NHL Free Agency Day 1: Bruins add depth, Acciari to Panthers

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As expected, the Boston Bruins played on the margins during the NHL’s annual free agent derby July 1, re-signing defenseman Connor Clifton to a three-year pact at a $1M per annum cap hit along with Ryan Fitzgerald (pictured) to a 2-way contract valued at $700k for one year. From the outside of things, the B’s added bottom-line forwards Par Lindholm (Jets and Maple Leafs) to a 2-year NHL deal valued at $850 k per, and Brett Ritchie (Stars) to a 1-year, $1 million contract. The B’s also signed 2012 1st-round forward Brendan Gaunce (Canucks) to a 2-way (700k cap hit) deal, 2011 4th-round defenseman Josiah Didier (Canadiens) to an AHL contract and free agent goalie Maxime Lagace (Golden Knights) 2-way (700k cap hit) to bolster their AHL depth.

Clifton was a no-brainer after his emergence in the Stanley Cup playoffs and to lock him up for 3 years at that price is excellent value. It’s nice to see the local Fitzgerald get another shot to find his way to the Big B’s after being a fourth-round pick in 2013, but the scouts were concerned about his overall speed/pace game and how it would translate to the NHL, and thus far, he’s still fighting to break through.

The B’s also saw their first casualty of the free agency period, as grinder Noel Acciari came to terms on a 3-year/$5 million contract with the Florida Panthers. It’s only a matter of time before we find out where Marcus Johansson will end up, but it won’t be back in Boston.

While the groans in some fan circles are audible- most knowledgeable fans understand that given the current cap situation facing Don Sweeney, there simply wasn’t any room for spending sprees on the open market, especially with three key restricted free agents needing extensions in Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen. The only hope for some additional coin to spend here in July of 2019 was for the B’s to somehow off-load David Backes and the 2 years remaining on his $6M cap hit. Since the deal signed in 2016 was front-loaded, Backes’ contract is appealing to teams looking to get to the cap floor whose operating budgets are lower than the richer teams in that the cap hit is higher than the money owed, but it’s easier said than done. Of course, with other teams around the league moving bad contracts, it’s natural for B’s fans to want the same- it always takes two to tango and the team is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to behind-the-scenes negotiations, so good luck finding out what if any overtures were made in this regard. Barring a trade of some fashion, whether Backes or somewhere else on the roster, there simply wasn’t any money to spend on over-priced free agents. And there won’t be much to handle next year’s more challenging roster turbulence.

Fast food mentality ain’t gonna work here, folks- instead of being envious of the huge contracts being handed out around the league today, set your sights to 2020 and the longer game. It never ceases to amaze that so many of the nimrods out there clamoring for the B’s to be players in an annually inflated free agent market will be the first to turn on the GM when said player(s) don’t live up to their big cap numbers. Truth in lending- TSP was bullish on Backes three years ago in the face of some pointed criticisms elsewhere. In hindsight, the fears (at the time) have come to fruition- there’s not much tread left on the tire, and Backes, as tremendous a character/glue guy as he is, hamstrings the B’s for two more years at $6M per. Teams are better to invest in their own players and leave the madness of the UFA market to others who will be doomed to repeat history because they aren’t learning from it.

Think of all the NHL teams today who worked so hard to clear cap space only to fill it up again. Now, in some cases- the signings look smart and should pay dividends (Lehner- CHI; Donskoi- COL; Hartman- MIN; Perry- DAL; Spezza- TOR to name a few). Others are courting major disaster (Bobrovsky- FLA 10M cap hit? For 7 years?? Wow!!; Stralman- FLA; Zuccarello- MIN; Hayes- PHI delayed reaction from 19 June signing & Erik Karlsson’s big pay day as he approaches 30 with a lot of wear and tear on his slight frame). But, if we’ve learned one thing over the past several years, there always seems to be a GM or three out there who will bail some of their spendthrift counterparts out by taking on the remainders of bad contracts handed out on credit.

We learned the lesson with Backes- character matters, but up to a point. You have to balance that with a more realistic assessment of your ROI- return on investment. We all wanted Backes to be successful in Boston, but the warning signs were there. In the end, he’s a player more suited to the NHL of yesteryear…it sucks to say it, but as some predicted three years ago, that contract is, in fact, an albatross. And we’ll have to see what the B’s are able to do about it with 24 more months left on the term.

Now, on to the new guys:

Center Par Lindholm spent the season between Toronto and Winnipeg after signing with Toronto a year ago, and the move makes sense if you believe the rumors that the B’s are shopping Joakim Nordstrom.

Lindholm is an intelligent 200-foot pivot with a wealth of Swedish pro experience, but didn’t play much in his first North American season in the NHL. He’s not a dynamic offensive player and more of a Swiss Army Knife/Jack of All Trades type. He typically played less than 10 minutes a game for the Leafs and Jets, so if you noticed him much, then you’re a far better judge of talent than we are.

We’ll chalk this one up as a wait-and-see kind of addition, as it smacks of a set-up for something else to happen on the roster…otherwise, color us perplexed as to where this player fits in the B’s lineup when all is said and done.

Here’s an informative article on him out of Winnipeg from a month ago…

Brett Ritchie comes to the B’s from the only organization he ever knew- the Dallas Stars- who drafted him in the second round of the 2011 lottery. Interestingly enough, when the rumors of Tyler Seguin being dealt to Dallas first came to light, we (that is Kirk) thought that Ritchie might have been one of the prospect pieces included in that ill-fated trade that is coming up on 6 years old.

We’d like to say that the 26-year-old is on the verge of busting out, but the reality is- he’s a big-bodied (6-4/220) forward who never really developed into the player he looked like he could be in his draft season with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs. While not a bad skater, he has trouble separating and is at his best when his team has possession in the offensive zone and he can get to quiet ice/doesn’t have to win footraces to loose pucks.

Posting a career 0.22 points-per-game average with the Stars in 241 career contests (plus 3 playoff games), Ritchie has always had decent possession numbers in Dallas, and looks to be the kind of player at even strength that the B’s are trying to bring in to improve their overall 5v5 play. The problem is- because they don’t have a lot of money to spend in free agency this summer, they’re forced to bring in a low-end producer like Ritchie who fits that heavy, hard-to-play-against style the team loves in its forwards, but simply doesn’t have the production to indicate that he will suddenly find a scoring touch in Boston.

We suppose the B’s could do worse here, but we hope they will find a way to do better! Ritchie is a role player and not much more than that- 1 year and $1M isn’t going to break the bank, but since posting a career-best 16 goals in 2016-17,  he’s only managed 11 total in the last 124 games/ two campaigns. He’s an offensive upgrade on Acciari, but not by much- what is the real play here as it pertains to the B’s roster?

Here’s something a little dated (written a year ago) on Ritchie from a Dallas perspective.

Brendan Gaunce is like Ritchie-light…he was Vancouver’s 1st-round pick in 2012, selected just after the B’s drafted his Belleville (OHL) teammate Malcolm Subban…and he was a guy we had time for as a Bruins draft option that year. Big and has some skill with a high motor and leadership, Gaunce, who was once the 2nd overall selection of the Bulls in the OHL draft, has been an utter disappointment at the NHL level.

He’s the classic looks like a player prospect who didn’t ever develop into one despite a willingness to drive the net and compete/be effective on the walls and on the cycle. He’s not a snarly, in-your-face physical type and ultimately, that plus a lack of skill to establish himself on the top-two lines in Vancouver spelled the end for him in his first NHL organization. He’s going to be a good add in Providence, and his NHL ceiling might be that of a Tim Schaller if he can somehow get his foot in the door, but even that’s probably a stretch.

Here’s an article on Gaunce when news broke he would not be qualified by the Canucks:

Max Lagace and Josiah Didier– The B’s needed a minor league veteran to replace Zane McIntyre, who left the B’s to sign with the Canucks after being drafted by Boston in 2010.

Lagace has 17 career games in the NHL all with Vegas, and was pressed into emergency duty in 2017-18 when the Knights went through an unbelievable rash of injuries at the goaltender position. He’s not an NHL regular but will provide good insurance down in the AHL, as Providence probably can’t afford to hand the keys to a Daniel Vladar/Kyle Keyser tandem and needs a third/emergency goalie to backfill the second season of Tuukka Rask/Jaroslav Halak.

Didier, who was a 4th-round project pick out of the USHL’s Cedar Rapids Rough Riders by Montreal in 2011 and played for current Dallas HC Jim Montgomery at the University of Denver, just won a Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL and is another experienced winner who will bolster the Providence blue line and help Boston’s younger players develop.

The final word: The real value to the Bruins will come when their key RFA’s sign. Don’t cry for the big name UFAs, Argentina…the truth is- they were never really in play for Boston.

Everyone likes their shiny new toys and wants their favorite team to be in the mix to get the name guys on July 1st, but in most cases, the big spenders are left with a serious case of buyer’s remorse. Last year, Sweeney hit the middle tier market and did well, but you can’t step up to the plate year after year and pay market prices for the talent out there and expect to keep the real gems in your organization.

It’s like a high interest credit card- you get some immediate satisfaction in the form of landing a brand name that the hockey media will buzz about, but in 3-4 years, who did that phat free agent contract cost you, and was it worth it?

Something tells us that Sweeney knows that, and also realizes he will have to find another route to upgrading the second-line right wing. How soon it happens and what form the next addition(s) takes is sure to dominate social media from here on, but anyone who knows how the cycle goes in the NHL understood that the B’s weren’t going to make waves today…whether they moved Backes or not.

As for Acciari, he came to his childhood favorite team as an undrafted free agent and did a solid job on the fourth line. He represents decent but not good value for the Panthers, but the reality is- they need more guys like the former Providence College captain, whereas the Bruins have more than enough of those players already. We wish him well as he moves on to his new team and a solid payday.

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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What, us worry?

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Zdeno Chara (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

You mean to tell us that since two critical veterans went down with significant injuries, the Bruins are 3-0-2 with 8 points out of 10?

And that, dear readers, is why they play the games.

Given the Boston Bruins’ recent run of wins, welcome news despite not having two of the franchise’s faces out for at least 4 weeks or longer: captain Zdeno Chara and defacto captain Patrice Bergeron. The duo of future Hockey Hall of Famers are more than likely at the top of a short list of players that if you polled fans before the season, were the guys the team could least afford to lose for extended stretches of the 2018-19 campaign.

And yet, as the Thanksgiving weekend comes to a close, the B’s pulled out two close wins, a 2-1 OT contest against the underachieving Pittsburgh Penguins at home on Friday and then Saturday night’s 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens, helping Boston secure the sixth-best record in the NHL to date. Of course, few would have guessed that the Jeff Skinner-led Buffalo Sabres would be sitting atop the league standings as November comes to a close, but that’s a story for another day.

In the meantime, let us focus on the Bruins and how they’ve put themselves in position to remain competitive despite suffering through some personnel setbacks that would cripple many teams in any league.

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