Thunderstruck

Sometimes, there are times when a detailed game summary just doesn’t do what happened any justice.

Tonight’s 1-0 Boston Bruins win over the Tampa Bay Lightning was one of those.

60 minutes of frenetic pace and no goals…Jonas Gustavsson stood on his head in the third period as the B’s were outshot 15-5. Another solid, mature and effective game from rookie Noel Acciari.

On the overtime center ice faceoff, Patrice Bergeron to Torey Krug…Krug to Bergeron…Bergeron to Brad Marchand on the 2-on-1 break, shot…score…his 34th- good for 3rd in the NHL in goals behind Alexander Ovechkin and Patrick Kane. Game over.

Bruins now have a share of first place in the Atlantic Division and have gone 7-2-1 in their last 10 games to keep their competition in the rearview.  This was a huge statement win, a character win. I’ll be back with more later, but wow- let’s just let this one sink in for the night.

I’ll let Brian, Angus and the boys carry it home…

(Original video brought to you by Vevo)

Are You Not Entertained? Bruins recover to grab critical 2 points in South Florida

The Boston Bruins blew a pair of three-goal leads- 3-0 and 4-1 to the Florida Panthers, but got a tremendous top-shelf snipe from Lee Stempniak to get out of the BB&T Center with a critical two points in a 5-4 sudden death victory Monday night. It marked the 388th coaching victory of Claude Julien’s Boston career, moving him past Art Ross for sole possession of first place in Bruins franchise history.

Stempniak’s 17th goal of the season was his first as a Bruin- he broke into the zone during 3-on-3 overtime play with Ryan Spooner, took a cross-ice dish from Boston’s third-line pivot and then wired the puck over Al Montoya to escape Southern Florida after the Panthers tied it late on Jiri Hudler’s second marker of the night.

Things started well enough for Boston- Patrice Bergeron, No. 37 in your programs, No. 1 in your hearts one-handed a feed from Brad Marchand into the Florida net behind starter Roberto Luongo to give the road team a 1-0 lead just 37 seconds into the game. On 3.7.2016. Coolness.

David Pastrnak went five-hole on Luongo after slipping past the Florida defense for his 10th strike of the year (equaling last season’s total in 46 games) to make it 2-0 and then Brett Connolly rushed into the zone after getting the puck from Noel Acciari (his 1st NHL point) and firing a shot past Luongo to make it 3-0 at 12:22, his ninth goal.

Third-year center Aleksandr Barkov ( he’s Finnish, btw) cut the Florida lead to a pair of goals when he jumped on the rebound of a Jaromir Jagr shot and ripped home his 20th. The Jagr apple moved him past Gordie Howe for sole possession of third place all-time on the NHL’s scoring list (he trails No. 2 Mark Messier by 37 points).

Bergeron restored the three-goal lead with his 28th goal of the season and second at 17:25 of the opening frame when he took a Stempniak pass and buried it on a rush.

It looked like the B’s would cruise, as Luongo gave way to Montoya to start the second period. The Panthers had other ideas and jumped on the B’s when they came out for the middle frame stuck in neutral. The game seemed to turn when Shawn Thornton fought Adam McQuaid after a heavy hit in the corner, and fired up his team and the fans. Of course, the Bruins skating like they were in quicksand might have had something to do with goals by Hudler and Jussi Jokinen to cut the lead to 4-3, while allowing the Bruins to get just four shots on Montoya in the entire period.

That set up a back-and-forth third, which started to click down to the wire when the B’s lethargy in the neutral zone caught up with them and Hudler pounced on a rebound of an Alex Petrovic shot to make it a 4-4 game with under five minutes left in regulation.

Tuukka Rask gave up a couple he’d like to have back, but faced 51 Florida shots (he’s 7-0-1 when the B’s surrender 36 shots or more) and turned aside 47 (for a .922 save percentage). It was Rask’s 27th win of the season and put Boston in position to jump past both the Panthers and Lightning if they can beat Tampa on Tuesday.

Every point counts- the B’s can’t afford to leave anything on the table and tonight nearly got away from them if not for Stempniak, who now has one goal and six points in four games since coming over for a fourth-round pick this year and a second in 2017.

Although it was an ugly win, the scoreboard don’t say how, just how many. And it also allowed the Bruins to take on a little swagger (just a little- they did blow a couple of three-goal advantages, after all) and head out of South Florida saying this:

Gladiator

 

 

Springfield Rifle: Frank Vatrano nets 3rd hat trick in AHL this season

When you look at what Frank Vatrano is doing for the Providence Bruins this season, it just doesn’t add up.

After all- he’s an undersized, formerly chunky kid who didn’t even get drafted, right? How is it possible that he’s on the verge of hitting the 30-goal mark (in the AHL) in his first pro season and is leading that league in goal scoring? It doesn’t seem to compute, and yet here we are- the undrafted free agent who played just one full season of NCAA hockey with the UMass Minutemen before signing with the Boston Bruins a year ago- is the hockey story of the year. He has to be.

Vatrano’s 29 goals are two more than (former UNH star) Mike Sislo’s 27, but here’s the thing: Vatrano has done it in 26 *fewer* games than Sislo’s 54 with the Albany Devils. That’s simply astounding.

I posted an update on B’s prospects yesterday that featured Vatrano and joked that he had “cooled off” with “only” 26 goals in 27 AHL games headed into yesterday afternoon’s home contest against the Portland Pirates. Then, he not only lit the lamp three times for the third time (including a Texas hat trick- 4 goals- in there) this season and fourth when you include the three-goal game he posted for the Boston Bruins against Pittsburgh in December, but he became only the third player in AHL history to tally three unassisted goals and the first since Michel Picard of the Prince Edward Island (PEI) Senators in November of 1994.

To put it another way- he is simply killing it and can score whether someone is setting the table for him or he’s having to create his own offense. Don’t believe me? Just look at yesterday’s three tallies and decide for yourself (video thanks to the excellent Weekend at Bergy’s Bruins blog)

On the first one, he gets some good puck luck as he comes around the back of the net on a wraparound and it goes in off of someone else. The second goal comes off of an intercepted pass at the blue line and he beats Pirates goalie Mike McKenna with a wicked snipe that has become his trademark calling card. The third goal- in overtime- comes when he puts on a burst of pure speed at center ice, blows by the defender in the offensive zone and buries another of his shots to close it out.

Had Vatrano not played 30 NHL games with the big club from November to January, we might see him on the verge of 50 markers. Having said that- he realized his dream in reaching the NHL in his very first professional season and we can all rest assured that it won’t be long before we see him in Boston again.

At this point, though, when you have such a mature outlook the way Vatrano does, that’s of secondary importance given how well he’s playing in Providence and how much more dangerous he makes his team when he’s in the lineup. Here’s his response to the Providence Journal’s Mark Divver when asked if Vatrano wonders what he needs to do to get back up to Boston/the NHL?

‘It’s something I can’t control. I’ve just gotta keep doing my thing down here. When the time is right for me to go up, the time is right.’

You can make a good argument that he should be back up with the big club now. However, with the forward lines rolling of late pretty well, it’s just as well that he’s being allowed to spread his wings and dominate the way he is in the AHL. It’s not a matter of if Vatrano will be back in the NHL but when.

Not bad for a guy who was passed over repeatedly in the draft but who went to work over the summer to reinvent himself as a dedicated professional.

We talk about a movie being produced for John Scott and his All-Star weekend experience, but what about Boston’s own “Springfield Rifle”? I don’t think Hollywood could script this improbable path from the Boston Jr. Bruins to the NHL Bruins any better than what Vatrano has accomplished on his own this season.

As we enter the final month of the AHL season, we’re now eagerly left to wonder- how high can Vatrano soar?

We’ve already seen some impressive stuff from the soon-to-be 22-year-old. It looks like a lot more is in store.

Here’s his first NHL hatty:

 

 

 

A little more on Noel Acciari & why he’s impressing people

Exhibit A for stats not telling the story- I give you Boston Bruins center Noel Acciari.

(Acciari talks to reporters about his 1st NHL shift vs Calgary- when Landon Ferraro scored to take a 1-0 lead; Boston Sports Desk video)

The Johnston, R.I. native was an undrafted free agent signing after being one of the captains who led his Providence College Friars to the 2015 National Championship, stunning their Hockey East rival (and the favorite) Boston University with a third period comeback Acciari had a hand in.

Aside from his minor hockey days, Bishop Hendricken high and final year of prep with the Kent Lions (the Connecticut school that if I’m not mistaken produced one Billy Jaffe, esteemed hockey analyst and broadcast personality) under Jaffe’s fellow Michigan Wolverines alum, Matt Herr, Acciari has not been one to put up big offensive numbers. That’s not his game.

What is his game is what we saw from him last night, in his third NHL contest since being brought up from Providence this week when Zac Rinaldo was optioned to the AHL. In a hard-fought 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals, winners of seven straight games against the B’s going back to the 2013-14 season, Acciari stood out in a good way, even if he has yet to register a single point.

Besides, who doesn’t love a good underdog?

His signature moment, the one that created major buzz online among B’s fans last night, was when he dropped Caps defenseman and former BC standout Brooks Orpik with a big, clean hit along the boards. Many folks don’t like Orpik for some of the predatory hits he’s laid on players during his career, and he more recently (in December, 2013) took out Loui Eriksson, leading to Shawn Thornton’s retaliation and subsequent suspension, as he caused injury to Orpik when he pulled him down from behind and pounded him on the ice. Regardless of whether you root for Orpik or not, he’s a legitimate shutdown defenseman who is known for and experienced in playing a physical brand of defense- so when he’s out looking to make body contact, the veteran defender is usually the one who comes out on top.

Acciari, still playing with a jaw protector on his helmet after taking a slap shot to the face from Providence teammate Chris Casto earlier in the season, stepped into Orpik like a seasoned vet and used his lower center of gravity to drive the Washington player back and off his skates.

That’s the type of hard, but clean hit that has become Acciari’s hallmark over the years. He stands at just a shade under 6-foot, but he’s a stout 200+ pounds and understands how to give and take a hit.  Ever since he broke in with the Friars after taking a red shirt season in 2011-12, he’s done it. And while his offensive numbers grew in each of the three consecutive seasons he played in his home city, what was always consistent for him was how he finished his checks and forced opponents to think about how early or how late they held onto the puck, because they knew Acciari was coming.

He’s not a prolific scorer and won’t ever be that kind of guy, but he brings a well-rounded set of skills to the table: he’s a good skater who has the kind of short-area burst that is essential to thrive in a checking line role. To be able to do the job right, it’s about being more quick than straight-line fast and being able to change directions through a series of rapid stops and starts- Acciai’s excellent command of his edges allows him to be a disruptor on the forecheck and deny the opposing center time and space to make plays when the puck is in the Boston end. Watch the way he comes in behind unsuspecting puck carriers and lifts their stick to (legally) interfere with their possession. When you say that a player is smart- it’s not just about how creative he is at creating scoring chances. Making the right defensive play is just as commendable, especially when you’re in a 1-1 contest.

Acciari is a relentless ball of energy when he plays. As he gets more comfortable and experienced, he’s going to be able to assert himself a lot more in all three zones. Last night against the Capitals was the first of the three games he’s played (he was whistled for two marginal fouls against the Blackhawks) in which I’ve truly seen him start to morph into the wrecking ball that we’ve seen him be since his days at Kent and PC. Like most youngsters getting their first taste of NHL action- he was playing conservatively and skating more not to lose than to win. Against Washington, we started to witness that grinder who can wear opponents down and force players to think about what’s coming. Overthinking it equals errors that can be forced and exploited.

What’s best about Acciari is that he comes in with zero fanfare. He was a late-bloomer who was never drafted, but got the thrill of his young life when his favorite Bruins team came calling to offer him a job last June. Like Frank Vatrano, he simply could not pass that up, even though he was eligible to stay at PC under head coach Nate Leaman for another year. Also like Vatrano, the undrafted free agent that no team ever spent a pick on, can now say what a lot of guys who were drafted in each of the three years Acciari was available (2010-12) can’t: he’s made it to the NHL. Where he goes from here is still very much open to debate, but the B’s are no doubt pleased at what they’re seeing in his small audition. A team can do far worse than NA55 as a fourth-line center, and perhaps not a whole lot better.

We’re seeing things come together for Boston’s forward lines. A fourth unit that gives Claude Julien and his staff confidence and can do all of the things you want from the bottom-three, but also chip in with some speed and scoring to go with the physicality- that’s coming to fruition with Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly flanking Acciari.

Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, and for one Rhode Island kid who grew up in local rinks plugging away and envisioning himself putting on the Black and Gold for the big club that played in the shiny building about an hour up the road on I-95, that time has come.

Here’s to seeing continued growth and Acciari being that next good “hometown kid makes good” story for the B’s.

 

Big Boy Win

The Boston Bruins just beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2. At home, even.

The B’s got goals from Patrice Bergeron (25), Brad Marchand (33), Ryan Spooner (12) and Loui Eriksson (24) to earn a crucial 2 points and move to 2-0 in March- their toughest month of the season.

Claude Julien was behind the bench for his team’s 36th win of the season which gives him 387 with Boston, good for a tie for the club’s top spot all-time with Art Ross. What a way to get there in style, coach!

More important- they move into a (temporary) tie with Tampa Bay at 78 points, who are currently leading the Ottawa Senators and within two points of division-leading Florida, down 2-1 early to Colorado. Every game, every point is important, as we all learned last year. The victory gives them a tiny bit of breathing room against idle Detroit, building a three-point cushion for third place.

The Blackhawks played last night and started backup Scott Darling, and he at times looked like the No. 2 in Chi-Town, but that should not take away from Boston’s effort- they were gritty, tenacious and overcame a bad goal to Tomas Fleischmann late in the second which cut the 4-1 Boston lead in half.

However, as he did most of the night, Tuukka Rask shut Chicago’s attack down.

Those who want to look for negative things will no doubt find plenty, but I have to say- John-Michael Liles has impressed in his first two games. He skates like his legs are 25 not 35, and he’s always got his head up, looking to advance the puck. He had two helpers tonight but none prettier than the aerial sauce pass he fed to Eriksson, who was chugging right up the middle of the slot to the net. Loui deftly redirected a shot through the wickets to put an exclamation point on the contest. He went from a team that was selling off parts at the deadline after making an admirable push, to a club that is firmly in the thick of things. Even if the Bruins aren’t realistically a contender this year, Liles is playing with the energy and passion of someone who thinks they are.

The B’s get to face the nemesis Washington Capitals next on Saturday, and they’ll have a tough row to hoe. At least backup Philipp Grubauer will be in net and not the “Holtbeast”- Braden Holtby, who truly has Boston’s number and has pretty much owned them since earning his first career NHL win against the Black and Gold.

All you want from a team is pluck…a willingness to get after it and not fold in the face of pressure. The B’s passed their first major test of many this month and the first half of April. They’ll get to take one again agains Chicago on the road before the regular season ends, but at least we know the team has a split.

Now, the Bruins need to bear down and steal some games against playoff-bound opponents and not play down to those looking up at them in the standings.

Like we said- every point is important. This is why they opted to hold onto Eriksson rather than take a less than optimal return. He showed everyone why tonight, but there is much more work ahead.

 

 

Bruins hold on to beat Flames as new faces debut at home

The Boston Bruins got a late power play goal from (who else?) Patrice Bergeron to break a 1-1 deadlock and held on for a 2-1 victory at the TD Garden in a game that featured three new faces in the B’s lineup.

Veterans John-Michael Liles (wearing No. 26) and Lee Stempniak (No. 20) got plenty of time on the ice last night after the team acquired them at Monday’s trade deadline. Former Providence College captain Noel Acciari (No. 55) made his NHL debut last night less than a year after the B’s signed him as an undrafted free agent on the heels of the Friars’ first national championship.

All three earned favorable grades, even if neither team was able to generate much in the way of sustained offensive pressure throughout the night. Tuukka Rask earned his 25th victory of the season, stopping 26 of 27 Flames shots while allowing just one tally to rookie defenseman Jakub Nakladal, his first NHL goal, on a point shot after a sequence where Rask lost his stick and play broke down in front of the Boston net.

The B’s opened scoring in the first period when fourth-line winger Landon Ferraro charged through the middle of the ice and took a brilliant pass from Torey Krug, who slid the puck through a defender’s legs right to Ferraro, who snapped a laser into the top of the net past Flames netminder Joni Ortio for his fifth goal of the season. It was the second goal in the last four games for the waiver claim and former second-round pick of the Red Wings in 2009 after a long scoring drought. Acciari did not register a point on the play, but got his first NHL-plus rating by going to the net and attempting to set up a screen in front of Ortio. The Calgary defender boxed him out and kept him away from Ortio’s sightlines, but it was a good indicator of the rookie forward’s sharp instincts.

With time clicking down in a 1-1 game, the Flames got nailed for a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty in the final five minutes. That allowed the Bruins power play, which had performed pretty well during the game with nothing to show for it on the scoreboard, one last opportunity to get to work. Bergeron, who was set up in his customary “bumper” position high in the slot in the center of the offensive zone, took a pass from Ryan Spooner and drilled it through a screen for his 24th goal of the season (second to Brad Marchand’s 32 markers on the team).

This was an important two points for the B’s, as their March schedule is the toughest month by far in the regular season with nine games on the docket against playoff teams. The real test for the Boston roster is coming in the next 30 days, but even with the modest upgrades this week, they are at least better prepared to weather the storm and hold up agains the collapse that happened a year ago this month. The team is in a good spot- currently third in the Atlantic Division just four points out of first behind Sunshine State rivals Florida and Tampa Bay. However, with Detroit just one point behind Boston (with a game in hand) and the race for the two wildcard spots as tight as any since the league went to the new playoff seeding format, the team and its fans can take nothing for granted.

This where we will learn about the team’s true mettle and character.

With NHL Alpha Dogs Chicago and Washington (we saw perhaps a harbinger of the Stanley Cup final over the weekend in the Blackhawks win over the Capitals- a vigorously paced affair that served notice to the rest of the NHL’s also-rans) up in consecutive matches, followed by critical Atlantic Division games against Florida and Tampa on the road next week, the B’s might want to crank some Ozzy Osbourne (No Rest for the Wicked).

Random notes and observations

Congrats, Coach

Claude Julien posted his 386th career victory behind the Boston bench last night- he’s just one win behind Hall of Famer (as a player) Art Ross, who is tops on the B’s list and has been for more than six decades. A lot of good coaches have come and gone in this organization, but Julien has been a model of consistency whose hallmark is his ability to keep his players motivated and willing to play hard for him. In pro hockey, that’s often the most important ingredient to any successful team.

We can criticize his personnel decisions and bemoan the fact that certain veterans get opportunities that some of the younger players don’t, but in the end- especially this season- when you look at the job Julien has done during his time in Boston, he’s built a remarkable record of success. He’s the best Bruins coach of my lifetime at least, and I consider it a privilege to have gotten to know him a bit off the ice as well.

All of the players I know speak in near-reverent tones about the respect they have. On the record, you would expect that, but off the record, players aren’t shy about sharing their true feelings if they trust you. I have yet to encounter a Bruins player either on the current roster or no longer that doesn’t respect Julien and what he stands for. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his critics- by virtue of his job alone- deciding who plays more and who doesn’t get as much of an opportunity, there will be players who are more partial to other coaches they’ve played under. But not a one has ever blasted him. I can’t say the same for other Boston coaches who preceded him.

To those who would want Julien out- I keep going back to one simple question- who is out there and available as a coach who you would replace Julien with? I keep asking, I rarely get much of an answer. I’ll chalk that up to the irrationality that sometimes comes with being a sports fan.

The B’s are all set with Julien, thank you.

Welcome to the new blood

Okay, I’ll say it- I didn’t have high hopes for John-Michael Liles last night, but he was a breath of fresh air on the Boston blue line. Even at 35, he’s still a fine skater who moves the puck with confidence and authority. He reads and reacts to the play well, activating at the right times and supporting the play offensively and defensively as well. He’s not the higher-end two-way threat he was in his prime, but he’s still a serviceable player and has brought a better balance (with Krug) to Boston’s top six.

Lee Stempniak showed some flashes of his veteran experience and savvy skating on the B’s top line with Bergeron and Marchand. He didn’t make much pay off in a 2-1 game, but he’s the kind of player that should stabilize that unit and contribute. He goes to the net and knows how to make plays in traffic. The B’s are going to need him to keep the mojo he had in New Jersey going, especially as they hit the heart of their schedule this month.

I have to admit- I was a little surprised that the B’s brought Noel Acciari up this season. Not just because he’s a rookie pro and undrafted free agent (the second such NCAA signing to make his NHL debut with Boston this season with Frank Vatrano being the 1st) but because by sending Zac Rinaldo down, Sweeney and his staff are admitting failure sooner than I would guess most out there thought they would. Surrendering a third-round pick was bad enough, but it usually takes a season for a club to tacitly admit that. Acciai’s recall is proof that the B’s braintrust realizes that Rinaldo is what we thought he was, and that ultimately- they can get better bang for their buck with someone like Acciari. Now, that doesn’t mean the Johnston, R.I. native is here to stay- he could go back to Providence. But this is Boston’s way of reinforcing the job he has done and letting him know that his opportunity to possibly become a regular in Boston and fourth-line fixture is coming sooner rather than later.  My friend and colleague, Mark Divver, who does a tremendous job covering hockey and sports for the Providence Journal, said that if not for getting hit with a shot and fracturing his jaw, Acciai’s summons to Boston would have come sooner. I wouldn’t doubt that for a second.

Acciari is a good skater and heavy player who finishes his checks, plays a throwback north-south game, but doesn’t hurt his team with undisciplined penalties and cheap antics. He’s never going to be a high-end player or scorer at the NHL level, but with his hustle, smarts and leadership, he’s proof that you can play the game of hockey hard and with physicality, but do it cleanly.

Nobody should be expecting big point totals from Acciari, but he’s been one of those players at every level who manages to save his best for crunch time, so don’t be surprised if he pops in some big goals or makes some key passes for scores when the game is on the line. He’s exactly the right kind of the player the Bruins should have on the bottom line and here’s hoping he can parlay his first big league game into a solid career for the team he grew up cheering for. Like Vatrano, Acciari is living the dream and we should not discount what that kind of motivation does for people.

Fans just need to understand what Acciari is and isn’t going to do for the Bruins- so long as expectations are kept in line with who he is, people should embrace his crash-bang, but respectful game.  He’s not going to run around like an idiot and take head shots at people. In short- Acciari is the kind of player who will quickly earn the trust and respect of his teammates and coaches, even if his NHL time is not quite now.

 

 

 

2016 Bruins trade deadline postscript: George McFly’s fan reaction

I want to thank everyone who shared their thoughts on Twitter and on the blog about yesterday’s trade deadline.

To officially close out the coverage of the event (at least on the Scouting Post blog), I’m going to let actor Crispin Glover, whose portrayal of “Layne” from the 1986 film River’s Edge remains one of the more unique performances you will see on the big screen, represent my assessment of the general fan feelings after the deadline. Come to think of it…is there a stranger pairing of leading men in *any* film than Glover and (pre-Bill & Ted’s and Point Break) Keanu Reaves? And shoutout (RIP) to Dennis Hopper as the edgy, revolver-wielding, blow-up doll-toting drifter named “Feck”- this movie has a little bit of everything.

Anyway- watch at your own peril (and don’t have the sound up at work or with kids around) but I think this best captures the wide range of emotions and reactions of Bruins fans in general after Loui Eriksson was not traded, along with  John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak as the returns.
Enjoy.  (YouTube clip uploaded by “Jeff Jackson”/Poetic Pugilist Productions)

2016 NHL Trade Dud-line

It wasn’t so much what February 29, 2016 was with all of the buildup, but what it wasn’t.

Loui Eriksson, a player this blog declared a foregone conclusion that he would be moved, stayed put.

Jonathan Drouin, the former third overall pick in 2013 and an electrifying talent who opted to sit home and wait for a trade out of Tampa Bay was not granted his wish, so will have to decide between staying home and missing an entire season (and thereby delaying his eventual arrival to unrestricted free agency) or coming back to work with his tail between his legs in hopes of salvaging some value for an offseason deal.

Veteran defender Dan Hamhuis had a lot of attention surrounding him going into the final day to wheel and deal, but Vancouver couldn’t make anything work. GM Jim Benning wasn’t able to move Radim Vrbata either, for that matter.

Most of what happened today was spare parts and aging assets exchanged for futures (picks and prospects), and on that score, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney were firmly in the middle. For whatever that’s worth.

The team gave up four picks- two each in 2016 and 2017 and a bust prospect in Anthony Camara to acquire veteran defenseman John-Michael Liles and right wing Lee Stempniak, 35 and 33 years of age respectively. Both represent an upgrade to the current Bruins roster, but how much of an upgrade is the source of contentious debate.

Even if you’re okay with the addition of Liles and Stempniak for what the B’s gave up for them (some folks aren’t but that’s often what happens when assets are exchanged for marginal improvements in the form of aging veterans), the real issue of the day from the Boston perspective is the fact that Sweeney was not able to move Eriksson.

In his post-deadline press conference, Sweeney said the following:

“I’ve always valued the type of player that Loui is. The season he’s having I think is important for where our club is and if the deal wasn’t going to be right, that we were going to maintain our position. If you look around the league, I don’t think any team currently in a playoff position traded a player of Loui’s magnitude.”

That may be true.

It also ignores the fact that Eriksson provided the Bruins with a rare out- a chance to take a step backwards to perhaps build towards a more substantial leap ahead in the coming offseason or beyond.

Now, Sweeney is faced with the unenviable task of either re-signing Eriksson to an extension that he’s already proven he won’t cut the team any slack on (unless he has a change of heart between now and June 23- which is around the draft when the B’s can at least flip his rights to a team desiring exclusive negotiating rights for a fifth- or sixth-round pick. Whoopee.) or watching him ride off into the sunset with a big barrel of cash and a new team come July 1.

Sure- this Bruins club is a better team with Eriksson on it than not, but nobody is lining up to put lay odds on them to win a Stanley Cup and put money on it. So, while he and Liles and Stempniak do have a better than average chance of keeping the Bruins on glide path to one of eight playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, the team diminished its chances a little in stockpiling the assets needed to go out and get that legitimate, in-his-prime or younger top-4 defenseman and maybe more.

It’s hard to fault Sweeney for wanting to give his team, which has worked hard to stay in the thick of things this season, a reasonable chance to reach the postseason, when anything can happen. Unfortunately, the fans are in no mood to see the Bruins simply make the playoffs only to bow out quickly, or get trounced by the clear contenders of the conference.

Here’s a 35-minute podcast that capture my thoughts on Eriksson and the new acquisitions, but it’s hard to be excited over what happened today. There are always those fans that are eternally optimistic and will look for the positives. More power to them. Alas, the majority of folks I’ve heard from aren’t on board, so if Boston fans start voting with their feet, there will be even more pressure on management to make more substantial changes.

Let’s just hope that doesn’t amount to throwing good money after bad.

Trade deadline Blues- Boston edition

Don Sweeney is in a bind.

NHL general managers, especially ones in the thick of a playoff race in a season that many (including this columnist) would be a clear step backwards as the Boston Bruins are, don’t like to operate from a disadvantage. Yet, as we are less than 24 hours from the NHL’s annual trade deadline frenzy, that’s exactly where the B’s GM and key decision maker finds himself.

On the one hand, forward Loui Eriksson is precisely the kind of player you win with in the modern NHL. His 23 goals and counting only begin to the tell the story of an experienced winger who is an integral part of Boston’s puck possession game and brings leadership and respect to the room as a quiet professional.

On the other, his $4.3M AAV cap hit has been one of the league’s bargains for the past four years, and as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent at age 31, he’s positioned to cash in on one last contract that will bring him both term and value on the open market.  He knows it. Sweeney knows it. His agent, JP Barry, most certainly knows it. There will be very little in the way of hometown discounts on any extension he signs with Boston, because all parties know that if he rides it out, some sucker GM with cap space to burn will eagerly give him what he’s worth on the open market at or around July 1.

Why call the GM a sucker? Well, because that’s what many of them are. When a team has cap space, many of them burn through that wiggle room like a college student through their parents’ credit card limit. Spending upwards of $6M on a player who is on the wrong side of 30 and who is a very good complementary player, but not a core guy you do everything in your power to keep is a risky move that often times has more of a down side than a clear benefit. Eriksson could be an outlier- the rare player who gets better with age and manages to avoid any more concussions that could cost him the rest of his career.  More on that later.

But if you’re the Boston Bruins, given the state they’ve found themselves in since winning the President’s Trophy in 2014, can you really afford to take that chance?

There is no question that Eriksson on the 2015-16 B’s makes them a better team than they would be without him. But how much better, and how much more of a prayer do they have at winning the Stanley Cup now and in the next few years if they allocate those cap dollars to Eriksson instead of seriously shoring up the blue line is the six million dollar question.

The dominoes are falling- Stan Bowman, the three Stanley Cup ring-wearing GM of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, seems intent on adding a fourth. In the span of 72 hours, he’s gone out and added veteran forwards Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise,  and Tomas “Flash” Fleischmann along with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, surrendering picks and a couple of young players in Marko Dano (to Winnipeg for Ladd) and Phillip Danault and a cap hit/bad fit in veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who goes back to the L.A. Kings for Ehrhoff. The ‘Hawks also added former Bruin Matt Fraser in the Ladd deal, so when it comes to depth, the Windy City Winners are at a zombie apocalypse-level of protection up front. The scary thing is- Bowman might not be finished shoring up his club on the back end.

Elsewhere in the West, the other contending clubs will have to adapt or die in response to Chicago’s shots across the bow. Bob Murray and his Anaheim Ducks are back with a vengeance after they began the season with a dormant offense that has awakened with a roar and now has opponents fleeing in abject terror. Murray has a plethora of defensemen that he can dangle to get forward help back with. Could 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin be SoCal-bound for someone like Sami Vatanen? Tampa GM Steve Yzerman has said he wants immediate help back, mainly in the form of a talented right-shooting defenseman with some retainability (read: not a rental). Drouin has been a monumental disappointment to date, but you have to admit- the thought of plugging him in with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry must have Murray (and Bruce Boudreau) licking their chops. Those offensive issues early on? Might be a thing of the past if Drouin ends up on that roster and starts realizing his immense potential.

The Kings are…well…the Kings. They’re already a dangerously lethal group- all they have to do is get into the playoffs. You just know that Dean Lombardi will find a way to slide in and acquire some difference-making player under the wire like he did two years ago with Marian Gaborik. We’ll have fun waiting to see what he does. Scuderi’s a nice start, but more is coming.

This leaves the Doug Armstrong-led St. Louis Blues. They looked unstoppable early on, but have taken some hits with injuries and can’t match their nemesis Blackhawks on paper if the season ended today. Luckily, they got star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo back today in a much-needed win over the sinking Carolina Hurricanes (who dealt captain and franchise face Eric Staal to the Rangers today for a prospect and a pair of second-round picks and looked like a rudderless ship for it) and he provided a multi-point game with five blocked shots to go with, as Jake Allen shook off a couple of early goals. This took place just after the ‘Hawks gave all of us perhaps a glimpse of what will come in early June when Chicago defeated the Washington Capitals at the United Center.

Does anyone in St. Louis think the Blues have a prayer against those guys without some key adds? I’ll hang up and listen to your answer off the air.

But seriously, folks- it’s absurd to think that Armstrong and the Blues aren’t sweating right now. The clock is ticking…Alexander Steen is out for several weeks if not longer, and who’s to say how effective he’ll be when he gets back? A Brian Elliott injury forced them to trade for an experienced backup (I almost said capable- but even that might be a stretch) in Anders Nilsson from Edmonton. One guy the Blues could definitely benefit from adding is Eriksson. The question is- are the Blues serious about competing for Lord Stanley *this* year or are they willing to go through another early exit and disappointing spring and long offseason? (EDIT- The Blues are tight against the cap and that’s limiting Armstrong’s freedom of maneuver for sure, but the best in the biz find ways to get creative…see Bowman, Stan. I don’t think Blues fans will be in much of a forgiving mood if that’s the excuse trotted out after another postseason dud, but that’s just me.)

With that in mind, here are some current scenarios revolving around Eriksson. One thing is certain: by this time tomorrow, we’ll know that he’s still on the Boston roster. Or he won’t be. For everything in between, get ready for the final hours of the Loui watch.

Why Eriksson will be traded: Sweeney is smart enough to be playing long ball. As a former NHL defender with more than 1,000 career games at the highest level, he understands the importance of a strong defense and he undoubtedly knows that Boston’s current group on ‘D’ is nowhere near what is needed to contend.

Those who insist that Eriksson must be traded for immediate help or the move is not worth it are missing the larger picture, and that is- trades involving prime, No. 1 or 2 defensemen in season are pretty rare (note- I said “prime” so beware jumping in to remind me of the Dion Phaneuf deal- he’s essentially cooked and will make Ottawa rue the day they took on his albatross contract). Boston can set a longer game play into motion by dealing Eriksson now for the kinds of assets that can be packaged into a more realistic summer trade for a defenseman when cap and personnel issues will force other GMs to come to the table more readily. But right now, with so much parity in the league and teams looking to finish strong no matter the situation, it doesn’t make sense for a team to flip Boston a primetime defender for Eriksson, because the teams that want him desire to add his production and experience to their lineups while not weakening the roster elsewhere.

The B’s need too much help up and down the roster to roll the dice and risk keeping him only to recoup maybe a 5th or 6th pick for him before the draft if he stays. Even if they make the playoffs, the B’s will be hard-pressed to get out of the East with  the lineup they currently have. Sure- Claude Julien and the players deserve a lot of credit for fighting their way into the midst of the postseason derby when expectations coming in were so modest. But at this stage- is whatever Eriksson is going to contribute going to be worth it in the long run?

That’s the tough call Sweeney and his staff have to make.

Why Eriksson will not be traded: The coaches and players have a great deal of respect for Eriksson and what he brings to the table. It’s easy to say to just trade him by people without skin in the game, by fans who get to sit back and observe and make pointed critiques of the team’s chances and shortcomings, but none of whom really see behind the curtain or understand what he contributes to the effort.

Sweeney unfortunately has to bear the cross of a preceding GM who was known for his loyalty in overpaying veteran players who were already beginning the downward slides of their careers. That scar tissue is what creates a charged environment by the team’s supporters who don’t want to see Eriksson stay through the stretch run only to see the Bruins (assuming they don’t collapse in a tough March schedule) bow out of the playoffs and then get his big payday in July with just a latter-round pick to show for it if Sweeney can send him to a club that wants exclusive negotiation rights through 11:59 p.m. on June 30, 2016.

The thing is- the game isn’t played by robots. Real people often have a harder time making such clinical, dispassionate decisions. Eriksson’s 23 goals represent the second-best production on the team and what help Brad Marchand to the damage he’s done because opposing coaches have to respect Boston’s top two lines. Remove Loui from the equation and regardless of who you replace him with, you’re creating an easier matchup play for the other guys. Beyond that, Eriksson handles the puck smartly, goes to the net and plays about as good a 200-foot game as any of the top forwards in the league. The Bruins know that trading him means a step backwards for their roster. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially with all the scrapping and effort the team has put into getting them to this point.

Although the pragmatists don’t want to hear it, hasn’t this club earned the right to get a shot with their best foot forward? If other teams aren’t willing to pony up, then why should the B’s just make it fait accompli that Eriksson be dealt for whatever they can get?

And then of course, if Sweeney thinks that he can sign Eriksson to an extension that won’t cripple the team going forward and retain him for the next 4-5 years, then perhaps it’s not as bad a risk as so many perceive. After all- at 31, Eriksson is at the age that the NHL first allowed players to be unrestricted free agents before the 2004 lockout. It’s a mixed bag of results when you go back through the years and look at how big-name UFAs performed after 31, but there are worse moves the Bruins could make than investing in a player they know, trust, and respect.

Conclusion: Your guess is as good as mine. I’m not going to speculate on players or rumors beyond what I’ve written here. I don’t have any significant leads at this time, and those of you who know me understand that’s not really my shtick.

I will be here to break it down when the deadline comes and goes at 3 p.m. tomorrow. We can expect the Bruins will do  something, but what that something is…well, that’s all part of the excitement, isn’t it?

And on that note- let’s see how the team does against Tampa Bay, shall we?

Postscript: Well, we sure saw how the Bruins did against the ‘Bolts: a 4-1 loss after taking a 1-0 lead. Another decisive defeat at home to drop the B’s three games under .500. Good teams just don’t do that, folks. And that’s why, I can’t for the life of me, see the trade deadline coming and going tomorrow without Eriksson being moved for assets that will help get the Bruins on track for the long haul. It’s a balancing act to give the club a shot at playoffs and maybe winning a round or two and conceding that this group just doesn’t have it, but that’s what the team is paying the GM for. The prediction here? Eriksson is gone to the Western Conference for more of a futures return, Sweeney will make a separate trade or two to bring some veteran talent in, but the real shoring up of this team will happen in the offseason.

 

 

 

Bruins hammer Penguins in decisive home win

Are the Boston Bruins Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Are they a good team with clear shortcomings on the defensive side that sometimes make them look worse than they are, or a mediocre team that is able to pound opponents so decisively on occasion so as to fool the optimists out there who support them?

The answer just might represent a little of both.

On Wednesday night, the B’s completed a three-game series sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is a similar team in that it has been a perennial contender since the Sidney Crosby era revitalized the team’s fortunes, but this year has been a shadow of its former powerful self since squeaking into the playoffs at Boston’s expense last spring.

Like Boston, the Pens have a powerful 1-2 punch at center (though Evgeni Malkin was unable to return from injury to help his team at the TD Center last night), a leaky defense made up of game, but  often overmatched 4/5/6 types and a goaltender who can minimize the damage but can’t do it all himself in Marc-Andre Fleury.

As was the case in Dallas last Saturday, the B’s didn’t exactly dominate the contest, as the Penguins came at them early, hemming them in their zone. Tuukka Rask withstood a 13-shot opening period, not allowing any pucks by him, and David Pastrnak scored the third penalty shot goal of the season for Boston to make it a 1-0 contest.

Pastrnak (his eighth) and Penguins forward Tom Kuhnackl traded goals in the second period to set the stage for a critical third period with the B’s still smarting after getting zinged at home the other night against Columbus.

Jimmy Hayes, Landon Ferraro and Brad Marchand, who scored his team-leading 31st goal, tallied three goals on three shots in the final 10 minutes to push the score to 5-1 and give the Bruins a much-needed home victory.

Hayes finished off a brilliant rush by Ryan Spooner, who got the puck from Hayes after Adam McQuaid blocked a shot (after losing his helmet- no fear) and took off like a rocket up the ice, crossing with Matt Beleskey at the offensive blue line to gain extra space. He then approached the net from the left side and threaded a pass right to Hayes, who didn’t miss for his 13th marker.

Ferraro then broke away after slipping behind the defense and getting a home run pass from Dennis Seidenberg, beating Fleury with a top-shelf laser for just his fourth goal of the season. Ferraro also had an earlier fight with Scott Wilson and gave better than he got, showing off the kind of energy that has made him a capable bottom-line player since the B’s snatched him off the waiver wire from Detroit.

Marchand’s final tally was vintage No. 63, as he got the puck from Torey Krug, cut to the net and let a jumpy Fleury make the first move before going around the defender and sprawling goaltender to slip the puck in on the far side.

Rask, for his part, was magnificent in a 41-save effort- he gave up just the Kuhnackl goal, scored off the German forward’s skate after a fat rebound. This is the kind of game that the Bruins typically need from their one-time Vezina Trophy-winning netminder. The defense still gives up a good number of quality scoring chances, but when Rask is on top of his crease and in the zone, he’s as good as anyone else in the league. The problem is- when the B’s go up against clubs with better top-to-bottom roster depth, they have a tough time matching up against teams that have the speed and skill to employ an effective forecheck that disrupts Boston’s timing on the breakout and leads to defensive zone turnovers.

Pastrnak’s performance gives the team multiple reasons for optimism. For one thing, it’s been a tough slog for the 19-year-old, who burst onto the scene a little over a year ago when he was called up in January and then proceeded to become Boston’s brightest hope for the future. Beyond his obvious offensive talent, Pastrnak is an easy kid to get behind because he wears his love of hockey openly, with a wide, infectious smile that reminds everyone who watches him of how all of these pro players began their lifetime association with this sport. Pastrnak is also serious and hard-working. He’s not quite on the same level as Patrice Bergeron was at the same age, but he’s not that far off, either. Pastrnak made the NHL at 18 because he not only gave the Bruins something they desperately lacked, but also because the coaches saw his work ethic and desire to improve manifested at practice. Some people have to be taught by others how to work harder to maximize their natural gifts, but Pastrnak needed no such coaching, and was often the last player off the ice (and still is). Claude Julien and his veteran coaching staff saw that, and so even with the setbacks the second-year right wing has dealt with this season, they’re willing to stick with him and maintain the faith that he can become the regular scorer he’s shown the penchant for in flashes.

Where do we go from here?

The Loui Eriksson trade watch continues, and I’ve been intrigued by the polarized sides on Twitter and the Internet- the two camps that are clearly at odds with one another within the B’s fandom. I explained at length last week why the Bruins will trade Eriksson and try to leverage him into the assets that can allow GM Don Sweeney to more properly address the elephant in the room: the defense.

Although there seems to be a group of folks who believe Eriksson can and should be signed, I have yet to see any plausible explanation from that side on how it will work. Assuming his agent JP Barry wants to secure money and term from his client (and why wouldn’t he?), the Bruins would essentially be rolling the dice that the soon-to-be 31-year-old would be able to maintain his current level of contributions for another four years at least to make an extension worthwhile. While that’s not impossible, the odds are certainly not in favor of that. Eriksson has never been a dynamic skater, so if he loses a step over the next couple of years as many players on the wrong side of 30 tend to do, his production could essentially drop off a cliff. The B’s cannot afford to be shortsighted here- that thinking is what got them into salary cap jeopardy in the first place.

Loui is a fine man and teammate. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and in the scope of the here and now, he obviously makes the Bruins a better team than they will be without him. But fans demand that their teams be in the winning mix year after year, and extending Eriksson puts that philosophy in peril. Sure- he’s one of the team’s most versatile and dependable forwards, but one can also make the argument that there are young players in the system that can capably address what Eriksson brings to the club given a little time. They won’t cost upwards of 5.5-6 million dollars a year (at least not right away) and dealing Eriksson gives the Bruins the much-needed coin of the realm: assets in the form of picks and futures that every team covets to off-set the ever escalating salary structures needed to retain the top talent across the league.

Should the B’s prove me wrong and hold onto Eriksson, either extending him or keeping him for the playoffs, we’ll revisit the implications of that when the time comes. Even if he’s not moved at the deadline, they can still flip him to a team that wants his exclusive negotiating rights before the July 1 free-for-all for a middling pick, which is not ideal but better than nothing. If they commit the term and dollars to him, then I think it works in the short run, but could have profound consequences by the years 2018 or 2019. I guess for those who like to live in the now, that may not be such a bad thing.

What we’re figuring out here is that making trades and acquiring the kinds of essential players needed to assemble a winning mix in the modern NHL is easy to talk about, much harder to pull off. It isn’t like Boston is bereft of young defensemen in the organization, but nobody is truly ready to step in and make the kind of difference this team needs right now with a goalie in his prime along with multiple forwards whose window might be closing by the time the B’s home grown blue line talent can make an impact.

Colin Miller has shown he can create offense, but he’s still got much to learn defensively. Rob O’Gara is having a down senior year at Yale but has size and mobility to become a bottom pairing staple after a little seasoning in the AHL. Matt Grzelcyk has the speed and offensive talent to be a two-way threat, but like Krug, will need some time to develop in the minors and will be a wild card in terms of what kind of role he can carve out for himself in Boston. Jakub Zboril, Brandon Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon were all drafted last June and are not realistic options to make a difference for at least another full season but likely two or three more years at the earliest.

That means Sweeney needs to add a key piece now or at least in the coming off season. You have to give to get, and Eriksson represents the kind of asset that can increase the GM’s options, not diminish them. Yes, fans may not be thrilled with the kind of return he brings back in a few days (assuming he’s dealt), but you have to play the long game here and realize that a trade made today could set up the even bigger haul tomorrow (or in about three or four months).

If we’ve learned anything about the recent wins over Dallas and Pittsburgh, it is this- the scores didn’t represent how close the games actually were. The B’s benefited from shaky goaltending play from their opponents, but in the playoffs, when every game’s intensity is ratcheted up a few notches and the better teams can make you pay for every mistake, this Boston club isn’t going anywhere far as currently constructed.

That means you have to live with the tough calls and some short-term disappointment in order to benefit from a potential sustained run of excellence. Ask Columbus fans how much fun it has been to cheer for a team that has always tended to fiddle around the margins rather than make bold decisions to build for the long term and you’re not going to like the answer. Teams like Edmonton and Columbus should serve as a reminder that picking at the bottom of the draft every year is no sure path to contention. The Bruins have the pieces to be a contender, but the team has to be smart about how they streamline the effort.

Making decisions based on emotion, loyalty and what someone did in the past versus what they will do is more of a recipe for failure than success. When it becomes time to come to grips with the fact that Bergeron, Krejci, Rask and Marchand can no longer do what Boston fans have enjoyed and come to expect for so long now, the team cannot afford to have multiple albatross contracts around the neck.

Digging out from that kind of hole could take years.