All-star centre Marc Savard hasn’t played a single playoff game in his 11-year NHL career.
Boston Bruins head coach Claude Julien made a deal with him before the season – buy into what he was selling and they’d get to the promise land together. That meant coming to camp in better shape. It also meant shoring up his defensive game.
Savard has answered the call.
“I kind of gave him that motivation just to come into camp in good shape and what kind of message that would send to his teammates,” Julien told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “From there on in, we talked about the success he’s had putting points up on the board but the bottom line is, I’m sure he’d be willing to trade a lot of those things in to play in the playoffs.
“It was about buying into other parts of his game,” added Julien. “And you know, he’s been extremely good about it. We’ve worked hard to make sure he stays on top of it as much as we can. So far he’s had a pretty good year as far as being a better all-around player.”
Savard’s 96 points (22-74) last season came with an awful minus-19 rating.
“At the beginning of the year Claude really wanted me to be a big leader on this team and play in all three zones and he’s helped me out with that,” said Savard. “But he’s also letting me still play offensively. It’s been a good mix.”
A team-leading 74 points (14-60) in 65 games has Savard enjoying another big offensive year but this time it comes with a healthy plus-7 rating.
“You don’t want to be a hazard on the ice and this year it’s been good that way, I’ve been able to help the team at both ends,” said Savard.
Julien has Savard’s line mostly playing against the other team’s top line every night and he’s also used his top centre in penalty killing situations which he rarely did last season.
“It’s been great to get that extra vote of confidence from him,” said Savard.
His focus is about making the playoffs and if that means sacrificing a few points, so be it.
“Exactly,” said the 30-year-old Ottawa native. “That’s what we talked about at the beginning of the year. That’s where I want to be.”
The revamped Savard and his Bruins host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night and they’ll be looking to add to their 77-point total that has them sitting sixth in the Eastern Conference.
“The team has done a great job all year staying in the top eight and we want to get into the playoffs because we know we can do some damage,” said Savard. “So hopefully we keep playing the way we are.
“We’ve got a good bunch of guys and we stick up for each other. There’s good a mix of everything and we’ve had good goaltending all year. It’s been great.”
Few pundits picked the Bruins to make the playoffs this season and that attests to Julien’s coaching abilities. He deserves consideration for the Jack Adams Award this season as NHL coach of the year given the lowly predictions for his team.
It must especially be gratifying for Julien given what happened last year in New Jersey, where he was fired with three games to go in the regular season and his team sitting at 47-24-8 with 102 points.
“The fun part is going through the process as a group,” said Julien. “You try and sell and convince the guys that if we do it a certain way we’ll have success and then when you see it happen and you see how it makes everybody around happy and they’re enjoying coming to the rink – to me that’s more gratifying than anything else.
“I don’t think it’s gratifying for any reasons of revenge or of having to prove something,” added Julien. “I really felt last year that I was still capable of coaching in this league and I never doubted myself for a second. I think last year we can just base it on circumstances more than anything else.”
Just don’t call his team boring. He doesn’t agree with that.
“I know here in Boston, they’re blue-collar fans and they seem to like our team this year,” said Julien. “We play a physical game and we still forecheck hard. The thing that frustrates a lot of people is the fact that we’re sound defensively and when you’re sound defensively you don’t give other teams much.
“There’s no reason for us to make excuses for that. I don’t know that we play a boring game, we had 40 shots again last night. Are you that defensive-minded? I don’t think so.”
Savard echoed his coach’s comments.
“We don’t try to play a boring style,” said Savard. “We do what it takes to win. We do clog up the neutral zone, that’s our game plan, but on the other side we also like to score goals just like any other team.”
It has them winning hockey games this year in Beantown.