The impressive depth that helped the Boston Bruins win the 2011 Stanley Cup was absent during the team's playoff run last year, but through nine games of the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season, it's clear that head coach Claude Julien has the depth needed for another championship run.
Not many teams can roll out four quality lines every game, but Julien certainly has that luxury, as was evident during the Bruins' 1-0 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night. Boston's depth was tested for the first time this season, and the results were extremely positive.
Boston relies on a group effort from every line each game, and it doesn't have to rely on one trio to carry the team. This kind of depth is crucial in the playoffs, but it also helps the entire team stay fresh and energized for the postseason because no one is fatigued from playing too many minutes.
Let's examine why the Bruins are the deepest team in the NHL.
AHLers are Making a Difference
The Bruins were missing two key depth players from the team's fourth line on Saturday with Shawn Thornton and Daniel Paille unable to make the lineup. Thornton will be out for about a week with a concussion, and Paille did not make the trip to Toronto after being high-sticked against the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night.
Boston has brought up two AHLers in Lane MacDermid and Jamie Tardif this week to give the fourth line some toughness and grit. Both players have made immediate contributions and were able to step right into the Bruins lineup and impact games physically.
MacDermid fought Leafs defenseman Mark Fraser twice on the Saturday, and after a split decision in the first bout, the Bruins winger pummeled Fraser for a convincing victory in the second tussle (video below).
With Thornton out of the lineup, the 23-year-old forward took on the role of enforcer, and linemate Gregory Campbell was appreciative of the effort. Campbell said after the win over the Leafs:
I’ve sat there & watched Thorty do it over & over countless times, It takes a lot of courage to do what he does and for Dermy to step in there like he did, I have the utmost respect for those guys
Tardif was also a factor with a strong forecheck and his ability to win puck battles and not allow the Leafs defensemen to have the time and space needed to make a good first pass out of the defensive zone.
Since Paille was unable to return to the third-line left wing spot he was in versus Buffalo on Thursday, Chris Bourque returned to the lineup after being a healthy scratch against the Sabres. The 27-year-old winger scored the only goal (see video below) of Saturday's game off a nice back-hand pass from Chris Kelly in the first period.
It was the first goal of Bourque's Bruins career, which got off to a disappointing start with zero points in his first six games of the season.
Being able to bring up two players from the AHL (three if you include Bourque, who played in Providence during the lockout) with little NHL experience and have them excel in their roles is a huge advantage for the Bruins because in a shortened season, injuries will be a major factor since there are fewer off days than in a normal 82-game schedule.
Whether it's a third/fourth line forward or a third pairing defenseman, the Bruins are quite fortunate to have several AHL players capable of being called up and giving Julien the depth he needs to play four lines and win games against any opponent.
Julien not only had to make adjustments prior to the game, he also had to replace second-line forward Brad Marchand after he slammed into the end boards during the second period.
The young winger was kept out of the game for what Julien described as "cautionary" reasons, and he decided to put Campbell in his place next to Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin.
Campbell did a wonderful job playing with two players with whom he rarely shares the ice and also play a different style. Campbell's versatility was a great example of the Bruins' ability to move players into roles that they are unfamiliar with and not see their performance as a team suffer.
If you don't have enough quality depth on your roster, it's hard for coaches to take a fourth-line player such as Campbell and play him more minutes and in a different role (second line) than he's used to.
The Bruins are also able to mix and match defense pairings and not have to worry about many miscommunications or a lack of chemistry. Everybody on the Boston blue line is capable of playing with each other, which makes game-planning against the Bruins a difficult challenge.
Julien talked about his blue line's versatility earlier this week when describing why rookie defenseman Dougie Hamilton has been paired with so many guys in the early part of the season.
I think it’s just been – everybody’s going to play with everybody and I said that at the beginning of the year and we’re sticking with that, It depends, sometimes, on who we’re playing against and what kind of matchups you want. Sometimes he’s a better fit with Seidenberg, sometimes he’s better with Zdeno and you’ve seen him with Ference a few times.
So, it’s really not a matter of seeing where he fits, he’s a good player, he can play anywhere. I think that’s certainly not an issue, it’s more about making D pairings for matchups against other teams, just like we try and sometimes match certain lines with other lines. It’s as simple as that.
Versatility is one of the most valuable skills an NHL player can give his team, and there are many players on the Bruins who are able excel in many different roles and situations. This helps Julien make the in-game adjustments needed to win games when players suffer injuries or are under performing.
One of the reasons why the Bruins are so successful is that they can give their bottom-six forwards a lot of ice time and don't need to worry about mismatches and having enough scoring talent.
Each of Julien's third- and fourth-line guys play a key role on the team, and help give the Bruins more depth than any other NHL club.
|Chris Bourque||3||LW||Toughness, High Hockey IQ, Skating|
|Chris Kelly||3||C||Scoring, Playmaking, Defense, Leadership|
|Rich Peverley||3||RW||Speed, Scoring, Playmaking|
|Daniel Paille ||4||LW||PK, Speed|
|Gregory Campbell||4||C||Faceoffs, PK, Versatility|
|Shawn Thornton ||4||RW||Enforcer, Toughness, Leadership|
Boston has gotten 14 points from its bottom two lines in nine games this season, which is more offensive production than top Eastern Conference teams such as the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins have received from their third and fourth lines.
The third line of Bourque-Kelly-Peverley has five points combined in the last three games, and they give the Bruins a well-rounded mix of scoring, toughness and speed.
The Bruins' fourth-line of Thornton-Campbell-Paille is arguably the best in hockey, and since they have played with each other for the last three years, this trio's chemistry is fantastic. These three players played an average of 12:14 during Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, which is a lot more ice time than most fourth line players are given in a game of that magnitude.
When teams have a good fourth line, they can wear down opponents through the course of a game, and especially a seven-game playoff series. This was evident in 2011 Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks.
So many NHL teams (Rangers, Flyers, Predators) are lacking bottom-six depth in this shortened season, and the ones who are fortunate to have four good lines (Bruins, Blues, Lightning, Sharks, Blackhawks) will be the favorites to lift the Stanley Cup in June.
Depth Wins Stanley Cups
One of the common denominators of all championship teams is depth, and since the Bruins have four good lines capable of playing a lot of minutes each game, they will be one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup when the playoffs begin in April.
We have already seen a lot of teams lose key players through the first two weeks of the season, and many of these clubs have been unable to find suitable replacements from within the organization, which has forced general managers to consider parting with quality prospects to acquire depth via trade.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has impressively built deep NHL and AHL rosters that allow him to keep the team's most prized assets because he doesn't have to make a major trade to give Julien more depth.
Boston isn't the most talented team in the league, but in a shortened season, quality depth is more important than talent.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL and Boston Bruins columnist at Bleacher Report. He was also B/R's on-site reporter for the 2011 Stanley Cup Final in Boston and has covered the Bruins since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter. All quotes obtained from Bruins media website or firsthand unless otherwise noted.