2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series part 3: the Left Wings

Brad Marchand is the team's top LW period. End of story. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Brad Marchand is the team’s top LW period. End of story. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Scouting Post is back with another attempt to break down what we might see unfold during the 2016-17 NHL campaign as it pertains to the Boston Bruins.

This time, we’re hitting the left wingers, and it all starts with Brad Marchand– the lil’ ball of hate & straw that stirs the goal-scoring drink for the B’s. He’s entering a contract year after coming off a career season, and I’ll break him down in detail for you in the accompanying podcast, so no real need to say more.

Frank Vatrano is the player we have high hopes for in making it as the second-line LW in Boston this year. The Springfield Rifle is talented enough to do it, but it will entail accepting risk on the part of Claude Julien and Co. Can the East Longmeadow native be trusted to shoulder the load- TSP is confident he can. His impressive AHL rookie season was just the tip of the iceberg- Vatrano has the skill and moxie to make it work as a top-6 NHL forward.

On the third line, Matt Beleskey is the guy, though I do go into more about his value contract-wise and what he means to the B’s. I’m sold on Beleskey for the myriad little things he does on and off the ice, but I won’t argue with those who feel that the team isn’t getting enough bang for the buck on his deal. Ultimately, they could do much worse, but if he can improve on his 15 goals and 37 points from a year ago, that would be welcome news indeed.

The fourth line is pretty wide open, and my guess is that Tim Schaller has the inside track. The Merrimack, N.H. native has the size and enough big league ability to be a capable bookend along with Riley Nash over on the right side. He’s listed as a center, but if he’s not going to play in the middle, LW makes a lot of sense for the former undrafted free agent out of Buffalo.

Zac Rinaldo…we hardly knew ye! Well, he’s still hanging around, but my guess is not for much longer.

That leaves a host of other aspiring young players vying for spots on this Boston Bruins club, and I run through just about all of them- from the young pros like Colton Hargrove and Anton Blidh, to new blood AHL options like Jake DeBrusk and Peter Cehlarik. Jesse Gabrielle will be fighting (literally?) to make an impression, and he looked jacked (in a good way) when I saw him in Buffalo for draft weekend. When he’s playing like someone possessed, opponents need to keep their heads on a swivel…he can wreck it on the scoreboard and on the physical side. He’ll have his hands full trying to win a spot on this NHL team given the lack of options the B’s have, but watch for Gabrielle to open up some eyes this month- he took a major step forward last year.

Ryan Fitzgerald isn’t there because he’s entering his senior year at Boston College, but he’s a Swiss Army Knife kind of pro projected player, and he’s going to do some impressive scoring work up on Chestnut Hill this season after breaking out as a junior.

Let’s not forget a couple of undrafted camp invites in Matt Mistele (I pronounce it for you on the podcast)- a 6th-round pick of the Kings in 2014 who didn’t sign and has been a pretty major disappointment since potting 34 goals in the OHL as a 16-17-year-old prior to his draft year. He’s big and talented, but doesn’t use his size and brings inconsistent effort- sounds like he might just fit right in. Simon Stransky is the other as a WHL player this past season who put up a point-per-game with the Prince Albert Raiders and distinguished himself as a playmaking winger with top hockey sense, yet never got a draft call. Both will get an opportunity to show their potential and earn an NHL contract, but in the podcast- we’ll explain why just signing one or both is not as simple as declaring it a must on Twitter and Bruins internet message boards. There are other undrafted/unsigned/ forwards and rookie defensemen in Boston on an invitational basis for the rookie camp portion, but not going to cover them here.

Thanks for reading and listening…keeping this one short and pithy because the pod comes in at around 50 minutes. Enjoy the Winger intro and the Primus outro.

Jesse Gabrielle has added some mass since draft day and is ready for his 2nd NHL training camp

Jesse Gabrielle has added some mass since draft day and is ready for his 2nd NHL training camp

 

Matt Beleskey- not quite your MVP but a key contributor

If not for the numbers, it would not be a stretch to argue that left wing Matt Beleskey is one of the Boston Bruins’ most valuable players over the first quarter of the 2015-16 NHL season.

The two goals and 10 points in 20 games is disappointing given he scored a career-high of 22 a year ago with the Anaheim Ducks and was expected to reach the 20-goal plateau at least this season after the B’s made him their priority target in free agency last July. Signed to a five-year pact that carries an AAV/cap hit of $3.8 million per season, Beleskey is currently the eighth-highest paid Bruin on the roster. However, this blog post will argue that he’s closer the top-five in terms of impact and importance to the team’s fortunes. That may not translate when it comes to pure production, but in terms of other traditional and advanced metrics, Beleskey has been one of the more consistent forwards on a team that has had other players provide the needed scoring impetus early on. Based on his role in Anaheim a year go, Beleskey will eventually bring more in terms of production, and when he does, his overall physicality, energy and grit will be even more significant in proper context.

Background: Beleskey was the 116th overall selection (fourth round) by Anaheim in the 2006NHL Entry Draft, spending his entire OHL career with the Belleville Bulls (2004-08). His best season was a 41-goal, 90-point affair for the Bulls in his final junior campaign in 2007-08, signing with Anaheim and spending the 2008-09 season in the AHL (he did have a two-game scoreless NHL stint with the Ducks that year.) Beleskey scored 11 goals in 60 NHL games the following season and established himself as a full-time NHLer in 2011-12. The lockout and injuries have conspired to deny him more than 70 games in a single season, but he hit a career best for goals and points last season in only 65 games. The Ducks attempted to keep him out of free agency with a contract extension offer before the regular season ended, but Beleskey opted instead to go the free agency route.

Traditional statistics: With just a pair of goals in 20 games, there is no denying that Beleskey’s production is way down from a year ago. He’s scored in a loss against Montreal and an October 31 win over Tampa Bay, so both of his goals have come against division rivals. However, his assist totals put him on pace for about 40 helpers, which will far exceed his career-best 15 assists from 2013-14. His points/60 min average is a little off from what it was a year ago, but is comparable, and he is on pace to surpass his top output of 32 points.

Granted- you expect more from your $3.8M than 40-50 points, but that’s not terrible value offensively. At even strength, where the B’s have not been the greatest this season, Beleskey is among the team’s leaders in points with a 1.89 points/60 rating. Compare that to David Krejci– 2.41; Patrice Bergeron– 1.23; Loui Eriksson– 1.73 and Brad Marchand– 1.70. That Krejci leads Beleskey by .52 P/60 5v5 is not a surprise, but would you have put money on him beating everyone else- and Bergeron by .66? Beleskey’s even strength P/60 are No. 3 on the team overall- behind Krejci and Tyler Randell (2.30), who has played a paltry 78 minutes at even strength. Beleskey’s  even strength 1.89 P/60 would be only seventh-best on the Montreal Canadiens (just ahead of Tomas Plekanec), but he would lead the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose best 5v5 player, Jonathan Drouin, has just a 1.88 P/60 to boast of.

Beleskey has not had an opportunity of any significance with the man advantage or on the penalty kill, with just 6:39 of power play time (compared to his 285:38 and counting at even strength) and 49 seconds  on the ice while shorthanded. The lack of impact on special teams is both a ding on him in terms of how valuable he is and an example of how successful he’s been despite the opportunities that his higher-scoring teammates receive in the special teams game. When you factor in the Bruins P/60 rates in all situations- Beleskey (1.97) drops to 10th on the team, with every forward on the active roster save for Frank Vatrano, Landon Ferraro, Joonas Kemppainen and Zac Rinaldo ahead of him. Colin Miller’s (2.00) rating puts him ahead of Beleskey, the only defender in the top-nine. On the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, Beleskey’s 1.97 P/60 puts him fourth on that team.

Where Beleskey is shining is in the hits department, where he is currently in the top-10 with 82 hits, more than 4 per game on average. By comparison, Milan Lucic, the Boston forward Beleskey was widely considered to have been brought in to address the lost production from, has 78 hits in two more games. Beleskey doesn’t have Lucic’s natural size or ability to be as physically dominant, but he’s a scrappy, physical guy for his 6-foot-and change size. He’s always willing to finish his checks and make a big hit. Just ask Derek Stepan. Ouch…too soon? Que dites-vous, Alain Vigneault?

Beleskey is shooting the puck more than he did a year ago and right now, not a whole lot is going in for him, but when he starts finding the back of the net, watch for him to get on a streak. Beleskey fired five shots on Henrik Lundqvist Friday and if he continues to get pucks to the net, he’ll raise the scoring bar. A year ago, he scored 18 even strength goals on just 124 shots, a shooting percentage of 14.5 percent- well above his typical numbers (he tallied 10.3 percent in his 11-goal season during 2009-10, but typically scored at under a 10 percent clip in his other years), but most analysts predicted (correctly) a natural regression from that 14.5 percentage this season. Admittedly, the B’s need more than his current 6.67 shooting percentage, and he’s a good bet to get that number up closer to his career average of about 9-10 percent by season’s end.

Advanced statistics: Beleskey is on the positive side of the ledger in terms of goals scored for his team when he is on the ice versus goals against (per 60 minutes), with a GF60 of 2.941 and GA60 of 2.101. good for a GF percentage of 58.3. Bergeron’s even strength offensive numbers for example aren’t as good- the B’s have scored just 2.255 GF/60 but his GA/60 average is better with a 1.845.  That gives him a 55.0 GF%. Bergeron’s iCorsi (74) is higher than Beleskey’s (66) because he takes more shots, but his even strength shooting percentage is lower.

Beleskey’s PDO (shot percentage + save percentage while player is on the ice- I like this stat because it tends to be a little more predictive versus some of the others) is 101.7, which is lower than his 103.8 and 103.0 in each of the last two seasons. Bergeron’s even strength PDO is 98.8- up two percentage points from the less productive 2013-14 season, when he posted a 96.8. Even in his 30-goal campaign of two years ago, his PDO was 102.4- just .7 points higher than Beleskey’s number as of today.

Bergeron significantly overtakes Beleskey on the power play where his production is tops on the Bruins with 9.88 P/60 (he has 11 of his 21 points against Beleskey’s 0.00. Bergeron’s PDO on the power play is 120.6 (compared to his 5v5 of 98.8), which gives you an idea of just how much his production with the man advantage skews the scoring totals in his favor. The bottom line for me when I look at the two players- at even strength, where the two have similar minutes on the ice, Beleskey is the more productive (note- I said productive not better) player. I won’t peel the onion back too much more in terms of Beleskey’s zone starts or how he does when close or trailing, but he’s been one of the more consistent performers at even strength- admittedly and area that the Bruins need to improve on going forward if they want to remain in the playoff picture.

(Statistical source: Hockey Analysis.com- David Johnson)

Intangibles: Going back to July 1, when Beleskey chose the Bruins in free agency, he’s said and done all the right things. He and his wife were active on social media and quickly traveled to Boston after signing, showing their excitement to be joining the organization at a time when the team’s outlook was anything but rosy. The B’s and Don Sweeney had just traded Dougie Hamilton and more questions than answers swirled around the B’s, even though Beleskey and trade acquisition Jimmy Hayes pumped some excitement into fans who had seen their contributions while wearing other team jerseys and envisioned good things from the new additions. Thus far, the two have combined for just six goals, which is well off of expectations given that they posted a total of 41 between the two of them with the Ducks and Florida Panthers a year ago.

Beleskey is hard-nosed- he’s had a couple of fights with Minnesota’s Brett Bulmer and NY Ranger Dylan McIlrath in the past seven days, racking up an impressive 10 total hits in both contests. He’s a gritty, willing combatant, which should endear him to Bruins fans as they warm up to him in Boston and see where his consistency and ruggedness comes from.

Against McIlrath, Beleskey was out of his weight class and took some shots and jabs from the much larger former WHL pugilist and first-round pick before coming back with a right cross and then went to the ice.

Beleskey did a lot better in his scrap against Bulmer, however…

What’s more- Beleskey wants to be here. Sweeney did a good job of moving guys who didn’t feel the same way out. If you’re going to invest millions in a player- at least pay for the ones who want to be a part of the solution. These guys are only human and sometimes we forget that if someone doesn’t want it as badly, we can expect them to be professionals, but without being able to see inside a person’s heart, we don’t know if they are giving it their all. One need not do any more than simply watch the way Beleskey hurtles around the ice on every shift, looking to to make a hit or force a turnover if he’s anywhere near the puck when someone with another jersey has it, to know that the guy is giving it his maximum effort.

Beleskey was in the news this past week when he and his wife purchased $2,000 worth of pies and distributed them to homeless veteran charities in Boston for Thanksgiving. It’s a nice gesture from a player who has backed up his words of being proud to be a part of the Bruins organization with the kind of gritty play the team values, as well as taking the time to give back to the community.

Summary: The Bruins are getting the guy they coveted from the West Coast. The goals aren’t there, but he’s brought a needed effort each and every night and plays hard, providing the all-important leadership by example. His 10 points in 20 games has him on pace for his best offensive season, and he’s creating space for his line mates with his physical brand of hockey. Beleskey doesn’t have the natural size to be a classic and even feared power forward, but he’s not shy about sticking his nose in and taking one for the team.

There are some who will just point to the $3.8M cap hit and draw a direct correlation to the downturn in goals, but when you consider that some pundits were predicting him to sign for upwards of $4.5 or 5 million last July, the Bruins are getting solid value. At age 27 and with four more years on the books, he’ll probably live up to the contract and then some so long as he can stay healthy. Because of his kamikaze style of play, it takes a toll on his average frame. However, when all is said and done, no one will ever accuse Beleskey of being soft.

In short, you win with guys like that, and this is why- as we look at Boston’s record after 22 games- they sit at a solid 13-8-1 overall. There aren’t many who would have put money on them being 5 games over .500 at the quarter pole with the team they had on paper coming into the season. Beleskey’s contributions, especially at even strength when the power play has not been there to carry the club offensively, are a big reason you can make a case that he’s right up there with the big guns- Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Eriksson as one of the team’s most valuable players during this stretch of the season.