Mapping out the Boston Bruins 2016 draft strategy

This post will attempt to look at what the Boston Bruins might aim to do come June 24-25 in Buffalo, as they currently have three picks in the top-50, with four more in rounds 5-7. This analysis is based on my knowledge of the draft picks combined with 16 years of covering the Bruins and their draft efforts/prospects for the New England Hockey Journal.

I. The Bruins’ draft philosophy

The Big Bad Bruins.

That’s been embedded in the team’s DNA for decades and you can see it in many of their picks and trades going well back into the 1970s. In 1986, GM Harry Sinden succeeded in bringing a talented but underachieving young former top-10 pick three years earlier in Cam Neely to Boston, and created a franchise icon.

Now, Neely is the embattled team president, receiving far more criticism and the questioning of his abilities as an executive than he ever did when he was patrolling the right wing, firing home 395 goals and 500+ points in a Hall of Fame career and endearing him to the Boston faithful with his throwback, blue collar style. His career ended far sooner than it should have, and the team spent much of the next decade looking for the NHL’s next big power forward (and they pretty much found him in 2006).

Those Big Bad Bruins days are long gone, and although the 2011 Stanley Cup champion was the closest thing the city had to those beloved teams from a bygone era. But through the decades, the organization has sought to identify and draft bigger, rugged skill players who can not only impact the game physically, but provide an offensive boost. Some of those picks were successful:

Al Secord, Gord Kluzak, Glen Murray, Kyle McLaren and  Milan Lucic come to mind, but far more players didn’t meet with the hoped for success: Brian Curran, Nevin Markwart, Shayne Stevenson, Matt Alvey, Joel Prpic, Johnathan Aitken, Kyle Wanvig, Darren McLachlan, Tommy Cross, Anthony Camara and Cody Payne are just some names. Others rumored to be in Boston’s wheelhouse but who weren’t available to be drafted such as Zack Kassian will go down as blessings in disguise that the team couldn’t waste an early first-rounder on.

Boston has tended to spend more time looking for the power forward or two-way D with an edge than the smaller, faster, skill forward or pure offensive defenseman who can excel at moving pucks up the ice and getting back to retrieve them. The B’s also prioritize smart, character types who can thrive in coach Claude Julien’s demanding system. This at times draws jeers for the tendency to see pure offensive or skill players overlooked, but that doesn’t account for the selections of David Pastrnak or Ryan Donato in 2014 with the team’s first two selections. Both are not only offensively-gifted skill guys but also have the head and heart for the game.

In fact, up until last year,  the Bruins seemed to be a best player available or “BPA” team, but when they drafted Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn with three consecutive first-round selections in the middle of the order, at least two of those players looked more like needs-based picks as opposed to taking the players whom many felt represented the top values on the board.

With two consecutive non-playoff finishes in the books, the B’s are under intense scrutiny this time around, and one cannot say with any degree of certainty that they will adopt a BPA mantra in a few weeks. However, BPA can appear to be a luxury when a team has as many holes and needs as the Bruins appear to entering the 2016-17 season.

II. Team needs

D-fense! (clap clap clap) D-fense! (clap clap clap)

It’s no secret that Boston’s team defense cost them a playoff spot this season and possibly more, as the case can be made that with a better than average core on the back end, the B’s might have been good enough to make a run at the conference championship.

The reality is- we’ll never know, because the D was so overmatched, especially down the stretch, that the implosion that saw the team miss the postseason in such spectacularly poor fashion, was, looking back on it, entirely predictable.

GM Don Sweeney played more than 1,000 NHL games at the position for Boston and Dallas, so he knows his defense needs a lot of work. We’ll toss out the whole Kevan Miller extension in this article because frankly- I refuse to believe he’s going to keep both Miller and Adam McQuaid on their current deals. The Miller extension had to be an opening move to trade McQuaid (plus Dennis Seidenberg and/or Joe Morrow, perhaps?) and begin more of a rebuilding of the back end than a re-tool as sold last summer when Colin Miller and Matt Irwin were brought in. In order to do it, Sweeney not only needs at least 1-2 capable veterans (and not the 5/6/7 variety either) and at least 1 youngster, maybe 2 from within the organization to come in and nail down a regular spot at a lower cap hit. Of course- to do that, he’s got to move some older, less productive guys out of the organization to free up the space. Easier said than done, and if the defense of June 2016 looks largely unchanged in September 2016, then the front office will have earned the sharp criticism. I’m pretty confident there will be changes, though- what remains to be seen is what those are.

When it comes to defenders, right-shooting D are more of a pressing need than guys who pass and fire from the left. Who’s to say that RHD will be a need in a couple of years from now in Boston, but as of today- watch for the B’s to look at spending some early draft capital on shoring that side of the ice up.

In addition to defense, Neely said the team needs to get heavier on the right side of the forward lineup. As a former RW and the preeminent power forward of his time, that makes sense. There are a few intriguing options in the draft, but nobody who can come in and contribute right away. Heck, even after his 45-goal season, I’d say that Senyshyn is still a few years and a more rounded effort in three zones from being ready to play for the Big B’s. That’s not a knock on the kid, but not everyone can be a Pastrnak and precociously show up as a rookie ready to go as he did after being the 25th overall pick in 2014.

The team could also stand to keep looking for skilled centers– there isn’t much room at the inn now, and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Donato, Ryan Fitzgerald even Cameron Hughes who was a nice under-the-radar pick in the sixth round last year, look promising at the position. However, landing a big and talented pivot on a longer-term timeline makes sense for Boston at this point, given that Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci are both on the wrong side of 30.

With the selection of Daniel Vladar a year ago, goaltending isn’t a need, but watch for the B’s to seek value in the latter rounds. Zane McIntyre had a disappointing rookie pro year after so much promise, but this will be a bounce back year for him. Vladar is already under contract, so there’s another spot for a longer-term project in net the way McIntyre was six years ago.

With plenty of needs to go around, don’t expect Boston to get too picky, either. Of course, depending on who is available at 14, BPA and need could meet at the nexus, but for now- it looks like the B’s will try to grab the top-rated player on their board when their turn comes, regardless of position. And at least given the current projections at 14, it looks like either one of a pair of right-shooting defenders with Boston connections could end up pulling on the spoked-B in primetime.

III. Wither Dante or Charlie?

Dante Fabbro or Charlie McAvoy? McAvoy or Fabbro?

We don’t know for certain, but it seems that one if not both could be available to them. While I won’t go out on a limb to say definitively that it will be one or the other, this section will explain to you precisely why Fabbro and McAvoy make sense as value picks where Boston is currently sitting.

We’ll start with McAvoy- he’s more familiar to Boston hockey fans, having just completed his freshman season at Boston University, where he started out as a 17-year-old frosh. His start was a slow one, aided in part by his needed to shed a little unwanted weight, but by the time the calendar flipped to 2016, the Long Island (Long Beach, N.Y.) native was looking every bit the hot prospect he was expected to be entering the season.  (Highlights posted by the Draft Analyst)

The first thing about McAvoy is that he pushes the pace. He’s got an explosive first few steps and he loves to grab the puck and just go. For any fan that has seen the Bruins hemmed into their own zone, going with the D-to-D passes in the face of ferocious forechecking pressure, this is welcome news. If you’ve seen Torey Krug skate the puck out of trouble on the left side, McAvoy represents someone who can do the same thing on the right.

The best thing about McAvoy can get him into trouble at times, as he likes to pinch and gamble. I’ve seen him skate the puck all the way to the back of the net, fail to pick up the back side pressure and turn the puck over before his forward can rotate back to cover, leading to an odd-man rush the other way. A lot of that is just coaching and experience, but his decision-making will need to improve at the next level.

McAvoy only had three goals last season, but he’s got a good shot- he can get it off in stride or generate power from a stationary position and by the end of the year he was shooting with more authority. Watch for him to jump to double digits next season with the added role and confidence as a sophomore.

Here are more highlights thanks to NHL prospects posting on YouTube:

Now- as for Fabbro, he’s headed to BU in the fall, where he and McAvoy will form a pretty dangerous 1-2 punch from the right side for coach David Quinn and Co., and will likely be deployed on separate PP units to spread the wealth.

Fabbro isn’t as flashy offensively as McAvoy is but he’s more cerebral. His hockey IQ is among the highest of any player I saw this past season, and he has the kind of panoramic vision to rapidly survey the ice, read the play and move the puck to the right spot. When you look at how much Boston’s transition game has foundered of late, Fabbro’s skill at getting the play up the ice quickly would be like manna from heaven.

Impressive highlights of Fabbro from the U18s last April (bigwhite06):

He’s taller than McAvoy is but not as thick through the core. He’s not as dangerous with the big shot, but he’s got a sneaky-quick wrist shot that he uses to good effect and it comes off the blade of his stick in a blur.

What I really like about Fabbro is his personality- there’s a healthy swagger there of a born leader who knows he’s good, but will put in the work and gut out an injury to help his team win. Here’s another highlight package on Fabbro by NHL Prospects:

These two are very close and you pretty much have to flip a coin between them. Having live scouted both, it is hard to imagine that teams seriously considering one or the other see a wide gulf between them- they’re extremely close in terms of what they bring to the table and that all-important “upside” when it comes to defenders in this day and age of the NHL. In the end, their combine interviews, coupled with whether both are on the board when Boston picks, may be the deciding factor if one or the other gets the call.

The good news for Boston fans is that if both are off the board at 14 (and that’s entirely possible), then that means a couple of pretty good players who weren’t projected to be available at 14 going into the draft will be sitting there for the B’s. Assuming, of course, that they want them.

IV. What about Jakob?

So, the Jakob Chychrun question and the desire for the Bruins to move up to get him has reared its head again.

Let me be clear: I like him as a player. I’m not sure I like him anywhere near as much as I did after watching him on film as an OHL rookie and earlier in the season.

After watching Chychrun at the U18s in April, I was left wanting more and wondering about his hockey IQ. I see a player with major league tools (size, skating, passing, shot), but to borrow an old cliche here- not sure about the toolbox (vision, instincts, read-react, judgment and decision-making under pressure).

The problem I see see with Chychrun right now on Twitter and other places is that he’s still living off of an older reputation and I don’t see that public perception has caught up to the fact that a shaky 2nd half and OHL playoffs followed by a mediocre U18 tourney has him trending downwards. Now, that’s all relative…it’s hard to imagine that he’ll fall far in the draft past a team like Buffalo at eight, for example, but if he does- you’ll immediately see the various fanbases clamoring for their teams to move up decisively to nab Chychrun.

He’s a good player and you can’t teach his size, skating or natural ability. But, is he the potential franchise cornerstone he was being hyped up to be back in October or November? I’m not sure about that.

If you want a classic case of a player who will instantly represent a “win” for the team that drafts him, especially if he goes anywhere after pick 5 or 6, then Chychrun is the guy. But, if I had to bank on JC being the player in the NHL at his peak that we thought he was even six months ago, I’m not betting the farm. If I’m wrong, so be it- but then he will have realized his immense potential and that’s good news. However, Chychrun might end up being just another serviceable NHL D- if you need a major hit on the blue line, that doesn’t get it done.

Fabbro was his D partner on Team Canada and outplayed him by a wide margin. McAvoy thrived in a tough competition level as a 17-18-YO freshman, and some scouts look at him and believe he would have put up some big points in the OHL this year. We can’t prove it, but the gap between Chychrun and those two isn’t as big as fans might think.

V. Okay, enough about pick 14…how about the others?

The B’s watched their second first-rounder (acquired last summer from San Jose for SCF goalie Martin Jones) go from 18 to 29 or 30. That’s a game-changer for Boston.

They could certainly hold onto the pick and make it near the end of the draft’s primetime event on Friday night, but that would leave them with just one selection between 30 and 135 on Day 2.

Assuming Sweeney doesn’t try and move that SJS 1st for NHL help on D, there’s a possibility he could also trade back into the early 2nd, to give him a pick somewhere around 31-35 and 49, while picking up an extra 4th-rounder in the process to narrow the gap.

I know what you’re thinking right now…you’re thinking- why, oh why did he trade the 3rd- and 4th-round picks in 2016 for John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak (to say nothing of Brett Connolly– acquired by Sweeney’s predecessor for 2nds in ’15 in ’16)? I don’t have a good answer- it didn’t work the way he wanted to, so the criticism here is valid and warranted if the B’s do end up moving the 29 or 30 for an extra 2nd and 4th. Rant away. But when you’re finished, stop a moment to consider the B’s history with second-round picks and maybe it’s not so bad after all?

If the B’s hold onto the late 1st, I like the potential for another big, swift-skating D there in Finland’s Markus Niemelainen. He was the nails at the U18s, even if he didn’t put up big offensive numbers and I find him criminally underrated by Central and other lists that have him in the 50’s and 60’s. He played for a gong show of a club in Saginaw this year, but he’s so nimble and quick for such a big man, and you can see that there might be some real untapped offensive potential with him. Of course- if Boston likes him and thinks they can get him in the early 2nd, they might move that 1st for more assets.

Another skilled 2-way D worth following is WHL guy Lucas Johansen, younger brother of Nashville C Ryan Johansen. The Kelowna Rockets rearguard can really skate and pass- he’s more of a finesse, positional defender versus a classic player who brings a physical edge in going both ways, but when it comes to wheels and head, he’s got 1st-round tools.

Another rising player, but one to consider up front is Tri-City Storm RW and Clark Cup playoff MVP Wade Allison.

If Chychrun is still enjoying the positive wave of goodwill and hype based on last season and the early part of 2015-16, then Allison is the opposite- he got virtually no buzz until he went off in the season’s second half and vaulted up the various lists and rankings. The earliest you’ll probably find him in public is in the 40s-low 50’s, but I could see him breaking into the late 1st or at least off the boards in the first few picks of the second round. Look at this guy go…video compliments of Storm Hockey:

Allison is a powerful skater who drives the net, excels in puck possession, has the kind of heavy shot that terrorizes goalies and brings a solid, workman-like mentality to the rink every day. Oh, and remember what I said earlier about Neely’s comment about getting heavier on the right wing. Just sayin’… MVP! MVP! MVP! (Great interview, too)

Alex DeBrincat won’t get picked by Boston late, but if they’re serious about liking Johnny Gaudreau back in 2011 as was reported last season, then there’s no reason for them not to take this dangerous scorer even with the very small size. DeBrincat is simply deadly and worth a first-round pick, even though he might slip to the second.

At 49, the B’s could see some value with U.S. NTDP captain Ryan Lindgren, who is a personal favorite as a jack-of-all-trades who might just be a master of some- like winning. He’s not exceptional, but is so polished, smart, competitive and underrated…he deserves more attention than he gets. If someone like a Filip Hronek or Taylor Raddysh falls to the bottom third of the second round, Boston might see the value there. Hronek impressed against men in the Czech Extraliga this year and is PP ace with  skill and brains- he’s just real light and reedy in his build- a lot of maturing and off-ice work ahead. Raddysh is one of those on-again, off-again big wingers who is a bit of an enigma, but if he can pick up a step and add some consistency, could be a horse (remember- mission: get heavier on RW!)

After that, unless the B’s acquire an extra pick, they have a loooongg wait.

In the 5th round, you’re looking at dark horses and sleepers- you could see a few overagers- 1996 and 1997-born guys. I wrote about a few of them in the June issue of the New England Hockey Journal- you should check it out. http://www.hockeyjournal.com

VI. Can we just wrap it up? Please?

So, there it is. My first real comprehensive take on the Boston draft and its potential for this blog.

It sets the foundation for what I hope is some quality discussion and research.

One thing I will leave you with (if you’re even still reading and there’s a quiz on Twitter btw) is this: avoid groupthink. Just because I’m high on Fabbro or McAvoy doesn’t mean I’m right. Research the players- seek different angles and opinions and don’t be so quick to form the foundation of your views based on what others are telling you.

I realize that resources are often scarce and viewings of these players few and far between, but if you want to be prepared for what lies ahead when Boston makes that first critical pick in Buffalo, you owe it to yourself to arm yourself with the knowledge to be a critical thinker in the debates that are sure to follow, especially if the B’s pass on a “higher” profile player to grab their guy. Following the other lemmings who are convinced that player a or player b should be drafted at that spot over whomever the Bruins choose is not critical thinking. At least, not if you haven’t done some honest work yourself to form that opinion instead of just hopping on the bandwagon.

Ultimately- whether the B’s grab a popular choice or not- whether perceived as good or not so good- we’re still not going to know if they were successful. Resist the urge to claim victory or defeat and adopt the kind of patience that will be required as the Bruins attempt to build a winning jigsaw puzzle for more sustained success beyond 2017.

 

 

 

 

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