Seth Griffith faces logjam at RW

Last season, the Boston Bruins got some surprising production from 2012 draft choice Seth Griffith, a former prolific goal scorer in the OHL with the London Knights before turning pro for the 2013-14 hockey season.

Griffith, who was passed over in his initial year of NHL eligibility in 2011, overcomes a lack of size and dynamic skating ability with elite offensive hockey sense and a great set of hands. Fans will no doubt remember this beauty he scored last November against Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils.

The finish is vintage Griffith, but the highlight also shows the lack of open ice foot speed and the difficulty he had in gaining separation once he blocked the shot and chased the puck into the neutral zone. Granted, the now-retired Bryce Salvador took a good angle in recovery, but Griffith would have gone in alone on Schneider if he was a faster skater. Instead, and what makes the goal all the more remarkable, is that he fought off Salvador and Marek Zidlicky to put the shot between his legs and under Schneider’s left pad for one of the prettiest goals of last season.

Griffith has made a career of memorable goals, as he uses his keen offensive instincts, quick release and lacrosse background to pinball off of opponents and make scoring plays that other forwards aren’t capable of creating themselves. However, in the NHL, he won’t be faced with many opportunities like that one, where it all seemed to come together for him for a magical scoring chance. Ultimately, Griffith is going to have his hands full winning a job on one of Boston’s top-three scoring lines as we enter the 2015-16 NHL campaign.

Let’s take a closer look:

Your top spot is pretty well filled with David Pastrnak expected to build on a surprising and successful rookie season, one that saw him score 10 goals and 27 points in 46 games to finish out the second half of the year in Boston. Pastrnak will be given every opportunity to skate on that RW1 spot for Boston next season and if he stays healthy and all plays out the way the B’s expect, the 19-year-old will take another step forward in his development as the franchise’s next face up front.

Loui Eriksson and Brett Connolly are solid bets for second- and third-line duty in Boston.

Eriksson is coming off his best offensive season (22 goals) since 2011-12, when he tallied 26 goals and 71 points. He turned 30 in July, but he’s anything but past his prime. Eriksson has been a popular target of criticism in Boston since the trade that sent Tyler Seguin to Big D, and that’s understandable given that the 2010 second overall selection scored as many points (84) in his first full season with the Stars in 2014, as Eriksson has done in two seasons with Boston. Eriksson dealt with two concussions in 2013-14, but he re-emerged last season with some of his patented ability to make consistent plays on offense. It’s not enough for many Boston fans to accept that Seguin has tallied 74 goals and 159 points for Dallas since the trade- nearly a 2-to-1 advantage over Eriksson, but the veteran Swede often gets the short shrift in Boston for what he does well, which is a creative, opportunistic approach to scoring. His 22 goals was second only to Brad Marchand on the team last year (which is also an indictment of Boston’s popgun offense) and his 47 points trailed only Patrice Bergeron (ditto).

GM Don Sweeney is in a tough spot with Eriksson- the unrestricted free agent-to-be will likely fetch a decent trade return as the season progresses, but timing is everything- pull the trigger on a trade too soon and you’re sending the message that the year is over. Wait too long, and you could end up like Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres with Chris Stewart last winter. Eriksson reportedly has a 14-team trade list, so any transaction Sweeney makes short of just riding it out and likely parting ways with him next summer is already constrained with only limited destinations.

Connolly is the big wildcard for the Bruins entering the new year. I won’t go into as much detail, because I plan to dedicate a future and comprehensive blog post to him, but let’s just say that the B’s did not expend a pair of second-round draft choices on a player they expect to remain a third-line presence for them. The sixth overall selection in 2010 (just four spots behind Seguin for those keeping score at home) has yet to justify the faith Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning scouting staff had in him just five years ago, but the B’s signed him to a one-year “show me” deal valued at a little over $1 million.  If that pure skating and sniping ability that manifested itself (in albeit a more limited sample size given the time he missed with a hip injury) during his WHL days with the Prince George Cougars starts translating in the NHL, the B’s could have two exciting right wingers in Pastrnak and Connolly. It’s an intriguing possibility, but not something you can take to the bank.

To complicate matters (for Griffith), the B’s acquired the Boston-born-and-bred Jimmy Hayes on July 1, subsequently signing the 19-goal scorer with Florida a year ago to a three-year extension. They did not do that to stick the 6-foot-5 former Toronto second-rounder in 2008 on the fourth line, so it will be interesting to see what the team’s plans are for Hayes and in all likelihood- Eriksson. Something’s gotta give, and best guess is that the club will do some mixing and matching up front to start the season and see how the makeup looks before acting.

Also on the Boston depth chart’s right side power winger Brian Ferlin, who is more of a natural fit for fourth line duty given his size, skating and modest (projected at the NHL level) ability to chip in offense.

Someone, anyone, might earn some more playing time in Boston with a switch over to the left side, which enters the season with Matt Beleskey and Brad Marchand clearly entrenched on the top two lines, but only veterans Chris Kelly, Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot as the other NHL-established players over there. Griffith has better offensive chops than both of them put together, but he’s nowhere near the defensive player and veteran dressing room presence. Based on Claude Julien’s body of work to date, unless injuries eat into Boston’s depth, does anyone realistically see Griffith beating those players out for a job out of camp?

That leads us back to the gist of the post. With six goals and 10 goals in 30 NHL games last year, the potential is clearly there given his scoring upside. Working against Griffith is the fact that he does not possess the ideal traits that Cam Neely and Sweeney have said they want to employ in Boston- to be a bigger, faster, harder to play against club. That’s what the guys ahead of Griffith on the current roster projections possess in terms of natural tools, so the 22-year-old has his work cut out for him this year.

Sweeney once told me during a break in the action at the annual Flood-Marr prep tourney at Noble & Greenough School a few years ago that he admired Griffith’s “dog on a bone” mentality when it comes to scoring. He was referring to the fact that although Boston’s fifth-round choice does not have the natural size/strength to win a lot of board battles, nor the pure explosion and separation gear to put defenses on their heels, he nonetheless brings a tenacity and inner fire to out-hustle opponents and find ways to get the puck in the net. In two pro seasons split between Providence of the AHL and Boston, Griffith has scored 32 goals in 108 minor league games. That’s something you don’t just give up on.

At the same time, Griffith is going to want a chance to play in the NHL sooner rather than later. That might just make him an attractive trade chip to include in a larger package at some point to help shore up Boston’s team where it is needed most: on defense.

We shall see.

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