Editor’s note: We continue our series here at the Scouting Post on the end of the 2016-17 Boston Bruins season and 3 Amigo/guest columnist and fan favorite Dominic Tiano is here to provide his informed perspective once again. -KL
TSP founder Kirk Luedeke began this series once the Boston Bruins were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators Sunday from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When he asked 3 Amigos Podcast Partners Reed Duthie and myself for our contributions, I immediately jumped on the task of shining some light on a few of the boys in Black in Gold that have, for a large part of the season, been “whipping boys” among the Bruins faithful.
Take this as one person’s opinion. Constructive criticism is always welcome but it is what it is, an opinion.
Let me start with Ryan Spooner, who fans are split on. On the surface, it has looked like Spooner’s days with the Bruins have been numbered for quite some time. There were reports that former Bruins’ General Manager Peter Chiarelli almost dealt Spooner to the Sabres during the 2014-15 season. A year later, reports surface that current General Manager Don Sweeney was looking to trade the 25-year-old pivot. But, he survived the rumors and is still on the B’s roster.
The sometimes-rocky relationship between Spooner and former Coach Claude Julien is well publicized, so we won’t get too deep into that. Under (then-interim) Coach Bruce Cassidy, Spooner started out well, but reverted to some of the form that has made him the focus of criticism and rumors for some time now.
Spooner is tagged by many to be nothing but a power play specialist. There is some merit to that assertion. Having followed Spooner since his Ontario Hockey League days began with the Peterborough Petes, he has always been a threat with the man advantage and he’s produced at a high level. When Spooner has the space to create, he can be dangerous. But 5-on-5, that space just isn’t there in the NHL and Spooner lacks the size and physicality to gain an advantage and use the other assets he possesses to be that threat on a consistent enough basis to avoid the negative focus on his performance.
I’ve seen the argument made that Spooner’s abilities are being misused because he is playing with “lesser line mates” and I can agree with that to some extent. He had success playing with David Pastrnak and Milan Lucic. At the same time, I could argue that playing with Lucic gave Spooner the space he needed. While David Backes is no Lucic, Backes himself can create space with his physical play and Spooner had nowhere near the offensive success he had with Lucic.
So, what happens with Spooner going forward? There are many fans who have said they wouldn’t even give him a qualifying offer, but if you don’t, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and you lose the player for nothing. You just don’t do that with an asset like the former 45th overall pick in 2010, whether he fits into your plans or not. His current salary is just $1.1 million and his qualifying offer is the same. You must make that offer just to retain his rights.
But Spooner is a restricted free agent this summer who is arbitration eligible. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Spooner could receive as much as $3 million in arbitration, but the Bruins would have walk-away rights if they feel that doesn’t fit into their budget, but again, would lose him for nothing. Ditto with the expansion draft (we’ll cover that in a future piece).
Many feel the writing is on the wall with Spooner missing the last two games versus Ottawa in the playoffs. But as reported by Hockey Night in Canada, Spooner was not 100% and was trying to battle through an injury. Was he good enough to go? – most players will tell you they want to play. Did the Bruins staff think he wasn’t good to go? Most of us will never know, we’ll just leave it here.
If the Bruins are intent on trading him, then the time to do that is before the expansion draft. I’m sure they don’t want to go into arbitration with him and don’t want to “waste” a protected spot on the expansion draft list. But I’m also sure they don’t want to lose him for nothing, (Editor’s note- and let’s be honest- he’s probably better off with a change of scenery and fresh start- Spooner is a talented and accomplished enough player to merit some kind of return.- KL)
Next, we turn to 2015 unrestricted free agent acquisition Matt Beleskey. Chiarelli tried to acquire Beleskey back at the 2015 NHL trade deadline but was unable to consummate the deal. Sweeney was able to sign Beleskey to a five-year, $19 million deal that now has 3 seasons remaining.
After a first year in Boston in which he set a career high with 37 points, this season can be described as nothing short of “terrible” for Beleskey. He appeared in just 49 games for the Bruins, missing 23 games with a knee injury while being a healthy scratch for the others.
It’s his health that I want to focus on here. Players react and recover from injuries differently, both physically and mentally. I surmise the injury to Beleskey had a major impact on his season. For a player that isn’t a speedster to begin with, losing a step is a major concern. Hesitation in throwing the body can also come into play mentally with such an injury. Look no further than the hit department for Beleskey. This season he had his lowest total in hits per game of his past five seasons.
Beleskey is at his best when he keeps his feet moving and throwing his weight around creating space for his linemates. This observer believes that four and a half months off will give Beleskey the time to get himself back both physically and mentally.
What’s in the future?
It’s hard to imagine the Bruins protecting him in the expansion draft or that Vegas would even select him as he may not be the best option from the Bruins to select. A trade, without retaining much of his salary seems unlikely coming off the season he’s had and his contract. A buyout is also unlikely as it will cost the Bruins over $1 million dollars per season in cap hits over the next 6 years ($2 million in year 3), something they can’t afford to do. Giving up an asset for another team to take his cap hit is a possibility and the Bruins do have an abundance of assets to make that happen, but he does have a limited no-trade clause with 23 teams on his list of acceptable destinations.
Best case scenario: That I am right about next season, and a healthy and re-charged Beleskey returns to form and provides value on the third or fourth lines. (Editor’s note- He’s a better player than we saw this season, and we’ll bet that he’s itching to prove it when he’s had an offseason to heal and get his confidence back.- KL)
Moving forward, we turn to Riley Nash, who is signed for one more season at a cheap $900,000. Nash has taken some heat throughout the season from some fans, and I would suggest, some of it is unwarranted. Is he perfect? No. We did a 3 Amigos podcast last summer after the Bruins signed Nash, and while we didn’t suggest that Nash was more than the sum of his parts, we did suggest the small but important things he does on the ice would be recognized more by management and coaches than the fans would be.
So, what does Riley Nash exactly bring to the Bruins? Well, he is a key part of the best penalty killing unit in the NHL. He is almost always getting into lanes taking away shots and forcing a bad pass. He battles extremely hard at clearing the puck. He has a very active stick that forces play quickly – and not always the best.
During 5-on-5 play, his positioning is almost always exemplary. He causes unforced turnovers just because of his positioning. But he’s also very good at causing turnovers with his stick. But the most underrated part of Nash is his ability to keep possession and protect the puck. Whether he’s darting in like a bull in a China Shop, or using strength, body positioning, or stick and puck position, taking the rubber away from Nash is not an easy task. He also plays the cycle game extremely well. For the casual fan, those are things that don’t appear on the scoresheet, and sometimes don’t recognize the importance of those assets. As the season progressed, Nash got better in his decisions on what to do with the puck once he had it. A lot of the mid-season “whipping boy” status he had has subsided.
So, what’s next for Nash? I think he’ll be back, and should be, as the fourth line center who can move up in a pinch. I know there are those that think ice-time should be given to the prospects instead, but you might be hard pressed to find a prospect that can bring what Nash brings, at least for next season, value for what Nash costs on the cap. That is virtually equal, and maybe cheaper if you have to consider performance bonuses.
Do they protect Nash in the expansion draft? I don’t think so, like Beleskey, there may be better options for Vegas.
Finally, let’s look at defenceman Kevan Miller. There are many that believe you can’t have Miller and Adam McQuaid on the same roster. There’s some truth to that, but many believe it to be because of style. With Charlie McAvoy showing he belongs in the NHL, Brandon Carlo looking to improve on a fine rookie season and Colin Miller showing signs of improvement (although I’m still not completely sold), it’s more the number of bodies than it is style of play.
What I saw in K. Miller was a player that obviously worked on and improved his skating in the off-season. It became more obvious in the playoffs that he had gained the confidence to skate with the puck and not afraid to take it in deep. With that improved skating, he’s become very adept at pinching at the opposition blue line and taking the puck below the goal line where coach Cassidy seems to want to set up from.
Defensively, K. Miller is part of the penalty kill. He battles hard in front of his goal and tries to give his tender a clear view of incoming shots. He’s got enormous strength and can take opponents out on the wall. He will get in opponents faces and will stand up for his teammates.
So, what’s next for him? This is where Sweeney has a difficult choice to make. Zdeno Chara must be protected in the expansion draft because of his no movement clause. Torey Krug is a lock to be protected. That means two of K. Miller, McQuaid and C. Miller will be exposed for Vegas to select. I like K. Miller here because he can play his off side.
But this may just come down to contract and cap. Miller has 3 years remaining at $2.5 million whereas McQuaid has just 2 years at $2.75 million and C. Miller just one year at $1 million. A stagnant cap may make Sweeney’s decision for him and protecting C. Miller. I just feel it should be “Killer” Kevan back next season.
I was going to add Jimmy Hayes to this piece, but I just didn’t know where to go here, so I will just say what the options are.
1) Try hard to find a trading partner. At the deadline, Sweeney notified other teams that he was available, but there were no takers. It will probably take an asset going with him for a team to pick him up.
2) Buy him out. That would cost the Bruins $566, 667 next season and $867,667 in 2018-2019.
3) Keep him as the 13th forward and absorb the $2.3 million cap hit
4) Send him to Providence for the year and save $1.025 million on the cap – this would be advantageous to Hayes as he is on a one-way contract and there is no escrow on AHL salaries, meaning he wouldn’t lose the 16% – 18% of his salary.
5) Send Vegas an asset to select him in the expansion draft.
There is no polite way of saying this, but I would settle for any of the above. If I had to choose, I’d go with option 4. That gets him off the roster the quickest with the only cost to the Bruins being to Jeremy Jacobs’ wallet.