Bruins come up large against Red Wings but…

…did it really have to come down to one last game against the Ottawa Senators and even in the event of a win, a fate that still rests in hands of Detroit and Philadelphia?

Apparently so.

On the plus side, the Bruins came out firing Thursday night and David Pastrnak’s goal less than three minutes in withstood Jeff Blashill’s coach’s challenge to give the home team a 1-0 lead that they never relinquished.

On the Wings bench, Blashill watched his former junior player with the Indiana Ice deal his club a setback in the quest to clinch 25 straight seasons in the playoffs, a mark that is still four years behind the Boston Bruins, who established a run of 29 years in the postseason before bottoming out in 1997. Torey Krug scored his fourth goal of the season and first since December 5 (55 games) with a power drive with the man advantage that beat starter Jimmy Howard to the blocker side and stood up as the winning tally. Krug’s two assists gave him three points and the game’s 1st star, adding to his career-best offensive output (his goal totals are way down, but his assists are 13 more than his previous high of 27). I’ve seen all I need to from Krug…he’s a winner and much more important part of this Bruins team than some give him credit for. I can assure you that if he was 6-1 or 6-2, he wouldn’t get anywhere near the grief or negative scrutiny he does from some people, but that’s life. He’s heard it all before, and ultimately, he’ll continue to grow as a player or person. Those who don’t think he’s worth the $5M or more it’s going to take to re-sign Krug- here are two words: Tough. Cookies. It’s going to happen and when it does, it will be money well spent. More on that later in a future podcast, but I don’t expect to win the critics over. Some folks are simply never going to come around on Krug, and that’s fine. Complete consensus is always difficult, and I’ll do my level best to present the case and then move on.

But first, back to the home win…

While it was a statement victory for the Bruins, who also got goals from Brad Marchand (37), Loui Eriksson (30) and Lee Stempniak (his third in 18 games with Boston since the trade deadline, 19th overall), real good goaltending from Tuukka Rask (31 wins) in making saves at critical moments of the contest to keep the Wings from ever mounting a serious push, it does make you wonder where this team has been for the past thee weeks.

The fourth line of Frank Vatrano-Noel Acciari-Landon Ferraro– aka “La Cosa Goalstra” and I’ve also seen them referred to as the Little Italy line (not sure who came up with that one) which is also genius because all three are at or under 6-foot in height, provided some impressive energy and ruggedness all night. They’re not making the kind of offensive demonstration that made the Merlot line the best fourth unit in the NHL during the 2011-13 hey day of two Stanley Cup appearances in three years, but the current Boston fourth line is grinding it out and making plays. Their ability to possess the puck and generate scoring chances while to go with solid physical play and defensive awareness means that they aren’t a liability. The production hasn’t happened yet, but the Bruins could do far worse.

Now, Boston gets to face the Ottawa Senators at home in the season finale. Optimistic fans would do well not to look past their division rival to focus on the other scenarios involving Detroit and Philly before the Bruins take care of business first. The pessimists and cynics of course- will say it doesn’t matter even if the Bruins get in because they are toast in the playoffs. Even if true, no organization should ever subscribe to losing on purpose and just the experience of playoff games for those who have yet to taste that, is of some benefit.

In any case, here are some various scenarios upon which Boston’s playoff lives depend (compliments of FOB (friend of blog) Dominic Tiano (thanks Dom!):

Scenarios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once more, we’re reminded of so many opportunities the Bruins had previously to take the drama out of it by simply taking care of business when they were in position to do so.

It’s a team effort and no one factor, player, coach or manager is responsible for the Bruins potentially being where they were a season ago with little to show for all that has occurred since the 2015 campaign ended.

What is certain is that the Bruins must win their final game to give them the best shot at getting back to the postseason in Don Sweeney’s first year as GM. Even then, two other teams get a vote. If they lose to the Sens, then let’s face it- they can still get in, but they probably don’t deserve it.

Buckle up!

Random observations:

Loui Eriksson tallied his 30th goal of the year last night for just the second time in his NHL career (he scored a season high 36 in 2008-09 with the Dallas Stars). With it, the Boston Bruins have three 30-goal guys in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Eriksson for the first time since 2002-03 when Glen Murray (44), Joe Thornton (36) and Mike Knuble (30) did the deed. (My soon-to-be in high school daughter turned 1 the year they did for some perspective)

A year later, Knuble-Thornton-Murray were christened the “700-lb line” by none other than then-Montreal head coach Claude Julien in the 2004 playoffs. In case you forgot, the B’s blew a 3-1 series lead to lose to Julien’s Habs in 7 at the Garden.

Torey Krug’s 44 points leads all Boston Bruins defensemen and his 40 assists are second only to David Krejci– he has four more helpers than Patrice Bergeron. Throw out the aberration of a low (1.5 percent) shooting percentage, and he’s about as productive as they come from the blue line.

Tuukka Rask’s .915 save percentage is the lowest of his career to date. The last time he was under .920 was in 2010-11, when he posted a .918 after playing in just 29 games as Tim Thomas’ backup. That’s a reflection of both the fall-off in talent of this Boston Bruins team, but there are other factors in play. When it comes down to it- Rask has been hot and cold all year, as one Twitter follower sent me this stat today: Rask is 5th in the NHL for most games: 19 with a save % of .950, but also 4th with 10 games of a sv% of .850 or less. Sure- there’s a lot to be said for the quality of the defense and team in front of him, but he has some accountability in this, too. There were nights when he could have and should have played better. The Bruins can and should get more from their 7-million dollar man in net.

Class move by Greg “Puck Daddy” Wyshynski to tweet out his gratitude to Dom Tiano for breaking down all of the possible playoff scenarios. Give Dom a follow if you don’t already and if you do, then you know how passionate about hockey and the Bruins he is. He’s also one of the smartest people out there on the nuts and bolts of the CBA and how things work behind the scenes. This is tedious work for those of us who have to research the myriad documents and complex language of the NHL’s by-laws and regulations, but having Dom as a friend and resource has helped me and countless others to get the reporting right. Take a bow.

 

 

It all comes down to this: B’s-Wings

Boston Bruins…Detroit Red Wings.

The B’s are further behind the 8-ball after Detroit’s 3-0 shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers last night, so anything less than two points and the Bruins are done. As said in the previous post, many are already throwing dirt on the grave of the 2015-16 Boston hockey season.

It’s been said before, the big-time players need to be the big-time players tonight. If the core veterans can’t find a way, then it’s time to break up the band. As Cam Neely said on the 98.5 radio waves recently, the passion has been there this time around where it was missing a season ago at this time, but talent is the deciding factor and Boston’s defense is not championship caliber. Heck- it’s not even playoff caliber.

The elephant in the room is headed for the door.

Timing is everything…if the Bruins had been up and down and in and out of the playoff picture all year, the angst and disappointment would not be as great because expectations weren’t high this season to begin with.

The real problem is- 3+ weeks ago they were second in the conference and many (myself included) figured they were in.

This is the kind of thing that gets people fired, unfortunately. They’re a better team than the one that has posted that 2-7-1 record, but how much better is the burning question. Just a modest improvement over the past 25 days, and we would be talking about first-round opponents right now.

Boston’s lousy home record is a big part of it, too. The team began the season with three losses at home, and when they dropped Tuesday night’s shootout to Carolina, it was starting to feel like an old episode of the Twilight Zone.

Enough with the excuses- this Bruins club is not a playoff team. Until they are. They have two games to put themselves in position to salvage what was going to be a referendum on the pessimists until three nightmarish weeks in the making of another collapse similar to last year. Even if they win out, they’ll need help to get in. But then again, we said the same thing last year and the Bruins did not even win the games they had to.

I guess I’ll leave it to Udo Dirkschneider, Wolf Hoffmann and the rest of the boys in Accept to bring it on home. Hoffmann said this of their signature metal anthem, and it fits the situation well enough…”tortured” indeed.

“We’ve always been interested in politics and in human rights and things like that, so a lot of the lyrics that we had in those days, and to the end actually, were dealing with human rights, for instance, and that’s really what ‘Balls To The Wall’ is all about. ‘One day the tortured will stand up and kick some ass!‘”

Balls to the Wall (The song’s 33 years old & I still chortle at Udo’s camouflage fashion choices)

 

 

Exposed: the Boston defense stands between a last-minute playoff surge or a repeat of 2015

It’s no secret.

We knew coming into the 2015-16 NHL season that the Boston Bruins’ defense was the team’s Achilles heel- the one area of contention that could sink the club’s hopes for an improved season after barely missing the playoffs a year ago.

They’re a game but ultimately mediocre bunch who have been exposed at the campaign’s most crucial juncture and even the fighting spirit that the 2015-16 Bruins have exhibited for much of the year isn’t enough to hide the warts with this group. It didn’t happen overnight, but the inexorable slide of the once-vaunted Boston D Party that won a championship in 2011 and got the Bruins close again in 2013 began in earnest with Dennis Seidenberg’s catastrophic knee injury shortly after he inked a 4-year, $16 million extension during the 2013-14 season.

It continued with a cap-constrained team that was forced to make fateful decisions that ultimately put the defense in the situation it is in now.

In 2014-15, a disastrous campaign that saw a team with significantly higher expectations begin the dismantling of a serviceable if not spectacular defense corps on the eve of the season when GM Peter Chiarelli traded fan favorite and dependable, versatile and heavy D Johnny Boychuk. It doesn’t matter as much to the fans that the move was to help get the team cap compliant, because in hindsight, there were other players who could have been cut loose to make the dollars work and not have the detrimental impact Boychuk’s change of address to the NY Islanders created for the B’s. It was a move that ultimately helped lead to the end of Chiarelli’s tenure in Boston at the conclusion of Boston’s first missed playoff season since 2007. Even so, you could make the case last season that the defense was less responsible for the Bruins’ inability to make it into the postseason (the offense went cold during a six-game losing streak (three of those losses came in OT so they got 3 points of 12) in March and then mustered just four goals in the final three regular season games, going 0-3), the blue line is the major culprit for the deja vu that the team finds itself in one year later.

In 2016, it isn’t as difficult to diagnose what ails this team most. Yet, it seems inconceivable that after a year of ups and downs, but few extended lows because of a spirit the current Bruins possess, that it’s all on the verge of unraveling altogether.

Three weeks ago, the B’s were sitting second overall in the Eastern Conference as they embarked on a California road trip that would begin a similar disastrous five-game swoon, all happening in regulation, a losing streak that might have cost them the playoffs for the second season in a row.

The B’s now face another do-or-die three-game stretch to close out the year: they died a year ago, dropping the trio of games when the offense deserted them.

This time, the team will attempt to stop the bleeding on the back end and even though the situation is hardly all Tuukka Rask’s fault, neither is it taboo to point out that he could elevate his play during this crucial stretch of games. It is not a zero-sum option here- it’s OK to say that Rask could be better than he has shown in recent contests without bringing out a legion of sycophants that doesn’t ever seem to want to hold Boston’s 7 million dollar goalie accountable for anything. It’s almost as if no goal allowed is ever on the one player who in many instances has the power to make a stop, even when the team in front of him “hangs him out to dry.” It’s a curious development- I’ve honestly never in my life seen such a willing group who will defend a player to the death while pointing the finger at everyone else but their guy.

The fact is- the entire team is to blame for the situation. The goalies. The forwards. The coaches. Management. Most certainly the defensemen. Everyone.

But blame is such an ethereal thing. Once you’ve pointed out the obvious or vented your impotent rage against your television or computer screen (or both) where are you? Blame is a part of life especially when it comes to fandom and sports, but simply blaming the Bruins for the current state of affairs falls short of the mark for what should be a substantive debate over what can and should be done going forward.

It’s too easy to simply point to the current state of affairs on the blue line and expect that Don Sweeney should have built Rome in a day last summer by fixing all of the myriad issues surrounding the team. Of course, trading Reilly Smith for a young, potential solution to the ills of this defense might have been preferable to the return the team has gotten from Jimmy Hayes, the reality is that at the time, the Hayes acquisition was well-received. Coming off a career- best 19 goals, it was a reasonable expectation that he might get 25 this season playing for his hometown team. Didn’t happen, and now Sweeney must figure out what to do with Hayes. The easy answer is to move him, but the tougher challenge is that Boston is selling low on the former 2008 second-round pick.

Regardless of what happens in the next three games, all paths lead to a significant shakeup on defense this coming offseason. Sweeney now has a year under his belt calling the shots and he showed last June he wasn’t afraid to make some bold decisions. Criticizing him for not going out and getting more help on defense is the lazy, hindsight being 20/20 argument, even if it might be true. What we don’t know is what options he had beyond a mediocre free agent group (does anyone think Buffalo got their money’s worth with Cody Franson?) and what he tried to accomplish after making the tough call to move Dougie Hamilton for three assets but not one of whom had a prayer of helping the Bruins *this* season?

Now, some contracts coming off the books and other extensions to (likely) be signed, Sweeney does have a little room to maneuver for an NHL roster defenseman. Whether it’s Kevin Shattenkirk or one of the myriad other names that have been floated out there, something’s gotta give. He’s got some organizational assets in the form of roster players, prospects and draft picks to use as currency to get a defenseman or two, but that has to be the focus. You just hope that whatever the GM is able to do, he won’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

What we do know and have for sometime now is that despite a gritty, gutsy effort to climb near the top of the Eastern Conference standings (at least as close to the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals as realistically possible), the defense came back to haunt the team as a whole, and to be completely honest- the offense and goaltending had their part to play in Boston’s current situation, which has them out of the playoff architecture after getting shellacked for 6 goals in nearly two periods in Chicago before scoring four unanswered goals in the game’s final 21 minute to make it less of a fiasco than it actually was.

Again- no one is blaming Rask for all of Boston failures, but the team needs him to play his best hockey of the season over this next trio of games or it is over…o-v-a-h. Literally. The cynics, many of whom wasted no time sharpening their knives in recent weeks and especially after the Sunday loss to the Blackhawks, will say it already is fait accompli that Boston misses the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not. I do know that not making the dance and getting the 14th overall pick in a top-10 group for the second consecutive year is worse than kissing your sister.

At least we have new lottery rules that give the 14th and final non-playoff chances at least some odds (no matter how miniscule) at land the 1st, 2nd or 3rd overall pick. Absent that, selecting 14th is little consolation for another so close, but so far away finish. Picking 14th year after year makes it even tougher to get those critical difference-making players that earlier selections will net rebuilding teams. Success is not a given,  just ask the Edmonton Oilers. Middle-of-the-pack drafting makes it that much harder to build a champion from the ground up, though.

As for the defense, it’s not all their fault either. Zdeno Chara is aging rapidly and I’m still convinced that his right knee injury from a year ago is still and will continue to hamper his play going forward. Torey Krug is a top-4 NHL defenseman, but is he closer to four than two and more impactful on special teams? He deserves a raise and should be kept and a part of an improved group going forward even if his goal numbers have suffered this season. Adam McQuaid’s a good guy but he doesn’t carry a great cap hit for what he brings, especially when he’s asked to play a larger role than the one to which he’s best suited. John-Michael Liles provided a nice late-season boost, but he’s not the kind of true difference-maker and two-way stalwart for the long haul the B’s need.

The losses of Seidenberg and Kevan Miller to injury have exposed the B’s who are affected without their experience and heavy game. Joe Morrow demonstrated that with a desperate and ill-advised cross blue line pass that Patrick Kane picked off and broke the game open with in the first of his Sunday hat trick. Nobody’s saying that Seidenberg and Miller are the core of a championship-caliber group, but perhaps those pining away for skilled but neophyte defenders with questionable defensive acumen like Morrow and Colin Miller (recalled today, btw) were reminded of why rolling the younger D out for big minutes this season didn’t happen.

The Bruins have a shot. They play three winnable games this week at home. At home! What could be better than a three-game TD Garden stand to close it all out? Amirite? Oh, wait a second…

To close it out, Sweeney knows what kinds of steps he needs to take, but it’s much easier said than done.

He made his mark with some bold moves in his first days as Bruins GM. He’ll have to tap the well of audacity once more. But, it’s more than just making roster changes that will likely be dissected every which way from Sunday when they occur. Along with a willingness to make major sea changes, the former NHL defenseman who played more than 1,000 NHL and most of them in the spoked B of the team he now presides over, will have to prove himself all over again.  If he can identify some key pieces at that very position and if he not only succeeds in acquiring them, but gets the kind of production out of them that can help get the Bruins back into contention, he’ll buy some measure of reprieve.

But the margin of error is shrinking. The nature of Titletown USA- that is- nine professional sports championships in Boston since 2002 between the Patriots (4), Red Sox (3), Celtics and Bruins, means that the natives have come to expect success.

Patience is not a virtue.

 

 

 

 

 

Blowing it

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”– Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The Boston Bruins may have dodged a bullet last night in the standings when the Detroit Red Wings lost in regulation to the non-playoff Montreal Canadiens.

After the B’s outshot the New Jersey Devils and peppered backup goalie Keith Kinkaid with 40 shots to New Jersey’s 15, but lost by a 2-1 score on a pair of power play goals, the Wings missed out on a chance to leapfrog Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division, burning their game-in-hand. Just one point separates the two.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The effort was certainly there for Boston last night, but there was simply no finish. Effort is good, but in the world of professional sports, results are ultimately king. Boston, with the exception of Saturday’s white-knuckle win over the bottom-feeding Toronto Maple Leafs, have lost six of their last seven games.

Just two weeks ago, the Bruins had a share of first place and had won some critical games they were expected to lose. Optimism was creeping back into it as the team was bringing the effort and results…until they went out to California, that is. A string of five consecutive losses, buttressed by the one road win up north has now added another ‘L’ to the ledger and the next two games could push the B’s into major non-playoff jeopardy: they travel to the Midwest to face Western Conference powers the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.

But, Kirk- they beat the ‘Hawks earlier this month, you say. That they did. But that was a different time. In the last six games, the Bruins have mustered just 10 goals for. Those two opponents could easily hang 10 or more on Boston in just the pair of games, so the B’s must not only dig deep into the effort well, but they’ve got to execute to have any chance of getting points out of the next two critical matches.

On the plus side, Brad Marchand netted his 35th goal last night and it was a beautiful, parting-of-the-Red Sea kind of goal where he split the defense, zoomed in alone on Kinkaid and shifted from his forehand to his backhand before lifting the puck into the yawning cage. Marchand owned the space in front of the net, and you just got this sense that after Kinkaid was beaten so effortlessly, that the floodgates might open. Didn’t happen.

Now, the B’s get to face either one of Brian Elliott or Jake Allen– life certainly isn’t going to get any easier. The Blues recently posted a four-game consecutive shutout string and they’re getting healthier.

As we said before, the effort is good thing to see. This team has heart and it’s been like that for much of the season. The Bruins have been in the playoff standings since December and that’s saying something when you look at the roster from top to bottom. This is a club that was expected to struggle and likely miss the playoffs. This plucky bunch deserves credit for making such a good run of things. Claude Julien and his coaches- Doug Jarvis, Joe Sacco and Doug Houda– have managed to keep their charges motivated and playing hard, which has narrowed the talent gap the team faces on many a night.

Sometimes, it has worked out for them- take the night they went into Dallas to face the vaunted Stars at home and fell behind early but came roaring back and crushed Tyler Seguin’s crew at home.  Other nights, it’s simply not enough.

Most fans understand this and realize that this team was probably playing over its head for some key stretches of the season. That the playoff race has become so tight should not be a surprise, but it’s probably a fool’s errand to rage at the team (or your television and/or computer screen) when they fall short as they did against the Devils. Frustrating as it was, losses like the one in Newark last night are probably more the rule than the exception. It isn’t like the Bruins have a high-end, championship-caliber roster: they compete hard, but the Matt Beleskeys of the world work hard, make big hits and get themselves in position to score- they just have a harder time finishing off the play than others around the NHL. It does’t make him any less of a Bruin, but it does remind us that Don Sweeney and the Boston front office has a lot of work to do.

The hard part of all of this is that we’re witnessing the Bruins sagging down the stretch, much like they did a year ago. Games against the Devils must be won, because contests with the Blues and Blackhawks aren’t expected to deliver the needed points. Now, the B’s must overachieve in order to stay ahead in the standings. Had Boston endured this slump in the middle of the season and were surging back at the end, the sentiment amongst the fans might be a little different than it is now. In the grand scheme, it’s of little consequence, but timing is everything, and as the late Yogi Berra once said- “It’s deja vu all over again.”

What we are learning is that Boston’s core players aren’t getting it done to a high enough degree. Zdeno Chara did net the game-winner against Toronto Saturday, but he also took the boarding call that resulted in Reid Boucher’s game-winner last night. Whether it was  a weak call made by referee Steve Kozari, who one might have to strain to recall when he’s actually called a penalty against a Boston opponent in recent games, it doesn’t matter. Chara needs to be better.

David Krejci, he of the $7.2 million per year contract and no-movement clause, has to be hurt. Has to. Because if he isn’t, Peter Chiarelli’s final gift to the Bruins- the extension with five more years remaining- could be an albatross around the neck of the team going forward. Krejci turns 30 soon and his slight frame has taken a good amount of physical punishment over the years. He’s an outstanding competitor and one of the smartest offensive players in the league, but he carries a huge cap hit and a no-movement clause, both of which conspire to make him virtually impossible to move in any kind of meaningful deal unless it meant the Bruins were taking back a similar bad contract in return. That NMC remains in effect through 2019- when he’ll be 33- and then a no-trade goes for one more season- through 2020. The B’s could buy him out, but that’s not a feasible option with so much money invested in him and the crippling payout structure associated with such a move (the league did this to prevent teams from throwing money at big-ticket mistakes to make them go away).

If you think I’m picking on Krejci, then here’s an example of what’s bothered me of late: near the end the game last night, with his goaltender out of the net and Krejci going back for the puck deep in his own end, a Devils forward zipped by him and stole possession. The play didn’t lead to an empty-netter, but it did bleed valuable seconds off the clock- time the Bruins could have used to start the breakout the other way and try to get the equalizer. Speed has never been Krejci’s forte but I’ll come out and say it- he just looks slow out there. And, he seems unable to win footraces to loose pucks at critical moments- footraces Krejci used to win.  If you’re not concerned about this, I don’t know what else to say.

In net, Tuukka Rask has been up and down for most of the year. There is no question that when on his game, he is one of the NHL’s elite netminders. Unfortunately, he can also be significantly mediocre at times as well. The defense in front of him is a major issue, but the B’s could have used a stop from him on the Travis Zajac goal last night and didn’t get it.  If you read this and translate it as blaming Rask, that’s not what I’m saying, but at some point- Rask has more than 7 million reasons to play better than he has at points this season. He’s under .920 for a season-long save percentage, and on a team like this one, it’s simply not good enough.

Finally- Patrice Bergeron may be a saint, but he’s not all-powerful. He had the tying goal on his stick in close but fired the puck wide after it appeared a Devils defender got just enough of him to hamper him from getting the shot off cleanly. His 29 goals are a real testament to just how important the 30-year-old has been to Boston’s fortunes this year. Everything the Bruins stand for is symbolized in the play of Bergeron. But, he can’t do it alone. Julien shook the lines up last night to no avail- Boston could not find a way to salvage at least a point out of it to buy them some breathing room.

Brad Marchand has done his part as well. You can almost hear the cha-ching! as his next contract negotiations will begin next season with one year remaining on his current deal that pays him a bargain rate of $5 million with a $4.5M AAV. If the Bruins are going to make the playoffs, Marchand is going to be a key focal point to get them there, but he can’t carry the team. Others must find a way to take the pressure off of the team’s heavy lifters.

But by others- the pickings might be a tad slim.

Brett Connolly left the game with an injury, so now we’ll wait to see what lies ahead for him. Ryan Spooner didn’t make the trip but sources tell me his injury is not that serious- it’s just something that can be made worse if he doesn’t rest it properly. We’ll see him back soon. Jimmy Hayes is the easy target and whipping boy, but he hasn’t had much of an impact all season, so the fact that he’s done next to nothing for the past month doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Noel Acciari has been a revelation, but he’s not going to do much offensively. Landon Ferraro is another speedy but limited contributor scoring-wise. Frank Vatrano has the speed and hands to get something done, and he’d be a nice Cinderella story if he could pot some big ones to help his team net some critical points.

What the Bruins need is more production from their core and others like Loui Eriksson and Lee Stempniak, who had a hat trick denied him a week ago on one offside and one replay call that could have gone his way, only it didn’t. He’s cooled off considerably since Boston’s 6-0-1 run after the trade deadline, and Eriksson has been hot and cold for the most part since the team opted not to trade him- Bruins need more from both of them.

The defense is trying, but as the wise sage Yoda once said (paraphrased)- trying hard isn’t good enough. Or is it- good enough trying hard is not?

I respect the effort this team has made this season. A lot of that, regardless of whether you agree with his personnel decisions or not, falls on Julien. He’s managed to take a mediocre roster and put it in the thick of the playoff rest. Contrast that to some of the other teams out there from whom much, much more was expected given how they looked on paper, but have fallen flat.

Ultimately, though, results are what matters in the NHL and in most walks of life. The Bruins weren’t seen as potential champions this year and their performance has validated that. However, many (present company included) didn’t even see them as a playoff club coming in, and they’ve demonstrated what hard work can get you.

Hard work isn’t enough to win it all in this league, but the Bruins deserve credit for coming this far.

Now, they need to dig deep and find a way to be one of the final eight teams standing in the Eastern Conference. Just missing the playoffs means they’re in the same boat they were in a year ago- the draft won’t help them all that much. At least, not in the immediate sense.

They’ve squandered the cushion they built up just a few short weeks ago, so they’ll have to make it in the hard way. If they can deny Detroit, that team’s long playoff streak of 25 years will come to an end. If not, then we’ll know that sometimes, try as one might, effort is not enough to guarantee success.

I want to believe the Bruins will get in, but this finish is too close to call.

***

On another note- I will be joining radio host Allan Mitchell aka “Lowetide” on Edmonton’s TSN 1260 today to talk about Jimmy Vesey. His recent decision not to sign with Nashville and become a free agent as of August 15 has polarized a lot of people in the hockey world, so I thought I would weigh in with my own perspectives on Vesey, whom I’ve known for a long time and the NHL’s system, which allows for a team like the Predators to get nothing after they invested time and resources into developing him over the past four years. If you forgot that hockey is a business, then the Vesey situation reminds us all that it is.

I will be going on Mr. Mitchell’s show live at approximately 12:40 EST time today but if you can’t tune in (they stream their content online), his producer is very good about posting the SoundCloud file and I will put that up on the blog later and also tweet the link if you don’t want to wait.

 

NHL needs to fix embarrassing replay problem

The Boston Bruins lost their fifth consecutive game Thursday night. They followed a similar pattern of energy and solid play in stretches (Ryan Spooner even gave his team a short-lived lead- bay steps!) against the Florida Panthers but ended up with the same result- no points and their tenuous hold on a playoff spot even more in peril.

Like their contest against the NY Rangers the night before, the B’s once again found themselves in the middle of a controversy involving the NHL’s archaic replay/review system. For the second straight game, the B’s came out on the short end of the league’s decision, made by off-ice officials in Toronto.

Only this time, there is a much more convincing case that the NHL bungled this one.

There are two big issues with the league’s goal review process as it currently exists: the most glaring deficiency is the reliance on television networks to provide the various feeds and camera angles the NHL’s war room team uses to make decisions as to whether they uphold or overturn calls on the ice. The second is in how the rules are written- the language gives little leeway to officials and forces them to adhere to a standard that has been proven to have vulnerabilities in each of the situations the B’s have experienced with the Lee Stempniak no-goal on Wednesday and Patrice Bergeron’s negated tally (that would have made it a 2-2 game in the third period) against Florida. Dan Ryan/@bruinshockeynow has a good photo showing the Bergeron goal that wasn’t.  You be the judge. Bergerongoal

Colleague Fluto Shinzawa of the Boston Globe has been critical of the replay and newly-instituted coach’s challenge this season, and after last night’s replay debacle, he’s got another thoughtful piece that is worth reading. It’s not just about the Bruins coming out on the short end here…your team might be next and it might be in a much more critical (and devastating) situation if the NHL doesn’t collectively pull its head out of its posterior and address what is an unacceptable flaw in an otherwise well-intentioned system designed to prevent what Boston has gone through with alarming regularity this season.

No, despite the passionate feelings of some B’s fans out there (we’re packing on the foil, coach!) there isn’t some grand conspiracy by the league’s leadership to hose the Bruins. However, folks aren’t wrong to point out that the way the NHL and its on- and off-ice officiating crews apply the rules is inconsistent at best. What may be a goal one night is inexplicably not a goal the next and vice versa. And when these faceless, unaccountable people can simply hide behind the nebulous “inconclusive evidence” canard to justify a decision that flies in the face of what your lying’ eyes are telling you, things are not going to get any better. It takes moral courage sometimes to act and do the right thing for the good of the game. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman needs to hold his hockey operations folks accountable and make them get to work on a solution. He needs to direct an honest effort into addressing some major vulnerabilities in the existing system and assign some smart people to come up with solutions worthy of the 21st century. Nothing in life is perfect, but what we’ve seen from the league the past two games doesn’t even come close, and the teams and fans who pay ever-escalating prices to see the sport, deserve better.

If you’re not a Bruins fan, you might even be a little bemused at what has happened to the club of late and let me be clear- Boston hasn’t lost five game in a row because of two questionable (in one case not even questionable) calls that have gone against them- they’ve lost because they simply haven’t been good enough. But if you’re snickering from afar, you might not have quite a sense of humor about it if your team is on the receiving end of this NHL-perpetrated farce…with a lot more on the line. Don’t believe me? Then go ask Buffalo Sabres fans about 1999 and see what kind of an answer you get. If you don’t think this could be your favorite team one day, then you simply aren’t paying attention.

Like another past issue- the defunct “in the crease before the puck” rule that threatened to steal the joy and integrity of the game away in the late 90’s before the NHL’s powers finally stood up and instituted some common freaking sense, the current video replay/review system needs similar attention. I already mentioned the Sabres and Brett Hull’s skate in the crease just before the Stanley Cup-clinching goal was scored. B’s fans might also remember P.J. Axelsson scoring the overtime-winning goal against Washington in the 1998 playoffs, only to have it overturned because the front of Tim Taylor’s skate was in the crease. Former Bruin Joe Juneau’s sudden death goal later on counted and the entire series turned on that outcome. It took a much more controversial goal at a critical moment that embarrassed the NHL to force them to take action. Bettman and company should know that waiting this out only opens them up for more embarrassment.

Back then, referees were forced to overturn perfectly legal scores because the words in a well-intentioned rule said they had to- it did not allow them to exercise the discretion and judgment the league pays them for. If the NHL isn’t willing to pursue meaningful change- whether it is to invest in the kinds of fixed cameras on multiple angles that the league would control- as Shinzawa offered, then maybe we should just go back to no replay and let the humans on the ice figure things out. If a puck goes through the side of the net and is ruled a goal at a critical stage, then so be it. You can’t be half-in on this kind of thing. Either do it right, or not at all, Mr. Bettman.

I know the league’s intentions are good when it comes to replays and coach’s challenges- it doesn’t want controversy surrounding games that should be decided in a straight forward manner each and every time. But, life doesn’t work like that, and whether we acknowledge it or not, we’ve got controversy that the NHL needs to address. It can start by taking a hard look at the rule book and determining whether allowing reviewing officials to exercise some common sense when determining whether to uphold or overturn a call on the ice is warranted. Building the kind of technical infrastructure to give the league a much better video vantage point than what they have now will take a little longer and require more resources, but it is worth it. To say the NHL’s intentions are sound and desire to preserve the integrity of the game genuine, is no longer enough.

After all, you know what they say about good intentions and the road to h-e-double hockey sticks.

B’s losing skid hits 4 games

The heat is on.

The Boston Bruins went into Madison Square Garden after losing all three games on their California road trip last week and promptly got behind the 8-ball in a 2-0 hole (thanks to goals by Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan) before ultimately falling by a 5-2 score.

The game’s complexion changed when Lee Stempniak had a 1st period goal wiped off the board on a coach’s challenge when Brad Marchand was ruled offside on the initial zone entry. Although the play developed much later and Marchand preceding the puck did’t have much of anything to do with Stempniak’s eventual tally, the rule is the rule and replay clearly showed Marchand did not have control of the puck when he crossed the blue line before the puck did. Instead of 2-1, the game remained 2-0 after one period of play.

Milton, Massachusetts native and former Cushing Academy star Keith Yandle assisted on both Rangers goals to stake his team to the early lead, including a superb feed to Stepan on the second strike, looking one way then putting the puck on the forward’s tape for the two-goal lead. It didn’t help that the Rangers seemed to get the benefit of some early ticky-tack calls that always seem to go against the Bruins, but complaining about the inconsistencies in officiating is tired and worn out- death, taxes and the other guys getting more power plays than Boston has become so much background noise and the team has to find ways to overcome that. There’s no grand conspiracy by the men in stripes against the Bruins when it comes to penalties, but we’re not likely to get much in the way of consistent applications of the rules, either. For whatever reason- it is what it is.

Tuukka Rask started the game, though he had been battling flu-like symptoms. He took himself out of it after 20 minutes, leaving Jonas Gustavsson to try and keep the Bruins in it.

Gustavsson was in a tough spot when the Rangers made it 3-0 on a blistering shot by Derick Brassard (his 26th) before the B’s could answer with a goal of their own when Stempniak scored his second tally as a Bruin.

Patrice Bergeron started the play when he took the puck away from Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who made an ill-advised attempt to try to chip the puck past the NHL’s top defensive forward. Bergeron forced the turnover then passed it over to Marchand on the left side. He then deftly put the puck to the far post where Stempniak was positioned for the easy tap-in.

That set the stage for another decision that would not go Boston’s way after it appeared initially that a sprawling Henrik Lundqvist had denied Stempniak with his glove on a brilliant goal line save. However, replay convincingly showed that Lundqvist’s glove was behind the goal line and in the net when the puck looked like it crossed the line and ended up inside the glove before he pulled it back on the right side of the line. The review went to Toronto and league replay officials ruled that there was no “conclusive evidence” to overturn the initial call on the ice of no goal. So, instead of a 3-3 game and Stempniak hat trick, the score remained 3-1.

Rangers forward J.T. Miller scored in the third period to make it 4-1, but Frank Vatrano responded with his 7th goal of the season and first since being called up this week from Providence. Unfortunately, the B’s had no more comeback magic and Rick Nash closed out the scoring with an empty-netter. He blew by David Krejci after the B’s won a faceoff in the Rangers’ end, but puck skipped by the veteran center near the offensive blue line and it turned into a footrace that Krejci lost.

The Bruins now find themselves squarely on the horns of a dilemma: they’ve lost four games in a row for the first time all season. It isn’t like they played poorly last night- they outshot the Rangers 41-24 but Rask was not 100 percent and if he wasn’t he should not have been in net- that’s on him and Claude Julien for making that decision. It might or might not have made a difference, but Rask left the game with his club in an 0-2 deficit after playing a strong opening period.

As for the wiped out goals, the B’s continue to come out on the short end of the byzantine replay processes that the NHL presides over. I’ve watched various games all season and I still can’t figure out how the decisions are made to uphold or remove goals from contest to contest. The entire process seems pretty subjective, but the Bruins are bound by the system the NHL has, not the one we’d like the league to employ. The negated goal is understandable and the Bruins have themselves to blame for allowing for a coach’s challenge which has served to bring games to a screeching halt and kill momentum. By rule, it was the right call to wipe out the first Stempniak goal because Marchand was clearly offside. However, his being offside had nothing to do with the actual play that resulted in the goal. Bottom line- since the zone entry was improper in the first place, the goal has to come off the board, but sometimes, linesmen miss calls like that and goals stand- the coach’s challenge, as constructed, does more harm than good. Law of unintended consequences- the self-imposed delays while referees review the various angles and replays aren’t good for the game. And, we’ve seen instances where, despite clear evidence to uphold or reverse the call, that they’ve made the opposite ruling. The challenge is flawed- the NHL should tweak and fix the gaps in the process or scrap it altogether.

The third Stempniak goal gets back to inconsistency. I think even the most ardent Rangers fans would look at the replays and concede that was a goal, even if by definition, the NHL was able to invoke the “inconclusive” clause to uphold the call on the ice. The commentators (Pierre McGuire perhaps?) had it right when they talked about common sense showing that the puck was in the net before Lundqvist snatched his glove back over the line, and it’s completely understandable that the on-ice official would give him the benefit of that call- it was a tremendous play typical of King Henrik’s Hall of Fame-caliber career. However, that’s no consolation to the Bruins, who can make an equally compelling case that the replay showed that puck was in the Ranger goalie’s glove when his glove was on the wrong side of the goal line. If we have the technology and we aren’t going to use it, then what is the point of having replay at all?  Just give all the power to the referees in a game and don’t give false credence to a farce that the NHL is dedicated to making the right call when it’s right in front of them. Either rewrite the rule to allow for common sense to prevail in a situation like that or don’t have replay…it’s that simple.

Ultimately, though- the B’s now have to play the rested Florida Panthers at home tonight. The TD Garden environs have not been kind to them this season and this could get ugly if the B’s don’t put in a top effort. The way things have gone, an effort won’t be enough for the ever-growing-surly fans, who want to be rewarded with a winning performance. The B’s have had the effort of late, but don’t have anything to show for it. The offense, once clicking along at an impressive rate (third in the league before the road trip) has now gone south. The defense continues to be an adventure- they limited New York’s shots last night, but the Rangers capitalized on the quality chances Boston gave them, burying several goals from in close when B’s players didn’t cover the eventual goal scorers.

On one final note- Boston will recognize Claude Julien in a pre-game ceremony for becoming the team’s all-time winningest coach, passing Art Ross to sit alone atop the B’s coaching victories list as he closes in on 400 (but won’t get there this year). It’s a nice sentiment and one he deserves given the job he’s done with this roster and its limitations. The team needs to dig down deep to earn him a win and buy some breathing room as folks are getting antsy and looking back to last year.

I personally believe the Bruins will hold on and make the playoffs. They’re too hard-working to not eke out the points they need to get in. But as has been said all year, at some point, talent and depth will trump hard work and desire. Boston is on the right track and making the playoffs will be a good experience for the players, but Don Sweeney and the team understand the club’s shortcomings.

The sad thing about the loss in New York City last night is that the Bruins played well enough to win. They had plenty of chances to score and two goals that weren’t would have made all the difference. Vatrano, whom I thought would have been fine staying in Providence to soak up top minutes in all situations looks like he belongs in Boston. His snipe was vintage Vatrano- he slipped into a seam in the Rangers defense  and with no one on him, buried a laser beam just inside the short side post before Lundqvist could react. Kid’s a keeper.

The B’s left two points on the table in a game they most certainly could have had. It’s hard enough to beat the Rangers, but when you’re having to work agains the refs and the off-ice officials as well, you’re left with last night’s result.

That kind of a game can be a morale crusher, so it will be crucial for them to not come home tonight and lay an egg in a critical division game. If that happens, then we won’t only bear witness to a five-game losing streak but a snowball effect in Boston that will create an oppressive climate from now until the club’s next game in Toronto on Saturday.

The Bruins must find a way to get some wins.

Thud! (And ideas on what the B’s need to address going forward)

That’s the sound of the Boston Bruins coming out of an important game last night against the Anaheim Ducks.

The reality is- you can’t win in any league without scoring goals, so this one was over just a few minutes into it- as long as it took trade deadline pickup Jamie McGinn to put the puck past Jonas Gustavsson at 2:51.

The Bruins outshot and outhit the Ducks, and after a rough 1st period, pulled things together until giving up a Hampus Lindholm goal early in the third period.  However, on a night that the B’s couldn’t get any of their 38 shots past starting netminder Frederik Andersen, no one should be all that surprised- the Ducks are one of the league’s top teams after a brutal offensive start. The defense and goaltending has been there for them all season, and when the scoring picked up, you just knew that Bruce Boudreau’s club would be a force. The B’s have been outscored 10-2 in their pair of games against the Ducks this season. In a head-to-head matchup like this one, it was evident that the B’s is not as talented, not as deep, not as strong, not as fast.

I know fans are disappointed, and there’s no doubt more is expected of this B’s club that went on an impressive hot streak after keeping Loui Eriksson and picking up John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak on February 29th’s NHL trade deadline. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that there still seems to be this sense of entitlement by so many out there who flood the airwaves and internet with negativity in the wake of a loss. No team has ever posted a perfect record in any regular season in NHL history and no one ever will. The B’s are far from a powerhouse team, so nobody should really be surprised that they came up short against the Ducks last night. Not giving a pass to the Bruins here, but they were overmatched against Anaheim last night and it showed- they put up a solid effort and had their moments, but their opponent is that much better. McGinn and Ryan Kesler scored in the first 5 minutes and while the game seemed closer than the final score, the B’s were unable to solve the defense and goaltender at the other end.

The honeymoon with Stempniak and Liles is ending. They’re solid veterans, but not true difference makers. Boston’s showing against San Jose and Anaheim give you an indication that while the team improved at the deadline, how much of an upgrade the duo represent looks to be relatively minimal compared to the strength and core of the recognized top clubs in the league, especially out West. Liles played poorly last night…it happens, but his -3 against the Ducks is probably more reflective of what he is at age 35 than anything else, but after infusing the B’s with a shot of energy after arriving, he’s coming back down to earth a bit.

The team should be grateful that they didn’t lose sparkplug Matt Beleskey to a serious eye injury after he got caught with a Simon Despres high stick on the follow through of a puck battle. Once again, there were missed calls on some blatant stuff that should have gone Boston’s way, but it didn’t happen and who is to say that the B’s power play could have made a difference? The good news for the Bruins is that their penalty killing has been pretty dangerous this season with 9 shorthanded goals, so perhaps it pays them to be without the man advantage. In any case- the fan frustration that Boston continues to be at the bottom of the league in power play chances is palpable, but I’m not sure we can do anything about it.

Last night wasn’t about the missed calls as much as it was about missed opportunities- the second period was much better and a goal or two could have changed the game entirely, but sometimes we have to take a step back and understand that Ducks are a superior team. They made their chances count and Boston didn’t. That’s life and hockey.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Bruins as they face a rested L.A. Kings team in their home digs tonight, the same club that demolished Boston in the Hub, and that word probably doesn’t begin to describe the one-sided drubbing the Kings gave them on their home ice in Milan Lucic’s return to TD Garden. They’ll go home briefly and then head down to New York to face the Rangers on Wednesday, so there is a chance they can salvage a point or three in the final two games of their roadie, but it won’t be easy.

With that in mind, here are some (obvious) thoughts for Don Sweeney and the team to ponder going forward:

  1. The defense must be the offseason priority.

No disrespect intended to Dennis Seidenberg, but serious thought should be given to either trading him for an inconsequential return or, if no NHL team is willing to take him and his $4 million cap hit, buying him out and moving on. Kevan Miller is a good teammate and has had his moments in Boston, but the B’s need to look at using his roster spot on someone else. He’ll land on his feet with someone else, but the B’s already re-signed Adam McQuaid to a questionable extension (and I say questionable in terms of pure economics- will always respect McQuaid for what he brings to the team, but he’s yet to make it through an entire NHL unscathed and the wear and tear on him appears to be showing)- they don’t need to add another one with a game but limited Miller.

Zdeno Chara can’t carry the team- that much is certain- but he still carries value in the right role. Trading him is the popular talking point by folks who don’t seem to understand that he has a no movement clause. I get that trading him makes sense on multiple levels, but the contract he signed makes that highly problematic, even if the GM was willing to move in that direction. Bottom line- unless he does a Ray Bourque and asks out, Chara isn’t going anywhere. Having said that, Sweeney and his staff understand that he simply cannot be an effective workhorse anymore. Not only does the team need a legitimate No. 2 defender to balance the three pairings, but they also need to seek out an effective defense partner for Chara. They weren’t able to find one this season.

Maybe Colin Miller can be that guy, but the more I see of him, the more I believe he’s just a middle-tier player who has some nice offensive tools and will be an above average power play specialist with 40-point NHL upside but is not instinctive enough of a player to be a bell cow 2-way threat who will be a dependable defensive presence. He’s still young and will develop into an NHL regular, but I’m not sure he’s someone the Bruins and their fans should be placing an inordinate amount of faith in as a top-2 or even 3 solution for the team.

It’s been a disappointing season for Torey Krug as far as the goals go- he has just three. It isn’t for a lack of trying but he’s gotten no breaks this year. He’s still one of Boston’s best options on defense in terms of his skating, puck-moving, smarts and energy/tenacity. He’s posted a career-best in assists and is an important character guy for the team. In a perfect world he’d have a lot more goals, but it might be a blessing in disguise- if he was lighting it up, he’d be looking at a bigger payday. As it stands, the B’s should be able to lock him into a reasonable, fair-market extension at around $5 million AAV, perhaps a little less, and considering what Seidenberg is getting, that’s about right. Some folks won’t like it, but those people are nowhere near the team and can’t even comprehend what Krug means to the club on and off the ice. Unless he’s part of some major trade and massive plan to re-shape Boston’s defense by bringing in multiple players, Krug should be a part of the solution going forward. He might not have the ideal size, but his oversized heart and hockey IQ mean he can be highly effective- he just doesn’t have a lot of help at present.

The Bruins need to make something happen at the position. Kevin Shattenkirk is the biggest name out there (and Boston might/should have their sights on a few other options), and he won’t come cheaply from the St. Louis Blues if they were to trade him. But should Boston land him, they had better have the ability to retain him for the long-term. If it’s someone else, so be it- but whomever the B’s are looking to bring in, it needs to be a player who can be part of a winning present and future.

2. Boston needs to upgrade Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly.

There’s no way around it- both have been major disappointments.

In Hayes’ case, you would think the local guy would have shown more consistent energy and desire but it seems like the pressure got to him. Although huge, the former Nobles prep star and Boston College product has always been more of a gentle giant than a premier power forward, and his skating is what prevented him from being a first-round pick in 2008- he struggles to play a consistent uptempo style. Hayes gets his goals and points by going to the net and boxing out defenders with his massive frame, but we don’t see it enough. The Bruins acquired him in hopes that after a 19-goal campaign in Florida (including a dagger game at the end of the season that essentially knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs) he would take it to the next level. That hasn’t happened and I don’t know if it ever will…he’s such a curiously passive player given what he could be with that pure size and the soft hands around the net. I can only imagine the coaches are even more baffled. Bringing him home to Boston hasn’t worked and a lot of this is on Hayes- the team has tried a lot of different things to get him going (and we’ve seen what he’s capable of bringing) but he’s not responded in any meaningful, consistent fashion. That’s one of the reasons why he watched last night’s contest from the press box. He’s on the books for two more years, so the B’s either have to remain invested in him and hope he gets the funk out (Extreme reference!) of his game or they’ll have to take pennies on the dollar (and perhaps retain salary in the process) to get some other team to take him off their hands.

Connolly is even more maddening.

The sixth overall pick in 2010 flashes all of those tools that saw him selected before some pretty damn fine NHL players, but we see it only in fleeting fashion. The size and speed combo catches the eye for sure, but it’s what he doesn’t do with it that leaves you often shaking your head in disbelief. The scouting reports on Connolly coming out Prince George of the WHL near unanimously praised him for his hockey sense and killer instinct around the net, but the NHL version of Connolly flies in the face of those observations. If he’s not doing fly-bys in front of the opposition net or missing shots from prime position, Connolly can’t seem to do the little things that matter- battles for loose pucks, a net-front presence, won foot races- he often seems to be a step behind.

That’s not to say Connolly can’t be an effective fourth-line winger, but the Bruins didn’t give up not one but two second-round picks for a bottom line player. The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t draft him where they did for a checking/energy guy. He’s not yet 24, so you don’t want to completely close the door on Connolly, but at the same time- like Hayes- the B’s have given him a lot of different looks and chances and he simply hasn’t done much with it. 9 goals in 69 games with some healthy scratches thrown in there simply doesn’t cut it for a player as talented as Connolly is. Where’s the beef?

Frank Vatrano is the obvious player to give a chance as the season comes to an end over the disappointing duo. He just turned 22 this week and has 31 goals in 31 AHL games, not to mention another six goals in 30 NHL games after an earlier stint with the big club this season. My personal feeling is that right now- Vatrano is better off playing top line, PP and PK minutes in Providence as opposed to being on a lower unit with limited ice time. Of course, the B’s are only allowed four recalls after the trade deadline, so it isn’t as simple as just brining him up.

Having said all that, the B’s could do worse than giving the Springfield Rifle a shot- he’s got speed and energy to burn and just might give the Boston offense a shot in the arm. He’s a left wing who could replace Eriksson in the top-six and then Eriksson could move over to the right allowing coaches to move out either one of Connolly and Hayes. The issue for Boston (other than burning the call up and concerns about the defense factor of a Vatrano-David KrejciDavid Pastrnak line) is that in order to bring Vatrano up, they would have to put someone else on waivers, so right now, it appears that the business of hockey and economics are playing a more prominent role. I can’t argue with those who say that exposing Connolly and/or Hayes to waivers is no big loss, but if Sweeney is convinced he can eventually move them for some kind of return, you begin to understand his reticence to put them on the waiver wire where any team can put in a claim.

Either way, I think we see Frankie “Vats” in Boston next season in some kind of full-time capacity. Natural goal scorers like him don’t grow on trees and the B’s will want to cultivate some returns, especially if the club sees a key roster departure up front, which leads me to my next point.

3. Loui Eriksson– caveat emptor!

Let me get this out of the way- I like Loui. Always have.

He’s been unfairly maligned in the wake of the trade that sent Tyler Seguin (btw- that achilles tendon injury he suffered was gruesome- luckily for him, he may have dodged a bullet by only being out a few weeks versus how serious it could have been) to Dallas. He’s not flashy, but is just smart and consistent- you always know what you’re going to get with Eriksson. But, he’ll be 31 soon, and with what he brings you, 5 or 6 years at close to $6 million per if not more is simply not money/term well spent, and the Bruins need to walk away.

For those who regularly read TSP  and listen to the podcasts (this blog for those who might not have had their coffee)- you know I was all in favor of moving Eriksson at the deadline and was surprised when the Bruins did’t. Of course- if you believe Cam Neely and the lackluster offers he claims were made for Eriksson, then it is understandable that the B’s would hold onto him and take their chances, and he’s continued to make timely contributions. Unfortunately, with two tough losses, it’s easy to revisit the wisdom in not moving Eriksson, especially when it stands to reason that he’ll either leave Boston in early July or the B’s will have to overpay significantly to keep him in the fold.

What to do?

The positives- even without the high-end foot speed, Eriksson is an ideal forward for Boston’s system. He’s smart, industrious, thinks the game at such a high level that he keeps the puck and makes the right decisions in every zone. Versatility is a plus- he’s proven he can play either wing. Eriksson is a smooth playmaker, goes to the net and finishes plays off in close, does good power play work, kills penalties and is a threat shorthanded (witness his shortie the other night against San Jose). He’s a quiet guy, but leads by example and has earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates alike.

On the downside- he’s a good player, not a great one. He’s going to get his money because teams out there with cap space to burn will give him what he and his agent are asking for. That means the B’s will either pony up or have to swallow hard and let him go, because unless Eriksson orders his agent JP Barry to stand down and decides to take a more team-friendly deal, they’ll get little in the way of a break. And honestly- why should Eriksson leave money and term on the table if he can get it elsewhere? I don’t begrudge him getting what he can, but that puts the Bruins in a tough spot.

Ultimately, I think that if the B’s are serious about getting a long-term but young enough defenseman to rebuild their blue line corps around, they need to trade Eriksson’s cap space to make sure they can invest that savings in a long-term deal. That means that if they aren’t willing to go beyond the four years they’ve already offered Loui (and that’s a risky proposition as it is with his concussion history), then they should offer him up to a team that wants the exclusive negotiating rights and is willing to give them a mid-round pick. It’s a far from ideal return, but if the Neely claims are true, getting a fifth-rounder for him isn’t that terrible. After all- Jamie Benn was a fifth-round pick once upon a time, right (it could happen again…yeah, right!)?

I guess we’ll find out, but at some point, the Bruins will need to see if the young crop of forwards in their system can play. Keeping a known (and relatively safe) commodity like Eriksson benefits them in the short term, but leaves them little wiggle room if he skates off a cliff at age 33 or 34 or something unforeseen happens to his health. Marc Savard and Seidenberg are recent reminders of just how rapidly a player and team’s outlook can change when devastating injuries happen.

But in getting back to Loui and why he wasn’t moved, I can only surmise it is because the team and coaches trust him to give his level best each and every night.  That trust factor is why keeping Loui made far more sense for Boston than dumping him for a mediocre futures return would have. It’s easy for fans to say- just take the second-round pick so he doesn’t walk for nothing on a team that has no chance to win! But fans don’t work, sweat, bleed for the team- they can make detached pronouncements on Twitter, internet message boards and over the radio airwaves and don’t have to be accountable for them. Dumping Eriksson would have sent a message to the team that in my mind would have been far more detrimental. If you’re a prospective free agent who might be considering whether to stay or go, or you’re thinking you might like to sign with the Bruins down the road, does your trust that the team is committed to winning go up or does it go down if management hurts a playoff-bound roster at the deadline? Players get the business of hockey, sure- but they also want to feel like the GM has their back. They are…after all…human.

TSP doesn’t have the definitive answers for what ails the Bruins and how to fix it.

Winning the Stanley Cup is hard- only 1 out of 30 teams can do it every year. This team deserves credit for fighting hard and exceeding expectations this season, but it’s hard to get past what we’ve seen in terms of how they match up against the better clubs around the league.

To expect the Bruins to win every night and then be angry when they don’t is a fool’s errand, but at the same time- management’s job is to make this team viable not just for this year but in the seasons to come. Last year, we heard about “passengers” and the B’s still seem to have a couple of those. The defense tries hard, but they don’t have the ability to seriously compete for a championship.

The Stanley Cup window is barely open for the B’s, but it isn’t shut. Whether they can force it open more to match up better with the NHL’s big dogs in the next 1-3 years is very much an unanswered question at this point.

This will be a pivotal couple of months for Sweeney and his legacy as GM in Boston.

 

 

 

 

TSP SPD Podcast: Bruins road trip update, Frank Vatrano & 4 guys for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft

Hi, gang-  been a little under the weather, but feeling improved, so I cut a podcast early this morning in time for your St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.

Focus is on the Boston Bruins during their West Coast road swing after dropping the first game to San Jose by a 3-2 score. Things get no easier with matches against L.A. and Anaheim. They go back east and get a little time at home before going to the Big Apple and Madison Square Garden to play the NY Rangers next week. This is a pivotal six points up for grabs.

We also go into Frank Vatrano and the fantastic season he’s having. The Springfield Rifle has 31 goals in 31 AHL games and while B’s fans are clamoring to get him on the big roster and playing again, I attempt to explain why that hasn’t happened yet. Hint- it’s not always a simple talent swap between Vatrano and Jimmy Hayes and/or Brett Connolly.

Finally- I close out the 40-minute podcast with some thoughts on four players I think are on Boston’s 2016 draft watch list: three defensemen and one impressive forward. It’s still difficult to narrow the focus, but I think if the B’s could get any one of these guys let alone two with their multiple first-round picks, they’ll be in good shape. You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out who I’m talking about, though.

So, thanks for listening and I do promise to get these posted over at iTunes so you can download and listen to them on other formats. I’ll carve out time to do that and post a notice on the blog. As always- appreciate the support and feedback.

Happy St. Paddy’s Day and enjoy the podcast!

Scouting Post founder on TSN 1260 Edmonton to talk Bruins & 2016 NHL Draft

I was invited to go on host  on Edmonton-based Allan Mitchell aka Lowetide’s mid-day sports radio show on TSN 1260 yesterday.

Mr. Mitchell is a thoughtful guy with a lot of interest in hockey at all levels. Before the Oilers came along, he was a Bruins guy during their glory years of the early 1970s, so he’s been kind enough to have me on his show to talk Boston since 2011, when he got his own show and has developed quite a following. I do appreciate his kind words about the blog (and me) on his show.

Yesterday, I was asked about Boston’s youth movement (David Pastrnak, Noel Acciari), drilled down on Ryan Spooner’s progress, and an update on the Dougie Hamilton trade. I also talked Riley Tufte, Dante Fabbro and a New England prep sleeper for the 2016 NHL draft.

I hope you will give it a listen. I come on at the 6:55 mark of the SoundCloud clip for a 12-minute segment. And you can follow me on Twitter if you want more: @kluedeke29

B’s aren’t wary of the Ides of March

Brad_Marchand

Brad Marchand…boss (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In a month that is clearly the toughest of  all the Boston Bruins have had to face in the 2015-16 regular season, the team is off to just about the best start possible, going 4-0-1 and earning nine of 10 possible points.

If not for Torey Krug’s negated goal against the Washington Capitals last weekend, the Bruins might boast a perfect 5-0 record in March and own sole possession of first place.

As it stands, the team prevailed in a real battle Tuesday night on the road at Amalie Arena in Tampa, finally solving Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop 10 seconds into sudden death when Brad Marchand took Patrice Bergeron’s centering feed off a 2-on-1 break and whipped it into the open side for his team-leading 34th goal of the season. Every tally adds to Marchand’s career-best NHL season, one in which he’s not only scoring, but playing a more disciplined (save for the suspension he got for low-bridging Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki) and mature game.

The B’s performance in earning their 38th victory of the season was not perfect, but they’ll take it. Skeptics will point to it as one more example of the team not putting together a full 60-minute effort, but that’s a convenient position to take on the heels of an emotional win. A year ago, there’s little doubt that the Bruins would have lost a game like this one- they weren’t able to get their offense out of second gear and the fight and grit that has been there for so much of the 2015-16 NHL season wasn’t quite there with the squad that missed the playoffs for the only time in Claude Julien’s 389-win tenure.

Boston’s scoring is currently third in the NHL behind Dallas and Washington after being down near the bottom in 2014-15. They’re getting a much more balanced attack and since Noel Acciari joined the team and Julien put together a stable fourth line with Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly on the wings. It’s a rugged, but smarter and more capable unit now that Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot are down in the AHL and allows the B’s to attack opponents with three capable lines (though the third grouping of Matt Beleskey-Ryan Spooner-Jimmy Hayes has not been able to get much going at even strength consistently throughout the season when they’ve been together). Last night, the goaltenders conspired to limit the offense, but the Bruins on the whole have been able to make up for their defensive deficiencies because they can put the puck in the net.

Backup Jonas Gustavsson was brilliant, earning a career-best 42 saves in his up-and-down NHL career. He stopped everything the Lightning threw at him and especially stood tall in the third period when the home team hemmed the B’s inside their end and prevented any shots on Bishop for about the first 10 minutes of the period. ‘Gus’ has given the Bruins everything that his countryman Niklas Svedberg was unable to provide last season. As Tuukka Rask sat on the bench last night, he had to genuinely enjoy seeing his teammate rob and stone the powerful Tampa offense…he deserved a night off and got one. That kind of a performance from Gustavsson will do more to motivate Rask to raise his game than anything else, and it just goes to show you why the Bruins did not throw an untested Jeremy Smith, Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre into the role this season. The B’s just needed Gus to be healthy and to give Rask a chance to not have to carry such a heavy load. He’s done that and more with his 11-5-1 record and .916 save percentage.

The defense changed a bit last night, as Joe Morrow came into the rotation for Zach Trotman and played a serviceable game. John-Michael Liles is not only playing like someone in his mid-20’s with his quick wheels and ability to make the long stretch passes to spring Boston forward and force opposing defenses to scramble, but his presence has stabilized the B’s defense on the whole. (note- Liles could face supplemental discipline for his extended elbow and head hit to Tampa’s Nikita Kucherov last night- we’ll find out today if a fine or suspension could be coming.) Torey Krug is a beneficiary, as he has someone else who can carry the puck out on his own and has a little pressure taken off him. He’s still not scoring goals like he has in the past, but he’s posted career-high numbers in assists and registered his 30th helper on the overtime winner last night.

Nobody is going to argue that the Boston defense is championship caliber- they’re giving up a lot of shots and the team has benefited from strong play in the nets from Tuukka Rask and Gustavsson. If we had mediocre outings from the goaltenders, we might all be signing a different tune. Having said that- the defense is playing a heavier, more physically punishing game to wear down opposing forwards and doing a decent job of funneling those players out and away from the higher danger areas. There is reason for hope that if Don Sweeney can add at least one younger No. 2 defenseman in the offseason, there is enough raw material on the roster and in the organization that the team’s Achilles heel might not be a vulnerability for too much longer.

In the end, there are still going to be those who don’t believe in the 15-16 Bruins and think the team should have burned it down to the water line. I would submit that is a video game mentality- and that the idea of being recognized as a “contender” or not being the driving force in making drastic maneuvers for better or worse- is simply not realistic. Sure, I was one of the voices that honestly thought moving on from Loui Eriksson made the most sense going into the trade deadline, but that was under the mistaken assumption that the veteran forward would be in demand and that teams would pony up for him. If we take Bruins president Cam Neely at his word, then that was not the case- so I think it was the right move to add guys like Liles and Lee Stempniak to the mix rather than just mail it in.

It would be one thing if the Bruins had been disinterested and lacked motivation this season. Clearly, they have character and have played hard for Julien and the staff, even if they don’t have the pure talent and depth to compete on paper against the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals. However, the 1-0-1 performances against both clubs, not to mention the 7-3 road thrashing of the vaunted Dallas Stars in recent weeks, has sent a message that when skating and competing, the Bruins are a better team than I and many others gave them credit for entering the season.

It’s simply not right to turn around after the players have sacrificed and done their part (for the most part) in a regular season to get in a prime position to make the postseason to then cut their legs out from under them for the sake of acquiring extra assets that you *might* be able to turn into that key defender in the offseason. The Bruins still have pieces and components to make that trade, but this version of the B’s has earned the right to see what they can do in the playoffs without the mixed messages of taking away a veteran like Eriksson and trading four picks for Liles and Stempniak.

Since the trade deadline, the B’s have gone 4-0-1 and the line of Marchand-Bergeron-Stempniak has posted 19 points- a combined 8 goals and 11 assists (per B’s media relations guru Eric Tosi). If fans ever wanted an example of a team answering the call of “show me” after a GM showed faith in the roster by adding to it, this club has done that. Marchand has already set his career standard for goals, and Bergeron is just three away from tying his best of 31 set way back when he was just 20 years old in the post-lockout 2005-06 season.

So, while the recent positive run doesn’t mean we can start planning the parade route or booking the Duck boats as some of the snarky, more sarcastic people who love to throw straw man arguments out there when their negative narrative is threatened, Bruins fans can breathe a little bit. No team is just entitled to win- it takes hard work and dedication. Right now, the 15-16 Boston Bruins are all rowing in the same direction and the guys who deserve to be here are on the roster and making it happen. The team has some options if injuries hit, as well- Frank “the Springfield Rifle” Vatrano is tearing it up in the AHL with 19 goals since he was returned to the farm in January.

Things won’t get much easier for the B’s: they have a three-game West Coast swing against three of the top Western Conference clubs: Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose. The team then gets to fly back to the East Coast and close out the roadie with a date in Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. However, by beating Calgary, Chicago, Florida and Tampa since the calendar flipped over to March, the pressure for Boston to face must-win situations is lessened. They can’t afford to leave points on the table and will need to dig down deep to run the table in their schedule, but sometimes- we have to acknowledge that when playing superior clubs, victories are harder to come by.

All in all, there is reason for some optimism in Boston. The team seems to have drafted well in recent seasons and even when they haven’t, undrafted diamonds in the rough like Acciari and Vatrano have give the coaches better options than some of the more heralded and hyped draft picks have. It doesn’t mean that all is sunshine and unicorns with the Bruins, but fans should expect their team to do their best.

We don’t live in a perfect world, so their best might not be good enough for some, but for the rest of us- moving in the right direction is good news.

Bring on the Ides of March.