Bruins Prospect Update 12/05/16: Goal eruption

B’s prospects had quite the weekend in the goal scoring department as the calendar entered our final month of 2016.

Friday night was for hat tricks as Zach Senyshyn (4 goals), Jesse Gabrielle (3 goals) and Joona Koppanen (3 goals) all brought the head covers raining down.

Harvard’s Ryan Donato also had multiple goals, while another Ryan- Minnesota freshman defenseman Ryan Lindgren, tallied his first career NCAA goal, finishing off a 2-on-1 with Rem Pitlick in a loss to Ohio State Saturday night.

Additionally, Anders Bjork and Danton Heinen had a two-goal games for Notre Dame and the Providence Bruins (respectively) Friday night, and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson added a goal in BU’s win over Providence College that same evening.

Senyshyn’s Texas hat trick (if “everything” is bigger in the Lone Star State and 4 > 3, ergo- a four-goal game is Texas-sized) came against the Barrie Colts one year to the day that he performed the same feat- December 2, 2015 against the Sudbury Wolves. In this one, Senyshyn accounted for all of the Soo Greyhounds’ goals, tallying in overtime on a nice spin-around to protect the puck, shake the defender and drive right to the net for his 13th marker of the season in 22 games. He’s ba-a-a-a-ck!

***

Going on a bit of a rant, here- so bear with us.

It can be grating that whenever we post a positive update on either one of Anders Bjork or Jesse Gabrielle on Twitter, people seem to constantly respond with concerns about their signing status. Here’s the TSP take: we fail to see what the big que pasa is right now. Yes, we’re going to use that analogy again- FAST FOOD mentality- to describe fans who can’t ever seem to be happy with what is going on and want to overly dissect and analyze everything down to the gnat’s ass, including wanting every contract move and decision resolved in the immediate. Look, we get it- if we weren’t stressing over what the Bruins might or might not do with their sizable stable of futures on Twitter or elsewhere, whatever would we do with ourselves? At some point, you just have to enjoy what is happening and let the pieces fall when the time comes.

Bjork is well on his way to his best season in college? No, we’re afraid he’s going to “pull a Vesey” even though he’s still some 20 months away from August 15, 2018- the absolute earliest date that he could walk away from the Bruins and become a free agent. Gabrielle on another 40+ goal pace for the second consecutive season in the WHL? Dammit, Bruins- why haven’t you signed him already??? Never mind the fact that the B’s drafted six major junior players in 2015 and have successfully signed the first five…Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, Zach Senyshyn, Brandon Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon. Gabrielle is next, and they have until June 1 to make him a “bona fide” offer to retain his rights. It’s going to get done, folks- he grew up cheering for the Bruins and they’re the team that put their faith in him when everyone else passed until the mid fourth round. If it doesn’t happen and the B’s lose one or the other somehow, then we’ll be totally wrong and you can remind us of this post all you want. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Look- there’s no guarantee that the Bruins will sign both of Bjork and Gabrielle, but there are no indications that it won’t happen either. They’ve got 27 goals between them with room for a lot more, so for now, our advice is to enjoy the fireworks and don’t sweat the small stuff. Rookie salary caps and the like have put an end to the days when Hall of Fame-caliber junior players like Kyle Wanvig could just refuse a team’s offer and fax machine jams could result in them going back into the draft. Yes, the CBA allows for players like Jimmy Vesey and Matt Benning to name a few to become free agents and sign elsewhere, but those experiences are making teams like Boston wise to playing the longer game so that they don’t lose the assets. Again- there is no reason to assume that Bjork is in the same place Vesey was in terms of how he approaches his pro hockey future, so until he actually turns down an offer from the B’s, we should just let it play out for now. There is such a thing as paralysis by analysis, after all.

Or, to coin a popular phrase from the 1980’s, “Frankie says…relax.”

 

Amateur Prospects as of 12/05/16

Name/Team League GP G A PTS PIM
Jesse Gabrielle, Prince George WHL 23 16 11 27 32
Anders Bjork, Notre Dame HE-NCAA 16 11 15 26 8
Zach Senyshyn, SSM OHL 22 13 8 21 15
Jakub Zboril, Saint John QMJHL 17 6 10 16 10
Ryan Fitzgerald, BC HE-NCAA 16 5 11 16 22
Ryan Donato, Harvard

 

ECAC- NCAA 11 7 7 14 8
Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, BU HE- NCAA 14 3 10 13 14
Cameron Hughes, Wisconsin

 

Big10- NCAA 14 2 10 12 6
Charlie McAvoy, BU HE-NCAA 14 1 11 12 14
Jeremy Lauzon, Rouyn-Noranda

 

QMJHL 12 2 9 11 6
Trent Frederic, Wisconsin* Big10- NCAA 8 4 6 10 8
Jack Becker, Sioux Falls**

 

USHL 17 2 3 5 28
Cameron Clarke, Ferris St.

 

WCHA- NCAA 16 0 4 4 16
Wiley Sherman, Harvard

 

ECAC-NCAA 11 0 4 4 8
Ryan Lindgren, Minnesota

 

Big10- NCAA 14 1 2 3 47

* Injured

Pro and European Prospects

Name/Team League GP G A PTS PIM
Joona Koppanen, Ilves Jr. U20- Finland 20 12 17 29 2
Peter Cehlarik, Providence

 

AHL 16 8 5 13 6
Danton Heinen, Providence AHL 12 7 5 12 0

 

Matt Grzelcyk, Providence

 

AHL 22 1 10 11 6
Anton Blidh, Providence#

 

AHL 19 5 4 9 22
Colby Cave, Providence

 

AHL 22 3 6 9 11
Jake DeBrusk, Providence AHL 22 3 6 9 11

 

Colton Hargrove, Providence

 

AHL 19 3 5 8 22
Emil Johansson, Djurgarden IF

 

Sweden- Elite 18 3 4 7 6
Austin Czarnik, Providence#

 

AHL 2 1 2 3 0
Sean Kuraly, Providence

 

AHL 13 1 2 3 11
Rob O’Gara, Providence

 

AHL 17 0 2 2 2
Chris Casto, Providence

 

AHL 19 0 2 2 20
Oskar Steen, Farjestad

 

Sweden- Elite 19 1 1 2 2
Linus Arnesson, Providence

 

AHL 18 0 1 1 4
Brian Ferlin, Providence

 

AHL 1 0 0 0 0
Justin Hickman, Providence

 

AHL 7 0 0 0 7
Zane McIntyre, Providence

 

AHL 5 3 0 0.93 .965
Dan Vladar, Providence

 

AHL 6 3 0 (3) 2.84 .914
Malcolm Subban, Providence

 

AHL 11 1 6 (5) 3.12 .897

# Czarnik, Blidh recalled to Boston

Tyler Randell, Tommy Cross, Alex Grant > age 25- not listed

Time to go- Bruins raise curtains on 93rd season with new faces, youth movement

New Englanders tend to be realistic (pessimistic?) by nature, so while the focus has been on the defense and the potential for gaping lanes that skill teams will find available to them, as the 2016-17 NHL season begins for the Boston Bruins tonight in Columbus, Ohio, there’s some excitement swirling around the big league debuts of four players in the lineup.

Injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller have opened the door for a pair of forwards in Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen, and a defense duo of Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara to get their first taste of NHL action against the Blue Jackets. Bergeron is expected back in the lineup for the weekend action versus Toronto and rookie sensation Auston Matthews, who last night became the only player ever to score four goals in his first NHL game. McQuaid and Miller will be out a little (in the former’s case, a lot for the latter) longer, so we temper the eagerness with which we greet the young rookies with the belief that perhaps half of them have a realistic chance of staying on Boston’s roster for the duration of the season.

In Czarnik, the B’s have a fast and skilled little (emphasis needed) center who was snubbed in the NHL draft, but looks like a pretty savvy pickup after four years at Miami University, the last two of which he wore the captain’s ‘C’. He took a high hit from behind that targeted the head in the final preseason game by Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas (he got a six-game layoff from the NHL’s department of player safety) but cleared the concussion protocol in time to play in his first big league game. Czarnik is a classic little engine that could as a player who always had to overcome size bias to work harder than just about everyone else to hone his skills and three zone game. After a 61-point first year in the AHL, he’s made the initial cut to stick in Boston, and that’s the stuff NHL dreams are truly made of. Czarnik is an exciting buzzsaw of a forward- he zips in and out of lanes and can put the shake n’ bake on less-agile defenders. When the puck is on his stick, he brings a similar kind of playing style to that of Brad Marchand. Note- we’re not saying he is the next Marchand, but you can see it in the way he uses his speed, vision and hands to create and give opponents fits. He’s not the abrasive agitator Marchand is, but Czarnik is a big man trapped in a little man’s body who plays the game with heart and energy. Fans love an underdog, and when coupled with Czarnik’s electrifying offensive element, it’s not hard to understand why so many are jumping on the AC Train.

More was expected of Heinen and he entered training camp as a prohibitive favorite to win a spot with the big club, but he is also a feel-good story. Passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility in 2013, the British Columbia native hit a significant growth spurt and then opened eyes as captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles. The Bruins liked Heinen enough to snatch him in the 2014 draft’s fourth round despite his being an almost complete unknown in NHL draft pubs. The rumor at the time was that several other teams were hoping to steal Heinen later on, not the least of which was none other than the Montreal Canadiens. That story isn’t verified, but damn- it feels good to B’s fans to hear it. Heinen is a thinking fan’s hockey player- he’s not especially fast or dazzling in the way he handles the puck, but he goes to the right spots, moves it to the correct spaces and plays a quietly effective and productive three-zone game. He’s the quintessential Claude Julien-style forward because he’s both intelligent and efficient. If you’re expecting to be entertained by Heinen, you’ll probably wonder what the hype is about, but if you watch the wall work, the way he slices through layers of defenses and puts himself in position to make plays at both ends of the ice, you’ll gain an appreciation for him.

On the defensive side of things, Carlo is a favorite of those B’s fans who religiously follow the NHL draft and Boston’s prospect development system. Picked 37th overall in 2015, he looks like a brilliant pick in hindsight as his natural 6-foot-5-inch size, mobility and reach instantly jump out at you. Back in 1997, a young Hal Gill caught the eye of fans because he was 6-7, and was the biggest cat in the NHL before some guy named Zdeno Chara showed up on Long Island about a year later. The thing about Carlo is that while he’s not quite as tall as Gill, he’s a better skater and has long arms, therefore brings a similar reach. Fans are excited about Carlo because he’s big and fluid and does a real good job of keeping opposing forwards from walking straight to the net…a turnstile he is not. The jury is out on how much offensive hockey sense/creativity Carlo has, but he’s certainly not limited in terms of being able to handle the puck and join the rush. Having said all that, there will be natural growing pains as is with the case with any 19-year-old defenseman, but to the Coloradan’s credit, he impressed a year ago in his first NHL training camp and exhibition season and then carried that forward to make the Boston Bruins before age 20. He’s not a snarly, intimidating beast on the physical side, but he will rub guys out and is sure to be well-liked in the dressing room because he’s got an even-keeled personality.

Last but not least is O’Gara- a TSP personal favorite going back to 2010-11 when he left the Long Island Royals AAA midget program to win a prep championship with the Milton Academy Mustangs. The B’s drafted him with the final selection of the fifth round, and he was described by then-assistant GM Don Sweeney as a “big piece of clay” that required a great deal of molding and shaping. Five years later, the 23-year-old Yale grad might not be a finished product, but he’s close enough and tonight will earn a status no one can take away from him- NHL player. O’Gara is a good skater- it’s less about speed and stride with him than it is fluid and agile footwork, which allows him to pivot and change direction quickly and efficiently. He’s got size and reach…and he can make an effective outlet pass to aid in the transition game. Like Carlo, there are sure to be mistakes and mishaps, but O’Gara is smart and motivated- he’s a quick study and character guy who has been around long enough that he understands the system and is ready to prove himself. It might mean more of an apprenticeship in Providence when other players return, but for now, O’Gara has earned the opportunity and will begin on the second pairing with Torey Krug on the right side (ROG shoots left, so it speaks volumes about the level of trust he’s earned that the Boston coaching staff is fine with him playing his “off” side).

David Backes will skate on a line tonight with Marchand and David Pastrnak if nothing changes between now and puck drop, and with Bergeron out (albeit temporarily), maybe bringing in an experienced veteran center wasn’t such a bad idea after all. David Krejci has a great deal to prove, and with Heinen and Ryan Spooner flanking him, there’s no shortage of offensive creativity on that unit. Spooner’s speed is a welcome addition to the lessened pace of Krejci and Heinen, but the trio provide quite an intriguing matchup on paper. All three of them are or have been centers before, so that’s a line that gives Julien a lot of flexibility and versatility.

Czarnik will likely test his NHL mettle with Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. Beleskey doesn’t have the high-end skill to put up big numbers (and he’d be on the top two lines in any event if that were the case) but he’s gritty and should develop some chemistry with Czarnik. Hayes is the wild card- the B’s desperately need a revival from him this season much like Reilly Smith had with Florida a year ago. It would be foolish to think that Hayes doesn’t want to make it work in Boston, but he’ll have to shrug off the external pressures and get down to the basics by just doing what he does best. He doesn’t have either of his linemates’ wheels, so it will be interesting to see if they have some set plays to leverage Hayes as a trailer into the zone with his soft hands and big shot.

Tim Schaller is back up with Boston with Bergeron out and may get a chance to skate with Noel Acciari and Dominic Moore, but the guess here is that Riley Nash will round out the fourth line. It’s not a nasty unit in terms of abundant physicality, but they’ll all grind it out and bring some veteran smarts to go with Acciari’s exuberance.

Defensively, the Bruins need their veterans- Chara, Krug and John-Michael Liles– to provide some glue for the younger guys- Carlo (Chara), O’Gara (Krug) and Colin Miller (Liles) as they shake out the butterflies and deal with the immense difference in speed, skill and pace from what they are used to. Chiller got enough action in last year, and Joe Morrow is also around to step in should anyone get hurt or falter, but this is an untested bunch and the biggest source of consternation with the 2016-17 Bruins.

Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin were the tandem in Boston’s net the last time the B’s went to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013, so there are no concerns with the talent or experience. They can’t carry a team on their backs, though- so everyone will have to row hard in the same direction. If the talent gap becomes too great, then Sweeney will have to act at some point.

That’s all going to have to wait for the time being, because this is what the B’s are going with to begin the new season.

As the Dropkick Murphys so aptly like to belt out- drop the puck…it’s time to go. (Thanks BruinsBabe176)

Becoming the Bull: Torey Krug

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

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head.
In the most unsettling of times.
Today I’ll become the bull.  Become the bull!- Atreyu, Becoming the Bull

Nothing has come easy for Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, but as the 2016-17 NHL season dawns,  he enters his fourth full campaign as an NHL defenseman and the first year of an offseason extension that has finally begun to give him his just due.

Much has been made of Krug’s size, but the reality is- when you’re as talented, intelligent and driven like he is, size doesn’t really matter. That won’t prevent the critics, who focus on his physical challenges to contain some of the NHL’s premier power forwards without taking his positioning, active stick and gap control into account, from blathering on and on about how he’s “overpaid” at an AAV of $5.25 million. That’s their opinion, and they’re welcome to it, but Krug’s success is fueled by such snubs. He’s heard it before and he will again, but after shoulder surgery and an opportunity to come back healthy for the first time since early in the 2015-16 season, the 25-year-old is ready to take his play to the next level.

Krug is, in fact, becoming the bull…the bull of the Boston blue line as the team’s highest-scoring defender from last season (and that accomplished with one effective arm) while continuing to evolve as a player who can compensate for his lack of height and weight with the guile and natural smarts to shut down opposition chances.

Atreyu put out the song “Becoming the Bull” in 2008 and it resonates personally with me, as I had just returned from a 15-month combat tour in Baghdad, Iraq during the infamous troop surge of 2007. It was a tough slog, and to this day, I am honored to have served with so many great Americans (not to mention coalition partners and the Iraqi troops we fought shoulder-to-shoulder with against al Qaeda and Jaysh al Mahdi militia) in Task Force Dragon- the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) at Forward Operating Base Falcon. We had responsibility for some of the meanest, most dangerous neighborhoods in Iraq’s capital city and 100 Americans in our unit made the ultimate sacrifice, along with another 800 more who were wounded in action. I was fortunate- got to come home with health and psyche intact, and can remember hearing Becoming the Bull for the first time on Sirius radio’s Octane (nu metal) channel and being taken with it immediately. It has remained a personal favorite mp3 on my workout playlist ever since, and this morning, as I was doing my shoulder and biceps resistance training, along with a 70-minute interval workout, it came on and listening to the lyrics, it struck me as a perfect song to describe Krug’s evolution.

It begins thusly:

Grab the bull by the horns the old adage goes.
Nobody tells you where to go from there.
It seems like fate’s pulling you.
Decisions have to be made.
The the best path is the hardest earned.

Think about those lyrics for a second. In 2012, Krug finished his junior season at Michigan State, and his second as the team captain. He had decided to turn pro and sign as an unrestricted free agent- he was grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns and after going undrafted from 2009-11 (to his continued disappointment) he had the opportunity to choose his NHL destination, coming off a 12-goal, 34-point year (38 games) with the Spartans. Nobody could tell him where to go from there, so he had to make a decision in a field of numerous suitors. It seems like fate was pulling him, too.

The Bruins had expressed interest in drafting him, but for a variety of reasons- it didn’t come together. He could have snubbed the team in turn as they did him in 2011, and gone with someone like Carolina, or Philly or perhaps even his hometown Detroit Red Wings. Ultimately, though, he chose a harder path with Boston, a team less than one year removed from winning the Stanley Cup and one of the NHL’s top tier clubs (though they would get upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Braden Holtby-led upstart Washington Capitals later that spring). Krug knew he could have signed with another team and had an easier, probably faster route to the NHL, but he instead embraced the challenge of signing with the B’s, a team that was the only club that made any kind of effort to talk to him when he was still draft eligible. Not forgetting the first team he “danced” with speaks to his personal character in the decision process. The best path, indeed, is the hardest earned.

Of course, it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention that the Bruins had to pay a lot to secure him as a free agent, including burning a year off of his 3-year ELC for just a couple of regular season games to finish out the 2011-12 NHL season, but them’s the breaks. Had they drafted him in the first place, it would have been much less costly- they knew that going in, but to Boston’s credit, they went the extra mile to get their man.

There is so much to stake.
I’ll stumble I’ll loose my place.
Pride and arrogance surrounded by sin.
Destiny takes its hold.
Fight it or let it go.
But I choose how the day will end.

Again, these lyrics emulate Krug. Think back to the contracts he signed before the one in June 2016. He became an RFA after the 2014 season and inked a team-friendly deal in September 2014 to the tune of $1.4M.  Then, he took another budget one-year pact at $3.4M in March 2015 rather than put the team over the barrel and force a longer extension. That was a risk for Krug- had anything serious occurred to him in terms of a major injury, he might have jeopardized his future earnings, but he worked it out with the Bruins to be taken care of later. This becomes especially interesting with the shoulder injury and how it hindered his ability to shoot the puck- is anyone really surprised that he only scored four goals last season? At the same time, had he tallied his normal 12-15 goals in a season, the B’s would’ve been on the hook for more on his four-year extension. Despite the frustration of cratering down the stretch and missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season thanks in large part to a mediocre supporting cast (surrounded by sin?), Krug demonstrated that loyalty is a two-way street.

Destiny took its hold- he’s been rewarded with term and security, with an opportunity to raise the bar even higher in a four-year period as he could very well emerge as Boston’s signature player and a major leader on this Bruins blue line. Sure, he’ll always be limited to a degree by the lack of ideal NHL size, but if you’re going to point to that as a guaranteed limiting factor to his ultimate success, then you’ve probably not been paying enough attention to him at every level of his young hockey career. Krug understands where you’re coming from, and truth be told- folks like you are what have helped to keep that inner fire burning inside him over the years. If he could respond, he’d likely invite you to keep doubting, to keep tweeting about how he “can’t” play defense. As the poet Cliff Poncier once said- whatever tears us down only makes us stronger (or words to that effect. If you don’t know who Cliff Poncier is, then I invite you to check out the 1992 Cameron Crowe film “Singles” and all your questions will be answered. You’re welcome and also- Touch me, I’m Dick.)

And once more- the chorus:

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head.
In the most unsettling of times.
Today I’ll become the bull…become the bull!

The most unsettling of times: not a great deal is expected of the Boston Bruins with the defense as currently constructed. Help is on the way with some of their impressive young prospects, led by BU sophomore Charlie McAvoy, but this year is what matters, and Krug is going to be key. Sure- we might see Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk or Rob O’Gara make the jump and get some playing time. Perhaps Colin “Chiller” Miller will step up and become a far more impactful defender on both sides of the ice than he was a season ago. We’ll see. However, if this defense is going to perform beyond expectations, it likely starts and ends with Krug.

Forget becoming…he’s now the bull. And if you know anything about Krug and his family- he’s embracing that with the typical “bring it on” mantra that has seen him overcome the odds to not only reach the NHL but become one of Boston’s most respected and dependable players.

Here’s the video with lyrics posted to YouTube by “MH Spirit”:

 

 

 

On leadership and GoT’s Lady Lyanna Mormont

“Bear Island knows no king except the King in the North, whose name is Stark.”- Lady Lyanna Mormont

Bella Ramsey as Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island in Game of Thrones season 6

Bella Ramsey as Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island in Game of Thrones season 6

I meant to post this before, but after re-watching Season 6 of the HBO fantasy saga Game of Thrones, I just had to take time out for some remarks on leadership as personified by the 2016 iteration of the show’s breakout star- Lady Lyanna Mormont of Bear Island, played brilliantly by 12-year-old English actress Bella Ramsey.

You don’t have to be familiar with the books or show to relate to this post, but as was the case in my last detour on Gettysburg and Union Army Chief of Cavalry Major General John Buford, going to take a step away from hockey to talk about the pint-sized, but fierce character and why not only the screenwriters but Miss Ramsey herself did such a tremendous job in distilling pure leadership into just a few memorable scenes and dialogue.

I’ve got 22 years of active duty military service and counting, but I’ll tell you this- Lyanna Mormont knows leadership. It’s one thing for a fictional character to be described as a leader, but the actor has to pull it off, and in just a few scene stealers, it isn’t hard to figure out why young Ramsey is receiving such critical acclaim. It isn’t difficult to see some key lessons in leadership that combat leaders and leaders in general have in common, even though Bear Island resides in fantasyland.

For those who watched season 6 and know exactly of which I speak, I believe there will be some easter eggs in this post for you, so read on. For those who aren’t all that familiar with the George R.R. Martin series of books or with HBO’s runaway hit that debuted back in the spring of 2011, just a few short months before the Boston Bruins captured the Stanley Cup, you can probably follow along just fine. For those who are fans but have not yet seen Season 6 and are worried about spoilers…I will do my best not to include many, but one person’s spoiler is another one’s teaser, so if you’re the kind of person who simply cannot abide being told about something before you see it yourself, then stop reading now.

Okay- you were warned. Spoiler alert is on.

Without spending too much time on it- Lady Lyanna Mormont is the head of a proud warrior house from a hardscrabble island off the coast of Westeros, the fantastical setting for Martin’s Song of Ice & Fire opus, known on television as GoT after the first book of the series, published two decades ago.

Lyanna is just 10 years old when introduced near the end of season six- ascending to the head of House Mormont after her mother died in battle during the War of the Five Kings on behalf of Robb Stark, Lord of Winterfell. The people of the Northlands in Westeros are fierce and proud- they live a difficult existence but embrace the hard living compared to their neighbors to the south, especially those in the Westerosi capital, King’s Landing. Think of them as a loose grouping of warrior tribes, each with their own identity, but united under the Wolf sigil banner of House Stark- the warden clan of the North for a near milennium.

The War of Five Kings has tested those alliances and fractured many of them, leaving the late Robb Stark’s illegitimate brother, Jon Snow, to try and re-form a coalition to defeat the evil, twisted and depraved Ramsay Bolton and drive his minions from the Stark ancestral home and castle at Winterfell. To say any more about Jon Snow or his relationship to Robb’s younger sister, Sansa Stark, would cause for too many spoilers and detract from the post’s purpose, so I won’t go there. Let’s just say that it’s complicated, so when Snow, Sansa and Snow’s right-hand man Ser Davos of House Seaworth arrive at the Mormont stronghold, they’re in dire straits and in need of some good fighting men.

Enter, Lady Lyanna. The exchange is worth watching…not only for the excellent acting (especially by Bella Ramsey but more on her later) but for how one so young carries herself while surrounded by adults and several notable, battle-tested swordsmen at that. If your eyes and ears weren’t betraying her to be one so young, you could close your eyes and imagine a stereotypical fantasy warrior with huge build, muscles and flowing beard saying the same things. Ah, but the key to earning respect and winning influence goes well beyond mere appearances…

So, what did you see here?

The first thing that struck me is that there is no doubting who is in charge. When the group enters the room and addresses them, she firmly replies with “Welcome to Bear Island,” and then says no more. The underlying message for them is clear: let’s see what you have for me. You were the ones who asked for an audience, so…speak. She makes no attempt at small talk and when Sansa Stark tries to do so, she quickly dispenses with the pleasantries.

Strike one for the coalition builders.

When Jon Snow compounds the mistake by referencing her deceased uncle (also his former military commander, but yep- too complicated to get into), she allows him to speak a bit as a basic courtesy and then cuts him off in order to get to the point.

That’s strike two.

When you have your own fiefdom to run, platitudes and remembrances don’t keep the people of Bear Island safe. Time is precious, and you can see early in the scene that she’s doing the mental calculus on how strong her potential allies are, and thus far- they’re showing themselves to be wanting.

What’s interesting about Lyanna here is that she’s not disrespectful, but her demeanor reflects an iron spine that her people pride themselves on. She lives on a small island made up of dense forests (and lots of bears of course) populated by strong and hardy people- lumberjacks and fishermen chief amongst them. Lady Lyanna might be young and not yet a proven, blooded warrior for House Mormont, but she is wise beyond her years. She recognizes the well-meaning attempt by Jon and Sansa to ingratiate themselves before the real parlay begins, but she simply doesn’t have time for it.

She also no doubt knows full well why they came to see her.

Her biggest responsibility as Bear Island’s leader is to make decisions that people will live or possibly die as the result of. It’s one thing for someone to inherit the mantel of responsibility and leadership, but it’s quite another to get your charges to actually comply with your decisions or put their lives at your command. Leadership is respect, and just a minute or so in, I was captivated at just how much respect she commanded in that room.

As Jon talks to her about the importance of defeating the Bolton coalition, and makes another tactical error of continuing with “what you have to understand, my lady, is…” she’s heard enough and takes charge of the meeting once and for all, challenging him to sell her on what is in it for Bear Island if the Mormonts commit more troops to the venture.

Stee-riike three!

It’s a powerful moment, because Snow looks to Sansa and doesn’t know what else to say. They aren’t getting anywhere, and it looks as if Bear Island and House Mormont will join a growing list of northern allies who decline to help Snow and his followers in their greatest time of need.

Luckily, Ser Davos, one of the few truly good men in the series left (ironic given his beginnings as a smuggler and pirate) and a valuable advisor to Jon, steps in and saves the day.

What I love about Lyanna’s response is that while skeptical at first, you sense that Davos has made a genuine connection with her, much like he did with another young noblewoman named Shireen Baratheon earlier in the series. Her tragic story is best told elsewhere, but you sense that in Lady Lyanna, Ser Davos recognizes the same kind of potential for greatness he did in little Shireen and as they speak to one another, you see a growing mutual respect between them. He’s speaking her language- acknowledging her responsibilities and praising her for the work she’s done to maintain her house, but not patronizing her or treating her like a child. He cuts to the heart of the matter, which gets her attention when he says: “this battle is between the living and the dead.” Davos answers the “what’s in it for us?” question Lyanna wanted Jon to answer for her up front.

I also like the dynamic between Lady Lyanna and her advisors. You can see that she depends on them…listens to them. Earlier in the scene, she’s more inclined to take their advice and treats her visitors with healthy skepticism that her maester is fueling. But once she sees the bigger picture that Davos paints, she holds up her hand when the advisor (maester) senses where she might be leaning and attempts to counsel her. In that moment, you see that she has made a critical decision. And you hear her fierce decisiveness in the words that follow.

I actually got goosebumps the first time I watched the scene when Lyanna replies: “House Mormont has kept faith with House Stark for a thousand years. We will not break faith today.”

When Snow asks how many men House Mormont will contribute to the cause, Lady Lyanna again consults one of her advisors, this time the man flanking her and likely her field commander/senior ranking man-at-arms. She replies “62” and Snow is clearly taken aback at such a paltry sum. The Mistress of Bear Island immediately senses the unease and declares that her soldiers can “fight with the strength of 10 mainlanders.” All of the sudden, the power of 620 rough-and-tumble guys joining the fight doesn’t seem like such a bad deal at all.

And when Ser Davos compliments her, at the end by saying “If they are half as ferocious as their lady, then the Boltons are doomed,” she’s not put off- she simply smiles and nods. Because that’s not small talk or idle flattery. It’s the truth.

***

It’s rare that one so young and in just about 5 minutes and change of screen time can make such an impression, but that’s what the precocious Bella Ramsey pulls off. It’s a remarkable performance, all the more exceptional by the fact that this is her first-ever role. She not only blew away her fellow actors- the adults in the scene- by already committing her lines to memory the very first time they sat down together for a reading (they hadn’t), but by studying the dialects and accent of Northern England natives, which is what the Northmen of Westeros are based on. Miss Ramsey is 12 years old- a little more senior than Lyanna Mormont as portrayed in the books and show, but she pulls it off so well. There is little doubt that Hollywood has seen enough of Bella and she’s sure to get more work going forward.

But for now, it’s her Game of Thrones role we’re focusing on…

Lady Mormont is seen just two more times in season 6- glaring at the leering, loathsome Ramsay Bolton while he and Jon Snow parlay on the eve before the “Battle of the Bastards” in Episode 9. She doesn’t say a word, but when the vile Bolton turns his attention towards her and in all of his oily repulsiveness, talks of pardoning the “treasonous lords” who allied with Jon’s coalition, he turns his lecherous gaze her way. Seated on her horse behind Snow, Sansa, Davos and their retinue, she need not have run Bolton through with a sword at that point- the daggers should have done the trick if looks could kill. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this championship-caliber scowl, directed straight at Bolton himself:

If looks could kill...there would be no need for the Snow-Bolton armies to clash

If looks could kill…there would be no need for the Snow-Bolton armies to clash

She makes one last memorable appearance in the final episode of Season 6, standing up in a hall of bickering north lords to shame several of them. As you listen to her say “You refused the call” each time in her Northern accent, you can almost feel her words burning through you. When she finishes with the words “(Jon Snow) is my king this day…and until his last day,” I don’t know about you but I was ready to  pick up a sword and start chanting “The King in the North!” right then. You won’t be surprised at what kind of a reaction it gets from all the long-haired manly men with swords.

Bravo, Miss Ramsey, bravo. A star is born.

Now here are 5 quick lessons in leadership as taught by Lady Lyanna Mormont

  1. When in charge, be in charge: From the moment Snow and company meet her, there is no mistaking that she commands the fortunes of Bear Island. This is no figurehead- we don’t know how Lyanna rose to be named her house’s chief at such a young age in the wake of her mother’s death in battle, but we know why.
  2. Be polite, be professional, have a plan to kill every person you meet: Her words are iron and although she’s not rude to her guests, she sends a clear message early in the meeting that she’s not messing around. This is someone who has seen much in her 10 years, but she also already possesses the wisdom that to truly protect her people, she must be willing to make hard decisions that put some of them in peril. This is why she allows Davos to speak and listens to what he tells her, recognizing the danger ahead if she doesn’t do her part to help unite the North. It’s just a story, but leaders in just about every walk of life have to be engaged all of the time, and find those golden nuggets that can drive an important decision, even if it isn’t readily apparent at first.
  3. Seek advice of counsel, but own the decisions you make: A few quick exchanges let you see that she understands that she doesn’t have everything figured out. The most successful leaders know that they didn’t reach their position alone and that their real success has a lot to do with the people around them. Surround yourself with smart, talented people over sycophants and yes-men and you’ll make informed decisions more often than not. Once you make those decisions, you’re responsible for whatever happens, good or bad. The great leaders know when to trust informed counsel and when to do what they think is right, even if it means going against the advice they’re given. Once Davos convinced Lyanna that joining the coalition and uniting the north was critical to preparing for what is to come, she didn’t dither or waffle.
  4. Lead from the front, set the right example: Lyanna could have sent her 62 men away from Bear Island and left it to Jon Snow to employ them within his fighting force, but that’s not what great leaders do. She takes a hands-on approach and goes with them to Winterfell, even though she’s not going to ride into battle with the warriors. Her presence ensures that  she has a say in how they are managed and led while safeguarding their personal welfare when it comes to logistics and their partnership. As she grows and gains skill at arms and physical strength, she will fight alongside her men as her mother and predecessors in House Mormont did, but for now- she understands her place is with the overall effort to defeat the Boltons, even if she’s not yet ready for the martial test. Her men see her there with them, sharing in the hardships of field living and are no doubt inspired that in committing them to the cause, she’s also putting herself at risk with her personal stake in the conflict.
  5. Live your values and embrace your code even when times are tough: When it appeared that the most important coalition of all might fracture again, she stood up and cowed a room full of battle tested warriors, many of whom were three, four even five times her age. She did it because she was convinced of the righteousness of the cause and she did it for her king. It might have been easier for her to simply sit and remain silent as the youngest warlord in the room, but her devotion to her values and her understanding of the larger picture and what was at stake gave her the moral courage to intervene. It might be hard to believe in this day and age that one so young could do that, but there is a great deal we can learn from our children if we give them a chance. Lady Lyanna saw the opening and seized it. Like. A. Boss.

If the show’s producers don’t figure out a way to get Bella Ramsey/Lyanna Mormont more screen time in seasons 7 and 8- then there is something seriously wrong. Having said that, I think they’ve heard the call (say it in your best Lyanna Mormont voice) and will trot her out for more scene stealers in 2017 and 2018. She’s got the goods.

***

We’ll be back with hockey and a last look at the undrafted free agents in Boston’s system who have yet to crack the big roster.

 

 

 

The undrafted free agents: Kevan Miller

Next in the undrafted free agents series covering the Boston Bruins is California-bred, Massachusetts and Vermont-developed defensive defenseman Kevan Miller. He caught Boston’s eye during a late-season ATO with the Providence Bruins in 2011, and then got an invite to the team’s rookie camp and main training camp that fall. I still remember traveling to Nassau Coliseum and seeing him get involved in a major donnybrook to start the second of the two-game series between the B’s and Islanders rooks. Miller earned an NHL contract a few weeks later, and by the midway point of 2013-14, was playing in the NHL full-time.

He’s a classic American story of hard work and overcoming hurdles, and yet Miller may be one of the more criticized players on the Boston roster, despite an impressive body of work in the realm of analytics that we’ll attempt to shine some light on later on.

This is his story.

Hard as a Rock: Kevan Miller

When it comes to Kevan Miller, few players are more polarizing to a respective fanbase than he is to supporters of the Boston Bruins.  Here’s a video courtesy of friend “Dafoomie”:

The soon-to-be 29-year-old defenseman should be one of those feel good stories in hockey- a California born-and-raised defenseman who went East in high school, rose to the University of Vermont captaincy, and after being ignored in the NHL draft, willed his way into the Boston lineup less than three years after turning pro. Instead, he’s become a convenient scapegoat- a player who is an easy target for frustrations because he was asked to play a bigger role than the one to which he is best suited.

Miller was a few months away from his first birthday when the Los Angeles Kings made “the trade” to bring Wayne Gretzky to Tinseltown in August, 1988. Raised in Santa Clarita, Miller represents the first generation of players who were born when Gretzky arrived and went on to reach the highest levels of professional hockey thanks in large part to the hockey boom the Great One inspired in Southern California. Miller wasn’t the first Golden Stater to make the big time, nor is he the most successful, but all things considered, the guy who the Bruins took a chance on back in 2011, and who recently earned a four-year NHL extension is much better than he gets credit for.

I realize this won’t be a popular opinion to some, who will rightly cite some of Miller’s bungled plays leading directly to goals as proof positive that he should be exiled forever to the lower rungs of the professional hockey ladder, never to take another shift for the Bruins. Of course, the flip side of that is- show me any NHL defenseman who plays enough minutes at this level, and you’ll see some poor plays that lead to bad goals. Like the dead people in the Sixth Sense, once folks lock onto a favorite target- they’ll see what they want to see, so if Miller is a bum, it’s easy to single him out for abuse.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that Miller is a potential All-Star, nor is it to feed into the idea that he’s a drag on the rest of his team and was not worthy of the $2.5M AAV and four-year investment the B’s made in him.

As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Miller is a fairly vanilla defender: he’s an average skater without much in the way of quick acceleration, but who is rugged and plays with an edge. His offensive numbers are better than one would expect for a shutdown style ‘D’ without high-end skills. He’s a natural leader and former prep (Berkshire School) and college captain who is a respected teammate and put in tremendous work to reach the NHL.

Here’s an interesting study on the top defenders from last season, posted on Reddit by ChrisCFTB97

It’s a thoughtful, analytics-driven look at the most effective defensemen in the NHL from last season, and while advanced stats don’t tell the whole story, Miller’s numbers when compared to those of Zdeno Chara and Colin Miller, the other two teammates the author used for the study (boy, I sure would’ve liked to see him use Torey Krug here), are pretty favorable. If anything- it directly contradicts the idea propagated around the Internet that Miller is “horrible” or “can’t defend.”

Here’s the HERO (Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic) chart comparing Miller to that of trade deadline darling Kris Russell, done courtesy of the most excellent hockey analytics source and blog Own The Puck by MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com:

Kevan Miller's HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Kevan Miller’s HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

The numbers don’t lie. When it comes to things that matter on defense such as shot suppression and possession, Miller clearly has the advantage over Russell and it isn’t close. Again- advanced stats aren’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to debating the merits of an NHL player, but Miller is nothing if a serviceable defender who actually looks like a solid bargain at $10M/2.5M per through age 32.

Now, some of the friction points working against Miller could lie in the following observations:

  1. Both of Miller and Adam McQuaid on the 2016-17 Bruins roster is problematic. They’re both right shots and bring similar attributes in terms of style and substance. McQuaid is bigger and not as adept offensively, but both are nasty and because of the physical toll their rugged style takes on their bodies, they’ve missed significant time to injuries in each of the past several NHL campaigns. Neither guy is a classic top-4 player (though if you look at the advanced metrics Miller is closer to that between the two), and when you add up their cap numbers, it’s far too much green to invest in a pair of guys like that. To say that Miller is incapable of making a positive impact is wrong. To argue that having both of Miller and McQuaid on the Boston roster puts the team at a disadvantage is a far more effective way of looking at it. One or the other…Miller or McQuaid. Something should give before the season starts because the pair effectively blocks a younger player from establishing himself at the NHL level, and if either one is on Claude Julien’s top pairing (and even middle pair is an issue), then this is not a playoff-caliber defense.
  2. The tail end of observation No. 1 leads to a second significant challenge with Miller and that is simply- the B’s put him in a position to fail last season. At times, he was expected to carry the mail in a top-three role with expanded minutes and special teams, and naturally- his limitations were exposed. Miller is effective closer to the bottom of an NHL rotation, and he’s capable of being a solid matchup play and at even strength, when he doesn’t have his hands full as much with opponents who can make good use of added time and space. He’s not as big as Hal Gill was, but Miller is a better all-around player and defender. Unfortunately, like Gill later on in his Boston career- Miller has become an easy target with fans who just want to blame someone when a goal is scored against, never mind that the opposition’s top scorer was able to exploit a 1-on-1 matchup with the game but limited Miller.
  3. Let’s face it- sometimes, it’s all about draft pedigree. Fans want to get behind sexy draft picks and big names- they tend to be much more skeptical of and harder on guys like Miller who come in as unknowns and outplay the “big guns.” Go back to the Reddit link I posted and look at some of Dougie Hamilton’s numbers in those categories. He’s better than Miller in a couple, egregiously worse in others. In the end, Kevan Miller’s 84.5 average (lower is better) across the various evaluated categories is better than Hamilton’s 98.2. One guy was drafted 9th overall in 2011, the other one had to make it on an invitation, fight his way onto the team and has managed to stick. Again- you can’t just hang your hat on the analytics, and no one in their right mind would trade Miller for Hamilton even-steven (no, not even Don Sweeney, guys- but nice try). The difference is- one player is making half of what the other guy makes, and maybe that $2.5AAV isn’t so terrible after all. (One more time- *not* saying Miller is better than Hamilton- put the straw man down) It’s all in how you use him, folks. That’s a legitimate debate to have, but you can’t do it in a vacuum- context matters.
Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay- we had some fun with the image, but it’s tongue-in-cheek from this blog space. The reality is- TSP has time for Miller. He’s an honest, hard-nosed player who will give you every ounce of what he has. Unfortunately, in a results-oriented business, that alone isn’t going to lead his Bruins team to success, so the onus is on the GM to upgrade the talent around Miller so that he can be a capable and serviceable piece.

And therein lies the rub- I don’t think fans inherently dislike Miller at all. In fact, he was pretty popular when he first showed up and was hitting, fighting and playing solid D at a near veteran minimum cap hit. Alas- he lacks the high-end talent to be a firm top-4 NHL D, even if the analytics indicate he has a chance at it. Realistically- the more he plays, the more people will see him get burned, but by the same token, he suppresses a lot of chances he simply doesn’t get credit for because human nature means that those with an axe to grind will dwell on the mistakes.

Ultimately- Miller has been a nice find by the Boston scouting staff. He’s scrapped for every opportunity, but he’s a smart, driven guy- derailed a bit by shoulder injuries and the ruggedness of his style of play. On the downside- Miller and McQuaid are two fine soldiers, but the team can’t really afford to keep both. It’s the tough part of the business, but you figure the B’s signed the former before he could hit unrestricted free agency for a reason.

We’ll have to see what Sweeney and Co’s vision is for the defense and where Miller fits in, but he deserves a more even shake than the one he’s gotten. In the right role, he’s a lot like what these guys are singing:

Take it away, Millsy.

 

Rob O’Gara: On the verge of making the NHL

Rob O'GaraBruins

Five years ago, the Boston Bruins had just won the Stanley Cup and made six selections 10 days after raising hockey’s silver chalice in Vancouver. Just two picks from the 2011 Bruins draft class remain: fourth-round choice Brian Ferlin reached the NHL in 2014-15 season, playing seven big league games (1 assist) before his development was derailed by concussion issues stemming from a hit he took in the 2015 AHL playoffs. (Editor’s note- Alexander Khokhlachev- taken 40th overall that year- is still technically Boston property after getting a qualifying offer to retain his rights as a RFA, but he signed with SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL and if he ever makes it back to the NHL, it won’t likely be with the Bruins.)

Defenseman Rob O’Gara, who was drafted one round after Ferlin, has taken a longer, more gradual developmental path to pro hockey, but is finally beginning his first full season after completing a four-year degree at Yale University. The 23-year-old (he celebrated his birthday last week), who spent another year in prep hockey with the Milton Academy Mustangs after the Bruins made him the final selection of the fifth round (151st overall) five years ago, won a NCAA title as a freshman and earned ECAC defensive defenseman of the year as a junior. Although he has just five pro hockey games under his belt (he did score his 1st pro goal in the process) with a late-season appearance in the AHL with Providence, O’Gara is a dark horse candidate to see playing time in Boston at some point this season if everything breaks right for him.

This post will peel back the onion so to speak on one of Boston’s more unheralded prospects- a guy who has been as consistent and effective a player since bursting onto the prep hockey scene six years ago and forcing NHL teams to take notice of him en route to Milton’s 2011 championship. O’Gara isn’t flashy, but with his size, skating and potential, he could be a solid contributor to the organization’s fortunes sooner rather than later.

Prep hockey 2010-12

O’Gara was an unknown commodity when he left his home in Nesconset and the Long Island Royals 16U minor hockey program for Massachusetts and prep school at Milton Academy.

At about 6-3 at the time (and very thin/lanky), he caught the eye of scouts immediately because he moved pretty well and didn’t show a lot of that gangly awkwardness that is so prevalent with players at that size/age. What also stood out was the contrast O’Gara provided to his Milton defense partner Pat McNally, another New York guy who had been drafted in 2010 by the Vancouver Canucks (now with the San Jose Sharks organization). McNally was an attacking, push-the-pace and often get caught up the ice defender, so O’Gara stood out for his more measured style and for the fact that McNally’s gambles at times meant that his partner was back to defend odd-man rushes on his own. O’Gara showed off a natural poise and smarts right away to go with an active stick- he landed on NHL radars and was identified as one of the top New York talents available in the 2011 draft.

O’Gara reached his zenith in March, when in the championship game against a Kent Lions team that featured current Boston Bruin Noel Acciari (the captain) along with 2012 NHL second-rounder Cristoval “Boo” Nieves, he made a critical play along the blue line to keep the puck inside the offensive zone during a 2-2 game late in regulation. He then made an on-target pass to teammate Sean Okita, who buried the puck for the winning goal. O’Gara only had seven assists (along with two goals) that year, but one of those helpers was as big as it gets, which gets to the heart of where his big league potential might truly lie: he’s always been big time in the clutch (more on that later).

O’Gara told TSP about the game and play just a few short weeks later, when yours truly maintained the 2011 Bruins Draft Watch blog:

“That was just amazing; I have trouble putting it into words sometimes just how awesome it was to be part of such a great team here,” O’Gara said recently from his Milton Academy dorm room, where he is finishing up the semester and playing lacrosse to keep his body in peak form. “We went back and watched the DVD of that game (3-2 win over Kent School) and the tempo was unbelievable- the fast pace of that game and how everything was up-and-down the whole time. We went into that third period with the score 2-2 and knowing that we had 18 minutes. It was do or die time and we pulled it off.”

Although not invited to the NHL’s annual draft combine because he was not ranked inside the top-50 among North American skaters, O’Gara interviewed with at least five NHL clubs during the spring and more clubs expressed interest before the draft. He and his family opted to stay home rather than travel to Minneapolis/St. Paul and he followed the selections along with his father, Brian (and mom Christine). Although the family grew up staunch NY Islanders fans and supporters, that all changed when the Bruins called Rob’s name at the end of the fifth round.

Soon afterwards, he attended his first Bruins development camp, arriving on July 6, 2011- his 18th birthday- and O’Gara was no doubt raw, but game- his skating and fluid footwork stood out in positive fashion even then. Current Bruins GM Don Sweeney was the assistant GM back then and long recognized as Boston’s player development chief. He had this to say about O’Gara after the first day of that camp:

“Robby [O’Gara]’s a piece of clay right now, albeit it’s a big piece. At 6’4” it can change. Things have come at him here a little quicker in the last, I’d say, eight months. But we got a chance, I did in particular and other people got a chance, to see him a lot…The good thing is there’s no timetable for him. He’s not going to get any smaller. He’s only going to fill out and continue to get better. And he’s going to be right in our backyard for another year then on to a real good program in Yale. So I think that he’ll learn a lot. He’ll be one of those kids that walks out of here, hopefully, and learns an awful lot and takes some of this stuff going forward.”– Sweeney

Here’s my own assessment of him from that very first on-ice session at development camp five years ago:

Turned 18 just yesterday and his skating really came to the fore today. He’s tall, but a stringbean. But, have to keep going back to the fluid stride and quick, agile footwork. Had he spent two years at Milton Academy before the draft instead of just the one, I’m convinced that he would have been as high as a third-round pick, but solid at least a solid fourth-rounder. I don’t think enough NHL teams knew about this kid going in, but Boston did because he plays in their backyard. Long-term project, but O’Gara could be a steal. Size + mobility + intelligence + character almost always = player.

He returned to Milton for his senior season in 2011-12, wearing the captain’s ‘C’ and while the team did not enjoy the success of the previous year with so many veteran departures, O’Gara produced at nearly a point per game pace (25 in 24 games after 9 in 29 as a junior) and was widely recognized as the top defenseman in prep hockey that season, earning All-New England recognition.

With that, he completed his prep career and moved on to the next challenge in New Haven, Conn. with Yale.

Yale University: 2012-16

O’Gara wasted little time demonstrating to head coach Keith Allain and ECAC hockey watchers that he was a worthy NHL prospect, quickly establishing himself in a lineup that would go on to win it all in the span of about five months once the 2012-13 campaign got underway.

As was the case in prep, O’Gara was relied upon to be a defense-first, stay-at-home guy as a freshman with the Elis, and he carried it off well, despite not finding the back of the net at all- posting seven assists in 37 games. Never one to dwell on the numbers, the real pride O’Gara had was in showing off the kind of ability and poise to earn a regular shift in Allain’s rotation throughout the year. His team allowed just two total goals in its two-game Frozen Four appearance that year in capturing Yale’s first (and only) NCAA title.

In Yale’s 4-0 championship game over Quinnipiac University, as the clock ticked down to zero, O’Gara was on the ice playing a tenacious defense and making sure that he did his part to preserve the shutout.

“I’ll sit alone at home and I’ll see the watch we were given for winning on my desk, and I still can’t believe it. It’s just an incredible feeling,” O’Gara told veteran reporter Mike Loftus of the Patriot-Ledger at the 2013 Bruins development camp, a few months after winning it all.

cropped-ogara-national-champ.jpg

Rob O’Gara in 2013 after Yale won the NCAA championship (Photo courtesy of Rob O’Gara)

In the span of just two years, O’Gara had claimed the rarest of feats- championships at the high school and college level. While his Yale team was not able to repeat their national title in his remaining three NCAA seasons, O’Gara went on to earn numerous accolades under Allain and the Yale staff:

  • In 2013-14, O’Gara earned the team’s John Poinier Award as Yale’s top defender. He also earned Second All-Ivy and ECAC All-Academic honors.
  • In 2014-15, he was named the ECAC’s top defensive defenseman, which is impressive because he also posted his career-best in offense with six goals and 21 points, leading the Yale blue line in scoring. He was First Team ACA/CCM All-American (East), First-Team All-ECAC and First-Team All-Ivy among several other distinctions to include another Poinier Award as team defensive MVP.
  • 2015-16 was disappointing statistically compared to his breakout in 2015, but O’Gara finished his college career strong, nominated for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, named a semifinalist for the Walter Brown Award (New England’s top college player) and a second consecutive All-Ivy League First Team selection.

TSP featured O’Gara last October, as he prepared to embark on his senior year. For those who missed it, you can read it here.

A season of ups and downs (including a two-game suspension in February after he retaliated with a slash against Harvard’s Sean Malone, who drove him into the boards) was overall a positive growth experience for O’Gara, who continued to add muscle mass to his big frame and got an enormous amount of playing time, as chronicled in this piece worth reading by Chip Malafronte in the New Haven Register.

After O’Gara signed a two-year ELC with Boston in late March, Allain spoke to Newsday (New York) about his former player, summarizing what he brings to the table:

“He really epitomizes what we want our hockey players to be,” said Yale coach Keith Allain, who also worked in the NHL for 15 years as an assistant coach, goalie coach and scout.

“He’s got great size and reach. He’s extremely mobile, particularly for a big guy. He has great defensive awareness, can make a pass and he’s got the ability to jump up into the play on offense. I see him as an all-around defenseman. I expect him to one day be a regular defenseman in the National Hockey League.”

O’Gara joined the Providence Bruins late in the season, commuting between Rhode Island and Connecticut so that he could complete his course work and graduate with the degree in Economics he worked four years to achieve. Scoring his first professional goal for the P-Bruins was an added thrill for a player who won’t likely be known for his contributions on the offensive side of the ledger, but who is built for the modern NHL with his sturdy 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame- the body sculpting having taken quite some time to build.

With nine defensemen in Wilmington this week, O’Gara is not required to join in the development camp fun, having benefited enough (in the team’s eyes) from his 2011-15 experiences. With his first full NHL training camp ahead in September, O’Gara will keep working out to prepare for that new challenge.

Outlook

If you’re into flashy, “upside” players then O’Gara won’t be at the top of the list, but when it comes to the big-bodied, mobile and smart defenders that have become critical components to winning in the modern NHL, Boston’s investment over time appears to be inching closer to paying off.

He’s always been a smooth skater for his size- able to stay contain speed and prevent forwards from getting around him wide. While not an intimidating hitter and snarly type, O’Gara uses his body effectively and has made substantial gains in strength and quickness in the five years since the B’s chose him. With his long reach and positional savvy, he’s difficult to beat 1-on-1, but probably doesn’t get enough respect for his ability to skate with his head up and advance the puck quickly with a crisp outlet. This is not to say that he’ll be a classic two-way threat on defense, but he has enough in the feet, hands and head department that he can chip in with timely offense when needed. The guy is a winner- he always has been- and there is a great deal to be said for that. He made a critical play that resulted in a high school-level championship and then was put out in the final minute of a collegiate title as a freshman (full disclosure- his team was up by four goals)- that tells you all you need to know about what kind of performer O’Gara is when the game is on the line.

As Jack Nicholson aka Marine Colonel Nathan R. Jessup once said- “You want me on that wall…you need me on that wall!”

 

Why O’Gara will play in the NHL this season: You can’t teach his size or physical attributes, and his steady development means that he’s mentally and physically ready to come in and play a lower pairing role right away (or in a pinch if the team is hit with injuries). He’s a likable guy who can walk into any room and fit right in because he’s always had the people skills and carried with him a measure of respect- he’ll sit down and listen/process everything around him and isn’t one to spend a lot of talking. When it comes to doing his job, O’Gara is the consummate quiet professional who gets after it without fanfare and is just as happy being a cog in the bigger machine- he doesn’t have a thirst for attention.

Why O’Gara won’t play in the NHL this season: Right now, the B’s have some pretty well-established veteran players on the blue-line who like O’Gara, are left-shooting players. There is no need to rush him to the big show when he can take another year to play prime minutes in the AHL in just about every situation and shoot for making the Boston lineup when he has more pro experience under his belt.

Whether he plays NHL minutes this season or doesn’t is not the question, but rather- that he continues to move forward and progress in his developmental trajectory. There will be ups and downs at the pro level, like many young players there are times when he will get caught puck watching or won’t make the physical play on defense when it is there for him. If you watch enough hockey, no matter how accomplished, every defenseman will be part of a goal scored against, it’s just a matter of learning from mistakes and not repeating them.

When it comes to Rob O’Gara, the promise he showed as a mature and capable prep school defender more than a half decade ago is coming sharply into focus. Dougie Hamilton, who was taken 142 spots earlier than O’Gara was, is a Boston footnote who now plays in Calgary. As we all know from the old tortoise and hare parable, the race is not always to the swift…it appears that Boston will benefit from the faith and patience they showed in this player.

Because of his playing style, O’Gara has never really occupied space near the top of the various Boston prospect lists nor has he been at the tip of everyone’s tongue when it comes to projecting who will meet or exceed expectations, but there aren’t many who have performed with more consistency or promise.

He’s on the verge of achieving that goal that others selected well before him have not yet come close to. Don’t call him a tortoise, but he’s been steady as she goes all along.

***

Weekend at Bergy’s has his first pro goal- a rocket from the point (wearing his old No. 15 from Milton Academy days):

 

 

The Cam Fowler factor

Opening with this…(not just because it’s great- thanks to those on Twitter who turned me onto it a few months back when I asked about their favorite cover songs of all time- but because this is kind of how I am gauging that Bruins fans feel about the efforts to shore up the defense since the offseason began way back in April.)

(Video courtesy of Disturbed)

Now, for the hockey part of the post-

If Blues veteran D Kevin Shattenkirk is likely off the table as described in the post today on Boston’s ongoing help for upgrades at the defense position, and with Jason Demers off to Florida for a solid 5-years and $4.5M a pop, is it time to revisit Anaheim’s Cam Fowler?

The 2010 1st-rounder (12th overall) from Michigan via the OHL’s Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires was rumored to be of interest by the Bruins on draft weekend. If true, can’t imagine that interest has waned. If the B’s can figure out how to make salaries match up, they certainly have some prime young assets in the system that might make Ducks GM Bob Murray budge. Would a playoff-tested SC champion like Adam McQuaid make sense for Anaheim as a starting point, with pot sweetened with another player and/or prospect? From a sheer talent-for-talent standpoint, McQuaid-Fowler doesn’t happen, but the GM is trying to win a Cup and Boston’s third-pairing baggage smasher has been there and done that. Don’t underestimate the value GMs place on veteran winners like that, even if a 1-for-1 swap won’t happen.

Fowler’s your “bridge”- he makes $4M and has 2 years left to UFA status, meaning he gives the Bruins two seasons before they have to make a decision and brings them two years closer to seeing one of their recent top-60 D selections evolve further to see where they might be as NHL players. The issue with Fowler is that he shoots left, whereas the B’s need to shore up their right-shooting talent. So, in essence- if the B’s are able to go out and get Fowler, they then probably need to add another right-shot D for depth and hope that Colin Miller takes a big step next season for them.

Interlude…some Fowler highlights (courtesy rollingdux)

Fowler is a slick offense-minded guy who boosts the power play, but isn’t the heavy-on-the-puck defensive presence that the Bruins prize, either. His Corsi numbers put him closer to a 3rd-pairing guy than a top-4 that the B’s prize, but on a defense by committee approach, Fowler isn’t the worst idea.  That could be a sticking point in terms of how much pursuit Boston is willing to engage in here. Ideally, Hampus Lindholm would be the prize from Anaheim, but let’s get real- not happening. If it does come to pass, then short of a catastrophic scenario of a return going to the Ducks, I’d say the Boston GM will have earned the “Sweenius” nickname.

As for other options…James Wisniewski shoots right and is still out there as of July 2, but after signing a big bucks deal with Columbus in 2011, he had one impressive 51-point campaign in 2013-14, sandwiched by a lot of mediocrity and injuries. Can’t imagine the Bruins are willing to invest a great deal on him, but with his buy-out, who knows? He might be champing at the bit to get a short-term deal done and prove his worth. The Wiz presents a major injury risk, but he could add an element of boom potential as well.

You’d think that if fellow 2010 draft pick Brandon Gormley was of interest, the B’s would have added him already. For another downright disappointment, former Ducks prospect and uber-collegian Justin Schultz helped the Penguins win a Stanley Cup and then was not QO’d. Go figure. And to think- I was once mocked for daring to suggest that the Bruins got the best free agent D in Torey Krug in 2012 when they signed him out of Michigan State. Take that, Twitter!

The Bruins have had bad luck with Russians and this guy is another left-shooter, but if I’m Don Sweeney, I pick up the phone and dial Brian McLellan to see if the Capitals are willing to talk trade for Dmitri Orlov. Just saying- the advanced stats crowd will tell you that he’s undervalued, and you don’t hear much about him coming out of D.C. these days.

The very excellent cap resource General Fanager has a list of available free agents here:

http://www.generalfanager.com/freeagents

General Fanager has picked up the torch where Cap Geek blazed a bold trail. In truth- I miss my old Hockey’s Future buddy and CG founder Matthew Wuest– you touched so many, my friend. Godspeed to you and those who loved you the most. RIP, Matt.

But, let’s get back to the topic at hand: If Fowler is indeed dealt, add him to the growing list of top-30 picks from that pretty solid draft class that has been traded. 15 of the 30 are no longer with the teams that drafted them before age 25, and Fowler would push the needle north of 50 percent. That’s unheard of, even if ultimately trivial to the matter at hand.

The 3 Amigos Podcast Episode 2: NHL Free Agency preview & Bruins draft review

The 3 Amigos- LTD (Luedeke-Tiano-Duthie) are back with our second hockey podcast on the Scouting Post after previewing the OHL in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft on Father’s Day weekend.

This podcast not only recaps the Torey Krug extension and Dennis Seidenberg buyout, but looks at the Boston Bruins’ efforts in Buffalo, breaking down all of the players and handing out (admittedly premature) grades at the end. We also preview what is shaping up to be an active NHL free agent frenzy tomorrow.

We’re already hearing rumors that Oilers Prez and GM Peter Chiarelli is bringing Milan Lucic to Edmonton on a big deal on term and AAV. Just a crazy, wild thought here, but isn’t this the kind of thing that got Chiarelli shown the door in Boston? We break it down a bit. You’ll not find many bigger supporters of Lucic than yours truly- but if we’re talking 6 or 7 years at around $6.5-7M AAV, that could pose a huge risk for the Oil. Lucic is 28 and there’s a lot of tread on his tire- this contract if the rumors are right- could end up being an albatross in relatively short order if Lucic’s body doesn’t hold up. We shall see.

We also talk about the Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson, PK Subban for Shea Weber trades and the announcement that Steven Stamkos is staying in Tampa Bay- all huge stories from June 29.

We also dive into the B’s rumors, especially the reported offer sheet stuff and possible moves for Don Sweeney and company.

It’s a veritable smorgasbord and it clocks in at slightly under 1 hour and 45 minutes.    Alas, my esteemed colleague Reed Duthie was having some internet connectivity issues, so he breaks up in parts. Everyone’s a loser because we don’t exactly get every word he says, but he brings plenty of great insights. When you hear the connection go wonky, know it is not your computer acting up on you- the issue was on our end.

Finally, I posted 3 photos of Charlie McAvoy last night and promised to explain them. Our analysis comes at the 1:31:30 mark, so if you must have that burning meaning of life-type question answered for you, skip ahead.

Or listen to the whole thing. This podcast thing is fun! (Thanks for listening and all of the support for our merry little band- enjoy the theme music)

 

Final 1st-round mock draft and Bruins draft preview (audio)

Well, NHL Entry Draft time is upon us…I can hardly believe that I will be flying to Buffalo, N.Y. in the morning and that by this time Friday night, Bruins fans will know who the next big hopeful will be.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but rather than write an excessively long post here, I’ll take the advice of a recent blog critic who didn’t like the length of my Bruins draft strategy piece and break it down for you in about 15 minutes. He’s out of luck on the bolded names, though- sorry pal. As Kenny Loggins once crooned- I’ll meet you halfway. I’m sharing my thoughts on where the Bruins are heading into the draft, and where I think they’re going, and not just in round 1. Keep in mind this is just one person’s opinion, and lots of things can happen between now and pick No. 14 in the First Niagara Center.

Here’s the audio:

I am not going to weigh in on internet rumors surrounding Jimmy Vesey. Look, until he either signs with the Buffalo Sabres or he doesn’t and becomes an unrestricted free agent on August 15, I’m going to do my level best to stay above the fray. Because of my relationship with him and members of his family going back to his prep school days, that’s precisely *why* I’m not going to get into the middle of what is flying around. I give full credit to the Sabres for stepping up and getting his rights- that puts them in the driver’s seat, at least for the next some-odd 60 days, and Tim Murray will either convince him to forego the chance to pick his destination, or Vesey will stay the course. My thinking- and it’s just my own intuition here- is that he’s come a full four years since Nashville drafted him in Pittsburgh. What is less than two months more at this point? But if Murray and Sabres owner Terry Pegula (and don’t forget Jack Eichel) make a convincing enough pitch, there’s not much stopping him from ending the soap opera.

But, if you’re looking for me to repeat things flying around various message boards- that’s not happening.

Now, onto the mock draft:

1- Toronto- Auston Matthews, C; The Leafs get their man- Arizona native’s the wire-to-wire No. 1 overall selection and with good reason.

2- Winnipeg- Patrik Laine, LW; The first big winners of the NHL’s new lotto jackpot system cash in with this pure shooter who turns goal scoring into an art form.

3- Columbus- Jesse Puljujarvi, RW; GM Jarmo Kekalainen pounces on this Finnish horse who isn’t quite the threat his countryman is, but isn’t that far off, either.

4. Edmonton- Matt Tkachuk, LW; On a team whose GM once saw firsthand what Milan Lucic could do, the Oilers grab a high-end power forward with serious bloodlines.

5- Vancouver- Pierre-Luc Dubois, LW; The Canucks need help everywhere, so Jim Benning can’t go wrong here with as complete a two-way threat as there is in this class.

6- Calgary- Logan Brown, C; Described by my pal Reed Duthie (who calls Hamilton Bulldogs games) as an “aircraft carrier with feet”, this massive center is also highly skilled, meaning- he’s off the board in the blink of an eye.

7- Arizona- Olli Juolevi, D; Is this Finnish version of the old Val Kilmer movie ‘Real Genius’ the first defender off the board in Buffalo? Very possible.

8.- Buffalo- Jakob Chychrun, D; After making a splash with the Vesey trade, the Sabres fire more shots across the bow, picking up this big name at 8, but his hockey IQ has raised some doubts.

9- Montreal- Alex Nylander, RW; The Canadiens seek skill and scoring, so why not grab the player who might have absolutely been the most talented player in the OHL draft class, even if he doesn’t always bring it.

10- Colorado- Mikhail Sergachev, D; The Avalanche land a big talent that has scouts divided on his overall defensive awareness, but may be at the top end of the skill factor in the OHL.

11- New Jersey- Tyson Jost, LW-C; Ray Shero blinks- he can’t believe Jost is on the board here, and after landing Pavel Zacha a year ago, grabs another potential elite forward bound for North Dakota in the spirit of one Zach Parise 13 years ago.

12- Ottawa- Michael McLeod C; The Senators are betting that McLeod’s blend of size, skating and smarts propels him to stardom up the middle, even with questions about his NHL upside.

13- Carolina- Clayton Keller, C; Small but dynamic center has major league potential as an uber-dangerous playmaker.

14- Boston- Dante Fabbro, D; Knowing what the Bruins tend to value in their players and what they need at this stage, this defender is right up their alley at 14.

15- Minnesota- Luke Kunin, C; St. Louis native did a great job as a freshman on a poor team- the sky’s the limit and the Wild can’t resist.

16- Detroit- Charlie McAvoy, D; A player who could just as easily go to Boston two picks earlier, if he’s still on the board here the Wings pounce.

17- Nashville- Jake Bean, D; The Predators know Bean has a high-end skill set and grab him with outstanding value at 17 where others had him projected inside the top-10.

18- Philadelphia- Kieffer Bellows, LW; Passed up by his hometown Wild, Bellows doesn’t have much time to dwell  on it & makes sense as a fit in Philly with his deadly release and penchant for filling the net.

19- NY Islanders- Riley Tufte, RW; Big, massive, skates well, tremendous long-term promise and the Isles struck gold with Brock Nelson in Minnesota before, so why not take a big payoff project here?

20- Arizona via NYR- Julien Gauthier, RW Major concerns about hockey sense and a tepid second half after tearing it up early in the season mean that the Val d’Or standout slides, but he’s solid value here.

21- Carolina via LAK- Max Jones, LW; Speedy power forward has some nasty play that has gone over the line, but if the Hurricanes can harness that raw aggression- he could be one of those role guys you win with.

22- Winnipeg via CHI- Logan Stanley, D; When you pick Laine at 2, you can afford to take on more of a project player with your bonus 1st-rounder, and with Stanley’s size, skating and snarl- he looks like a solid bet to play even if he tops out as a mid-tier shutdown D.

23- Florida-German Rubtsov, C; The Russian forward in class is someone worth jumping on in the early 20’s and Dale Tallon does just that.

24- Anaheim-Tage Thompson, RW; Huge but raw with an upside that some in the NHL scouting community feels is too legit to quit, the UConn Husky becomes a part of the West Coast quack attack.

25- Dallas- Dennis Cholowski, D; It sure looks like the late-surging BCHL two-way defender is bound to land in the 1st round, and he looks like a good fit for the resurgent Stars under Jim Nill.

26- Washington- Pascal Laberge, C; Speedy and skilled, the Capitals need to find secondary scoring behind Ovechkin and Backstrom- this Victoriaville Tigre brings that in spades.

27- Tampa Bay- Brett Howden, C; Some say he looks a lot like his older brother, but this Howden seems to have more killer instinct and finish around the net. Stevie Y. will take it.

28- St. Louis- Lucas Johansen, D; With Kevin Shattenkirk likely to leave via trade, the Blues will look to infuse more offensive talent and potential with this latest product of the Kelowna D machine.

29- Boston via SJS- Markus Niemelainen, D; The B’s could go with a forward with their second pick like a surprise 1st-rounder in Wade Allison here, but if they add another 6-5 D who can really skate, this Finn will complement the right-shooting Brandon Carlo nicely at some point.

30- Anaheim via Toronto via PIT- Boris Katchouk, LW; Anaheim grabbed the big RW earlier, now they get the gritty, in-your-face and underrated Soo Greyhounds scorer at the end of the round after giving up Frederik Andersen to the Leafs. (Thanks to the readers who pointed out my mistake)

Alex DeBrincat drops out of the 1st round, but he won’t last long in the 2nd.

***

Okay- that’s it. I’m off to Buffalo.

Reminder- if you want breaking NHL draft news, picks, analysis and hot takes (or is it “taeks?”) give me a follow on Twitter: @kluedeke29 I might be able to get some Periscope action going as well, so look for that.

Will be on TSN 690 with my Red Line Report boss, Kyle Woodlief, with host Tony Marinaro this Friday, June 24, from 11-noon (Eastern) live from First Niagara Center to talk draft, draft and nothing but draft.

Will do some deeper dives on the draft at the blog in the coming days, but this is pretty much it until the big event, and even then- will just hit the wave tops, but keep checking in- I might have some Easter Eggs and surprises for you.

Requiem for the 2016 Boston Bruins

It’s less than 24 hours after the TD Garden debacle against the Senators, and many of us are still wondering what went wrong. Actually, it’s not that hard to figure it out. 8 months ago, TSP concluded the season preview for the team’s defense with this:

“…the Boston defense is not going to be much of a threat offensively, so they’ll have to take care of things in their own end. Without the requisite speed and ability to contain speed to the outside, that’s going to be a challenge.

It’s a game and gritty group- but there are a lot of if’s heading into the new season. That means the goaltending and the forwards are going to have to pick up the slack.”

As mentioned previously, defensive issues aside, it is still hard to square what happened in the last month, given the optimism that followed the several weeks after the trade deadline. The B’s seemed primed to cruise to a playoff spot with one of the Atlantic Division’s second or third-place seeds, only to suffer a complete and utter collapse that left them hoping for a miracle  in the form of a Philadelphia Flyers flameout, and this after Detroit handed them the path to victory with their regulation loss to an undermanned NY Rangers squad yesterday.

It isn’t that the Bruins missed the playoffs- many of us expected that to happen after they removed Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith and Dougie Hamilton from last year’s lineup and replaced them with Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes up front and Matt Irwin and Colin Miller on the back end.

It’s how it happened.

As of St. Patrick’s Day, the B’s looked all but assured in silencing critics that predicted a major step backwards this season, but over the past 30 days, they crashed to earth and validated the doubts and questions. It isn’t just a matter of blown opportunities this hockey campaign, either- we saw nearly the same thing a year ago, and going back to the 2013 playoffs when they blew a series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. Heck, go back to 2012 and the monumental collapse in 2010 to the Flyers after building a 3-0 lead. One common denominator has consistently reared its ugly head: when playing at home, and needing a big win, the Boston Bruins not only come up empty,  but lose in spectacularly poor fashion. Yesterday was no exception, and if nothing else- that simply has to change.

Boston is a notoriously passionate and tough sports town, so the context is everything when it comes to the Bruins’ second consecutive non-playoffs finish. The cynics are having a field day with this one and rightfully so- Cam Neely and Don Sweeney entered the 2015-16 season with gaping holes that weren’t adequately filled last summer. The vultures will be feasting on the carcass of this fiasco of a season for a good long time. It’s April 10- we’ve got about six months of it coming. If you don’t like being a Boston sports fan in the down times, then you might want to stay off the internet and talk radio, television, avoid the water cooler and anyplace else where the postmortem is sure to be one giant pig-pile.

The thing is- I’m not so sure that the Boston Bruins- from ownership all the way down to the on-ice product and everyone in between- doesn’t deserve the spotlight right now. I mean, how many times do you have to witness the same thing not working before you dispense with the peripheral changes and make sweeping ones?

In order to answer that, we must look at the 2015-16 hockey season and ask ourselves- where did it all go wrong?

1. Talent matters in any sport- hockey is no different

When I was growing up, I wanted to play in the NHL. At 43, I’m writing about it instead and no, I never played the game at any meaningful level. In the end, it all comes down to this in hockey as it is in just about all walks of life: wanting to be a skilled player and actually being talented enough to make the plays consistently to win enough games at the highest level of hockey in the world are two different things. The Bruins have gone out and assembled a roster of gritty, character types that play an effective 200-foot game with the exception of just a couple of skaters.

Unfortunately, they’ve also traded away some of their most talented players for various reasons. Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Hamilton, Lucic, Smith…those are the productive, skilled and tempo-altering players who are no longer on the team. Two of them were acquired for Kessel in 2009, and in 2016 the Bruins have little to show for it. Loui Eriksson will almost assuredly be playing in a new zip code next season unless he has a change of heart and decides to accept Boston’s most recent four-year extension offer.

So while Patrice Bergeron and Beleskey led Boston’s character brigade, and Brad Marchand certainly stepped up his play and leadership with a career-best 37-goal campaign, it simply wasn’t enough.They’re an industrious bunch, but the 2016 B’s had known talent gaps when facing the class of the NHL.

The B’s did not have a talented enough roster- top to bottom- and especially on defense- to close the deal and get into the postseason. I can hammer the defense as a group, but you all saw it unfold throughout the course of the year, so at this point- what purpose does that serve? We knew the defense was the elephant in the room coming in, and yet, Boston’s best hope was that the forwards and goaltending, plus the character and experience on the roster would see the B’s through to the postseason.

Those intangibles weren’t sufficient. The gritty, hard-working types are important, but the top-tier NHL clubs all have them plus the even more critical multiple high-end players on the roster, some at each position. The St. Louis Blues immediately come to mind here.

Ironically- the B’s smashed the Blues in their last outing, which fueled the hope that Boston would hold on and get in. After inconceivable losses to New Jersey and Carolina (two teams looking up at them in the Eastern Conference standings) the B’s teased with a decisive win against Detroit only to crash and burn against the Senators. Those same Senators, by the way, who were also looking up at them in the standings and now get to pick ahead of the B’s, too. As Dennis Miller once said- “Talk about not having a date to the prom…”

When it all comes down to it, the 2015-16 Boston Bruins simply weren’t talented enough to be one of the league’s teams in the NHL’s spring 16, so they’re out. Sometimes, it is as simple as that. On many nights, the better team won, and the better squad wasn’t wearing the spoked B.

2. The coach is accountable but also needs an awfully long stick to score or break up offensive rushes from the bench

I understand and respect the criticisms of Claude Julien as the Bruins bench boss. I just don’t think the problems with Julien’s coaching are as simple as him not playing the ‘yutes (or the infamous- “he didn’t develop them!” canard) from start to finish. Experienced players are more trustworthy than inexperienced ones…that may upset some folks, but it’s a fact of life. There isn’t some vast conspiracy- there’s just so many things that happen behind the scenes that we in the media and fans aren’t privy to.

But there’s no denying it- if the players loved playing for him, they didn’t show it.  When the rubber met the road, the NHL Bruins simply didn’t perform for him with the season on the line.

Julien (barely) passed Art Ross for the top spot on Boston’s career coaching victories list, but the run to 400 wins stalled out badly at the end. And this much is true: you can’t point to the coach’s effectiveness at getting the guys to play hard for him without acknowledging that even with the lack of aforementioned talent, the 2015-16 Bruins (and 2014-15 squad too) didn’t play hard enough when it mattered most.

Julien is a class act and if the B’s opt to fire him over this, then so be it. He’ll get hired about 5 minutes later and continue to be a coach in this league- if not in Ottawa or Montreal, then somewhere. But Boston’s larger issue is- who will they bring in to replace him and will that person have much more to work with than Julien did? We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it.

I won’t lie- I’ve gotten to know Julien a bit in the nine years he’s been with the team, so it is understandable why players like Patrice Bergeron love him so much. But, hockey is a business- a results-oriented one- and Julien’s teams have imploded down the stretch in consecutive years and even before that. If not for a fateful deflection that went wide and a tip that didn’t in Boston’s Game 7 win over Montreal in 2011, or the roaring comeback over the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013, we likely would have witnessed Julien’s departure long ago.

The critics who say he doesn’t adjust well enough to what other teams do and can stubbornly adhere to what he believes in even when not working have a point. But so do those who say that you can’t give him a set of Crayola crayons and expect him to craft the Mona Lisa. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and in pro sports, being in the middle won’t get you very far.

Getting the Bruins into the playoffs would have validated his excellence as coach given what he had to work with. But his team didn’t get in, and bad things happen to good people all the time. It won’t be surprising if management pulls the plug and makes a change.

3. Decisions in the past and present limited Sweeney’s options

The life of an NHL GM is often fraught with peril.

When Don Sweeney was named to the post after Peter Chiarelli’s dismissal, he had a Herculean task ahead to create cap flexibility and keep the Bruins on track to get back into contention. He tried to do both and it didn’t work.

He ultimately stuck with Claude Julien, and then made two big draft-day moves- each alternately blasted and praised as myriad analysts dissected each. Hamilton to Calgary for three picks- not one NHL roster player in return- was a shocker and the court of public opinion came down swiftly against the fledgling GM, even if it was later revealed that Hamilton and his representation didn’t exactly give Sweeney much to go on in negotiating a second contract with Boston. Lucic to the Kings was, conversely, almost universally praised for its return- a 1st (Jakub Zboril) a capable, on-the-verge-of-being-a-starter in Martin Jones and an on-the-verge-of-being-an-NHL-defenseman in  Colin Miller.

Sweeney and the Bruins were widely mocked (What is Boston doing?! were the breathless headlines Friday night and Saturday) for drafting Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn after the first round given some other bigger names on the board, and so- given the seasons Kyle Connor, Mathew Barzal, Colin White and even Thomas Chabot had, those knives are going to come out again. Ultimately, the Bruins didn’t do what the pundits said they should have, but in fairness- the aforementioned players made a case that they should have been chosen over at least two if not all three players Boston took ahead of them. We’re still waiting on the jury and might be for quite some time. (Disclaimer- I have no issue with any of the three Boston took when they did. It’s possible that everyone is right in taking who they did where, at least as things stand right now.)

Ultimately, though- last summer was about freeing up cap dollars, so Reilly Smith was sent packing for a reduced cap hit in Jimmy Hayes. Unfortunately for Boston, Hayes not only failed to take the anticipated next step, but his lack of foot speed and physicality, made him the target of fan angst and derision pretty early on. If he wasn’t getting the goals and points, it looked like he was “coasting” and therefore became an easy scapegoat, especially when Smith returned to scoring form in Florida. Hayes doesn’t deserve a lot of the pure disdain he’s gotten, but the results weren’t where they needed to be.

Sweeney committed a blunder in acquiring Zac Rinaldo for a 2017 third-round pick but at least Sweeney recognized it by cutting bait in February rather than riding it out with a spare part for an entire season. In the end, it’s not the pick that hurts (though it is a wasted asset)- it’s the questionable judgment that Rinaldo could have been an impact player in Boston enough to give up a third in the first place. We could see this coming, and how the B’s pro scouts couldn’t or didn’t is what stokes the fires of discontent in April.

Aside from Matt Irwin, Sweeney did little to address his defense and that was the biggest criticism, as once the season began, it was increasingly tougher to make a deal for a capable, stabilizing force with so much parity in the NHL and teams not interested in giving up valuable young and promising blue line talent for what Boston had to offer. John-Michael Liles was too little, too late; Lee Stempniak made an impact, but Sweeney decided to stick with Eriksson to help get the Bruins into the postseason and now that the  team couldn’t even do that, not moving the impending UFA at the deadline will be a major talking point from now until they either surrender his rights for a middling pick or he goes elsewhere on July 1.

If anything- Sweeney’s actions last June proved he’s capable of bold action, but some of Chiarelli’s past mistakes and some poor decisions in the offseason drew up the blueprint that we’re left with today.

4. The B’s core is not hardcore enough

The Bruins have roughly $28 million invested in four players: Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask. Notice who is missing- Brad Marchand. He’s entering his last year of a bargain $4.5M cap hit and the B’s are going to have to open the vault to keep him. If Krejci is making $7.25M for the next five years, what is Marchand worth? David Pastrnak will also be due a new contract entering the 2017-18 season, and depending on how he plays next year, what are his reps going to be asking for? Torey Krug’s future with the Bruins will be decided in the here and now.

But all of this gets back to one central question: how good is Boston’s core? After what we’ve witnessed the past two regular seasons and going back to the 2013 playoffs, not good enough.

Chara is 39 and can no longer carry the defense. He’s been the captain for a decade and has become an easy target in a “what have you done for me lately?” world. Chara needed help this season and simply didn’t get it. It was painful to watch most nights, and I remain convinced that his right knee is a major culprit in the falloff of his play. He’ll never be the player he once was, but in the right role, he can still be effective for the remaining two years of his deal when expected retirement follows. The B’s weren’t able to put him in position to succeed, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t finish out his career in Boston if he so desires- just as long as it isn’t expected that he gave them what he did in his prime.

Bergeron will be 31 in May…he’s the team’s heart, soul and most productive player. But he’s not above criticism either- where was he yesterday? Nobody (least of all TSP) is blaming Bergeron for what happened, but if we want to have an honest discussion about what went wrong in Boston, we can’t completely fence off certain players while pointing the finger at others who are more convenient targets. Bergeron could have led by example and even in a loss, created some signature moments. He, like the rest of his mates, did not, so nobody is off-limits in the discussion of the team’s issues.

Having said that Bergeron isn’t going anywhere, and he’s the absolute least of the team’s worries. But, shouldn’t management be figuring out how to surround St. Patrice and Marchand with better talent? He’s on the wrong side of 30 now- the window is closing. Bergeron is proof that when playing around the margins  and half-measures to address the roster, he’s not powerful enough to carry the team on his shoulders to victory. Even though, for the most part, he’s tried to do just that. He had a remarkable year, but when it all came down to the wire, Bergeron wasn’t able to will his team to a win.

That leads us to Krejci and Rask.

Krejci had a tremendous start and looked like that $7.25M player early on, but as has been the case in recent seasons, he got hit with injuries and as the grind of the season went on, was less and less effective. What good is having the franchise’s highest active scorer in the playoffs if you can’t make it into the dance?

It’s a bad contract, period- the biggest albatross Chiarelli saddled the Bruins with in his final year as GM. He makes more than Bergeron and delivers less. He’s a good player but doesn’t have the elite skill to be a great one. He turns 30 next month, and the B’s are in real danger of being stuck with a center who is capable enough when fully healthy, but isn’t capable of making it through an entire season in peak condition. You can’t put that kind of guy on the third line, so where does that leave the ability to build versatile and productive scoring units across the board?

The simple fact is- the Bruins needed more than they got from Krejci this season and the final game of the regular season was a microcosm of all that is of concern with him in the present and future. Like Bergeron yesterday, he was unable to be a difference-maker, so we witnessed three goals from pluggers like Chris Neil and Zack Smith instead. They alone gave the Sens a 2-1 win even if you throw out Smith’s late-game empty-netter and the tallies by Mika Zibanejad, Matt Puempel and P.G. Pageau to make it a complete embarrassment of a 6-1 final score.

There is no denying that Krejci is a high-end passer and driven guy who truly cares about his team and winning. On paper, Krejci makes complete sense where he resides in the team’s salary structure, but he isn’t doing enough in the real world to validate what he does best. The questions about return on investment will only loom larger and larger if he maintains his current trajectory.

Trading Krejci is no easy fix, either. His contract is even more problematic- he has a full no-move clause until 2019 followed by a no-trade in 2019-20. Assuming Sweeney could find a taker (and make no mistake- the B’s would be getting a low return and likely retaining money in the process), Krejci would have to bless off on it. Not impossible, but not easily done. There are teams out there capable of adding his term and cap hit, but not very many. For the time being, Krejci is worth more to the Bruins than he is to some other team, but if this is the “new normal” for him, then the B’s can’t afford to keep the status quo as is. They’ll have to look elsewhere on the roster for cap relief.

There aren’t seven million reasons for trading a particular player, but it was a major disappointment that Tuukka Rask got sick and wasn’t there when his team needed him. Sure, with the way the Bruins played it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Rask was in net or it was the ghost of Tiny Thompson- Boston wasn’t winning that game. He certainly didn’t mean to get sick and life happens- especially when you have a toddler (read: germ factory) at home, but is this what $7M buys you these days? The do-or-die game of the season after other mediocre showings sprinkled throughout the year in the worst statistical performance of his career, and Rask wasn’t even there to attempt to be the difference maker. He still has his hardcore believers, but that number is shrinking.

The Bruins were rumored to be discussing moving Rask on draft day last summer, and with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have and given the reins to the then still (but not now) unproven Martin Jones. The Hamilton trade furor and fan backlash is likely what stopped Sweeney in his tracks on moving Rask (assuming the rumor is true), but after this season of up-and-down play and a less-than-team first attitude to boot, while the goaltender doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame, he nevertheless played a key part in the collapse.

For me, it’s simple- while I admire the hell out of Rask’s natural talent, I’m not sure I’d want him in a foxhole next to me. Right, wrong, indifferent- he’s the one core piece the Bruins could move to try and get out from under the situation they’re in. He’s not yet 30, will no doubt appeal to a multitude of teams that could see him as a critical piece to get them over the hump, and hey- he’s a talented player. Boston’s problem is that the teams with the most to gain from Rask and the most to offer (young, up-and-coming D) are all pretty well set between the pipes. Nobody ever said the life of a GM was easy…

Trading him certainly means there’s a good chance the B’s will take an even bigger step backwards next season if Rask is dealt, but maybe not. And what’s the real upside to keeping him for what looks to be another bridge/re-tool year even if the B’s can land one higher-end defender and maybe another capable player via free agency? We’ve already seen in two seasons that Rask was unable to elevate his play enough to negate the dearth of skill at other positions. So, depending on the return and how much cap space is allocated to other talent at other positions, it just might get Boston on the right track to sustained success sooner than many might think.

In the end, I just don’t feel that Rask is the right player for this team. His body language and at times perceived indifference doesn’t seem suited for the clear growing pains such a porous defense and inconsistent forward group is going to bring to the ice on any given night in Boston. It doesn’t make Rask a bad person, and he’s done some good things for the B’s in his tenure. Before the legion of Rask fans descend on this space to blast me for saying it- I truly believe a change of scenery would be best for him too. I have little doubt that with the right destination, he’d waive his own NMC to do so. Unfortunately, it also means Sweeney and Co. are selling low, but sometimes you have to swallow hard, cut your losses and do what you think is right for the club over the long haul.

The core needs a makeover. Whether it’s Rask or someone else, we’ll have to see what comes next. But we’ve seen that that playing along the margins (trading Ryan Spooner for example) or half measures won’t cut it. The core isn’t the identity of the Boston Bruins anymore- they were at one time, but in the 2016 season’s final moments, not one of them was able (or even available) to make a difference. That’s a fact that wasn’t lost on management.

So- there it is.

I intended this to be a shorter post, but you got a book instead. I will follow up with a podcast and spend more time on that medium identifying what steps the B’s might take to right the ship.

I will say this- no single offseason is going to get it done. While the farm has some nice players, there aren’t a lot of the high-end types who are not only projected to be eventual stars NHL but who are ready to make the jump to the big time starting in 2016-17. That doesn’t mean that more won’t emerge in the coming months and years the way Frank Vatrano did this year and David Pastrnak the season before, but it’s not going to be a simple matter of plugging in prospects and young players and expecting better results than the ones we got this time around.

It’s going to be a rocky offseason, with every move and non-move sure to be dissected and flayed with relish on both sides. But this is why we love and follow the game.

I want to thank everyone who has read the blog since it began last July. The first NHL regular season is now in the books and while the disappointment won’t subside for a while, I am grateful for the candor, the feedback and the support.

Attending the World Under-18 Championship next week will allow me to turn the focus of the blog to what comes next and begin preparing for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

I hope you’ll keep reading…

– Kirk Luedeke

“The End”- the Doors from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now