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).
“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.