Julien shuffles the deck
"We are going to have to do something. [Marc Savard] is a guy that should lead our team in points and somehow you have to get him some guys that can put the puck in the net and we have a lot of guys that are not consistent in that area."
-- Bruins coach Claude Julien, after his team's 3-1 loss to Philadelphia Monday, when asked about making line changes
WILMINGTON, Mass. -- As he does after most practices, Bruins forward Byron Bitz stayed on the ice Wednesday afternoon at Ristuccia Arena after most of his teammates had left so he could take passes and fire shots on net.
Most of Bitz's attempts at the vacated net found the mesh. Unfortunately for the second-year forward, only one of the shots that count on the score sheet lit the lamp during his nine games skating alongside Bruins star center Marc Savard on Boston's No. 1 line. Similarly, Blake Wheeler's seven-game stint as the Bruins' top left winger on a line with Savard and Bitz produced just one goal.
It seems that trio's days together are over. Coach Claude Julien made good on his threat to shake things up Wednesday during practice by switching Marco Sturm and Michael Ryder to Savard's flanks and placing Wheeler and Bitz on a line centered by David Krejci. Odds are those two units will be the Bruins' top two lines when Boston visits Chicago to start a three-game road trip Friday night.
"We talked about it and he sent a message to everybody that we've just got to bear down on the chances that we have and it seems the last couple games we had some chances but just couldn't finish," Sturm said after practice.
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Byron Bitz had just one goal in nine games playing alongside Marc Savard on the Bruins' top line.
After the loss to the Flyers, Julien was visibly frustrated with an offense that scored just twice in two games against Philly and the New York Islanders (not exactly the '90s Devils when it comes to defense). Julien talked about the need for his players to "not be content with just driving the net and getting the tip" but instead scoring the goal. While he didn't call out Bitz and Wheeler by name, Julien didn't do much to divert attention from those two players. Bitz missed a wide-open net with a tip during the Bruins' loss to Philly.
It'd be easy to say that matching Bitz, who has played mostly fourth-line minutes since ascending to the NHL last winter, with Savard was asking a little too much of a guy who hasn't displayed much finishing ability as a pro to begin with. And maybe using Wheeler, who so far in his NHL career has applied his offensive gifts enough in the trenches, wasn't the perfect choice to complete the triumvirate. But with Milan Lucic out, and Sturm and Ryder seemingly a lot more comfortable with other centers, Julien had little choice.
But other than the 7-2 win over Toronto Dec. 5, when Savard scored a hat trick, the "Savard and the second-year guys" line didn't produce the necessary results for this offensively challenged team. The pressure to score while on the No. 1 line, along with the increased scrutiny of opposing defenses, can be a lot to handle for young players like Bitz and Wheeler. But neither made any excuses after practicing with Krejci Wednesday.
"To be honest, I felt like I had a number of chances. I don't really recall too many wide-open net, backdoor tap-ins that I missed the net on. But it's part of the job," Wheeler said. "When you're playing with a guy like Savvy, you're role is to score and I think that if you asked Marc he'd say the same thing. I think if you put the onus on Bitzy and I, it's not fair because I think our line as a whole had a lot of chances. We obviously recognize that they need to go in and when they don't, you're frustrated.
"It's something that we're working on in practice more than anything, getting that puck to go in the net. We're more than capable of doing it, it's just that if it happens it happens and then I guess it'll be just an afterthought."
Bitz wasn't hanging his head.
"I did OK," he said. "I had some chances and it wasn't for lack of trying, they just didn't go in for me. So you just continue to work in practice on shooting the puck and stay with it and hopefully they go in."
Sturm (nine goals) and Ryder (eight) have greatly underperformed through the Bruins' first 32 games, but their track record argues that they're the Bruins' two best snipers, both capable of scoring close to 30 goals. That's the type of scoring the Bruins were betting on when they dealt Phil Kessel to Toronto for draft picks instead of making a deal that brought a proven scorer in return. By putting arguably his best offensive performers at their respective positions together, Julien is hoping for some lightning in a bottle.
"Both those guys are known for being able to score some goals. Although they have, they probably still haven't to the extent that we think they can," said Julien. "And I think that's probably the bigger issue right now of our hockey club, is that from that part of it we have a lot of guys that haven't scored probably at the rate they should be scoring.
"We also talked about our back end, we had better production from our back end [last year]. So it's really an overall team thing that everybody has to kind of pick it up a little bit. So in Savvy's case he's got some guys now, that hopefully if they can finish around the net, he's going to find ways to get them the puck and that helps us a little bit and hopefully the other lines contribute in some way."
With the season more than one-third gone, it's time for the Bruins' offense (26th in the NHL at 2.47 goals per game) to carry its weight, especially with the defense corps being hit by injuries and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Tim Thomas still trying to find his groove. As in all sports, other aspects of the game get a lot easier when there are points on the board and everyone can exhale.
Lucic on schedule
Some help might be on the way for the Bruins' forwards as Lucic is on schedule to start skating next week, according to Julien. Lucic suffered a high ankle sprain Nov. 25 at Minnesota and was predicted to miss up to four weeks.