A few months ago I finally crossed “Searching for Bobby Orr” by Stephen Brunt off my reading list, and it was fantastic. It painted a vibrant picture of rural Ontario in the 1950s and early ’60s, and set the stage for how Bobby Orr was able to remake hockey forever. And it began at the earliest stages, when a coach with incredible foresight realized the benefit to taking his most talented young player and having him anchor his team, rather than merely placing him at center like any other coach would.
The result was the greatest player anyone had seen to that point, and only Wayne Gretzky has a true argument as a better one. For nine years, Orr was an offensive force from the blue line the likes of which the NHL had never seen, and he was as good at reading defenses and skating back to stop oncoming rushes as anyone.
Reading it made me wish I could’ve been born about 15 or 20 years earlier to watch Orr take over Boston and turn New England on its head. But it also pushed me to wondering about other eras of Bruins hockey, and then comes the inevitable sketching of imaginary rosters, all-time teams and the like.
Basically, I was bored, and I started putting together lines. It’s something I do occasionally and used to do a lot — envisioning how Derek Sanderson might fit on the 2011 Bruins or Patrice Bergeron plopped as the second center behind Jean Ratelle. What if David Krejci got to feed Terry O’Riley crashing the net? How would Bobby Orr have done with Zdeno Chara on the same blue line? These thoughts get scribbled down and were and remain totally likely to change in a week or a month. Not necessarily trying to stack the players by rank, but instead putting guys in a spot where they could’ve played together and made the most of the other guys’ talents.
And here it is. It’s not supposed to be shocking or argument-provoking, it’s just one guy’s bored thoughts on the day the Bruins start the playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs. But I think these would’ve rolled the league at any time.
9 Johnny Bucyk 7 Phil Esposito 8 Cam Neely
This was the easiest combination to conjure up, by far. In the middle is Phil Esposito, the greatest point-scorer of his generation. To his left is the Chief, who retired as the Bruins all-time leading scorer and is among the greatest left wings in league history. And to the right we find Cam Neely, the prototypical power forward, a monster in the playoffs (89 points in 93 career games) and three times scored 50 goals in a season. These three could bulldoze just about any defensive pair in their way.
63 Brad Marchand 37 Patrice Bergeron 16 Rick Middleton
Bergeron’s presence here should be no surprise. He’s perhaps the greatest two-way player of his generation, one of the greater defensive forwards ever if five Selkey Trophies have anything to say about it, and he’s skilled and tough enough to have played in any era. Marchand’s been his wing-man since the 2010-11 season, and he’s grown from a mere pest into one of the better goal scorers of this era, playing alongside Bergeron in every short-handed and power-play situation, too.
The fun comes with imagining who would play alongside those two on the right, and Middleton is a natural fit. He would’ve been as tricky or trickier than Bergeron and could’ve read each pass or rush with ease. This line would give any team fits in any decade. It’d be beautiful hockey and infuriating for anyone else watching.
14 Woody Dumart 15 Milt Schmidt 17 Bobby Bauer
If we’re building lines with a mind towards the best play possible, then it makes sense to just keep the greatest line of the Bruins first golden era together and let them do their thing. The “Kraut Line” who helped deliver the Stanley Cup to Boston in 1939 and ’41 were among the most skilled and tough trios in the league in their time, and it only seems right to let them come back together to ply their craft again on my fictional team.
12 Wayne Cashman 10 Bill Cowley 24 Terry O’Reilly
On the left is Cash, who played for 17 seasons and mixed in a good amount of brutally physical play with a goal-scoring touch, and finished his career as captain of the Bruins, and on the right is a player with nearly the same resume, just amplified on both the physical and offensive parts of the game. And in the middle is Cowley, a Hall of Famer and two-time Hart Trophy winner who was nearly a point-per-game player in his career (548 points in 549 games), and retired as the league’s all-time scorer for context.
4 Bobby Orr 33 Zdeno Chara
It’s not that I think that Chara is the second-best defensemen in Bruins history, but I love the idea of him on the same pair as Orr, which could’ve freed Orr to be perhaps even more ridiculous than, say, Ted Green (already a great defenseman) could have. He might’ve been a valuable bodyguard while Orr took all that punishment, too. Even buying one more year out of Orr’s left knee would’ve been invaluable in the greater scheme of things.
77 Ray Bourque 2 Eddie Shore
Again, it’s a pairing of skill and grit, though balanced in both departments for both men. Bourque was tougher than he gets credit for, and Shore was the first superstar defenseman. Still, it seems safe to think that Bourque would’ve been the more free-wheeling of the pair while Shore policed the blue line and kept order in front of the net. He would’ve had a lot less to do in the 1930s, too, if he’d had Bourque reading the offense and clearing them out before they could reach the face-off circles.
22 Brad Park 5 Dit Clapper
As Barry Larkin was to shortstops in the 1980s and ’90s, so was Park to defensemen in the 1970s and ’80s. If not for Orr and Dennis Potvin, Park might have gone down with a record number of Norris Trophies on his mantle. As is, he’s one half of a killer bottom pair with Dit Clapper, who spent 20 years with the Bruins and was an All-Star as both a right wing and a defenseman.
30 Gerry Cheevers
1 Tiny Thompson
Two Hall of Famers man the goal here. Cheevers had a 2.69 Goals Against Average in his NHL Playoff tenure in an era where no shots were blocked before they got to the crease. Thompson was one of the great goalies through the depression era, leading Boston to the 1929 Stanley Cup and keeping his GAA at 1.99 during his tenure with the Bruins.
And because every great team needs a taxi squad in case someone in the main twenty goes down, here are the BLACK ACES:
21 Don Marcotte 16 Derek Sanderson 8 Ken Hodge
Three hard-nosed players ready to step in at a moment’s notice. Marcotte came up for good in that Cup-winning 1969-70 season, was a mainstay on the left wing and averaged nearly 20 goals a season from 1972-81. Sanderson was a Calder Trophy winner, a million-dollar man and, much more importantly, a skilled and crafty checking center that could’ve fit in with the 2011 Bruins as easily as the 1970 group. And Hodge was an elite scorer on Esposito’s line, giving the next group punch if someone were to go down.
3 Lionel Hitchman 20 Dallas Smith
Hitchman was a vital cog on the early Bruins and his no. 3 hangs in the Garden rafters. He deserves a spot at least on the travel roster, if not on the top six. But check out Smith: in addition to playing 15 years in Boston, Smith has one of the most ridiculous stat lines I’ve ever seen, and I hadn’t noticed it before putting this together. In 1971-72, Smith was a +94 for the season — second of course to Orr’s +124. Even with Orr and Esposito wreaking havoc on the league, that’s an insane number.
1 Frank Brimsek
Another Hall of Famer, Brimsek stepped in for Thompson at the transition from one great Bruins team to another. If not for World War II, he might have backstopped the Kraut Line-led Bruins to greater glory than he already achieved.