Rangers land second big Boston-area NCAA free agent in Vesey- the aftermath

The Jimmy Vesey saga ended Friday when word leaked out via Bob McKenzie that the North Reading native and Harvard graduate after winning the 2016 Hobey Baker Award, agreed to terms with the New York Rangers.

The decision, made some four-and-a-half months after Vesey declined to sign with the Nashville Predators, who owned his rights after drafting him 66th overall in 2012, was met with disappointment and disgust in some Boston circles, but shouldn’t be all that surprising given some of the warning signs that pointed to the 23-year-old leaning away from choosing his hometown Bruins as one of seven teams he formally met with this week.

Like Kevin Hayes two years ago, the B’s were in the running, but the player decided to play close to home but not with the Boston organization. Not surprisingly, Hayes himself, the younger of two hockey brothers who both played at Boston College, was instrumental in helping to convince Vesey to choose Broadway over Causeway.

For those familiar with this blog and typist, you know that I have had a personal connection with the Vesey family for more than five years, but throughout the process, I purposefully stayed away from trying to leverage that connection for information. In many respects, not really knowing which way Vesey was definitively leaning was refreshing, as it allowed for a shared experience with the vast majority of fans and non-insiders. When the word came down that it was the Rangers, I was hearing it for the first time, and I was also wrong- my own guess was that he would go with the New Jersey Devils because of a personal connection to Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils’ assistant GM. Shows you how much I know…

There are a lot of different views out there on the subject, so these notes are based on my own personal knowledge and insights gained from several conversations over the weekend with NHL insiders who have knowledge of the Vesey situation. This is why I didn’t rush to post something on it Friday or Saturday, as I wanted to get my ducks in a row first. But truth in lending: take my observations with a grain of salt. There is a personal element to it so I am not completely free of bias in all of this, nor do I pass myself off as completely objective here. I am writing an opinion piece, so you have the choice to agree or disagree with any or all of the points made.

  1. My gut feeling is that the Bruins lost their real shot at Vesey five years ago, when they drafted Norwegian goalie Lars Volden in the sixth round. In doing that, they snubbed the Belmont Hill star who had been told by someone in the organization that they liked him and were going to take him. That’s the tragedy in all of this from Boston’s perspective- they *knew* in 2011 that he had some big time potential and recognized it, but at the draft table in St. Paul, they went with someone else and it cost them what could have been a huge success story for their scouting staff. This kind of stuff happens all the time, but when you look at the attention Vesey has received (much of it earned), it’s something the B’s have been kicking themselves over. There is no doubt that had Boston drafted Vesey, he would not have pursued free agency in the manner he did and none of this would have been necessary. That snub motivated Vesey to destroy the EJHL in 2011-12, smashing all major offensive league records, but even then- the B’s could have spent a first-round choice on him over Malcolm Subban, especially since they didn’t have a second-rounder and knew deep down he wouldn’t be there in the late third. In effect, the B’s chose two goaltenders over Vesey- one is a complete washout and the other has yet to deliver on significant promise. It goes to show that scouting future NHL players is more of an art than a science, and projecting stars between the pipes is even more difficult. The B’s didn’t do what they allegedly said they would, and you have to know that Vesey didn’t forget it. When you add in all of the other factors that went into his decision, it’s not surprising. Boston did it to themselves- they had two legitimate shots at really showing Vesey that they wanted him, but didn’t take them. That left the Bruins in the position to ask for him to choose them this week, and all he did was return the favor.
  2. Give Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and his staff credit- they put together a compelling pitch, leveraging New York’s natural draw as a big market destination and myriad celebrities and sports figures associated with the Big Apple to put the finishing touches on a successful pitch. It’s easy to hate the Rangers as a natural extension of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and given Gorton’s history with the B’s, you know he enjoyed sticking it to Boston on this one, just as was the case with Hayes two years ago. Former Hobey Baker winner and Stanley Cup champion Chris Drury captained the Rangers and is the team,’s developmental guru- he had a major hand in convincing Vesey to sign on in Broadway, and don’t underestimate the lure that someone with Drury’s cachet brings to the process. In the end, there can only be one destination for a player’s services, and everything counts (not necessarily in large amounts as Depeche Mode once sang). While Vesey had close friends like Matt Grzelcyk, Ryan Fitzgerald and Harvard teammate Ryan Donato in the Boston organization, none of them have ever played a professional game with the B’s. Kevin Hayes, on the other hand, is the only close friend of Vesey’s in the NHL- he was able to identify with the signing process, but even more important- Hayes could tell Vesey firsthand what he was in for if he signed with New York. The other NHL teams in the running all brought out some of their biggest stars to try and sway Vesey, but none of them had the powerful personal connection Hayes does…that was big. Game, set and match. Remember- Boston is in some good company- the NHL’s modern dynasty Chicago Blackhawks and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were also told “thanks but no thanks” by Vesey. The Rangers might seem like an odd choice to some, but for him, the team was the best fit. Now, time will tell how well he plays there and if he regrets that choice in the long run.
  3. In talking to one key insider, it was pointed out that Vesey has a large family and everyone is in the Boston area. It’s not just about Vesey taking heat during the inevitable times when he might not play as well as he’s capable of or like the human he is, goes into a slump. You have to take into account the effect that the media and fan negativity will have on Vesey’s immediate and extended families. It’s easy to dismiss that when you’re sitting behind a keyboard and have no concept of what it’s like to have your every move scrutinized and thinking about the possibility of rude, socially-stunted strangers accosting you in public to demand to know why your son, brother, nephew or cousin isn’t living up to the lofty expectations the modern information age created. It might sound like a cop out, and I’m sure there is an element of people that will scoff at the notion no matter what. That’s fine- I’m not trying to reach them, but the more fair-minded of those in hockey fandom will get it. “We know everyone,” came a quote via text yesterday. “And in the offseason (Jimmy) can come home and get away from it.” If he had signed in Boston, there would be no escape from the scrutiny of his profession. By going to the Rangers, he can go home to Boston in the summer months and decompress rather than stay in  what could be a crucible of discontent if the B’s fortunes don’t improve. That’s a lot to put on someone’s shoulders, even if there is a case to be made that by embracing the challenge, Vesey truly could have made himself into a legitimate Boston star. It was probably not meant to be, and that’s okay.
  4. It’s unfortunate that there is an element of sour grapes already taking hold and a segment of fans rejected by Vesey are already bringing out the sharp knives. It’s predictable. And lame. Look, the biggest mistake us “mortals” make is in assuming that because we would kill for a chance to play professional hockey for our favorite teams, everyone else should think the way we do. Observations 1 and 3 have already laid out why Boston was not the obvious choice for him, and to be honest- the B’s should be glad they were even in the final running. A more petulant, immature person would have stuck it to them and made a public spectacle of that rejection. Vesey is not that guy, and I think he showed the team respect by giving them a chance. Some might say he “used” them, but I would argue he leveraged every team in the running to determine his final landing spot.That might be what a Harvard degree teaches you, but that’s just me. It would be nice if people could show the same kind of maturity by respecting the decision and not seeking to point fingers or play the blame game. It might be human nature to lash out when things don’t go your way, but take a step back and evaluate your life and priorities. If you spent more time than you should have getting yourself worked up over the idea of Vesey skating in Boston and now feel hurt or betrayed after he chose the Rangers, then there are probably some important things in your life that you are neglecting. To put it another way (Ben Stiller style): It’s just a game, Focker.
  5. What was distasteful to everyone was the amount of attention the whole thing got for as long as it did, and the comparisons to Kevin Durant are valid. This is something Vesey will have to deal with and the best way to put it behind him is to simply go out and prove himself at the NHL level. At the same time, he probably invoked the old Shakespeare “Methinks thou doth protest too much,” when he commented about not enjoying the spotlight. A couple of points- I know Jimmy and believe him on that score: he’s not an attention-seeker. His handlers have more to do with that than anything, but as the player, he’s got to own that this became something that got out of hand. Second- there’s little doubt that deep down, he enjoyed being able to dictate the terms to NHL teams. Remember- all 30 clubs snubbed him in 2011 and 2012. Any one of them could have drafted him before Nashville in the 3rd round in his second year of eligibility. He went from being a kid who was hurt and disappointed at being skipped in his first year (who wouldn’t be?) to someone just about everyone would have gladly taken on their team. It’s human nature to enjoy an element of revenge when the tables are turned. I don’t blame him. Finally, the timing stunk- there just isn’t any hockey news to be had in mid-August and that fed the beast of the media circus surrounding Vesey, especially since he’s the reigning Hobey Baker recipient. Many of us might find the kind of hype surrounding him ridiculous, but this is the world we live in. Had Jonathan Drouin been able to leave Tampa Bay at midseason and become a free agent open to bidders, we likely would have seen the same exact thing. And those Canadian CHL-centric folks who wagged their fingers and tut-tutted at Vesey leveraging his right in the CBA would probably have made the same allowances for a player like Drouin that they seemed unwilling to extend for Vesey. That’s life, but again- you know who you are. Take a step back and be honest with yourself- every team seeks an edge, and Vesey is a good risk to take. We might not like the attention he got, but if it wasn’t him, it would likely be someone else. Besides, it made for an interesting story to follow at least. I’m just glad it’s over and we can now focus on the next big things: the World Cup of Hockey and the start of the new NHL season.

The onus is now on Vesey to go out and prove himself at the NHL level. There will be many out there rooting for him to fail, but he’s done a nice job of silencing the critics so far. Playing for the Rangers will be business as usual for him, and if the past is any indication, he’ll likely build more fans and supporters than detractors.

***

So, where do the Bruins go from here?

They accepted risk in waiting to see what happened with Vesey because by bringing him into the fold, they would have built a bigger war chest with which to make a trade for much-needed defensive help.

That ship has now sailed for Don Sweeney, so he needs to reset and figure out how he can address a very mediocre defensive group (and that’s being charitable at this point). He’s talked about the difficulty of finding the right players in a constricted market where skilled two-way defensemen are at a premium, but as the GM, the fans aren’t interested in that kind of reasoning. They expect action, and so it will be interesting to see what he and the team does between now and the start of rookie camp in about 30 days or before opening night in October.

The Bruins have some impressive young defenders coming down the pipeline via recent drafts, but those kids aren’t realistic options to help the 2016-17 NHL roster, so something has to give. Sweeney needs to find a way to close some deals and get some wins under his belt. Here’s guessing that he might re-open the lines of communication with St. Louis or Anaheim to look at Kevin Shattenkirk or Cam Fowler. 29-year-old free agent Kris Russell has not yet been signed (boy, is THAT ever telling!) and at this point, you have to think that someone will land him, especially if the right money makes his shortcomings easier to swallow. But how much of an upgrade is he on a team like the Bruins? Again, it will come down to contract term and AAV, but that he’s still sitting out and available in mid-August is interesting.

Yes, it would have been easier for Sweeney and staff to make a deal with Vesey on board to free up other assets to be moved, but Boston also has to play the longer game with Brad Marchand headed to unrestricted free agency in July 2017 if the B’s don’t extend him. And let’s face it- they can’t afford *not* to extend him unless they work an unreal trade that the majority of fans can get behind. To lose Marchand in the wake of so many other grievances fans have about the team is as unpleasant an outcome as you can find right now.

The major priority is to improve the defense. You can’t “fix” this group, but Sweeney can build a more sturdier unit than what we saw last season with one move. When you look at the promise of players like Charlie McAvoy and perhaps Brandon Carlo or Rob O’Gara plus others in the next 1-3 years, the defense will improve. However, the status quo in 2016-17 is simply not going to work. Sweeney has to find a way to identify and acquire a bridge player or two.

It won’t be easy, but if it were, then anyone off the street could manage an NHL team to a Stanley Cup championship.

 

The pitch

 

Veseyphotoshop

Could Jimmy Vesey be a Boston Bruin by week’s end? We’ll know the answer soon enough. (Found this on the Internet somewhere but don’t know who to credit for it)

 

 

 

 

Harvard captain and unrestricted free agent Jimmy Vesey met with several NHL teams yesterday (Toronto, NY Islanders, New Jersey, Pittsburgh were among those reported) and he’ll meet with more today. The New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks are reportedly on the list and we’ll be able to confirm that a little later.

We’ve heard that the hometown Boston Bruins are going to be the last team to make the case, which is a nice situation to be in, but in itself is no real indicator of where the skilled offensive left wing will end up.

By virtue of the NHL’s CBA, the money every team can offer him is essentially the same, assuming they max out the base salary and performance bonus structure. Per General Fanager, those amounts are:  2 years at a base (max) salary of $925,000, $3.775M AAV ($832,500 salary +$92,500 signing bonus; $2.85M performance bonuses). The 925k is your cap hit this year and those performance bonuses could roll over into next year’s cap hit for the team that signs him if he were to do what Artemi Panarin accomplished in Chicago en route to the 2016 Calder Trophy.

That means it pretty much comes down to the various pitches and the opportunities the teams lay out for Vesey.

Were I the Bruins general manager, I would adopt a “less is more” approach here as it pertains to Vesey. The obvious small peanuts move is to bring a No. 19 Bruins jersey with his name on it to the meeting. Only 2 players have worn those digits in Boston since the 2000-01 season: Joe Thornton and Tyler Seguin. It’s not about why both players left…Vesey is well aware of the history. However, he idolized Thornton as a youngster. It’s an obvious tactic designed to connect to the kid in him and the exclusivity by which the B’s have limited that number over the years carries its own appeal. But no hockey jersey, regardless of the history behind it, is going to close a deal, and whether teams make videos or bring in players to help make their case, all of that is just window dressing. In the end, the GMs will have to walk a fine line between keeping it simple and making a cogent argument that will appeal to the pragmatist in him, and also making an important connection to his personality and values. The Sabres have the advantage here, because they’re the ones who have had about two months to make that connection and also have the benefit of Vesey’s friendship with NHL superstar-in-waiting Jack Eichel.

Boston doesn’t have those advantages but bring a different edge to the table, so for me,  the pitch is relatively simple.

After laying out the obvious opportunities Vesey will have to succeed with the Bruins organization and committing the max dollars like everyone else, selling him on staying home comes down to a relatively direct but earnest message:

Jimmy-

You grew up dreaming of this opportunity (to play for the Bruins) and now, you’re in a position to choose where you begin your NHL career. Not everyone has the power of choice, so we respect where you are and what you have done to bring us to this moment together.

Other teams have undoubtedly made convincing arguments for why you should choose them, and you’re facing the most difficult decision of your life thus far. As we finish up the last of your meetings before you decide, we’d like to leave you with this:

Boston offers you one thing no other team can, and that is the certainty that comes with knowing you achieved your childhood dream. Not choosing the Bruins means that you might go through life wondering what it would have been like to play here if you had only made a different decision. Choosing Boston means that regardless of what happens, you will never have questions about what could have been, and we believe you’ll have no regrets that you chose to stay home and join the legacy that your father is also a part of.

It isn’t easy playing in your hometown and dealing with the various pressures that come with high expectations along with the scrutiny and attention you’ll get because of the many accomplishments you bring with you. However, you’ve also demonstrated that you have the maturity to handle those challenges and become every bit the player and person so many believe you will be. We believe in you, and we want you to be a part of the next big revival period of Boston Bruins hockey. You’ve talked to your friends inside the organization and you know that over the past three or four drafts, we’re building the right group of talented and committed players. We want you to be a part of this resurgence.

Your head might tell you that other cities and teams can offer you more reasons to go there and wear different colors than the black and gold, but you also have a chance to listen to your heart as you make your final decision.

We believe your heart is telling you to be a Boston Bruin and we’re prepared to help you realize that dream.

That’s it.

That’s all.

In my experience it really comes down to that, and it’s not about overselling or underselling. It’s about trying to establish a connection and speak to what will ultimately drive the decision. Money and opportunity are important, but they won’t guarantee success or happiness. Talk is cheap, but blood is thicker than water, and following in his dad’s footsteps while playing close to family and friends is a powerful lure.

I believe that all things being equal- Vesey has the desire to play in Boston. His family is here, and his dad comes from humble roots in Charlestown. Injuries prevented him from making the mark he could have at the NHL level, but Jimmy has a chance to do much more at this level, and I suspect that fact is not lost on Jim Vesey, Sr.

I also think that there is a lot of white noise and distractors out there that could be steering young Vesey away from Boston. The talk of the external pressures and distractions that come with being such a high-profile player from the area is real, but in my view- too much is being made of the concerns and what-if’s. There are no doubt several convincing arguments to be made that he’s better off playing elsewhere, but if a decision to reject the chance to play for the Bruins is based on trivial reasons such as being pressed by ticket requests or a fear of being criticized on sports radio and television, then maybe it is for the best that he begin his NHL career elsewhere.

Knowing Jimmy over the years, I believe he wants to embrace a real challenge over an easier path- his success has been fueled by adversity. Staying home does present certain negatives that playing in a place like Newark, N.J. doesn’t, but the reward and payoff should he prove himself to be the player in the NHL that he’s been at Harvard is enormous as a member of the Bruins versus the Devils, Rangers, Sabres or anywhere else. Does he want to stay in Boston enough to accept the identified risk that comes with the spotlight and possible friction that Jimmy Hayes was a source of last season?

That’s a question only Vesey can answer, and after today, we’ll soon find out.

***

Separate from the above post, going to hop on the soapbox for a bit and share some thoughts and observations on what I’ve been seeing lately, especially on Twitter…

It’s a shame that there is so much hype surrounding Vesey and that invariably, he’s started to get a backlash from people tired of hearing about it and of course- the element of folks out there who are holding against him that he’s leveraging a collectively bargained right. It’s more than a little silly, especially since we’re about giving the people what they want, and in the modern information age, what the people want is almost always an over saturation of  stories and angles. They want to know exactly how it’s all going to end beforehand. We ourselves encourage paralysis by analysis in places like Twitter and internet message boards. So, why is anyone surprised that a player who has scored more than 50 goals and 100 points in the past two NCAA seasons is generating so much attention?

The fact is- NHL teams don’t get an opportunity to sign a player of Vesey’s potential every year, so when someone with his talent and upside comes along, there’s an obvious desire for coverage commensurate with storylines that develop when multiple cities pursue someone on the open market. Jimmy Vesey didn’t create this animal, but he’s required to feed it.

Signing Vesey is not a gamble, either- a gamble is when you leave something to pure chance. He’s given multiple indications that he will be a successful NHL player. No, signing Vesey is taking a risk– teams are accepting that by committing max dollars to him and inserting him into the lineup ahead of others in the pecking order, they might upset the apple cart. You can argue that he’s not worth that risk, and it’s a fair assessment, but it isn’t like he’s a middling player, either. Instead of playing a game of false equivalencies like comparing him to some of the game’s icons (no one with any credibility is doing that, btw) or asserting that signing him means the Bruins (or any other team) are automatically Stanley Cup contenders, why not just settle in and see where this all takes us? Yes, there is a lot of hype around this player, and that’s also the reality we’re living in circa 2016.

Again- it isn’t Vesey’s fault that we live in an age where every single move is scrutinized to the nth degree. If he and his representation refused to answer questions about what they were doing, then people would criticize that and wonder what he was hiding. And let’s be fair and honest about this- Vesey isn’t the only one talking about his situation. Sources within the teams are telling reporters about meeting schedules and how interested their clubs are in his services. That’s not Vesey’s doing, but he’s the one taking the heat for feeding the beast.

Come the weekend, we’ll be glad the saga is over because it really has gone on too long. It’s just unfortunate that some out there simply can’t resist making someone out to be the villain in any story. If anything, Vesey is an example of facing adversity and rejection by being completely passed over in 2011 and turning that into a bidding war unlike any other we have seen surrounding a player who has yet to skate an NHL shift to date.

Right, wrong or indifferent- it will all be over soon and then we can look forward to seeing what all the fuss was about.

The prediction here is that while it may or may not come to the fore right away, Vesey will prove himself to be an NHL asset and fans will eventually get why he was so sought after.

Vesey officially on the open market- let the free agent Kabuki dance begin

In 2008, University of Minnesota forward Blake Wheeler opted to forego his senior year, but in so doing, decided not to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted him fifth overall four years earlier.  Wheeler leveraged a provision in the previous (2005) collective bargaining agreement and signed instead with the Boston Bruins, eventually getting traded to the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, where he has become one of that franchise’s more productive players over the past several seasons. Twitter wasn’t as big then, nor did the Wheeler courtship last as long, so at least in one regard, the difference between then and the hype machine surrounding Harvard graduate Jimmy Vesey is significant.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Vesey, who received the 2016 Hobey Baker Award one year after being the runner-up to Jack Eichel, is now an unrestricted free agent after passing on the chance to sign with the Nashville Predators, who drafted him 66th overall in 2012. There could be myriad reasons why Vesey spurned the Music City, but only he and those closest to him know his true motivations behind doing so. The Buffalo Sabres had multiple third-round picks in the 2016 draft, so they flipped one to the Preds for the chance to convince Vesey to forego free agency altogether and sign with them. Sabres GM Tim Murray gave it his best shot, but when you consider that the North Reading native has come this far for the right to choose his NHL destination, Murray and Co. simply weren’t going to get him to bite, no matter how compelling the sales job.

Now, some 50 days after the Sabres acquired his exclusive negotiating rights, and per the NHL’s (2013) CBA, Vesey can now talk to any NHL club who desires his services. Here are highlights, compliments of Harvard:

This is not a loophole. The 23-year-old is not engaging in any underhanded activity, as much as some out there who don’t apparently understand how collective bargaining works would like to (and of course want to convince others of the righteousness of their own ignorance) believe.

Is it unseemly? That depends on what your definition of that is, but in our free market society, Vesey is taking advantage of his immense talent for hockey while also doing something very few NHL prospects these days get to: determine his own professional hockey destination.

Some out there feel he “owed” it to Nashville to just sign with them and report just like any other draft pick, but that position assumes that we know all of what was happening behind the scenes. We obviously don’t, and there is no requirement for any of these players to come to terms with the teams that draft them. Vesey incurred risk by staying in school and not taking Nashville’s original offer to bring him out in the spring of 2015 after netting north of 30 goals for the Crimson as college hockey’s second-best offensive talent after Eichel. Graduating from Harvard was important to him, and at some point, even after he had talked on the record about signing in Nashville, something changed and he didn’t.

Vesey is not the only player to do this and he won’t be the last. However, by virtue of the ever growing groundswell of social media in the information age, Vesey is a high-profile player…arguably the highest coming off of a Hobey Baker-winning season. No one else who has come before him carries that kind of cachet, but even with the NCAA success (56 goals, 104 points in 70 games in the past two seasons), there is no guarantee he will make the same kind of impact in the NHL. However, when you factor in his skill, hockey IQ and accomplishments to date, plenty of teams are willing to roll the dice.

Two years ago, Chicago Blackhawks prospect Kevin Hayes, he of hockey Clan Hayes of Dorchester, decided not to sign with the team that made him a first-round pick in 2010, and after multiple teams courted him, settled on the New York Rangers. That decision cost him a Stanley Cup, as the ‘Hawks went on to capture their third championship in six years some 10 months after Hayes leveraged his CBA right to be a free agent.

It happens. And it also underscores that different things motivate these players beyond money or opportunity. If winning were the only thing that mattered, Hayes would have signed with Chicago. This points out the folly of anyone who is sure that Vesey will do the same simply because Chicago brain-trustees Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville personally attended some of his summer league hockey games in Foxboro.

At the same time, to believe that Vesey is a done deal to Boston simply because he grew up there and was a Bruins fan as a kid is equally foolish.

What it likely will come down to is which team Vesey feels the biggest connection to. It could very easily be a team like Chicago. Or Boston. Or Buffalo, who according to several sources, are in a nice spot with him, having given him a good faith pitch while benefiting from the behind-the-scenes work done by former Boston hockey rival and now summer liney and pal Eichel.

Vesey could be won over by the Rangers, who because of their success in wooing Hayes after stealthily pursuing him in 2014, are always going to be name players in the NHL’s version of the Game of Thrones– free agency (albeit much less dramatic). Rangers GM Jeff Gorton is a Boston-area guy and he’s got people like Gordie Clark who do well in the recruiting department (both are longtime former members of the Boston Bruins front office/scouting staff). Don’t underestimate the power of Broadway.

The New Jersey Devils are another team emerging as a favorite to get him; GM Ray Shero has added some impressive forward talent to his club over the past two seasons, and the Newark-based club can overcome the negative pull of the playing digs with some solid selling of recent drafts. Hero’s right-hand man,Tom Fitzgerald, has a direct connection to the Vesey family as well.

Then of course there are the Toronto Maple Leafs- they’re sure to be in the mix, too. How much, is up for debate as making the money work might be an issue for them, but Vesey’s father and brother are both in the Leafs organization. When it comes to family, that’s a big selling point for just about anyone.

Finally, I wouldn’t count out a club like the Philadelphia Flyers being in on the Vesey sweeps. Ron Hextall is an aggressive GM who has his team on the rise, as their late-season surge to K.O. the Bruins on the final weekend of the 2016 NHL season can attest. Think the Flyers couldn’t use a plug-and-play LW with Vesey’s upside? Think again. It wouldn’t surprise in the least to see a club come out of left field to land him, and Philly is my dark horse to do it. (EDIT- So, Philly was not in on the Vesey sweeps. Surprising, but another keystone state team- the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins- did meet with him on 8/16. The Penguins were not a club linked to Vesey much since his decision in March not to sign with Nashville, but it makes sense and they might be the ones who sneak in and spirit him away. We’ll see. – KL)

In circling back to the Bruins, there are plenty of reasons to think that they could end up landing the prize. Refuting some reports out there, a source close to the Vesey camp said that  he hasn’t ruled the Bruins out.  On the contrary- the B’s and GM Don Sweeney are in prime position to show him how serious they are. Will Sweeney’s Harvard credentials and the connection he has with Vesey’s representation help? It just might. Getting Vesey is key not just because he’s a talent the team has coveted for years, but because he also opens up trade options to assist Sweeney in landing an upgrade on defense. It’s not a zero-sum game- the Bruins will likely have to move on a defenseman via trade at some point, but Vesey in the fold means flexibility and an ability to be able to give up pieces of value to land the defenseman the Bruins want.

It’s a delicate balance, but Boston has a real opportunity here. When they come to the table, it may or may not be enough to convince him, but you can bet that they’ll try. They, too, have connections- assistant amateur scouting chief Scott Fitzgerald (Tom’s brother) and close friends like Matt Grzelcyk, Ryan Fitzgerald, Harvard teammates Ryan Donato and Wiley Sherman to name a few.  It’s just a shame that they didn’t draft him in 2011 when they had the chance to get him in the sixth round. Or even 2012- when they could have spent the 24th overall choice on him in lieu of Malcolm Subban. The opportunities were there, and one can only wonder if Vesey will remind them of that fact when they meet.

Ultimately, though- only young Vesey himself and those few solidly inside his inner circle truly know what is motivating him here and what things will matter most to him when he meets with the suitors today and tomorrow. We may or may not find out the truth once the final decision is made, probably no earlier than Friday depending on how loose lips are around the camp.

Many are no doubt ready for it all to be over so we can move on to the next thing (World Cup of Hockey, anyone?), none more than Vesey and his family.

For the one NHL club that will gain a valuable asset and one who has shown the kind of promise to make this pursuit worthwhile, that relief should be more than palpable. Sure- there is no guarantee that Vesey will be the NHL performer many believe he can, but if you’ve been paying attention to his profound growth over the past several seasons, you know better than to bet against him.

On McAvoy and Lindgren and what they mean for the future of the Bruins D

I’m back from a trip to Canada and the opportunity to watch The Tragically Hip perform live in London, Ontario. More on that later.

I did get to see the televised action of USA games from the national evaluation camp in Plymouth, and the Americans closed out the event with a sound thumping of Team Canada Saturday.

If you’re a Boston Bruins fan and paying attention to the organization’s prospects and player development efforts, you can’t help but come away optimistic for what could be coming, especially at the defense position. One player had a standout, exciting performance that drew raves. The other USA defender was not as visible, but earned good marks for being solid and opportunistic. Both players, drafted in the first and second rounds in Buffalo, are giving Boston fans something to talk about.

The team’s top choice in June had a standout camp from start to finish: one NHL scout texted the Scouting Post after the first day of on-ice sessions on July 30 to say that Charlie McAvoy was the “best player on the ice,” and the 14th overall selection out of Boston University did nothing but reinforce that view as the week went on.

The Long Island native isn’t cut from the mold of steely-eyed killers as you apply them to hockey players (we’re talking Scott Stevens here in terms of the king of steely-eyed killers on the ice), known more as an even-keeled, fun guy to have in the room. He’s a hockey playing surfer, who might have a little more Jeff Spicoli in him than one might think (Aloha, Mr. Hand!) and we don’t mean that in a bad way. However, he backed up his reputation for being all business on the ice by playing an intense, physical, two-way skill game all week. McAvoy put an exclamation point on that with a slobber-knocker of a hit he put on 2015 1st-rounder and Panthers prospect Lawson Crouse, catching the power forward at the USA blue line with his head down and drilling him with a hard but clean hit.

McAvoy is an excellent skater who accelerates quickly in just a few powerful strides that he’s able to generate thanks to a blocky, strong build. He’s not all that tall, but with his wide body and thickness through the torso and lower trunk, McAvoy demonstrated that he’s an A-grade physical player who uses his lower center of gravity to bolster the physical aspect of his game. All of this is all fine and well, because the offensive dimension McAvoy brings to the table is what made him a top-15 selection in the first place.

We’ve knocked him for being at times too aggressive in the way he pushes the pace and gets himself deep into the offensive zone, but pulling back on the reins of said player is easier to do if someone has the natural skill and ability McAvoy does- you can’t coach what he has, and as he matures and refines his game going forward, watch for him to take significant strides offensively. Don’t judge a book by its cover- he might not have a rock-hard physique, but ask Crouse about him, and you can bet he’ll keep his head on a swivel going forward.

One NHL scout had this to say about McAvoy before the draft, and while it might have sounded effusive in its praise then, you can now understand what the veteran talent evaluator was talking about:

“The top defensemen in this draft are hard to separate and McAvoy might end up being the best. He would’ve torn apart the OHL and produced as much as guys like (Mikhail) Sergachev and (Jakob) Chychrun, in my opinion. He’s an NHL athlete and skater; a thick, strong, and powerful kid who has great speed and skating ability. Competitive and passionate about hockey. Can make the first pass and is good offensively off the rush but he’s just average on the PP and lack of height will limit him defensively in the NHL. Doesn’t have Werenski’s size or PP ability from last year.”

If McAvoy can improve his power play skills and production, the sky could be the limit for him.

He’s slated to go back to Boston University for his sophomore season, and it would be surprising to see the Bruins try and sign him now and pull him out of the NCAA (though not impossible, especially after the way he’s performed at Bruins development and the USA evaluation camps). Realistically- he’ll play for the Terriers in 2016-17, but don’t be surprised to see the B’s come calling in the spring and we might even see McAvoy get some NHL games to finish out the year. He’s probably good enough to handle it, but first things first and we’ll see how the season goes.

Here’s a draft weekend video of McAvoy interviewed by Edmonton colleague Tom Gazzolla:

Boston’s other USA defenseman- Ryan Lindgren– didn’t draw the same kind of attention McAvoy did, but the NTDP U18 captain from a season ago stood out to those who watched him and can see how the little things he excels at add up to make a pretty impressive player in his own right.

Like McAvoy, Lindgren isn’t all that tall, and he doesn’t have the same wide build, either. However, he has a knack for lining up guys for kill shots and knowing when to give and take hits to make plays. A competitive little son of a gun, Lindgren earns the respect of coaches for his intensity and how hard he plays. The kicker is his personal discipline; he’s someone who plays right on the edge as a mobile, physical defender who is better than his own end than on offense, but doesn’t cross the line very often and hurt his team with bad penalties.

We got a good, hard look at Lindgren and he plays such a polished, refined defensive game already at age 18. His gap control is excellent and he instinctively understands when to activate at the right times and when to back off. His stick positioning is sound and he’s got real nice skating range and closing ability- this is a guy who is tough to beat wide because he skates so well in all directions, but who can also use his natural speed to jump up into the play and support the rush.

A lot of players talk about being two-way defensemen- Lindgren actually has the skills and head to pull it off.

Factor in that he’s a natural leader who was universally hailed by his teammates and opponents alike as a team captain they would follow anywhere and/or respect as an opponent, and he looks to be a top-four fixture at some point on the left side in Boston when he gets some time in at the University of Minnesota, possibly followed up by a stint in the minors.

NHL Prospects posted this highlight video of Lindgren from a season ago:

It’s hard to resist the urge to start penciling in players like McAvoy and Lindgren into future Boston lineups, but as of right now, rushing the shiny new toys into action is probably not the way the team is looking at things. Lindgren will likely follow a longer timeline to the NHL than McAvoy will, but there is reason for excitement.

That doesn’t help the Bruins in 2016-17, but it also means that the team need not panic and sell the farm to acquire overpriced veteran defenders with a limited return on investment. This pair, when added to some of the other impressive talents like Brandon Carlo, Jakub Zboril, Rob O’Gara, Matt Grzelcyk and Jeremy Lauzon for starters, underscore the optimism and hope for a brighter blue line future.

***

Zach Senyshyn, who missed Bruins development camp after recovering from mono, got some limited time in with Canada, but didn’t get much of an opportunity to shine. His time will come, and after a 45-goal campaign with the Soo Greyhounds a year ago, he’s still very much in the mix for a spot with Team Canada in the 2017 World Jr. tourney, but he was not at 100 percent. Given the mediocre showing of the rest of the team, especially against Team USA in the finale, you can bet that the coaches will want to see more of what Senyshyn can do in December, not less.

Trent Frederic was also at camp with Team USA and he’s got some interesting potential, even if he’s still raw and isn’t going to bring much in the way of flash. He’s got good size and will do honest gruntwork to gain and maintain possession. He doesn’t have much in the way of high-end skills, however- and that will always be the rub when fans debate his selection at 29th overall. Simply put- there were more talented options on the board where he was chosen, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they will prove to be better players in the long run.

Jeremy Lauzon was also in camp for Canada, and we had limited exposure to him. He’ll likely get lost in the sauce of the excitement surrounding McAvoy for the time being, but watch for Lauzon to be more comfortable and confident at Boston’s main camp in September and he’s primed for another big year of junior hockey before he’ll turn pro and help Providence out if his QMJHL season ends in time to get some AHL work next spring.

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Last but not least-

Sincere condolences on the passing of ESPN analyst John Saunders, who passed away at age 61, the network announced yesterday.

He was very clearly a hockey guy, and I always enjoyed his takes and humble persona whenever he was on the air. ESPN is not a hockey network, so he was one of the few talents that brought much-needed knowledge of and passion for the game whenever he had a chance to talk about the NHL or hockey at other levels.

Saunders will be missed and he got much in the way of respect and acknowledgements yesterday by so many who knew and loved him.

 

The undrafted free agents: the next ones?

Wrapping up the undrafted free agents series with a Boston Bruins focus, going with four players who were in the AHL last year with the Providence Bruins. We could see one or two of them get some NHL games in with Boston this season depending on how things go.

Before we get to the four prospects, though- a little housekeeping first:

As reported in the Boston Globe, Gretzky to the Oilers as assistant GM is done, with Don Sweeney wishing his former chief scout well, lamenting the timing of the hire as an issue. Not one to stand in the way of letting their employee advance in a key managerial position even with a rival club (rival for obvious reasons I don’t need to go into), the B’s did the right thing by letting Gretzky go. This is one of those “if you love someone set them free” kind of things; the team could have played hardball, but that usually comes back to bite you. At this stage, the B’s don’t get anything for releasing Gretzky except maybe some goodwill and the hopes that they can build bridges with their former GM now in Edmonton rather than burn them. I saw someone (I don’t remember where it was) mention the other day that a Dougie Hamilton to the Oilers for Taylor Hall might have been something worth doing if relations between the teams hadn’t been so strained. I don’t know if that was even realistic to consider a year ago, and the world will never know, but cordial relations across the league are better than adversarial ones.

Now, former director of amateur scouting Scott Bradley, who held the post with Boston for more than 10 years before Wayne Smith was named to the position in 2008, will wear two hats as assistant GM and chief scout until Sweeney can find a replacement. Bradley is a good man who has spent nearly three decades in the Bruins organization. His watershed draft as scouting director was 2006 when the team landed Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand with three of their first four picks. Bradley was the guy most responsible for Lucic and a decade later, it was a hell of a find. He’s a man of integrity and a cancer survivor whose decency and dedication to the profession has earned him a great deal of respect around the league.

The Bruins are in good hands until a longer-term solution is found.

Now, onto the main topic at hand…

 

This is the last in a series of articles on undrafted free agents who have made an impact with the B’s: Torey Krug, Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, Tim Schaller and Kevan Miller. It’s pretty rare to have four UDFAs on one roster, and the skeptics would probably tell you that it might begin to answer why the B’s have DNQ’d for the NHL playoffs in each of the past two years.

Having said that, Krug has become an integral member of the Boston defense, while Vatrano shows a great deal of promise as someone who could net 25-30 goals or more down the road with a natural scoring knack that can’t be taught. Miller is a trusted if at times miscast defensive defenseman, while Schaller and Acciari are Providence College products who look like above average bottom-six players at the NHL level if they can keep progressing. If nothing else, they’re key cogs at the AHL level.

Now, we look at four players who have yet to reach the NHL, but show enough promise to get there. It won’t be easy for any of them, as with the exception of Czarnik, none display any real higher-end potential. However, as we have learned over the years- sometimes all it takes is an opportunity. This group is likely ticketed for Providence, but stranger things have happened and injury woes or exceptional play could see one or more of these guys get a shot at the big time.

Austin Czarnik, C- Often overshadowed by Vatrano’s scoring eruption last season, Czarnik had an outstanding rookie pro season in the AHL, posting 61 points in 68 games and impressing everyone from the get-go with his speed, smarts and hustle.

The former captain of the Miami University RedHawks was snubbed in the NHL draft because of his lack of size, but he’s always had pro-caliber wheels and brings creativity and moxie to the mix as well. He was recalled to Boston late in the season on an emergency basis but didn’t get into the lineup. While not an ideal fit on the third or fourth lines given the B’s current personnel, if anything changes, the team won’t hesitate to put him in there.

One play in the preseason last year really stood out as typical of what the little Michigan buzzsaw has always been about: on what looked to be a routine dump-in to the offensive end, Czarnik could have made a line change, but he recognized his opponents were making a change and a sloppy one at that. In an instant, he turned on the jets, and blew past a defender who was on the way to the bench but couldn’t adjust his trajectory in time. Czarnik got to the puck first and then made an on-target pass for a Boston goal. Those are the kinds of plays that earn trust and respect from the coaches because of the skill and intelligence behind them. At the NHL level, nanoseconds can mean the difference between making a play and coming up short, so Czarnik seems to understand already what is at stake.

Now, exhibition play isn’t the regular season, but it spoke volumes that one so young and inexperienced at the pro level came in and clicked right away, performing at a near point-per-game pace in the minors. Watch for Czarnik to make his NHL debut this season. He’s probably not going to begin the year in Boston, but he’s a solid bet to get some games in because he’s got scoring chops but is also working on improving his all-around play and is not a defensive liability.

Here’s his first career pro hat trick from December:

Chris Casto, D- The B’s signed Casto out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2013 and at one time, he was shaping up to be a top Minnesota high school draft prospect. With good size and skating, Casto won’t win on many style points, but he can really fire the puck and he put up the best offensive totals of his three-year professional career in 2016.

Casto is a smart and solid positional D. He plays a similar style to that of Tommy Cross, but without the second-round pedigree (and as-of-yet unfulfilled expectations) hanging over him. Casto keeps things simple: he doesn’t show off much in the way of flash, but is steady and moves the puck to the right areas. Like anyone who logs a lot of minutes, there are times when he’ll make a mistake that leads to a goal, but at the AHL level at least, he’s developed into a top-four presence who first-year Providence head coach Kevin Dean will likely lean on heavily in the new campaign.

Here’s a slow-mo video of a Casto goal from last season:

Colby Cave, C- It was a bit of a surprise that the B’s successfully signed Cave after they grabbed Czarnik and Vatrano in the spring of 2015 because Cave was viewed as one of the top undrafted free agents coming out of the WHL a year ago.

The former captain of the Swift Current Broncos saw time in 2014-15 with Boston first-rounder Jake DeBrusk, and had a solid if unspectacular first pro season in Providence last year.

Cave is a fine skater who is effective on the fore check and at forcing turnovers and plays a smart, capable two-way game. What you see is what you get with him- he’s going to take pucks to the net and make an honest 200-foot effort to compensate from a pretty average skill set. He plays the game bigger than his size, playing a rugged but clean style and his leadership no doubt appealed to Boston in their aggressive pursuit of him.

Watch for Cave to put up 20 or more goals in the AHL this year if he can stay healthy, and he could line up behind Czarnik in Providence’s top-two forward lines with the departure of Alexander Khokhlachev to the KHL. Players like Cave aren’t all that sexy or exciting, but they’ll get a shot sometimes ahead of the flashy but one-dimensional types who can only play on half of the ice surface.

Cave’s biggest problem is that he’s got Acciari and Schaller to contend with, and I don’t see him beating either guy out for a spot in Boston, so he’ll probably have to bide his time and try to elevate his play on the farm to make a case.

Cave’s first AHL goal is at about 1:02 of this highlight vid:

Justin Hickman, RW- Another WHL captain- the Bruins outbid several other NHL clubs for the Seattle Thunderbirds overager in January 2015 when he suffered a shoulder injury and had to shut it down for surgery.

He gets a pass for a mediocre rookie pro season because of the physical, rugged style of play Hickman brings and he looked a bit tentative at times as he adjusted to the pro pace after missing about 10 months of playing action by the time he started skating in the AHL.

He’s got good size and toughness- Hickman isn’t a heavyweight who can go toe-to-toe with the biggest, baddest fighters (admittedly- there aren’t many of those left), but he will actively drop the gloves to defend himself and teammates and loves to initiate contact and do the heavy lifting along the walls and in front of the net. Here you go:

Hickman doesn’t have an abundance of skill and best case for him would be to eventually land on an NHL third line somewhere as a middle-of-the-road option; he’s more likely a solid fourth-liner similar to Nate Thompson (who was coincidentally a Seattle product as well).

Stats don’t tell the whole story- Hickman was eased in and didn’t have much in the way of opportunity, but the B’s are quietly high on him and he’ll get a chance to elevate his stock as a sophomore. He’s not ready to make an NHL roster push, but a strong second pro season would go a long way for his confidence and give the team some options.

Austin Czarnik's 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Austin Czarnik’s 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

Report: Keith Gretzky to Oilers as assistant GM

Multiple reports on Twitter to include the esteemed Bob McKenzie have Bruins amateur scouting chief Keith Gretzky heading west to join former B’s GM Peter Chiarelli as part of the Edmonton Oilers braintrust. I chatted with a Boston team source who didn’t confirm it, but indicated it was a done deal, so all we do now is wait for the official announcement.

Gretzky, who joined the B’s scouting staff during the 2011-12 season after being let go from his previous post as chief scout for the Arizona Coyotes. Gretzky was promoted to the head scout position in Boston in August 2013, replacing Wayne Smith.

The move is not all that surprising, as Chiarelli brought the younger brother of Wayne Gretzky to Boston as a scout and then elevated him to head up the team’s drafting efforts after two seasons in a crossover capacity.

In the three drafts since, more optimism accompanied Boston’s efforts. Gretzky and Co. hit immediately on David Pastrnak, who slipped to 25th overall. However, every other player from that 2014 draft class looks promising as well: Ryan Donato enters his sophomore season at Harvard and is primed for bigger things in Cambridge. Danton Heinen has done nothing but impress after being an unknown plucked out of the BCHL in his second year of NHL draft eligibility, posting two prolific scoring years as Denver University. Heinen could win a job in Boston right away given his skill level and versatility. Anders Bjork was a fifth-round find and gem, who led the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in scoring as a sophomore, and even seventh-rounder Emil Johansson shows promise for being a late pick.

Gretzky’s 2015 draft could pay big dividends for Boston as well, even if some of the choices in the first round were not popular ones at the time. With 10 picks thanks to the Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic trades, the B’s have a bevy of prospects with a trio of second-rounders who have generated buzz in their own right. Time will tell whether not picking one or two of forwards Kyle Connor, Colin White and Mathew Barzal will hurt Boston in the long term, but Boston’s first six choices all seem to be developing, with 37th overall pick Brandon Carlo having the best chance to play in the NHL this season. Zach Senyshyn and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson show real promise at key forward positions (RW, C) and the B’s appear to have some potential in huge but lithe goalie Daniel Vladar (3rd round) and agitating winger Jesse Gabrielle. The B’s can’t employ all 10 of their draft picks from 2015, but they’re going to hit on a few at least.

This past June, Gretzky and his scouts went with Charlie McAvoy over Dante Fabbro– both will play at BU this season, but don’t be surprised to see McAvoy headed to the pro ranks sooner rather than later. Early returns on his Team USA development camp in Plymouth, MI this week are good and Ryan Lindgren (taken 49th) overall has really stood out. “He nearly killed a kid,” with a hard but clean open-ice hit, according to a text I got from an NHL scout on Saturday. The same individual also singled McAvoy out as the “best player on the ice.”

Gretzky caught some heat for the Trent Frederic pick and some of his subsequent comments where he admitted that the B’s don’t see the 29th overall selection as a top-six forward. He probably didn’t articulate that as well as he could have, but if we learned nothing from the Senyshyn pick the year before, it’s probably best to see how Frederic does going forward before casting judgment.

If Gretzky’s work with Boston was promising, then his track record in Arizona is more of a mixed bag. The Coyotes didn’t hit on a great deal of picks the team made on his watch, but the point I would offer up is that not every scouting staff in the league is the same. Just like the teams themselves- some clubs are more talented than others, and there’s always a multitude of factors that go into drafting. Even so, some in the business point to Gretzky’s tenure in Arizona, and with the jury still out on his Boston body of work, you just have to take it from there.

Boston could promote from within- Scott Fitzgerald is the club’s assistant director of amateur scouting and has recovered from a serious car accident in 2013 that nearly cost him his life. Dean Malkoc has also impressed as one of the club’s workhorse scouts who goes all over from his Western Canada base of operations to look for talent. Ryan Nadeau has done tremendous work in the NCAA ranks and elsewhere. B’s GM Don Sweeney could also bring in an experienced chief scout from the outside. It will be interesting to see.

All that is left to do is congratulate Gretzky for the promotion and move up. It hurts Boston, as he appears to have done fine work for the club in his five seasons here. He’ll join an Edmonton organization flush with major talent after winning the Connor McDavid sweeps a year ago and then falling into Jesse Puljujarvi at fourth overall in Buffalo. Old friend Lucic is in town, and we’ll see what Gretzky can do to help develop the talent in the system and identify new players down the road.

In the meantime, changes in Boston continue to shape the front office and Sweeney has another key hire ahead.

 

On leadership and GoT’s Lady Lyanna Mormont

“Bear Island knows no king except the King in the North, whose name is Stark.”- Lady Lyanna Mormont

Bella Ramsey as Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island in Game of Thrones season 6

Bella Ramsey as Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island in Game of Thrones season 6

I meant to post this before, but after re-watching Season 6 of the HBO fantasy saga Game of Thrones, I just had to take time out for some remarks on leadership as personified by the 2016 iteration of the show’s breakout star- Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island, played brilliantly by 12-year-old English actress Bella Ramsey.

You don’t have to be familiar with the books or show to relate to this post, but as was the case in my last detour on Gettysburg and Union Army Chief of Cavalry Major General John Buford, going to take a step away from hockey to talk about the pint-sized, but fierce character and why not only the screenwriters but Miss Ramsey herself did such a tremendous job in distilling pure leadership into just a few memorable scenes and dialogue.

I’ve got 22 years of active duty military service and counting, but I’ll tell you this- Lyanna Mormont knows leadership. It’s one thing for a fictional character to be described as a leader, but the actor has to pull it off, and in just a few scene stealers, it isn’t hard to figure out why young Ramsey is receiving such critical acclaim. It isn’t difficult to see some key lessons in leadership that combat leaders and leaders in general have in common, even though Bear Island resides in fantasyland.

For those who watched season 6 and know exactly of which I speak, I believe there will be some easter eggs in this post for you, so read on. For those who aren’t all that familiar with the George R.R. Martin series of books or with HBO’s runaway hit that debuted back in the spring of 2011, just a few short months before the Boston Bruins captured the Stanley Cup, you can probably follow along just fine. For those who are fans but have not yet seen Season 6 and are worried about spoilers…I will do my best not to include many, but one person’s spoiler is another one’s teaser, so if you’re the kind of person who simply cannot abide being told about something before you see it yourself, then stop reading now.

Okay- you were warned. Spoiler alert is on.

Without spending too much time on it- Lady Lyanna Mormont is the head of a proud warrior house from a hardscrabble island off the coast of Westeros, the fantastical setting for Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire opus, known on television as GoT after the first book of the series, published two decades ago.

Lyanna is just 10 years old when introduced near the end of season six- ascending to the head of House Mormont after her mother died in battle during the War of the Five Kings on behalf of Robb Stark, Lord of Winterfell. The people of the Northlands in Westeros are fierce and proud- they live a difficult existence but embrace the hard living compared to their neighbors to the south, especially those in the Westerosi capital, King’s Landing. Think of them as a loose grouping of warrior tribes, each with their own identity, but united under the Wolf sigil banner of House Stark- the warden clan of the North for a near milennium.

The War of Five Kings has tested those alliances and fractured many of them, leaving the late Robb Stark’s illegitimate brother, Jon Snow, to try and re-form a coalition to defeat the evil, twisted and depraved Ramsay Bolton and drive his minions from the Stark ancestral home and castle at Winterfell. To say any more about Jon Snow or his relationship to Robb’s younger sister, Sansa Stark, would cause for too many spoilers and detract from the post’s purpose, so I won’t go there. Let’s just say that it’s complicated, so when Snow, Sansa and Snow’s right-hand man Ser Davos of House Seaworth arrive at the Mormont stronghold, they’re in dire straits and in need of some good fighting men.

Enter, Lady Lyanna. The exchange is worth watching…not only for the excellent acting (especially by Bella Ramsey but more on her later) but for how one so young carries herself while surrounded by adults and several notable, battle-tested swordsmen at that. If your eyes and ears weren’t betraying her to be one so young, you could close your eyes and imagine a stereotypical fantasy warrior with huge build, muscles and flowing beard saying the same things. Ah, but the key to earning respect and winning influence goes well beyond mere appearances…

So, what did you see here?

The first thing that struck me is that there is no doubting who is in charge. When the group enters the room and addresses them, she firmly replies with “Welcome to Bear Island,” and then says no more. The underlying message for them is clear: let’s see what you have for me. You were the ones who asked for an audience, so…speak. She makes no attempt at small talk and when Sansa Stark tries to do so, she quickly dispenses with the pleasantries.

Strike one for the coalition builders.

When Jon Snow compounds the mistake by referencing her deceased uncle (also his former military commander, but yep- too complicated to get into), she allows him to speak a bit as a basic courtesy and then cuts him off in order to get to the point.

That’s strike two.

When you have your own fiefdom to run, platitudes and remembrances don’t keep the people of Bear Island safe. Time is precious, and you can see early in the scene that she’s doing the mental calculus on how strong her potential allies are, and thus far- they’re showing themselves to be wanting.

What’s interesting about Lyanna here is that she’s not disrespectful, but her demeanor reflects an iron spine that her people pride themselves on. She lives on a small island made up of dense forests (and lots of bears of course) populated by strong and hardy people- lumberjacks and fishermen chief amongst them. Lady Lyanna might be young and not yet a proven, blooded warrior for House Mormont, but she is wise beyond her years. She recognizes the well-meaning attempt by Jon and Sansa to ingratiate themselves before the real parlay begins, but she simply doesn’t have time for it.

She also no doubt knows full well why they came to see her.

Her biggest responsibility as Bear Island’s leader is to make decisions that people will live or possibly die as the result of. It’s one thing for someone to inherit the mantel of responsibility and leadership, but it’s quite another to get your charges to actually comply with your decisions or put their lives at your command. Leadership is respect, and just a minute or so in, I was captivated at just how much respect she commanded in that room.

As Jon talks to her about the importance of defeating the Bolton coalition, and makes another tactical error of continuing with “what you have to understand, my lady, is…” she’s heard enough and takes charge of the meeting once and for all, challenging him to sell her on what is in it for Bear Island if the Mormonts commit more troops to the venture.

Stee-riike three!

It’s a powerful moment, because Snow looks to Sansa and doesn’t know what else to say. They aren’t getting anywhere, and it looks as if Bear Island and House Mormont will join a growing list of northern allies who decline to help Snow and his followers in their greatest time of need.

Luckily, Ser Davos, one of the few truly good men in the series left (ironic given his beginnings as a smuggler and pirate) and a valuable advisor to Jon, steps in and saves the day.

What I love about Lyanna’s response is that while skeptical at first, you sense that Davos has made a genuine connection with her, much like he did with another young noblewoman named Shireen Baratheon earlier in the series. Her tragic story is best told elsewhere, but you sense that in Lady Lyanna, Ser Davos recognizes the same kind of potential for greatness he did in little Shireen and as they speak to one another, you see a growing mutual respect between them. He’s speaking her language- acknowledging her responsibilities and praising her for the work she’s done to maintain her house, but not patronizing her or treating her like a child. He cuts to the heart of the matter, which gets her attention when he says: “this battle is between the living and the dead.” Davos answers the “what’s in it for us?” question Lyanna wanted Jon to answer for her up front.

I also like the dynamic between Lady Lyanna and her advisors. You can see that she depends on them…listens to them. Earlier in the scene, she’s more inclined to take their advice and treats her visitors with healthy skepticism that her maester is fueling. But once she sees the bigger picture that Davos paints, she holds up her hand when the advisor (maester) senses where she might be leaning and attempts to counsel her. In that moment, you see that she has made a critical decision. And you hear her fierce decisiveness in the words that follow.

I actually got goosebumps the first time I watched the scene when Lyanna replies: “House Mormont has kept faith with House Stark for a thousand years. We will not break faith today.”

When Snow asks how many men House Mormont will contribute to the cause, Lady Lyanna again consults one of her advisors, this time the man flanking her and likely her field commander/senior ranking man-at-arms. She replies “62” and Snow is clearly taken aback at such a paltry sum. The Mistress of Bear Island immediately senses the unease and declares that her soldiers can “fight with the strength of 10 mainlanders.” All of the sudden, the power of 620 rough-and-tumble guys joining the fight doesn’t seem like such a bad deal at all.

And when Ser Davos compliments her, at the end by saying “If they are half as ferocious as their lady, then the Boltons are doomed,” she’s not put off- she simply smiles and nods. Because that’s not small talk or idle flattery. It’s the truth.

***

It’s rare that one so young and in just about 5 minutes and change of screen time can make such an impression, but that’s what the precocious Bella Ramsey pulls off. It’s a remarkable performance, all the more exceptional by the fact that this is her first-ever role. She not only blew away her fellow actors- the adults in the scene- by already committing her lines to memory the very first time they sat down together for a reading (they hadn’t), but by studying the dialects and accent of Northern England natives, which is what the Northmen of Westeros are based on. Miss Ramsey is 12 years old- a little more senior than Lyanna Mormont as portrayed in the books and show, but she pulls it off so well. There is little doubt that Hollywood has seen enough of Bella and she’s sure to get more work going forward.

But for now, it’s her Game of Thrones role we’re focusing on…

Lady Mormont is seen just two more times in season 6- glaring at the leering, loathsome Ramsay Bolton while he and Jon Snow parlay on the eve before the “Battle of the Bastards” in Episode 9. She doesn’t say a word, but when the vile Bolton turns his attention towards her and in all of his oily repulsiveness, talks of pardoning the “treasonous lords” who allied with Jon’s coalition, he turns his lecherous gaze her way. Seated on her horse behind Snow, Sansa, Davos and their retinue, she need not have run Bolton through with a sword at that point- the daggers should have done the trick if looks could kill. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this championship-caliber scowl, directed straight at Bolton himself:

If looks could kill...there would be no need for the Snow-Bolton armies to clash

If looks could kill…there would be no need for the Snow-Bolton armies to clash

She makes one last memorable appearance in the final episode of Season 6, standing up in a hall of bickering north lords to shame several of them. As you listen to her say “You refused the call” each time in her Northern accent, you can almost feel her words burning through you. When she finishes with the words “(Jon Snow) is my king this day…and until his last day,” I don’t know about you but I was ready to  pick up a sword and start chanting “The King in the North!” right then. You won’t be surprised at what kind of a reaction it gets from all the long-haired manly men with swords.

Bravo, Miss Ramsey, bravo. A star is born.

Now here are 5 quick lessons in leadership as taught by Lady Lyanna Mormont

  1. When in charge, be in charge: From the moment Snow and company meet her, there is no mistaking that she commands the fortunes of Bear Island. This is no figurehead- we don’t know how Lyanna rose to be named her house’s chief at such a young age in the wake of her mother’s death in battle, but we know why.
  2. Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill every person you meet: Her words are iron and although she’s not rude to her guests, she sends a clear message early in the meeting that she’s not messing around. This is someone who has seen much in her 10 years, but she also already possesses the wisdom that to truly protect her people, she must be willing to make hard decisions that put some of them in peril. This is why she allows Davos to speak and listens to what he tells her, recognizing the danger ahead if she doesn’t do her part to help unite the North. It’s just a story, but leaders in just about every walk of life have to be engaged all of the time, and find those golden nuggets that can drive an important decision, even if it isn’t readily apparent at first.
  3. Seek advice of counsel, but own the decisions you make: A few quick exchanges let you see that she understands that she doesn’t have everything figured out. The most successful leaders know that they didn’t reach their position alone and that their real success has a lot to do with the people around them. Surround yourself with smart, talented people over sycophants and yes-men and you’ll make informed decisions more often than not. Once you make those decisions, you’re responsible for whatever happens, good or bad. The great leaders know when to trust informed counsel and when to do what they think is right, even if it means going against the advice they’re given. Once Davos convinced Lyanna that joining the coalition and uniting the north was critical to preparing for what is to come, she didn’t dither or waffle.
  4. Lead from the front, set the right example: Lyanna could have sent her 62 men away from Bear Island and left it to Jon Snow to employ them within his fighting force, but that’s not what great leaders do. She takes a hands-on approach and goes with them to Winterfell, even though she’s not going to ride into battle with the warriors. Her presence ensures that  she has a say in how they are managed and led while safeguarding their personal welfare when it comes to logistics and their partnership. As she grows and gains skill at arms and physical strength, she will fight alongside her men as her mother and predecessors in House Mormont did, but for now- she understands her place is with the overall effort to defeat the Boltons, even if she’s not yet ready for the martial test. Her men see her there with them, sharing in the hardships of field living and are no doubt inspired that in committing them to the cause, she’s also putting herself at risk with her personal stake in the conflict.
  5. Live your values and embrace your code even when times are tough: When it appeared that the most important coalition of all might fracture again, she stood up and cowed a room full of battle tested warriors, many of whom were three, four even five times her age. She did it because she was convinced of the righteousness of the cause and she did it for her king. It might have been easier for her to simply sit and remain silent as the youngest warlord in the room, but her devotion to her values and her understanding of the larger picture and what was at stake gave her the moral courage to intervene. It might be hard to believe in this day and age that one so young could do that, but there is a great deal we can learn from our children if we give them a chance. Lady Lyanna saw the opening and seized it. Like. A. Boss.

If the show’s producers don’t figure out a way to get Bella Ramsey/Lyanna Mormont more screen time in seasons 7 and 8- then there is something seriously wrong. Having said that, I think they’ve heard the call (say it in your best Lyanna Mormont voice) and will trot her out for more scene stealers in 2017 and 2018. She’s got the goods.

***

We’ll be back with hockey and a last look at the undrafted free agents in Boston’s system who have yet to crack the big roster.

 

 

 

The undrafted free agents: Kevan Miller

Next in the undrafted free agents series covering the Boston Bruins is California-bred, Massachusetts and Vermont-developed defensive defenseman Kevan Miller. He caught Boston’s eye during a late-season ATO with the Providence Bruins in 2011, and then got an invite to the team’s rookie camp and main training camp that fall. I still remember traveling to Nassau Coliseum and seeing him get involved in a major donnybrook to start the second of the two-game series between the B’s and Islanders rooks. Miller earned an NHL contract a few weeks later, and by the midway point of 2013-14, was playing in the NHL full-time.

He’s a classic American story of hard work and overcoming hurdles, and yet Miller may be one of the more criticized players on the Boston roster, despite an impressive body of work in the realm of analytics that we’ll attempt to shine some light on later on.

This is his story.

Hard as a Rock: Kevan Miller

When it comes to Kevan Miller, few players are more polarizing to a respective fanbase than he is to supporters of the Boston Bruins.  Here’s a video courtesy of friend “Dafoomie”:

The soon-to-be 29-year-old defenseman should be one of those feel good stories in hockey- a California born-and-raised defenseman who went East in high school, rose to the University of Vermont captaincy, and after being ignored in the NHL draft, willed his way into the Boston lineup less than three years after turning pro. Instead, he’s become a convenient scapegoat- a player who is an easy target for frustrations because he was asked to play a bigger role than the one to which he is best suited.

Miller was a few months away from his first birthday when the Los Angeles Kings made “the trade” to bring Wayne Gretzky to Tinseltown in August, 1988. Raised in Santa Clarita, Miller represents the first generation of players who were born when Gretzky arrived and went on to reach the highest levels of professional hockey thanks in large part to the hockey boom the Great One inspired in Southern California. Miller wasn’t the first Golden Stater to make the big time, nor is he the most successful, but all things considered, the guy who the Bruins took a chance on back in 2011, and who recently earned a four-year NHL extension is much better than he gets credit for.

I realize this won’t be a popular opinion to some, who will rightly cite some of Miller’s bungled plays leading directly to goals as proof positive that he should be exiled forever to the lower rungs of the professional hockey ladder, never to take another shift for the Bruins. Of course, the flip side of that is- show me any NHL defenseman who plays enough minutes at this level, and you’ll see some poor plays that lead to bad goals. Like the dead people in the Sixth Sense, once folks lock onto a favorite target- they’ll see what they want to see, so if Miller is a bum, it’s easy to single him out for abuse.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that Miller is a potential All-Star, nor is it to feed into the idea that he’s a drag on the rest of his team and was not worthy of the $2.5M AAV and four-year investment the B’s made in him.

As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Miller is a fairly vanilla defender: he’s an average skater without much in the way of quick acceleration, but who is rugged and plays with an edge. His offensive numbers are better than one would expect for a shutdown style ‘D’ without high-end skills. He’s a natural leader and former prep (Berkshire School) and college captain who is a respected teammate and put in tremendous work to reach the NHL.

Here’s an interesting study on the top defenders from last season, posted on Reddit by ChrisCFTB97

It’s a thoughtful, analytics-driven look at the most effective defensemen in the NHL from last season, and while advanced stats don’t tell the whole story, Miller’s numbers when compared to those of Zdeno Chara and Colin Miller, the other two teammates the author used for the study (boy, I sure would’ve liked to see him use Torey Krug here), are pretty favorable. If anything- it directly contradicts the idea propagated around the Internet that Miller is “horrible” or “can’t defend.”

Here’s the HERO (Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic) chart comparing Miller to that of trade deadline darling Kris Russell, done courtesy of the most excellent hockey analytics source and blog Own The Puck by MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com:

Kevan Miller's HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Kevan Miller’s HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

The numbers don’t lie. When it comes to things that matter on defense such as shot suppression and possession, Miller clearly has the advantage over Russell and it isn’t close. Again- advanced stats aren’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to debating the merits of an NHL player, but Miller is nothing if a serviceable defender who actually looks like a solid bargain at $10M/2.5M per through age 32.

Now, some of the friction points working against Miller could lie in the following observations:

  1. Both of Miller and Adam McQuaid on the 2016-17 Bruins roster is problematic. They’re both right shots and bring similar attributes in terms of style and substance. McQuaid is bigger and not as adept offensively, but both are nasty and because of the physical toll their rugged style takes on their bodies, they’ve missed significant time to injuries in each of the past several NHL campaigns. Neither guy is a classic top-4 player (though if you look at the advanced metrics Miller is closer to that between the two), and when you add up their cap numbers, it’s far too much green to invest in a pair of guys like that. To say that Miller is incapable of making a positive impact is wrong. To argue that having both of Miller and McQuaid on the Boston roster puts the team at a disadvantage is a far more effective way of looking at it. One or the other…Miller or McQuaid. Something should give before the season starts because the pair effectively blocks a younger player from establishing himself at the NHL level, and if either one is on Claude Julien’s top pairing (and even middle pair is an issue), then this is not a playoff-caliber defense.
  2. The tail end of observation No. 1 leads to a second significant challenge with Miller and that is simply- the B’s put him in a position to fail last season. At times, he was expected to carry the mail in a top-three role with expanded minutes and special teams, and naturally- his limitations were exposed. Miller is effective closer to the bottom of an NHL rotation, and he’s capable of being a solid matchup play and at even strength, when he doesn’t have his hands full as much with opponents who can make good use of added time and space. He’s not as big as Hal Gill was, but Miller is a better all-around player and defender. Unfortunately, like Gill later on in his Boston career- Miller has become an easy target with fans who just want to blame someone when a goal is scored against, never mind that the opposition’s top scorer was able to exploit a 1-on-1 matchup with the game but limited Miller.
  3. Let’s face it- sometimes, it’s all about draft pedigree. Fans want to get behind sexy draft picks and big names- they tend to be much more skeptical of and harder on guys like Miller who come in as unknowns and outplay the “big guns.” Go back to the Reddit link I posted and look at some of Dougie Hamilton’s numbers in those categories. He’s better than Miller in a couple, egregiously worse in others. In the end, Kevan Miller’s 84.5 average (lower is better) across the various evaluated categories is better than Hamilton’s 98.2. One guy was drafted 9th overall in 2011, the other one had to make it on an invitation, fight his way onto the team and has managed to stick. Again- you can’t just hang your hat on the analytics, and no one in their right mind would trade Miller for Hamilton even-steven (no, not even Don Sweeney, guys- but nice try). The difference is- one player is making half of what the other guy makes, and maybe that $2.5AAV isn’t so terrible after all. (One more time- *not* saying Miller is better than Hamilton- put the straw man down) It’s all in how you use him, folks. That’s a legitimate debate to have, but you can’t do it in a vacuum- context matters.
Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay- we had some fun with the image, but it’s tongue-in-cheek from this blog space. The reality is- TSP has time for Miller. He’s an honest, hard-nosed player who will give you every ounce of what he has. Unfortunately, in a results-oriented business, that alone isn’t going to lead his Bruins team to success, so the onus is on the GM to upgrade the talent around Miller so that he can be a capable and serviceable piece.

And therein lies the rub- I don’t think fans inherently dislike Miller at all. In fact, he was pretty popular when he first showed up and was hitting, fighting and playing solid D at a near veteran minimum cap hit. Alas- he lacks the high-end talent to be a firm top-4 NHL D, even if the analytics indicate he has a chance at it. Realistically- the more he plays, the more people will see him get burned, but by the same token, he suppresses a lot of chances he simply doesn’t get credit for because human nature means that those with an axe to grind will dwell on the mistakes.

Ultimately- Miller has been a nice find by the Boston scouting staff. He’s scrapped for every opportunity, but he’s a smart, driven guy- derailed a bit by shoulder injuries and the ruggedness of his style of play. On the downside- Miller and McQuaid are two fine soldiers, but the team can’t really afford to keep both. It’s the tough part of the business, but you figure the B’s signed the former before he could hit unrestricted free agency for a reason.

We’ll have to see what Sweeney and Co’s vision is for the defense and where Miller fits in, but he deserves a more even shake than the one he’s gotten. In the right role, he’s a lot like what these guys are singing:

Take it away, Millsy.

 

The undrafted free agents: Tim Schaller

When the Boston Bruins announced the signing of Tim Schaller on July 1 as the dust was settling on the big grab of David Backes, the Providence College product by way of Merrimack, N.H. and the New England Jr. Huskies of the old EJHL was not exactly an afterthought. He scored his first NHL goal against his childhood favorite B’s, and while he doesn’t have a great deal of big league playing time, is one of the more intriguing under-the-radar free agency grabs by the team.

Although on the New England-area watch lists back in his 2009 primary NHL draft season (he was born in late ’90), Schaller was not selected and ended up signing with the Buffalo Sabres prior to the 2013-14 season after playing a full four years in the NCAA with PC.

At 6-foot-2 and nearly 220 pounds, Schaller has the ideal size to center a bottom NHL line, but probably has enough versatility to shift to the wing if he can’t beat out Noel Acciari (he spent two years with NA in college before going pro) at the pivot spot in Boston. Schaller is a capable skater in a straight line, and he plays a traditional north-south, take-the-puck-right-to-the-net style. He’s never been one who was seen as a top prospect option, but he’s an above average AHL forward who has shown flashes of serviceable effectiveness with the Sabres, even on two below average NHL rosters (35 games over the past two seasons).

The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa had a nice little deep dive on Schaller last weekend and as usual, he mined some interesting nuggets:

“We had probably about 10-12 teams calling on one day,” Schaller recalled of the opening of free agency. “About halfway through the phone calls, Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins called. At that moment, I almost told my agent, ‘Why take another phone call? Why not just say yes to the Bruins right away?’ It’s a good opportunity to have to play in Boston. All the numbers worked out perfectly to where it was impossible to say no to them.”

That Schaller is a local guy will not win him any bonus points in his fight to make the roster. The 6-foot-2-inch, 219-pound center will have to beat out several players to earn his $600,000 NHL payday, including former college teammate Noel Acciari. Schaller agreed to a one-year, two-way contract, indicating an assignment to Providence is not out of the question.

Acciari, one of Schaller’s primary rivals, promptly turned into a coaching staff favorite upon his promotion last season. Acciari had just one assist in 19 games, but he did not take long to win the bosses’ trust on defensive-zone faceoffs, shorthanded shifts, and five-on-five situations where his willingness to run over opponents earned him a spot in the regular rotation.

Growing up in the Granite State less than an hour from Boston, Schaller was a Bruins fan, so he said in the Globe piece that when GM Don Sweeney called, he was pretty much sold. This is an example of leveraging the connection local talent has with playing for the hometown team, which although has fallen on harder times over the past two seasons, is still just five years removed from having won a Stanley Cup.

Cynics will probably insert a snide remark about “getting the Duckboats” ready when it comes to Schaller, so I’ll beat them to the punch by acknowledging that at $600k and on a one-year, two-way contract, it’s obvious the Bruins aren’t expecting a major contribution. The larger point is that he’s a smart signing as a player who can hedge against Acciari taking a step backwards or perhaps dealing with unexpected setbacks like injury.  We won’t make Schaller into more than he is currently- a bottom-six forward and center who could earn a fourth-line job right away with his old PC mate or provide the Bruins and Providence of the AHL with an effective heavy-on-the-puck veteran who will rack up close to a point-per-game’s worth of offense on the farm.

You can also connect the dots to Jimmy Vesey a bit with this one, as it is one more example of the lure that Boston has for guys who grew up in the area and have an attachment to home. Schiller’s decision and his accompanying comments reminds us all that the Bruins are still in a pretty good spot when it comes to attracting players and selling them on making Boston a pro hockey destination. There’s a significant difference between Schaller and Vesey in terms of how they project in the NHL, but there is still a good bit to be said about how a guy feels about staying home to play for the team he used to skate around on local rinks dreaming about. That’s not to say it’s the only reason Vesey might pass on another more lucrative (in terms of organization and winning) destination, but it would be foolish to dismiss the kind of influence that might have in the decision process. Guys don’t know what they don’t know, and in Vesey’s case for most of his 23 years, all he’s known is Boston. He’s said it himself- he’s a homebody, and like Schaller, his interest in fielding a lot of other offers might be diminished because he knows the B’s want him.

As we inch closer to August 15, we can’t predict if Vesey will ultimately decide that Boston represents the “best fit” for him, or if some other team like the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, NY Rangers or perhaps New Jersey Devils do.  There’s a lot that can happen between now and when his rights (currently held by Buffalo) expire.

It says a lot that ‘Hawks VP/GM Stan Bowman has been in Foxboro twice in person to watch Vesey play in the summer league there, though.  That’s Chicago’s M.O.- trade away high draft picks, but replenish those by aggressively signing high-end free agents who bring similar upside to those 18-year-olds drafted early on in June. We saw it work to ideal effect last year with the Breadman- Artemi Panarin, winner of the NHL’s top rookie prize (he also cashed in on some sweet bonuses, which contributed to the need to move some veteran players out). This is why Chicago is an upper tier NHL team, so nobody should be surprised that Bowman and crew are in on Vesey. Whether they’ll go all-in and Vesey himself will opt to go there remains to be seen, but this is how great teams stay that way- by being bold and managing risk-reward transactions. Vesey is low-risk, high-reward if he meets expectations, but we shall see.

Back to Schaller- he’s no threat to the memory of Milan Lucic, but there’s goodness in the idea of adding a big-bodied forward who plays a physical but pretty clean game. He doesn’t take a lot of penalties and uses his big frame to good effect along the walls and down low. He’s not going to score much off the rush, but he’ll do the grunt work in front of the net and in the high danger areas. There’s not a lot of skill here, but that’s not why Boston signed him. If he doesn’t make the big club, he can go down to Providence and help to offset some of the forward losses and annual turnover so prevalent in the AHL and lower levels. Of note- he was named the Amerks’ MVP in a vote taken by his teammate despite playing just 38 games last season due to injuries and time in Buffalo. With NHL experience, he’ll be someone who is on the recall short list when inevitable injuries happen up front or players struggle to contribute. When you consider how much of a disappointment Brett Connolly was in Boston after being the sixth overall pick in 2010, Schaller is a solid investment to make for what could end up being a similar payoff. It’s also one more reminder that if you draft a player high and he ends up on your fourth line as Connolly did at the end of last season, then you’ve taken a wrong turn. The undrafted Schaller makes a great deal more sense for where Boston intends to use him.

Some feel that Schaller will make the NHL team right from Jump Street- and that’s all fine. With his low cap hit and versatility, he might not carry a draft pedigree, but has proven himself to be the kind of serviceable grinder who will use his big body and has killed penalties, even though he hasn’t had an abundance of ice time. He’s confident he can win a spot and he wants to be here- that’s most of the battle right there, so may the best player win. Here’s his end-of-year interview with Rochester (AHL):

This is the kind of low-risk, medium-reward signing that helps teams get out of the cellar. The B’s still have a gaping hole on defense that needs to be filled, but by building depth at other positions, it allows the GM to build the kind of war chest that might help him to land that elusive young NHL talent that not only represents an upgrade but will have some retainability as well.

Vesey could be the key piece keeping Sweeney from committing to a major deal, but come August 15 and the time it takes the Hobey Baker winner to reach a decision, bigger things could be afoot.

 

The undrafted free agents: Noel Acciari

The Boston Bruins undrafted free agents series rolls on with a closer look at Rhode Islander Noel Acciari. He’s a personal fave but I can’t really claim it because I had a chance to sing his praises publicly but didn’t. More on that later, but read on…

No(el) sure thing: Acciari

Noel Acciari was no sure thing.

And after the Boston Bruins signed him in June of 2015, some would say that he still isn’t, even with a promising NHL debut under his belt.

The former captain at Bishop Hendricken, Kent School and Providence College would probably be the first to tell you that even though he played 19 NHL games with the B’s in March and early April to close out a highly disappointing 2015-16 campaign, he has not yet arrived in the big show. However, when you consider the many obstacles that Acciari climbed from his minor hockey days as a Johnston, R.I. native who played with fellow NHLer Kevin Hayes on the South Shore Kings, reaching the highest level in his rookie pro season was a pretty special accomplishment.

The early returns are encouraging, and it shouldn’t be all that surprising if you go back and look at Acciari’s track record. Although he hasn’t ever truly projected as a major league scoring presence, the key cog in the Providence College Friars’ 2015 national championship machine has always brought tenacity, smarts and an ability to elevate his play in key situations.

He showed some of that panache in Boston, when he immediately found a way to make an impact by establishing effective pressure on the puck carrier and finishing his checks at every opportunity. Acciari reads and reacts to the play well and excels when play is in the defensive and neutral zones because of his quickness and anticipation.

“I think Noel is doing a great job in our D-zone as far as really being reliable, closing quickly,” Bruins head coach Claude Julien told the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa back in March. “On the offensive side, those other two guys (Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly) are skating and creating some opportunities there, so I think we’ve got a good combination so far.”

Acciari won’t just walk in and grab the fourth-line center job in Boston, but there aren’t many players better positioned to go out and earn it coming out of training camp and exhibition play than the 24-year-old is. After all, he’s no stranger to hard work and has seen his share of setbacks, so at this stage, having already achieved his dream of playing in the NHL has provided him with the proper grounding to go out and carve a niche for himself.

Growing up in the Ocean State, Acciari bounced between top hockey programs in Massachusetts (SSK) and Connecticut (Kent) to round out his development as a Rhode Island product. It wasn’t always smooth sailing for him, though. Never possessing an abundance of size or standout skill, Acciari often had to bring an off-the-charts work ethic and desire to the ice, along with a physical style. Coaches and scouts have always noted that he is the classic forward who plays “bigger than his size” and much of that comes from his natural head and heart.

Veteran Providence Journal assistant sports editor/hockey scribe Mark Divver probably has the best handle on Acciari of anyone in print (he’s watched him for years), and last March, he wrote the following:

If Acciari hadn’t missed a month after fracturing his jaw when he was hit by a slap shot on Dec. 4 — he expects to shed the protective guard on his helmet after the weekend — he might have been recalled sooner. His play in Providence has improved steadily from the start of the season.

Known for his hitting, Acciari said postgame that lining up NHLers is harder than hitting AHL or college players.

 “Every guy out here is very shifty. I can’t just throw my body — then I’ll be out of position. It has to be timed pretty perfectly. I’ll definitely throw my body around when I can. Hopefully, I’ll get some turnovers with that,’’ he said.

“For me, it’s just when I get my chance, be hard to play against. Throw my body around. Get to the net when I can,’’ he said.

Academics also posed a challenge for Acciari as he progressed up through the ranks. Several schools he was interested in were out of reach, and even when he arrived to the Friars, he had to sit out his first year for classroom-related reasons.

Matt Metcalf, writing in the Johnston Sunrise, told of Acciari returning to Bishop Hendricken to talk to student athletes about his hockey journey, and the story took an interesting turn when chronicling his final two years of high school, as he prepared to transition from prep hockey to the NCAA:

Providence, too, was a bit hesitant to take him in because of grades, but Acciari worked hard in his final stages at Kent to prove to the Friars that he could handle the academic load in addition to playing hockey.

Ultimately, Providence and its coaching staff believed in him and Acciari enrolled at PC for his freshman year.

But that freshman season couldn’t have gone any worse. Acciari found himself academically ineligible. Not only could he not play the whole season, but he couldn’t practice or work out with the team either.

“It was the worst feeling in the world,” Acciari said of that freshman year. “There’s nothing worse than seeing your friends playing while you’re just sitting around waiting.”

But Acciari took that time to work harder than he’s ever worked – not only in the classroom, but on his own in the weight room.

And by the time the following winter rolled around, he became an integral part of the team, playing in 33 games and posting 11 points.

However, none of that would’ve happened without working hard in the classroom. Acciari wanted the kids to know that it doesn’t matter how good of an athlete you are because, if you don’t perform well in the classroom, you won’t even get a chance to perform on the field or on the ice.

“I’m glad I could come back to talk to these guys,” Acciari said. “Just to know that I was in their shoes just five or six years ago, I wanted to get the message across that it’s not just all athletics, it’s academics. I wouldn’t be able to be where I am today with just hockey, I needed academics too. I wanted to get that across – that academics is a big part in getting to where you need to be in life.”

Some things in life come more readily to some than others, and in Acciari’s case, he found success in the classroom at PC, earning enough credits to graduate with a marketing degree in the spring of 2015. Even though he had a year of college hockey eligibility left by virtue of redshirting that freshman year of 2011-12, winning a national title and even more- pulling down a bachelor’s in the process- made the decision to sign with the Bruins that much easier.

Once again- credit Boston scouts like Ryan Nadeau, Scott Fitzgerald and ultimately- GM Don Sweeney, who made the final decision on offering a two-year deal to the PC captain- for finding another undrafted gem in Acciari.

He’s not going to put up a great deal of offense at the NHL level, but he’s a proven winner. With the wheels, physicality, faceoff prowess and character/poise to get you big time points when the game is on the line, Acciari is a strong bet to establish himself as Boston’s fourth-line pivot this season and beyond.

Here’s one last personal perspective to share on No. 55 for the Bruins:

Back in March of 2011, while watching the NEPSIHA Elite 8 prep tourney, Acciari far outshined other bigger “sexier” names on the Lions roster, such as manchild D Mike McKee (not drafted) and 2012 NY Rangers second-rounder Boo Nieves.

I kept looking at Acciari in those playoff games (his team lost a 2-1 heartbreaker to Rob O’Gara’s Milton Mustangs in the championship contest) and asking myself what was I missing? He was not overly big, but so physical- and it was an effective physicality. He demonstrated superior closing speed and instincts- he would often read and react so quickly that the puck carrier was on his butt and sans biscuit before he could even process what had hit him (Acciari). He wasn’t getting whistled for his play, either. Even then, he played the game hard, but clean. When it came time to key goals, he had a knack for scoring them or making the important plays to set them up.

I lacked the courage of my convictions to stand up for Acciari and take the time to write about him on my Bruins 2011 Draft Watch blog (to my eternal shame). The fact is- after watching Acciari in prep and since, there was nothing I was missing- he’s a player. The Bruins stand to benefit from his contributions provided he’s used in the right bottom-six role and more is not expected of him than he is suited for.

Acciari reinforces the importance of recognizing that there is always something new you can learn in the business of evaluating hockey talent. Sometimes, the gut feeling is the right one. Four years after watching him rock the competition as a prep but not having the guts the float his name out there as having legitimate pro potential, even as a lower-end checking player, it just goes to show that you don’t have to be a highly-touted teen who lands early in the first round to be an NHL player.

Not every prospect projects to be a top-end guy, but to build winning teams, you need players like him. He’s got a nice NCAA championship ring in the collection- perhaps some more hardware and jewelry could be in Acciari’s future.

 

Noel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away frontNoel Acciari 2012-14 Providence College away back