Moms loved him. Coaches and teammates ... well, not as much. There's an oft-told story from when Savard played with Calgary in the early 2000s—maybe it's even true—that when a scuffle broke out in a game and several players paired up, one Flame told his opponent, "I'll let you go if you promise to beat up Savard." ("Yeah, I've heard that one," says NHL Network analyst Craig Button, then Calgary's G.M.) At the time, Savard's disdain for backchecking and for staying in shape rankled coach Greg Gilbert. After one particularly productive offensive game by the creative center, Button recalls, Gilbert was asked if Savard was out of his doghouse. The Zen-like reply: "A dog has more than one paw." (Translation: "No.")
If Savard, who has played for the Rangers and the Thrashers, has been the bane of conditioning coaches—"If a player showed up here like he did with 19 percent body fat [at his first Bruins camp]," says one NHL strength coach, "we would have told him the audition for The Biggest Loser was next door"—he has been an asset to his right wings. Savard set up Jarome Iginla in Calgary (career-high 52 goals in 2001--02), Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta (career-high 52 goals in '05--06) and now a rejuvenated Kessel, who already has 24 goals this season, after his celebrated playoff benching last spring. Savard is a lefthanded shot, which means he instinctively dishes to his right on his forehand. "He's one of those guys that you think you have him, you think you have him, and, wham, he makes a quick play and there's an open net for someone else," the Ottawa Senators' Daniel Alfredsson says of defending Savard.
The menacing Lucic—at 6'3", 228 pounds he was second in the NHL with 3.85 hits per game—provides the right environment for the two artistes to work. In applying classical techniques to line construction (playmaking plus shot-and-speed plus physicality), Julien overlooked Lucic's lumbering skating. When Savard dumps the puck into Lucic's corner, the center figures to get it back because Lucic will either dig it out or steamroll a defender off the puck and leave it free for Savard. "I've seen so many [defensemen] bail when they've seen Looch coming," Julien says.
Because Lucic can control the puck while shielding defenders, Savard can survey the ice to see who's open rather than waiting until a pass reaches his stick to take a peek.
In a city that has always embraced the passer—Tom Brady, Bob Cousy, Adam Oates—Savard has found a home.
AS MCLELLAN looked forward to taking over behind the San Jose bench, he looked back to his 2007--08 job as an assistant with the Stanley Cup--winning Red Wings. Detroit coach Mike Babcock had paired superb centers Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, nominally designating Zetterberg as a left wing. McLellan employed the strategy with San Jose's top centers, Thornton and Marleau, who had seemed uncomfortable when former Sharks coach Ron Wilson tried him on wing at the start of the 2007--08 season. Marleau's relationship with Wilson had soured, but under McLellan the captain was getting a fresh start. Why not at a different position? "I wanted Patty to feel good about it," says McLellan, who before making the move discussed it with Marleau. "I thought he and Joe would make each other better."
Thornton has made others better throughout his career—linemate Sergei Samsonov in Boston; Team Canada when he cheerfully accepted a third-line checking role in the 2004 World Cup; the Sharks in the season of the trade—but his winning the Hart Trophy didn't spackle the holes in his reputation caused by spotty playoffs and a deference to his skills that hasn't always served him well. Thornton has often looked as if he wanted to play a hockey game rather than dominate it, passing up quality shots while tripping merrily through a career that has been impressive yet unsatisfying. ("Every shift," says McLellan when asked how often he still urges Thornton to shoot more.) As marquee players with smudges on their r�sum�s ( Thornton has only 48 points in 70 playoff games; Marleau's defensive gaffe helped cost a series against Detroit in 2007) they have more in common than similar skill sets.
By putting his two dominant forwards on one line, McLellan was also dangling a carrot in front of the team's right wings. The job as Thornton and Marleau's wingman would come with a built-in 60 points for anyone who'd buzz on the forecheck, pick up rebounds and get into the seams for Thornton's dreamy passes. Setoguchi, whose muscular shot is sometimes a trigger for the line, passed the audition late in the preseason.
Says Thornton, "When you take three good players—and we are—and you play them together, you have a chance to get three great players."
Still, Setoguchi views his spot on the line as a privilege. "At any time that I don't play well," says Setoguchi, who already has more goals (20) than he had points (17) in 44 games last season, "I know there are guys here who can step up and win that spot."