Dominic Tiano: Grading the Bruins D

Dominic Tiano is back with his assessment of how the Boston Bruins defense has played through one quarter of the 2021 NHL season. Enjoy!- KL

When Torey Krug signed with the St Louis Blues and Zdeno Chara ultimately decided to sign with the Washington Capitals, there was nothing but unanswered questions surrounding the Boston Bruins blue line for the 2020-21 National Hockey League season.

Who was going to replace Krug on the powerplay? Who is going to replace the offense from the blue line? Who was going to replace Chara on the penalty kill? Who was going to shut down the opposition’s top lines? Who was going to replace Chara’s leadership? It was question after question after question, and when you tried to answer them, fans didn’t like the answers.

We are officially at the quarter-way point of the season, so this is a good sample size to look at how the young defense has performed thus far.

The 2019-20 President’s Trophy winners dressed ten different defensemen and they combined for a total of 32 goals and 112 assists in the 70-game shortened season.

This season, the Bruins have dressed eight defensemen and only because of the injuries to Matt Grzelcyk and have scored 3 goals and 21 assists. That projects to 12 goals and 84 assists for the season. Pro-rated over 70 games, that is 15 goals and 105 assists. The helpers are fine, but they are on pace to score half of what last year’s blue line did and despite the 10-2-2 start, it could be a problem moving forward.  

Last season, the Bruins had the third best penalty kill with an 84.19% success rate Mostly on the backs of Chara and Brandon Carlo. To date this season, the Bruins rank second with an 88.0% success rate largely on the backs of Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon. They are backed up by Charlie McAvoy and Kevan Miller, with Lauzon and Miller picking up the Chara minutes.

At the other end of the ice is where the loss of Krug was thought to be most impactful, especially the powerplay. Coach Bruce Cassidy has tried different things including five forwards at times. A year ago, with Krug manning the point, the Bruins had the second best powerplay in the league converting on 25.22% of their opportunities. This season they rank eighth but are converting on 27.27% of their chances, an increase of 2.02%. But they need a blueliner that can take the reigns there and the injuries to Grzelcyk don’t help. As we saw last against the Islanders, using 5 forwards can cost you.

The loss of Chara on the blue line, and Krug for that matter, takes away some leadership on the back end, but you can’t underestimate the leadership of Miller, now the grey-beard on the team. He can keep his teammates calm and cool under pressure. Not to mention the young guys stepping into the role. Carlo has over 300 games under his belt and Grzelcyk and McAvoy around 200. They will be counted on to take up some of the leadership slack left by Chara’s departure.

Cassidy and his coaching staff have also adjusted the system employed now that he has a more mobile unit on the backend. First off, they’ve tried to employ a more traditional shut-down defender with a puck mover on each pair, something that has worked so far.

Secondly, when defending, the defense has the green light for both guys to activate below their own goal line with the centerman usually covering the net in front of Tuukka Rask or Jaroslav Halak. Third, they all have the green light to skate out of the zone. And finally, because of the young legs, they can all activate at the offensive blue line and pinch down deep, something the coaching staff keeps encouraging them to do.

Coming into the season we preached how young this defense was going to be and that there would be growing pains. The growing pains have been evident, but not consistently and it has yet to hurt the team but, there is a long way to go.

Here’s a look at the Bruins defense, our Grade, and what we’ve seen so far:

CHARLIE MCAVOY Grade: A

I will be the first to admit it: Charlie McAvoy should be an A+. But for me, to earn an A+ you need to excel in every area of the game and McAvoy is doing that in every situation except one and that is the power play, although that is through no fault of his own. Cassidy prefers a left shot defender up top on the first unit which is why, when Grzelcyk is healthy, he gets those opportunities first. Cassidy has also used five forwards (at times) in the absence of Grzelcyk instead of McAvoy with David Krejci (who happens to be a right shot) at the point.

In the absence of Krug, McAvoy has taken his game to another level offensively. He is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points – all in just a 56-game schedule. He leads the team in assists and points, shot attempts and shots on goal and he can drive the offense from the back end like few others can.

It’s not just about offense though. He’s trusted to defend, almost always going up against the opposition’s top players. He kills penalties, he’s physical, he’s a one-man breakout machine and he easily leads his fellow blue liners in blocked shots with 29.

McAvoy is a minute eating defender who does it with quality. He leads the blue line averaging 24:19 in time on ice – 4:34 more per game than the next closest, his partner Lauzon. He leads them by a wide margin in even strength time on ice, exactly 20 minutes and he averages 2:09 in powerplay time and 2:14 in penalty kill time per game.

McAvoy will get some serious consideration for the Norris Trophy this season. Well deserved consideration. His time as a true number one defenseman in the NHL has arrived.

JEREMY LAUZON Grade: B

A lot of eyebrows were raised when it was suggested here, and the coaching staff gave Lauzon the duties of skating beside McAvoy. Has he disappointed anyone? Lauzon has been the steady defensive defenseman that can be relied upon and that in turn, gives McAvoy the opportunity to concentrate more on offense. He refuses to be outworked and leads his team in hits with 39.

He’s been winning the majority of his battles along the walls and in front of the net. Not only is he good at clearing his zone, he can make a good first pass as well and usually makes the right decisions. He’s become a staple in the penalty kill leading all Bruins blueliners in PK time on a PK that had an efficiency of 84.19% a season ago to 88.0% this season. The coaching staff is showing they are gaining more and more confidence in him and it is reflected in his average time on ice. Averaging 19:45 TOI, Lauzon trails only McAvoy at 24:19 in that department.

As we saw against the Washington Capitals on February 1, Lauzon does have some offensive abilities. Where the coaching staff used him mostly for defensive zone draws prior to that, they have been giving him more and more offensive starts lately, to the point where is starts are virtually even. Again, he trails only McAvoy in attempted shots on goal with 41 and shots on goal with 21 and Grzelcyk in percentage that get on goal with 51.2%.

MATT GRZELCYK Grade: B-

Playing in just one game in between two injuries has limited Grzelcyk to just six games on the season. Despite his size, we know what we get from him. Quick on his skates, retrieves pucks quickly and transitions even faster. Uses his positioning and his stick to defend well. His metrics across the board are very good and there is no denying that.

I know many people will question this grade but hear me out. Grzelcyk is suppose to be the guy to replace Krug on the point on the first powerplay unit. Six games just aren’t enough of a sample size to determine if he is that guy – yet. But if he is, then an A Grade is definitely on the horizon.

What we do know is Grzelcyk can sure pass and he can make smart plays. While he doesn’t posses the same kind of shot from the point that can beat a goaltender like Krug can, Grzelcyk shoots smartly. He likes to send pucks towards the goal and in just six games has directed 20 shots towards the net. A whopping 65% of those shots have reached the netminder. How good is that? Only one other defenceman is above 50% (Lauzon, 51.2%). Even McAvoy is firing at 46.4%.

That’s an important skill for a point man to have, especially since the Bruins appear to have found their permanent net front presence in Nick Ritchie. If Grzelcyk can come back and take the reigns and be effective on the powerplay, his grade can only go up.

BRANDON CARLO Grade: B

Carlo is quite simply one of the premier shut down defenders in the NHL. At 6’5” and over 210 pounds, he is a superb skater. Although he isn’t as physical as many fans want him to be, Carlo has some amazing strength that makes him a force in front of his goaltenders and a defender that the opposition doesn’t relish battling along the walls. He can go up against the oppositions best and paired with Lauzon on the penalty kill, form on of the better PK pairs in the NHL.

It’s noticeable that Carlo wants to be more involved in the offense and he has taken it upon himself to do just that. Carlo could very well surpass his career high of 19 points from a season ago, and do it in the shortened 56-game schedule.

Carlo has somewhat slowed that offensive down lately, largely due to the turnstile of partners he’s had, with little chance to get some chemistry going. He’s usually paired with Grzelcyk, but injuries have limited him to just 6 games. When the latter was out, it was with Clifton and then on what was a back-to-back situation, John Moore. And as mentioned, he is usually paired with Lauzon on the PK but also with Miller at times.

We fully expect that once Grzelcyk returns and Carlo gets a regular partner, that he will continue to push forward offensively.

JAKUB ZBORIL Grade: B-

Perhaps the growing pains are more evident in Zboril than any of the other d-men. And that is not a knock on him. He is the least experience of the group and the talent he possesses is clearly evident. But once in a while he might make you want to throw your remote through your 72” TV.  

Again, they were expected to happen. But if you can set them aside for a moment and look at the good things, then we should be happy with what we are seeing. It’s true that Cassidy is somewhat sheltering him with the most offensive zone starts on the blue line at 63.4%, but the coach is also trying to get him accustomed to the NHL at the same time. When Lauzon was serving his 5 plus 10 with his fight in New York, Cassidy had no hesitation in throwing Zboril out there to kill a penalty. It’s in him, but it is evident the coach wants to take it slowly.

Cassidy is also willing to use Zboril on the powerplay and eventually, Zboril might just excel at it. He has an excellent shot from the point but he definitely needs to work on getting it through. He’s third among the blueliners with 36 attempted shots on goal, but is a team worst 36.1% getting it on the net, either missing the target or having it blocked. It’s not a matter of if, but when he gets better at that, good things will happen for him.

In his own zone, he’s good at retrieving pucks and transitioning, makes a good first pass, but more importantly, he can skate out of danger. He’s learning how strong NHL players are as compared to AHL players, but that to will come and some of the misfortunes he’s had will become less and less frequent.

KEVAN MILLER Grade: B-

When General Manager Don Sweeney inked Miller to his contract there was an uproar through Bruins Nation. Many eyebrows were raised and many questions were asked. Why sign Miller before Chara? Why sign a player that has not played in almost two years? And more importantly, why sign a player that is coming off of two major knee surgeries?

Well, 14 games into the season things have changed, and might I add, dramatically. In a poll I conducted on Twitter with over 500 hundred votes, Miller was the overwhelming choice by fans as the 7th Player Award winner to date with over 40% of the vote. (He was followed by Nick Ritchie with 28%)

However, it’s more than just being able to skate in 14 games when there was doubt (in the minds of fans) that he could not just play quality hockey, but play at all. Miller can play both sides of the ice with little difference when on his weak side. We’ve seen it a lot when paired with McAvoy on the second pair killing penalties. He’s physical and hits hard, trailing only Lauzon in hits with 30.

He’s a guy the coaches can depend on to defend a one goal lead in the last minute. He wins his battles along the walls and is hard to move. As we saw against the Rangers, down a man and the Rangers goaltender pulled for an extra attacker, Miller on his off side paired with Carlo, ate up a lot of the time remaining on the clock buy keeping the puck along the boards behind the goal line.

Despite Miller’s superb work on the PK and in key defensive situations, he and his usual partner in Zboril are getting some sheltered starts from Coach Cassidy, with over 61% of the pair’s zone starts being in the offensive zone.

CONNOR CLIFTON Grade: B-

Cliffy Hockey, what can we say? If there is one player in the NHL that plays much bigger than 5’11” and 175 pounds, it’s Clifton. While Lauzon leads the team in hits, it’s actually Clifton that leads the squad in hits per game with 3.3. He plays physical, he can defend and he can skate. He’s pretty underrated in some circles as a puck carrier, but he can move the puck. And he will stand up for a teammate.

Clifton doesn’t get much specialty team time on ice. The coaching staff use him primarily in 5 on 5 situations, but when one of the other d-men are in the box, they have no hesitation in using him on the PK.

It’s hard to imagine that on many teams he wouldn’t be a starter in the top six. For now, he is the 7th defenseman on this squad who will see time when someone goes down with an injury or is in need of a break.

With Clifton what you see is what you get: 100% effort on every shift, accountability and determination. You couldn’t ask for more from a player in his spot.

John Moore was left off the list because one game just isn’t enough to grade him on, even though he had a very good first game of the season against the Islanders.

We’ve sometimes repetitively said there would be growing pains with this young defence. And there has been on any given night one guy is not at his best. What we haven’t seen is those growing pains as a group. When one is struggling, the other five pick up the slack, and that is part of the reason they sit 10-2-2 one-quarter of the way through the season.

4 Amigos Answer 5 Burning Training Camp Questions for the Boston Bruins

We’re a couple of days into the 2021 season training camp and for a change of pace, we got the amigos (KL, Dom Tiano, Anthony Kwetkowski and Reed Duthie) together to answer 5 questions about the Boston Bruins going into the new season.

1. What does the defense look like on opening night?

And that is the million-dollar question. I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to naming your number one defenceman, then number two, and so on. I prefer first pair, second pair and third pair.

The right-side seams to be set with Charlie McAvoy anchoring your first pair, Brandon Carlo the second pair and a healthy Kevan Miller on the third pair. All three can kill penalties but I think you’ll see Carlo and Miller get the bulk of that saving McAvoy for more 5 on 5 duty and powerplay time.

But where the questions on the blue line are is on the left side. I’d be tempted to try Jeremy Lauzon with McAvoy. It appears Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins brain trust are at least willing to give that a look on the first day of camp. Lauzon has shown he is a capable penalty killer.

Joining Carlo on the second pair would be Matt Grzelcyk. They’ve spent some time together and have shown some great chemistry when paired. Gryz can also kill penalties and like McAvoy, will be given powerplay minutes.

I think Jakub Zboril will be given every opportunity to grab that third pair minutes alongside Miller. Zboril can also kill penalties, but a bulk of that time should go to Lauzon and Grzelcyk. If he were to reach his potential, he could one day quarterback the powerplay. If Zboril falters, John Moore can fill that spot.

Each pair gives you a puck mover along with a guy capable of taking on the defensive responsibilities should his partner decide to “go with it.”- Dominic Tiano

No matter how promising young, unproven talent might be, coaches and general managers are in business to win hockey games, so you’ll likely see the NHL/pro veteran defenders get first crack at rotational play, with the less-experienced blue liners seeing more spot duty unless injuries or preseason play forces the staff to rethink the depth chart.

McAvoy is Boston’s top defender now, and he’ll be given every opportunity to log the top minutes in all situations and see where that leads. He’s ready to be an anchor, but the question remains as to how productive he will be both at even strength and on the power play. The left side of that top pairing is currently open, with fellow BU Terrier product Matt Grzelcyk an option, though the Charlestown native might be better suited to slot down to the second pairing if, as Dom mentioned (and the early practices have shown), the B’s want to give Lauzon’s defense-first approach with some bite/jam a chance out of the gate.

This is where the departures of Krug and Chara hurt the B’s in the short term, but another option could be to try Brandon Carlo on the left or his “off” side to give the team more experience and defensive acumen on that top pair with McAvoy, but it would probably mean that Kevan Miller would have to play on the second pair in Carlo’s spot on the right side with Grzelcyk- not ideal. Moore is the other defender with the most NHL experience, and while he’s a fan favorite whipping boy, he’s at least mobile and keeps things simple enough. I like the idea of a Moore-Miller third pairing or Moore-Connor Clifton duo.

Zboril and/or Urho Vaakanainen will likely have to break in more gradually and have their roles and time managed at least initially- both lack the experience to be the kind of player you can count on to play 15+ minutes a night right away, but you could see a revolving door of left-shot D moving in and out of the rotational pairings based on their game play and how practices go…at least until they prove they can or can’t play. The B’s have much riding on the success of both of Zboril and Vaakanainen, so now is the time for them to establish themselves as roster regulars.- Kirk Luedeke

Well, like Dom said above, isn’t this the million dollar question? I think there’s a lot of ways that this could play out, but using the benefit of training camp pairings, it would appear that Jeremy Lauzon could ride shotgun with Charlie McAvoy. I know, I know— but, but, but what about Grzelcyk?! Well, there’s definitely merit behind the idea of a Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing, especially when considering their mutual time at Boston University together. 

With that said, I’m still not sure that Grzelcyk is the long-term solution for Boston’s top defensive pairing. Yes, the metrics and underlying numbers grade heavily in their favor. However, I think Lauzon-McAvoy, which also carries short-sample size positives, is much more natural to what the Bruins need to replace. Zdeno Chara, Boston’s 14-year captain and top-pair defender, signed with Washington and left the reins to to McAvoy. Lauzon, 6’3”, has more size, reach and coverage than Grzelcyk. 

The dynamic of Lauzon-McAvoy, on paper, is much more similar to what McAvoy has been playing with since entering the NHL compared to that of Grzelcyk-McAvoy. With Lauzon as his partner, McAvoy can do his own thing as a two-way threat as the bigger, rangier, tougher Lauzon stays defense-first on the backend. 

The rest of the pairings would then fall into place as follows:

Lauzon-McAvoy

Grzelcyk-Carlo

Zboril-Clifton 

Again, there’s also some issues with this setup given that it doesn’t account for John Moore or newly resigned Kevan Miller. These are some obstacles that Bruce Cassidy will have to answer for himself one way or another. – Anthony Kwetkowski

With the changes over the off-season on to the Bruins defense corps and young players knocking on the door for spots, opening night will look different on the back end than any season in recent memory.

Lauzon – McAvoy: It’s Charlie McAvoy’s defense now and the now veteran rearguard picks up the 6’2’’ 196lbs rugged Jeremy Lauzon, it will take some time for McAvoy to adjust to a new regular partner and although Lauzon isn’t 6’9” he brings the same attitude to the defensive zone and will allow McAvoy to get up ice and contribute to 5-on-5 offense.

Grzelcyk – Carlo: Brandon Carlo is used to being the defensive minded member of his pair and now picks up the developing Matt Grzelcyk. Although Grzelcyk hasn’t been the offensive force that Torey Krug is, he is a better skater and advanced metrics have shown in a 3rd pairing role that he could likely handle more. Much like with Lauzon & McAvoy, Carlo’s defensive acumen and speed for his massive frame will allow the smooth skating Grzelcyk to get up ice 5-on-5.

Zboril – Miller: The maligned 2015 1st round pick teams up with a defender who’s missed 21 months due to injury. That could sound crazy, however, Jakub Zboril has found the chip on his shoulder and is using it as motivation. A revelation in Providence for the 2019-20 season, Zboril took that momentum and was the best defenceman in the Czech Extraliga to open up the season and looks ready to take on a serious NHL role. Kevan Miller meanwhile, is a warrior, coming back from injury in what’s been described as the best shape of his career, his size and physicality will be an asset in a sprint of a season, making life miserable for any who step past his blueline.- Reed Duthie

 2. Did the team do enough to shore up the forwards in the offseason?

I was happy about the Craig Smith signing and think he will fit in well. But when it comes to the forwards there are a lot of questions that can only be answered in time. How will the surgeries to David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand affect them? Can Jake DeBrusk finally find his consistency? Will Anders Bjork finally break out? Does father time slow down David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron? Will Ondrej Kase be Kase with a full camp in Boston? Jack Studnicka has proven he is ready for the NHL and will get his chance while Pastrnak is recovering, but can he stick on the roster for the full season and who comes out when No. 88 returns?

We don’t know what the taxi squad will look like, but how will guys like Trent Frederic or Zach Senyshyn handle it if the need arises to insert them into the lineup? Are they even going to be on the taxi squad?

In a best-case scenario, I think the forwards are fine, maybe even an improvement over last season. But it’s 2021 and if we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s to expect the unexpected.– D.T.

In a word, no. There isn’t enough depth and a safety net to counterbalance the significant changes in the defense, at least on paper.

Smith was the team’s marquee free agent signing and it evokes some memories of Steve Begin in 2009, after the B’s were coming off a great regular season only to lose in the second round of the playoffs. While Smith is not a direct comparison to Begin the player, but more to the situation in 2009, Smith is a good complementary winger and will provide a stable presence playing alongside Charlie Coyle. The Bruins are mainly counting on a few things to happen: Marchand’s hernia surgery to bring him back to 100%, Bergeron and Krejci to have another strong season without any major offensive fall-off (or injuries to test the thin depth chart), Kase to provide more production given his skill/shot and Studnicka to seamlessly slot into a top-six wing spot until Pastrnak returns to the lineup. If all of that happens, the Bruins will be fine. If not, there isn’t a lot of depth to bail them out. I’m not all that keen on Kase- I want to see results and production…in an admittedly small sample size, we haven’t gotten that from him. Don’t talk to me about potential- the B’s need scoring from Kase right now.

In getting back to Begin, the B’s took a big step back in 2009-10 and barely squeaked into the playoffs, upsetting Buffalo in R1 on the back of Rask before dropping the 3-0 lead in R2 to the Flyers. We all know what happened in 2011, but this offseason is reminiscent of that one- not much new talent in, but counting on the pieces in place to carry them for another year. Only thing is- the 2021 Bruins don’t have a still-in-his-prime Zdeno Chara on the back end to help cover up for deficiencies elsewhere.- K.L.

Contrary to what the doom and gloom brigade on Twitter has been saying for months now, I think the Bruins did well with forwards recently. No, they didn’t land a “big fish” like Taylor Hall or even Mike Hoffman, however, they landed exactly what they needed— enter Craig Smith. Being one of the top play-driving forwards at 5-on-5 in the entire NHL, Smith, 31, is exactly the kind of contagious forward that Boston needs. Smith is someone who has wheels, density and a killer shot. He’s a North-South forward and can play anywhere needed in the top-nine, though being the right-wing on the third-line is most ideal. 

Something the Bruins have been lacking recently, especially in the RTP bubble, is selfish players who want to shoot the puck. Smith is the type of player to take matters into his own hands and shoot from wherever he deems fit. This type of play and attitude will also be contagious amongst the younger Boston forwards like Bjork, DeBrusk, Studnicka and even Kase.

Speaking of Ondrej Kase, let’s not forget about him. Limited to a handful of games after being acquired for David Backes, Axel Andersson and a first-round pick, Kase is another play-driving winger who likes to shoot and generate offense. Like Smith, Kase is exactly the type of forward this team was missing. Unfortunately, he was injured before being acquired and then the COVID-19 shutdown kind of derailed the season for him. When he returned, he played rather well alongside Krejci and DeBrusk, but the numbers were never posted. 

Moving forward with a full season under his belt, I think Kase will be a great addition for the Bruins provided he can remain healthy. These two right-shot forwards are exactly what this team needed and I don’t think they’ve received nearly enough credit as roster additions. – A.K.

Much has been made about the Bruins chase of Taylor Hall or Mike Hoffman in the off-season, and while those are the “sexy” names that fans clamoured for, they already had more than enough up front to improve where the team needed it most, 5-on-5 offense. Ondrej Kase arriving last year from Anaheim will go a long way and has the track record of NHL offence with a previous 20 goal season and 30 goal pace season. Due to injury and illness we didn’t get to see the best of Kase in 19-20 but with a full camp next to David Krejci & Jake DeBrusk they should be able to build on the chemistry we saw really begin in the Carolina series.

Additionally, Craig Smith steps in as the major off-season acquisition from Nashville having averaged over 20 goals a season since the 13-14 campaign, with only two seasons below the 20 mark (16-17 and the pandemic shortened 19-20) over that time. Comparing to where the Bruins forward group was on opening night for the 19-20 season compared to the 2021 season, this year’s group is far, far improved.- R.D.

3. What is the next phase of Boston’s goaltending situation?

This is the hardest Bruins related question one could ask.

Both of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are unrestricted free agents after the season and will turn 34 and 36 years of age respectively. Rask certainly has more game in him if he wishes to sign an extension with the Bruins. It may be time to move on from Halak considering Dan Vladar will require waivers beginning with the 2021-22 season.

But it’s Jeremy Swayman who looks to have that future number 1 status. I would have said the same thing about Kyle Keyser, but injuries last season have derailed his development for the time being.

For the Bruins to have success in the blue paint for the short-term future, they absolutely need to lock Rask into an extension until Vladar or Swayman are ready. Otherwise, they may be forced to look at the free agent pool or seek a trade.– D.T.

The Rask and Halak tandem goes one more round this season and will likely see more rubber than they did in the previous two campaigns. The clock is ticking on both players. Rask will be 34 in March, but it looks like his workload will increase with the shortened season and travel schedule. Halak turns 36 in May, and is a capable player, though not a No. 1 as evidenced by the 2020 playoffs. Look for the Bruins keep one of their veterans in net with an extension, but not both going forward in 21-22.

Vladar was drafted with a third-round selection in 2015, and he’s gotten his development firmly on track after some early pro hiccups. Is he capable of being an NHL No. 1? He certainly looks the part with his size and has a pedigree for it, even though Swayman has enjoyed more consistent excellence at the lower levels. The B’s are probably hoping to groom either player as their future top option in net, but Keyser is the wild card who we hope can get back on track and playing again after regaining his health.- K.L.

Another interesting question with many moving parts, one of In thwhich is the outcome of this season. If the Bruins win it all this season, I could certainly see a situation where they’re heading into a rebuild-like era whether drastic or not. Given that Tuukka Rask is in the final year of his $7m AAV contract, I think Don Sweeney would be okay with moving on following ultimate victory. However, I think this is something that they’ll realistically face when they get to it this summer. 

Rask, who’s had his ups and downs in Boston including a recently opted out playoffs, has remained Boston’s go-to net minder for essentially the last decade. His backup, Jaroslav Halak, is also an aging player who’s on the back nine of his career. I think it makes sense for the Bruins to possibly explore having Rask back on short-term contracts if mutual interest is there. Otherwise, they’ll be turning to the system. 

Leading the professional charge in that regard is Dan Vladar— Providence’s standout goalie from last year. As someone who watched every game he played in, some multiple times, I can tell you he’s turned into a legitimate NHL prospect. Goalies are weird, man, you know? Vladar, selected in 2015 by Boston, is still in his prime developmental years for a goalie. He was also lights-out last year in Providence where he posted a 1.79 GAA and .936 SV% in 25 games. Vladar needs another full-year in Providence before we can fairly evaluate him further, but that might be tough. 

Provided that two of Providence’s top-four defenders and multiple top-nine forwards are slated to potentially be in Boston, the P-Bruins might have to ice a non-optimized roster in front of their netminder. This is going to be a weird season, but also a good one because we get to see Jeremy Swayman in Providence as well. Swayman is coming off an exceptional year playing for UMaine in the NCAA. He has been the back bone of the Black Bears while playing behind a shoddy defense and structure. 

Swayman, in my opinion, is as legitimate a number one goalie prospect as anyone else around the league. He’s tall, lanky, athletic and skilled. Swayman is a competitor and capable of making the tough and easy saves— all night long. I think Swayman is going to be the future of Boston goaltending in a few years from now. Another intriguing prospect is Kyle Keyser, currently shaking off some post-injury rust in the ECHL this season. 

Keyser is a prospect that Dom, is very familiar with and high on after following him extensively throughout his OHL career. That said, although Keyser has struggled with injuries and concussions, I also believe he has the skill set and intangibles of a number one goalie. Unfortunately, he’s had some bad luck and will take more time than probably anticipated. Let’s see how he does this year seeing a ton of rubber in the ECHL and Providence next year. – A.K.

With the Tuukka Rask & Jaroslav Halak aging, the question of where will the Bruins go in net has loomed large.

Digging in to the future of the crease, the Bruins appear to be in solid shape. Despite an ugly outing in his emergency NHL debut, Dan Vladar has been incredible over the last year sporting a 1.79 GAA / .936 SV% with 3 shutouts over 25 games with Providence last season, Vladar continued his momentum in the Czech Extraliga to open this season with an eye-popping 1.29 GAA / .965 SV% over 6 starts for Dynamo Pardubice before returning to Boston. With another season at the professional level under his belt the towering Czech keeper of the crease will be ready for the NHL jump, likely serving as backup to Tuukka Rask in 2021-22. Meanwhile, behind Vladar, NCAA star Jeremy Swayman will step into a major role in Providence, coming off a year which saw him garner a laundry list of accolades including the Mike Richter award as the NCAA’s top goaltender. Finally- Kyle Keyser, who actually might be the most naturally talented of the trio, appears to have put concussions problems behind and the former Oshawa General who has stolen not just games but playoff series at the junior level looks prepared to start his pro ascent.- R.D.

4. How will key departures (Chara, Krug) and injuries (Pastrnak) impact the team in the immediate and longer-terms?

Short term, I think they will all hurt. Especially Pastrnak and Torey Krug on the powerplay. And if Pastrnak doesn’t come back 100%, that’ll really hurt.

Zdeno Chara I am torn on. I think the transition game will improve as a team without him. Certainly, everyone is questioning how much their defence will hurt without him. With the defensive system the Bruins deploy, I think eventually it will be fine, but there will be growing pains and there will be nights Rask and Halak will have to bail them out. Where it will hurt the most is on the penalty kill. No one can replace the wingspan of Chara’s to be able to take away passing lanes with little movement. Miller can replace some of the net front strength required on the PK and Carlo will really need to step up that part of his game. But let’s face reality, there is no one like Chara in the NHL who can match up physically with anyone the way he can.

Krug’s departure will hurt in both transition and the powerplay. His ability to transition by either skating or making a great first pass will surely be missed, as well as his vision and how he can process the game quickly. McAvoy will surely further develop those things and Grzelcyk will be asked to take on a bigger role. Gryz will also turn 27 on January 5th so there isn’t much room for development at that stage. Whether the tools he possesses for the expanded role are enough to take up some of the slack is yet to be determined.

The departure of Krug and Chara also means the leadership will take a hit. I believe there are enough leaders in the group that in time, they can overcome that. Many of the players on the roster learned from one of the greatest captains in the history of the game and what it takes to be a great teammate and leader. They won’t forget that overnight.– D.T.

The Bruins lost a lot of experience and production (especially on the PP) with the key departures on defense, and Pastrnak is one of the NHL’s best young players under 25, and would have been Boston’s first 50-goal scorer since Cam Neely in 1994 if not for the season being paused when it was. Replacing his production (especially on the PP) won’t be easy, so fans should be ready for it.

The B’s will need top-shelf performances from the goaltending- Rask and Halak will almost certainly see an increase in volume shots on goal and shot quality as well, so they will need to hold the fort. The Boston forwards are experienced enough to counter the weaker defense, but this isn’t a team that can win a lot of games if they become track meets, so key to Boston’s success will be in the coaching staff managing the players and getting the most out of the lineup while handling the various in-game situations and adjustments appropriately to mitigate the losses until Pastrnak returns and some of the younger players in the lineup can get their feet under them. Tall order, but the B’s are still a good team, even with the departures. Good teams don’t win the Stanley Cup, however…great teams do. – K.L.

In the present, I think the departures of Chara and Krug will have an impact that’s both good and bad. For sake of readability and time, please forgive my brevity when discussing the departure of the 14-year captain, but I think we’re going to see younger players on the roster respond by bringing energy and providing some sparks. 

Players like McAvoy, Carlo and Grzelcyk have already been here for several years behind Chara and will know that they need to turn it up a notch without him. Lauzon, who was around last year, will now be tasked with the bearing the weight of “replacing” Chara in some capacity as well. This is a good thing for someone like Lauzon as he’s got a natural chip on his shoulder as it is. Jakub Zboril, who’s had his ups and downs, also falls into the same category. 

The same goes for Torey Krug, as McAvoy and Grzelcyk will look to replace his offense from the backend at both even strength and the power play. Granted it won’t be as easy as it sounds, replacing someone like Krug that is, but the Bruins still have plenty of talent around to make it work. Even if things are a little different, I think there’s potential for newer structures and game plans that emphasizes the youth and in some cases, more size on the roster.

On the flip side, the loss of Chara and Krug will definitely be felt. We’re going to see more mistakes and growing pains from the younger defensive core. We’re going to see nights where this team is outmatched and overpowered. Replacing the 14-year captain on top of the longtime PP QB is quite the task, even if the Bruins have plenty of talent to step in and take the next step.– A.K.

The departures for the Bruins will have an effect in both the immediate and long-term but it may not all be negative. While the majority of Bruins fans will agree its not the way they would have liked to see Zdeno Chara leave the Bruins and there will be a learning curve for the young defenders, it creates a massive opportunity for the likes of Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, etc. to step forward and make their claim to an NHL spot. Torey Krug will be the hardest to replace, his ability to QB the PP and move the puck isn’t obviously replaced by any member of the current Bruins defense group, but the additions of players like Ondrej Kase & Craig Smith should up the 5-on-5 offense for the team, hopefully covering for the loss of Krug in a different fashion. The injury to David Pastrnak is another potential opportunity, although the Bruins lose their leading goal-scorer, even for a short length of time, it does allow Jack Studnicka to step to the Bergeron line and potentially begin to realize some of his massive potential at the NHL level and in a long-term thought, allow the Bruins to see the type of player they can hopefully build around for years to come.- R.D.

5. Who will be the surprise performers who elevate themselves early and earn an opportunity to contribute right away?

I’m going to pick a defenceman and a forward here.

On defence I am going with Lauzon. He got a taste of the NHL and I believe the Bruins brass really like him. At camp, he was given the first opportunity on the top pair with McAvoy and if he sticks to his game, he can succeed there. The only question I have is whether he can sustain it over a condensed 56-game season. It’s probably too much to ask.

Up front I am going with everyone’s choice to replace Pastrnak while he recovers – Jack Studnicka. I think Studnicka is going to make it extremely difficult to take him out of the lineup once Pastrnak returns and an even more difficult decision on who to take out of the lineup. I’ll go out on a limb and say Studnicka even gets some Calder votes. He won’t win it, but he’ll get some votes.– D.T.

I would like to see John Moore emerge as a solid middle-of-the-roster option, as he’s been much-maligned since signing with the Bruins in 2018. The former first-round pick in 2009 has over 500 games of NHL experience, can wheel and is a better player than he’s gotten credit for. His $2.75M cap hit through 2023 is a reasonable figure for what he can provide and the feeling here is that with a bigger role, he can take some of the pressure off the younger players at least in the short term. No one is ever going to confuse him with Chara or Krug with the impact he’s likely to make, but this team needs Moore to be a stabilizing presence right off the bat. Whether retrieving pucks and moving them up and out in quick transition or keeping it simple defensively, if he does that, fans might gain a new appreciation for him. Of course, there is always that segment of folks who aren’t going to like Moore no matter what he does, and that’s the world we live in.- K.L.

Players to step up and make an impact immediately this season include Bjork, Studnicka, Kase, Frederic and Lauzon. I think Studnicka is ready and able to contribute right now whether he’s at wing or center. The dynamic, Jack of all trades type (see what I did there?) forward is exactly the type of player Bruins fans have wanted to see for years now. He’s finally going to get his shot and it’s well deserved to boot. 

Trent Frederic saw time in the NHL with Boston, but not after his excellent run he went on towards the end of the year in Providence. Frederic is faster, more agile and aggressive than he was during that ~15-game sample we saw him in. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and I think he’s the type of player to really own the moment and do whatever it takes to stick around this season. – A.K.

In looking at a player who will surprise and take the next step for the Bruins, I believe Jakub Zboril will be a breakout player. Long known as a great skater through his junior career Zboril is also an underappreciated puck mover having led the Czech Republic in scoring at the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship and posting 41 points in 50 games in his last season in the QMJHL, Zboril became more of a defensive player at the pro level. Growing into and learning how to use his now 6’1” 196lbs frame took time but the always mean Czech defender appears to have figured that part of his game out and has grown into his skill set. Taking a big step forward as a top defenceman in the AHL a season ago and opening this season as the best defenceman in the Czech Extraliga, it appears the mountain sized chip on Zboril’s shoulder is working in his favour and now looks to be an imposing figure on the Bruins blueline who is right on the cusp of a breakout at the NHL level. – R.D. 

Bruins Playoff Roster Quick Hits: Defense

Grizzy draft

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston’s third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

We’re back with notes and thoughts on the defensemen on the Boston Bruins playoff roster.

Practices are back underway and we’re getting input from multiple sources in attendance, plus our own analysis and even gut feelings about how things will play out when the round robin commences against Philadelphia on August 2.

We’ll continue with a look at the forwards tomorrow. -KL

Brandon Carlo- The first of three second-round picks in the 2015 draft is the most accomplished, having broken into the NHL at the tender age of 19 and now established as a proven defender with size, mobility and reach to keep opponents away from the prime scoring areas. The Colorado native keeps it simple, and he’ll never be a threat to the memory of Bobby Orr, but he’s highly effective and trusted in key defensive situations. He suffered a concussion just before the season got paused, so the B’s are getting Carlo when he’s healthy and clear-headed.

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Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

 

Zdeno Chara- Entering his 11th playoff season with the Bruins (he’s missed the dance just 3 times since he signed 14 years ago: 2007, 2015 and 2016), the captain is long in the tooth at age 43, but the time off just may have done wonders for his ageless machine. Always in tip-top shape, Chara is not dealing with the typical fatigue and body challenges that he faces as the league’s elder statesman. Now, the future Hall of Famer enters his 15th postseason, he’s rested and will likely have much more jump in his legs than we’re used to seeing each spring.

Even though he’s nowhere near the two-way defender he was in his prime and even 2013, when he established a career-best 15 postseason points at age 36, Chara’s experience, leadership and hardcore mindset make him an important asset for Boston’s blue line.

Connor Clifton- The 25-year old Arizona castoff who emerged a year ago in Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup final played in just 31 regular season games as he battled injuries, but he plays with speed, pace and bite. Although he’s under 6-foot in height, he’s always been a physical defender at every level, looking to level kill shots in open ice and playing like he was born with a chip on his shoulder. Because of his style and lack of natural size/thickness, he’s going to spend time on the IR, but Clifton provides superb depth for the B’s, and come playoff time, he elevates his game as his hypercompetitive drive kicks into high gear.

Matt Grzelcyk- Coming off a career-high 68 regular season games and 21 points, the Charlestown native and former Belmont Hill and BU star keeps getting better in the NHL. Always an elite skater, he’s gotten more adept at using his speed and smarts defensively, while building on his natural strength of moving pucks quickly out of his own end and being a big boon to the transition game. Grzelcyk has proven himself as a smaller D who provides a different dimension than Torey Krug does for the club, but the two have opened a lot of eyes around the league about the effectiveness they bring while not being carbon copies of one another. Grzelcyk’s success and emergence make him a potential expansion draft casualty a year from now, but after a solid 2019 postseason, he’s primed to have another big spring.

Boston Bruins v New York Rangers - Game Four

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 23: Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins looks on against the New York Rangers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 23, 2013 in New York City. The Rangers won 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Torey Krug- He would’ve been one of the big free agent prizes on July 1st, but the Bruins still have No. 47 on the roster for one more run after he came up short (no pun intended) in two final series appearances as a rookie in 2013 and a year ago. A badger on skates, Krug was denied a fourth consecutive 50+ point season with the pause, but with 49 in 61 games is still one of the top offensive blue liners in pro hockey and a registered lethal weapon with the man advantage. He’s got a cannon of a shot and always has his head up, looking to thread pucks through traffic to teammates in prime scoring areas. It has become vogue to knock Krug’s defensive play, but that’s a lazy argument that does not take into account his experience or smart stick and genuine drive to prove the doubters wrong. True, he won’t match up 1-on-1 the way his D partner Carlo does, but the beauty of it is- he doesn’t have to.

There’s a lot of talk that Krug won’t be wearing a spoked B when the next season kicks off, but for now- he’s fully on board for one last hurrah if that’s what it will be. Those of us who have watched him flourish and grow after being the best college free agent signing of the decade eight years ago tend to believe that the B’s will find a way to bring him back into the fold, but if it is not to be, then Krug will be at his best for this playoffs.

Jeremy Lauzon- One of two defenders drafted in 2015’s second round (Carlo), Lauzon is on the verge of stepping out and into a full-time NHL role going forward. He has been paired with Grzelcyk on the team’s second day of return to play camp, and he’s a good partner for the smaller, more fleet-of-foot veteran. Lauzon can skate and defend and embraces the physical side of things, though he’s not as mobile or skilled as Grzelcyk. He can move pucks effectively enough, but has enough jam to balance the pairing.

Lauzon isn’t going to put up a lot of points, but he’s a smart, capable player who is versatile enough to chip in with a timely goal or assist, but is more valuable as a hard-to-play against defender who led the 2015-16 Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to a .776 regular season winning percentage and captured the QMJHL championship and a Memorial Cup run. He’s a winner.

McAvoy2

Charlie McAvoy- Okay, we’re just going to say it: McAvoy is Boston’s best defenseman. He might not be that guy fully completely (to coin a phrase from the Tragically Hip- RIP Gord Downie) but he’s getting there fast. Granted, the critics- and there are a few out there- will point to McAvoy’s lack of high-end production, low contribution to the PP and turnovers as reasons that he’s not a top NHL defender, but we disagree. At age 22, McAvoy is far from a finished product, and we have 100% confidence that he will develop into a franchise cornerstone in the not very distant future. He’s no Ray Bourque, but in the modern age of hockey, he’s a perfect fit as a top 2-way defender because he can motor, has excellent vision but most importantly- has the aggressive mindset to make plays at both ends of the rink. Yes, he’ll push the envelope at times and turn pucks over, but coaches would much rather tame a wild colt than try to paint stripes on a pussycat. McAvoy is a tiger and we think he’s the one x factor on this blue line who could emerge in dramatic fashion this spring.

He’s the one the Bruins are going to have to invest in when his contract is up and he’ll be worth it. The fun part will be in watching him get there, and we’ll all have to take the good with the bad. The good will far outweigh the negatives- we’re positive that’s true. He does so many of the things you just can’t teach, and when you watch the dynamic plays he makes out there that may not look like much at first glance, you realize the B’s have something special on their hands. Brilliant pick at 14th- he’s so much better than most thought he’d be and the best part of all is that he’s only getting better.

John Moore- It’s been a tough couple of seasons for the player the B’s signed at term (five years) and value ($2.75M cap hit) to perhaps mitigate future losses to expansion while rolling the dice on him hitting an extra gear as he entered his prime. So far, that plan has not come to fruition. The former 21st overall pick in 2009 is already with his fifth NHL team and is one of those players who typically gets traded a lot over the course of a pro career: he brings enough value to be wanted, but isn’t impactful enough to be a core guy who establishes himself in one location. He played his best hockey with the moribund New Jersey Devils before signing- a good player on a bad team. Since signing in Boston, Moore hasn’t been able to carve a niche for himself on the B’s blue line and had an injury-plagued 19-20 campaign. He’s good depth at this point, but with his cap hit and others at much lower cap figures like Clifton and Lauzon on the roster, Moore’s future with the B’s is uncertain.

Urho Vaakanainen- The first-round pick in 2017 didn’t have the greatest season in Providence, but will benefit from being around the team for the playoffs and practicing/being immersed in the culture. A mobile, defense-first player, he’s more of a high-floor type, and hopefully, he can overcome the setbacks of an elbow to the face by Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki in 2018-19, and a lackluster 2019-20 campaign to take steps forward in his third North American pro season. It will be interesting to compare his poise and presence at the practices with that of fellow rookie Jakub Zboril.

Jakub Zboril- Boston’s first selection in 2015 has been passed by Carlo and Lauzon, but we’re still holding out hope that he can make the Boston roster in 20-21. With his size and skill package, Zboril is coming off of his most consistent and successful AHL season with Providence. Being around the Bruins as a black ace and extra will set the conditions for him to finally take that next step, but if not, there is probably another team out there willing to give him a shot. Still, given Boston’s time, energy and patience invested, we’d like to see it work out with Zboril in the Black and Gold. He’s not the player they hoped for, but he can still be a serviceable depth guy.

 

Best and Worst Bruins Draft Picks 1-30; 1963-2019

Thornton

I recently posted this to the Bruins sub-Reddit- and thought it deserved a place on my blog.

Took a swing at the Boston Bruins historical draft choices, analyzing the team’s selections since the NHL implemented a rudimentary draft system 56 years ago. Bear in mind that in the pre-1969 years, the draft was different- starting in 1963 thru 1978 it was called the amateur draft before changing to the NHL Entry Draft in 1979 when the teams were allowed to draft 18-year-olds. With fewer teams in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s, selections outside of 10-20 were 2nd round or later, but for purpose of exercise, I’m going to look at picks 1-30 and call it like I see it.

I’m bucking convention by starting out with 1st overall and work up to 30- in a lot of cases, the early selections for the B’s have not been kind, but in full context- most of the time the team was picking 3-7, it came in the days before the current draft system. And because the B’s had made the playoffs from 1968-97, unless they owned bad teams’ 1st rounders, they rarely got a chance to pick inside the top-10 during that time frame.

1- Best: Joe Thornton, 1997: 1st ballot HHOFer- nuf ced; Trading him opened the door for Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard to join the B’s in 2006, but he’s been everything Jumbo Joe was projected to be as a teen titan with the Soo Greyhounds in 1997. He just turned 40 in July, which, given the shaggy, golden-locked kid who showed up in Boston 22 years ago at not quite 18, seems impossible to square with the grizzled graybeard who has been with the San Jose Sharks for nearly a decade and a half.

Worst: Barry Gibbs, 1966: Journeyman defenseman. He at least played in the NHL to the tune of 796 career games, most of them not with the Bruins. However, Gibbs leads the No. 1 overall bust hit parade not because of what he did, but because of the player who was selected right behind him at No. 2 in ’66 by the NY Rangers. Wait for it…Brad Park. Can you imagine Bobby Orr and Brad Park together on the Boston blue line? It actually happened for a handful of games right before Orr left for the Windy City, but had they been able to play together in their primes, we’re talking at least 2 more Stanley Cups in that era. Yikes. (H/T to Reddit user Timeless_Watch for pointing this out- I moved Kluzak down to HM)

HM: Gord Kluzak, 1982: Oh what could have been? What if…B’s had drafted Brian Bellows or Scott Stevens there instead of Kluzak? Kluzak had knee injuries in junior hockey days and then got blown up in his 2nd NHL season- without the technology to repair knees that we have today, it doomed him to being day-to-day for the rest of his career and an early retirement. He should have been a long-tenured NHL defenseman, but it didn’t happen for him, and unfortunately, he’s more of a footnote in Bruins lore, which is unfortunate.

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Meet me in St. Louie, Louie…B’s blow ’em out 7-2

14 down, 2 wins to go.

The Boston Bruins sandwiched dominant wins between an OT loss in games 1-3 of the Stanley Cup final series, smashing the home St. Louis Blues by a 7-2 score Saturday, including 4 power play goals, a first with Torey Krug’s 4-point night- the only time a Bruin has tallied that number in a final game, and another top effort in net from Tuukka Rask.

Krug has been unbelievable in the playoffs, as has been Rask. I’s ironic that the two most polarizing players for Bruins fans are the ones who are the most deserving of Conn Smythe consideration should the B’s close the deal- and remember- 14 wins doesn’t win squat. Krug has been a man on a mission- always a player motivated by doubters and skeptics who just look at his smaller size and make judgments about his ability to be an impact NHL D. The same people who give big, mobile defensemen who are complete and total liabilities with the puck on their stick have little to no time for Krug, but his play has been so good this postseason, that even the most obtuse of haters out there have no choice but to be silent. It’s been great to see. Ditto Rask. He’s a world class talent in net who hasn’t always played like it, but to his complete and total credit- he’s thus far taken his game to the highest level, and that’s the difference.

Now, on to some other observations about Game 3…

The B’s got the scoring going when Patrice Bergeron tipped home a textbook point shot from Krug, the first of four man advantage strikes. In fact, the B’s logged just 2:06 on the four power plays they had, because they scored on a perfect 4 of 4 shots- 3 surrendered by Jordan Binnington and one final PPG given up by Jake Allen to Marcus Johansson late in the game.

The Blues have a problem. They don’t have the talent to match the Bruins player-for-player, nor do they have the experience this B’s club has. So, they have to play a tough, physical game- but the Blues were running around trying to level kill shots all night, and the end result was catastrophic for them: they can’t hit and intimidate if they cross the line and go to the box, because Boston’s lethal power play will absolutely make them pay…and it has, with PP goals in every game thus far. Game 3’s special teams play for the B’s was sublime, though- they became the first NHL playoff team to tally 4 power play markers in the SCF since the Colorado Avalanche did it against John Vanbiesbrouck and the Florida Panthers in 1996. For perspective, Charlie McAvoy was still over a year away from being born when that happened. The Boston PKers did surrender their first power play goal to the Blues in the series- a shot that hit Brandon Carlo and deflected in (both goals against Rask ticked in off the bodies/skates of B’s D).

With Matt Grzelcyk out of action thanks to a head hit from Oskar Sundqvist (suspended for Game 3), John Moore was next man up and played well. Although he’s been criticized for not having the anticipated impact when Don Sweeney signed him last July, Moore perfectly illustrates the disparity in depth the B’s enjoy over their Western Conference counterparts. Moore kept it simple and used his mobility to good effect, playing a strong defense-first game. The B’s are likely to be without Grzelcyk for the remainder of the series and Kevan Miller is done as well- yet the team’s D remains capable and up to the task.

Although Brad Marchand has yet to get untracked offensively in this series (and he was atrocious in Boston’s 3-2 OT loss in Game 2), Bergeron and David Pastrnak had nice bounce-back games.

But it is Boston’s third and fourth lines that have been the difference and exposed the disparity in depth between the clubs. After Charlie Coyle buried a perfect Johansson pass (secondary assist to Danton Heinen, who had his best game of the series) for his eighth goal of the postseason to make it 2-0, Sean “Clutch” Kuraly stunned the home crowd with a five-hole shot with just 8 seconds or so left in the opening frame to give the B’s a 3-0 lead. Kudos to Joakim Nordstrom, who, though entered the zone ahead of the puck, was not ruled offside because Blues D Joel Edmundson (man, has he been bad this series…P.U.!!!) carried it in…took it away from Edmundson and kicked it to Kuraly who trailed the play and buried the shot.

Blues hero Binnington was grody in Game 3…giving up 5 goals on 19 shots before getting the hook. He’s been beatable this series and isn’t playing with the kind of lights-out mentality that his team needs right now. Allen went in after Krug’s power play marker made it 5-1, but the B’s didn’t get much going in terms of shots until later on in the affair.

Noel Acciari even got into the scoring act- scoring the sixth goal into an empty net. He’s got one more goal in this series than does Blues sniper Jaden Schwartz…just saying. Ryan O’Reilly…sleeping giant? Let him sleep.

Overall, it was a statement game from the Bruins- on paper, we all know they are the better team. Saturday night at the Enterprise Center, they went out and proved it.

Bruins in their 3rd Stanley Cup Final since 2011

The Boston Bruins are back to playing for Lord Stanley’s glittering prize- they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 for the first NHL championship parade in Boston since 1972, came up short in 2013 against the Chicago Blackhawks and now join the Windy City team as the only the second team this decade to reach the SCF three times.

How did we get here?

Tampa Bay and Washington both flamed out in the first round, opening the door for the B’s (or as old Blue Eyes used to croon “Luck be a lady tonight…”) to handily defeat Columbus and Carolina after battling it out with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a second consecutive 1st-round seven-game barn-burner of a series. Out West, wagons like Calgary and 2018 SCF runner-up Vegas were knocked out in the first round as well. Not a bad draw when all is said and done, but no matter who you have to play- winning a championship is never easy.

Now, onto some thoughts on the players:

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Bruins are out…what’s next? (Part 1)

For the sixth time in as many games in the Boston Bruins-Ottawa Senators 2017 NHL playoff series, the contest was decided by just one goal, and went to overtime for the fourth occasion. Unfortunately for the B’s and their faithful, an untimely David Pastrnak penalty (and it was a penalty, even though the men in stripes once again open themselves up to criticism by not calling other similar infractions in OT) opened the door for the Senators to send them home.

Given the tumultuous season that ultimately ended in what we feel is positive fashion despite the disappointing outcome (the B’s lost all three of its home games), there are reasons for fans to be optimistic about the organization going forward. Here are a few story lines to keep an eye on as the B’s made the postseason for the first time in Don Sweeney’s tenure as GM, and gave the Senators all they could handle. Some bounces here and there, and perhaps a little more consistency in the officiating, and who knows? Maybe the team could’ve pulled off an upset, but we see more reasons to  be positive than negative given where things stood in early February when Claude Julien was fired.

This post will focus on Bruce Cassidy and Charlie McAvoy as the team clears out lockers and begins the offseason. Other parts will look at different topics rather  than generate one gigantic 4,000-word (or more) post. Yes, the posts have been more and more infrequent- what can we tell you- professional and personal life has intervened and this is a side project. As always- appreciate the support of this blog.

Now, for the first in a series of “calling it like we see it” posts about the Bruins and where they go from here:

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McAvoy, JFK in the Bruins’ fold…Bjork is on deck

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UPDATE: 14 April 2017

Editor’s note- The Anders Bjork watch continues more than a week after the Fighting Irish were eliminated by the eventual NCAA champion Denver University Pioneers. What can we say? Our optimistic outlook was based on a reliable source, but also illustrates the fluid situation and challenges involved in signing young players to NHL contracts. We’re not completely closing the door on Bjork reaching an agreement to turn pro and forego his senior season in South Bend, but each day that passes without an agreement looks less favorable to an ELC. We’ll see, but once again- we learn an important lesson about information and perhaps value in sitting on things to let them percolate before we contribute to hopes being built up. The information we received was accurate, but things changed, beginning with  the Irish overachieving and going far deeper in the NCAA tourney than expected, not to mention the bad luck of the NHL’s regular season ending so soon after Notre Dame was eliminated. We have no further updates, so we’ll have to see how it all plays out. We’re leaving the original post as is- we stand by our source and will chalk this one up to an evolving situation that perhaps changed due to other factors that intervened in what was believed to be a solid course of action for player to turn pro.

The one-and-done 80’s alt-pop band Timbuk3 sang about the future being so bright- they had to wear shades. Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney might be having similar sentiments after he got ink to paper for two of his club’s top prospects this past week in a pair of Boston University studs- defenseman Charlie McAvoy and center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson or “JFK” as he is more popularly known.

Now, with the University of Notre Dame preparing to take on Denver University on Thursday night in one of two NCAA Frozen Four semifinal games, junior winger Anders Bjork is expected to be the third and final domino to fall in terms of new blood coming to the Bruins. Reliable sources (some of the same ones who told TSP several weeks ago that JFK was leaning towards coming out/turning pro) have told us that Bjork essentially has a deal with Boston in place pending his NCAA team’s status. Obviously, if the Irish beat the Pioneers- he’ll keep playing. The college championship/big enchilada is on Saturday night, the same day Boston would play their final regular season game, so whether Bjork is seen this season or makes his NHL debut in the 2017 playoffs (B’s still have work to do on that front) or next season remains to be seen. But, for those fans who watched the Jimmy Vesey saga last spring, it would appear that the B’s don’t have to worry about that, as arguably one of the best NCAA players in the country in Bjork- will leave school a year early to turn pro with the team that drafted him in the fifth round three years ago.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the signings and what each player might do for the Black and Gold:

Charlie McAvoy, RD

As reported a week ago Sunday by your TSP founder, McAvoy was the first of the dominoes to fall- he signed an amateur tryout (ATO) to turn pro with the Providence Bruins, and has already made a positive impression in two AHL games, registering an assist in each contest.

Amidst speculation that there might have been a wink-and-handshake NHL option included in the offer to get McAvoy to come out after two years at BU, the feeling on this blog all along was that the 19-year-old and 14th overall pick in last June’s NHL draft is ready for the show right now. There is always a segment of folks who believe that minor league seasoning is the smart play, and there is probably higher than average concern about losing a year off of the entry-level contracts of any one of the three NCAA prospects featured in this post. While you can’t dismiss that business-centric aspect of the signings, there’s probably more concern than warranted. Sure, a player like McAvoy incurs some risk by being one year closer to restricted free agency as a result of playing one or two games at the end of a season, but if the B’s were to make the postseason and McAvoy were to play or at least be around the team to practice with the veterans and work out with the NHL club while being subjected to the higher-intensity atmosphere of the postseason, that would in itself carry enough of a benefit to at least make a worthy case to “burn” the year off the ELC. For some, it won’t matter, but at the end of the day- fans sitting behind computers aren’t going to impact the decision process- Bruins management will ultimately weigh the cost/benefits and make that decision.

In McAvoy, the B’s are getting a skilled right-shot defender who can play with pace and move the puck better than just about anyone on the team right now not named Torey Krug. He’s an aggressive offense-minded player who still has a good bit to learn defensively, but the B’s have enough vanilla shutdown guys that can protect him when he goes into riverboat gambler mode and is deep in the offensive zone trying to force the play. He’s a fun kid who has a magnetic personality and will likely add to the dressing room dynamic with his good nature and ability to keep things loose. His U.S. National Team coach, Don Granato, told us at the draft last June that other players tend to gravitate to C-Mac- they want to be a part of his circle and he’s a guy who knows when to dial it in and get down to business. He has the potential to come into the Boston room and thrive under some of the veteran players on defense and up front.

Simply put- while he’s a still a bit of a wild young colt, you don’t want to clamp the reins on him- McAvoy’s pure skill and big play ability (check out his overtime goal vs. North Dakota or highlights from the gold medal WJC game vs. Canada) have a better chance at helping the Bruins now than hurting them. Sure- keeping him in Providence is the safe play, but I don’t know if playing it safe makes the most sense with a potential high-ender like this guy. We’ve seen a lot of talk about him being “ruined” or his confidence “damaged” by getting a shot at the NHL, but enough with the coddling- if you know even a little about McAvoy, he’s the type of guy who will benefit from the experience, even if there are some rocky moments for him.

We think he’s ready and that he’ll make his Boston debut soon.

JFK

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, RC

When the B’s announced that he signed and would join the big club for the 2016-17 on Sunday evening, it ended the “will he/won’t he” drama that had been circulating around Boston since BU’s season ended a week ago Saturday at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth.

JFK could just as easily have gone back to BU for his junior year, where there’s a good chance he would have been the captain and could have taken his production to another level. We’re sure Coach Quinn and the BU Terriers wish that were the case- he’s a serious student and we hear that his family wanted him to get a little closer to his degree with another year in school.

Ultimately, however, the Bruins felt that the slick Swede’s time was now and made a final, aggressive push to sign him on Friday, meeting with him and obviously convincing the 45th overall selection in 2015 to make the pro plunge. We had reported several weeks ago that he was leaning towards turning pro, but like many youngsters, that sentiment had gone back and forth, with it looking more and more in recent days that he would stay in school- give credit to the Bruins for getting their guy, and fans will get a good lesson in the idea that if you feel strongly enough about a player, then close the deal. Anything could happen if JFK had gone back to school for another year, so the signing makes a lot of sense.

He’s been repeatedly compared to Patrice Bergeron, and like Boston’s star and longest-tenured player, he’s not a dynamic type who is going to pull you out of your seat. However, if you love the game of hockey, you will be drawn to the details in his game- the smart stick and vision; the ability to change gears and match the tempo of play; the ability to play effectively in all zones. He’s not zooming up the ice with his hair on fire, but if you stop and look closely at what he’s doing, he’s disrupting opposition breakouts by being in the right place and getting his stick into passing lanes; in the faceoff dot, he’s winning far more draws than not and in key situations both offensively and defensively; he’s aiding clean zone entries with on-target passes or gaining the blue line himself with shifty, but controlled movements with the puck to evade defenders and force opponents off their spots with his agility. JFK is also known for popping in big goals or making money passes for scores when his team needs it most. Yes, he didn’t put up dominant scoring totals at BU, but then again, neither did Bergeron when he was with the Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL.

Questioning whether JFK is ready to come in and make more positive plays than negative ones in the NHL is a fair one, and there is always an element of risk to putting in younger players in pressure-packed situations, but at the same time- if there is one player who has the mature, refined game and temperament to do it, then this centerman is it. His Omaha (USHL) coach told us at a team dinner last night as the news of JFK’s signing broke that his pulse/emotions are always in the green- he’s as cool as ice and that shouldn’t be mistaken for being laid back or having no pulse, but that he brings a relentless kind of steady state to his performance in that you’re getting the same level of execution and production, regardless of the situation. Earlier in his junior career, some questioned his sense of urgency, but JFK has answered that in definitive fashion with his two years at BU.

Now, the fun begins- we’ll have to wait for him to get his work visa stuff straightened out and see where Coach Bruce Cassidy (note to reader- this is a more formal way of saying, don’t ask us when he’s going to play or where he’ll slot into the Bosotn lineup) has him on the lines at practice, but getting JFK signed and in the fold was a major step- the payoff might not be that far behind.

Again, don’t fixate on the numbers- there’s not always a direct correlation between scoring at the lower level and to the NHL. There’s a good chance JFK isn’t going to be a big point-getter at the NHL level, but it’s not always about the pure production. If he’s value-added with his versatility and ability to play any role in key situations, that in itself is a big reward.

Anders Bjork, RW/LW

When it comes to prospects, few have generated both the buzz and concern than Boston’s fifth-round pick in 2014.

The buzz stems from his third consecutive season of improved offensive output for the Fighting Irish after an impressive freshman debut in 2014-15. Since the 7-15-22 line in 41 games that first NCAA year, Bjork jumped to 12-23-35 in 35 games before taking it to another level this season with 21-31-52 totals in 38 games with one or two more left depending on what happens this week in the Frozen Four.

Pigeonholed in a defensive forward role with the U.S. National Team, Bjork slipped down to the middle of the draft, but one team source in Boston told TSP that several of the scouts high on him during the 2013-14 season felt that he was miscast and could have been more effective as a top-6 winger with Team USA.

Versatility and speed/pace are Bjork’s calling cards: he can play any of the forward positions and while playing more on the right side in his last two campaigns under head coach Jeff Jackson, he started out as a left wing in South Bend and could potentially slot in alongside David Krejci sometime soon given his style and smarts. Bjork played some center in Ann Arbor with the NTDP, so that Swiss Army Knife flavor is something that the B’s (and every team for that matter) look for in their forwards. He’s an explosive skater- getting up to speed in just a few slashing strides, and he is dangerously creative, able to thread the needle with pinpoint passes or take pucks to the net himself. He can dangle or snap off shots in tight spaces. Like JFK- he’s a three-zone player, and with his wheels and head- we’re sold. Bjork is the real deal and the B’s were ahead of the curve on him- it’s about time to be rewarded for that foresight.

Fans (and the team) can breathe a little easier for now, in that it appears that Bjork is ready to begin his pro career. The Fighting Irish’s run to the Frozen Four has put that on hold, in large part- thanks to his heroics especially against the University of Minnesota, when he assisted on the tying goal, then scored the game-winner, figuring in all three of his team’s scores. For good measure, Bjork set up the OT-winner against UMass-Lowell to secure the trip to Chicago, which is where he grew up.

The B’s will have to wait a little longer, and the details and timeline are TBD- but it looks like all signals are green (no pun intended) and that whether the NCAA season ends for Bjork on Thursday or Saturday night, we’ll be seeing him in Boston soon.

 

Bruins prospects update 1/30/17: Re-ordering the amateur prospect rankings

We’re one month into the recent publication of the New England Hockey Journal’s annual Boston Bruins prospects ranking- we always do it in January, so we have about half a season to gauge how the kids look before ranking them.

Well, what can we say? There’s already some buyer’s remorse and after conversations with several people we trust and value as professional talent evaluators, we thought we’d take another stab at the B’s top-10 with a fresher perspective. Consider it an alternate take- a sort of Bizarro World version of the published list, with the impact of other ideas and rationales applied to some of the players who rose and fell.

Ultimately, the exercise reminds us all that opinions are varied. No matter how well you might rank order players, you’re never going to achieve 100 percent consensus, and that should not be the goal. You call it like you see it and you either stick to your guns and stand by your convictions or you don’t. At the same time, it is important in a fluid situation such a hockey season, to maintain room to allow your views to evolve.

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Bruins Prospect Update: 01/08/2017- Golden USA- B’s World Jr. recap

If there were any skeptics left wondering if Charlie McAvoy had the stuff to be a top-flight 2-way defenseman in the NHL one day, that train has pretty much left the station after his player of the game and tourney all-star selection in helping lead Team USA to its third gold medal at the World Jr. (Under-20) Championship since 2010.

The 14th overall selection in 2016 scored USA’s first goal of the game, cutting into Canada’s 2-0 lead (the second goal having been scored by fellow future Bruin Jeremy Lauzon). McAvoy was the trailer on the play, taking a pass from BU teammate and Minnesota Wild prospect Jordan Greenway before lasering the shot over Canada goalie Carter Hart’s glove hand.

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