2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series 2: the Right Wings

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak is the player the Boston Bruins have been waiting for. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

After a bit of a hiatus, we’re back to continue the 2016-17 Boston Bruins season preview by breaking down each position and analyzing where the B’s sit going into the new hockey campaign.

We started out with the centers, and if you haven’t seen it yet and listened to the companion podcast, you can check that out here.

Today, we’re looking at the right wings- another pretty solid position of strength for the B’s. Loui Eriksson is gone, having signed with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1, but the B’s signed David Backes from the St. Louis Blues on the same day. The conventional thought is that Backes will remain in his capacity as a center, but with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci solidly established as the 1-2 punch up the middle, it makes quite a bit of sense that the B’s will take their 5-year, $30 million investment and put him over on the right side with Bergeron and left wing Brad Marchand, who tallied 37 goals last season.

Expected to skate on the right side with Krejci is fellow Czech and David- David Pastrnak. After an electrifying NHL debut in the latter half of the 2014-15 NHL season, the 25th overall pick in 2014 struggled out of the gate last year and then was felled by a foot injury that cost him about 30 games and much of his offensive jump and effectiveness. This is an important season for the David Squared duo, as a healthy and productive Krejci and Pastrnak will be needed to take some of the pressure off of the top line.

Third line is where there could be some opportunities for change. Right now, Dorchester native Jimmy Hayes is the guy to fill that spot on paper. Even with the disappointing season a year ago, Hayes should not be written off yet. Consistency was the biggest thing with the 6-5, 215-pound former second-round pick in 2008. When on his game, Hayes is capable of scoring goals and adding offense both off the rush and in close where he uses his gigantic frame and long arms to pounce on loose pucks. Hayes was an easy scapegoat last year, and he does need to own the fact that when the team needed his offensive production the most, he went largely MIA down the stretch. Having said that, he’s young (turns 27 in November) and talented enough to raise his game and surpass the 20-goal mark, but he’ll have to get back to basics and start with the little things that brought him success in Florida, when he tallied his career-best 19 goals in 2014-15. When you look at Hayes’ possession stats, there’s a case to be made that he’s more effective than he gets credit for, and given his contract structure when compared to others around the NHL, he didn’t exactly embarrass himself. Hayes is never going to be a top-level player, but he has more to offer and if the B’s can get it from him this season, he can be an asset.

If Hayes falters, rookie forward Danton Heinen could fill the void on that third line. A fourth-round pick in 2014, Heinen spent two highly productive NCAA seasons with Denver University before turning pro with Boston last April. The British Columbia native by way of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles is a slick, cerebral playmaking wing who can skate on each of the forward positions, but saw his most production as the RW on the famed “Pacific Rim Line” last season with Toronto free agent signing Trevor Moore and Sharks second-rounder Dylan Gambrell. Heinen could be best served by playing a lot in the AHL, but of all the prospect forwards in camp this month, he’s the one guy who has the best mix of skill, maturity and a three-zone game- all of which should combine to impress Claude Julien and the other Boston coaches (Joe Sacco, Jay Pandolfo, Bruce Cassidy).

On the fourth line, the B’s added free agent forward Riley Nash in July, and as a rugged, versatile forward, the 27-year-old right-shooting former first-rounder in 2007 is good for about 20-30 points while playing that grinding, checking style that is valuable on the bottom unit. There’s not much to get excited about here, but the former Cornell Big Red point-per-game guy gives you NHL experience, physicality and the example that will help to build team cohesion.

Like Backes, we previewed Peter Mueller at center, but in all likelihood, he’ll compete for a roster spot at the RW position as the eighth overall pick in 2006 has spent more of his pro career flanked out wide as opposed to playing in the middle. Temper expectations with him, but if he plays well and earns a contract, his presence allows B’s GM some flexibility to add assets in a potential trade deal for a much-needed defenseman. Mueller has the size and hands to be an effective bottom-six player, but one only knows how he’ll look after spending the last three seasons in Europe. At one point, he looked like an NHL star, so it’s not a bad risk to take as a PTO invite to camp- nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Other right wings in the mix vying for NHL jobs are Seth Griffith, Brian Ferlin and Tyler Randell– all impact performers for the Providence Bruins. Of the three, Randell is the one who is best positioned to come out of camp with a job- he scored six goals in 27 NHL games last season- his first taste of big league action after being drafted in 2009 (and shot an unsustainable 33.3 percent as well). He’s rugged and tough- even though he lacks speed, the B’s can carry him as a 13th forward and plug and play him into the roster as needed. I like that he showed enough to stick around long after other players likely would have been given up on.

Some of the prospects that fans are eagerly looking forward to are 45-goal man Zach Senyshn, drafted 15th overall in 2015. Although he’s struggled with mono and a recent emergency appendectomy that will cost him the rookie tournament portion of camp. He’s big, fast, skilled and ready to take a big next step forward. This year is probably not Zach’s year to make it in Boston, but that’s not a knock on him- not everyone can play in the NHL as a teen, but the patience will likely pay off- he’s a player.

Also talked Swedish forward Oskar Steen, who is listed as a center but plays right wing and projects as a wing at the pro level in North America. Steen is a Bruins-type of player and was a favorite of scout and former Boston cult hero P.J. Axelsson.

Also not covered in the podcast, but Notre Dame right wing Anders Bjork had a very good sophomore season, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring (35 points in as many games). He’s a gritty, fast, high-energy player, but also showed off some impressive offense. Watch for the Bruins to try and sign him this spring to avoid him going back to school for a fourth year and becoming a free agent in 2018. It will be interesting to see what the Wisconsin native does.

Justin Hickman also has promise as a second-year pro as a big power forward who can bang and add some offense after struggling a bit to find his niche. Don’t count the former Seattle Thunderbirds captain out- he was a sought-after undrafted free agent and shows a willingness to scrap and fight for his team.

Now, you’ve read the post- listen to the podcast (I also talk a little 2017 NHL draft and Shane Bowers)! Will be back in this week to break down the left wings next. Thanks for reading/listening.

 

 

2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series: the Centers

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The NHL season is around the corner, and for the second consecutive season, the Scouting Post blog is back to provide the season preview and deeper look at the Boston Bruins from a position-by-position perspective. The team will soon break training camp on the 2016-17 NHL season at a brand-spanking new practice facility- the Warrior Ice Arena- in Brighton, and although the World Cup of Hockey is up first, there is no shortage of subplots and storylines swirling around this Bruins club.

Given the optimism surrounding the team at forward, we’ll start with the centers. Now, some might take issue with beginning the series from what is Boston’s greatest area of strength, but I started with the goaltenders last year, so there is a method to the madness.

Unlike last year, I am including an audio component to each post, so that allows me to write less and talk a little more, which will save me from carpal tunnel, but will also go a little easier on your eyes. So, without any more foreplay- here we go.

The Bruins are strong at the center position up and down the roster. They don’t have any flashy, dynamic types, but in Patrice Bergeron, have the best two-way pivot in the game, despite what Selke Trophy voters last year would have you believe. David Krejci is the ole reliable playmaking center, but with offseason hip surgery casting his season in doubt, there are some concerns about his durability, especially as he is entering the new year on the wrong side of 30. The B’s big-money free agency ticket item from the summer, David Backes, will be previewed both as a center and a right wing- but we’ve yet to determine where the B’s will slot him, and that promises to be one of the more intriguing storylines as the team breaks camp. Ryan Spooner currently holds down the third center spot, and the fourth line pivot is wide open. Noel Acciari finished the final 19 games of the schedule after recovering from a shattered jaw in his rookie pro season, while fellow Providence College product Tim Schaller was brought in to provide competition in the offseason. The B’s also recently announced the signing of Dominic Moore to a one-year deal, and former 2006 eighth overall pick Peter Mueller, who is trying to make an NHL comeback after concussions and injuries derailed a promising start.

The B’s also have some interesting potential in the system. Whether you’re talking the tiny but ultra-skilled and feisty Austin Czarnik or the slick, cerebral 200-foot pivot in Boston University sophomore Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, the B’s have a couple of options that might not be as far off on the horizon as one might think. Neither is likely to have a great impact this year (though Czarnik is in the AHL and is a dark horse to make some noise and see some NHL action after his excellent rookie pro season), but both Czarnik and JFK are mature players who are likely to work their way into the mix sooner rather than later. The latter player has already drawn comparisons by people in the Bruins organization (as well as some outside the club) to Bergeron, which is a high bar to set for the Swede.

In addition to Czarnik, Colby Cave is an effective two-way center who had a scoring role as captain of the Swift Current Broncos (where he lined up with B’s 2015 1st-rounder Jake DeBrusk) and showed some flashes of ability as a rookie in 2015-16. Sean Kuraly was a center in college, but is expected to shift to wing in the pros, now that he’s expected to start out in the AHL at Providence.

The B’s stirred up some dust when they drafted U.S National (U18) Team center Trent Frederic with the 29th overall pick. Interestingly enough, management (to include the departed former chief scout Keith Gretzky to Edmonton to be Peter Chiarelli’s newest assistant GM) likened the St. Louis native and University of Wisconsin-bound power forward to none other than his childhood idol Backes, who gave up the captaincy of the Blues to sign with Boston a week after the 2016 draft. In Frederic, the B’s get a big slab of beef at the center position for down the road, and if you believe his various coaches who rave about his intelligence and work ethic, there’s more than meets the eye here- he could be a late-bloomer, though don’t expect all that much in terms of production. The B’s also added huge Finn Joona Koppanen (6-5), but he’s more of a defensive clampdown specialist, so even if he makes the NHL, it’s not going to be as a scorer.

A project who will be worth the wait in terms of ceiling and offensive potential is Harvard sophomore and 2014 2nd-rounder Ryan DonatoWatch for the South Shore (Scituate) product to make some noise- this kid is the real deal, and we think he’s going to break out in Cambridge now that Jimmy Vesey has moved on to Broadway. TSP has been a huge fan of Donato’s ever since watching him first dominate the New England prep circuit in 2012-13 and then raise the bar in his draft season. He’s as intelligent and skilled as they come, and knocks on his skating aren’t fair given that he’s bigger than his dad (he gets his size from his mother’s side of the family and a former NFL linebacker uncle), but the hockey sense and hands are elite. Wisconsin junior Cameron Hughes and rising freshman Jack Becker (6th and 7th picks in 2015) are also in the mix as potential payoffs, but will require time and patience, and even then- neither might not ever make it as viable pros.

Outlook: The Bruins have ability and depth up the middle. Bergeron and Krejci (when fully healthy) give the B’s as good a 1-2 punch as any team in the league, but how Backes will fit into that dynamic as the potential third-line center (or whether he moves up and plays a top-two line RW role) remains to be seen. We also have to see how Krejci fares at camp; now that he’s been ruled out of the WCOH for Team Czech Republic, he has some extra time to heal, but if he’s not ready to go, then it’s a no-brainer: Backes moves up to the second line behind Bergeron. Spooner is the source of quiet debate- he appears to be the odd-man out here, as he’s not an ideal fourth-line center if Backes is 3C, and he is one of Boston’s few real trade chips given his youth, skill level and cap-friendly deal (though he’s up for a new pact in 2017). Dominic Moore is a 36-year-old veteran who could mean that Acciari goes back to Providence for more seasoning, and of course- the B’s added Mueller to a PTO, though that is no sure bet that he will even sign or play center for them. Schaller is a wild card for the fourth line as well, but if he’s going to make the Boston roster, he’ll probably need to do it on the wing somewhere.

All in all- center will be the absolute least of Boston’s worries this season, as the team has talent, experience and a roster to weather injuries and unexpected setbacks.

Now, listen to the pod for more (and working on getting these exported to SoundCloud for those who want to do download and listen later- bear with me- it’s coming):

 

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka "JFK"

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

 

 

 

3 Amigos Podcast: the Free Agency edition

The 3 Amigos ride again!

Dom, Reed and I are back with our 3rd podcast together, recapping the 1st week of NHL free agency with a decided Boston bent, covering David Backes, Anton Khudobin, Riley Nash, Tim Schaller and Alex Grant to name a few. Dom will tell you why he thinks Khudobin for two years, beyond the solid addition of a proven backup, has key implications for Malcolm Subban not getting snapped up in the expansion draft.

We also issue a Danger, Will Robinson! alert to fans of the Edmonton Oilers as we look at the impacts of recent signing and additions to that club’s cap picture and we see some eerie parallels to how it all came unraveled in Boston.

We also discuss (about 55 minutes in) the Bruins and Don Sweeney’s still pending move to upgrade the NHL talent on defense- that kind of a move to shore up the club’s right-shooting depth chart has been curiously lacking. Dom mentions an interesting name with Ontario connections and Reed has had plenty of looks and shares his thoughts on why this particular player (an RFA) might be a stealth target of the Bruins via trade.

All in all, it’s a little over 90 minutes of hockey talk, unvarnished and calling it like we see it. Ole!

In Backes aftermath, the Bruins still need a D

Your Scouting Post founder was on 98.5 today with Hardy and Chris Gasper (great guys who know how to ask the right questions, I would add- always love talking hockey with them) and the subject of the Boston Bruins’ elephant in the room- the clear and present need to upgrade the defense naturally came up.

To paraphrase- I talked about a “bridge” D- someone young and talented enough to help grow the team while recognizing that Don Sweeney is not going to be able to likely find a true heir apparent to Zdeno Chara via trade. We now know that Sweeney was trying hard last winter to wrangle Blues veteran and former BU star Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis in an aborted deal involving Loui Eriksson and the San Jose 1st-rounder that went from 18th to 29th (the B’s chose USA center Trent Frederic with it after finding no takers at the 2016 draft).

(Audio file courtesy of 98.5 the Sports Hub)

(EDIT- I mentioned Ryan Spooner as a possible “tradable commodity”- I am *not* advocating Spooner be moved at all. I responded to a direct question about the possibility of David Krejci being dealt and responded with my reasoning as to why that is less of a possibility. TSP has been and will continue to be a supporter of Spooner’s as a player who has the modern NHL skill set and has grown immeasurably since Boston drafted him in 2010. However, in order to get you must give and the Bruins’ cupboards aren’t overflowing whenever it comes to enticing assets to trade with. That’s reality.)

With Backes and Troy Brouwer now gone, Shattenkirk probably stays in St. Louis (and I suspect there are some hurt feelings that the B’s snaked Backes with a big-ticket offer the cap-strapped Blues had no chance to match), but Sweeney could strike gold via trade if he can figure out a way to get Jacob Trouba in the fold, for example- Trouba showed enormous promise but his play has fallen off, constituting risk. At the same time- you can do much worse than a physical, skilled specimen in his early 20’s like Trouba. It won’t be cheap, but with David Backes on board the Bruins freight train (it’s certainly not a bullet-speed train, is it?), Sweeney has more trade options available to him than he did yesterday, even if the leverage is debatable. Trouba is just one example- the B’s are undoubtedly looking at other options that might not only be that “bridge” but potentially a talent that could eventually evolve into a star. To say nothing of the impressive crop of recent Boston draft picks who are several years away yet, but could give the team the relief it seeks at the position. The problem with trading for such a promising talent is in the cost, and that’s a drum Sweeney has been beating for some time now. Or more succinctly- it takes two to tango.

“There’s not a level of disappointment,” Sweeney said about his quest for upgrading the defense in Friday’s media conference call to announce Backes and the other signings on day 1 of the NHL’s open hiring period. “If deals don’t materialize you guys both understand the types of players that were exchanged and the quality of players in the last few days. Things have to line up. People do not want to part with those types of players.”

There was talk of an offer sheet (James Murphy and Joe Haggerty doing the initial reporting) potentially being prepared for a defenseman in the days leading up to July 1. My good friend and hockey savant Dom Tiano, who is pretty well connected himself, confirmed hearing similar chatter and was tipped that the team was preparing a buyout in advance. That domino fell with Thursday’s Dennis Seidenberg announcement, which led to the Torey Krug four-year extension. But in our Thursday “3 Amigos” podcast with Dom and Reed Duthie of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs (such a passionate, articulate and informed hockey mind!) Tiano brought up the key point that the buyout was not there (as offered up by former Bruins D turned hockey analyst Aaron Ward) to give flexibility to sign Krug- the B’s had plenty of space to do that all along.

What gets interesting is that the *assumption* (and what’s the old saying about what those do to ‘u’ and ‘me’?) was that Trouba would be an offer sheet target. Entirely plausible…but that was never firmly established.

Now, the thing about offer sheeting anyone is that it is a strategy that invites anger and delayed retaliation. In the gentleman’s NHL, signing to someone to an offer sheet isn’t just burning the bridge…it’s detonating a copious amount of C4 explosive to annihilate it…leaving no trace behind. At the same time- offer sheets have been done in the past with mixed results. The Bruins were reportedly trying to re-acquire the pick they dealt to New Jersey Devils (for the now Carolina Hurricane Lee Stempniak) or the third-rounder Sweeney foolishly peddled to Philly for Zac Rinaldo (can’t defend it, folks- sorry) to give the B’s the kind of flexibility on an offer sheet to avoid paying max cost and the four 1st-rounders (Dom covers this on the podcast, so if you haven’t listened yet, what are you waiting for?)

What does this all mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but there’s chatter that the B’s are looking at moving Adam McQuaid (he and Kevan Miller are redundant for what they provide, but that cap hit on both contracts is anything but redundant- something’s gotta give) and we can’t think Sweeney is finished with shaping his defense.

Let’s go back to Sweeney and more of his comments about the defense yesterday:

“We’ve set a course here to identify some areas that we needed to strengthen,” he said.  “And the last, you know, for the last year, we’re almost to a year on the job here for myself and the number of young players, in particular in defense and some of the center positions that we’ve added, will complement the young players of skill that we have on the wings. And you have to exercise some patience in this regard.

“These players don’t just grow up overnight and turn into NHL players. And we’re going to have to exercise patience, you know. Our group as it stands has a balance to it with hardness of [Zdeno] Chara and Kevan Miller and [Adam] McQuaid. [John-Michael] Liles brings a veteran savvyness that he can play with Colin Miller. Joe Morrow is an emerging player and Torey [Krug], we’re very happy to have him signed. You know that being said, we have other young players in the pipeline that are going to be welcoming an opportunity and we have to at some point in time continue to provide that and let them step up. Will it stop me from pursuing having conversations that I’ve maybe planted seeds or whatever? But again it’s going to take…you know there’s a high acquisition cost for these types of players and I think you’re better served to identify them, grow them and put them in the lineup when they’re ready to play.”

The cynics and skeptics will focus on the last sentence and say that Sweeney is hedging his bets and allowing for the possibility that he won’t be able to get anything done trade-wise. My gut says that as a former 1000+ game NHL defenseman, Sweeney knows his group is in the hurt box without at least one substantial add.

Offer sheet? Trade? I believe that the trade route is far preferable to blasting the bridge he will no doubt incur if Boston goes down that road. The threat of an offer sheet might be enough to get a GM to the table to take Sweeney’s offer more seriously. Hey- if nothing else- we can at least opine that the B’s GM speaks from experience. Whether true or not, that was the talk surrounding the hasty decision to move Dougie Hamilton at the 2015 NHL draft for futures.

I don’t have the answers, but there is certainly an element of fans and observers who are sharpening their knives because of a lack of movement on defense yesterday. Understandable. However, training camp doesn’t open until mid-September, so I would offer up the idea that a little more patience wouldn’t hurt. Ultimately, whether you are pessimistic because the B’s opted to bring in an experienced but aging forward in lieu of finding a way to get a key piece on D, or you are a little more optimistic because Backes gives him insurance and options, we can probably all agree that Sweeney isn’t finished.

Whether his next big move will be seen as an “a-ha!” moment after a series of transactions fell in place to set it up, or it will be more of a “I can’t believe they just (bleeping) did that!” remains to be seen.

What we do know is that right, wrong or indifferent- the Bruins are adding pieces that address what the club’s leadership said was the direction they wanted to go in. We’ll all have to see if they have it right or whether the B’s are headed for rougher oceans ahead.

“I think (our team) has the ability to play in all three zones,” Sweeney said.  “For our standpoint, Riley Nash, you look at possession, you look at versatility to play both center, wing, PK, go up and down the lineup. We’ve still got other young players that I mentioned that are going to be given opportunities in these roles. We need to do a better job. Once we get pucks into the offensive zone, being able to withstand that cycle game and possession, it’s not just going to be about off the rush.

“Albeit, we have skill coming that is going to complement this group and play a little faster pace, that we have balance on the back end that we’re building in depth there. I think that you have to be prepared to play, have an identity, which we will, play a 200-foot game.”

 

Getting to know David Backes

When the news broke Friday in the NHL’s annual free agent extravaganza that the Boston Bruins agreed to terms with former St. Louis captain and center David Backes, any optimism that the team might be acquiring a player with a great deal of experience and an impressive body of work as a top two-way forward and leader was tempered with concerns about the 32-year-old’s five-year, $30 million pact.

Regardless of what side of the fence you come down on, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound veteran is a multiple 30-goal scorer who spent his entire career with the Blues after being the 62nd overall selection in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft, the same one that saw new teammate Patrice Bergeron selected 17 spots ahead by the Bruins in Nashville.Now, 13 years later, the most senior member of the B’s was credited by Backes as one of the key players who reached out to him this week and helped sell him on leaving the only NHL home he’s ever known to try and get Boston back on a winning track.

“He, personally, was one of the guys that I was able to talk to,” Backes said in an afternoon conference call. “I can maybe flatter a little bit now that he’s my teammate, but I hate giving players credit, giving them any edge, when I’m playing against them. But he’s a guy you were pissed at by the end of the game because he never made a mistake. That’s a good way to be successful defensively and then, by the end of the game he typically was producing something [on the] offensive side of the score sheet, too – just a guy that you can’t take a shift off because he’s going to make you pay.

“If you’re going to get anything done against him, he’s always in the right spots, he’s winning draws against you, he’s a fearless competitor, he just keeps going and keeps his mind focused on what he needs to achieve during the game. He’s a winner. He’s won a gold medal, to my dismay. He’s also won a Stanley Cup. You can’t discredit any of those great achievements that he’s had.”

That Backes would have such immense respect for a player of Bergeron’s caliber is not surprising in the least. Natural competitors and leaders gravitate towards one another, after all. And, as the Minnesota native would later reference in his various remarks, those leaders are the ones most responsible for instilling and maintaining a winning culture that everyone in the room gets on board with.

“We need a cohesive leadership group that’s made up of prominent players that have a loud voice and walk the walk and not just talk the talk,” he said. “If you have that – a good four to five guys with those qualities – the rest of the team has no option but to jump on board and fall in line. If that’s what you have, that pretty much cracks the whip on everyone else and that’s going to breed a ton of success.”

Leadership and character alone is not enough, however. Immediate concerns about the signing have cropped up primarily related to the newest Bruin’s age and diminishing returns in terms of his statistics, finishing the year with 21 goals- his lowest output since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign.

“Feeling really well,” Backes replied when asked about the toll his rugged brand of hockey over more than a decade has taken on his body. “I think that physical style has been one of my calling cards for 10 years, and I think maybe if you start to slow down a little bit, and you get a little bit older, your intelligence and your hockey sense and your ability to think the game is accelerating maybe faster than you’re slowing down. And those types of efforts to be efficient I think make – in my world, I think it’s made me a better player, and been able to carry that physical play and pick my spots at key moments, rather than just hitting everything that moves like it’s a rugby match.”

In other words, the old horse isn’t ready for the glue factory quite yet.

“Being able to perhaps finish on certain guys on the other team and other ones, it’s not worth going the extra two, three steps out of your way to expend that energy and to go for that hit,” Backes said.  “I’m 32. I’m not 52. I think there’s plenty of legs and plenty of physicality and energy left in me and the term’s been something that maybe a few people have questioned, but for me, I expect to still be at the top of my game for that last year and be a contributing member for the Boston Bruins and training differences, being able to really take care of my body, listening to it and just give everything I’ve got and I think that’s the way I’m going about it and I would expect to be really good in that fifth year still.”

All the heart and want to in the world won’t matter if the machine breaks down or the player is unable to match the previously high-end performance that he was known for as a member of the Blues who spent the last five years wearing the captain’s ‘C’.

Boston GM Don Sweeney naturally sold his signature acquisition to date as someone who will be part of a winning formula going forward, even though the more pressing need of at least one defensive piece to upgrade the back end was conspicuously absent from his list of transactions today.

“We identified David from day one as the type of player that would play with and complement Patrice and David Krejci and allow us to have flexibility, be it this year with, you know, if he wants to move to the wing in a production role or a matchup role,” Sweeney said.  “You know if you look at the defensive zone starts that David Backes had over the course of his career, it’s phenomenal that he’s produced at the level he has. He’s now got the chance now to play either with Patrice or David Krejci or play amongst them in a balanced lineup that allows him to be in an offensive situation with Krejci and maybe even backup Bergeron from that standpoint. So I think it adds the balance to our group, you know. And if Ryan Spooner continues to emerge and play the way that he’s capable of playing on a consistent basis and David Backes moves to the wing we’re going to be a better organization.”

Despite some of the more advanced analytics that showed Backes’ effectiveness in positive puck possession declining, Sweeney pointed out that the veteran still represents a clear upgrade for the B’s going forward.

“We have on the horizon a number of young, skilled players that I think will benefit, as I mentioned, will continue to play with Marchand, with Bergeron, with Krejci, and now with a Backes type,” Sweeney said. “He can then slide into players that come in and identify themselves handling bigger roles, then he can slide into different positions. I just think the versatility of this player and the leadership qualities speak for themselves.

“And his production, we expect it to continue. It took a drop this year, but that’s the age-related studies that everybody looks at and realizes that you know what you’ve signed up for in this player, that if the commitment to the term and from the ownership standpoint, we were all on board. We’re trying to win. The number of players we have, as I mentioned, with the younger players, I think it’s going to be a good complement.”

Not always the most fleet of foot, Backes is one of those more powerful skaters who uses a full head of steam to drive the net and score goals through grit and will as opposed to generating a highlight reel package off the rush. As he gets older, the foot speed and quickness are sure to diminish, so Backes addressed what is likely in store with him in the lineup.

“I don’t think the game’s getting slower,” he said. “I think that it’s a fast game, but if you start to manage the puck in the right way, and you can occupy the offensive zone and do a lot of the things that teams that are heavy and control the puck and occupy zones do, it’s not a track meet up and down the ice.”

The track meet…something the Bruins have been ill-prepared to compete in for years, even as the NHL has undergone a clear paradigm shift to more of a speed/transition and skill game, is one of the chief concerns among observers and fans who saw the team often unable to match the pace and tempo of those higher-end clubs who were among those playing well into late May and June.

“With Pittsburgh winning the Cup, a team that was kind of designed on that track meet, let’s go, let’s see who can skate the fastest up and down the ice, there may be a trend or a tendency to start to build teams like that,” said Backes.  “But you’ve also seen other teams in the L.A. Kings, the Boston Bruins, in recent history, win playing that heavy game, and maybe not having the fastest team, but winning every battle that you get into, being able to control the puck once you get it and then owning the important areas of the ice which is in front of the net.”

The consistent net-front presence, which is something Backes is sure to provide, is another area the Bruins have been lacking in. They’ve also lacked a consistent set of forward lines, which is something the newest free agent vowed to address, even though there was discussion about what position might have been promised to him ahead of time.

“I’m into winning games, so if Claude (Julien) thinks that we’re going to win more games with me playing wing then I’m in,” Backes said.  “If he thinks that we’re going to win more games with me playing center, I’m in. Whatever he thinks, you know, I’ll do it to the best of my ability. And you know it’s one of those things where it may be schedule dependent, it may be opponent dependent, it may be dependent on a bunch of different variables, but we’re going to have a game plan to win and we’re going to go out there and execute it.”

Sweeney echoed the sentiment of being flexible and basing it on ideal matches, allowing the coaches to leverage the veteran’s flexibility.

“We’re going to let it play out,” he said. “We look at the fact that the penalty killing was an area that we needed to address. He’s really good at that.”

Center or wing? Wing or center? Don’t expect to have it figured out in July.

“The strength up the middle of the ice, as I mentioned. Ryan Spooner, it will be a great challenge for him to occupy that spot or play next to one of these centers,” Sweeney said. “The guys that emerge as being able to handle the minutes and the situations are the ones that are going to play. It’s just a real good opportunity for anybody, any younger player coming into this organization is going to be put in position to play with really unique players. And we’ll find the right complements.

“If that means David gets to move to the wall to play with one of the top two guys in a producing role, that’s okay. We’ve now been in a position where if we want to go four deep, which we generally have when we’ve had success, where’s the matchup come from the other side? The other teams may find it difficult to play against the top centers that we have. So we’re going to let it play out.”

Ultimately, there are those who will embrace Boston’s newest acquisition and what he could bring the team, even if they acknowledge that Sweeney and Co. are accepting risk by offering term and value on a player who is on the wrong side of 30. Those are entirely valid concerns, but at the same time- it is not a zero sum game. Backes is a hands-on leader who will complement Boston’s existing leadership core, several of whom tend to be a little more quiet and passive as opposed to direct and confrontational. The B’s have no problem with leaders who set the right example, but when players aren’t pulling their weight or doing the things necessary for team cohesion and success, Backes is the kind of guy who will likely get in someone’s face. He’s got the proper body of work and cachet to do it, too- whether he wears an ‘A’ on his Bruins sweater or not won’t matter one bit.

“You talk about the character piece, the leadership qualities and his willingness to want to win and it aligns with the guys that have won,” Sweeney said. “And the more we can surround our team and identify our team in that regard – now, this all being said, that our younger players have to step forward, emerge, have the opportunity to take a hold of it, and these guys are going to be the leading core to get us to where we want to go, and our younger players have to jump on board.”

Backes sees the world in relatively straight forward fashion, and that was evident when he addressed his desire to make Boston his new hockey home:

“Every time I had a conversation with someone from the organization, that kind of goosebump feeling on your arms and that emotional connection and thought process towards what it would be like to maybe have a different sweater and be able to join what they’re trying to do in Boston really just kept building,” Backes said. “And then the opportunity presented itself not too long after 11 (a.m.) struck. Once (the agent) and Don Sweeney figured out the numbers, it was let’s move on with this and sign the deal because it makes so much sense on so many levels.”

This signing might not make sense on as many levels to some, but one of Boston’s priorities in the offseason was to get tougher to play against, and they succeeded on paper with the Backes acquisition. Time will tell if it will work out as planned, but for now- one veteran is in the fold to help shore up an offense that lost Loui Eriksson’s 30 goals and strong two-way play to Vancouver.

There is still much work to be done, however, with a blue line that is still at least one key upgrade away from being playoff caliber.

The July 1st transactions were a start, but the offseason grade is still incomplete.

 

David Backes Boston-bound with 5x 30

 

Boston’s first major free agent signing since 2013 when the B’s inked Jarome Iginla to a one-year, incentive-laden deal fell quickly in the opening moments of the annual July 1 NHL free agent frenzy when word broke that St. Louis Blues captain David Backes had signed a 5-year pact with the Black and Gold worth an AAV of $6M.

Here is a dated, but  informative video from the NHL:

What’s interesting is that Backes had been somewhat of a hot topic of late with B’s 1st-round choice and St. Louis native Trent Frederic mentioning him at the draft as his hockey idol and player he most tries to emulate. Now, Frederic will likely share the Boston dressing room with him at some point.

As for Backes- where to start? How about with this OT goal vs. Chicago to kick off the opening round?

We’ll hit the good:

The Blues captain has been one of the most effective two-way centers in the NHL since he broke out with 31 goals and 54 points (165 PIMs) in 2008-09.  He’s never topped more than 62 points in a year, but he’s so valuable as a space-eating, versatile forward who can move between center and the right wing. He plays that physical, grinding game the B’s want to get back to, but he’s skilled enough to be a consistent scoring presence.

Loui Eriksson was also a versatile winger for Boston, but he lacked the size and physicality that the 6-3, 220-pound Backes brings. He’s a year younger than Backes, but where the Bruins were only willing to go four years for him, they went an extra 365 days for their newest player.

There are things Backes can do that Eriksson simply couldn’t. What is interesting to me here is that if the Bruins and Blues had been able to get past the stumbling blocks of a reported bad contract needing to go back Boston’s way in order to consummate that trade, Backes would likely have remained put in St. Louis and the B’s would be working on signing Shattenkirk to an extension instead. It’s interesting food for thought, but the Blues, who allegedly really wanted to extend and keep Backes and Troy Brouwer (who signed with Calgary today) and were more than willing to sacrifice Shattenkirk to get that done, now are essentially stuck with their third choice. Blues GM will have some personal relationship management to do, and in the end- Shattenkirk could very well be a big trade deadline move for the team next winter if he’s not willing to sign on in the long term.

As a captain and character guy- Backes is a proven leader who will instantly bring a needed leadership presence that the B’s have missed. Since Mark Recchi was in the room, the team has lacked for a vocal leader who commands respect beyond the quiet professionals that currently comprise the club’s core of leaders.

Now for the bad:

To get Backes, the B’s had to commit five years and $30 million. That’s a deal that immediately represents risk for the team and the front office that signed him.

Since I raised the point repeatedly with respect to Milan Lucic and his (still awaiting the details) contract with the Edmonton Oilers in terms of not much tread on the tire/much mileage on the engine- it’s the same, if not an even bigger case for Backes, because he’s four years older than Lucic is and has similar wear and tear concerns given the style of game he plays. It takes a heavy toll on the body and if Backes can’t hold up physically in years 3-5, the B’s will be in it deep.

When you look at the potential for the Bruins to get a less-than-average return in the long term on the big contract, the possibility is real that Boston could be hamstrung when it comes to retaining some of the higher-end youngsters who will come due for deals when Backes is still on the books. If he isn’t producing for the club, then they’ll be back to where they were when the previous GM had to move the ever popular Johnny Boychuk for futures at a time when expectations for the club were high. In hindsight, Brandon Carlo and Ryan Lindgren are promising prospects who will in all likelihood play for the Bruins, but there is no question that not having Boychuk for the last two seasons has been an enormous factor in the defense’s plunge to the bottom of the league.

Don Sweeney and Cam Neely are courting disaster with a signing of this magnitude- they aren’t gambling here…because Backes is a proven commodity who despite his age still brings a lot to the table. However, when we’ve watched the way injuries and age have helped speed Zdeno Chara’s decline, it is a fair point to raise here. Backes is leaving his prime, but the Bruins just paid him like a guy who is in it…kinda like Lucic is.

Now, here’s some encouraging news- Backes scored 7 goals and 14 points in 20 playoff games. His level of play went up, as he posted career bests in the postseason and led his team by example to the Western Conference final, where they ran out of gas against the upstart San Jose Sharks club. His previous postseason high for games played was just 9 contests, so it isn’t like Backes has had much experience going deep into the playoffs, but he performed like a star and captain at age 32- that had to be a key in terms of what impressed the Bruins enough to take the plunge.

Unfortunately, the modern NHL continues down a path whereby exorbitant prices are paid in the offseason to players who typically won’t justify those contracts from start to finish. That makes the lower-cost ELC and bridge contracts for younger players more critical than ever, so when people express concern for what could happen down the road to rising stars like David Pastrnak, for example, that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, which is what I did. A mistake for which I apologized. I have to think that management is already looking ahead to Pastrnak and figuring out how to keep him. That, in my mind, started last year when he asked for the Bruins to release him to play for his country at the World Jr. Championship and they obliged- even though they incurred all the risk had some catastrophic injury happened to him. That’s the kind of thing that can help strengthen the bridge to longer-term contracts and a presence with the team that showed you respect, though it would be naive in the extreme to think that a player like Pastrnak would turn down a massive offer sheet elsewhere because the B’s honored his request.

Ultimately, Backes is now a Bruin. Fans should look forward to what he can bring as someone who can do just about everything and has come up against Boston in big moments in the past. But, that doesn’t mean embracing a player without taking a hard look at the dollars and cents and where a deal like this could come back to haunt down the road.

The big question is the same for all GMs who are spending available cap space today: are you paying the player for what he did for someone else, or because you think he’s going to provide the same level of performance for you? If the answer is the latter, then we have no choice but to cross the fingers and hope that the worn tread on the tire won’t be an issue. Because if injuries force Backes out for extended periods, or his normal 20-30 goals per season drops to 10, seeing that $6M bite out of the cap will be a bitter pill.

For now, you look at the team today- and they’ve lost a little offense from Eriksson, but gained a measure of size and heaviness- made themselves tougher to play against. Backes is a good fit for Boston, and one can only hope that unlike other big-ticket free agents of the past who signed bloated deals at age 32, that he’ll stave off the effects of Father Time and be a part of a winning solution for the Bruins going forward.

***

The Bruins also re-signed trade deadline acquisition John-Michael Liles to a one-year $2M extension. That’s solid for the player who still has the wheels and puck-moving chops to be an effective middle tier role player. He helped boost the B’s offense in the first 10 days after he was picked up, but like the rest of the club, came down to earth and wasn’t able to make enough of a difference to prevent the late-season implosion.

It will be interesting to see how Liles does with a full training camp and opportunity to adjust to the new coaching staff.

However, Boston’s biggest need remains at the defense position and Sweeney has yet to address it.

Whether that comes via trade involving forward parts that can now better afford to be moved with the Backes addition or the team is looking at another bigger name (there aren’t many) UFA remains to be seen. The right-shooting Jason Demers is still on the market at the time of this writing, but probably not for long.

Shots fired: Report- Eriksson to Vancouver, Khudobin back to B’s

Nick Kypreos reporting that Loui Eriksson has agreed to terms on a 6-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks. AAV to be determined, but have to think it will be around $5.5-6M range- too rich for the Bruins, in all honesty.

The Bruins now just have D Joe Morrow and winger Jimmy Hayes to show for the Tyler Seguin trade that happened just three years ago on July 4th. The criticism will only grow, as once again- it was the return, dummy. Seguin still has a lot of growing up to do, but man- the guy is a super star and the B’s failed to get commensurate value. Period. End of story. There’s no dodging that one, even if I still maintain that I understood the reasoning behind moving him.

What adds fuel to the fire is that the B’s could have flipped Eriksson to St Louis back in February for Kevin Shattenkirk, but neither team could make the money work. Based on connected sources to both teams, I am told that there is a sense of regret that the sides did not work harder to make it happen. The Bruins have now lost Eriksson to free agency for zip and the Blues may have lost David Backes to the open market as well.

Ultimately, though- unrestricted free agency represents a sense of insanity, where teams pay above market prices for older players who more often than not represent the law of diminishing returns. If the Bob McKenzie rumor that the Bruins are in heavy on Backes, (and hey- it’s Mr. McKenzie- no one is going to doubt it for a second) and they end up with him, this one is going to sting for Doug Armstrong, as dealing Shattenkirk to the B’s would have likely given him the cap space to get a deal done with his captain.

Backes makes perfect sense when you look at what the Bruins value- size, ability but leadership and character. They have to get bigger up the middle, and getting him would mean that Don Sweeney can flip other assets for help on defense.

Farewell, Loui- he was a good Bruin and had his best season in Boston at the right time. These guys should be given every chance to cash in, and Eriksson did just that. The B’s wanted him back, just not at the price Jim Benning was willing to pay. Now, we wait to see who the B’s bring in to shore up their non-playoff squad that is weaker than it was without Eriksson.

Also from Mssr. McKenzie- the Bruins are reportedly bringing back goalie Anton “Dobby” Khudobin– the diminutive but plucky netminder who played well for them as Tuukka Rask’s backup before signing with Carolina a few years back. He’s bounced around after failing to earn that elusive No. 1 spot elsewhere, and this is a fine (and cheap) signing to bring in veteran insurance, while Malcolm Subban may still be given every opportunity to earn the backup spot. Jeremy Smith is no doubt gone now that Borat is indeed back.

EDIT: He’s on a 2-year, $2.4 M deal which helps keep the costs down on Rask’s $7M hit- $1.2M for a capable backup is a little higher than ideal, but the B’s know what they are getting and he’s shown he can get the job done when called upon, despite the lack of ideal NHL size for the position.