Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview : Wingers

This is the last installment of the position-by-position look at the Boston Bruins as we enter the new NHL season- training camps are less than a month away. Thanks for reading and passing the links to the other pieces on the goalies, defensemen and centers. There is more to come on the blog as the season goes on, but here’s a breakdown of the team’s situation on the left and right wings.

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Brad Marchand raised his arms 24 times last season, a team best (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: Scoring was down across the board, as Milan Lucic and Reilly Smith combined for just 31 goals between them after posting 44 the season before. Both players have new zip codes for the new year, as the Bruins and GM Don Sweeney have attempted to generate some flexibility with the salary cap in sending them to Los Angeles and Florida respectively.

Brad Marchand and Loui Eriksson are the only Boston wingers who surpassed the 20-goal mark last season, as Marchand led the club with 24. Eriksson, who has been much-maligned after being the central return piece in the Tyler Seguin trade on July 4, 2013, bounced back with a solid 22-goal year after dealing with two concussions and just 10 goals in his first full Boston campaign.

Rookie David Pastrnak was a bright spot, electrifying the fan base in his second NHL call-up in January when he posted back-to-back 2-goal games and earned a job with the big club the rest of the way, finishing with 10 goals and 27 points, while leading the team in scoring over the final quarter season stretch. Fellow Providence kiddo Seth Griffith showed some flashes of offense when called up earlier in the year, but a lack of speed and experience saw him returned to the farm for more seasoning.

Former top-10 selection Brett Connolly was brought in at the deadline and suffered a freak finger injury in his very first Bruins practice, causing him to miss all but the final five games. One can only wonder if his presence might have helped the team eke out a win somewhere along the line before he got back into the lineup at admittedly less than 100 percent.

The Simon Gagne veteran redemption experiment did not work, and Daniel Paille 6 goals in 71 games was his worst output since coming to the B’s early in the 2009-10 season. Gagne retired and Paille is still looking for a new team after not being re-signed.

The view from here: Marchand is the team’s most consistent finisher, having tallied at least 20 goals in each of his five full NHL seasons with the exception of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 year, but even then he scored 18 in just 45 games. The small but fleet-of-foot agitator can be his own worst enemy, and he will go long stretches without scoring, only to get hot and carry the team for extended periods. Streaky play aside, Marchand has the bona fides as an important contributor who will continue to get the ice time and could hit 30 goals this year.

Pastrnak is the player the Bruins have been waiting for. The 25th overall pick in 2014 dazzled in development camp immediately after the draft in Philly, the first indication that Boston had a steal. You can never really account for why players like him drop, but the B’s were major beneficiaries, as they had him projected in the mid-teens but after being unable to move up to get him (sensing a trend here? Trading up is much more easier said than done- takes two to tango) they stood pat and got him at their regular spot anyway. He’s not only highly skilled, but extremely hard working and energetic. Cynical Boston fans will grumble about waiting for the inevitable trade that is coming to unload the young star as was the case with Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, but Pastrnak is not going anywhere. In him, Boston has their next Patrice Bergeron in terms of a player who not only has the talent to be a front line guy, but who embodies the team-first, competitive values the organization treasures.

Boston signed free agent Matt Beleskey away from Anaheim in the off-season, getting him at five years and an AAV of $3.8M- not a cheap contract, but less than what prognosticators thought he might receive on the open market heading into July. At 27, he’s in his prime and coming off of a career-best 22 goals for the Ducks in 65 games, but does not have an established body of work as a scorer at the NHL level and has dealt with injuries consistently in his pro career. He’s done and said all the right things since signing with Boston and the Bruins are banking on him getting another 20+ markers while bringing an energy and physicality despite not being an overly big, classic power forward.

Another new addition who does fit the mold of the modern big wing with scoring potential is Dorchester’s Jimmy Hayes, who comes home to play for the team he dreamed of skating for as a kid. Although not your snarly, intimidating presence, the former Boston College star tallied 19 goals the old fashioned way- in front of the net where he parks his 6-5 body and uses his quick hands and offensive instincts to finish off scoring chances. The 25-year-old signed a three-year extension with the B’s after being acquired for Reilly Smith with an AAV of $2.3 million, a bargain if he maintains his production or better yet, ups his numbers into the 20’s. He has talent enough to do it, though he doesn’t have the skill and upside of his younger brother and Rangers forward Kevin.

Eriksson once scored 30 goals in a season, but that’s not who he is. The Bruins got a glimpse more in line with the real forward this past season, and if he brings more of the same, the team will take it. His lack of open-ice speed is the biggest drawback to the veteran Swede, who is a quiet professional and uses his smarts to slip through seams and generate stealthy scoring chances that won’t bring you out of your seat, but count just as much as a highlight reel goal if it goes in. His 18:24 average time on ice led all Boston forwards and speaks to his ability to compete on both special teams and at even strength. Because he’s always going to be compared to Seguin, Eriksson is an easy target for frustrated fans, but he did his job last season and will be counted on again. Given his impending status as a UFA, however, if the team looks out of it as the trade deadline looms, he’s a prime candidate to be moved.

Connolly is an intriguing x-factor as a right wing who just couldn’t find his niche in Tampa Bay after GM Steve Yzerman made him his first ever draft pick, sixth overall, in 2010. At the time, Connolly had been dealing with a major hip injury and was seen as an injury risk that early in the draft despite being a gifted scorer coming out of Prince George of the WHL. Ironically enough, Connolly’s hip has held up since then, but the expected offense has not materialized to the degree indicative of his high pre-draft standing and subsequent projections. He scored 12 goals in 50 games for Tampa Bay in a bottom-six line role, so the potential is there, and the B’s feel that giving up a pair of 2nd round picks- in 2015 and 2016- is worth the risk.

Veterans Chris Kelly and Max Talbot are back to vie for playing time on the lower lines and Claude Julien will value their experience and leadership. Both are in the final years of their contracts and may not be back in Boston for the 2016-17 season, so the team will see what they can get from them this year and take it from there.

If he is unable to win a job at center, the Bruins would be well-served to see if they can get Alexander Khokhlachev out on the wing and try him in a top-9 role. Spots are getting more and more crowded, but the team does not have many more forwards with the pure talent and scoring potential Koko does. A lot of fans fell in love with him without realizing how much work the rest of his game needed, so the appetite to have him in the lineup has been pretty constant since 2011. Now, though, is really time to see what they have in him. The B’s struggled to score last year and that’s what this kid does best. Unlike Spooner, he doesn’t have the speed to be an ideal center, so why not see if he can make the adjustment to wing? It’s worth a shot.

Youngsters Brian Ferlin and Seth Griffith will also hope to get more playing time in Boston during the new campaign. Griffith shined at times, including scoring several memorable goals, and has always been a dangerous offensive player going back to his OHL days with London, even if he does not have ideal size or game-breaking wheels. Ferlin is a big-bodied forward who did not look out of place in a seven-game NHL audition (1 assist), but may have to start the year in Providence if there are no injuries to open up spots up front to begin the year.

In what really amounts to Sweeney’s most curious and criticized move, he dealt a 2017 third-round pick for Zac Rinaldo, one of the most polarizing players for the way he plays on the edge and has received suspensions for illegal hits and putting opponents at risk for injury. Rinaldo is undersized, but plays a kamikaze style that opens him up to injury and also leaves the penalty box door ajar as well given his 102 penalty minutes a year ago. On the positive side, he’ll hit anything and plays with an energy most players can’t hope to match, but a perceived lack of respect for his fellow NHLers, not to mention just 1 goal in 58 games has a lot of Boston fans not seeing the sense in trading a top-90 pick for a player like Rinaldo. We’ll have to see whether he can reign in his emotions and be more than he’s been in his NHL career to date with the Flyers or if this will go down as a step backwards for Sweeney in his early tenure.

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

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

On the farm: The B’s signed 2013 late-rounder Anton Blidh, and he’ll turn some heads in Providence with his gritty, in-your-face style. Although I try to avoid comparisons, he plays a style reminiscent of old Boston farm hand (and part-time Bruin until his trade to St. Louis) Vladimir Sobotka. What Blidh lacks in skill, he makes up for in “want to” so watch for him to become a fan favorite with the skill set to come up and provide help in a pinch.

Big winger Colton Hargrove will provide some toughness with Tyler Randell after turning pro out of Western Michigan. The Texan showed offensive improvement every year with the Broncos, and he was a nasty fighter in the USHL with Fargo before the NCAA. He’ll likely embrace a policeman’s role similar to Randell, but don’t expect much in the way of production as he adjusts to the pace and demands of the pro game and schedule.

Anthony Camara has been a disappointment in two pro seasons after being a third-round pick in 2011. As much a victim of internet hype without context, he’s a gritty player who likes to hit, but who does not have the requisite hockey sense to be a front line player and needs more talented linemates to produce. This is probably his last chance to get it going in the Boston system.

Brandon DeFazio and Frank Vatrano provide the ability to score goals on the wings for Providence as neither figure to be favorites to earn spots in Boston out of camp. Vatrano, who hails from East Longmeadow, Mass., has a wicked shot and made a lot of strides in improving his conditioning. He’s someone to keep an eye out as a player who played just one full season at UMass before deciding to make a run with the hometown team.

Free agent Colby Cave could see time at center in Providence, but a move to the wing might suit the gritty, smart and underrated scorer nicely. He can push the pace with his skating and he brings a tenacious style that coaches love. Watch for him to earn Bruce Cassidy’s trust early and often, even if he doesn’t project as a high-end player in the NHL.

The future: Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn were the team’s top two draft selections, but left wing Danton Heinen is the player to watch in the nearer term. The 2014 fourth-rounder out of the Surrey Eagles of the BCHL made an immediate impact at Denver University, finishing with the third-best freshman point totals in the nation. He’s a smart, creative playmaking wing, who showed a consistent ability to make plays around the net even without elite skating ability. He’s shifty and quick, but his mature game and a knack for setting up plays and making it look easy could see him turn pro as soon as this spring if he takes another step forward in his development with the Pioneers.

DeBrusk scored 42 goals with Swift Current and will likely need time to physically mature back in the Dub, but he brings a sniper’s mindset and an eagerness to be a Bruin that makes it none too surprising that the club jumped on him early in the draft at 14th. Like DeBrusk, Senyshyn has a natural ability to find the back of the net- he’s under pressure to justify his high draft standing but has the demeanor to see it through. Time will tell if the Bruins have it right with this duo, but there is no rush to figure it out this season.

Jesse Gabrielle, the club’s fourth-round selection in 2015, grew up in Western Canada cheering for the Bruins and Marchand. Now with Prince George of the WHL, he’s got some Marchand in him. He’ll have to prove that he can maintain his production and consistency while remaining dedicated to working towards an eventual job in Boston.

Rising Notre Dame sophomore Anders Bjork looked good in this month’s Team USA WJC national evaluation camp in Lake Placid. Watch for the 2014 fifth-round pick to make that squad as a versatile, effective two-way forward who brings speed and penalty killing chops to any team he’s on.

Slovak winger Peter Cehlarik will give one more year in the Swedish Hockey League a try before he’s expected to come over and compete for an NHL roster spot. The tall, lanky third rounder two years ago has a good release and offensive ability, but is not all that heavy a player nor does he play with much attention to detail for a 200-foot game. He’s skilled, but leaves you wanting more at times when it comes to his energy and hustle.

The verdict: It’s a middle tier collection of wingers, with not a single player coming off a year of 25 or more goals.

There is some promise with this group, and the Bruins will need it as major steps back by key contributors means that there isn’t much depth to pick it up behind them.

The Beleskey and Hayes additions were solid roster moves, but losing Lucic is going to hurt more than Bruins fans realize until they start watching the games. It’s kind of like that old Cinderella song- “Don’t Know What Ya Got Til It’s Gone”- and fans will have to decide on their own if the contract/UFA debate was worth losing him. Given the return, it probably was, but it’s going to take some getting used to when he’s skating around in a Kings sweater this season, likely playing some of his best hockey in years. It’s only human nature, after all.

Pastrnak is the key- the Bruins need to put him in situations where he can thrive while preserving his health. Don’t expect All-Star caliber numbers, but 20+ goals and north of 50 points as a sophomore would be a win and show that he is well on his way.

Still, there are more lingering questions about this group than answers- the only way to settle the debate is by playing the games.

It’s almost time.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: the Centers

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

In retrospect: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…well, not really. The 2014-15 NHL campaign was a rough one for the Boston Bruins’ men up the middle.

Patrice Bergeron led the club in scoring with 22 goals and 55 points- the lowest for a non-lockout season since 2009-10 when he and David Krejci both finished with 52 points. It was a step back for Bergeron from his 30 goals and 62 points in 2014, but Krejci’s season was downright miserable.

The 29-year-old missed 35 games and finished with just 7 goals and 31 points in the 47 contests he played after signing a lucrative contract extension that will pay him $43.5 million ($7.25M AAV) for the next six years starting in 2015. This is not to indict the team or player for that deal, but if the Bruins are going to take steps forward, then Krejci is going to have to put the last 12 months behind him and take his game back up to the level he’s capable of.

The good news for the team is that young pivot Ryan Spooner finally broke through after several years of teasing with flashes of his pure speed and offensive skill. He made the club out of camp, but after five games on a very short leash, he was returned to Providence where he battled injuries and up-and-down play until late January when he rounded into form and established himself as a consistent scoring presence. When Krejci went down for another extended absence in late February, Spooner returned to Boston and stayed there, finishing the year with 8 goals (his 1st in the NHL in spot duty the previous two seasons) and 18 points in 29 games (24 if you throw out the first five where he barely played).

Gone is third-liner Carl Soderberg (traded to Colorado for the 2016 pick Boston sent to the Avs for Max Talbot) and fourth line staple Gregory Campbell. Soderberg flashed his big-time ability in spots, but whereas he thrived in his third-line role, he was ineffective when asked to center one of the team’s top-two lines when Krejci was out. Campbell was a good soldier whose declining production and being on the wrong side of 30 made him a free agent departure to Columbus.

Overall, Boston’s 22nd-ranked offense (all the way down from third in 2014) was reflected in the team’s low scoring totals by their centers and the club’s non-playoff finish. Bergeron was steady and dependable, especially when it comes to the other things like faceoffs and defensive zone play, but the lack of production from Krejci and Soderberg, due in part to a dropoff on the wings, all contributed to a down year.

The view from here: Patrice Bergeron, as veteran forward Chris Kelly has often said, is Boston’s “Mr. Everything”- he’s arguably the true face of the franchise. He also turned 30 in July, a remarkable turn of events considering it seems like only yesterday that he was a fresh-faced 18-year-old rookie who made the veteran-laden 2003-04 Bruins out of camp after being the 45th overall selection in Nashville (with a compensation pick the B’s got for losing Bill Guerin to free agency). Since then, Bergeron has won a Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, both a men’s World and World Jr. championship and added three Frank Selke Trophies as the NHL’s top defensive forward. If you looked up “winning” in the Urban Dictionary, you’ll not find Charlie Sheen but Bergeron’s mug looking back at you.

He’s the team’s active points leader with 206 goals and 550 career points in 740 games, all with Boston. He currently sits 12th on the franchise’s all-time scoring list and is just 26 points from moving past Milt Schmidt. Assuming he stays healthy and posts another typical offensive year for him, he could move all the way up to eighth past Terry O’Reilly (606 points). Think of where Bergeron would be  on the scoring ledger had he not lost an entire 82-game season to the 04-05 lockout, another 72 games to the near career-ending hit from behind he took from Flyers defenseman Randy Jones (who?) and then another lockout-shortened half season in 2013.

What makes Bergeron so good is that he’s a complete player. Sure- he doesn’t have the open-ice speed, and to be honest- the Bruins are lucky he wasn’t quicker than he is now at age 17, or else there’s not much of a chance he would have been available for them to draft. Bergeron seriousness and dedication- evident from the very first time I sat down with him for an extended interview at our hotel in Nashville the day after the ’03 draft- is why he not only made the NHL just a few months after turning 18, and ahead of many of the more-heralded 44 picks in front of him, but is a big reason he’s thrived.

Any hopes the B’s have of getting back to being a playoff caliber club starts with him.

Krejci begins the year as the second-ranked active scorer with 409 points in 551 games. When healthy and on top of his game, he’s a cerebral centerman who compensates for his average size and speed with high-end playmaking skills like vision, soft hands and offensive creativity. The Czech product who was a steal at the 64th overall selection in 2004 is quiet off the ice but fiercely driven and competitive as evidenced by his 29 goals and 77 career playoff points, good for ninth all-time for the Bruins (and 11 more than Bergeron has in the postseason).

There isn’t much to add about the previous year’s performance other than to say that the Bruins must get more from him going forward or they’re going to be in trouble. His contract is paying him like a top-level producer, which he has shown he can be in the playoffs, but for a player who has never scored more than 23 goals or 73 points in an entire regular season, it was a generous increase, and for someone who will turn 30 in late April, the Bruins are counting on him taking his production to another level than what we have seen in his previous NHL seasons. Doable? Yes. Likely? That’s an entirely different debate.

Spooner is a speedy, skilled offensive forward who hit his stride after his second call-up late in the year, scoring his first NHL goal in sudden death against New Jersey and playing the best hockey of his young NHL career to finish out the season. At one time the youngest player in Peterborough Petes history to score 30 goals in a season, like Bergeron, he was the 45th overall pick (seven years after PB), slipping in the draft a bit due to a broken collarbone suffered right after the CHL Top Prospects Game in January 2010- dooming him to the “out of sight/out of mind” phenomenon that can occur in a player’s draft season. Although Spooner’s road to the NHL was more down than up, he earned a two-year contract extension and has the inside track to the third line center job when camp opens up in a few weeks. For a kid who appeared done and for whom trade rumors swirled in the first half of last season, he’s back to where the B’s thought he should be.

A player who enters camp with expectations of winning the fourth-line center job is Finnish veteran pro and newcomer Joonas Kemppainen. A member of the SM-Liiga’s championship team Karpat this past spring, Kemppainen has a big, 6-2, 200-pound frame and at age 27 is a mature two-way center who can do all of the little things you need. Although not especially fast, he has a powerful stride and uses his body well along the walls and in front of the net. He doesn’t have high-end puck skills, but he works hard in the trenches and gets his points off of opportunism and hard work. He was brought to development camp in July, but pulled a hamstring while working out at home before the trip, so fans unfortunately weren’t able to see him. He should be fine for camp, but this will be something to monitor and watch going forward.

Alexander Khokhlachev and Zack Phillips will also be vying for NHL jobs this season going into camp, but may have their hands full trying to make a splash with Boston. Koko is ready for NHL duty, but he may need to make a positional switch to the wing in order to do it. He’s not as fast as Spooner is, so splitting him out wide may be a better fit for his style of game and gives the Bruins more of a dynamic option scoring-wise- he’s not an ideal candidate for the duties and responsibilities of a fourth-line pivot, and he’d have to beat out one of the 1-3 centers to make it there, which, given his current body of work to date, is not likely.

Phillips, who was drafted 12 spots ahead of Koko in 2011 by the Wild (and Koko’s pick ended up being Minnesota’s 2nd-round selection- acquired in a trade that sent Chuck Kobasew out west early in 2009-10). He’s a talented offensive player who tallied 95 points in a Memorial Cup-winning campaign his draft year, but has struggled since to live up to the billing of being taken in the top-30. He performed well enough for Providence after being acquired even-up for Jared Knight at the deadline, tallying 11 points in 16 games, but has yet to show that he’s someone who will vie for regular NHL duty, at least as far as this season is concerned. At age 22 (he turns 23 in late Oct.), he has time, so it behooves the Bruins to take a wait-and-see approach.

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Ryan Spooner enters his fourth professional season for the first time as an expected NHL roster player (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: If neither one of Koko or Phillips makes the Boston roster, they’ll be the 1-2 punch in Providence this year (though it stands to reason that Boston’s skilled Russian prospect might balk at another demotion- we shall see, and I’ll cover him in the forthcoming post on the B’s options on the wings as well).

There isn’t a whole lot else to speak of down in the AHL. Providence College captain Noel Acciari is a blue collar prospect as a versatile if not high-end offensive player who plays a rugged two-way game and hits everything in sight. He’s not an NHL option at this point, but has steadily developed at every other level and is a winner, having been a key part of the Friars’ first-ever NCAA title this past spring. He was a solid free agent pickup for the B’s.

Rugged WHL center Justin Hickman, a free agent signed last January after shutting it down for shoulder surgery, may be a diamond-in-the-rough at Providence this year. The former Seattle Thunderbirds captain didn’t put up eye-popping numbers, but he was starting to get there in his final major junior season until he went under the knife. He skates well for his size, plays a fearless game, and will stick up for teammates. He was still limited (no scrimmage) at development camp, but is expected to be cleared by the start of the season and could become a fan favorite in short order. Fellow WHLer Colby Cave may be another center option in Providence or could be switched to wing. He’s not as physical as Hickman but plays a smart, underrated offensive game as evidenced by the chemistry he showed at Swift Current last season with Jake DeBrusk. We’ll give him more coverage in the wingers section.

Diminutive little buzzsaw Austin Czarnik has the speed and style of game to turn heads in camp as well. Like Acciari, he captained his club- Miami University- and was a nice free agent get last spring. Although tiny by NHL standards (5-9, about 160 pounds), he’s a superb playmaking center with the quick feet and stick to back defenses up and cause problems for would-be checkers. Don’t know what I mean? Check out this highlight vid from the playoffs a few months back:

He’s going to do some good work in Providence and if he can be a forward version of Torey Krug and overcome the size bias, he has the versatility to play on the lower lines and at wing as well (though he’s best in the middle).

Look to the future: The B’s have some intriguing talent in the pipeline, even if there isn’t an elite center among a solid group of players.

Harvard University is eagerly awaiting Ryan Donato, Boston’s second-round selection in 2014 and the son of head coach (and former Bruin) Ted Donato. After starring for four years at Dexter Southfield in Brookline, Donato took his game last spring to the USHL’s Omaha Lancers, where he put up more than a point per game and silenced some of the critics and doubters. Although not blazing fast like his dad, he’s bigger and plays a more dangerous offensive game. He’s a long-term project with a sizable potential payoff.

Not too far away from seeing duty in Boston is current Miami University captain and senior Sean Kuraly, who was acquired in late June along with San Jose’s first-round pick in 2016 for goaltender Martin Jones. Though he hasn’t been overly productive in his NCAA career to date, he has that kind of potential as he enters the new year coming off a 19-goal junior campaign. He’s a heavy player who uses his size and quickness to excel in puck possession and is at his best when creating space for his linemates and taking pucks straight to the net. Don’t be surprised to see the B’s explore bringing him straight to Boston in March or April when his season ends.

Ryan Fitzgerald is entering his junior year at Boston College and will face the team’s newest center prospect, Swedish two-way playmaker Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, who is a freshman at Boston University. The two are similar in that they can both score and play responsible defensive hockey. ‘JFK’ is a little bigger and has the better draft pedigree, but don’t count out the 2013 fourth-rounder who appears to be on the verge of breaking out with some big-time production at the Heights. I’m not sure how that will translate at the pro level, but Fitzgerald’s hockey sense and bloodlines will take him far.

2015 sixth-rounder Cameron Hughes has a lot of skill and grit if not the size- but he’s expected to play a bigger role at the University of Wisconisin this season and is definitely a player to watch as a value selection.

The verdict: Center is the strongest position in Boston currently, even if the position lacks the dynamic scoring and production other teams can boast.

In Krejci, Bergeron and Spooner- if all stay healthy and produce to their potential, you’re looking at a balanced attack that will at least put the wingers in position to finish off plays. This isn’t a sexy group by league-wide standards, but they don’t have to be. Bergeron’s leadership will continue to pay off in the room, while Krejci is the kind of guy motivated by the lost season a year ago. He took the team’s failure to make the playoffs personally, but talk is cheap- it will be interesting to see how he responds and if he can avoid the injury bug, a legitimate concern given his slight frame and the wear and tear on his body.

Kemppainen is the favorite for the bottom line coming out of camp but he’s not a lock. Should he struggle or Koko have a great outing, the coaching staff will be faced with some tough decisions. The standard play is usually to send the waiver-exempt players down and protect those who must be exposed, so we’ll see how things turn out. Chris Kelly has the versatility to play a fourth-line center role if the B’s want to use him there, but given his faceoff strengths, it makes sense to put him on the wing with Spooner on the third line until the youngster can earn more defensive zone faceoff trust from the coaches.

Ultimately, as long as the group stays healthy, the center position will be the least of Boston’s worries, but whether they can be good enough to make up for the rest of the team’s shortcomings remains to be seen.

I’ll be back with the preview on the wingers to include future options like Denver University’s LW Danton Heinen, who might be closer to the show than we realize.

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Chris Kelly could be pressed into center duties if others fail (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Scouting Post Dispatches- Twitter mailbag #1

I want to thank everyone who submitted questions to me for the first edition of the electronic mailbag of questions. If you want to participate in this effort that we’ll do every two weeks or so, shoot your question to my Twitter account @kluedeke29 or use the comment feature on the blog itself to make your query.

1. Who is leading in the race for backup goalie and how short will their leash be?- Tyler @tylerbingham123

As a former beer league goalie, I’ll give this one a shot.

The current backup situation invites a lot of risk in my view. On paper, Jeremy Smith makes a lot of sense because of his low cap hit and the fact that the Bruins can afford to let him sit for long periods while Tuukka Rask makes a lot of starts. Smith was the most dependable option in net last year in the AHL, but that’s also the issue with him- he has no NHL experience, which essentially puts them right back to square 1 where they were a year ago when they gambled on a similarly inexperienced Niklas Svedberg to be the No. 2.

Some might point to the idea that Svedberg was a serviceable player who was poorly used, but the bottom line is that Claude Julien had very little confidence in him. There are compelling statistical arguments that Svedberg wasn’t utilized properly, but be that as it may- a good backup goaltender enjoys the trust of the coach and team to spell the starter in a lot of different situations. That Julien seemed almost perversely unwilling to use Svedberg when it appeared Rask needed a break the most is beside the point if you believe that going to the well with Rask repeatedly cost the Bruins a playoff spot in 2015. Part of what helped the Bruins earn the President’s Trophy the season before had to do with backup Chad Johnson and Julien’s willingness to give him starts and ease the starter’s burden. Johnson can’t be a starter in this league, but he was an effective backup in his one season with the B’s.

The question becomes- will Smith find himself in a similar predicament to Svedberg? Can the Bruins afford to have a repeat of last spring, when Rask went on a hockey-like death march of consecutive starts without rest because the head coach was not willing to put the backup in? This is the same kind of scenario the Bruins are inviting with Smith and Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre as well- all three are capable options on paper, but none are established NHL players- with Subban alone of the trio even having seen a minute of big league action.

On Subban- I just feel he’s better off playing his way into a more prominent role in the AHL with Providence while McIntyre apprentices behind him. Heck- McIntyre might even wrest more starts away from him like Smith did a year ago, but as fine a goalie as Zane looks like coming out of college as the NCAA’s top goalie last season, he’s still in his very first pro year. Expecting him to just go right to the NHL and then have to sit behind Rask most nights is not a realistic option in my view.

So- I think Smith makes the most sense as B’s backup as of July 31, but I still think the team will look to add someone with more of an NHL body of work, either as a bargain bin signing or training camp invite with the option to sign before the season if the coaches feel good about him. Who that is at this point is anyone’s guess- I thought Jason LaBarbera would be someone to fit the bill, but the best of the free agents are gone, so the team might just feel like going with Smith or one of the other kids depending on things go at camp and preseason is the best option. We’ll see, but I’m a believer that younger guys like Subban and McIntyre are best served by playing and not spending the bulk of their time opening and closing the door to the bench for their NHL teammates. We’ll see.

2. If Koko pushes Spooner out of 3C job, what happens with the two of them? Leave Spooner there and try Koko on wing? Jbench @jacobbench

The short answer to this question is that I don’t see Alexander Khokhlachev beating Ryan Spooner out of the 3C job anytime soon.

At this point, Spooner has done a lot to earn Claude Julien’s trust as someone who has grown up a lot over the years he’s been in the organization and finally started putting the offense together when the team needed it the most. Koko needs to prove he can do the basic things the team expects of him, so until that happens, it does no real good to fret over what to do. I will say that Koko is probably better suited to transition to wing and be effective there, and if he’s going to break camp and enter the 2015-16 on the NHL roster, that’s probably his best chance to do it unless Spooner gets hurt or plays so poorly against a lights-out showing from Koko.

That’s not impossible, but  it is a tall order. I think Koko fell victim to the hype machine that often occurs in the internet age- he simply wasn’t ready to compete for NHL time at 18, but that didn’t stop overzealous fans and analysts like myself from being dazzled by his offensive talent and overlooking the glaring defensive deficiencies in his game. He’s come a long way since 2011, but the team tried to trade him in the past and you can’t overlook that. If he is as valuable to the Bruins as he is on Twitter to a select group of folks- he would not have been in play. It’s the old adage that says if they traded you once- they’ll do it again. It would be great for Koko to establish himself as a Bruin, but as far as trade-worthy commodities go, he’s one of the few pieces that could fetch something of value right now.

3. Where do you see Mark Jankowski projecting to in an NHL lineup? Thoughts on John Gilmour as well please Nigel @red_monster

Jankowski still has top-six  NHL forward potential in my mind, and he was really starting to come on when Providence College needed him to. With an earlier-than-projected draft position comes high expectations, so I believe realistically, if he makes it in Calgary it will be more of a third-line center role. When you look at who is ahead of him on the depth chart, third line duty with the Flames would be a win for him and the team.  I do like that there is still room for growth and development with him, even if he’s fallen short of some of the lofty goals envisioned of him three years ago with his pure points and production, which has admittedly not been what everyone was hoping for. He’ll have to continue to get stronger and play heavier if he’s going to make it in Calgary, though.

Gilmour has the makings of a serviceable pro who is going to have to put in the work at the lower levels. He has good all around ability, but because he has less-than-ideal size for the position, he’ll have his work cut out for him. I personally think Gilmour is a journeyman big leaguer/solid AHL player at best, but I love it when players prove prognosticators wrong. He’s a winner, and if he uses that as a springboard to bigger things, more power to him.

What Bruins dman is most likely to slot alongside Chara? Greg Babbitt @babbitt_greg

Barring a change, I could see the team trying big Zach Trotman there to see if it can work. He lacks experience, but showed big league ability in flashes last season and if he keeps things simple, his mobility and long reach would make for a solid defensive partner. He’s a right shot and while not a physical, snarly kind of player, with more experience and the benefit of skating next to one of the game’s all-time greats much like young Kyle McLaren did with Ray Bourque two decades ago, Trotman might be a quiet but effective internal solution to that which has vexed the Bruins since Johnny Boychuk was sent to Long Island…kind of like what happened in 2009 when Johnny Rocket came to town and established himself as an NHL defenseman when some had all but written him off.

If the Bruins want to infuse more offense with Chara, then Colin Miller also makes sense there. He doesn’t have a lick of NHL experience, but he skates extremely well, would add another right-shot, howitzer cannon from the point, and seems to be a player who would thrive next to Boston’s captain, especially on the power play. He’s not as big as Trotman, and his hockey sense is a bit of a question mark right now, but Miller could be the one who takes that top pairing job if not on opening night, but perhaps as the season progresses.

Assuming Miller plays for the Bruins this season (I believe he will) the Barry Pederson for Cam Neely trade will continue for Boston into a third decade as the Glen Wesley-Sergei Samsonov-Milan Lucic branch continues to bear fruit.

4. I’d like to see Hamilton/Saad stick with their teams for longer. But do scouts think the current model is bad for development?- brimcq @mcqbri

It’s not something I’ve discussed with scouts or management types to be honest, but it makes for an intriguing topic.

Ever since the league instituted cost certainty- the salary cap- in 2005, we’ve seen the game’s economic landscape evolve over several trend lines. For a while, it was long-term frontloaded deals that allowed for teams to bury or move them at short money later on. Now, it’s the dissipation of second or bridge contracts for key performers coming out of entry-level contracts or ELCs in favor of significant dollars- those used to be reserved for top tier talents, but I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift with players like Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad whose cap-crunched teams are either forced to move them or the player is able to leverage the lack of cap flexibility for a change of address. This drives the talk of the NHL’s middle class getting squeezed, which is becoming more and more prevalent as clubs will have bigger ticket contracts and then have to rely on cheaper ELCs or bargain basement deals with little room for the middle ground/solid veteran types who typically clock in at around $3-4M a the current (and rising) market rate.

Hockey is a business- it always has been. But the days where owners and teams held the cards are long gone, so I think that teams and players/their representatives will continue to evolve with each emerging economic trend. I don’t blame Hamilton for seeking a situation he thought would be better for him, and in Saad’s case, they made a decision that they could not afford him at the going rate- that was a tough business decision that more and more teams will have to make if things continue. But, both situations have jolted teams and fans alike into the realization that you can’t simply assume restricted free agents will remain all that restricted for long depending on a team’s salary structure and how much they have invested in the veterans.

At some point- you wonder if the ever-rising salaries and the kabuki dances teams go through to stay cap compliant will kill the golden goose and force a seismic sea change, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. With the Bruins prospect pool now overflowing who would be consider the 5 untouchables in the organization.- Mike O’Connor @mike77ca

The Bruins have quantity in their system for sure. The quality of the prospects is very much up for debate, however so it will be interesting to see how the 10 picks from 2015 plus the others from previous years perform and develop in the new season.

I don’t know that when it comes to prospects there is ever truly an “untouchable” because if another team is willing to pay a king’s ransom for an unproven player, I believe a savvy GM will often times make that deal. Of course- that position is becoming tougher to defend for the precise reasons I explained above as economics and the importance of landing impact players on 3-year (max) ELCs becomes ever more critical for teams who want to win the Stanley Cup. It’s hard to imagine the Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres parting with either one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel for any offer given that reasoning, but I do believe that GMs have to at least listen and think hard about a team that comes in with high-end NHL players to offer, not the proverbial two dimes and a nickel for a shiny quarter kind of trade. In the end, the money and cap play much bigger roles than ever before.

The Bruins don’t have a McDavid or Eichel so to speak, so their situation is different. I’ll take a stab at it and offer these three players up in an effort to answer your question:

1. Danton Heinen, LW Denver U.- I have it from several sources that the one name teams asked about repeatedly at last winter’s deadline was the 2014 fourth-rounder who finished as the NCAA’s third leading freshman scorer. He may not have ideal size or speed, but his hands and hockey sense are top-shelf. As a late bloomer, Heinen has the look and feel of a classic diamond-in-the-rough who is going to one day play very well for the Bruins, so unless a team wants to give up the moon and stars for him, don’t expect him to go anywhere. His upside will also likely drive the team to court him to come out of school earlier because ELC term and CBA loopholes will force them to act.

2. Zane McIntyre, G Providence- The B’s are all-in on this kid, and he showed loyalty to them by not exploiting free agency to get the biggest money or a better opportunity to start elsewhere. Now, folks will say there is no room for sentiment in pro sports and they’re right, but I just feel like that Bruins are sold on the soon-to-be 23-year-old’s potential, character and all-around ability. They want him to be a part of the organization, so unless a team comes in to blow their doors off with an offer, he’s as close to untouchable as you will get. Besides, unproven non-NHL goalies don’t tend to fetch enough of a return from teams to make dealing him at this point worth the effort.

3. Jakub Zboril, D Saint John- He’s the top pick, he’s signed and the Bruins think he is going to be a future top-2 defender for them. Both Don Sweeney and Scott Bradley used the word “elite” to describe his ability, so you can be sure the B’s had him higher on their list than the 13th spot where they took him. They’re not going to turn around and flip him without seeing if all that potential they’re banking on starts to pay off for them. You can almost throw Zach Senyshyn into this same category as well- they have a lot riding on him and want to prove that he was worth the risk they took by grabbing him in the top-15. It’s hard to imagine a team coming in to offer the Bruins a top-6 NHL forward for a raw prospect like Senyshyn, so they’ll sit back and see if their gut instincts about him are proven correct.

That does it for this first edition- thanks to everyone that submitted questions and I hope we can do this again in a couple of weeks. You can follow me on Twitter at @kluedeke29

Koko at crossroads

Alexander Khokhlachev has presented the Boston Bruins with a key decision point.

Whether the skilled Russian forward known more popularly as “Koko” establishes himself as a long-term option for the team or moves elsewhere is a situation that will likely resolve itself at some point this season. In the meantime, for a club that struggled mightily to score goals in the non-playoff 2014-15 NHL campaign, the 40th overall selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft certainly provides GM Don Sweeney and head coach Claude Julien with a viable option on offense if the rest of his game is deemed sufficient enough to play in Julien’s system.

Koko is an NHL talent who many would argue should already have established himself in the big show by now. Whether you calk that up to a lack of opportunity (valid point) because of entrenched veterans on the NHL roster, or buy into what his coaches talked about as recently as last January by saying that the dangerous if one-dimensional Muscovite needs to round out his game, Koko is a player who needs to make his mark this season.

“It’s not there to be a regular in the NHL right now to be perfectly honest,” Koko’s AHL coach, Bruce Cassidy, told me in early 2015. “I’ve told him that, Claude’s told him that; he needs to address that and he’s working on it, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy when you’re an offensively gifted (forward). You want the puck and you want to get going and it’s just changing some of those habits, and that takes time.”

Four full years after the B’s went out of character to grab the OHL product with the Windsor Spitfires earlier than they had drafted a Russian native since whiffing on defenseman Yury Alexandrov with the 37th overall pick in 2006, the clock may be ticking on Koko, but as Ryan Spooner demonstrated last season, he’s far from done.

You might recall that after making the Bruins roster out of training camp last October after a productive training camp that also drew its share of criticism from Julien over defensive concerns, Spooner saw very little ice time before being demoted to Providence after just five scoreless games with minimal minutes on ice. Throughout the course of the year, other forwards were summoned to Boston from the AHL, but Spooner remained in the Rhode Island capital. Through it all- while battling injuries that shelved him for weeks around Christmas with trade rumors swirling around him, Spooner didn’t sulk and insisted he wanted to make things work in Boston if the team would give him another chance.

That change came late in the regular season, when veteran center David Krejci suffered another in a series of physical setbacks that essentially made it a lost year for him. Spooner came up and made the most of it, scoring his 1st NHL goal in memorable fashion- a sudden death strike against New Jersey when every point was at a premium for Boston. He went on to finish out the year in the NHL, scoring a respectable 8 goals and 18 points in 24 games with the Bruins. In just a matter of weeks, Spooner went from a player many (present company included) thought was fait accompli to be wearing another uniform after the NHL trade deadline, to the productive, dependable center he had been projected as when he was first drafted in 2010. Now, Spooner isn’t ever going to win a Selke Trophy, but he’s addressed his overall game enough to earn Julien’s trust, and to make it on this team, that’s critical.

Koko and Spooner aren’t the same player. Spooner is faster- he pushes the offensive pace and is at his best when attacking defenses and putting them on their heels with his speed or operating from the half wall with the man advantage where he is a maestro in puck distribution. Koko is more of a shifty waterbug, compensating for a lack of dynamic wheels with high-end puck skills and a killer instinct around the net. I’ve seen him go long stretches of not accomplishing much, only to break a game open on consecutive shifts. The promise is there, and Koko’s exuberance and energy are a credit to what Boston saw in him when they called his name. Cassidy understands better than most that his young charge can break a game open in an instant. If Koko is ready to do the little things his coaches all say he was working diligently to address, then he’ll be in his corner come October to make that  big jump.

Sweeney, too, has recognized a shift in Koko’s perspective in the years he has developed within the B’s system.

“With Koko it’s a matter of addressing the little things,” Sweeney said in December of last year. “He generally played above the puck, but he’s now making a concerted effort to work below the puck and in the defensive zone to make sure he’s supporting the play when it comes back and is ready to then transition to offense.”

So, wither Koko? He has his work cut out for him at center with an expected healthy Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Spooner and possibly Finnish free agent Joonas Kemppainen ahead of him in the pecking order because of the latter’s experience and better fit on the bottom line. Unlike Spooner, who simply could not make things work when moving to wing, Koko might be able to pull that off in Boston. He may not have any points in his 4 career NHL games, but he did fire home the winning shootout goal in a game against Columbus last year, so given an opportunity to play consistently in Boston, his 1st NHL point isn’t long in coming.

The question is- can Koko break through and finally establish himself right out of the gate for the first time in his pro career. That’s something we can’t answer in late July and history is not on his side- the Bruins have tried to trade him before and if not for Jarome Iginla’s decision in 2013 to pass on Boston for the Steel City, Koko likely would have played more NHL games- with the Calgary Flames- than he has with the Bruins.

But- the kid’s got game. And he is a kid- he won’t turn 22 until right before training camp. Sometimes the best moves are the ones you don’t make, and the Iginla deal falling through might have been the Hockey Gods telling the Bruins not to give up on a player whose best attribute is something sorely missing from a year ago.

If Koko comes to camp crisp, then there is no reason to think that he won’t get his shot to make it in Boston.