Boston Bruins

Little change in roster, big change in culture

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Little change in roster, big change in culture

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The players, by and large, are the same. Of the nine expected to be in the starting lineup next Thursday, seven started at their position last year, and when Carl Crawford returns, the number will increase to eight.

The starting rotation, meanwhile, features the same Big Three.

For a team which experienced an epic meltdown last September, relinquishing a 9 12 game lead in the process and edged out of the post-season in the final inning of the final game, the 2012 Red Sox closely resemble the 2011 Red Sox -- for better or worse.

There were no free agent splurges or blockbuster deals, no mission to overhaul the roster. The Sox carefully watched the payroll and focused on changing the culture instead.

In the winter of their discontent, the most impactful move the organization made was not to its roster of players, but rather, in the manager's office.

Bobby Valentine, then, is the ''X factor.'' Strong-willed, assertive and involved, he will not go unnoticed.

Two weeks ago, Valentine was asked about putting his stamp on the club.

Valentine demurred, insisting that it was his goal to mostly stay out of the way and "provide'' whatever it is that the team required.

Surely, he was being immodest. Few modern-day managers have a more direct hand on the teams more than Valentine, known for his unorthodox ideas, creative strategy and a dominant personality.

In a sport in which managers seem to be more caretakers than catalysts, Valentine is the exception to the rule. As such, how he does his job will have a significant effect on the success of the Red Sox.

Said one long-time evaluator who has known Valentine for years: "This will either go really well, or really bad.''

Indeed, it is difficult to find people in the game who are neutral on the subject of Valentine. For some, he is a brilliant motivator and strategist; for others, he is seen as manipulative and overbearing.

Much will depend on how his players respond. Had ownership and management tried -- and there's evidence to suggest that they did just that -- they could not have found a more dramatic contrast to his predecessor, Terry Francona.

It's hardly unusual for teams to choose managers whose style represents a complete 180-degree shift from the man whom he replaces, and in that sense, Valentine is a textbook choice.

While Francona zealously protected his players in public -- even if he was not above criticism and discipline in private -- Valentine is known for his almost casual critiques of players' shortcoming.

And so it was that, in the opening weeks of camp that he assessed outfielder Ryan Sweeney's mechanics as "horrible,'' and breezily noted that reliever Mark Melancon had, during one particularly rough outing, demonstrated an ability to "back up the bases.''

(Days later, Valentine insisted that the remark about Melancon was meant to be playful and stemmed from a self-effacing remark that Melancon himself had made to the manager. For those in attedance, however, it clearly did not come off as such).

While Francona was almost paternal with his players, Valentine serves as more of caustic boss, unafraid to make less-than-flattering assessments.

In a market such as Boston, where fan interest and media scrutiny run high, that may provde a delicate balancing act.

Those who know Valentine best regard him as a superb teacher and strong evaluator. The former could come in handy as the Sox work to integrate the likes of Jose Iglesias, Ryan Lavarnway and Will Middlebrooks over the next year or so.

As for the latter, this area, too, bears watching. By nature, managers tend to view personnel decisions differently than do general managers.

Managers are focused on the here-and-now, while GMs typically take a longer view, one based less on immediate results and more on career development.

Eventually, Valentine and first-year Ben Cherington will clash (reports of infighting over Iglesias would seem to be overstated) -- how those differences are resolved, and by whom, could go a long way in determining how successful Valentine will be in Boston.

Valentine's theories -- he said earlier in camp that pitching from a full windup is outmoded -- can be outrageous at times, but they seem designed more to shock and entertain than to revolutionize the game.

His in-game style will be more aggressive than Red Sox' fans are accustomed to. While Francona was more than satisfied to wait for his powerful lineup to unleash its might and eschewed "small ball,'' Valentine tends to be more unorthodox. Look for some unique defensive alignments, more baserunners in motion and a generally more aggressive style.

Potentially, though there are potential weaknesses -- shortstop and the bullpen, to name two -- this is the best roster Valentine has inherited. The lineup -- essentially unchanged except for the departure of J.D. Drew -- led the majors in runs scored and the rotation could be dominant if both Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz rebound from 2011.

It will be the job of Valentine to find capable back-of-the-rotation solutions and manage his bullepn effectively.

But ultimately, Valentine will succeed or fail based on the talent provided him. If the 2012 Red Sox play as 2011 Sox played from May through August, when they compiled the best record in the American League, Valentine will be hailed as a turnaround specialist.

If they stumble out of the gate -- as they did a year ago -- or fold down the stretch, he will be judged harshly.

For this, what is likely to be the 61-year-old's final major league managing job, it is win or else.

And in that respect, even if his methods and personality are unlike any Red Sox manager in recent history, he is no different.

Haggerty: Not many fans of face-off changes among Bruins

Haggerty: Not many fans of face-off changes among Bruins

BOSTON – It may just be that all of these slashing penalties and face-off violations will become a training camp fad of sorts and the preseason period of adjustment will give way to business as usual once the regular season opens.

The NHL can’t possibly hope to sell fans on games like the Bruins' 2-1 overtime win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday night at TD Garden that included 16 penalties and 12 power plays that completely marred the normal game flow. Some of it was about the seven slashing penalties handed out by the officiating crew and the ensuing special teams flow that never allowed either team to truly find their 5-on-5 footing.

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Even more prominent, however, is the frustration that many players from both teams are feeling for the strict enforcement of the face-off rules and the impact it’s having on the flow of the game. Brad Marchand called it “an absolute joke” a couple of days ago after watching the first night of preseason hockey. He doubled down on his criticism after watching it play out in a game.

He said it was so bad that players from both teams were laughing at the sheer absurdity of the standstill face-off posture and just how much it’s taking away from the enjoyment, whether it’s fans, the media or even the officials, of a free-flowing NHL game.

“It’s really taking a lot away from the game. You can’t have a winger taking all the face-offs. I mean if you look at the percentages of how many times guys got kicked out tonight, and what it’s taking away from the teams, it’s not worth what’s coming with it,” said Marchand. “Literally both teams were laughing out there about how bad the rule is. It’s becoming a big joke, so there’s got to be something tweaked with it.

“These games are painful. I thought it was a bad rule before I played, but it’s even worse after going through it and actually seeing what it’s like. It’s basically an automatic [face-off] win for the other team. The only thing you’re worried about is not moving before the puck is shot.”

The choppiness resulted in some pretty bad nights in the face-off circle for the Bruins. Ryan Spooner lost 9 of 10 draws and Riley Nash 12 of 19 face-offs while Claude Giroux somehow won 20 of 25 draws despite the difficulty all around him. While Patrice Bergeron was a solidly respectable 9 of 18 in the face-off circle for the evening, the four-time Selke Trophy made no bones wondering aloud what exactly is the point of all this.

Bergeron is rarely critical of anything despite his standing as a prominent, respected player in the league, but he seemed to take major umbrage with rules that are totally messing with his considerable face-off skills. The Bruins top face-off man likened it to Pee Wee hockey when he was 12 where everybody would just stand perfectly still in the face-off circle until the puck was dropped. That little tweak wrings every last bit of competitiveness and 1-on-1 battle out of the ultimate hockey showdown and has left Bergeron with a bad taste in his mouth.

“I think that the face-off is definitely an adjustment. I think that the face-off is a skill and you work your whole career to develop that and you work on your hand-eye and timing and everything and try to take that away. You have to adapt I guess. It’s something that I’ll definitely do, but I don’t think I’m a huge fan,” said Bergeron. “I wonder what they’re really trying to get out of it. I understand that it’s feet above those lines and sticks and whatnot. That being said it also kind of sucks. Hockey is a fast game and they’re really slowing it down.

“Faceoff is a skill and you work on timing, you work on hand-eye, and you know when the linesman is going to drop the puck. And I was thinking more about him kicking me out than dropping the puck. That’s what makes you second guess. It just makes you hesitate and everyone is just standing there. There’s no battle right now. It’s like face-offs when I was 12 years old. Everyone is just standing still and no one is really moving.”

So what’s the ultimate answer from an NHL that wasn’t tremendously forthcoming with these preseason tweaks and now has a stand-up, influential player like Bergeron kicking it around just like everybody else? It might be time for the league to revisit their face-off crackdown and perhaps get a little more advice from accomplished players like Bergeron for the next time around. But Bergeron, Marchand and others aren’t exactly holding their breath for any more changes. Instead, they simply hope that some of the referees apply a common-sense approach once the regular season begins. 
 

Belichick on CTE following Hernandez news: 'I'm not a doctor'

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Belichick on CTE following Hernandez news: 'I'm not a doctor'

FOXBORO -- In wake of Aaron Hernandez’ estate filing a federal lawsuit against the NFL and the Patriots over the late tight end’s head trauma, Bill Belichick was expectedly mum when asked Friday about CTE. 

Hernandez, who died in prison of an apparent suicide in April shortly after being acquitted of a 2012 double-murder, had “the most severe case” of chronic traumatic encephalopathy that researchers had ever seen in a 27-year-old, according to his lawyer. 

Belichick, who drafted Hernandez in 2010 and coached the player until his 2013 release, reiterated his September 2016 quote about not being a doctor on Friday. 

“That’s really, the whole medicals questions are ones that come outside my area,” he said Friday when asked what the team tells players about CTE. “Our medical department, our medical staff cover a lot of things on the medical end. It’s not just one specific thing. We cover a lot.” 

Asked if he feels the NFL does a good enough job of warning players about CTE, Belichick repeated his answer. 

“Again, I’m not a doctor. I’m not a trainer. I’m a coach,” he said. “The medical part, they handle the medical part of it. I don’t do that.”

Hernandez was listed as having one concussion during his NFL career.