On Loui Eriksson and the easy(er) right over the harder wrong

Loui Eriksson…on the block or not on the block?  (credit SAP clips on YouTube)

Sign him to an extension now or take what you can get while his value is high?

Keep him for the stretch drive and then flip his rights to a team serious about committing money and term to him for a pick in the days prior to the start of unrestricted free agency?

These are just three of the options facing the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney as the team sits in second place in an albeit mediocre Atlantic Division as we draw closer to the Feb 29 NHL trade deadline.

Let me start by saying this: Eriksson is a fine player and has been a model citizen for the Bruins since they traded for him on Independence Day, 2013. He’s on pace for 30 goals for the first time since he scored 36 in his breakout with the Dallas Stars in 2008-09. His 20 goals in 57 games is double his total in 61 games his first season in Boston, when he suffered two concussions over the course of the year that forced him out of 21 contests. Back in 2014, the trade that centered around Eriksson as the main return from Dallas was looking like an abject disaster with his 10 goals and 37 points, followed by just two goals and 5 points in Boston’s disappointing 12-game playoff run that ended in a second-round defeat to their arch nemesis Montreal Canadiens.

After a season ago with the offense-starved B’s, Eriksson was one of the club’s most consistent scorers, tallying 22 goals and 47 points to finish second on the club behind Patrice Bergeron. This year, and at age 30, Loui has been even better- not only hitting the 20-goal mark for the sixth time in his nine NHL campaigns. Eriksson is smart, industrious and excels in boosting Boston’s possession game when he is on the ice. He goes to the net with his stick down and gets a lot of his goals on deflections or redirections because he always seems to be in the right place at the right time to make a play. Eriksson is not the flashiest or dynamic of forwards- he has just average speed and lacks a breakaway gear, especially as he moves forward on the other side of 30, but for the students of the game who closely watch for the little things that make a difference- the stick positioning, the high percentage passing, the responsibility with and without the puck.

Setting all of that aside, the question that Sweeney and Co. must ask themselves: Is Eriksson worth the investment in cap dollars and term it will take to keep him in Boston? In terms of the current calendar year, the answer is almost certainly an unequivocal yes- the veteran is one of three 20-goal scorers on the team, has always been one of the most respected players in the room since he arrived to the TD Garden, and does a lot of little things that have been instrumental in the team’s 30+ wins in a year where expectations were admittedly lower on this end, especially the way things started out.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, the GM has to take a longer view and make a tougher call here. One of the things that got Peter Chiarelli in trouble and why he’s the former GM of the Boston Bruins is that he invested a large chunk of the team’s salary cap dollars on aging, limited return on investment players on the wrong side of 30. At the time, all of the questionable contracts that ultimately came to a head in the 2014-15 season which ended with his dismissal (and subsequent move to Edmonton where he was given the keys to that dysfunctional kingdom) made sense in the short term. You have to think Sweeney, who has been with the B’s since the beginning of Chiarelli’s tenure a decade ago, remembers that and also understands Albert Einstein’s famous quote about the definition of insanity.

One of the problems with the NHL’s current salary structure is that the no-trade clause has almost become a routine mechanism to ensure that important players don’t decline a team’s extension offer and hit the open market. Outside of management and Eriksson’s agent, veteran negotiator JP Barry, none of us are privy to the talks that have taken place to determine the right wing’s status. A reasonable assumption therefore can be made that in addition to the rumored money and term (5-6 years and somewhere around $6 million AAV), Barry would also want to maintain Eriksson’s no-trade status if not escalate that into a no-movement clause for the first two years of the extension.

If that’s the case, then the Bruins need to swallow hard, wish Eriksson well and get the best deal they can for him at the Feb 29 deadline. Even with the rumors of prices being down, someone will give Boston a good return for him, though fans should steel themselves for the return being for future assets and not NHL roster-ready players. In other words- the B’s will be harder-pressed to get that young defenseman that is so crucial to the team’s way ahead in a deal for Eriksson alone. Assuming he’s moved as a rental piece, the best Boston can hope for is that late 1st-round selection in a contender’s spot at 25-30 that has become standard fare, or perhaps a middle tier prospect with some upside or some kind of combination of both.

But, I learned that in Army, promotions are given based on what the organization believes you have the potential to contribute at that next rank, not because of what you did at your current level. Of course, in order to secure that promotion, the board members who determine who makes the cut and who doesn’t have to look at what you accomplished in the past and more weight is placed on your most recent performance.

To put it more simply- Eriksson is going to get his term and money. The short-sighted approach would be to do what it takes to keep him in the fold, but if Loui truly wants to remain with the Boston Bruins, he and Barry should be willing to take a compromise to help the B’s fit him into their picture without knee-capping themselves in 2 or 3 years when he’ll be 33 or 34 and the possibility exists for a precipitous drop off in production.

Because we live in a free market system, there is simply no reason for Eriksson to make that compromise.

And that’s why the fans who so like and respect what he’s accomplished for the B’s should enjoy him while they can but understand that the old NHL where how deep an owner’s pockets were could guarantee a player’s stability on a team for years is no longer a reality. If you don’t believe the Bruins are a Stanley Cup contender (and how can you really believe that given last night’s 2-0 loss in Nashville and Boston’s 1-8 record against teams with a playoff record since mid-December?), then you don’t have to like the idea of Eriksson being moved, but you know in your heart of hearts that it is the more practical decision to set the team up to return to that status we’ve gotten used to since 2011.

If you love something, then set it free. Nothing can take away from what Loui Eriksson has brought to the team, but his contributions are not so essential that Sweeney and his pro and amateur staff can’t find a more cost effective replacement that could eventually match and even eclipse the Swede’s almost three-year run.

At this stage of where things stand with he Bruins franchise, Eriksson is a “nice to have” player, but with salaries getting more and more out of whack and faced with the possibility that the NHL’s cap ceiling is actually going down by some $4 million, he’s a luxury that Boston really can’t afford without robbing Peter to pay Paul. If your house is on fire, you don’t remodel your kitchen- you put out the fire and invest your money on fixing the real damage to the house.

The B’s need to address the defense. I know it. You know it. The team knows it.

Eriksson represents one of the bigger assets that Sweeney can leverage for the real package needed to right his organizational ship (and that might not happen until the offseason or later). With the clock ticking until the end of the month, it is time to set Loui free.

 

 

Scouting Post podcast: pre-NHL trade deadline

I solicited questions on Twitter and got a lot of solid queries about various topics, much of them related to the Boston Bruins, but some of them not.

The podcast is a little over an hour long, and in it- I address the chances of the B’s landing a younger, higher-end defenseman at the trade deadline, what will happen with Loui Eriksson going forward, whether the team should bring Frank Vatrano back, a few questions about the 2016 NHL draft, and other topics. I close out by answering who I would keep if the Bruins could have just one prospect at every position, which is a much tougher question to answer than you might think.

So, settle in, grab some popcorn and check it out. Or not. An hour is a lot of anyone’s time to give up, but I appreciate the support this blog has gotten since I launched it back in July.

Feeling Minnesota

I just looked in the mirror/And things aren’t looking so good

I’m looking California/And feeling Minnesota…oh yeah  Outshined- Soundgarden

The Boston Bruins won their second consecutive road game Saturday afternoon with a 4-2 contest in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild. The team’s 30th win of the season earned them sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division, just four points out of first. The B’s had to get it done today without Patrice Bergeron, who missed the game with an undisclosed injury after fighting Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg Thursday.

Brad Marchand (27), David Krejci (13), Loui Eriksson (18) and Zdeno Chara (8) all scored for the B’s, and Jonas Gustavsson had a solid game in net with 33 saves to earn his tenth W of the season. Claude Julien earned his 500th win in the NHL and moved closer to Art Ross to take over the top spot in team history- six more victories ties him at 387.

On the other end of the spectrum the Wild dismissed head coach Mike Yeo after his team’s eighth consecutive loss. Yeo, you may recall, was the toast of the Twin Cities a year ago after his club made the playoffs with a great second-half run (of which Devan Dubnyk played a huge part), but pro sports is a results oriented business, so less than a year later, Yeo is out.

The bigger issue with the Wild is all of the passengers- they’re paying boatloads of money to veterans who simply aren’t producing/giving the the team any bang for the buck. If Bruins fans think their team has problems, they ought to take a close look at Minnesota’s woes. I don’t think a coaching change (John Torchetti will take the reins on an interim basis to finish out the year) is going to make much of a difference if the guys earning the big dough don’t start holding up their end of the bargain.

After Marchand tallied his fourth shorthanded tally of the year to take a 1-0 lead, the B’s gave up a bad goal in the second period on a fumbled exchange behind the net between Gustavsson and Kevan Miller, who heeled the puck over to Thomas Vanek at the left side. He pinballed a shot that squirted through the B’s goaltender for his 15th tally.

Krejci came right back moments later with a nice 2-on-1 rush that was started with a nifty play by Matt Beleskey in the neutral zone to take a hit to make the pass that launched the Czech Mates- Krejci and David Pastrnak– up the ice. The two did a give-and-go with Krejci instantly recognizing that Nino Niederreiter was sliding towards his own net and rapidly running out of an angle to shoot into the open side, he victimized Wild backup Darcy Kuemper (and Niederreiter) by banking the puck  off the crashing forward and over the goal line before he knocked the Minnesota net of its moorings.

Boston extended its lead to 3-1 when Eriksson took a pass from Ryan Spooner and broke away from the Wild defenders, sliding a backhander under Kemper. After Chara fired a 160-foot shot down the ice and into the empty net to make it 4-1, rookie Mike Reilly scored his first NHL goal and point with a late shot that beat Gustavsson but did nothing to alter Minnesota’s fate.

The B’s continue on their road swing Sunday afternoon where they take on the Detroit Red Wings in an important Atlantic Division contest. Tuukka Rask will be back in net for the B’s, and the fans will hope to get a shot in the arm from Bergeron as well.

Lucic return to TD Garden marred by B’s meltdown

It’s 6-1 as I type this- and there are still 20 minutes of hockey left at TD Garden.

On a night of sentimental nostalgia, the home team laid an egg. Again.

The Los Angeles Kings were in town and wearing their expansion-era gold and purple duds with the giant crown on the front- and Milan Lucic took center stage with his first game back in Boston without a spoked B on his chest.

The B’s took an early lead on Brad Marchand’s power play goal- his 25th marker of the season- and things were looking good until the less than 2 minutes remained in the opening frame. Bang, bang. A deflected Jeff Carter power play goal off the stick of Kevan Miller and then a Marian Gaborik backhander with the B’s in disarray (yep- Miller again but he wasn’t the only one at fault- it was Keystone Cops time) and just like that it was 2-1, Kings.

That opened the door for an ugly four-goal second period. Tuukka Rask (mercifully) got the hook after the Kings made it 5-1, but Jonas Gustavsson didn’t take long before allowing a sixth goal to Trevor Lewis to score the touchdown by the Rams, er- I mean- the Kings.

The Bruins just showed Don Sweeney and their fans that they are not a contender. Sure- they’re good enough to maybe scratch and claw their way to the playoffs, but when they go up against a real team- with skill and depth to match, they’re cooked.

I don’t have the answers, and neither, in all probability, does Boston’s management team. However- something needs to change. Whether it’s a tweak or something more- this club just doesn’t have it, so don’t just keep rolling the same lineup out every single night. Sometimes their hard work pays off, but the Kings just showed how far away they are from the Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs. If anyone out there was starting to dream about the Bruins maybe pulling together for an improbably deep run into the 2016 NHL postseason, then Lucic (1 assist with one period remaining) and his mates just threw a giant bucket of ice water on these hibernating B’s.

Everyone knows the Bruins need major help on defense, and here’s hoping they can get some and soon. Unfortunately for Sweeney, that everyone also includes all 29 other GMs. If we think landing a real difference-maker at that position is as simple as snapping the fingers and picking up the phone, my in-laws in Kansas have a real sweet parcel of oceanfront property to sell you. Every NHL team knows how much in dire straits the Bruins are defensively. And every time Sweeney picks up the phone to talk trade for a blue liner, the voice on the other end is gonna make it hurt.

There are things to be optimistic about in Bruins land, but this club is not built to win now. Whether they can win later will likely be determined by what the club does between now and the next 1-2 seasons.

Just a guess, but it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

 

P.S.- It was nice to see Lucic back and to watch the nice video tribute the Bruins put together for him. It’s a shame the team could not find a way to put forth a better showing, but sometimes, you have to call things like they are and realize that the 2015-16 Boston hockey team is not ready for primetime. Based on what is likely out there to be had between now and the end of the month, they’re not going to be in primetime anytime soon. The key is not to overreact and make shortsighted, short-term moves that will fritter away assets without appreciably improving the club for the long term.

That’s a lot easier said than done.

P.P.S.- 9-2 final score. Kings 9, Bruins 2. Putrid. Lucic scored his 13th of the year to make it 7-1, before Tyler Randell netted his fifth goal in just 21 games. Luke Schenn (that’s right- Luke freaking Schenn) and Dustin Brown closed out the scoring in a thrashing folks won’t soon forget.

 

Martin Brodeur’s No. 30 to the rafters

I’ve always had a fascination with goaltenders.

From Gilles Gilbert to Mike Liut, from Pete Peeters to Andy Moog and Felix Potvin…I’ve always had an obsession with those masked men between the pipes.

But when it comes to goalies, there’s one NHL player I’ve always identified with and followed much closer than my hockey idols growing up, mainly because we’re the same age, and he established himself as an elite young NHL goalie at the same time I was graduating from college and entering the active duty military in a career that is finally winding down after nearly 22 years.

That personal journey is one I can sketch in milestones associated with one of the NHL’s true greats at any position, and why the event taking place in Newark at the Prudential Center no doubt has real meaning for so many people who watched him establish a two decade-long record of excellence playing what is arguably the most difficult and stressful position of any in team sports.

Tonight, the New Jersey Devils will bestow the high honor of retiring Martin Brodeur’s No. 30, the latest step in a journey that will soon take the 43-year-old into the Hockey Hall of Fame. 

His career numbers are astounding in a career spent mostly in the Garden State except for a brief stopover in St. Louis, where he was unable to recapture his former glory, but was not quite ready to call it quits.

691 career regular season wins in 22 years (21 of them as a Devil), the most in NHL history.

125 career regular season shutouts, ditto.

28,508 career saves, double ditto.

24 career playoff shutouts, ditto times three.

When I was a kid growing up, I read more than one hockey scribe say that Terry Sawchuk’s career 103 regular season shutouts would likely never be broken. Brodeur crushed that record, though in fairness- when those articles were written, we were in the middle of the fire wagon hockey era of the late 1970s-early 1990s.

There are a lot of things that a player needs to win three Stanley Cup championships (and five SCF appearances) and pile up the kind of eye-popping stats Brodeur did- athletic ability is atop the list, and in his case, it didn’t hurt that he played for one of the most stable, successful NHL franchises as a young player and well past his prime playing years.

But I think what allowed Brodeur to play so well for so long had to do with his mental toughness and ability to deal with the stresses and sheer ups and downs that every NHL goaltender must deal with at some point in their careers, with an even keel that would make most Zen masters turn green (and red) with envy.

Covering the New Jersey Devils for the New York Hockey Journal in the 2010-11 season was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed me to be around the team more than just an occasional away game for the first time in my hockey writing career, and allowed me to get to know Brodeur and several of his Devils teammates. On the other- the Devils struggled mightily that season, beginning the year in the basement, then dismissing first-year bench boss and Devils folk hero John MacLean before bringing back icon Jacques Lemaire and making a second half run for the postseason that ultimately fell short. It wasn’t all that jovial a room during that season, especially through the first part of January, but being around Brodeur and the veterans gave me an inside glimpse of why the Devils had such a sustained run of excellence the way they did.

Even in the depths of New Jersey’s position at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings at one point, when little was going right for them, especially for Brodeur, the goaltender set the tone by refusing to let the stress and pressure get to him. It wasn’t like he adopted an Alfred E. Neuman “What, me worry?!” attitude, but at the same time- he talked about the importance of the team sticking together when there were a lot of competing factors to drive them apart. “We got into this (nosedive) together,” he told me after one practice in December. “We got to get out of it together or it won’t happen for us at all.”

Fast forward to mid-March and the Devils were knocking on the door of the playoffs. They ultimately would not get in, but the next year they made one final glorious run to the playoffs and the Stanley Cup Final series before bowing out to the Los Angeles Kings in that franchise’s first of two championships in 2012 and 2014. When I asked Brodeur about the turnaround and how much better the team had played since they were cellar dwellers just a few months before, he first gave credit to Lemaire for pushing the right buttons, but then reminded me that the team was making it work together. “You have to row the boat in the same direction if you want to win in the NHL,” he said. “We’re rowing together, and that’s a big thing.”

He delivered both quotes with the exact same, relaxed temperament in two completely different situations. To me, that underscored Brodeur’s otherworldly ability to block out external pressures and distractions and focus on the task at hand. Many goalies talk about the importance of doing it, but few can pull it off the way he could.

So, as they raise his No. 30 to the rafters, I consider myself fortunate to have seen him from start to finish and towards the end, having the chance to watch him work firsthand.

It’s easy to say his records will never be broken, and who knows- perhaps somewhere out there is a kid lugging his equipment bag and pads into a rink somewhere who is focused on the goal of doing just that. Records were made to be broken, after all.

In Brodeur’s case, his legacy will stand the eternal test of time as one of the NHL’s best and brightest.

 

 

B’s win ugly in Buffalo

For once, it wasn’t the Boston Bruins surrendering a two-goal lead in a game.

Ryan Spooner started and finished the comeback against the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center Thursday night with a goal in the second period and the lone shootout strike to secure a 3-2 road victory for the B’s.

Evander Kane registered the opening tally after a bumbling sequence in the Sabres zone that saw neither of David Pastrnak or Kevan Miller make a play on the puck, allowing an odd-man rush the other way. With the B’s out of position in their own end, Kane was able to corral a loose puck to Tuukka Rask’s left and slip a shot into the net behind him for a 1-0 lead.

Sam Reinhart added to Buffalo’s lead just 47 seconds into the second frame when he deflected Mark Pysyk’s point shot past Rask to make it 2-0.

Spooner answered just 58 seconds later when he dug a puck out from Matt Beleskey’s feet and flipped backhander into the net on former Bruin Chad Johnson’s blocker side. It was Spooner’s 11th goal of the season.

Brad Marchand tallied the equalizer with his team-leading 23rd marker on a nifty rush and backhand shot that Johnson appeared to have the angle on, but was unable to stop from sneaking through him and over the goal line.

From there, Rask held down the fort. Even as the teams exchanged 4-on-3 power plays in overtime, neither squad was able to break through. Patrice Bergeron had the best chance to end it when he was standing just outside the crease, got his stick on a loose puck and fired it on net, only to be denied by Johnson’s glove.

That set the stage for Spooner’s quick cut and shot that beat Johnson and stood up as the winning tally in the shootout, giving the B’s the extra point.

As the old adage goes- the scoreboard don’t say how- just how many. This is a game that against a more skilled opponent, the Bruins likely don’t battle back from, but it moved the team into third place in the Atlantic Division and keeps Boston firmly in the playoff hunt as the 2016 NHL season enters the real stretch drive.

 

Thoughts on Dennis Wideman, loss to Leafs and Loui (Loui) Eriksson

The NHL dropped the hammer on Dennis Wideman, giving him 20 games of unpaid vacation for his cross-check of NHL linesman Don Henderson on January 27. I won’t rehash the incident here- it is well-documented and there is plenty of room to debate how sound of mind he was when the incident occurred, but the bottom line is that the league had to do this.

Had to.

Physical abuse of officials cannot ever be tolerated in any form. Equivocating in the form of accepting that Wideman was loopy (and allegedly concussed) after a big hit immediately prior is a slippery slope that no league can afford in this day and age. Even if the NHL wanted to cut the player a break, it opens the door for any player to physically engage the on-ice officials and be able to claim a precedent for leniency.

No, the NHL got this one right. Wideman and the NHLPA are well within their rights to appeal and if Gary Bettman wants to take the mitigating circumstances into account, that is up to him. The rule of law here is critical and leaves no room for selective application of the rules, so Wideman got the book thrown at him and rightfully so. What happens from here on in is anyone’s guess, but he’s eligible to return on March 11, some two weeks after the trade deadline.

That leads me to my next point.

If recent rumors are to be believed, the B’s might have dodged a bullet with Wideman’s lengthy suspension. Several sources to include Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, recently discussed the team’s interest in bringing Wideman back to the Bruins given the team’s struggles on defense. Wideman played in Boston from late in the 2006-07 season through the end of 2009-10, before he was part of the package dealt to the Florida Panthers for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell in June, 2010.

While in the Black and Gold, Wideman was an effective if polarizing and uneven player for the team. He posted a career year in 2008-09 with 50 points (until he eclipsed that mark last season with a 15-goal, 56-point campaign with the Flames). This season, Wideman was well off that pace with just two goals and 19 points in 48 games at the time of his suspension. He was in effect,  continuing his career trend of following his best years with numbers well short of those marks. In stops with Boston, Washington and Calgary, Wideman alternately had seasons with very good offensive output followed by barely mediocre campaigns. His most recent stint with the Flames is no exception.

While Wideman to Boston would have given the team a more experienced defender to play more minutes and do some good work on the power play, his lack of foot speed, and advancing age (he’ll be 33 next month) in conjunction with his $5+ million cap hit would have limited Boston’s options going forward.

It would be one thing if Wideman was in his prime, but on the wrong side of 30 and never the most fleet-of-foot defender to begin with, his presence might have constituted a slight upgrade on what the B’s can currently field, but he’s more of an offensive contributor than a defensive stalwart, which is what the team needs more than anything right now from the blue line. Unless the Flames were retaining salary in the deal with Boston (rumored to involve mid-round pick and/or prospect), the move made little sense for Boston, who would likely be saddled with a bottom-3 defender with diminishing returns and a high cap hit for what he brings.

If Don Sweeney was in fact preparing to bring Wideman back into the fold, then count me in as someone who feels the suspension was a blessing in disguise. It’s a short-term minimal upgrade, but limits the GM’s options when trying to do the critical roster building in the next 1-2 years that will determine if the B’s can get back into contention or solidify their status as an also-ran.

This is why the loss the other night to the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s cellar dwellers, was so confounding.

When David Krejci popped home his 12th goal of the season early in the 3rd period, the B’s were up by two goals and positioned to cruise to the finish with another two points in hand. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t get the memo and battled back, winning the game in overtime on a P.A. Parenteau power play goal after Boston frittered away its 3-1 lead.

This was a game the Bruins could have had. Should have had. Too often last season, we saw them surrender points to teams lower than them in the standings and it caught up to them in the final weekend when they were on the outside looking in. The B’s had their chances to beat Toronto decisively, and wasted a two-goal game from Brad Marchand, whose blistering goal-scoring pace has been a treat to watch. You’d like to have seen Tuukka Rask make just one save in there on Toronto’s last three shots that went in, but its hard to fault the goaltender too much on seeing-eye redirections and perfect puck luck that the Leafs translated into success. In the end, poor puck management was far more costly for the Bruins than Rask’s inability to deny Toronto’s comeback, but allowing come-from-behind wins to the other guys has been the most profoundly negative story of Boston’s season thus far.

It marked the seventh time this year Boston has blown a two-goal lead (and it’s only February for goodness sake), and underscores why lateral moves like Wideman aren’t worth it.

Frustrated fans (and they’re right to be angry, believe me) want a change and want one now, but unless it’s something that can address Boston’s shortcomings in the short and longer term, then I would submit to you that it is better for Sweeney and Co. to ride it out.

We knew very well coming into the season that Boston’s collective defense was not a strength. What has been a pleasant surprise has been the way the forwards have collectively fared, though the production itself has been largely top-heavy of late, with not enough production on the lower lines. However, even with the uptick in offense, the defense was an identified concern coming into the 2015-16 season. Whether you staunchly believe that Sweeney could (and should) have done something to address the flaws at that position last offseason, or feel that getting out from under the cap crush was the first priority and that rolling the dice with some of the younger players in the system was worth trying, the reality is- it is now February and we know that this group is not a playoff-caliber defense. I went over that in more detail in a previous post, so I won’t revisit and pick at a scab many of you are already well aware exists.

The problem with the “do something now” mentality is that it leads to short-sighted transactions like a trade for Dennis Wideman, who would have likely cost the team assets that would be better allocated elsewhere, or it feeds this idea that there is a surplus of fine talent at the defense position just waiting to be picked up. The first point isn’t going to fix the team’s woes, and the second is becoming more and more of an unintended consequence of the NHL’s move to impose cost certainty (a salary cap) 11 years ago. It was a different league back then and hockey trades for talent were far more prevalent because there weren’t a lot of complex rules and constraints on a club’s salary structure and the return on investment that has become more and more important over the past decade.

Nowadays, teams recognize pretty early the importance of the skilled defenseman in the modern NHL and lock them up long-term before the possibility of getting them via free agency is there. Unless, of course, they trade them (see: Hamilton, Douglas) first. Today’s reality is a stark one if you’re Don Sweeney: there simply isn’t much out there to be had if you need to truly bolster your blueline for the present and future. And, if there is a GM out there willing to even talk about moving such a prized asset, the cost will be astronomical. It is a seller’s market and with the parity the NHL currently enjoys, there aren’t many teams looking to unload anyone right now.

This leads me to Loui Eriksson

If we accept that a. this Boston Bruins team simply isn’t that good- they perhaps make the 2016 playoffs as a fringe club in a wildcard spot and then subsequently bow out to those better teams above them in the seeding and that b. Eriksson is pretty bound and determined to leverage what he can as an unrestricted free agent this summer, then it stands to reason that the Bruins should move on from him and get what they can at the deadline.

Now, given how well he’s played, the good news is- such a return stands to be a pretty fine one for the B’s. The bad news: any contender looking to add someone like Eriksson will be happy to part with futures, but good look getting any NHL roster/prime potential talent back in return. The whole idea of trading for a soon-to-be UFA like Eriksson is to add him to the very good group you *already* have- not robbing Peter to pay Paul by giving up a key contributor from your lineup at a different position. That’s just not how it works.

Loui has been a team player and good guy since the B’s acquired him nearly three years ago. Alas, Tyler Seguin became one of the real forces in the NHL, while Eriksson has largely continued his steady, effective play. That has led to his getting the short shrift in Boston, though there is no shortage of real students of the game out there who recognize what Eriksson brings to the table and appreciate him for it.

Having said all of that, it would be one thing if the Bruins were contenders and they held onto Eriksson to make that one last run, then lost him to free agency in July. The Bruins aren’t that team. So, at some point, unless they’re willing to re-up him, which, as he turns 31, is probably not the best idea to commit to term and dollars he’ll likely get on the open market, means he has to go.

At this point, I think the Bruins are better off taking their lumps- resisting the urge to pay a premium for a mediocre return in the here and now, and ultimately build up more of a war chest of assets that can allow Sweeney to make some more aggressive moves down the line to absorb the going rate for a true, difference-making and cost-effective defender with some longer term retainability.

Dennis Wideman was not that player, so his suspension becomes exhibit A for the case that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. And, I would submit to you- any player a team offers up before the trade deadline is not likely to be that guy either. Boston needs not panic, but do the best they can with tweaks and then make a more concerted effort to address the real holes in the lineup this summer. Trying to plug them now will cost a fortune, and in the case of a player like Eriksson, he’s not likely to bring the kind of return that fans are clamoring for.

This is why you saw a trade like the one between Columbus and Nashville in an even-Steven deal with Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones. Both teams got young, high-upside players, neither of whom were finding success in their respective systems. No package of picks and prospects would have enticed either GM into moving prized assets and former top-5 picks in 2010 and 2013- it had to be a roster for roster swap of established NHL players needing a change of scenery. So, unless Bruins fans are prepared to lose someone like David Pastrnak for a defenseman with similar promise, dreaming up scenarios involving Eriksson isn’t going to get it done, and be prepared to be disappointed at the deadline- don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In a perfect world, the Bruins could go out tomorrow and make their team better. The reality is- the world of the modern NHL is far from perfect, and in it, you can certainly make things a whole lot worse before they get any better.

If Sweeney and his staff somehow find a way to get that impact two-way defenseman who could be a future mainstay in the Boston lineup between now and the end of February, then lock him up to an extension now, because that’s the kind of move that flies in the face of the established handicaps that most of the other GMs are dealing with as they try to improve their hockey clubs.

 

On Bergeron and the pursuit of perfection

Bergeron3

Nobody’s perfect.

In Patrice Bergeron’s case, at least when it comes to his profession, perfection is a closer goal than for most.

Boston’s lone representative at the NHL’s All-Star festivities in Nashville has done it again- showing fans around the world that stardom at hockey’s highest level does not require blazing speed, flashy offense or a larger-than-life off-ice persona. The 30-year-old center brings none of that to the table, though I bet if you polled GMs around the league and had them pick 5 players to build a franchise around, Bergeron would be on more of their lists than not.

On Sunday, Bergeron returned to the building where the Boston Bruins called his name for the first time, selecting him in the second round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft, a year that is going down as one of the strongest collective drafts in league history. For those who may not be aware, the B’s picked up Bergeron with the 45th overall selection, and it was a compensation pick awarded them by the league when Bill Guerin had taken the money ($9 million per season) and run to Dallas. Back in those days, the entry draft was nine rounds, and the NHL had rules to protect teams from being plundered by the big spenders of the world with a compensatory formula that involved the amount of money departing free agents got. In other words- the bigger the coin, the higher the pick, and Boston landed one of the highest extras that year.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But, for those who followed the draft closely back then, Bergeron’s eventual success in the NHL as a champion on multiple levels and the undisputed class of all forwards defensively, he was anything but a household name when the B’s drafted him ahead of some of the more flashy names that were available at 45.

Bergeron’s journey from under-the-radar, solid but unspectacular Quebec League pivot to impressive NHL rookie at age 18 and an eventual Stanley Cup and two-time Olympic champion (to go with multiple other titles to include the 2005 World Jr. Championship and MVP accolades) is one of personal discipline, focus and a will to constantly seek self-improvement. He didn’t explode onto the NHL scene in 2003 with the excitement and draft pedigree of others in his peer group, but his ascension to the ranks of the league’s elite has come with consistency and class, as he overcame two of the bigger knocks that can derail a hockey player’s NHL dream faster than the Kardashian sisters change their looks: size and skating.

Bruins assistant GM Scott Bradley, who was Boston’s chief amateur scout at the time, recalled going to an Acadie-Bathurst Titans game early in the 2002-03 campaign to see offensively skilled defenseman Bruno Gervais. He came away smitten with No. 37, a first-year center who had spent his 16-year-old season playing midget AAA hockey because he was unable to stick in the QMJHL as a full-time player. From that moment on, the die was cast- a series of events was set into motion that would ultimately see that youngster not only drafted, but eventually evolve into the face of the Bruins franchise some 13 years later.

It isn’t like other NHL teams didn’t know who Bergeron was. Central Scouting had him ranked in their top-30, though when you factored in a very strong European contingent that year, he projected to land somewhere in the mid-to-late second round. I spoke to one NHL scout based in the Maritimes in Nashville on the ’03 draft’s second day- back when rounds 1-3 were done on a Saturday and 4-9 occurred on Sunday- and asked him about Bergeron. He liked him enough, but expressed concerns about Bergeron’s height (he was pretty average at the time, hovering around 6-foot) and lack of foot speed. He did point out how creative and smart Bergeron was, however, and liked where Boston got him.

That fall, Bergeron not only impressed the Boston brass at his first training camp, but got the attention of the one who mattered most at the time: rookie head coach Mike Sullivan. He made the club out of camp, scored his first NHL goal against the Los Angeles Kings a few weeks later (October 18, 2003 to be exact), and some 12 years later, has added 224 more and is closing in on 600 points for his career. If not for an entire season lost to lockout, nearly an entire year gone to a massive concussion suffered on a hit from behind in 2007, plus another half-season wasted in another lockout, he’d be closer to 800 points and 1,000 games.

Bergeron has quietly become the player that just about every hockey fan wishes was theirs. He’s always been serious and dedicated, but he plays the game the way he lives his life: disciplined, effective, with honesty and integrity. Like the kid who sat inside the net and watched his peers skate in beginning hockey before getting up and joining in the game that would eventually become his way of life, Bergeron’s rise to NHL super stardom has been deliberate.

One NHL scout told me over coffee in Buffalo during the 2011 World Jr. Championship that his one real regret in a long career scouting amateur players for the same team was not pushing harder for his club to draft Bergeron in 2003. “We coulda had him,” he lamented with that wistful look a man gets when he knows in his heart his gut had been telling him to act, but he didn’t seize the initiative. “I know things would be a lot different for us if I had taken more of a stand in our room before the draft.”

Perhaps. Probably.

But what happened instead was that another team, with a scout who went into a fateful junior game with zero expectations, saw all he needed to and then leveraged his power within the Bruins organization to act.

Bergeron is now that grizzled veteran that Marty Lapointe was in 2003 when he took the young Quebec City native under his wing. He has a noticeable scar on his upper lip- a reminder of the countless battles in the trenches on the 200 x 85 sheet of ice. His presence and poise is a testament to those contests. He’s just about seen it all, and has the medals to prove it. Best thing of all, at least from Boston’s perspective, is that he’s still very much in his prime, so he will keep adding to his growing legend.

The pursuit of perfection is a worthy goal. Some people come closer to it than others, and Patrice Bergeron is one of them. Perhaps Boston Globe reporter Amalie Benjamin said it best in her recent piece about how Bergeron is perceived around the rest of the league over the All-Star weekend when she closed with this:

So he’s good, sure. But perfect? That’s a lot of pressure to put on a fellow hockey player.

“Well, I mean, there’s not that many of them out there,” Duchene said. “I think if you asked most guys in the league if there was a perfect player out there, who would it be? I think most guys would say him.”

One thing seems to be certain: Bergeron is the perfect Bruin. And for those who love the team, that’s perfect enough.

Bruins prospects update: 1/24/16

 

Frank Vatrano was returned to the AHL from Boston last week, and he wasted little time re-establishing himself as a scorer at that level.

Seth Griffith continues to lead Providence in scoring, and Koko and Austin Czarnik have done well to keep pace.

Malcolm Subban continues to play well as the team’s undisputed No. 1 this season, and while Zane McIntyre has had his ups and downs, there is plenty of positive raw potential with him going forward.

In the amateur ranks, Zach Senyshyn and Jesse Gabrielle have 29 goals apiece- good for the best goal totals of all Boston prospects at any level. Jake DeBrusk’s offensive play has tailed off after a hot start in Red Deer, but is not a major cause for concern, as he’s still creating chances- they just aren’t going in.

Ryan Fitzgerald remains atop the NCAA scoring list for Boston prospects with 30 points for BC- second on the team in scoring to Sens 2015 first-rounder Colin White. Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson continues his impressive, mature two-way play, while Danton Heinen had a big weekend production-wise, as did Sean Kuraly, who lit it up against University of Nebraska-Omaha. Otherwise- it’s been a pretty forgettable year for him production-wise.

Now, here’s the update:

AHL

Seth Griffith, RW Providence Bruins

GP- 33 Goals- 13 Assists- 28 Points- 41 Penalty Min- 20 +/- 0

Griffith had a great month in December and has continued his scoring into the new year.

Alex Khokhlachev, C Providence Bruins

GP- 31 Goals- 12 Assists- 22 Points- 34 Penalty Min- 4 +/- -6

 

Austin Czarnik, C Providence Bruins

GP- 35 Goals- 11 Assists- 20 Points- 31 Penalty Min- 10 +/- 1

 

Colton Hargrove, LW Providence Bruins

GP- 34 Goals-11 Assists- 8 Points- 19 Penalty Min- 40 +/- 3

Three goals and four points in five games since the last update- Hargrove continues to be a pleasant surprise as a rookie pro who is producing well above where most projected him.

Frank Vatrano, LW Providence Bruins

GP- 12 Goals- 12 Assists- 4 Points- 16 Penalty Min- 4 +/- 0

Colby Cave, C Providence Bruins

GP- 42 Goals- 7 Assists- 9 Points- 16 Penalty Min- 8 +/- -8

Chris Casto, D Providence Bruins

GP- 38 Goals- 4 Assists- 11 Points- 15 Penalty Min- 24 +/- -9

Zack Phillips, C Providence Bruins

GP- 37 Goals- 5 Assists- 9 Points-14 Penalty Min- 8 +/- -14

 

 

Tommy Cross, D Providence Bruins

GP- 34 Goals- 1 Assists- 11 Points- 12 Penalty Min- 49 +/- -10

Anton Blidh, LW Providence Bruins

GP- 40 Goals- 9 Assists- 2 Points- 11 Penalty Min- 20 +/- -5

Blidh finally added some totals to the assists column in his scoring line, but it took him more than 35 games to do it. He is a grinding, agitating bottom-line type- fans should not expect much more than that if he reaches the NHL.

Noel Acciari, C Providence Bruins

GP- 30 Goals- 5 Assists-5 Points- 10 Penalty Min- 13 +/-  0

 

Anthony Camara, LW Providence Bruins

GP- 25 Goals- 0 Assists- 3 Points- 3 Penalty Min- 37 +/- -3

Justin Hickman, RW Providence Bruins

GP- 34 Goals- 1 Assists- 1 Points- 1 Penalty Min- 32 +/- -7

Linus Arnesson, D Providence Bruins

GP- 28 Goals- 0 Assists- 1 Points- 1 Penalty Min- 2 +/- -4

Malcolm Subban, G Providence Bruins

GP- 24 MIN- 1450 GA- 61 GAA- 2.52 Spct- .911 W- 12 L-8 OTL 4 SO- 1

Zane McIntyre, G Providence Bruins

GP- 18 MIN- 1026 GA- 52 GAA- 3.04 Spct- .884 W- 6 L- 6 OTL- 5

Injured- Brian Ferlin (upper body)- 1 game played.

 

OHL

Zach Senyshyn, RW Saulte Ste Marie Greyhounds

GP- 43 Goals- 29 Assists- 12 Points- 41 Penalty Min- 12 +/- -3

 

QMJHL

Jeremy Lauzon, D Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

GP- 29 Goals- 5 Assists- 30 Points- 35 Penalty Min- 52 +/- 26

Injured- no games since last update.

Jakub Zboril, D Saint John Sea Dogs

GP- 28 Goals- 4 Assists- 6 Points- 10 Penalty Min- 30 +/- 6

Zboril’s play has picked up since his return from the WJC, but he is well off his offensive pace from a year ago. He has, however, embraced a more physical edge with better attention to the defensive side of his game, but is still prone to stretches without urgency.

 

WHL

Jesse Gabrielle, LW Prince George Cougars

GP- 48 Goals- 29 Assists- 21 Points- 50 Penalty Min- 71 +/- 3

Jake DeBrusk, LW Red Deer Rebels

SCB: GP- 24 Goals- 9 Assists- 17 Points- 26 Penalty Min- 15 +/- -5

RDR: GP- 14 Goals- 5 Assists- 9 Points- 14 Penalty Min- 13 +/-  5

After erupting for five goals in his first four games with the Rebels after being traded, DeBrusk’s offense dried up considerably with just three assists in his last six games. He’s far too talented a player to be held without a goal for long, but he’s nowhere close to the 42-goal season he had a year ago.

Brandon Carlo, D Tri-City Americans

GP- 26 Goals- 2 Assists- 13 Points- 15 Penalty Min- 59 +/- -5

 

NCAA

Ryan Fitzgerald, F Boston College Eagles (HEA)

GP- 23 Goals- 14 Assists- 16 Points- 30 Penalty Min- 35 +/- 22

Anders Bjork, LW University of Notre Dame (HEA)

GP- 23 Goals- 10 Assists- 16 Points- 26 Penalty Min- 4 +/- 22

The 2014 5th-rounder has been on a tear since returning from the WJC, notching three goals and eight points in his last five games. He’s blown by his freshman season scoring totals (23 points) in half the games.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, C Boston University Terriers (HEA)

GP- 24 Goals- 7 Assists- 15 Points- 22 Penalty Min- 10 +/- 2

Danton Heinen, LW Denver University Pioneers (NCHC)

GP- 24 Goals- 9 Assists- 9 Points- 18 Penalty Min- 0 +/- -4

Had four points over the weekend in a two-game series.

Matt Grzelcyk, D Boston University (HEA)

GP- 12 Goals- 8 Assists- 5 Points- 13 Penalty Min- 20 +/- 7

Senior D and 85th overall pick in 2012 continues to find the back of the net- he is just three markers shy of passing his season best set a year ago (in 41 games).

Ryan Donato, C Harvard University (ECAC)

GP- 16 Goals- 5 Assists- 6 Points- 11 Penalty Min- 14 +/- 2

Cameron Hughes, C University of Wisconsin (Big Ten)

GP- 19 Goals- 2 Assists- 9 Points- 11 Penalty Min- 12 +/- -9

Matt Benning, D Northeastern University (HEA)

GP- 25 Goals- 4 Assists- 6 Points- 10 Penalty Min- 21 +/- -5

Curious statistical inversion- a year ago, Benning did not score in 36 games, yet posted 24 assists. This season,  he has four goals but just six helpers. He’s still seeing considerable minutes and power play time, but without several key scorers in the lineup, NU’s scoring is down.

Sean Kuraly, C Miami University (NCHC)

GP- 23 Goals- 3 Assists- 10 Points- 13 Penalty Min- 21 +/- -6

The former San Jose prospect went on a tear with 1g and 6 points in his last three games. He’s not a high-end scoring player at the next level, but it’s a good sign for him after a rough senior season statistically speaking.

Rob O’Gara, D Yale University (ECAC)

GP- 19 Goals- 0 Assists- 7 Points- 7 Penalty Min- 20 +/- -1

Wiley Sherman, D Harvard University (ECAC)

GP- 18 Goals- 3 Assists- 3 Points- 6 Penalty Min- 8 +/-  6

 

Europe

Peter Cehlarik, LW Lulea (Sweden)

GP- 30 Goals- 8 Assists- 6 Points- 14 Penalty Min- 0 +/-  2

Emil Johansson, D HV71 (Sweden)

GP- 34 Goals- 0 Assists- 3 Points- 3 Penalty Min- 12 +/-  1

Maxim Chudinov, D St Petersburg SKA (Russia)

GP- 48 Goals- 8 Assists- 9 Points- 17 Penalty Min- 77 +/- -11

His goal total is the highest it has been since joining St. Petersburg and just one away from his career high of 9 in a season set in 2011-12 with Cherepovets.

USHL

Daniel Vladar, G Chicago (USHL)

GP- 16 MIN- 928 GA- 34 GAA- 2.20 Spct .920 SO- 2; 4-6-4

Jack Becker, C Sioux Falls (USHL)

GP- 35 Goals- 4 Assists- 7 Points- 11 Penalty Min- 8 +/- -9

Bruins split with Vancouver, C-Bus

The Boston Bruins have gone 1-1 in their last two games at home, losing a 4-2 match to the Vancouver Canucks Thursday night and then giving up a two-goal lead to the Columbus Blue Jackets but getting a 3-2 victory in the shootout.

The loss to the Canucks served as a good reminder about what currently ails the team, as Vancouver’s forecheck and play along the walls created turnovers and prevented Boston from getting much going on the breakout. When Boston did have offensive zone possession in that one, they had a tough time working the puck to the middle of the ice and goaltender Jacob Markstrom had a relatively easy night.

Against Columbus, the Bruins took a 2-0 lead, with the first goal coming from the newly-formed line of Patrice Bergeron-Brad Marchand-Ryan Spooner (on the RW). Whether that was an audition to try and see what life might look like if Loui Eriksson gets moved in the near future or just a hunch by Claude Julien, the unit looked pretty good, as the speed/skill combo of Marchand-Spooner with Bergeron’s high-end vision and smarts gave Columbus all they could handle.

When David Pastrnak scored his fifth of the season with David Krejci and Eriksson assisting at 3:34 into the second period, it looked like the B’s might run away with it. As has been the case in the TD Garden far too often this season, the visiting team came back and scored two goals (Dalton Prout and Nick Foligno) to knot the score at two goals apiece.

That opened the door for Spooner and Torey Krug to score shootout goals and secure the extra point for the B’s. Krug’s goal went top shelf as he cut across the grain- it’s a shame he’s only managed to find the back of the net three times (no goals in his last 20 games) this season, because the chances have certainly been there.

Night of Jonas

Tuukka Rask was originally supposed to start, but he was “not 100%” according to Julien, so Jonas Gustavsson stepped in and played well in making 31 saves.  Gustavsson out dueled Joonas Korpisalo at the other end…he prevented B’s center Joonas Kemppainen from scoring any goals. All the while- winter storm Jonas did its work on the East Coast yesterday. Boston was spared the worst of the storm, which hit the Mid-Atlantic region hard and saw the postponement of several NHL games. Gustavsson played Prout’s band-angle shot poorly on the first goal he allowed and took ownership of the score afterwards, but more than made up for it in the final period when Columbus carried the play and generated some quality scoring chances that he all turned away. ‘Gus’ is now 9-3-1 in 14 games as the Boston backup. In contrast Niklas Svedberg had just 7 wins all of last season in 18 appearances, but interestingly enough- had a higher save percentage (.918 to .917).

Marchand surging

It took some time for No. 63 to get going after he returned from his three-game suspension, but his 19 goals  in 42 games leads the B’s. He’s not just scoring and using his speed, but he’s playing disruptive game, getting in on opposing puck carriers and pushing the pace every time he’s on the ice. It was interesting to see the way he and Spooner worked together Saturday night, as the Blue Jackets had a tough time containing their quickness and ability to handle the puck. I won’t jump to conclusions that the line combination was expressly rolled out to see if Spooner can handle duties as a top-two line forward on his off-wing in the event that Eriksson is moved before the trade deadline, but that strategy makes sense, and for one game at least, Marchand and Spooner looked like a good fit together.