2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series: the Defense

Chara4

Zdeno Chara returns for his eleventh season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Closing out the post and podcast series on the Boston Bruins outlook for 2016-17.

I won’t be redundant here in hopes that instead of reading the post, you’ll carve out time to listen to the 55-minute podcast breaking down the defensemen. As I say up front in the pod- I’m not saving the best for last, and hope is not a method here- they’ve not gotten appreciably better since the catastrophic finish to the 2o15-16 campaign.

Even the most optimistic of fans would be hard-pressed to express confidence in the collective Boston blue line, but it is a hard-working bunch and if they don’t get the B’s back to the postseason, it won’t be for a lack of trying.

Listen to the podcast here:

Rob O'GaraBruins

 

Check out the rest of the series posts and podcasts here:

 

Centers

Right Wings

Left Wings

Goaltenders

Download the pods on your podcast app/client: https://scoutingpost.com/feed/

What D? The elephant in the room for the Bruins

Zdeno Chara returns for his eleventh season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zdeno Chara returns for his eleventh season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

It’s been a slow August, but I had an exchange on Twitter today that inspired a new post- the first since the Jimmy Vesey recap last weekend. There will be more content in store as we get closer to the new season and of course the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

With Vesey now officially with the Rangers, Bruins Nation turns its lonely eyes to Don Sweeney, looking at the proverbial elephant in the room- the lack of a clear and meaningful upgrade on the Boston blue line since the end of last season. Re-signing John-Michael Liles was fine on its face, but remember- he was a part of the April implosion that saw the B’s crater after sitting as high as second place in the conference a week and change after the trade that brought Liles to Boston. Also extended- Kevan “Killer” Miller, Colin “Chiller” Miller and Joe (Don’t call me “Blow”) Morrow...what do they all have in common? That’s right- they were all a part of the epic spring collapse for the second year in a row, but 2016 was worse because the B’s seemed to be well-positioned for playoffs at least before coming completely undone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the coda- an embarrassingly bad home loss against the nothing-to-play-for except to be spoiler to a division rival Ottawa Senators was a final humiliating kick in the crotch to a season that had far more peaks than valleys, but will ultimately be remembered for the inglorious ending.

So, here we are- a few days before September and unless we missed something- the only new blood the Bruins brought into the organization over the summer via free agency at the defense position is AHL journeyman Alex Grant. Nothing agains the former 1st overall midget pick in the 2005 QMJHL draft- he’s had a cup of coffee in the NHL and even scored some goals- but doesn’t this look a lot like Matt Irwin from a year ago?

We’re still waiting for a serious move to address a defense that was overmatched at best when skating against the top NHL offenses a season ago. This is not a slam on the current Boston defensive core- we think the world of Torey Krug, for example- he deserves to be surrounded by better talent. Zdeno Chara is at the end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still a serviceable defender…so long as no one expects his old near-30 minutes in any situation. Gone is Dennis Seidenberg, who, despite his huge heart, just couldn’t be effective on his surgically-reconstructed bottom trunk. Ability-wise, Seids is addition by subtraction, but his experience and veteran leadership will be missed, so you can make the case that this defense is actually worse than it was a year ago. This group needs help and one top-three NHL defenseman acquired via trade would do wonder to take some of that pressure off.

Help is coming in the form of a youth movement that shows a ton of promise. Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara could be skating for the NHL club at some point this season (they’re both slated for the AHL at a minimum, maybe more depending on how camp/preseason goes for them) and with their size and mobility, there’s a lot to like about their NHL potential. However, no one should be expecting either player to come in as a rookie and stabilize the Boston blue line. Charlie McAvoy is the cat’s meow after being picked 14th overall and having a sharp B’s development camp in July and even better showing at USA World Junior camp in Plymouth, Mich. earlier this month. But, he’s an NCAA player, so unless he bolts from BU, he won’t help the B’s this season until spring at a minimum when his sophomore year at Boston University is in the books. Jakub Zboril, the team’s top pick from a year ago, is in better shape and rehabbing an image that took a hit from a lackluster start last season- he’s talented enough to be a top-three one day, but how badly does he want it? And don’t forget Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and Ryan Lindgren– all impressive defenders who bring a little something different to the table. Let’s face it, though- even with the optimism, these players aren’t going to give the 2016-17 Boston Bruins what they really need. Hey- if someone within the organization steps up and delivers, more power to ’em, but this is why folks are getting antsy.

It’s legit.

So, based on some things I was told by sources in the Bruins organization and around the NHL, here’s a quick look at some options, or, irons in the fire, that the second year Boston GM and his management group might be looking at. On paper, this defense is simply not much to write home about given how things went a year ago, and while Sweeney has talked about the challenge of finding the right players at the right price, we’re a few days from September and while you don’t want to use words like alarming to describe the situation, what else are we left with. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You could apply that to the Boston defense and someone would have a hard time arguing against it.

Preamble over, let’s look at some options- by no means all of them, but something to get the juices flowing, at least:

Kevin Shattenkirk, Blues: The Bruins thought they had a deal for the former BU standout back in February in a deal that would have netted a return for Loui Eriksson, but according to a source close to St. Louis, those talks fell apart over the Blues’ desire to move another bad contract to Boston. Sweeney balked and no deal. Now, same source tells TSP that trade talks are heating up for Shattenkirk again, but not necessarily between Blues GM Doug Armstrong and the Bruins. It sure sounds like the NY Rangers would be a club sniffing around Shattenkirk, especially given his Empire State roots.

Armstrong’s in a tough spot and he knows it- the Blues came close to reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Bobby Orr took the pass from Derek Sanderson, beat Glenn Hall and hurtled through the air, frozen forever in time (46 years ago), but the San Jose Sharks ruined their (and Boston’s 2016 late 1st-round draft) party. Shattenkirk will be a free agent next summer and he’ll command big bucks even though his value as a two-way defender and power play contributor seems all but assured of declining. Assuming the Blues don’t try to re-sign him, trading Shattenkirk now means Armstrong gets more of a return, but he weakens his talented veteran team. The longer they hold onto him, the more he becomes a “rental” and the acquisition price becomes less than what it could be. Decisions, decisions.

The good: Shattenkirk would instantly upgrade the Boston defense and a top-3 of Chara, Shattenkirk and Krug isn’t a top NHL group, but it’s respectable. He’s very good in transition and paired with an effective shutdown guy (Adam McQuaid?), the shortcomings exposed by San Jose in the Western Conference final series last spring wouldn’t be as profound.

The bad: Let’s be honest- Shattenkirk is a fine player, but he’s on a cap-friendly deal right now, and he won’t be 12 months from now. If you acquire this guy, you either do so for one year and accept that he’ll be gone next July 1 or you have to commit upwards of $7 million a season (ballpark) to extend him. Is he worth it? Remember- you’re going to pay a handsome price to get him from St. Louis, and then you have to commit the cap allocation (and real dollars) to keep him in Boston.

The skinny: Last February, this made sense for the Bruins. Now? Not so much. If Sweeney is going to pay a premium, look for someone younger and more cost controlled. Recommendation: Pass on Shattenkirk and let someone else overpay for him not only in terms of assets surrendered, but in his next deal, which will be a doozy. The B’s already signed David Backes to a controversial big-ticket contract- remember Einstein.

Jacob Trouba, Jets: We’re hearing from several sources around the league that tension and friction is growing more intense between the 2012 NHL draft darling and Winnipeg management. Where he once looked like a franchise player-in-waiting, he’s taken steps backwards after a very promising rookie year, but wants big bucks and more playing time. The Jets committed to Dustin Byfuglien on that, so it sure looks like Trouba’s days are numbered in the ‘Peg, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is under no timetable to resolve the issue…if there even is one. On the positive side- Trouba has all the tools of a top-2 NHL rearguard, even if he hasn’t shown it. The risky aspect is that he’s really in no position to be dictating terms, and yet here he is, apparently. That will make NHL suitors wary for third and fourth contract-type maneuvers, assuming he gets there.

The good: Trouba would give the Bruins a young D they could sign to a “show-me” contract (if he just wanted out of Winnipeg) with a delayed payday, much like they did with Krug. He’d instantly move into the top of the rotation and be given every opportunity to prove he can be a bell cow D and earn that massive deal he seeks. The B’s would benefit from his skill and young legs to take some pressure off of Chara and Krug.

The bad: Trouba is risky right now and pro scouts might be a tad squeamish about laying it on the line for him. Is he just human and his play affected by the environment with the Jets? Or is he more of a dud than a stud? Any trade for him is going to cost a lot- he’s only 22 and was a top-10 pick, so Cheveldayoff can drive up the bidding and come away with a nice package/return- you’ll have to overpay for Trouba to get him, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the player you’re praying he will. If he doesn’t, that’s what costs people their jobs.

The skinny: Go East, young man! Forget the rumors about an offer sheet for Trouba, but if Sweeney could wrangle a deal, Trouba just might be the droid the B’s are looking for. This risk is worthwhile, and when you stack Trouba up against the Bruins defenders player-for-player, he’s better than most, and with the promising defense prospects coming up (at least one or two not named McAvoy would have to go back to Winnipeg, no doubt) within the organization, he’ll get help at some point. But the Bruins need a defenseman now…what good is putting Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Backes, Chara and company through another season like the last two if you don’t find a way to improve your team and give them a chance to build on two very frustrating finishes.

Cam Fowler, Ducks: I talked about him being an option via trade for the B’s in early July here, so I don’t have a great deal to add other than to say, it’s more of the same with Shattenkirk- Fowler improves the Boston defense and makes them more competitive. Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins via trade is probably a pipe dream- if Bob Murray is going to move a blue liner, we can’t see it being him- Fowler is a more obvious choice. But hey- if that happens- that’d be huge (but again- pipe dream).

Just in case you’re disinclined (too lazy?) to click on the link I provided above, here are some nuggets from that Fowler post from July 2:

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.

The good: Fowler makes the Bruins better. How much? That’s up to you, dear reader, to decide.

The bad: If you pay attention to advanced stats and analytics, Fowler’s valuable on the power play but more of a 3rd-pairing guy at even strength, and the B’s have plenty of those. He’s also going to cost a lot to acquire at age 24. Teams with good D-men are in a seller’s market, which the B’s are unfortunately (for them and their fans) on the wrong side of.

The skinny: Fowler is worth pursuing- there’s real ability there, and he might prove to be a good fit to help stabilize the defense until one (and) more of the young guns are able to develop into NHL regulars on the Boston blue line.

Kris Russell, Unrestricted: In the free agent game of musical chairs, the music has stopped and Russell is looking for a seat. It’s surprising really, even with the concerns about how the analytics translated to his overall game and potential going forward. He’s 29 and has nearly 600 NHL games under his belt. The former Medicine Hat Tigers standout and Columbus 3rd-rounder can really move the puck and pass, but his turnovers and decisions (not to mention the fact he’s undersized) get him into trouble. Granted- how is it that we’re almost to September and he still hasn’t found a landing spot? In a word- money. His agents shot far too high, so he’ll have to take a lot less and the lower the cap hit, the more reasonable a guy like Russell will be.

The good: Russell can move and aid in the transition game. He’s a veteran and he’d represent an improvement on paper to the Boston roster, but that assumes his play doesn’t fall off a cliff- a major factor perhaps in why no team was eager to sign on for the big bucks he was looking for on July 1.

The bad: The analytics are not kind…and we need to be honest with ourselves- the Bruins and their fans aren’t either. A player like Russell will be so heavily scrutinized that he’s more likely to wilt in a bigger role with Boston than he would in more of a complementary spot with a better, even contending club.

The skinny: Signing Russell to a prime market deal on July 1 was the major red flag, but now that we’re reaching the end of the offseason, there are worse things the Bruins could do than sign him to a 1- or 2-year team-friendly deal. Having said that- he’s not a great fit as a left-shot D with similar attributes to Krug- do the B’s need two similar players? Probably not- balance is the key and Krug is the much better overall player- it’s not close. Pass- let some other club roll the dice.

Okay- there it is. Not all the bases covered, but if we get to the start of training camp after the World Cup of Hockey and nothing has been addressed with the Boston defense, then you’re going to see and hear the criticisms ramp up. This 16-17 Bruins roster is a game bunch, but they don’t have the talent on the whole to compensate for the lack of skill on the back end, and throwing up the hands and claiming an upgrade is too hard to pull off won’t cut it with the natives.

Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

Thud! (And ideas on what the B’s need to address going forward)

That’s the sound of the Boston Bruins coming out of an important game last night against the Anaheim Ducks.

The reality is- you can’t win in any league without scoring goals, so this one was over just a few minutes into it- as long as it took trade deadline pickup Jamie McGinn to put the puck past Jonas Gustavsson at 2:51.

The Bruins outshot and outhit the Ducks, and after a rough 1st period, pulled things together until giving up a Hampus Lindholm goal early in the third period.  However, on a night that the B’s couldn’t get any of their 38 shots past starting netminder Frederik Andersen, no one should be all that surprised- the Ducks are one of the league’s top teams after a brutal offensive start. The defense and goaltending has been there for them all season, and when the scoring picked up, you just knew that Bruce Boudreau’s club would be a force. The B’s have been outscored 10-2 in their pair of games against the Ducks this season. In a head-to-head matchup like this one, it was evident that the B’s is not as talented, not as deep, not as strong, not as fast.

I know fans are disappointed, and there’s no doubt more is expected of this B’s club that went on an impressive hot streak after keeping Loui Eriksson and picking up John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak on February 29th’s NHL trade deadline. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that there still seems to be this sense of entitlement by so many out there who flood the airwaves and internet with negativity in the wake of a loss. No team has ever posted a perfect record in any regular season in NHL history and no one ever will. The B’s are far from a powerhouse team, so nobody should really be surprised that they came up short against the Ducks last night. Not giving a pass to the Bruins here, but they were overmatched against Anaheim last night and it showed- they put up a solid effort and had their moments, but their opponent is that much better. McGinn and Ryan Kesler scored in the first 5 minutes and while the game seemed closer than the final score, the B’s were unable to solve the defense and goaltender at the other end.

The honeymoon with Stempniak and Liles is ending. They’re solid veterans, but not true difference makers. Boston’s showing against San Jose and Anaheim give you an indication that while the team improved at the deadline, how much of an upgrade the duo represent looks to be relatively minimal compared to the strength and core of the recognized top clubs in the league, especially out West. Liles played poorly last night…it happens, but his -3 against the Ducks is probably more reflective of what he is at age 35 than anything else, but after infusing the B’s with a shot of energy after arriving, he’s coming back down to earth a bit.

The team should be grateful that they didn’t lose sparkplug Matt Beleskey to a serious eye injury after he got caught with a Simon Despres high stick on the follow through of a puck battle. Once again, there were missed calls on some blatant stuff that should have gone Boston’s way, but it didn’t happen and who is to say that the B’s power play could have made a difference? The good news for the Bruins is that their penalty killing has been pretty dangerous this season with 9 shorthanded goals, so perhaps it pays them to be without the man advantage. In any case- the fan frustration that Boston continues to be at the bottom of the league in power play chances is palpable, but I’m not sure we can do anything about it.

Last night wasn’t about the missed calls as much as it was about missed opportunities- the second period was much better and a goal or two could have changed the game entirely, but sometimes we have to take a step back and understand that Ducks are a superior team. They made their chances count and Boston didn’t. That’s life and hockey.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Bruins as they face a rested L.A. Kings team in their home digs tonight, the same club that demolished Boston in the Hub, and that word probably doesn’t begin to describe the one-sided drubbing the Kings gave them on their home ice in Milan Lucic’s return to TD Garden. They’ll go home briefly and then head down to New York to face the Rangers on Wednesday, so there is a chance they can salvage a point or three in the final two games of their roadie, but it won’t be easy.

With that in mind, here are some (obvious) thoughts for Don Sweeney and the team to ponder going forward:

  1. The defense must be the offseason priority.

No disrespect intended to Dennis Seidenberg, but serious thought should be given to either trading him for an inconsequential return or, if no NHL team is willing to take him and his $4 million cap hit, buying him out and moving on. Kevan Miller is a good teammate and has had his moments in Boston, but the B’s need to look at using his roster spot on someone else. He’ll land on his feet with someone else, but the B’s already re-signed Adam McQuaid to a questionable extension (and I say questionable in terms of pure economics- will always respect McQuaid for what he brings to the team, but he’s yet to make it through an entire NHL unscathed and the wear and tear on him appears to be showing)- they don’t need to add another one with a game but limited Miller.

Zdeno Chara can’t carry the team- that much is certain- but he still carries value in the right role. Trading him is the popular talking point by folks who don’t seem to understand that he has a no movement clause. I get that trading him makes sense on multiple levels, but the contract he signed makes that highly problematic, even if the GM was willing to move in that direction. Bottom line- unless he does a Ray Bourque and asks out, Chara isn’t going anywhere. Having said that, Sweeney and his staff understand that he simply cannot be an effective workhorse anymore. Not only does the team need a legitimate No. 2 defender to balance the three pairings, but they also need to seek out an effective defense partner for Chara. They weren’t able to find one this season.

Maybe Colin Miller can be that guy, but the more I see of him, the more I believe he’s just a middle-tier player who has some nice offensive tools and will be an above average power play specialist with 40-point NHL upside but is not instinctive enough of a player to be a bell cow 2-way threat who will be a dependable defensive presence. He’s still young and will develop into an NHL regular, but I’m not sure he’s someone the Bruins and their fans should be placing an inordinate amount of faith in as a top-2 or even 3 solution for the team.

It’s been a disappointing season for Torey Krug as far as the goals go- he has just three. It isn’t for a lack of trying but he’s gotten no breaks this year. He’s still one of Boston’s best options on defense in terms of his skating, puck-moving, smarts and energy/tenacity. He’s posted a career-best in assists and is an important character guy for the team. In a perfect world he’d have a lot more goals, but it might be a blessing in disguise- if he was lighting it up, he’d be looking at a bigger payday. As it stands, the B’s should be able to lock him into a reasonable, fair-market extension at around $5 million AAV, perhaps a little less, and considering what Seidenberg is getting, that’s about right. Some folks won’t like it, but those people are nowhere near the team and can’t even comprehend what Krug means to the club on and off the ice. Unless he’s part of some major trade and massive plan to re-shape Boston’s defense by bringing in multiple players, Krug should be a part of the solution going forward. He might not have the ideal size, but his oversized heart and hockey IQ mean he can be highly effective- he just doesn’t have a lot of help at present.

The Bruins need to make something happen at the position. Kevin Shattenkirk is the biggest name out there (and Boston might/should have their sights on a few other options), and he won’t come cheaply from the St. Louis Blues if they were to trade him. But should Boston land him, they had better have the ability to retain him for the long-term. If it’s someone else, so be it- but whomever the B’s are looking to bring in, it needs to be a player who can be part of a winning present and future.

2. Boston needs to upgrade Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly.

There’s no way around it- both have been major disappointments.

In Hayes’ case, you would think the local guy would have shown more consistent energy and desire but it seems like the pressure got to him. Although huge, the former Nobles prep star and Boston College product has always been more of a gentle giant than a premier power forward, and his skating is what prevented him from being a first-round pick in 2008- he struggles to play a consistent uptempo style. Hayes gets his goals and points by going to the net and boxing out defenders with his massive frame, but we don’t see it enough. The Bruins acquired him in hopes that after a 19-goal campaign in Florida (including a dagger game at the end of the season that essentially knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs) he would take it to the next level. That hasn’t happened and I don’t know if it ever will…he’s such a curiously passive player given what he could be with that pure size and the soft hands around the net. I can only imagine the coaches are even more baffled. Bringing him home to Boston hasn’t worked and a lot of this is on Hayes- the team has tried a lot of different things to get him going (and we’ve seen what he’s capable of bringing) but he’s not responded in any meaningful, consistent fashion. That’s one of the reasons why he watched last night’s contest from the press box. He’s on the books for two more years, so the B’s either have to remain invested in him and hope he gets the funk out (Extreme reference!) of his game or they’ll have to take pennies on the dollar (and perhaps retain salary in the process) to get some other team to take him off their hands.

Connolly is even more maddening.

The sixth overall pick in 2010 flashes all of those tools that saw him selected before some pretty damn fine NHL players, but we see it only in fleeting fashion. The size and speed combo catches the eye for sure, but it’s what he doesn’t do with it that leaves you often shaking your head in disbelief. The scouting reports on Connolly coming out Prince George of the WHL near unanimously praised him for his hockey sense and killer instinct around the net, but the NHL version of Connolly flies in the face of those observations. If he’s not doing fly-bys in front of the opposition net or missing shots from prime position, Connolly can’t seem to do the little things that matter- battles for loose pucks, a net-front presence, won foot races- he often seems to be a step behind.

That’s not to say Connolly can’t be an effective fourth-line winger, but the Bruins didn’t give up not one but two second-round picks for a bottom line player. The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t draft him where they did for a checking/energy guy. He’s not yet 24, so you don’t want to completely close the door on Connolly, but at the same time- like Hayes- the B’s have given him a lot of different looks and chances and he simply hasn’t done much with it. 9 goals in 69 games with some healthy scratches thrown in there simply doesn’t cut it for a player as talented as Connolly is. Where’s the beef?

Frank Vatrano is the obvious player to give a chance as the season comes to an end over the disappointing duo. He just turned 22 this week and has 31 goals in 31 AHL games, not to mention another six goals in 30 NHL games after an earlier stint with the big club this season. My personal feeling is that right now- Vatrano is better off playing top line, PP and PK minutes in Providence as opposed to being on a lower unit with limited ice time. Of course, the B’s are only allowed four recalls after the trade deadline, so it isn’t as simple as just brining him up.

Having said all that, the B’s could do worse than giving the Springfield Rifle a shot- he’s got speed and energy to burn and just might give the Boston offense a shot in the arm. He’s a left wing who could replace Eriksson in the top-six and then Eriksson could move over to the right allowing coaches to move out either one of Connolly and Hayes. The issue for Boston (other than burning the call up and concerns about the defense factor of a Vatrano-David KrejciDavid Pastrnak line) is that in order to bring Vatrano up, they would have to put someone else on waivers, so right now, it appears that the business of hockey and economics are playing a more prominent role. I can’t argue with those who say that exposing Connolly and/or Hayes to waivers is no big loss, but if Sweeney is convinced he can eventually move them for some kind of return, you begin to understand his reticence to put them on the waiver wire where any team can put in a claim.

Either way, I think we see Frankie “Vats” in Boston next season in some kind of full-time capacity. Natural goal scorers like him don’t grow on trees and the B’s will want to cultivate some returns, especially if the club sees a key roster departure up front, which leads me to my next point.

3. Loui Eriksson– caveat emptor!

Let me get this out of the way- I like Loui. Always have.

He’s been unfairly maligned in the wake of the trade that sent Tyler Seguin (btw- that achilles tendon injury he suffered was gruesome- luckily for him, he may have dodged a bullet by only being out a few weeks versus how serious it could have been) to Dallas. He’s not flashy, but is just smart and consistent- you always know what you’re going to get with Eriksson. But, he’ll be 31 soon, and with what he brings you, 5 or 6 years at close to $6 million per if not more is simply not money/term well spent, and the Bruins need to walk away.

For those who regularly read TSP  and listen to the podcasts (this blog for those who might not have had their coffee)- you know I was all in favor of moving Eriksson at the deadline and was surprised when the Bruins did’t. Of course- if you believe Cam Neely and the lackluster offers he claims were made for Eriksson, then it is understandable that the B’s would hold onto him and take their chances, and he’s continued to make timely contributions. Unfortunately, with two tough losses, it’s easy to revisit the wisdom in not moving Eriksson, especially when it stands to reason that he’ll either leave Boston in early July or the B’s will have to overpay significantly to keep him in the fold.

What to do?

The positives- even without the high-end foot speed, Eriksson is an ideal forward for Boston’s system. He’s smart, industrious, thinks the game at such a high level that he keeps the puck and makes the right decisions in every zone. Versatility is a plus- he’s proven he can play either wing. Eriksson is a smooth playmaker, goes to the net and finishes plays off in close, does good power play work, kills penalties and is a threat shorthanded (witness his shortie the other night against San Jose). He’s a quiet guy, but leads by example and has earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates alike.

On the downside- he’s a good player, not a great one. He’s going to get his money because teams out there with cap space to burn will give him what he and his agent are asking for. That means the B’s will either pony up or have to swallow hard and let him go, because unless Eriksson orders his agent JP Barry to stand down and decides to take a more team-friendly deal, they’ll get little in the way of a break. And honestly- why should Eriksson leave money and term on the table if he can get it elsewhere? I don’t begrudge him getting what he can, but that puts the Bruins in a tough spot.

Ultimately, I think that if the B’s are serious about getting a long-term but young enough defenseman to rebuild their blue line corps around, they need to trade Eriksson’s cap space to make sure they can invest that savings in a long-term deal. That means that if they aren’t willing to go beyond the four years they’ve already offered Loui (and that’s a risky proposition as it is with his concussion history), then they should offer him up to a team that wants the exclusive negotiating rights and is willing to give them a mid-round pick. It’s a far from ideal return, but if the Neely claims are true, getting a fifth-rounder for him isn’t that terrible. After all- Jamie Benn was a fifth-round pick once upon a time, right (it could happen again…yeah, right!)?

I guess we’ll find out, but at some point, the Bruins will need to see if the young crop of forwards in their system can play. Keeping a known (and relatively safe) commodity like Eriksson benefits them in the short term, but leaves them little wiggle room if he skates off a cliff at age 33 or 34 or something unforeseen happens to his health. Marc Savard and Seidenberg are recent reminders of just how rapidly a player and team’s outlook can change when devastating injuries happen.

But in getting back to Loui and why he wasn’t moved, I can only surmise it is because the team and coaches trust him to give his level best each and every night.  That trust factor is why keeping Loui made far more sense for Boston than dumping him for a mediocre futures return would have. It’s easy for fans to say- just take the second-round pick so he doesn’t walk for nothing on a team that has no chance to win! But fans don’t work, sweat, bleed for the team- they can make detached pronouncements on Twitter, internet message boards and over the radio airwaves and don’t have to be accountable for them. Dumping Eriksson would have sent a message to the team that in my mind would have been far more detrimental. If you’re a prospective free agent who might be considering whether to stay or go, or you’re thinking you might like to sign with the Bruins down the road, does your trust that the team is committed to winning go up or does it go down if management hurts a playoff-bound roster at the deadline? Players get the business of hockey, sure- but they also want to feel like the GM has their back. They are…after all…human.

TSP doesn’t have the definitive answers for what ails the Bruins and how to fix it.

Winning the Stanley Cup is hard- only 1 out of 30 teams can do it every year. This team deserves credit for fighting hard and exceeding expectations this season, but it’s hard to get past what we’ve seen in terms of how they match up against the better clubs around the league.

To expect the Bruins to win every night and then be angry when they don’t is a fool’s errand, but at the same time- management’s job is to make this team viable not just for this year but in the seasons to come. Last year, we heard about “passengers” and the B’s still seem to have a couple of those. The defense tries hard, but they don’t have the ability to seriously compete for a championship.

The Stanley Cup window is barely open for the B’s, but it isn’t shut. Whether they can force it open more to match up better with the NHL’s big dogs in the next 1-3 years is very much an unanswered question at this point.

This will be a pivotal couple of months for Sweeney and his legacy as GM in Boston.

 

 

 

 

Bruins beat Sabres & Leafs to show moxie, but the’D’ does not rest

The losses were piling up on the road trip, but the Boston Bruins stopped the bleeding with big wins in Buffalo and at home Saturday night against Toronto to salvage a tough stretch and keep teams behind them in the standings at bay.

Saturday’s 3-2 victory was especially heartening, as the B’s saw a Brad Marchand go-ahead goal with under 13 minutes remaining in the final frame get wiped out on a coach’s challenge that ruled the play offside. After contending with some pretty one-sided officiating all night that play seemed to convince the skeptics that it wasn’t Boston’s night, but the Hockey Gods smiled down on the TD Garden, and a Martin Marincin gaffe allowed for Marchand to pot the winner with under a minute remaining in regulation to break a 2-2 deadlock.

The referees- Dave Jackson and Justin St. Pierre– made me feel at times like Professor Terguson from the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back to School. The role put comedian Sam Kinison firmly on the map with his “Oh, Ohhhhhh!” battle screech from the mid-80’s until his death in a car accident in 1992. The officials last night brought out the absolute worst that is the two referee system in hockey- two guys who just seemed to make inconsistent, subjective calls at whim while players like Nazem Kadri disgraced the game by flopping to the ice anytime a Bruin touched him without being held accountable. I guess I should not be surprised given Jackson’s reputation, but if this is the kind of effort the fans can expect- then why bother, NHL? Just put the teams out there and let them decide everything themselves- you wouldn’t get much more bang for your buck than what those two did last night. And with that, I cede the floor to Professor Terguson/Sammy K.

The win put Boston back into third place in the Atlantic Division, just one point ahead of Tampa Bay (51-50…hey- that’s an old Van Halen album!), who will play the division leader and Sunshine State rival Florida Panthers this evening. The B’s also stayed ahead of the hated Montreal Canadiens, who hurled 49 shots at Brian Elliott but lost in overtime in a game in which the Blues brought back goaltending legends- Mike Liut, Curtis Joseph, Grant Fuhr and Martin Brodeur for a pre-game recognition ceremony. Interestingly enough, Elliott’s 46 saves were the most at home by a Blues goaltender since…you guessed it…Joseph. And to top it off, Elliott was wearing a special tribute mask to Joseph with the same paint job that the former NHL great wore in St. Louis from 1990-93, before he adopted the ubiquitous CuJo rabid dog visage that decorated his headgear for the remainder of his career. But I digress…

This Bruins team is a game bunch of players who put in a good effort on most nights even if their hard work isn’t always rewarded with a win. For the past several weeks, they’ve been without center David Krejci, but Ryan Spooner rose to the occasion by playing like the  2nd-line pivot that many of us felt he had the potential to be. With Krejci close to returning, that’s good news for the B’s but the issue with this club is not the scoring as much as it is a lack of a viable championship-caliber defense. Unless Don Sweeney and his scouts can figure out a way to bring someone in, then fans can expect that this is about as good as it will get.

Tuukka Rask has shown that he has more than enough talent and experience to carry the team at times, and Jonas Gustavsson has been the serviceable backup that the team hoped Niklas Svedberg would be a year ago. However, without a balanced defense, the Bruins are a middle-of-the-pack team, and even the most optimistic of observers aren’t blocking off their calendars in May and June for an extended playoff run.

The B’s are doing about as well as they can, even playing above their heads for stretches of the season. However, the elephant in the room is the current makeup of Boston’s defense. The team knew this would be a sticking point when Sweeney traded Dougie Hamilton last June, and the 22-year-old has certainly not taken that next step that seemed a given just seven months ago, but make no mistake: the loss of Hamilton opened up a void that the GM was simply unable to fill and we’re seeing that with a 23-16-5 record and 4-5-1 in the last 10. The B’s are losing games that during the Claude Julien era they wouldn’t have in previous years, by losing leads because they depend too much on their goaltending and forwards to cover up for a group of players that works hard, but lacks the talent and ability to match up effectively against some of the NHL’s better offenses.

Zdeno Chara is the easy target for fans, frustrated by the fact that father time is catching up to him at age 39 (in a couple of months) and hoping against hope that Sweeney could make a trade for new blood using him as capital.

Here are just a few reasons why that isn’t going to happen: 1. He has a no-trade contract and a wife expecting twins in 60 days. Even if he wanted to play for a contender, it is highly doubtful Chara would even consider putting Tatiana Chara through the turmoil such a move would put his family through. That reason alone precludes serious consideration of any others, but here they are: 2. His best years are clearly behind him, and if you are a Boston fan, do you really think that another team would give the B’s the kind of value that improves the team today? If your answer to that question is yes, then I would submit your position is pretty unserious and you might want to learn a bit more about how the NHL works. I don’t say that to be arrogant, it’s just a fact. 3. There is simply no other defenseman remotely close to assuming the role Chara has on this club. It’s easy to declare he should be traded while Boston can get something for him, but with the NTC and a diminishing body of work, the return isn’t going to justify the net effect of such a move, which would be to elevate Torey Krug or Dennis Seidenberg to the top spot, a role neither player is suited for or capable of at this stage in their respective careers. Even when not producing the results that fans seem to have taken for granted in the decade Chara patrolled the Boston blue line, he’s still an integral part of the roster and Julien’s system, whether we like it or not.

Besides, assuming Chara asked out and wanted to be dealt (which he doesn’t at present) there is no shortage of teams that would want to add him, but those clubs aren’t going to give up a premium young roster player in return- that defeats the purpose of adding Chara to a contending team’s lineup in the first place. The best the Bruins could hope for is a young prospect along the lines of a Colin Miller, but more realistically, the trade partner team would give up a 1st-round pick for him, and that’s about it. If you want an improved Boston team in the present and immediate future (next year) that scenario doesn’t help. You can probably make a good trade on NHL ’16 involving Chara, but this is real life so just stop with the video game mentality, please.

But getting away from trading Chara for a second- the future Hall of Famer is worth far more to the Bruins than he is most anyone else. It would be one thing if the B’s had a legitimate young colt waiting in the wings and approaching the time to take over as the No. 1 defender on the Boston roster. Right now, Sweeney and Co. don’t have that player. They don’t even have a clear-cut No. 2, leaving Krug to take  on more of that role, but with very little help around him, as the rest of the defense corps in Boston right now is at best a group of 5/6, bottom-pairing guys. That situation places enormous pressure on Chara and results in his minutes being much higher than they should be at this stage of his career.

So, to close out the thoughts on Chara- he’s clearly not the player he once was, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy answer to just trade him and be done with it. He can still be effective in the right situations because of his size, reach and experience, but his lack of foot speed and declining skill set means that the team that employs him as a top defender cannot rely on him to perform like the dominant No. 1 he was in his prime. That’s sad, but the team and fans, at least in the short term, must come to terms with that fact and look for options that include Chara for now, because with that NTC and a lack of a viable marketplace at present, he isn’t going anywhere.

Krug has earned his way this year as a very good No. 3/4 at the NHL level. He does all the things you want from a puck-moving defenseman, making a brilliant neutral zone pass to spring Patrice Bergeron for the first of his two goals. Krug also put on an impressive display of skill during the second period when he stickhandled through the Toronto defense and deked Jonathan Bernier out of the Leafs net before losing the handle at the last second. However, he saved his best for last when Rask got caught out of his net and lost the puck to Tyler Bozak, who flipped it back to P.A. Parenteau. Krug’s instant recognition of the unfolding play allowed him to go right to the crease and cover for Rask. He dropped into the butterfly and absorbed Parenteau’s shot (that would have broken a 2-2 tie late in regulation and likely crushed Boston’s spirit).

When we talk about how Krug can’t physically outmatch the bigger, stronger forwards but that he needs to play smart defense, there is your exhibit A. He could have chased the puck and tried to make a play on it himself, but he had the hockey IQ and situational awareness to cover the cage with Rask out and made a game-saving stop while doing a pretty passable impression of the former Vezina Trophy winner in the process. Krug is Boston’s best defenseman after Chara- if he was about 4 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, he’d be that ideal heir apparent that Boston so desperately needs. As it stands, Krug’s tremendous character, competitive drive and ability mean that he is worth getting locked up after this season and if it were up to me, I commit the expected $5 million he’ll command on the market to do so- he’s worth it, and the team can’t afford to bank on unknowns like Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara or even Brandon Carlo right now by allowing Krug to follow Hamilton out the door.

Against Toronto, we saw flashes of what Joe Morrow could be, but we also witnessed the likely effect of not playing every night, as he mishandled pucks and turned them over in several instances when a better decision to move the puck out of danger would have been smarter. The more I watch Morrow, the more evident it is to me why Pittsburgh and Dallas both decided to trade him. He’s a complementary player- not someone who is likely to develop into a top-3 NHL option. Morrow’s impressive skills are clearly evident when you watch the way he can carry the puck and will jump into the rush, but he looks like more of a specialist than a heavy lifter, and that’s a shame.

C. Miller has the best potential of all the youngsters at the pro level currently, but he’s not a player who can play unsheltered minutes and expect to instill confidence especially late in close games. There’s a valid argument to be made that Chiller should be in the lineup over Kevan Miller and Zach Trotman, especially with Adam McQuaid out, but he gives away toughness and size, even if the difference is so trivial that it seems inconceivable that the Boston coaches would not use him more. Trotman is big and mobile…he can make the crisp first pass and it showed last night with a helper on Bergeron’s second goal. He doesn’t have a big NHL upside, but he’s a serviceable player. With more physicality in his game, he might get more recognition than he does.

Dennis Seidenberg is a warrior, and I’ll always respect him for what he did for the Bruins when they traded for him in 2010 and a year later, he was one of the stalwarts that helped bring Lord Stanley back to Boston. However, he’s playing far too many minutes for what he can bring to his team on a consistent basis. He was solid against Buffalo and Toronto, but those are two clubs behind Boston in the standings- when up against the higher-end teams like Washington and St. Louis, DS44 struggles with containment and coughing up the puck under pressure from the ferocious fore check those clubs can employ. If he was contributing on the bottom pair, that would be one thing, but like Chara, too much is asked of him.

Ditto Kevan Miller- as good and hard-nosed a guy that you will find, but who is simply being asked to do too much and play too many minutes. It’s too lazy to just point to him and say he’s unworthy as an NHL defenseman- that’s simply not true. However- the issue is with the role the B’s have him in. Like Hal Gill in the early 2000s when Ray Bourque was gone and Chara was several years away from signing as a free agent, Miller is in over his head. It’s a shame, because as a bottom pairing D- he’d be a fan favorite. He was when he first showed up in the 2013-14 season with a younger, better cast around him and went out and rocked opponents nightly. He didn’t just forget how to play- but you can’t expect a role player to evolve into a top-2 or 3 option if he isn’t suited for it. And so, that’s what we get with No. 86- a nightly adventure wherein we wonder what exactly we will get when he’s out there. That’s no way to set conditions for success, but given the team’s current state of affairs, it’s what we’re left with.

So- to wrap up. This defense is a gritty, gutsy group that does the best it can with the talent it possesses. Adam McQuaid is the embodiment of this defense both as a tough, rugged, character guy who gives you every ounce of what he has, but also as a limited talent who pays the price for his physical style and is asked to do more than he is capable of. It isn’t a lack of want to for the Bruins defense, but in pro sports, heart and will can only take you so far- if the other guys are more talented and have more of them, then your ability to separate from the pack is greatly hampered.

This B’s defense deserves credit for trying, but the NHL is a cold, results-oriented business. If teams won because of effort or grittiness, then the Buffalo Sabres would have won a Stanley Cup by now.

The Bruins have some potential help coming in the form of youngsters like Grzelcyk, Carlo, O’Gara…Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon look like they could infuse the roster one day with the blend of skill and ruggedness needed, but none of those players are ready. So Sweeney’s challenge is to try and find a player who can not only help now, but be the bridge to a better future than just staying in the middle of the pack and therefore not getting as good a chance at drafting and rebuilding that the league’s doormats get.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: Defensemen

Zdeno Chara returns for his tenth season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zdeno Chara returns for his tenth season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: It was a rough ride for the Boston D party in 2014-15, as former GM Peter Chiarelli traded glue guy Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the new season, a move that went on to have significant second- and third-order effects on a roster ravaged by injuries to  Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller. Adding to the struggles was the lackluster performance of Dennis Seidenberg, who returned from a major knee injury suffered in 2013-14, but was not the effective, shutdown presence for Boston he had been previously.

The Bruins allowed 30 more goals last season than the year before, and the lack of collective team foot speed often found them susceptible to being beaten off the rush and often collapsing into their own end while struggling to generate a transition to offense the other way. Torey Krug was a bright spot for the club, finishing second on the blue line in scoring with 12 goals and 39 points. The team’s offensive leader, Dougie Hamilton, was traded to Calgary on the day of the 2015 NHL draft in a rapidly developing (and shocking) move that sent the 22-year-old out West and left a sizable hole on the Boston depth chart that the team has yet to fill.

Younger guys like Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow showed promise in flashes, but ultimately, the disappointing non-playoff 96-point finish was reflected in a defense that lost a major on- and off-ice contributor in Boychuk and never really got a healthy Chara going for the duration, as he returned to action after missing nearly two months at well less than 100 percent.

The view from here: Chara remains the face of the franchise on the blue line, though he is past his prime at age 38 and is coming off his lowest production (8 goals, 20 points in 63 games) since the 2001-02 campaign, his first as an Ottawa Senator. He faces the prospect of playing the rest of his NHL career on a wonky knee, which essentially makes him day-to-day for life, and means that the B’s must be prepared to lose him to injury at any time.

Chara is the consummate pro and veteran, but his injury complicates the often armchair GM discussion of the team simply trading him. Even at his age and declining offensive numbers, Chara is more valuable to the Bruins than he is to other teams that might be in the position to trade for his $7 million salary (he’s signed for two more seasons- at $5M and $4M respectively before becoming an unrestricted free agent again in 2018), simply because with Hamilton out in Boston, the B’s don’t have any other legitimate player to thrust into the top role today. The onus is now on Claude Julien the Boston coaching staff to better manage Chara’s ice time and game situations to get the most of his experience and 6-9 frame with the lengthy reach. His best days are clearly behind him, but it’s not quite so simple to sit back and talk about trading Chara for cap relief and a younger talent- you’d not only need a willing buyer to give up a roster player worthy of the move, but Boston’s captain would have to waive his no-trade to go. It’s not unthinkable to consider it, but the likelihood of it happening is slim- the Bruins need Chara this year more than ever.

The team can only hope Seidenberg can rebound from as brutal a year as he’s had in his career. His struggles underscored the fact that literally days after signing his four year, $4M per extension with the B’s he suffered his knee injury and the very real possibility exists that at age 34, he’ll never get back to the player who was so instrumental in one Stanley Cup championship and a second trip to the finals in three seasons. The German has given a lot to the Bruins, but his contract, only in its second year, looms like an albatross around the team’s collective neck if he is unable to round back into form. The analytics from last season do not paint a pretty picture, however, and things may get worse before they improve.

Krug is preparing for an expanded role given Hamilton’s departure, and the B’s could greatly benefit from him taking his offensive production to the next level to help offset the loss of their former 2011 top choice’s numbers, especially on the power play. At 24, the diminutive Michigander has the heart of a lion and is embracing the challenges that await him with increased minutes at even strength, but like Chara, the team will have to manage the matchups when he’s defending against the NHL’s bigger, powerful forwards and live with the higher-risk style Krug employs when carrying the puck on his own. Krug has enough talent, hockey sense and an off-the-charts work ethic/character to compensate for his undersized frame, and the belief here is that he’s going to make it work.

The team raised eyebrows when it re-upped Adam McQuaid, the club’s resident baggage-smasher at 6-5, 210 pounds. Another quality person and teammate, McQuaid has overcome a lack of foot speed with a tenacious, pay-for-every-inch-of-real-estate approach that has served him well. When it comes to toughness, no one on the current roster can bring it better than the former Sudbury Wolf can, but he’s a pretty one-dimensional shutdown defender. One of the biggest issues with McQuaid is in his struggles to stay healthy and play a complete 82-game schedule over the course of his career. Since breaking into the NHL full-time in 2010-11, he’s never played more than 72 games, and appeared in just 93 contests over the last two seasons. If how honest, dedicated and hard-working a player was all you needed, McQuaid would be worth every cent of the 4-year, $11 million contract he signed this offseason. As it stands, the Bruins can only hope he can reverse past trends and become a durable presence. Even if he does, the debate will rage on as to how wise an investment it is for a rock-solid third-pairing defenseman.

Veteran Kevan Miller played 41 games last year before being lost to season-ending shoulder surgery. He’s a similar player to McQuaid, but at a substantially less cap hit of around $800k. A gritty, character undrafted free agent who worked his way to the NHL after captaining the University of Vermont Catamounts, Miller’s mobility and experience stand him in good stead heading into the new season, but there isn’t much in the way of offense from him.

The B’s signed free agent Matt Irwin to add to the mix from the San Jose Sharks. The 27-year-old played about 17 minutes (you’ll hear the sheltered minutes argument with both he and Krug) with the bulk of his 8 goals and 19 points coming at even strength last season. He doesn’t bring a lot of pure foot speed with him to Boston, but he’s not a substandard skater either. Irwin has NHL experience and has shown promise as a two-way contributor- he’s third on the blueline behind Krug and Chara in scoring from last season.

This leaves a trio of younger defenders with the two-way potential that Boston desperately needs, two of whom spent some time with the big club a year ago in Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow. Trotman is bigger than Morrow, but does not have the former 2011 first-round pick’s speed or puck skills. Both can hammer the puck from the point and move it effectively, but of the two, Morrow is more of the offensive threat and special teams presence, whereas Trotman is a little safer and more polished defensively. Both will battle it out for a sixth position in the regular rotation if you believe that Miller or Irwin could end up being the seventh defender. Trotman was the last pick of the 2010 draft out of Lake Superior State, and Morrow’s been a disappointment as a pro after leaving the Portland Winterhawks. He was traded to Dallas from Pittsburgh and just a few months later, flipped over to the Bruins in the Tyler Seguin trade. Given what we’ve seen from Loui Eriksson, Morrow (and Jimmy Hayes to be fair) is the last best hope the team has in getting a long-term return on that deal.

As for Colin Miller, the AHL’s reigning champ in the hardest shot and faster skater competition at the 2015 All-Star Game doesn’t have NHL experience, but he has the offensive skill set to see time and even win himself a full-time role with Boston this year. This is a huge camp for him, but at 23, it won’t be the end of the world if he’s not on Boston’s opening night roster, but given that he was part of the Milan Lucic deal, if he earns a spot, the B’s will gladly take it.

A Dennis Seidenberg rebound could be an important factor in a Boston return to the playoffs (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

A Dennis Seidenberg rebound could be an important factor in a Boston return to the playoffs (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: Boston’s first pick in 2013, Linus Arnesson, will be playing in his first complete AHL season. The late second-rounder has good size and mobility, but he’s more of a no-frills, solid defensive presence than he is a player who will push the pace, join the rush and contribute consistent offense for his team. If he’s in the Boston lineup next year, then something has likely gone terribly wrong in terms of injuries and/or performance. Arnesson is steady and consistent, but he’s not going to wow you in any one facet of his game. Every good team needs players like him to win with, but he’s not going to be a savior.

Chris Breen is back for a second year in Boston’s system and at 6-7, 224 he certainly provides the size and reach for a defensive-minded defender.  He has some limited NHL experience and doesn’t move his feet all that well, but will be another key contributor in Providence and can help in a pinch.

Gone is David Warsofsky, but fellow New Englander Tommy Cross is back for another tour of duty in Boston’s system with Providence. If only that’s all it took to be an NHL regular… Cross is the very last piece remaining from that disastrous draft year and he’s ticketed for the AHL once again, where he could see an injury recall at some point as a reward for his hard work, but in all reality, the one-time Boston College captain will be fortunate to ever establish himself as a bottom-pairing player at the NHL level.

Chris Casto is underrated, and as a free agent signing out of University of Minnesota-Duluth back in 2013, he looked as if he might have the size and wheels to develop into a solid NHL defender, but it just hasn’t happened for him in the AHL. Nobody ever talks about him, but he’s a fluid skater with a big shot, who has at times struggled with processing the game and pace. He’s got one more year on his ELC to raise his profile in the organization.

A look to the future: The B’s drafted three defensemen in the first two rounds this past June, all of whom bring much needed skating and size to the mix. Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon are the ones the team hopes will be more complete two-way defenders who can help kickstart the attack, whereas Brandon Carlo is a huge (6-5) and mobile rearguard who is a better shutdown guy than offensive producer. All three look like players, but won’t likely help out in the short term (though with all three being products of major junior- they’ll at least be at training camp and one could pull a surprise- it’s happened before).

One player who has a shorter wait to making an impact in Boston as early as next spring is Yale senior Rob O’Gara. The fifth-rounder in 2011 has patiently and steadily progressed in the system, winning championships at both the prep (2011) and NCAA (2013) while developing his two-way game. At 6-4, he has a rangy stride and fluid footwork and pivots. He started out being a top shutdown defender, even earning that honor this season in the ECAC. He also improved his offensive production in his junior year, leading the Bulldogs’ blue line in scoring. He’s a smart, industrious 22-year-old who is expected to sign at the conclusion of Yale’s season and who knows? He might even get a quick look in Boston depending on how the defense is situated by then. If not, watch for him to help Providence down the stretch if he’s not still in school finishing up his course work.

Matt Grzelcyk is another prospect worth watching this year. The BU senior and captain is on the shelf for a while after May knee surgery, but he’s expected to be a major contributor to the Terriers’ fortunes again after posting career bests in all offensive categories a year ago. He’s undersized but brings excellent speed, vision and skill to the mix. Watch for him and O’Gara to push one another as complementary players to one another going forward. At the very least- they’ll be helping Providence in the AHL until they can push for time in Boston.

On the longer track, collegians Matt Benning and Wiley Sherman still have time in the NCAA to hone their respective games (Sherman is still a major project just entering his sophomore year at Harvard) while Swedish defender Emil Johansson will spend another season at least in HV71 before he might come over.

The wild card: Cody Franson, D. We know that Franson and Don Sweeney have both admitted that the two sides have talked contract, with Franson reportedly holding out for value and longer term than Boston is willing to give. With about $4M in available cap space, Sweeney wants to preserve as much flexibility, and as we get closer to September, Franson may have to come off plan A in favor of incentives and a chance to prove himself this season for a bigger payday next July. On the upside- Franson is an experienced NHL veteran who will help offensively and especially on the power play with his booming point shot and ability to distribute the puck. One thoughtful Twitter follower I engaged in a debate today over Franson pointed out that in Nashville after the winter trade, Franson was on the ice for just 9 even strength goals against and that he accounted for 56% of shots attempted from the blue line- good for the lead among all Predators defensemen. On the downside, he’s not a swift skater for a club in major need of getting faster and his hockey IQ at times lends itself to him running around and making bad turnovers in his own end. There is no doubt he’d make the Bruins defense better than it is today, but how much and at what cost is a question Don Sweeney has to answer. One shoe dropped today with Christian Ehrhoff agreeing with the Los Angeles Kings to a team-friendly 1-year pact at $1.5 million. If Franson’s price tag is expected to go down as he gets closer to the start of NHL camps, then other teams are likely to start sniffing around. Something’s gotta give here.

The wild card pt 2: Maxim Chudinov, D SKA St Petersburg. The KHL champ is getting ready for another year in Russia after the Bruins made him the 195th overall pick in 2010 as an undersized but speedy and feisty offensive player. Truth in lending- I don’t think Chudinov adds much more than what the Bruins already have in Krug, though he’s faster on his skates (but in my view lacks Krug’s leadership and heart). If the Bruins want to add him to the mix, that’s a call they’ll have to make and information is out there (h/t Dominic Tiano) via Chudinov’s agent that the 25-year-old is willing to give the NHL a shot. I guess we’ll see, and you can never have too much depth, but it’s hard to imagine that he’d want to sign and play in Providence, so it would have to be a similar situation to Carl Soderberg a few years back.

Adam McQuaid was extended four years in June (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Adam McQuaid was extended four years in June (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The verdict: I have to call it like I see it and this defense as a whole doesn’t scare many (except for perhaps some Bruins fans).

Team speed, which was the biggest need in the offseason, was addressed in the draft, but those kids won’t help this year unless the B’s luck out with another David Pastrnak-type situation. They’ll get faster with Morrow or Miller added to the mix, but the team will still have their hands full trying to generate an attack through the neutral zone or standing up opponents who can push the pace of a game.

The time has come to actively manage Chara’s role and put some constraints on what is asked of him. He’s got a lot of tread on the tire, and it’s time for others to step up and take some of the pressure off. I don’t know how much longer that troublesome knee and his huge frame will hold up. Forget trading him for now- Boston needs him and if things change (especially if he decides he’d like a change of scenery) then that can be revisited. In all reality, unless Chara wants out, it’s hard to imagine the Bruins trading their captain and getting anywhere near close to the value that would make such a move worth it.

Krug is the one player who appears primed for an important role this season. It’s a chance for him to answer questions about his ability to play upwards of 21 minutes or more a night, against top opponents and continue to carry the offensive mail for this team. Mistakes are bound to happen, but how much Julien trusts him going forward will be something to watch. Krug loves playing with McQuaid…will the two stay together or will the team break them up and try something else?

Whether the team adds Franson or goes with 1 or more of the youngsters in Trotman, Morrow and Miller- 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.

Scouting Dispatches: Twitter mailbag #2

Happy Saturday, folks. Just watched Canada win their eighth consecutive Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tourney championship- congratulations to the Under-18 team for continuing to run the table with a dominating 7-3 gold medal-winning triumph over Sweden (it wasn’t even that close, folks). They’re truly the best draft eligible talent every year and Canada can send their best players because they don’t have to compete with the major junior/CHL playoffs in April when the Under-18 Championships are held. More on that later…I’ll post some thoughts and notes on some key standouts, as six out of Red Line Report’s top-15 for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft (as of June)  were on Team Canada, with Sweden boasting two more to round out the top-20.

I’m back with another “Ask Kirk” Twitter mailbag. Every 2 weeks or so, I hit up the followers on Twitter to see what they have, so thanks to those who submitted questions. I don’t get to them all, but if your question didn’t get answered, keep plugging away. The first edition of this we did got some pretty good traffic and insights/debate, so if you don’t agree, feel free to comment or hit me up on Twitter.

Keep checking back on the blog this weekend as well, as I will be posting a “point/counterpoint” feature on Bruins first-round draft pick Zach Senyshyn with my friend and guest columnist- Dominic Tiano– one of the most knowledgeable OHL evaluators around.My RLR colleague Mark Staudinger will also be in to provide some detailed analysis on a pair of Bruins prospects he just watched at Team Canada’s WJC summer evaluation camp in Calgary- the Two Jakes- Jakub Zboril and Jake DeBrusk.

So- onto the mailbag. We’ll do this again around the beginning of September, so keep the questions coming. You can also submit them here via the comments feature if you’re not on Twitter.

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Don Sweeney wants B’s D to be more systemically mobile to create faster up-ice transition. Can Claude Julien & current D roster make that happen? BB Bruin @waltorr4

Thanks Walt- Overall team speed on defense is still an issue, as Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid and even Torey Krug don’t bring much in the way of open-ice speed and mobility. You do have a couple of real good skaters in the mix to earn jobs with Joe Morrow and Colin Miller, but neither are all that proven at this point. Zach Trotman is mobile for such a big man, but that’s all relative- he’s not going to put defenses on their heels in the neutral zone with his speed- it’s not there either. Matt Irwin has NHL experience and provides nice depth, but he doesn’t have rockets on his skates and I see him as more of a depth guy than someone who is going to be a major contributor this season.

That’s why the clamoring for Cody Franson in some circles seems to be counterintuitive at this point, because Franson is more of the same in terms of being a clunky skater who will take away from the back line’s quickness, even if he is a veteran at this level. I don’t see him as a great fit at this point, but the Bruins are still in the mix for him, so we’ll see how that goes.

I think that if the Bruins are going to succeed in making a faster transition, they’ll rely on the favored Julien method of quick D-D passes in the defensive zone followed by a longer breakout pass to try to hit the quicker forwards in the neutral zone with speed.

Having said that Krug is not a pure burner with a top skating gear, but he is the team’s best rearguard in terms of his quickness, agility and ability to handle the puck through traffic. He gets the puck out quickly using his vision and stickhandling to shake forechecking pressure and carry the puck out on his own. He’s exhibit A for how skating isn’t everything to a fine transition game, but there isn’t enough speed right now on the other pairings. That could change with a trade or if both Miller and Morrow find a way to stick this season.

The D is going to struggle to generate a speed rush in my view, though- that will have to come more from the faster forwards like Ryan Spooner, David Pastrnak and so on.

What are chances of midseason Chara trade? Michael Dunn @mikedunnfamily

I’m thinking dealing Chara falls somewhere between slim and none…with the caveat that if he asked out, Sweeney would probably accommodate that request. However, while I could be wrong, even with his declining play, I just don’t see the team trading him, Mike.

In my view- Chara is worth more to the Bruins than he is to other teams at this stage of his career. Sure- a contender would love to add him to the mix, but whatever they would offer to Boston is not going to make the B’s a better club today. And, of course- there’s that thing called a no-trade clause that complicates things. Yes, the Bruins could likely get Chara to waive it for the right destination, but limited landing spots mean that you’re getting less in return.

Unless he wants out, I see him finishing his career in Boston.

What do you see for Joe Morrow this season? Will he get an extended look in Boston, or another year in Providence? Brian briand_82

This is an important season for Morrow.

He was drafted in the first round four years ago because he could really skate and move the puck…the Bruins desperately need to add more of that element to their back end, especially with Dougie Hamilton now in Calgary.

Morrow will be 23 before January, and he’s physically ready to take the next step to playing NHL minutes in my view. With his puck skills, cannon shot and quick feet, he’d be an asset given what the team currently has, but the experience is working against him.

In his limited stint with Boston last season, I got the impression he was playing it overly conservative and safe, either on orders from the coaching staff or on his own initiative because he didn’t want to get stapled to the bench. While he performed okay in that role, that’s not really what the Bruins need from him. My advice would be to open it up, play to his strengths and give the team more of what they currently lack, as they don’t really need another solid shutdown type, but more of a defender who will jump up into the play with his wheels and be a consistent threat with the man advantage.

He has the tools to do it, but I don’t know if he’ll have a long enough leash or will even beat out new acquisition Colin Miller at camp. Miller’s production has been significantly higher in the AHL than Morrow’s has, but the latter put up better numbers in junior and was a top-30 pick. This will be an interesting camp battle for sure.

What do you think of Yale’s chances this year!! Can D win championships ? Bob Rittmeyer @bobrittmeyer

I’m not the best person to ask, but the Bulldogs are contenders every year it seems, and they manage to get into the NCAA championship mix despite not having much scoring, which puts tremendous pressure on the defense and goaltending.

I’ve always been impressed with Rob O’Gara’s size, skating and character, and he took a major step forward offensively last season- they’ll need him to keep that up. I also feel that Frank DiChiara should be some NHL club’s property at this point, and this could be a breakout year for him with a possible big free agency payoff if he decides to turn pro in the spring. He’s always been an opportunistic scorer and he has a pro build and power game already. Ryan Hitchcock is another underrated forward who can do just about everything- I was surprised nobody drafted him in 2014 or 2015, but scouts tell me his size scares them off.

Do they have enough horses to go all the way? I’ve always had time for Chicago prospect John Hayden, and Yale is a balanced group. They’re not favorites, but as they showed in 2013, once they get in, they’ll have a chance to knock off some of the more celebrated teams.

What would be the Best, most realistic, 7 DMen for the Bruins? Willy @willysteam

Well, barring any trades, signings or surprises- Chara, Seidenberg, Krug and McQuaid are all locks given their contracts and veteran status with the team. That leaves three open spots between Trotman, Irwin, Colin and Kevan Miller and Morrow. Tommy Cross and Christopher Breen are still hanging around as well, but I don’t envision any scenario where either player makes the team out of training camp.

Trotman is on a one-way deal this season and he played 27 NHL games last season after having an up-and-down (mostly down) year in Providence. Trotman played better in limited situations in Boston, including getting his first NHL goal, the late winner against the Red Wings in front of friends and family (he’s from Indiana but went to HS in Novi, Michigan). He’s one of the strongest men on the team, and he can move the puck pretty effectively even if he won’t ever put up big offensive numbers. I think he’s got the inside track for the fifth spot and only a horrendous performance or trade will derail him from starting the year in Boston.

For the sixth and last regular position in the three-pairing rotation, I like Colin Miller’s chances of winning that one. He scored 19 goals in the AHL last year, can really skate, and has outproduced Morrow in the pros to date. He’s also a right shot, which helps balance the blue line, while Morrow is another left-side shooter. Now, if it isn’t Miller, I think Morrow wins that job because he’s a toolsy D that Julien and the coaches are familiar with after 15 NHL games last year. Flip a coin- neither is subject to waivers at this point of their careers, so they can be recalled and sent down without fear of being poached by another team.

That leaves Kevan Miller and Irwin (maybe Morrow or Colin Miller) to fight it out for the seventh and resident press box denizen position, waiting for an opportunity to open up. Miller’s toughness and NHL experience means he’s probably the first to go in and if the team faces a more physical contest, he’d likely dress as a 7th D when needed, with Irwin becoming Providence’s top defender and veteran leader, first on the recall list if the blue line gets into trouble.

How do you think UMass-Lowell is going to do this year? A solid veteran team returns Gary Whittick @bigwhitt1956

I alluded to it above, but  projecting NCAA winners is not really what I’m best at. I’m not a college hockey analyst the same way others are, so you’re probably better off asking someone like Mike McMahon, Andy Merritt or one of the many other college hockey scribes out there who have far more collective knowledge than I do about the Riverhawks’ chances in 2016. I tend to focus on individual prospects and in the process get a feel for how their teams perform overall. Because Lowell has not been a landing spot for NHL prospects of late, I haven’t followed them as closely as others.

Having said that- the good news is that they’re a solid club. The bad news is- they play in the Hockey East and I don’t see a Connor Hellebuyck-like presence in net for them to help keep up with the conference powers, even with a seasoned, balanced squad. I mean no disrespect to Kevin Boyle, who is a solid stopper and will get some attention next spring come free agency time, but I look at the roster and it looks like a solid top third team again.

I like what Norm Bazin is doing there and had time for incoming freshman Ryan Dmowski– a former prep standout at the Gunnery who put up some nice numbers in the USHL last year despite not getting drafted. He doesn’t have the greatest speed, but he’s got a nose for the net and finds ways to finish off plays down around the blue paint. Keep an eye on him.

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Well, that about does it- thanks again for the questions and thanks for supporting the Scouting Post!

Summer cooler interview series 2: Torey Krug pt. 2

I’m back with the second half of the interview conducted with Bruins defenseman Torey Krug this week. Here, he answers some of those who question whether he can play his way into the top-4 rotation and stay there, expands on his relationship with Adam McQuaid, talks the 2016 Winter Classic and reveals the secret of the Krug family’s overall success: competitive spirit and a survival of the fittest mentality.

Torey Krug and a fan participate in the Bruins game show event (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Torey Krug and a fan participate in the Bruins game show event (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

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Scouting Post: You talked about earning your way into a bigger role with the Bruins- that’s something you’ve done on past teams, and you earned your way to an NHL contract with Boston, eventually earning a chance to become a regular with the big club. What do you say to those critics out there who say you’re too small or you played sheltered minutes and you haven’t gone up against top offensive players or are “only” really going to be an effective specialist going forward?

Torey Krug: I like to say- keep it coming because that’s the stuff that fuels my motivation and I put that in the back of my mind and use it. At the same time, if people want to talk about sheltering me and the minutes- put yourself in the coach’s situation- I want to play against the best players, but if my forte or what I am best at is in the offensive zone, wouldn’t you want to put me out there when there’s a better opportunity to score a goal and help the team win? The same thing being said- if you want to throw Zdeno Chara out against Alex Ovechkin or Rick Nash, why wouldn’t you do that because that’s simple physics?

So when people say the team is sheltering me, I don’t believe it for one second because I know that the coaching staff trusts me to play defensively and I’ve earned that trust and I will continue to earn that. Now that I’ve done what I’ve done it doesn’t just sit there- it will go away if I don’t continue to earn it. For me, I take care of my defensive zone (responsibilities) first and that’s my pride and joy. I make sure I get back and move the puck out.

People can talk about my defensive game…well, I don’t have to play as much defense as some of the other players because I go back and I break the puck out successfully and I spend the least amount of time in our zone because of that. The best defensemen don’t have to play defense as much as others. Some are put in different situations more often than others and I just try to make the best of whatever situation I’m given.

SP: You’ve had an opportunity to play with Adam McQuaid in the NHL- can you talk to the fans a bit about your thoughts on his extension and your experiences with him both on the ice and as a teammate in general?

TK: Adam is a one of a kind individual. When I first came to Boston he was one of those guys I could ask anything and say anything to him and I know he’s going to give me an honest answer- he’s the definition of a Boston Bruin. He has earned everything he’s been given to this point and that includes the contract and his playing time and that’s improving as well.

He’s my favorite player to play with- we have a great chemistry. He knows where I’m going to be on the ice and I know where he’s going to be and also I can go around and punch anybody in the face and I know Adam’s going to have my back (laughter). I always joke around that I’m going to get him his personal record in penalty minutes each year if we’re playing together which is funny, but he’s one of the most honest hockey players I’ve ever seen. He knows what he does well and he’s always trying to improve. In practice, he’s one of the hardest working guys and is always working on the little things to get better and is one of the last guys off the ice every single day. Like I said- one thing to drive home about him is just how honest he is and how hard he works, and that’s a testament to him and how he carries himself, and that’s what the Boston Bruins are about.

SP: The 2016 Winter Classic- you are no stranger to big outdoor games having played one in Ann Arbor (Michigan Stadium) vs. Michigan in late 2010. How excited are you to get the opportunity to do it again and do it on the big stage- January 1st with millions of people watching in the Patriots’ stadium- current Super Bowl champs- and knowing what you’re in for, which hasn’t been done since the Fenway game in 2010?

TK: It really is an amazing experience. Looking back on when Michigan State played the other guys at the Big House in front of 105,000 people…I remember making sure that I took a second to really take it in and absorb everything. I think that’s a valuable piece of advice to anybody that’s playing in their first outdoor game or whatever. Because it is important to realize how special a moment it is- the Winter Classic has grown into a great tradition.

I don’t watch much hockey during the season as far as other teams go- I watch a lot of film, but not of other teams. The Winter Classic is something I always turn on- it’s an event. I have family that comes in for New Year’s and no matter what we’re doing, we take time out of the day to turn on the hockey game and we enjoy ourselves. So, to finally be on the TV when that’s going on and just to be a part of it is going to be a hell of an experience and that doesn’t even begin to touch on how special it’s going to be playing against Montreal and the history with them, the rivalry and how that game’s going to be a little bit faster than other games.

There’s a lot of things to take in when you’re getting ready for an outdoor game and it actually is a different hockey game. It’s a little bit different with the wind factor and you have to adjust to the cold and some guys wear too much outer gear and they end up getting too hot and there’s things with snow and the buildup of the ice, but when it comes down to it- it’s an old fashioned game- it’s a bunch of grown men that turn into kids again and they’re playing on the pond in front of thousands of people.

There are a lot of things and I could talk for days about that, especially playing in Gillette Stadium where the Patriots play- the Super Bowl champions and one of the best organizations in all of sports- to be welcomed into their home…it almost gives you that feeling like you’re on the NFL stage because all eyes on Sunday are on the NFL and it’s such a big market that they reach out to. It almost gives you that feeling that you’re on top of the world.

SP: Every time we speak, we tend to circle back on it, but I like to talk to you about it because it defines your success, and that is your family. Can you help the fans who maybe aren’t as familiar with the Krug family to learn something they don’t know about the Krug clan and what has helped drive you and make you into the player and person you’ve become?

TK: When I think about my family I go back to the mental strength that everybody has. That’s where I get everything within my mental capacity, my heart and driving force- it comes from my family. It comes from my mom and how she carries herself- she’s the only woman in the household with four sons. She’s had her share of ups and downs and she’s the most tough mentally of us all. Together as a family- that survival of the fittest mode that I know I’ve talked to you about before and a lot of people- it’s a common thing- the only way I can describe my brothers and my dad and mom is- you put the plate of burgers down in the middle of the table and it’s whoever grabs it the fastest. You’re fighting over the best one- that survival of the fittest mentality is instilled in all of us.

The only brother that didn’t play hockey is my youngest brother, Zak- he’s a volleyball player, and he’s the most competitive of us all to be honest. There’s times where guys don’t really know what’s going through his head but he’s just so driven and one of the toughest guys of us all. That comes from him challenging my oldest brothers- 10 years older than he is- and he’ll challenge me, who is two years older- and that’s a testament to how we’ve been raised and that competitive passion that’s been instilled in us.

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Krug is a bit of a polarizing player just because he receives such scrutiny at times over whether he has the ability to develop into a more all-around defender who can log the heavy minutes against the top competition. If past is prologue, then don’t count him out at doing just that because his pure hockey IQ and oversized heart has propelled him to much success thus far and the NHL has a track record of smaller, yet hungry players at that position, being able to compensate for whatever they lack in natural size and strength.

Every player- no matter how accomplished- will turn the puck over and make mistakes. The key for Krug to continue to build on the trust he’s earned to date will be for him to not repeat the miscues that are bound to happen and use his strengths to erase negative plays by turning them into positives.

This interview gives you a window into that heart and desire that has fueled him and will continue to drive Krug’s relentless desire to be at the top of his profession and life’s passion.

(Thanks to Alison Foley for her permission to use the images on this blog)

Torey Krug 12-13 Playoffs Away Back