Recapping the Bruins’ draft & free agent signings

Okay, so we’re a little behind here, but wanted to do a blog post on the Boston Bruins most recent transactions, which includes the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas  and free agency, which opened with a boom on Sunday for the Toronto Maple Leafs, landing a true crown jewel in John Tavares, who leaves the NY Islanders in his prime (not yet 28) for his childhood team. The Bruins were in it as a possible Tavares destination, but in hindsight, it was probably the Isles or the Leafs and everyone else didn’t really have a shot. That’s life, but more on that later.

And, if the Isles need some comforting, they had what looks to be a successful draft, leveraging multiple first-round picks and value throughout the subsequent rounds into an impressive haul for them.

First up, the B’s draft recap:

Going into Dallas, Boston had no first-rounder, having traded it to the NY Rangers for Rick Nash in late Feb, and had just 2 total selections in the top-100 (57 & 77 thanks to a trade with Florida for Frank Vatrano).

All in all, Don Sweeney, Scott Bradley, Ryan Nadeau and Co. did okay here given what they had to work with. Here’s the justification:
1- 2nd round- Axel Andersson, RD: This is a high-end skater with an intriguing offensive ceiling, but Andersson has been knocked by scouts who watched him as a player who will need to address his defensive-zone play. I personally didn’t see him once, so just going by what I’ve been told by trustworthy sources who have seen Andersson,  but there’s no denying the skating and puck skills & has been a productive junior player in his native Sweden. He was drafted by the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers in the 2018 CHL Import Draft, but reports are that he’ll go back home rather than play junior in North America. Six one way, half dozen the other- that he was taken in the import draft is an encouraging sign that Andersson has some promise and upside, but don’t expect him to seriously challenge for a Boston job for at least another three years.

2- 3rd round- Jakub Lauko, LW: B’s found some nice value here in the middle of the 3rd round, landing a Czech forward with world-class speed and energy, who also saw time in the Extraliga with the Chomutov Pirates. A lack of production probably prevented him from being selected earlier in the draft, but he was the 15th-ranked prospect in the Red Line Report draft guide, so there is some buzz surrounding the blazing fast winger (who showed off his speed and explosiveness in Boston at the B’s development camp). Lauko was the only player the B’s drafted on hand in Dallas in late June, so he got some attention from the media in attendance and earned favorable reviews and comparisons to David Pastrnak personality-wise. He’s not likely to be Pasta v2.0 from a hockey standpoint, but if he can improve the hands and generate more consistent scoring totals, Lauko could indeed develop into an NHL regular sooner rather than later.

3- 4th round- Curtis Hall, RC: As a member of the USHL’s Youngstown Phantoms, I saw a lot of Hall both this past season and in 2016-17. His draft year was a tale of 2 seasons for him- real good at the beginning, but he tailed off badly in the second half before regaining some form in the USHL playoffs, with the Eastern Conference champion Phantoms losing the Clark Cup final to the Fargo Force. Hall is a big kid who skates pretty well but not great in the short areas- more of a north-south outside speed guy. His hands are just OK, but he’s got a good shot. Bottom line- Hall is a guy with all the tools to be a solid 3rd or 4th-line NHL pivot, but whether he gets there…that’s the question. But getting a player with his potential in the fourth round is all good- he went right about where he was projected, and as an inbound freshman to Yale, he’s on the long-term impact plan.

4- 6th round- Dustyn McFaul, LD: There aren’t many analysts out there familiar with McFaul, but I happen to be one of them. The third-round USHL draft selections of the Cedar Rapids Roughriders is an intriguing pro prospect: he’s not flashy but does fit modern prototype NHL 2-way D. He has good size, can really skate and move pucks. McFaul, a Clarkson University recruit, isn’t a dynamic offensive presence but has a smart stick and can defend. In my view, he was a good player to take a flyer on here.

5- 7th round- Pavel Shen, LC: I knew nothing about this player coming in. Based on what I read, the player sounds fine as a second-year draft eligible with KHL experience. According to reports out of the development camp, Shen showed off some flashes of promising offensive skill and scoring talent, which is a good sign. However, in all seriousness- I’m not going to pretend to have insights on a player I don’t know much about. Shen may not ever come close to making a ripple in the B’s organization, but at the tail-end of an allegedly shallower draft pool, what’s the point of quibbling?

All in all, it’s a solid, if unspectacular group, but as I mentioned on Twitter- the B’s stayed true to the attributes they value in players with these five selections. It’s tough to get much traction in terms of draft splash, when you’re picking near the end of the second round, but the team seemed to do pretty well given what they had to work with.

In other words- time will tell.

***

Bruins tread water as free agent derby kicks off

Free agency, which opened on Sunday but saw many of the signings revealed the day before because of higher-than-normal verbal agreements in principle, course hit the Twitterverse, has been a largely unexciting affairs for Bruins supporters.

Before the Tavares decision came down, word was out that the B’s had landed a pair of former Islanders in veteran goaltender Jaroslav Halak and Walpole native and grinder Chris Wagner, who had spent much of his pro career with the Anaheim Ducks until he was traded to New York.

By virtue of Anton Khudobin coming to terms with the Dallas Stars, the B’s paid a little more to get Halak. The veteran netminder from Slovakia is well known to NHL fans, so there isn’t much need to break him down in detail, other than to say that Sweeney obviously valued his experience as a starter with just a handful of fewer wins than Tuukka Rask has. A former Jennings Trophy winner with the Blues in 2012, Halak never emerged as the true No. 1 he was expected to be after he teased it with Montreal and St. Louis. However, in Boston, he becomes a near-ideal backup option even at higher cost on the cap because of his experience and ability to play a limited starter’s role should anything happen to Rask. This is where going with cheap, inexperienced backups can cost a team, and as Sweeney pointed out during the non-playoff years of 2015 and 2016, the lack of a trustworthy No. 2 had more to do with the lack of success than the Boston GM was willing to accept. Whether we’re talking Niklas Svedberg or Jonas Gustavsson, even at 33, Halak represents a plug-and-play option as a slump-buster type that the B’s enjoyed with Khudobin early in the season when Rask stumbled out of the gate.

Last point about Halak- the gut feeling here is that Rask is one of those players who needs a capable partner to push him and keep him focused on performing at his best, while also taking the pressure off of the former 1st-rounder in 2005 to be a workhorse in net. When he’s on his game, Rask is unquestioningly elite, but keeping him there does seem to depend on who is sharing the crease. So long as he knows he has a legitimate stopper with him and feels like he could lose desired playing time to the other guy, it certainly feels like Rask’s consistency and intensity is noticeably higher. Contrast to how Rask has performed in recent years when he knows the No. 2 is no threat to him and represents a necessary uptick in minutes because the backup simply cannot handle the ask of 30-35 (or more) game appearance load that Khudobin and Halak represent.

In Boston, if you want to win (or at least make the playoffs), you must have a good tandem in net, and Halak does that even if $2.75 per for the next two years is a little pricier than ideal.

In Wagner, the B’s are getting a high-energy and gritty forward who fits the bill for the kind of player required for lower-line duty. Wags was the star of the 2009-10 South Shore Kings under Scott Harlow, which featured 1st-round pick Charlie Coyle. He’s fast and hard-nosed, and while he doesn’t have Tim Schaller’s size, Wagner brings similar potential to provide timely offense on Boston’s fourth unit.

I had a chance to scout Wagner in his SSK days and loved the way he plays- he’s the quintessential lunchpail-style guy who is eager and coachable and will do whatever the coaches need. He was a productive player in junior and the NCAA with Colgate, and worked his way up to the NHL from the AHL the hard way, out-earning a job with the Ducks over earlier picks in Anaheim’s system, and after a one-year stint with the moribund Colorado Avalanche, was brought back by the Ducks. He had a career year going until his trade to the Islanders, but watch for him to be a threat for 20-25 points this year in Boston. Without high expectations that other locals who dreamed of being Bruins like Kevin Stevens and Jimmy Hayes have experienced in crashing and burning, watch for Wagner to have a similar impact to that of Schaller, who has moved on to the Vancouver Canucks.

The “biggest” free agent acquisition by the B’s was left-shot defender John Moore, a former 1st-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009, who is on his fifth NHL team in 447 career games. Moore, who tuns 28 in November, is a mobile puck-mover and a solid, serviceable 2-way guy. While the five-year term raised some eyebrows, the $2.75M cap hit is solid value for what Moore brings and better sets up Sweeney and the Bruins to spend bigger coin on impending RFA Charlie McAvoy and possibly (insert your favorite forward target here- Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner, perhaps).

The acquisition of Moore immediately turned attention to who Boston will have to move out of a crowded blue line group (especially on the left side), but that’s a blog post in itself.

It would be a stretch to say the B’s are compensating for the loss of Riley Nash and his career-best year to Columbus by inking Swedish forward Joakim Nordstrom to a 2-year contract giving him $1M per. However, the move to bring in the former Chicago Blackhawks defensive forward who played a couple of playoff games on the 2015 Stanley Cup championship team, has to be seen as an attempt to insure the team against any sophomore slumps or not-ready-for-primetime showings from any of the youngsters. After a promising first year with Carolina in 15-16, he’s gone south in a big way. The good news for the B’s is that if he can’t cut it in Boston, he can be optioned to Providence without too much pain of having to pay out on a 1-way contract.

The B’s also announced contract extensions to forwards Sean Kuraly (3x $1.25M AAV)  and Anton Blidh (1x $625k- his qualifying offer), while making some organizational depth signings to a pair of former top-2 round picks in defenseman Cody Golubef (2008- 2nd/CBJ) and forward Mark McNeill (2011- 1st/CHI).

What do these moves mean for the Bruins in the bigger picture? There are rumors swirling that Sweeney is looking to address an upgrade up front via the trade market, so we’ll have to see what shakes out there. For now, these appear to be hedge moves to provide the club with NHL-experienced talent at lower cost to prevent any regression from young players or prospects who aren’t ready for the NHL to force the GM to pay higher prices once the season gets underway and deficiencies are exposed. There’s not a whole lot else to say. People are disappointed- we get it. The Bruins are not a better team today than they were when the Tampa Bay Lightning knocked them out in the second round. All we can do is look at what is and what these moves might be harbingers of…and reserve judgment until the 2018-19 season is getting underway.

***

Final thoughts on Rick Nash, Ilya Kovalchuk and  Tavares to the Leafs:

Hindsight is 20/20 and paying a lot for Rick Nash, which made perfect sense at the time, illustrates the danger of bringing in rentals. Early in his Boston tenure, he took a head shot and the rest is history- he’s still not right and late last week, he made the announcement that he would not be signing with any interested parties until he can get his long-term health sorted out. If there is any fanbase out there who should understand that, it is Boston, given what happened with Marc Savard. Life after hockey means that these athletes have to seriously weigh the long-term effects and consequences of TBI or other major injuries on their quality of life.

It’s easy to poo-poo the acquisition of Nash after the fact, but without a crystal ball to see that he would take a serious blow to the head that essentially ended his season even though he returned to play for the B’s, it underscores the risk teams face with any player as the game continues to get faster with bigger, stronger players. Whether we are talking football or hockey, the high speed collisions that form the basis of these sports will continue to put players at risk going forward.

For Nash to put his hands up and delay such a huge life decision like this reminds us all of the importance of one of the very things many  take for granted- our health. Nash showed briefly that he could have been an impact player for the B’s if under different circumstances. Rather than having teams line up for his services and signing a huge deal but still having to face significant risk of further injury/damage, Nash pumped the brakes. And for that, he should be commended. Here’s to wishing him the best as he sorts through his future.

On draft weekend, we found out that the B’s lost out on 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk (probably a good thing) and Tavares (man, would he have looked good in the black & gold, but eventually would have created some tough decisions for the team). Unfortunately, the B’s now have to contend with JT91 in the Atlantic Division and the Leafs are back on the path to legitimately challenging for a championship for the first time in almost 2 decades.

But here’s the thing on these two players the B’s came up short on- the team was close to convincing them to choose the spoked B over other suitors. How long has it been since the Bruins were in on not one but two high-profile players like that? Remember when the B’s offered Jeremy Roenick more money to sign with them in 2002 and he turned them down for less money from the Philadelphia Flyers?  Granted, Roenick was nowhere near the player and prize Tavares would have been, but there was a time when top players didn’t want to entertain signing on with the Bruins. An improved team and city sports culture has changed that outlook, so in terms of being a fan, it’s a pretty good place to be.

Sure, it begs negativity and criticism to focus on who the Bruins didn’t get in free agency and losing players like (Rick n’ Riley) Nash, Khudobin, Schaller and Nick Holden, but the bigger point to be made, whether you wanted Kovalchuk or Tavares no matter the cost or not, is that the B’s were in it to the end.

I’m reminded of a story I heard about the failed Iran hostage rescue in 1980, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. servicemen and a great deal of embarrassment and shame heaped on the U.S. military. Apparently, after the news broke of the failed operation, the headquarters element behind the mission were in the Middle East packing up to return to the United States when a big case of beer arrived at their building, compliments of the British Special Air Service (SAS) the UK military’s crack counter-terror unit. There was a note with the case of beer that simply read: “To you from us- for having the guts to try.”

In sports, we sometimes get focused on results and there are some people out there who seem to truly delight in dismissing any positivity if just to point out that the results aren’t there. All’s fair and love and sports, I suppose, but from this perspective- the Bruins deserve credit for having the guts to try. They may not have succeeded this time around, but they’ll come out ahead at some point with these efforts to make the team better. And when they do, it just might be something worth really getting excited about.

Maybe it’s time for the naysayers out there to at least acknowledge that being in the room and having the guts to try is better than what you’ll get these days on Long Island or Ottawa.

 

 

4 thoughts on “Recapping the Bruins’ draft & free agent signings

  1. The offseason is never complete with NHL draft and free agent signings until reading the reviews from TSP. It showed up as a nice surprise in my mail today. As usual it was well worth waiting for. So glad you decided to post here again. Also would like to send my best wishes to you and the Lancers.

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    • Good take on the draft and the free agency happenings. Other teams in the division and had more momentous off seasons (esp. if TB lands EK), but the team can’t make bad financial commitments to block other teams’ moves. Kovalchuk for 3 years for example, good for the B’s to walk away from that term.

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  2. Missed this blog horribly. Always great insight and extremely well written, Kirk.

    As Bruins fans wait with baited breathe on whether we can land the missing 2RW, I do wonder if it is Sweeney’s vision to still build within. Trading away the pieces (Donato, Heinen, DeBrusk, etc.) that have made or will make a difference seems counterproductive to what Sweeney has preached.

    Although, it seems as if we can move veterans (Backes and possible Krecji) there is not a lot of room for these up and comers to play. Maybe it is time to use some assets? I dont know. I am an armchair GM.

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