have traded his negotiating rights to any other team for a seventh-round pick, and actually discussed such an arrangement with the Los Angeles Kings. But Horton also told the Bruins he was automatically ruling out all Canadian markets and any large NHL media markets as possible free agent destinations, and that squashed any possible side deal with the Kings for a late-round draft pick.

So the Bruins put in plenty of effort to retain Horton at the end of the day, but the bottom line is they were never going to match the seven-year term and $37 million that he was worth to the Blue Jackets. It remains to be seen how well that deal works for a middling hockey team that’s now paying a notoriously streaky guy like a bona fide franchise player.
Speaking of franchise contracts, it’s tough times in Winnipeg for old friend Blake Wheeler these days. The former Bruins winger just landed a $33.6 million deal over six years this summer after a solid lockout shortened season, and was part of a boatload of money shelled out by Jets management. Wheeler, Bryan Little and Zach Bogosian all were inked to long-term contract extensions this summer in a clear decision by Winnipeg management to keep their core together.

Unfortunately for the Jets, it was shelled out to players that haven’t been good enough to actually get Winnipeg back into the playoffs since heading north of the border.

Wheeler has 1 goal, 4 assists and a minus-3 rating in nine games this season for the Jets, and admitted he can be better after getting called out by coach Claude Noel last week following a shutout loss in Montreal. 
“I don’t care about stats,” said Wheeler. “Stats take care of themselves. I care about the body of work and what you do to get there.

"I’m a believer that if I play a certain way, the numbers are going to be what they are, what they have been. I’m more worried about the process. That’s the way it goes. I’m honest with myself. I know when I’m not playing well.”

It took Wheeler 19 games to score a goal in his first year for the Winnipeg Jets, so there’s hope for a strong second half after he’s become something of a slow starter there. But Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff might also be coming to the unfortunate realization that some of the players he invested in this summer aren’t going to lift up the Jets as a playoff contender in the Western Conference.
Interesting stuff from Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who went on Ottawa radio last week to rant about the $110 million he’s lost since buying the Senators organization out of bankruptcy court back in 2003. Melnyk says that the Sens management is now under orders to not spend all the way up to the salary cap ceiling, and that’s put GM Bryan Murray into a more conservative fiscal mindset.

“I’ve done it. We’ve done it. We’ve spent to the cap three straight years and you know what, what did we get done? We spent money for nothing. We didn’t get into the playoffs one year and we got one round another year,” said Melnyk. “That’s not the way to win. You’re not going to do it. It’s a whole new ball game.

“It’s all development, coaching, staying young and staying healthy. The big commodity we have is cap space. If we have an injury and we need to fill a void and that’s going to be the difference in going an extra round or deeper, then I’m prepared to do it.”

The Senators are currently 26th in the league in payroll, and some of Melnyk’s on-air venom is more about a potential casino he was denied at the Canadian Tire Centre. But that new-found frugality in Ottawa is also the kind of thrifty managerial mindset that caused Daniel Alfredsson to bolt for the Detroit Red Wings. The Sens have a talented team off to an average start, but it will be difficult for them to compete with teams like the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Canadiens when those teams annually spend all the way up to the cap ceiling.
The Washington Capitals announced this week that 19-year-old Tom Wilson will be sticking with the NHL club rather than being returned to the Plymouth Whalers, and that’s clearly good news for the Caps prospect. It’s an interesting situation for Washington as Adam Oates is playing the power forward prospect on the fourth line in his first taste of pro hockey. That means limited minutes for the youngster, but also a gradual learning curve for a player making the always difficult jump from the OHL to the NHL.

“We’ve obviously liked his progression, so many things he brings,” said Capitals coach Adam Oates. “It’s a tough decision. We’ve talked about it a lot of times, about how we don’t want to hold him back but we think he hasn’t acted like a 19 year old. He acts like he belongs.

“We want to keep him growing, find minutes when we can and he’s doing a good job.”

It might be instructive for Washington to look at a player that Wilson was most commonly compared to when he was drafted two years ago: Milan Lucic.

Lucic stuck with the Bruins as a 19-year-old member of the Vancouver Giants as well, and was a fourth-line player in his first season with the Black and Gold.
The offensive numbers were modest (8 goals and 27 points) and the minutes weren’t overwhelming (12:09 of ice time per game, almost three minutes less than any other year in his NHL career), but that limited rookie NHL experience set Lucic up for the development path that currently sees him as one of the most fearsome power forwards in the NHL.

It could be the same career path for Wilson, but it should also be noted there have been plenty of “the next Milan Lucic” hyped players over the last few seasons that never quite measured up to the genuine article.

Kyle Beach and Zach Kassian come to mind immediately as Lucic wannabees that have turned into never-will-bes, and have proven that finding a prospect capable of mixing fighting prowess and offensive skill at the NHL level is a rare hockey gem indeed.
* Old friend Vladimir Sobotka is killing it in the face-off circle this season for the St. Louis Blues. 37-of-52 for 71.2 percent success rate
* Marty St. Louis’ two goal game against the Kings last week gave him 902 career points for the Lightning. According to Elias, that also made him just the eighth NHL player to reach 900 points for a team other than the one for which he made his league debut. The others are some pretty good company: Johnny Bucyk (Bruins), Marcel Dionne (Kings), Phil Esposito (Bruins), Wayne Gretzky (Kings), Brett Hull (Blues), Teemu Selanne (Ducks) and Mats Sundin (Maple Leafs).  
* Longtime NHL cheap shot artist Matt Cooke entered this season with 80 penalty minutes over 130 games in the past two seasons. Through nine games with the Wild this season, Cooke has just four penalty minutes after going the first seven games of the season without a single infraction.

“That’s an interesting stat, isn’t it?” said Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, laughing.

Cooke is actually leading the Wild with six points on the season, and said with a straight face, “I want to be the guy that’s killing the penalty, not the guy that’s in the box, so it’s about being responsible on the ice and not getting myself in bad situations. With the system we play and knowing that we always have a layer behind, it helps the way I want to play.”

Cooke made some headlines last week by volunteering to chat with Patrick Kaleta and act as a rehabilitated rat mentor to the Buffalo Sabres menace after he was suspended for 10 games for his head shot on Columbus defenseman Jack Johnson. Talk about the dirty leading the dirtier.
* Jarome Iginla leads the Bruins with 24 shots on net through eight games, but doesn’t have a single goal yet in a Black and Gold uniform while coming perilously close to scoring on several occasions. Iginla does have a couple of assists thus far, and Claude Julien said he wasn’t feeling any pity for the future Hall of Famer given his goalless plight.

“I don’t really feel for him at all, and I’ll tell you why. I feel like he’s been playing really well. I know that he’s going to score eventually, so he doesn’t need any pity from us,” said Claude Julien. “When I look at his game, you see everything that he does battling along the walls, he’s in the right places to get those scoring chances.

“It’s only a matter of time. He’s been around for a long time, so I don’t think he’s frustrated. He knows what’s going on, and he knows eventually they’ll come in bunches.”
Remember to keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.