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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The defense must be the offseason priority.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connolly is even more maddening.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Loui Eriksson– caveat emptor!

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Brett Connolly’s moment of truth

Leading up to last February’s NHL trade deadline, there was a lot of talk about the Boston Bruins acquiring veteran forwards for that late season push to make the postseason after struggling to put together sustained stretches of high-level play and wins.

That’s why it  came as a mild surprise when Peter Chiarelli pulled the trigger on a deal for then-22-year-old Brett Connolly, the sixth overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The move raised eyebrows because ‘Bolts GM Steve Yzerman was moving on from his first-ever draft choice with that organization, a player who had been selected just four spots after Chiarelli tabbed Tyler Seguin. Unlike Seguin, Connolly was dealt for different reasons, and ironically enough- the player whom Boston hoped would help them earn enough points to get into the dance was felled in his very first practice with the team, missing all but five of the final 18 games, as the B’s came up short on the last night of the regular season.

Connolly arrived to pro hockey with great expectations, and at least thus far, has been a disappointment given where he was drafted. After signing a one year, $1.075 million “show me” extension with the B’s, he is in position to establish himself as a legitimate top-six NHL right wing this season on a team that was starved for goals at the 22nd overall position for offense after finishing third overall in 2013-14.

In this post, we’ll take a look at Connolly then and now- and try to project what he’ll bring to Boston at age 23.

Then (the 2010 NHL draft and beyond): A little over five years ago, questions swirled around Connolly’s long-term viability because of a serious hip injury he sustained early in the 2009-10 season, which limited him to just 16 games (10 goals) for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. A season after posting 30 goals as a rookie, Connolly was seen as the consensus top WHL player available in the 2010 NHL draft class, and though Portland Winterhawks forward Nino Niederreiter would move up to edge him by just one draft position (NY Islanders) in Los Angeles, most conceded that given a full and healthy season, Connolly had impressive potential.

Take a look at this NHL draft profile, which features the late great Central Scouting director, E.J. McGuire, former Maine Mariners coach, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011. RIP E.J.- a true class act who did so much for the CSS when he was in charge.

Here are excerpts from the profile I did on Connolly for my 2010 Bruins Draft Watch blog, which some of you may or may not remember.

One of the most skilled and dangerous forwards in the draft had an injury-marred campaign and faces questions about his lower body’s long-term health..Excellent skater with a flash initial burst and ability to separate when observed last season before his hip problems flared up during the Ivan Hlinka tourney in August ’09. A dynamic presence when fully healthy and on top of his game: darts into open spaces with the puck and can wire it into the back of the net in the blink of an eye. Has that offensive zone killer instinct you want in your forwards; takes the puck to the net and shows off some real grit when it comes time to pay the price down low and in front of the net.

His health was the biggest obstacle facing Connolly, as he returned to action for the Under 18 championship tournament in April, but did not look all that effective after such a long layoff. Here are the downsides to him as I saw them back in June of 2010:

Faces some major scrutiny in light of serious hip flexor injuries this season that shelved him for all of 16 games. Looked strong in a late-season stint in the WHL, but raised real concerns with his tentative, ineffective performance for Team Canada at the World Under-18 tourney in Belarus in April. Lacked explosiveness and jump in his stride. Word out of the NHL combine is that the hips aren’t chronic problems, but with the failure of New Jersey 2001 first-round pick Adrian Foster still fresh in a lot of minds, many teams can’t afford to gamble. Not an overly physical player despite a long frame that will bulk up in the next few years. Needs to add a lot of mass/fill out his lanky build.

My draft day and after projection for Connolly was this (after mocking him to Dallas with the 11th pick):

He’s got all the tools you look for in a high-end scoring wing, and it’s a shame that he had such problems with injuries this season, because it robbed him of the chance to generate a potentially intriguing draft subplot to challenge Hall and Seguin near the top. Now, he’s caught in that limbo/Twilight Zone between those publications that are steadfast in their belief that he’ll go off the board around No. 5 overall, and those who are a little more conservative and who think NHL teams will take some safer options rather than risk taking a player who could be damaged goods and never again look like the 16-year-old who scored 30 goals in the WHL. Bostonians know all too well how devastating bad hips are to a hockey player; it was a degenerative hip condition that forced Cam Neely to tearfully hobble away from the game he loved at just 31 years of age in what was a memorably heart-wrenching press conference. Teams who don’t take the potential disaster of a player who faces a lifetime of being day-to-day the way Neely was over the last five years of his career seriously may jump on Connolly well inside the top-10, but they do so knowing that if he can’t go, it could cost the jobs of those management and personnel types who made that call.

Okay, so the hip hasn’t proven to be all that big a factor, though he’s had other health issues (more on that later).  Tampa grabbed him early and he appeared to justify that faith in 2010-11, as he put his hip woes behind him to the tune of 46 goals in 59 WHL games. That was good enough for the team to sign him and give him a shot in the NHL for the 2011-12 campaign, but he had a bit part, scoring just 4 goals and 15 points in 68 games. With the lockout occurring the following year, he began the season with Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse and stayed there, scoring 31 goals and leading the Crunch to the AHL championship series. Unable to lock down an NHL job the following year, Connolly had another solid if unspectacular AHL outing in 2013-14 (21 goals, 57 points in 66 games).

Now: A year ago, Connolly made the big club, but found himself skating on the bottom-six, where he was able to score a respectable 12 goals in 50 games at the time of his trade to Boston.

Much was hoped for when he arrived, but a freak injury suffered when a Dennis Seidenberg shot in practice caused a displaced fracture in his right index finger, forcing him out of action for the next five weeks. He got into Boston’s last five games (2 assists) but could not have been 100 percent- especially for a shooter who needs his hands to be at his most effective.

For a club that gave up a pair of second-round selections in 2015 (Tampa took Peterborough Petes d-man Matt Spencer) and 2016, losing Connolly when they needed him most was one more added insult to injury (pun intended), but he has never played more than 71 games in any of his pro seasons whether spent in the AHL or NHL. There always seems to be some kind of physical issue preventing him from playing a full 82-game schedule.

“Obviously, it’s tough for him coming off his hand (injury) right when he got here, but he’s got a natural ability to skate,” B’s defenseman Zach Trotman said this week when asked about the player he competed against in the AHL and was teammates in Boston with to close out last season. “He’s a really good skater and he’s got a good shot even with his hand being…I don’t know what percentage it was at the end of the season but I’m sure it wasn’t full. He seemed pretty hungry and anxious to get the puck to the net and go in after it. I’m not going to project on what line he’d be or anything, but as far as skill goes, he’s got that hunger and he’s got that ability to skate and get the puck on net and just having those tools alone is going to be very advantageous for our team and I’m excited to see him play more this year fully healed and see what all he can do. I thought at the end of the year he was impressive and his speed and skill will help make the pace of our team faster.”

Trotman may not predict what line Connolly will be on, but I’ll take a stab. He’ll work in early on the bottom-six with special teams time on the power play, but I think the Bruins are hoping he and Jimmy Hayes will give them enough confidence to perhaps have the confidence to trade Loui Eriksson to open up some breathing room on that right side. This is not a slight to the veteran Eriksson, but with his impending unrestricted free agency, the team cannot afford to be sentimental. If neither Connolly nor Hayes are up to the task to take on more of a scoring role for the B’s, then Claude Julien may stick with Eriksson, as he is a more proven player at this stage of his career. However, with just $3.5 million invested in the two younger wingers, that salary flexibility is how a team like Boston can get further out of the cap hell that dogged them the last two years, forcing the parting of ways with key contributors and fan favorites like Johnny Boychuk, Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton.

Nobody said building a Stanley Cup-caliber team would be easy, but it goes without saying that if Connolly can develop into a 25-30 or more goal scorer this year for the B’s, Don Sweeney would have more options open to him to make the club better in the present and longer term. Of course- that kind of success comes at a price and if Connolly comes through with a season like that, he’ll be looking at a hefty raise in 2016.

All in due time, I suppose- and first things first. There’s a hockey season to play…in the meantime, Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita & Billy Zabka know what we’re talking about in the style of Survivor.