Growing up in Connecticut and Massachusetts, I watched my fair share of Bruins games. I remember Ray Bourque patrolling the Boston Gardens blueline. I remember Mini 1-on-1 at intermissions. And I remember Cam Neely.
And Milan Lucic, my Beantown friends, is no Cam Neely.
I can see how it's easy to compare the Hall of Famer and the rugged Lucic. Both are Western Canadians who mix toughness with the ability to throw points on the scoresheet. Neither is scared to drop the gloves. And the Boston faithful love both.
You can line up their stats from each of their first two seasons and take the leap that Lucic is on a similar career arc. In his first two seasons with the Canucks, Neely managed a combined 37 goals and 33 assists for 70 points in 130 games. Lucic has 25 goals and 44 assists for 69 points in his first 149 games. Neely had 57 penalty minutes his rookie year, followed by 137 in Year 2. Lucic had 89 last year, 136 this season.
But Neely's next season, 1985-86, was his last at that level, and his last in Vancouver. He had 14 goals and 20 assists in 73 games, plus 126 PIMs. After Vancouver traded him to Boston — along with a first-round pick that became Glen Wesley — for Barry Pederson, Neely exploded. Over the next five seasons, Neely averaged more than 44 goals a season, peaking with a 55-goal, 37-assist campaign in 1989-90 that included 117 penalty minutes — and nine major penalties.
Following his five years of dominance, Neely was slowed by knee issues the next two seasons, limiting him to a combined 22 games in 1991-92 and 1993-93. But he bounced back the following year with one of the most productive seasons in NHL history, scoring 50 goals in just 49 games while adding 24 assists and 54 PIMs. He played the majority of the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, putting up respectable numbers (27-14-41 in 42 games) for the Bruins, but managed just one more season. Hampered by a failing body, Neely had 26 goals and 20 assists in 49 games in 1995-96, his final campaign.
But it wasn't just the goals, points and penalties that made Neely a Boston icon. It was the way he did all those things.
When Neely fought, it wasn't against the game's middleweights (remember, Neely wasn't that huge at 6-1, 185 pounds, around the same size as Matt Cullen, perhaps a bit lighter), it was against whoever needed to be taught a lesson — big or small. Granted, a "big player" back then was probably 6-1 or 6-2, and a little more than 200 pounds, but Neely was often giving away 20 pounds to the guy on the receiving end of his fury. He fought the significantly larger Donald Brashear in his final NHL season in November 1995, even with a body that was running on fumes. He feared no one, and nearly everyone feared him.
But with that came the power and grace — or both attributes combined — with which he scored. He made his biggest impact below the dots, banging in rebounds, sneaking to the back door, and firing from the slot. But we wasn't averse to flashing the kind of skill expected of the Gretzkys and Lemieuxs. Here's a look at those remarkable 50 goals from 1993-94. Take special notice of Nos. 6 and 36.
The determination with which he battled around the net, coupled with puck skills as good as nearly anyone of his era, made Neely the ultimate power forward. But most importantly, Neely never gave up, even when his body gave up on him.
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Anyone who watched Lucic this year — or even through two games of this season's Eastern Conference semifinals series with Carolina — knows he's never far from the net, screening the opposing goaltender. He also bangs bodies with the best of them, and at 6-4, 220 pounds, his hits usually pack a mighty punch. He's also willing to answer the bell when needed, fighting 10 times this season, second to only Shawn Thornton on the Bruins.
But if you watch video of the 17 goals Lucic scored this season — and I did — you'll see a lot of 2-on-1 finishes, cleaned up rebounds and fortunate bounces. You'll see him playing in an era when the forward screening the goalie is allowed to park in front untouched, not in a time when defensemen did on-the-job chiropractic medicine in front of the crease. Even Lucic's fight card consists of mostly mid-range and infrequent fighters, not heavyweights.
None of this takes away from what Lucic does for Boston. First and foremost, he's a distraction for the B's opponents and a rallying point for the Boston faithful. He's one of the game's best at finishing checks, and his goal screens are invaluable to Boston's efforts.
That being said, he's not one of a kind.
Guys like New Jersey's David Clarkson do the kinds of things Lucic does for Boston, just without the fanfare and catchy "Luuuuuuu" chant.
Philadelphia's Scott Hartnell — overlooked with a 30-30-60, 143 PIM season this year — is a fan favorite, like Lucic, and has the Wachovia Center wig receipts to prove it. The Hurricanes' own Tuomo Ruutu provides a Neely-esque mix of grit and skill, but isn't much of a pugilist. Ryan Malone. David Backes. Chris Neil — who was a 30-plus-point 200-plus PIM guy a few years back. All have attributes similar to what Lucic brings to the Bruins. Some do parts better, others not as well.
But none of these guys compare to Neely, the complete package. Not Lucic. Not anyone. So let's leave the Lucic-Neely comparisons at the door, because while the Bruins' young winger deserves credit for his emergence as a solid NHL role player, he's not the superstar, game-altering force Neely was.
And he never will be.