Tyler Seguin gets up to speed
Patience, work in weight room put Bruins youngster on fast track to stardom
BOSTON -- The routine for healthy scratches for the Boston Bruins is to skate pregame with the guys, take a quick shower, straighten the tie and retreat to the press box to watch the team do what they are aching to do themselves -- play the game.
That ritual didn't work for Tyler Seguin. The walk to the Garden rafters elevator in street clothes was humbling, humiliating, even though he was only 19 years old, even though the Bruins explained in great detail the grand plans they had for him in the future -- as long as Seguin was willing to be patient and understanding.
The rookie nodded while coach Claude Julien emphasized the need to dig in the corners for the puck, to become a better two-way player, to become bigger, stronger, more experienced.
Seguin tried to do everything his coaches asked -- except when the games started. On the nights Julien left him out of the lineup, Seguin took part in the pregame skate, but when the other healthy scratches hit the showers, the kid veered off to the weight room. There, while the Bruins went about the business of winning hockey games, Seguin pumped iron and released some private frustration, sometimes for as long as the first two periods.
Looking back, he concedes, he wasn't as well equipped for the quantum leap from juniors to the NHL as he had thought.
"Very few are,'' offered veteran Shawn Thornton.
On Seguin's first day of training camp, the players zoomed past him at warp speed, as if someone had turned a switch and put the action on fast forward.
"The quickness and how fast they made decisions wasn't something I was used to,'' Seguin admitted.
His stall in the locker room was next to Patrice Bergeron, across from Zdeno Chara. He fired pucks at the head of Tim Thomas, who played hockey at his dad's alma mater, Vermont, and had reached legendary status among Catamount alums. He was far from home and didn't know anyone, and there were moments when Seguin glanced at his surroundings and thought, "What am I doing here?"
"You feel like you don't belong, but you want so badly to belong,'' Seguin explained. "You have to figure out that fine line between a dream and a goal.''
His tremendous release and his quick stride were on display in the early days of his arrival. He had these incredibly soft hands than enabled him to make top-notch goalies -- even the great Tim Thomas -- look foolish.
Tyler Seguin could score. The teenage center represented the potential antidote to so much that had ailed the underachieving Bruins.
"He does absolutely ridiculous things with the puck,'' Bruins forward Brad Marchand said.
When practices ended, the players lingered on the ice, engaging in shootouts and other contests. They had competitions for accuracy, for the most goals, for end-to-end rushes. Seguin won most of them. Then he'd go home and call his father after another night of tortured watching from on high gnawed at his psyche.
"The Bruins were very communicative with Tyler in terms of what their plan was,'' his father, Paul, said, "but there were definitely times I could tell he was second guessing them in his head. He'd tell me, 'Dad, I'm winning all these competitions in practice, and still they don't put me in.'
"I was trying to get him to understand that he needed to stay ready, that his time would come.''
Seguin carried the indignity of those healthy scratches on his back, like a sack full of skates, pads and pucks. When he was in seventh grade, Seguin got cut from the basketball team, and even though he freely admits he wasn't very good, "I never forgot it,'' he said. "I never forgot that feeling. It motivates me.''
Thornton developed a knack for dropping by Seguin's locker at the exact right moment. It's a long year, Thorty reminded him. Stay on for extra work after practice, he counseled.
"Your time will come,'' Thornton insisted.
They had met before, the veteran and the kid. When Seguin was small, about 7 or 8, his father arranged for some private hockey lessons. The teacher was Thornton.
It was both a blessing and a curse to be with an established team like the Bruins. The upside was winning, the downside a lack of ice time. Taylor Hall, the No. 1 pick who played for Edmonton, was a constant presence for a team that struggled. Seguin skated intermittently for a team that had visions of winning it all.
So he waited, and lifted, and waited some more. Mark Recchi told him there was more to the game than scoring, which is why the Bruins dealt Phil Kessel to Toronto for the draft pick they'd use to select Seguin in the first place.
Being a good teammate mattered, Recchi said. There also is a certain physical element to the game that was required. The first time Seguin went to the boards in the NHL, he was pulverized. It was a violent, numbing wake-up call.
"He was going into the corners against guys 30 years old, against guys old enough to be his dad,'' Marchand said.
"I was a boy trying to become a man,'' Seguin said.
Team president Cam Neely and Julien reiterated their intent to bring Seguin along slowly. Fans and media, mesmerized by the kid's bursts of skill, urged the Bruins to give the rookie more opportunities. Through no fault of his own, Seguin became a polarizing figure. The power play was abysmal. Why not use the kid? The pressure mounted on Julien to put him in the lineup.
"It was a natural thing for people to want more, especially his friends and family,'' Julien said. "I know how frustrated they got at certain points. But I also knew there were some things Tyler had to work on.''
The coach brought Seguin into the film room and ran the tapes of him skating into the corner. He wanted the rookie to see for himself.
"At times he'd put on the brakes and bail out,'' Julien said. "We showed him some video clips. Sometimes when you see what it looks like it, it's not fun to watch. It made him understand how far he still had to come.''
For the first 11 games of the 2011 postseason, Seguin vented, alone, in the weight room, a healthy scratch for the first two series.
But just as the Bruins were disposing of the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs, Bergeron suffered a mild concussion. He would be out for multiple games of the Tampa Bay series. Seguin's chance had come, albeit in a manner that was both uncomfortable and unpleasant.
In his first career postseason game, Seguin put the puck on his stick, danced through two Tampa Bay defensemen, then unleashed a wrist shot into the net as the Lightning defenders stumbled to the ice in pursuit.
He followed that up with two goals and two assists in the second period of a 6-5 victory. The Garden fans chanted his name for several minutes, something usually reserved for hockey rock stars such as Bobby Orr and Neely.
Tyler Seguin's time was finally "now."
"It would have been easy to blame the wrong people,'' Seguin said. "I could have sat there and said, 'I'm better than him, why is he playing ahead of me?' I had to realize what was happening was my doing, and if I got the opportunity I had to seize it.''
Last season the Bruins suggested that Seguin live with a family. The kid preferred to go it alone, so they set up a laundry service for him and had frozen meals delivered to his apartment. Seguin ate dinner at general manager Peter Chiarelli's home one night a week.
This year Seguin is living with Jordan Caron in Charlestown, shopping at Whole Foods and relying on a housekeeper to keep the place clean.
He's cemented his place in the lineup and on the power play, his one-timer transforming a former liability into a team strength. Seguin is bigger and he is stronger, in part because of his solitary weight room sojourns, and, in part, because he is a growing young man with a size 13 ½ left foot and a size 13 right foot.
"We've told Tyler we don't expect him to be a physical player,'' Julien said. "What we wanted was for him to be better along the boards. We wanted him to be able to battle, so he can come out with the puck.
"He doesn't need to run anyone over, just to get in there with his stick and be smart.
"He's a great kid,'' Julien said, "and he hasn't done anything that suggests to me that he thinks he's bigger than the game.
"I told him, 'If you can avoid that, you'll get a lot of respect from everybody.'''
The numbers suggest a franchise scorer in the making. Seguin has submitted 12 goals and 12 assists in 24 games, yet even more impressive, he is a plus-20, the best in the NHL, a true indicator that the kid knows how to be a two-way player. Kessel leads the league in goals, but his plus-minus is minus-2.
After Seguin recently was named NHL player of the week, a grinning Thornton bellowed, "A week doesn't make a season!" The veterans are thrilled for the kid, but they will do what it takes to keep him in line.
"Everyone keeps telling me what a great start I've had,'' Seguin said, "but the last thing I want is to get complacent.''
To no one's surprise, Seguin hasn't been a healthy scratch all season. He is on a line with Bergeron and Marchand that is electric, prolific. Tyler Seguin is almost 20, and he's exactly what he planned to be -- one of the top young talents in the game.
Better yet, he's a talent who no longer has to fasten his tie and watch someone else make it happen.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.