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.

NHL free agency: B’s likely to part with Johansson

We’re on the eve of the NHL’s annual open market unrestricted free agent derby and with the Boston Bruins having about $12 million in cap space and three key restricted free agents to come to terms with in Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen, don’t expect any major splash on July 1.

Additionally, with trade deadline acquisition Marcus Johansson rumored (per report from Darren Dreger) to be talking to multiple teams, and none of them the Bruins, it looks like the B’s will miss out on re-signing a good complementary piece who made a positive impact in his short time in the Black and Gold.

Unfortunately, when you haven’t signed your key restricted free agents, it’s pretty tough to make a solid offer to an unrestricted free agent who is being courted by teams with more solidified positions. The player known as “Jo-Jo” will almost certainly get a new zip code tomorrow or early in the UFA signing period, but in the end, are the Bruins taking a big blow? Johansson is likely to get a contract that exceeds his current value and Don Sweeney understands that, so he wasn’t about to rob Peter to pay Paul to try and move someone else to free up the cap room to take a run at MJ90.

In the end, Johansson helped his new club get within one win of a Stanley Cup championship…but the B’s couldn’t quite get there. And like every team that enjoys extended playoff success, there is always a “winner’s tax” that comes in the form of other teams with cap space who line up to invest in said players who hit the open market. One of the most important factors in good teams staying good is by avoiding the temptation of re-signing solid role players at higher-than-market value based on past performance. If Johansson is going to get $6M or more, let some other team break out the check book. The B’s have more immediate (with long-term implications) and strategic interests to manage.

Boston’s real priority is getting contracts extended with their RFAs and however long it takes, expect it to get done. McAvoy may take a bit of time, but the prediction here is that Carlo and Heinen should come to terms in relatively fast order.  And let us not forget- next summer, you’ll see Torey Krug, Charlie Coyle and Jaroslav Halak (plus Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom, Kevan Miller and Zdeno Chara) become unrestricted free agents (and realistically- will we be seeing Chara’s last NHL campaign in 2019-20?), while Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk will be up for raises on the restricted side.

Sweeney needs to avoid over-commitment on the pricey open market and focus on managing Boston’s growing cap.

In the meantime, watch for the Bruins to invest modest cap numbers in low-end veteran players who will provide some bargain value with NHL experience, but not much upside. This opens the door for players like Oskar Steen or Jack Studnicka perhaps to take a run at making the B’s this fall to help fill the gap left by Johansson’s departure. Anders Bjork, often a forgotten man because he’s been lost to significant injuries in each of his last (and only) two pro seasons probably should be the first forward who slots into the vacancy left by Johansson. However, the B’s are still left with a more pressing need to address on the right wing.

That isn’t going to get solved via free agency, so it may mean Sweeney and Co. may need to open up the stable doors and try to make a trade somewhere.

Regardless of what happens tomorrow, don’t expect the Bruins to be major players. They’ll do what they usually do and bring in low-end signings that bolster the organization, but the war chest to sign the bigger available names out there in the first 48 hours isn’t there…barring some kind of creative maneuvering no one expects.

However- we keep going back to the summer of 2020. If the B’s overspend now, it makes it substantially more difficult to manage in 12 months. The smart money bets that the team will focus on locking up its own guys versus jumping into the deeper pool with teams with the money to spend (and potentially get themselves over their heads) when the frenzy kicks off in a matter of hours.

Don Sweeney named NHL GM of Year

The 2019 NHL Awards Show happened tonight in Las Vegas and Don Sweeney captured the hardware as the league’s General Manager of the Year as voted on by his peers and a smaller/more select panel of media broadcasters.

Sweeney earned it with a steady, methodical build of the Bruins from an organization that was in disarray at the end of the 2015 season, to coming within one game of a Stanley Cup championship four years later.

To be sure, it hasn’t been perfect- you had the Zac Rinaldo misstep right out of the gate, followed by the well-intentioned but ultimately fruitless Jimmy Hayes trade that sent Reilly Smith to Florida. And of course- you still have people twitching online about the 2015 draft, when  the B’s could’ve had Mathew Barzal and Kyle Connor. Or is it Thomas Chabot? Or Travis Konecny or Sebastian Aho or (insert the name of every player taken after the B’s sandwiched Jake DeBrusk between Jakub Zboril and Zach Senyshyn who has had some NHL success to date) but we digress…

The successes, by and large, have been prolific.

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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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B’s 2019 trade deadline thoughts as final stretch begins

Okay, so it wasn’t a headline-grabbing trade deadline,  but the B’s have gone 1-0-0-1 with 3 out of 4 points since acquiring veteran forwards Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson in separate trades last week and on Monday’s annual NHL trade deadline.

We’re  all still waiting on Don Sweeney’s “signature” trade- he’s made some relatively minor deals in his tenure as GM since succeeding Peter Chiarelli in spring 2015, but as of yet, we haven’t seen a major franchise-altering transaction under his watch. And that’s okay- as of right now at least- because it’s hard to argue that the Bruins haven’t at least improved since Sweeney sent scoring prospect Ryan Donato and a 5th pick to Minnesota for the Weymouth native and former San Jose 1st-rounder in 2010.

The biggest challenge facing Sweeney and Co. is the specter of the NHL’s top club in Tampa Bay (who summarily dismissed the B’s from the postseason a year ago) and an improving Toronto Maple Leafs franchise who will be an even tougher out (after taking Boston to seven games in the first round last year). It’s entirely possible that some of the consternation about what the team did at the deadline you might see out there from media and fans alike has to do with how potent the Atlantic Division is and that the perception is that Boston didn’t do enough. That’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes and no one ever said winning a championship is easy.

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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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3 Amigos Podcast: Ask the Amigos mailbag, lots of topics- last pod for a while

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Jack Studnicka (Kirk Luedeke photo)

We brought the band back together for one final podcast before the 2018-19 season- it wrapped up on Labor Day weekend, the final official weekend of the summer before we go back to our busy schedules.

Thanks to all of the supporters who took the time to post some thoughtful questions- this one takes us about 90 minutes to get through.

Will try to put it up on Sound Cloud at some point, but for now- you have to listen to it here. It’s not on iTunes and isn’t going to be- limitations of technology at present.

Thanks for listening and be sure to stick around until the end to hear an important message from Dom.

Here’s the audio- appreciate all of the support!- Dom, Reed & Kirk

 

The Bruins & the Cap- Where do they Stand?

by Dominic Tiano

For the vast majority of hockey fans, the National Hockey League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement and the salary cap can be a nightmare to understand unless you have a law degree from Harvard. Now, I don’t have such a degree, but I do talk to people who work with the CBA and Cap daily and have a good understanding in what the Boston Bruins are facing this upcoming season and beyond.

So here is my take on what General Manager Don Sweeney and cap guru Evan Gold face:

With the announcement by the Bruins yesterday that they have reached a contract agreement with Colby Cave, the Bruins have all their restricted and unrestricted players signed for the 2018-2019 season (at the very least, those they wanted to retain). Unless of course you want to count Rick Nash, who is still undecided if he wants to continue playing because of health issues.

Using CapFriendly as a source, we find the Bruins with $2.95 million in cap space with a 23-man roster. That money can be banked to use throughout the season to add to their current roster, including Nash if he wishes to return to playing hockey and with the Bruins.

Their cap space was reduced for 2018-2019 because of performance bonuses paid out to Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen that could not have fit under last season and are carried over. Under the CBA, a team can exceed the cap by 7% because of performance bonuses and have it charged to the following season. For 2018-2019, that charge to the cap is $774,000.

Further reducing their cap space is what is often called “dead money” – money paid to players no longer on the roster because they were bought out or the team retained salary in a trade. For 2018-2019, the Bruins are still paying Dennis Seidenberg ($1,166,167 for two more seasons) and Jimmy Hayes (866,667 for one more season) after buying them out. They are also paying Matt Beleskey in a salary retained deal with the New York Rangers $1.9 million for two more seasons, although the numbers could change if the Rangers choose to buyout Beleskey during the second buyout period. That’s just shy of $4 million in “dead money”.

At the end of the 2018-2019 season, the Bruins could be tagged with a bonus overage of just over $3.7 million. Potential bonuses that could be paid out are Zdeno Chara ($1.75 million) McAvoy ($500,000), DeBrusk ($425,000) Heinen ($212,500) and Ryan Donato ($800,000). Based on where the cap is today and barring no roster changes (although there are sure to be callups from Providence when injuries occur further reducing the cap) and that most, if not all those bonuses will be attained, fans and the Bruins can look forward to a bonus overage carried over to the 2019-2020 season. Just how much depends on how much of their current $2.9 million in space is used.

The cap is almost certainly going to rise, either by increased revenue or by the NHLPA invoking the escalator (artificially increasing the cap by 5%). But there is always the possibility that the NHLPA does not invoke the escalator (they’ve done that once in the salary cap era and other times increasing it by less then 5%). Hayes will come off the books, but it still leaves a tad more then $3 million in dead money from the Seidenberg buyout and Beleskey trade.

According to CapFriendly, the Bruins have $16.5 million in cap space for 2019-2020 (if the cap remains stagnant) with 16 players on the roster. Some of those spots could be filled with prospects making the jump from Providence.

But the Bruins have to dish out new contracts to McAvoy, Carlo, Heinen and Donato. And if Big Z decides he wants to play another season, well, that pretty much eats up that $16.5 million with two roster spots left to fill. The problem still lies with how much bonus overage there is going forward and that $16.5 million is directly influenced by that figure.

But, the cap will rise. Whether it rises enough is anyone’s guess.

In the end, there are a lot of “ifs” when looking beyond the upcoming season. The only definitive answer I can give you now is that Sweeney and Gold will get it done.

Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

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Breaking: Julien out, Cassidy in

The Boston Bruins announced this morning that the franchise’s all-time wins leader and 2011 Stanley Cup-winning head coach Claude Julien has been relieved of his duties after nearly a decade in the position and more than 400 victories. B’s assistant and former Providence Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy will serve as interim head coach in Boston. Cassidy, who previously held the head coaching job with the Washington Capitals, inherits a team that most recently lost critical points to the division rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a crushing 6-5 defeat and is fighting for its playoff lives.

With the New England Patriots victory happening today, GM Don Sweeney will hold a press conference to officially announce the move and discuss the way ahead. The timing of Julien’s dismissal is curious, to say the least, but given his pedigree- he is sure to land on his feet and won’t be unemployed for long.

More analysis on Julien’s legacy and expanded context on Cassidy and the organization to follow on the blog later tonight or in next 24 hours.

EDITOR’s note- The conference is over, with GM and new coach meeting the press, plus revelation that Joe Sacco will cover down on D and Jay Pandolfo will move to the bench during games. A lot to unpack and not sure the first/hottest take is going to cut it.