In the first full NHL season under the new CBA, there will be plenty of adjustments to life as a player in the NHL: Aside from youngsters on entry-level contracts, players will not be forced to room together on the road, which could alter the very fabric of team chemistry; there have been alterations made to the size and shape of the NHL net during the preseason, but Bruins players didn’t seem too fazed by the changes.
One change about which at least one Bruins player feels very strongly is the adoption of the protective visor.
Starting this season, any player with less than 25 NHL games played will be forced to wear a protective visor, following the path of the protective helmet introduction where eventually every player will be donning a visor.
For a dyed-in-the-wool NHL enforcer like Shawn Thornton, there is no love for the visors and the hardship it will create for guys in his role.
“I don’t even know all the new rules yet. Nobody has explained them to me,” admitted Thornton. “What if a guy’s helmet is taken off during a fight? Are they going to stop the fight? I know he’s not allowed to take off his own helmet. I’m not looking forward to punching [a visor] when I’m throwing at somebody’s face. If I’m in the middle of a fight with a guy with a visor on, I’m getting his helmet off. That’s the first thing I’d be doing.
“Why don’t they invent a visor that can be pulled off [the helmet]? How hard would that be? There has to be something you can just clip in, and then when you get into a fight you can click it off and toss it. I should invent it.”
Protective visors came to the forefront of NHL safety conversations following the serious eye injury suffered by Rangers defenseman Marc Staal last season. Bruins forward Carl Soderberg was seriously injured in Sweden when he took a stick to the eye earlier in his career so there is sensitivity to the subject in Boston.
But the sense is also that the NHL is creating an environment where it’s more difficult for hockey fights to happen -- not by out-and-out outlawing fighting or heavily penalizing fighting majors, but instead by introducing additional safety measures.
Players that take off their helmets prior to a fight will be served with a minor penalty along with the five minute fighting major this season. Whispers around the NHL also indicate that linesmen have been instructed to break up hockey fights as soon as either combatant’s helmet comes off during the scrap.
Sources indicated to CSNNE.com that the league’s general managers also considered introducing a minor penalty to any player that pulls off an opponents’ helmet during a hockey fight, but that rule didn’t have enough support for adoption.
In and of itself, the introduction of mandatory visors begins the extinction of the NHL fighter as we know it. Players like Thornton would rather be forced to watch HGTV on a loop than ever wear a visor. The protective plastic has become an easy line of demarcation between players willing to drop the gloves and those who are not.
Clearly the visor will prevent injuries, an admirable goal. But it also becomes an impediment to a tradition part of the National Hockey League, and young enforcers like Bobby Robins will have no choice in the visor matter if he gets a call to the NHL.
Robins had a good attitude about the situation, and it’s clear the potential excitement of an NHL appearance would trump the added degree of difficulty in a hockey fight.
“It’s going to have to be addressed with young guys that are fighters coming from the AHL because during a fight we would always take our helmets off,” said Robins. “At the NHL level fighters usually leave their helmets on. It’s a feeling out process, but whether helmets are on or off, punches are going to be thrown.
“Guys have been fighting long enough and punching enough guys in the helmet that your hand is a big, calloused club. You’re used to that. Even when guys don’t have visors on, you’re still hitting a lot of helmet. It takes more area away from the face where you can make contact, so it will be a learning curve.”
The bottom line is this: A number of the rules surrounding visors are making it more difficult for NHL fights to happen, and one could see this as the first step in a very clear pathway to extinction. That would be a shame for the feature within the NHL that separates it from the other three pro sports leagues in a way that fans have always appreciated.
BIG MAN DOWN LOW
The Bruins have gone through largely predictable motions during the first four days of training camp, but there have been some interesting wrinkles. Perhaps the most intriguing was the rotation of positioning for players in the Group B power play unit. During Saturday’s practice the Bruins coaching staff had Jarome Iginla, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug practicing as a PP unit, and at points the 6-foot-9 Chara was down low near the net along with Iginla and Lucic.
“It may be an option that we will have,” said Chara. “It’s something that I’ve done before, but it’s obviously part of getting used to each other at different spots. We can always rotate into a different formation. We’ll be practicing within that formula, obviously, and we’ll see how it goes.
“It was a first look within a quick PP practice, but as we go on we’ll see how it goes.”
That’s a lot of Black and Gold beef close to the net that could screen the goaltender, which leaves Krejci and Krug as capable players running the point. It wouldn’t be possible to put someone like Chara down low if the Bruins were lacking players with big shots capable of running the point. Krug's emergence has really freed up Boston to try some new things.
“We’re tinkering with that," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Obviously we’re going to have a look at that. We’ve got some guys that we feel can shoot the puck from the back end and can do some things. Zee [Zdeno Chara] is probably one of our best guys at screening with his big body and stuff like that. We’ve known that for a long time, but it was just probably what we felt we didn’t necessarily have for the back end.
“So [Chara down low] is something we’re experimenting with. Those same five guys too we could move them in different places, and it can still be a power play force with Zee back at the point.”
It will be interesting to see how much the Bruins utilize Chara as a giant Slovakian Totem Pole in front of opposing goaltenders. In the past they’ve only placed the B’s captain in front of the net during desperate moments trailing in the final seconds, or when the goaltender has been pulled for an extra skater with chaos reigning in front of the net.
Normally Chara has difficulty freeing up his XXL stick for rebounds and tips around the net while battling in heavy traffic areas against defenders, but his placement near the front of the net would be all about the screening possibilities.
It’s just one hockey writer’s humble opinion, but Chara could do a lot more good for the Bruins closer to the net despite the fact that that location nullifies his 108-mph slapper. Chara is far too mechanical and slow to react while playing the point on the power play, and has been part of the issues Boston has faced on special teams over the last few years.
NOT SO LEGENDARY MOMENT
Jaromir Jagr made his presence felt during his first day on the ice with the New Jersey Devils, but not in the way that you might think. The 41-year-old didn’t last 10 minutes during his first practice session before being forced to leave with a debilitating case of “lower body soreness.”
Interesting that Jagr couldn’t make it through a full training camp practice when he made it through all 22 playoff games with the Bruins last spring after posting 16 goals in the lockout-shortened regular season. The future Hall of Famer did all of this while also participating in his late night skating sessions while wearing a weighted vest hours after playing a full game.
It would seem that either Jagr is suffering from some kind of injury that’s got him concerned, or he simply didn’t feel the need to slog his way through an entire camp at this point in his career.
Several members of the Bruins weren’t surprised at all to see Jagr pull the chute on the first day of camp. After all, this was an admittedly talented legend that had his share of mercurial behavior in his short time in Boston. Jagr would pull his shifts short because he didn’t like the stick he was playing with, and he would choose not to pass the puck if he didn’t feel his linemates were up to his caliber.
The kicker during his time with the Black and Gold, however, was pulling himself out of the decisive Game 6 of the Cup Final with a lower body issue while Patrice Bergeron was somehow playing with a punctured lung. Fair or unfair, Jagr’s time in Boston was essentially over after that turn of events as his quixotic personality just wasn’t dependable enough for the B’s tastes. Combine that with zero goals in 22 playoff games, and The Jagr left something to be desired as Boston’s big trade-deadline prize.
PASSING THE CONDITIONING TEST
Andrew Ference and Edmonton Oilers coach Dallas Eakins are off to a nice start in their player/coach relationship with the Oil. Ference and Eakins both got involved in the “November Project” in Edmonton where locals get together for early morning exercise sessions, and the former Bruins defenseman also put on a show during the VO2 Max conditioning test for the Edmonton players.
The VO2 max is typically a fitness test where a heart rate monitoring device is installed around the chest region and a special mask is placed over the nose and mouth which allows the person riding a stationary bike to breathe in room air and exhale into the Cardio Coach Plus machine for analysis. The total amount of air exhaled plus the exact amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen are determined, and a score is produced to measure the subject’s overall condition.
It’s a conditioning test that’s been around the sports world for decades, and it’s still used on the top hockey prospects at the combine.
Ference posted the highest score among the Oilers players, and Eakins said it was the highest score he recalled one of his players ever producing.
“He scored the highest number that I’ve seen as a coach,” Eakins said of Ference’s 67.3 final score.
Ference said he hadn’t taken the VO2 conditioning test in probably 15 years since some of his past NHL teams -- including the Bruins -- didn’t utilize that system as a conditioning test.
So why don’t the Bruins utilize the VO2 Max test to gauge their player’s overall condition entering training camp?
The Bruins organization doesn’t believe the VO2 Max test is a good gauge of actual hockey conditioning due to the aerobic nature of the test. It might be ideal for a marathon runner or an Olympic speed skater, but the hot and cool nature of hockey can’t be simulated on an exercise bicycle.
Instead the Bruins utilize shuttle runs, or other stop-and-start activities, to recreate the environment of energetic shifts with periods of rest in between exertion, and it’s difficult to quibble with their system. The keen attention to the cutting-edge of hockey conditioning has left the Bruins as one of the best third-period teams in the NHL over the last few seasons.
* Claude Julien was one of several people around the Bruins that expressed reservation about the whole “24/7” experience when the HBO cameras started chronicling the road to the Winter Classic a couple of years ago. But the B’s coach is now front and center for the cameras on the “Behind the B” program being produced by the Bruins, and aired on NESN. Julien said the key for him, and for the players, is to not let anything on the outside change the way anybody inside the dressing room goes about their business.
“The last thing you want to do is change your style because the players will notice. I’m going to be myself so there will be very few curse words,” said Julien. “I will be speaking the same way I normally do. So I could be like Whitey [John Whitesides], there might be a lot of beeps at times.”
For those wondering, Whitesides is the gravel-voiced strength and conditioning coach for the Bruins that was also the F-bomb tossing star of the first episode while instructing the B’s rookies about do’s and don’ts of being a Bruins player.
* It’s pretty clear four days into camp that there are some guys that came into September intent on making a strong impression. Both Carl Soderberg and Reilly Smith have been excellent while competing for open spots on the third line, and Soderberg for the first time truly looks like the big forward with skills, size and strength that Boston has lusted after over the last seven years. It’s an interesting development for the 6-foot, 160-pound Smith, who was reputed to be a little shy in the physicality department before his arrival in Boston.
Smith has shown a willingness to fight for his space on the ice during drills in camp, and actually appears like more of a physical presence on the ice than fellow forward Matt Fraser also acquired in the Tyler Seguin trade.
* While it’s not expected that Shawn Thornton will be dropping the gloves during the preseason given his standing with the team, don’t be surprised to see Providence Bruins enforcer Bobby Robins throw down in the preseason. That’s just simply the way of life for an AHL enforcer on his first NHL contract while trying to make a name for himself at the next level.
“You’re trying to show your skill set in these exhibition games. If you’re a goal scorer then you score goals. If you’re a goalie, you want to make saves,” said Robins, who fought a total of 39 times last season in the AHL regular season and playoffs. “If you’re a guy that’s known to fight then you’re gonna fight. I’ll leave some mystery behind it, but it’s probably coming.
“I haven’t mapped anything out, though. I like those kinds of things to happen organically in the game, if possible.”
*Remember, keep shooting the puck at the net and good things are bound to happen.