BOSTON (CBS) — Not since P. J. Axelsson became a salary cap casualty and deserted the NHL for his homeland after the 2008-09 season had a Swede pulled on a Bruins sweater before Carl Soderberg put an end to everyone’s anticipation and joined the Bruins late last season.
Somehow in building up his perennial Stanley Cup contender, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli had failed to mine the talents of the land that gave the NHL Mats Sundin, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and countless other elite talents.
But finally nine years after he was drafted by the St. Louis Blues and six years after the Blues traded him to the Bruins, Soderberg arrived. He did little to impress with two assists in six games in the regular season and then no points in two games in the Stanley Cup finals. One had to wonder if Chiarelli had been right to not shop as often in Sweden as other GMs.
One year later, Soderberg is a regular in Boston’s top nine and a key cog in the Bruins’ revitalized power play. He’s producing at an impressive clip (16-30-46 totals in 71 games) and playing with the type of physicality that once and for all proves it’s possible for Scandinavians to play a “Bruins brand” of hockey.
It once looked like Soderberg wouldn’t find a fit on the Bruins’ roster. Now he’s making others in the organization expendable.
Soderberg’s impressive uptick in production coincided with several factors. He got healthy and started feeling more comfortable. His most frequently used linemates, Chris Kelly and fellow Swede Loui Eriksson, got healthy. And Soderberg shifted to center, with Kelly heading out to left wing. Soderberg’s been better able to get up a head of steam both on breakouts and on the forecheck. His fearless play in pursuit of the puck and in front of the net makes him a scary combination of skill and 6-foot-3, 218-pound brawn.
You can count Claude Julien among those that now consider Soderberg first and foremost a center, especially as long as the coach has depth at winger to flank the Swede with.
“Well I’d say right now absolutely. But you know only a fool doesn’t change his mind and it might be a time where somebody else is even better than him,” Julien said. “And where I was going to put the best player in the best position, right? So right now, he’s best at center and I think right now something that goes unnoticed is how well Kelly has played on the wing. If Kelly doesn’t play that well at the wing, we’ve got an issue here. But Kells has played really well on the wing and that has made the transition for Carl a lot easier because it’s turned out to be a pretty decent line.”
Barring injury, Soderberg will center Kelly and Eriksson, or maybe Reilly Smith instead of Eriksson, when the Stanley Cup playoffs open next week. Soderberg’s line has allowed Julien to again roll four lines with confidence, knowing that he’ll get not just production but a heavy forecheck and responsible play from every trio.
The Bruins are focused on the here and now, with a Stanley Cup championship the only acceptable result to the upcoming postseason. But it’s worth looking ahead a little when it comes to Soderberg’s future with the Bruins. He’s signed for next season at a friendly cap charge around $1 million. If Soderberg is definitely a center, then that could make Kelly or Gregory Campbell expendable. If the Bruins are hesitant about breaking up the “Merlot Line” and this playoff season exploits Kelly as a player unable to withstand the rigors of wing play, Boston will have to reassess their commitment to Kelly.
Soderberg’s presence will generate reverberations throughout the organization. The 28-year-old should be around at least three or four more seasons, which could mean a prospect like Ryan Spooner might have to find employment elsewhere. A high-speed, high-skill player who still needs to make major strides to be a Julien type of player really hasn’t shown the necessary improvement to move to the wing and his skill would be wasted on a fourth line. Spooner might turn out to be a valuable trade chip for the Bruins down the road.
At the risk of mentioning Tyler Seguin, Soderberg’s emergence as a high-caliber NHL player has also softened the blow of the Bruins dealing Seguin, who has thrived as a center with the Dallas Stars. With David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Soderberg and Campbell down the middle, plus Spooner in reserve and Kelly able to shift back into the middle if necessary, the Bruins seem pretty set at center.
Soderberg’s impact has made the Bruins a more diverse and dangerous team. Down the road, his continued improvements might make the Bruins remake their roster. That’s a job Chiarelli and his staff will gladly tackle if it means Soderberg has proven irreplaceable.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.
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