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Colageo: Boston Bruins Downplay Big Changes

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Two decades ago, I asked the great Scotty Bowman what he thought about an especially big 2001-02 Boston Bruins team. The July 1 acquisition of 6-foot-6, 248-pound, left-shot defenseman Nikita Zadorov reminded me of that question as it pertains to the 2024-25 Bruins.

Having coached the Big Three defense of the dynastic 1970s Montreal Canadiens, Bowman is historically enthused at the sight of size on the blue line, especially when it all comes in the Hall of Fame packages to which he was accustomed.

Two decades ago, Bowman was in the twilight of his coaching career with the semi-dynastic 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings when he was in Boston to face a defense that Mike O’Connell, having taken over from Harry Sinden as chief roster architect, was building around 6-foot-7, 243-pound Hal Gill and 6-4, 235 Kyle McLaren.

At 5-10 and 185, future General Manager Don Sweeney was a steadying, veteran presence in that group, but everywhere he looked O’Connell was surrounding him with big bodies such as Peter Popovic (6-6, 243), Sean O’Donnell (6-2, 238), Nick Boynton (6-1, 218) and, later, Bryan Berard (6-2, 220) and Dan McGillis (6-3, 220).

The Boston Bruins of the post-Ray Bourque era were not quite in the Red Wings’ class, but Bowman was nonetheless impressed with O’Connell’s accent on blue-line beef.

“I love ’em, they’re huge,” Bowman said with a grin.

Alas, the top-seeded, 2001-02 Boston Bruins could not keep pace with the eighth-seeded Canadiens’ smaller, speedier game in the ensuing playoffs and lost in six games. Only Detroit had a better record that year and, having assembled a super team similarly to the 2022-23 Bruins, won the Cup a third time over seven seasons.

Size needs to skate to be any good, and the quickest way to pick out a Division I college game from Division III is the movement of the larger defensemen.

Sweeney, a small but fast and subtly rugged skater who played at Harvard University and briefly in the AHL before launching a 16-year NHL playing career, is planning for his 10th season as Bruins GM. He raised eyebrows on July 1 when he told the media that the noticeable size he acquired when free agency opened is coincidental, at least on the forward lines.

Along with his two big fish (Zadorov and 6-1, 202 right-shot center Elias Lindholm), Sweeney believes he has improved the Bruins’ forecheck with former Anaheim Duck Max Jones (6-3, 216) and center Mark Kastelic (6-3, 210), who was acquired from Ottawa in the Linus Ullmark trade. He also signed some big boys more likely to play for AHL Providence, including Riley Tufte (6-6, 230).

A reporter guessed that Sweeney went to the open market looking “to get bigger.”

“I’ve always wished I was a little bigger, my brother used to pick on me,” Sweeney joked before launching into the question. “That wasn’t our intention. … Our pace, ability to arrive on time on the forecheck, we certainly had an eye towards that, possessing the puck. The byproduct was we found guys that do that and they happen to be a little bit bigger, but there was never ‘stay away from small skill’ … These guys all have skill, they just come in a bigger package and they all skate.”

Even first-round draft pick Dean Letourneau (his 25th position also acquired in the Ullmark deal) will be a huge 6-6 if he can add critical muscle to his lanky, talented frame.

Somehow, all this sudden size is coincidental. Are you buying it? Many are not. I struggle.

Deliberate or not, it will be quite stunning to watch the Boston Bruins match up from a far better position of strength down the middle of the rink and with some added muscle on the back end and in the bottom six.

As for Zadorov, Sweeney told a media gathering last week at Warrior Arena that his pro scouts had been studying the big left shot who, out of respect for Zdeno Chara, insists the Boston media not refer to him as “Big Z” (also his nickname).

Boston’s own Big Three just became a Big Four.

Three thoughts on the Zadorov signing:

1. Protection. This acquisition is a game changer for Charlie McAvoy, who has been taking a beating every playoff season, absorbing blatantly illegal body contact that goes largely ignored. Zadorov will quiet McAvoy’s retrievals, using his massive frame to perhaps run a subtle interference on forecheckers chasing a hit.

Kudos to the Boston Bruins for allowing him to focus more on his puck-carrying and puck-moving skills. If a big hit is there, McAvoy will make it, but he’s better off freed of preoccupation with the next hit he makes or takes.

2. Maturity. At age 29 (the same age Chara was when he joined the Boston Bruins), Zadorov is a player turning a corner and playing a more mature game. He is more confident in his skills such as the all-important first pass, and he picks his spots when it comes to physical aggression.

3. A crowded left side. Given how well Mason Lohrei equipped himself in the playoffs, the Zadorov acquisition comes as a surprise. Lohrei had a no-looking-back postseason, and all signs pointed to favorable circumstances for a regular defense pairing alongside McAvoy, something Sweeney and Coach Jim Montgomery could certainly re-evaluate as the 2024-25 season exacts its wear and tear.

Furthermore, a balanced approach to three D pairings is yet possible to help weather the regular-season grind. Add to that Sweeney’s propensity for challenging his prospects with hurdles in human form, and Lohrei’s revised challenge is consistent with Boston Bruins culture.

That said, it still seems odd that the Bruins would not ride Lohrei’s momentum into the new season and evaluate his ability to handle a bigger role in, say, 10-game segments. Then, if it seems a veteran acquisition is needed, an in-season move can be made.

To clarify, if management is right about Zadorov’s maturity, this is a huge move with potential to change the Boston Bruins’ trajectory as Cup contenders. The Bruins have not iced a blue line this established, experienced and physically formidable since the Chara-led group that won in 2011.

This development cannot be overstated, so much so that one wonders if management is taking into account the uncharted territory about to be explored by Jeremy Swayman.

Yes, he’s their guy, and he’ll get the career contract he has earned. But that doesn’t change the fact he has never started 50 games and he’s never been one of the top three or four highest-paid players on his NHL team.

It’s a brave new world for Zadorov, McAvoy and Swayman.

Finally, even after Cup final games against Edmonton, Florida Panthers Coach Paul Maurice talked about how great their series against the Boston Bruins was, especially its physicality. I wonder what he’ll have to say next year.

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