Tuesday brought some news out of the Boston Bruins’ camp with a pair of announcements.
The first was that Providence Bruins head coach (in his fifth season as bench boss) Bruce Cassidy and Jay Pandolfo, the B’s Director of Player Development, were both hired to replace Boston assistant coaches Doug Houda and Doug Jarvis to round out Claude Julien’s NHL coaching staff with Medford native Joe Sacco.
Cassidy is a polarizing figure among those fans who follow the development of prospects because there have been conflicts with certain players, while others have gone on to have success in Boston. Regardless of what you might think about Cassidy as Providence head coach, he’s got one of the sharpest hockey minds and I’ve always found his willingness to talk in detail about players…both the good and the bad…to be refreshing. In a hockey culture where many coaches either spout endless but empty platitudes about players or put out a word salad that tells you essentially nothing about how they feel about a particular individual, Cassidy is a guy who gives it to you straight and doesn’t mince words.
That doesn’t tell you how effective he’ll be as an NHL assistant coach, though I suspect he’ll do a fine job working with the defensemen (given his background I’m making that assumption). It is curious to me that Cassidy is one of two assistants (along with Sacco) with NHL head coaching experience and should the B’s move on from Julien at any point in the near future, he seems like a ready-made interim replacement. That’s probably putting the cart before the horse, but it’s interesting to note.
Pandolfo is getting his first NHL coaching job after hanging them up as a Bruin following multiple Stanley Cups with the Devils followed by a short stint with the Islanders. The BU product from Burlington was one of the best defensive forwards in his prime and he’s done good work with the prospects. He’s a solid add to the staff and I wish him well.
If this announcement was met with barely a ripple, the second release, which followed news broken by colleague D.J. Bean, had a decidedly different impact.
Bean tweeted out by around noontime that per agent Peter Fish, Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller had agreed to terms on a four-year, $10 million extension to avoid unrestricted free agency and remain with Boston- a $2.5M cap hit to retain the bottom-pairing defensive defender. (Cue the Jaws theme music please and voila!)
(Photoshop compliments of Greg Ezell aka Pez-DOY on Twitter- one of the voices of the most excellent Days of Y’Orr Bruins blog. I gave him the idea, but he did the nice work on bringing the concept to life.)
If you thought Cassidy was a polarizing figure… The former University of Vermont captain, who also played prep hockey with Berkshire School, was a fan fave as a whipping boy this past season. The Bruins also put in the Miller release that they brought back Seth Griffith on a one-year, two-way contract. (More on him in a future post)
Here are some quick thoughts on the Miller re-signing, with an attempt to be balanced, even though it is sure to draw criticism from both sides. In a vacuum, this signing does not look good. At age 29, he’s coming off a year that was a nightmare collectively for the B’s blue line. Miller was one of the faces of a team D that was a known Achilles heel entering the year and a group that eventually came apart at the seams in the final weeks of an up-and-down 2015-16 season.
The one caveat I will throw out here is that this appears to be a transaction that is setting something else up. As long as this initiates the transformation of the B’s defense, there is no reason to be on the ledge over this. If not…well, uh…I got nothing.
The Good- As a bottom-pairing defender, Miller was a find as an undrafted free agent. He skates well and plays a physical, throwback style. His sudden emergence during the 2013-14 season as an injury replacement prompted Peter Chiarelli to sign him to a two-year extension at around $850k per, which was a bargain for a hard-nosed but limited player. In 2014-15, he missed much of the year to a major shoulder injury. This past year, he missed time for various injuries but did see enough action to post a career season in terms of production (he posted a respectable 5 goals and 18 points in 71 games- good for third on the Bruins in scoring among D). When asked to play the right role, Miller has proven to be effective. He’s tough to play against, will drop the gloves to defend teammates (and is a guy many NHL opponents have learned to steer clear of) and has better foot speed than Adam McQuaid (though he’s not as big with as long a reach). Like any player who is asked to play with more responsibilities than they are capable of, he struggles when going up against the top lines and with increased minutes and time on special teams. However, when you break him down purely as a third-pair, No. 5/6 defender, Miller is not the gongshow some would have you believe. He’s a game and gritty player who is always willing to take one for the team, and when you look at his injury history- he’s backed that up.
The Bad- As mentioned previously, the B’s and coaches gave Miller much more than just a bottom-pairing role on the B’s and he was exposed more often than not as a guy over his head at this level. He’s a pretty mobile skater, but he lacks the vision and instincts to be anything more than he’s shown thus far, and he often gets into trouble when he’s got the puck on his stick, in his own end and the F1 or F2 pressure get in his face. Like most players, Miller can make the requisite passes and plays with time and space, but with the faster, more skilled NHL- he was often under pressure and looked more a deer caught in the headlights. He was victimized on multiple memorable highlight reels goals for the other team. The one word you’re left with as an analyst when it comes to the decision by the Bruins to extend him is this: Why?
As an unrestricted free agent, Miller was in a similar position to Matt Bartkowski a year ago as someone who played a serviceable role at their lower-end cap hit, but once the contract was done, essentially priced himself out of Boston, allowing Vancouver and former B’s assistant GM Jim Benning, who’d had a hand in acquiring Bart from Florida in 2010, to step in. With Miller, I’m left wondering- what was the sense of urgency to re-up the UFA-to-be now? Don Sweeney and Bruins took some heat for offering a similar extension to McQuaid last year, announced over draft weekend in June. Now, you have an essentially redundant kind of player, and one who isn’t going to develop into something much more than he already is, under contract for another four seasons, but now at about triple his previous rate. Miller was more a part of the problem than the solution last year and now he’s back.
The B’s have no shortage of lower-end defensemen who provide what Miller does. Now that he’s signed, what does that do for the openings on the blue line? Again- as it stands today- you expect another trade to happen to shed a veteran or three and their salary, because between three of the team’s least productive defenders, the Bruins currently have north of $9M invested. Dennis Seidenberg’s two more years at $4 million a pop is the obvious choice to jettison, and the B’s should be able to find a taker in a team that is looking to stay above the NHL’s cap floor. Of course, that any team that takes on Seidenberg and his surgically-repaired knees isn’t going to pay much if anything at all for him.
McQuaid is another player who could be the object of a trade. He’s one of the best guys I’ve covered on the B’s in my 16 years of doing it for New England Hockey Journal, and I have the utmost respect for “Quaider” but he’s going to turn 30 in October (how is that even possible?) and the next time he plays 73 or more games in an NHL season (he’s been a regular for six) will be his first. Might McQuaid’s former GM in Chiarelli be willing to pay his $2.75M salary for three more years to bring him out to Edmonton? The Oilers need to get heavier, and he would certainly fit the bill for the Oil. If the B’s move Seidenberg and McQuaid, then Miller on the bottom pair for $2.5M isn’t a great cap figure, but it does become a little easier to swallow.
Of course- there’s still the matter of other players that need signed. Torey Krug is a big one, and what kind of new deal will he command after leading the Boston blue liners in scoring last season? Granted, the goals didn’t come for him like in previous years, but with a hit of $3.25M, he’ll get a significant boost on that if the B’s commit to retaining him. And he’s not the only one.
In conclusion, I’ll hold off on my judgment until I see what happens next and ultimately, where we are going into September. The negativity is understandable, but there won’t be a knee-jerk reaction here until the transformation takes place and we see how Sweeney builds the defense. That’s a leap of faith some have a hard time with, but here at the TSP- there’s time enough at last for patience.