TSP Podcast: Court Lalonde

 

We’re glad to present another original TSP podcast production with special guest Court Lalonde of Bruins Diehards. He does his own tremendous weekly podcast via BD, and he was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to join us.

Court and Kirk cover a lot of ground, from his father’s playing days in the NHL to Court’s own journey to Bruins fandom. He makes a case for Rick Middleton to the HHOF, then discusses the players he’s admired most over the years. The two close with projecting the B’s chances in the 2020 NHL Playoffs.

Enjoy the podcast- here’s the Soundcloud link below.

 

Bruins Playoff Roster Quick Hits: Defense

Grizzy draft

Matt Grzelcyk was Boston’s third-round selection at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. (Kirk Luedeke photo)

We’re back with notes and thoughts on the defensemen on the Boston Bruins playoff roster.

Practices are back underway and we’re getting input from multiple sources in attendance, plus our own analysis and even gut feelings about how things will play out when the round robin commences against Philadelphia on August 2.

We’ll continue with a look at the forwards tomorrow. -KL

Brandon Carlo- The first of three second-round picks in the 2015 draft is the most accomplished, having broken into the NHL at the tender age of 19 and now established as a proven defender with size, mobility and reach to keep opponents away from the prime scoring areas. The Colorado native keeps it simple, and he’ll never be a threat to the memory of Bobby Orr, but he’s highly effective and trusted in key defensive situations. He suffered a concussion just before the season got paused, so the B’s are getting Carlo when he’s healthy and clear-headed.

Carlo

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

 

 

Zdeno Chara- Entering his 11th playoff season with the Bruins (he’s missed the dance just 3 times since he signed 14 years ago: 2007, 2015 and 2016), the captain is long in the tooth at age 43, but the time off just may have done wonders for his ageless machine. Always in tip-top shape, Chara is not dealing with the typical fatigue and body challenges that he faces as the league’s elder statesman. Now, the future Hall of Famer enters his 15th postseason, he’s rested and will likely have much more jump in his legs than we’re used to seeing each spring.

Even though he’s nowhere near the two-way defender he was in his prime and even 2013, when he established a career-best 15 postseason points at age 36, Chara’s experience, leadership and hardcore mindset make him an important asset for Boston’s blue line.

Connor Clifton- The 25-year old Arizona castoff who emerged a year ago in Boston’s run to the Stanley Cup final played in just 31 regular season games as he battled injuries, but he plays with speed, pace and bite. Although he’s under 6-foot in height, he’s always been a physical defender at every level, looking to level kill shots in open ice and playing like he was born with a chip on his shoulder. Because of his style and lack of natural size/thickness, he’s going to spend time on the IR, but Clifton provides superb depth for the B’s, and come playoff time, he elevates his game as his hypercompetitive drive kicks into high gear.

Matt Grzelcyk- Coming off a career-high 68 regular season games and 21 points, the Charlestown native and former Belmont Hill and BU star keeps getting better in the NHL. Always an elite skater, he’s gotten more adept at using his speed and smarts defensively, while building on his natural strength of moving pucks quickly out of his own end and being a big boon to the transition game. Grzelcyk has proven himself as a smaller D who provides a different dimension than Torey Krug does for the club, but the two have opened a lot of eyes around the league about the effectiveness they bring while not being carbon copies of one another. Grzelcyk’s success and emergence make him a potential expansion draft casualty a year from now, but after a solid 2019 postseason, he’s primed to have another big spring.

Boston Bruins v New York Rangers - Game Four

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

Torey Krug- He would’ve been one of the big free agent prizes on July 1st, but the Bruins still have No. 47 on the roster for one more run after he came up short (no pun intended) in two final series appearances as a rookie in 2013 and a year ago. A badger on skates, Krug was denied a fourth consecutive 50+ point season with the pause, but with 49 in 61 games is still one of the top offensive blue liners in pro hockey and a registered lethal weapon with the man advantage. He’s got a cannon of a shot and always has his head up, looking to thread pucks through traffic to teammates in prime scoring areas. It has become vogue to knock Krug’s defensive play, but that’s a lazy argument that does not take into account his experience or smart stick and genuine drive to prove the doubters wrong. True, he won’t match up 1-on-1 the way his D partner Carlo does, but the beauty of it is- he doesn’t have to.

There’s a lot of talk that Krug won’t be wearing a spoked B when the next season kicks off, but for now- he’s fully on board for one last hurrah if that’s what it will be. Those of us who have watched him flourish and grow after being the best college free agent signing of the decade eight years ago tend to believe that the B’s will find a way to bring him back into the fold, but if it is not to be, then Krug will be at his best for this playoffs.

Jeremy Lauzon- One of two defenders drafted in 2015’s second round (Carlo), Lauzon is on the verge of stepping out and into a full-time NHL role going forward. He has been paired with Grzelcyk on the team’s second day of return to play camp, and he’s a good partner for the smaller, more fleet-of-foot veteran. Lauzon can skate and defend and embraces the physical side of things, though he’s not as mobile or skilled as Grzelcyk. He can move pucks effectively enough, but has enough jam to balance the pairing.

Lauzon isn’t going to put up a lot of points, but he’s a smart, capable player who is versatile enough to chip in with a timely goal or assist, but is more valuable as a hard-to-play against defender who led the 2015-16 Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to a .776 regular season winning percentage and captured the QMJHL championship and a Memorial Cup run. He’s a winner.

McAvoy2

Charlie McAvoy- Okay, we’re just going to say it: McAvoy is Boston’s best defenseman. He might not be that guy fully completely (to coin a phrase from the Tragically Hip- RIP Gord Downie) but he’s getting there fast. Granted, the critics- and there are a few out there- will point to McAvoy’s lack of high-end production, low contribution to the PP and turnovers as reasons that he’s not a top NHL defender, but we disagree. At age 22, McAvoy is far from a finished product, and we have 100% confidence that he will develop into a franchise cornerstone in the not very distant future. He’s no Ray Bourque, but in the modern age of hockey, he’s a perfect fit as a top 2-way defender because he can motor, has excellent vision but most importantly- has the aggressive mindset to make plays at both ends of the rink. Yes, he’ll push the envelope at times and turn pucks over, but coaches would much rather tame a wild colt than try to paint stripes on a pussycat. McAvoy is a tiger and we think he’s the one x factor on this blue line who could emerge in dramatic fashion this spring.

He’s the one the Bruins are going to have to invest in when his contract is up and he’ll be worth it. The fun part will be in watching him get there, and we’ll all have to take the good with the bad. The good will far outweigh the negatives- we’re positive that’s true. He does so many of the things you just can’t teach, and when you watch the dynamic plays he makes out there that may not look like much at first glance, you realize the B’s have something special on their hands. Brilliant pick at 14th- he’s so much better than most thought he’d be and the best part of all is that he’s only getting better.

John Moore- It’s been a tough couple of seasons for the player the B’s signed at term (five years) and value ($2.75M cap hit) to perhaps mitigate future losses to expansion while rolling the dice on him hitting an extra gear as he entered his prime. So far, that plan has not come to fruition. The former 21st overall pick in 2009 is already with his fifth NHL team and is one of those players who typically gets traded a lot over the course of a pro career: he brings enough value to be wanted, but isn’t impactful enough to be a core guy who establishes himself in one location. He played his best hockey with the moribund New Jersey Devils before signing- a good player on a bad team. Since signing in Boston, Moore hasn’t been able to carve a niche for himself on the B’s blue line and had an injury-plagued 19-20 campaign. He’s good depth at this point, but with his cap hit and others at much lower cap figures like Clifton and Lauzon on the roster, Moore’s future with the B’s is uncertain.

Urho Vaakanainen- The first-round pick in 2017 didn’t have the greatest season in Providence, but will benefit from being around the team for the playoffs and practicing/being immersed in the culture. A mobile, defense-first player, he’s more of a high-floor type, and hopefully, he can overcome the setbacks of an elbow to the face by Ottawa’s Mark Borowiecki in 2018-19, and a lackluster 2019-20 campaign to take steps forward in his third North American pro season. It will be interesting to compare his poise and presence at the practices with that of fellow rookie Jakub Zboril.

Jakub Zboril- Boston’s first selection in 2015 has been passed by Carlo and Lauzon, but we’re still holding out hope that he can make the Boston roster in 20-21. With his size and skill package, Zboril is coming off of his most consistent and successful AHL season with Providence. Being around the Bruins as a black ace and extra will set the conditions for him to finally take that next step, but if not, there is probably another team out there willing to give him a shot. Still, given Boston’s time, energy and patience invested, we’d like to see it work out with Zboril in the Black and Gold. He’s not the player they hoped for, but he can still be a serviceable depth guy.

 

Dominic Tiano: How the new NHL CBA affects the Bruins

Dominic Tiano is back with a helpful quick guide to the NHL’s recent extension of the CBA and how it impacts the Boston Bruins (specifically) and league writ large.- KL

The National Hockey League and the Players Association have agreed to a new six-year Collective Bargaining Agreement – a re-negotiation of the remaining 2 years plus 4 additional years. In the end, we have six years of labor peace moving forward.

First of all, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and NHLPA Head Donald Fehr deserve an endless amount of credit for this accomplishment. They’ve taken their time, and while not everyone is happy, they’ve gone about this in the right way – something we can’t say about other professional sports leagues. The NHL has experience in work stoppages – for other reasons – and the experience to come out of them. And when they do, they come out stronger than ever. And there is nothing to suggest it won’t happen again.

So, what changes affect the Boston Bruins in the immediate future? Here are some thoughts on what that’ll look like:

Minimum Salary

Beginning with the 2021-2022 season, the minimum salary rises from $700,000 to $750,000 and again in 2023-2024 to $775,000. With Connor Clifton and Jeremy Lauzon’s new contracts taking effect next season, it’ll not affect them. The only player this will have an affect on is Kyle Keyser, who will get an automatic raise from his $733,000 in his final year.

35+ Contracts

They are a thing of the past. Under the old CBA, any player that signs a contract at the age of 35 has their cap hit remain if they choose to retire for any reason. This affects Zdeno Chara right away as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent. However, you can not sign a 35+ player to a two-year deal with a lower salary in the second year to lower the cap hit as it must be ascending in year two or beyond. It also comes into play with Jaroslav Halak who’s deal is a 35+ next season. David Krejci will fall under that in 2021 and Patrice Bergeron a year later.

NTC/NMC Trades

Under the old CBA a team acquiring a player with a no trade or no movement clause had the option to extend those clauses after acquiring a player. That is now gone and the clauses will automatically follow the player to his new team, regardless if he waived his clause for the trade.

Arbitration

There have been some tweaks to the arbitration process. Teams still have the walk-away rights they held under the old CBA. But under the new agreement, if a team exercises their walk-away rights, the player can choose to sign a one-year deal with the team at the offer the team submitted under arbitration. The player has 4 days to make his decision. Bruins eligible for salary arbitration this offseason are Anders Bjork, Matt Grzelcyk, Brett Ritchie, Karson Kuhlman, Brendan Gaunce and Wiley Sherman. After the 2020-2021 season, it comes into play for Ondrej Kase, Nick Ritchie, Anton Blidh and Brandon Carlo.

Conditional Draft Picks

While teams will still be able to trade conditional draft picks based on where they finish, conditional draft picks will be a thing of the past when it comes to players re-signing. In other words, you can no longer trade a conditional draft pick for a player on the condition he re-signs.

Free Agent Interviews

Under the old CBA, teams were allowed to negotiate with pending unrestricted free agents five days prior to free agency on July 1st. Remember Matt Beleskey and David Backes? Maybe the NHL has done the Bruins a favor by eliminating that period? It will certainly make free agent frenzy more of a frenzy when there are no pre-negotiations and it’s a free for all at noon on July 1st. This year, free agency will begin 7 days after the cup is awarded.

10% Salary Deferred

Players agreed to defer 10% of their salaries and signing bonuses to the 2023 to 2026 seasons and most of the questions I receive are centered around how it affects the cap. The short and easy answer is it doesn’t. By deferring 10% a year, the contract total remains the same, and hence, the AAV or cap hit remain the same. The only thing that is affected is the player’s share of hockey related revenues. So, no, the teams do not get a 10% break on the cap.

Front Loaded Deals

Ever since the salary cap came into effect, the NHL has tried closing a loophole exploited by general managers, and that is front loading deals – paying more in the first part of the deal and adding years at the end of the deal at a lower salary to lower the cap hit. The NHL has taken steps to reduce that and in the new CBA take it a step further. Under the old CBA, salaries could not drop more then 50% from it’s highest year to it’s lowest year. That is now at 35%. The Bruins typically stay away from such deals however, Brad Marchand’s contract would not be allowed under the new CBA. Marchand’s highest salary was $8 million (in 2017-2018 and 2018-2019) and his lowest is $4 million in 2024-2025. That is allowable with the 50% drop, but under the new CBA, the lowest salary would rise to $5.2 million. No big deal right now as those contracts will be grandfathered, but you have David Pastrnak, Charlie McAvoy, Carlo, and Bergeron (among others) coming due under this CBA, so some creative bookkeeping lies ahead for Don Sweeney and Evan Gold. Not to mention it has thrown another wrinkle into possible negotiations with unrestricted defenceman Torey Krug.

One thing of interest here is that because of the uncertainty surrounding revenue and recovery because of the COVID-19 pandemic is that player agents and players may be looking towards backloading deals instead of front loading. With a cap on escrow now, it will greatly affect agents/players thinking here.

European Waivers

Under the previous agreement, players who had played in just one game in Europe would require waivers to sign and play in the NHL once the season starts. That has changed and now the player is exempt from waivers as long as a) he signs before December 15th and b) the team still owns his rights. The Bruins have several players that fall into this including Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Alexander Khokhlachev and more.

I must confess, I am not a lawyer but I have studied the CBA extensively over the years. The new legal document is not yet complete and may take months before all the legal language is completed and the actual CBA becomes available. All information comes from the Memorandum of Understanding signed by the NHL and NHLPA and is my interpretation.

Jeremy Lauzon: Then & Now

The Bruins prospects series rolls on with a player who might’ve been on the verge of graduating to NHL regular status when the 2019-20 season was put on pause. He’s an interesting profile to write because he’s finally paying some real dividends at the highest level.- KL

Jeremy Lauzon Then on Scouting Post:

Watch this Guy: Jeremy Lauzon July 24, 2015

So, why might Lauzon be the best between Jakub Zboril (13th overall) and Brandon Carlo (37th overall)? Like Zboril, Lauzon brings similar size and a mix of offense and defense. He’s more of a consistent competitor in my view, despite some reports of Boston’s top choice Zboril being “ultra-competitive” (I wouldn’t go that far based on what I saw in film study). Carlo is a massive rearguard who excels in a shutdown role, but I don’t know that he has the offensive skill/sense to be much of a consistent points producer. That leaves Lauzon as the best combination of the three- not as talented as Zboril or as big/defensively savvy as Carlo, but solid across the board and a gritty, hard-to-play against -d-man.

Prospect deep dive: Jeremy Lauzon March 7, 2016

Though not a truly exceptional player in any key area or specific hockey skill, Lauzon nevertheless is above average and more than capable at just about everything. He’s got good (Lauzon is about 6-1, 195 pounds) if not great (6-4, 220+ pounds or more is what is considered ideal in the modern NHL for D) size, and skates well though doesn’t provide dynamic speed and quickness. He’s a deft passer and effective goal scorer from the blue line, and has the ruggedness and smarts to neutralize opposition rushes and prevent players from getting to the front of his net.

Lauzon is putting up the best offensive numbers of his major junior career with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in his third season with them. He’s off his goals pace from a year ago (eight vs the 15 he netted in 2015) but with 44 points in 41 contests, Lauzon has already exceeded his 36 points set last season. He’s had to deal with some nagging lower body injuries that have limited his effectiveness in the new year after injuring himself after returning from Team Canada’s World Jr. Championship training camp in December. As one of the final cuts, Lauzon opened a lot of eyes around the CHL this year after being the 52nd overall selection by Boston last June.

Lauzon is a smart player who often does the little things in terms of maintaining his gaps, keeping the proper stick positioning and forcing opponents into committing early. He likes to go for hits in the open ice and will take every opportunity to finish his checks along the boards and remind guys in the other sweaters that he’s there. Though not a feared fighter, he’s willing to drop the gloves to defend teammates and plays a naturally rugged and aggressive defensive style that will translate well in Boston.

What’s Next For the Bruins- The Young D May 24, 2017

Jeremy Lauzon, LD, Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)- Injuries impacted Lauzon’s season and he didn’t put up the kind of regular season numbers in his fourth major junior campaign as he did a year ago. However, when it comes to Lauzon, it’s not so much about the stats as it is the consistency and balance. Besides, he had an outstanding playoffs (albeit an earlier-than-expected exit at the hands of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in the second round of the Quebec League run), posting 5 goals and 14 points in 13 games with the Huskies.

With Lauzon, less is more- he made Team Canada’s World Jr. Championship squad but wasn’t given as much ice time as some of the other defenders. Still- he scored a big goal in the gold medal game against USA, and seemed to make the most of the opportunities he had. He’s got enough skill to score, but he’s also a tenacious, even nasty competitor on the back end who makes forwards pay for the real estate they try to occupy. He’s not huge, but big enough- he’s got a great stick and impressive vision. We said it back after the 2015 draft, but as a shutdown guy, he’s not as effective as Carlo and as an offensive presence, he’s not quite as talented as Jakub Zboril, but if your idea of success is a player who can thrive over all 200 feet of the ice surface, then Lauzon is your man. He’s been with Providence since his playoffs ended, learning and benefiting from being around the team, but he wasn’t ready to go health-wise after playing hurt against Chicoutimi and the way things have gone for the Baby B’s has meant that he’s on the outside looking in for now. His time will come, though.

Jeremy Lauzon Now-

The now 6-2, 205-pound left-shot defenseman made his NHL debut in 2018-19, playing 16 games as an injury replacement and scoring his first NHL goal against Las Vegas. In 2019-20, he came up in the middle of the season and was just rounding into form, having played his way into the nightly lineup consistently when the season was put on pause.

The numbers- 2 goals and 1 helper in 35 games split between last season and the current one- aren’t anything to write home about, but there is room in his growth and development to be more of a point producer than he has thus far shown at age 22 (he turns 23 on Tuesday). Of course, he’s not been a point-getter in the AHL to date, and isn’t likely going to blossom into a 40-50-point guy in the NHL in his prime. But, like many young players who are in the process of breaking into the NHL while seeing limited minutes in a more specific role to place a priority on playing defense, Lauzon has been fine.

He competes hard, plays with good intelligence and vision, making the right decisions with and without the puck; Lauzon does his job with his mobility, a smart stick and has enjoyed the trust of head coach Bruce Cassidy and assistant coach Kevin Dean for his willingness to keep things simple.

Style analysis: 

Why does one defenseman who seems to have all the major league tools and who was a first-round draft pick have trouble establishing himself as an NHL regular, while another who was drafted later the same year and carries a significantly more modest skill set has leapfrogged the first on an organizational depth chart?

With Lauzon, we think it simply has to do with the fact that he’s a better defender and brings a high hockey IQ to the table, along with a certain poise and ability to do the little things to make plays in his own end.  He’s willing to lay out to block shots and he’ll drop the gloves. He’s not a heavyweight fighter, but he’s tough enough, and in Boston, that matters.

NHL defensemen who can both produce points and effectively defend their own zone are coveted commodities and franchise cornerstones- that’s why there are so few of them available across the NHL. That leaves the rest of the population at the position: players who might bring more offensive abilities to the table, while others are better at taking care of their own end. Gone are the pure specialists: the “offenseman”- a player who lines up behind the forwards to take faceoffs, but is essentially a fourth forward on the ice- taking the puck and rushing it up the ice, but lacking the instincts or wherewithal or both to provide capable defense, or the “shutdown” D- a euphemism for a big, powerful player who lacked the skills to skate and carry pucks out of danger, but could grapple and pin and obstruct players in the defensive zone effectively enough to justify their spot on an NHL roster.

Now, if you expect to play defense in the NHL and stay there, you had best be a hybrid 2-way defender or at least be an exceptional enough player in your own end with the mobility to angle, retrieve and win foot races to loose pucks. The modern NHL defenseman has to be able to skate, think, pass and understand how to play within his team’s structure and systems, or he won’t be long on the roster.

Lauzon isn’t fancy, but he’s just tough- able to get up and down the ice, make the first pass and brings a tenacity and competitiveness that endears him to the coaches and teammates he plays with. His best junior season was a 50-point campaign, so his offensive numbers at the highest level will be modest at best, but Lauzon’s value transcends pure point production. He’s going to eventually develop into a player who can play a good chunk of minutes as a steadying influence on the back end.

In hindsight, it looks like we were overly optimistic in thinking he could be the best of the three D Boston took in 2015, and to Brandon Carlo’s credit, he’s taken the bull by the horns to establish himself as an anchor on the B’s blueline, while coming off his best offensive season to date with 19 points in 67 games. But Carlo is also a physical specimen at 6-5 whose mobility opened the door for him earlier in Boston than most, and he took full advantage. Lauzon, on the other hand, has been on a longer (and expected) developmental path. He can’t match Carlo’s physical gifts in terms of pure size, strength and reach, but he’s not far off at being able to contain opponents and neutralize scoring chances.

Outlook:

Lauzon’s persistence has paid off, not only in the form of an increased role with the big club, but with a two-year contract extension at a bargain rate of $850k per that will take him through the 21-22 season. He might even be in danger of being the one Bruin that new NHL franchise Seattle could walk away with in next June’s expansion draft. That might be putting the cart before the horse, but with his experience, cap hit and potential, Lauzon just might be the kind of player who makes perfect sense for GM Ron Francis and Co. if he plays at least 40 games for the B’s in 20-21.

If not, then he’s on the up and up as a player who should be able to slot into Boston’s top-6 going forward. He’s got just enough skill, a good amount of smarts and plenty of ruggedness to make it as a solid role player and maybe something more. It’s not overly complicated when it comes to figuring out if players will earn more NHL ice time or not- if the coaches trust them, then they’ll play.

It might not always make sense to media and fans who will look at other shiny, flashier objects in the system and say, “Why not him?”  Well, because if the flashy guy turns pucks over and can’t establish a solid level of the t-word with the team’s coaches, he’s not going into the game.

Lauzon won’t win a lot of style contests, but in the end, style doesn’t always win hockey games. As the season abruptly ended in March, the coaches trusted him because he proved that he is trustworthy.

Sometimes, that’s really all you need.

***

First NHL goal on former B’s 1st-rounder & prospect Malcolm Subban from late 2018

Squares off vs Matthew Tkachuk- noogie time:

 

A preseason fight vs the NJ Devils’ Nathan Bastian

 

Off the top of the head: Jakub Zboril

Jakub Zboril, D

6’/201

Boston’s 1st choice, 13th overall in 2015 NHL Entry Draft

Current Team: Providence Bruins (AHL)

Previous Team: Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)

Strengths: Outstanding, NHL-caliber skater with speed, balance, agility; can get off the mark quickly, has a powerful glide and exhibits nifty foot work to change direction efficiently. Good puckhandler who can make the first pass and uses his feet and stick to break pucks out of his own end consistently. Hard shot- a missile that he can drive from the point through traffic on net. Enjoys the physical aspect of his position: engages with opposing puck carriers and will put his body through their hands to disrupt the rush. A willing hitter who opened eyes in his draft season for his embrace of physicality, and as he gains experience, is getting smarter and more effective in his ability to end plays along the walls.

Weaknesses: Vision/hockey instincts are pretty average; doesn’t always make the right reads/decisions and not an overly creative puck distributor. Play away from puck is a continued work in progress; still developing 360-degree awareness and d-zone coverages to prevent opponents from finding soft seams and exploiting time/space.

Overall analysis: Boston’s top pick five years ago has been slow to develop and might not ever get there (at least with the organization that drafted him), which makes him one of the more polarizing prospects in the system. Like others who have come before him and those who will surely follow, he is a victim more of expectations than out of a failure to perform. While his development has not been as rapid as other 2015 peers who were chosen after he was, Zboril has taken positive steps, even if he’s been unable to do more than play sparingly in just two NHL games with the B’s.

As part of a very strong draft class, Zboril was solidly in the second tier of defensemen available after Noah Hanifin, Ivan Provorov and Zach Werenski, all of whom were drafted in the first eight selections and have gone on to become established NHL players. Zboril’s junior teammate, Thomas Chabot, was drafted five spots later at 18th overall, and has emerged as a top tier player, which has added to the disappointment of a slow development process in Providence.

Luckily for the Bruins, Brandon Carlo is the defender from the 2015 draft who has been able to become a staple supporting cast member, and while Zboril doesn’t have Carlo’s size, he’s more of a 2-way threat and hybrid style player that it is hard to account for why things have not come together for him. The irony in the criticism Zboril gets on Internet message boards and Twitter is that at the time he was drafted, he was the one player of Boston’s three first-round selections at 13-15 who was the accepted commodity at his draft slot, while Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn were the players who raised the most controversy given where they were projected.

Five years later, it is obvious that Boston should have gotten more production out of those three selections, with only DeBrusk currently a full-time roster player, while others selected after 15 have gone on to become stars. Having said that, Zboril just turned 23 in February- he has time to establish himself as an NHL player with the B’s, even if time is running out. He just played out the third year of his entry-level contract, and should receive a qualifying offer. He’s been consistent in Providence- posting 19 points in each of his three AHL seasons. The offensive production that looked to translate from junior play probably isn’t going to be there, but he’s shown improvement as a defender since turning pro, and he can leverage that into a decent NHL role in the right situation.

Projection: The days of projecting the left-shot Zboril as a top-3 NHL D are long over, but barring some kind of miracle, he has the tools to be a solid 5/6/7 and role player at the top level. Granted, that’s not going to make many celebrate him given who Boston could’ve had at 13, but he still has it in him to establish himself in the NHL as a solid complementary/depth player who could enhance any defense with his mobility and skills.

His playing style and game reminds us of another heralded junior defenseman who put up points and was expected to be a 2-way NHL star. After being a top-10 pick in his first draft, Nick Boynton had to reinvent himself as more of a defense-first, supporting D, going on to play more than 600 NHL games and raising the Stanley Cup at the end of his career with the Chicago Blackhawks. We’re not saying Zboril is the next Boynton, but there are some similarities here, and at age 23, he’s far from washed up- Boynton was 22 when he finally cracked Boston’s lineup to stay. For a more modern example, Matt Grzelcyk was 23 when he became an NHL regular, but he did it after playing just one full season of pro in the AHL before making the jump to Boston to stay.

Right now- Zboril is at a personal and professional crossroads: can he finally make the cut in his fourth season, or will he go back down to the AHL, and essentially see the window close on a possible Bruins career? When you look at his physical gifts and playing style, there isn’t any clear explanation for why Zboril has failed to develop into an every day NHL player by now, but nevertheless, this is where we are.

At the very least, he’s shown improvement in each of his three seasons, so he’s got a chance to make it in year four- he can absolutely skate, pass and shoot- if he can put it all together, the ability is there to be a player in the NHL.

 

SportsNet pre-draft clip of Zboril- “expected to go in the middle of the first round”- yes, that was the projection, and that’s where he went.

 

TSP friend Anthony Kwetkowski/Bruins Network is a believer in Zboril, and talked about him at length in arecent podcast at around the 1:07:45 mark. Here’s a video interview he did with him last season:

 

 

Best and Worst Bruins Draft Picks 1-30; 1963-2019

Thornton

I recently posted this to the Bruins sub-Reddit- and thought it deserved a place on my blog.

Took a swing at the Boston Bruins historical draft choices, analyzing the team’s selections since the NHL implemented a rudimentary draft system 56 years ago. Bear in mind that in the pre-1969 years, the draft was different- starting in 1963 thru 1978 it was called the amateur draft before changing to the NHL Entry Draft in 1979 when the teams were allowed to draft 18-year-olds. With fewer teams in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s, selections outside of 10-20 were 2nd round or later, but for purpose of exercise, I’m going to look at picks 1-30 and call it like I see it.

I’m bucking convention by starting out with 1st overall and work up to 30- in a lot of cases, the early selections for the B’s have not been kind, but in full context- most of the time the team was picking 3-7, it came in the days before the current draft system. And because the B’s had made the playoffs from 1968-97, unless they owned bad teams’ 1st rounders, they rarely got a chance to pick inside the top-10 during that time frame.

1- Best: Joe Thornton, 1997: 1st ballot HHOFer- nuf ced; Trading him opened the door for Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard to join the B’s in 2006, but he’s been everything Jumbo Joe was projected to be as a teen titan with the Soo Greyhounds in 1997. He just turned 40 in July, which, given the shaggy, golden-locked kid who showed up in Boston 22 years ago at not quite 18, seems impossible to square with the grizzled graybeard who has been with the San Jose Sharks for nearly a decade and a half.

Worst: Barry Gibbs, 1966: Journeyman defenseman. He at least played in the NHL to the tune of 796 career games, most of them not with the Bruins. However, Gibbs leads the No. 1 overall bust hit parade not because of what he did, but because of the player who was selected right behind him at No. 2 in ’66 by the NY Rangers. Wait for it…Brad Park. Can you imagine Bobby Orr and Brad Park together on the Boston blue line? It actually happened for a handful of games right before Orr left for the Windy City, but had they been able to play together in their primes, we’re talking at least 2 more Stanley Cups in that era. Yikes. (H/T to Reddit user Timeless_Watch for pointing this out- I moved Kluzak down to HM)

HM: Gord Kluzak, 1982: Oh what could have been? What if…B’s had drafted Brian Bellows or Scott Stevens there instead of Kluzak? Kluzak had knee injuries in junior hockey days and then got blown up in his 2nd NHL season- without the technology to repair knees that we have today, it doomed him to being day-to-day for the rest of his career and an early retirement. He should have been a long-tenured NHL defenseman, but it didn’t happen for him, and unfortunately, he’s more of a footnote in Bruins lore, which is unfortunate.

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NHL Free Agency Day 1: Bruins add depth, Acciari to Panthers

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As expected, the Boston Bruins played on the margins during the NHL’s annual free agent derby July 1, re-signing defenseman Connor Clifton to a three-year pact at a $1M per annum cap hit along with Ryan Fitzgerald (pictured) to a 2-way contract valued at $700k for one year. From the outside of things, the B’s added bottom-line forwards Par Lindholm (Jets and Maple Leafs) to a 2-year NHL deal valued at $850 k per, and Brett Ritchie (Stars) to a 1-year, $1 million contract. The B’s also signed 2012 1st-round forward Brendan Gaunce (Canucks) to a 2-way (700k cap hit) deal, 2011 4th-round defenseman Josiah Didier (Canadiens) to an AHL contract and free agent goalie Maxime Lagace (Golden Knights) 2-way (700k cap hit) to bolster their AHL depth.

Clifton was a no-brainer after his emergence in the Stanley Cup playoffs and to lock him up for 3 years at that price is excellent value. It’s nice to see the local Fitzgerald get another shot to find his way to the Big B’s after being a fourth-round pick in 2013, but the scouts were concerned about his overall speed/pace game and how it would translate to the NHL, and thus far, he’s still fighting to break through.

The B’s also saw their first casualty of the free agency period, as grinder Noel Acciari came to terms on a 3-year/$5 million contract with the Florida Panthers. It’s only a matter of time before we find out where Marcus Johansson will end up, but it won’t be back in Boston.

While the groans in some fan circles are audible- most knowledgeable fans understand that given the current cap situation facing Don Sweeney, there simply wasn’t any room for spending sprees on the open market, especially with three key restricted free agents needing extensions in Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Danton Heinen. The only hope for some additional coin to spend here in July of 2019 was for the B’s to somehow off-load David Backes and the 2 years remaining on his $6M cap hit. Since the deal signed in 2016 was front-loaded, Backes’ contract is appealing to teams looking to get to the cap floor whose operating budgets are lower than the richer teams in that the cap hit is higher than the money owed, but it’s easier said than done. Of course, with other teams around the league moving bad contracts, it’s natural for B’s fans to want the same- it always takes two to tango and the team is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to behind-the-scenes negotiations, so good luck finding out what if any overtures were made in this regard. Barring a trade of some fashion, whether Backes or somewhere else on the roster, there simply wasn’t any money to spend on over-priced free agents. And there won’t be much to handle next year’s more challenging roster turbulence.

Fast food mentality ain’t gonna work here, folks- instead of being envious of the huge contracts being handed out around the league today, set your sights to 2020 and the longer game. It never ceases to amaze that so many of the nimrods out there clamoring for the B’s to be players in an annually inflated free agent market will be the first to turn on the GM when said player(s) don’t live up to their big cap numbers. Truth in lending- TSP was bullish on Backes three years ago in the face of some pointed criticisms elsewhere. In hindsight, the fears (at the time) have come to fruition- there’s not much tread left on the tire, and Backes, as tremendous a character/glue guy as he is, hamstrings the B’s for two more years at $6M per. Teams are better to invest in their own players and leave the madness of the UFA market to others who will be doomed to repeat history because they aren’t learning from it.

Think of all the NHL teams today who worked so hard to clear cap space only to fill it up again. Now, in some cases- the signings look smart and should pay dividends (Lehner- CHI; Donskoi- COL; Hartman- MIN; Perry- DAL; Spezza- TOR to name a few). Others are courting major disaster (Bobrovsky- FLA 10M cap hit? For 7 years?? Wow!!; Stralman- FLA; Zuccarello- MIN; Hayes- PHI delayed reaction from 19 June signing & Erik Karlsson’s big pay day as he approaches 30 with a lot of wear and tear on his slight frame). But, if we’ve learned one thing over the past several years, there always seems to be a GM or three out there who will bail some of their spendthrift counterparts out by taking on the remainders of bad contracts handed out on credit.

We learned the lesson with Backes- character matters, but up to a point. You have to balance that with a more realistic assessment of your ROI- return on investment. We all wanted Backes to be successful in Boston, but the warning signs were there. In the end, he’s a player more suited to the NHL of yesteryear…it sucks to say it, but as some predicted three years ago, that contract is, in fact, an albatross. And we’ll have to see what the B’s are able to do about it with 24 more months left on the term.

Now, on to the new guys:

Center Par Lindholm spent the season between Toronto and Winnipeg after signing with Toronto a year ago, and the move makes sense if you believe the rumors that the B’s are shopping Joakim Nordstrom.

Lindholm is an intelligent 200-foot pivot with a wealth of Swedish pro experience, but didn’t play much in his first North American season in the NHL. He’s not a dynamic offensive player and more of a Swiss Army Knife/Jack of All Trades type. He typically played less than 10 minutes a game for the Leafs and Jets, so if you noticed him much, then you’re a far better judge of talent than we are.

We’ll chalk this one up as a wait-and-see kind of addition, as it smacks of a set-up for something else to happen on the roster…otherwise, color us perplexed as to where this player fits in the B’s lineup when all is said and done.

Here’s an informative article on him out of Winnipeg from a month ago…

Brett Ritchie comes to the B’s from the only organization he ever knew- the Dallas Stars- who drafted him in the second round of the 2011 lottery. Interestingly enough, when the rumors of Tyler Seguin being dealt to Dallas first came to light, we (that is Kirk) thought that Ritchie might have been one of the prospect pieces included in that ill-fated trade that is coming up on 6 years old.

We’d like to say that the 26-year-old is on the verge of busting out, but the reality is- he’s a big-bodied (6-4/220) forward who never really developed into the player he looked like he could be in his draft season with the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs. While not a bad skater, he has trouble separating and is at his best when his team has possession in the offensive zone and he can get to quiet ice/doesn’t have to win footraces to loose pucks.

Posting a career 0.22 points-per-game average with the Stars in 241 career contests (plus 3 playoff games), Ritchie has always had decent possession numbers in Dallas, and looks to be the kind of player at even strength that the B’s are trying to bring in to improve their overall 5v5 play. The problem is- because they don’t have a lot of money to spend in free agency this summer, they’re forced to bring in a low-end producer like Ritchie who fits that heavy, hard-to-play-against style the team loves in its forwards, but simply doesn’t have the production to indicate that he will suddenly find a scoring touch in Boston.

We suppose the B’s could do worse here, but we hope they will find a way to do better! Ritchie is a role player and not much more than that- 1 year and $1M isn’t going to break the bank, but since posting a career-best 16 goals in 2016-17,  he’s only managed 11 total in the last 124 games/ two campaigns. He’s an offensive upgrade on Acciari, but not by much- what is the real play here as it pertains to the B’s roster?

Here’s something a little dated (written a year ago) on Ritchie from a Dallas perspective.

Brendan Gaunce is like Ritchie-light…he was Vancouver’s 1st-round pick in 2012, selected just after the B’s drafted his Belleville (OHL) teammate Malcolm Subban…and he was a guy we had time for as a Bruins draft option that year. Big and has some skill with a high motor and leadership, Gaunce, who was once the 2nd overall selection of the Bulls in the OHL draft, has been an utter disappointment at the NHL level.

He’s the classic looks like a player prospect who didn’t ever develop into one despite a willingness to drive the net and compete/be effective on the walls and on the cycle. He’s not a snarly, in-your-face physical type and ultimately, that plus a lack of skill to establish himself on the top-two lines in Vancouver spelled the end for him in his first NHL organization. He’s going to be a good add in Providence, and his NHL ceiling might be that of a Tim Schaller if he can somehow get his foot in the door, but even that’s probably a stretch.

Here’s an article on Gaunce when news broke he would not be qualified by the Canucks:

Max Lagace and Josiah Didier– The B’s needed a minor league veteran to replace Zane McIntyre, who left the B’s to sign with the Canucks after being drafted by Boston in 2010.

Lagace has 17 career games in the NHL all with Vegas, and was pressed into emergency duty in 2017-18 when the Knights went through an unbelievable rash of injuries at the goaltender position. He’s not an NHL regular but will provide good insurance down in the AHL, as Providence probably can’t afford to hand the keys to a Daniel Vladar/Kyle Keyser tandem and needs a third/emergency goalie to backfill the second season of Tuukka Rask/Jaroslav Halak.

Didier, who was a 4th-round project pick out of the USHL’s Cedar Rapids Rough Riders by Montreal in 2011 and played for current Dallas HC Jim Montgomery at the University of Denver, just won a Calder Cup with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL and is another experienced winner who will bolster the Providence blue line and help Boston’s younger players develop.

The final word: The real value to the Bruins will come when their key RFA’s sign. Don’t cry for the big name UFAs, Argentina…the truth is- they were never really in play for Boston.

Everyone likes their shiny new toys and wants their favorite team to be in the mix to get the name guys on July 1st, but in most cases, the big spenders are left with a serious case of buyer’s remorse. Last year, Sweeney hit the middle tier market and did well, but you can’t step up to the plate year after year and pay market prices for the talent out there and expect to keep the real gems in your organization.

It’s like a high interest credit card- you get some immediate satisfaction in the form of landing a brand name that the hockey media will buzz about, but in 3-4 years, who did that phat free agent contract cost you, and was it worth it?

Something tells us that Sweeney knows that, and also realizes he will have to find another route to upgrading the second-line right wing. How soon it happens and what form the next addition(s) takes is sure to dominate social media from here on, but anyone who knows how the cycle goes in the NHL understood that the B’s weren’t going to make waves today…whether they moved Backes or not.

As for Acciari, he came to his childhood favorite team as an undrafted free agent and did a solid job on the fourth line. He represents decent but not good value for the Panthers, but the reality is- they need more guys like the former Providence College captain, whereas the Bruins have more than enough of those players already. We wish him well as he moves on to his new team and a solid payday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Sweeney named NHL GM of Year

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

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

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

The successes, by and large, have been prolific.

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Game 7: Win or Die

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Well, here we are.

It’s Game 7 at TD Garden- last hockey game of the 2018-19 season for the honor of lifting the Stanley Cup overhead.

Boston Bruins are at home against the St. Louis Blues, who had the higher-seeded B’s on the ropes but couldn’t close the deal in Game 6. Now, it’s time to settle the matter of who will lay final claim to the title of world champions.

The B’s took a furious flurry of punches by the Blues in the early minutes of Game 6, with a frenzied, frothing-at-the-mouth crowd of St. Louis faithful hoping to see their team capture its first-ever Stanley Cup victory on home ice. Alas for them, Tuukka Rask and the more experienced Bruins had other plans.

Brad Marchand’s first period 5-on-3 goal drew first blood and the Bruins never really looked back after that, getting the winner from an unlikely source in defenseman Brandon Carlo, whose point shot skipped off the ice and past Jordan Binnington to make it 2-0 in an eventual 5-1 drubbing. Even rookie buzzsaw forward Karson Kuhlman got into the act, the undrafted free agent netting his first career playoff goal with a laser beam at the perfect time. It doesn’t hurt that Bruce Cassidy and his coaching staff are pushing all the right buttons.

At the other end of the spectrum, it didn’t help that the St. Louis Post Dispatch accidentally pushed out some content meant for publication in the event that the Blues took care of business at home. That kind of an unforced error seems inconceivable in this day and age, and yet- it showed the decided lack of experience St. Louis has as opposed to Boston when it comes to the matter of winning championships. Whatever…those silly gaffes didn’t play a role in the big win the visiting team leveled on the Blues, but it does show how thirsty that team’s fans are for a Stanley Cup- something they haven’t enjoyed in the 52 years of the franchise’s existence.

So, now it ends. A new champion will be crowned tonight, and the momentum is with the Bruins.

Unlike Game 5, when the B’s had lost Game 4 to the Blues on the road, the home team is returning with the confidence of a big victory under the belt, and the experience factor may be just too much for the younger, upstart Blues to overcome. After all, Zdeno Chara is about to appear in his NHL-record 14th seventh game.

And the Bruins are no strangers to Game 7’s in the Stanley Cup Final- they went the distance eight years ago in Vancouver.  Different team, different situation, but the core of Boston’s veteran team saw it and lived it- they’ll know precisely what they’re up against tonight.  Only…they’ll have the pure energy of their fanbase behind them as the B’s play in the first SCF Game 7 in franchise history. The late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan will be watching from above, and he knows…nobody is gonna be a-knockin’ when that TD Garden gets a-rockin’.

The Bruins will be ready when the puck drops tonight and with an atmosphere reminiscent of the epic 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning to close out the 2011 Eastern Conference Final, the Black and Gold will have a full wind at their backs.

Last week, the Omaha Lancers of the USHL held the team’s main tryout camp at Ralston Arena in Nebraska, and a familiar face was on hand in our building to watch his son make the team. 2001-born forward Cam Recchi is a chip off the old block- looks like his dad and plays like him, too (which is great news for the Lancers). Cam was 10 years old when he watched as Mark lifted the Stanley Cup over his head one last time (as a player- he’s won 2 more since as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins organization) and skated off into the sunset with three rings.

As the time ticked down on Boston’s 2-1 Game 5 loss on the big screen televisions in the Ralston Arena’s Side Room lounge where Lancers players and their families gathered to watch a clash of titans, I stood next to Rex, one of the most beloved Bruins players in his three-season run to finish his Hockey Hall of Fame career.

“You guys lost Game 5 in Vancouver- what was the feeling going back to Boston for Game 6?”, I asked.

“We knew we were going to win the Cup,” Recchi said without missing a beat. “Vancouver was at their breaking point. They were worn down- it took everything out of them to beat us in that game, and we could sense they had very little left and momentum was in our favor.”

Swing it did, and the 2011 Bruins decisively beat the Canucks in two straight to secure the sixth Stanley Cup in franchise history, doing so on the road. The script didn’t quite play out the same way, but yet here we are- Game 7…winner take all.

“They’ve got this,” said Recchi as we walked away when the final horn sounded with the Blues up 3-2 in the series. “There are just too many experienced warriors in that room, and you can’t say enough about what that does for you.”

The Bruins are back home and in familiar territory, having beaten the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of their opening round series way back in April, which seems like a lifetime ago. The only thing is- they’ve had three more series of battles to hone their skills to a keen edge.

The Blues have done well to get this far- they are the heavy, nasty team we were all told they are. They’ve given the veteran club some serious punches, but as the old saying goes, If you’re going to kill the king, you’d better not miss.

The Blues took their best shot in Game 5 and had a chance to close it out in Game 6, but their trajectory went wide…and miss they did.

Tonight, the Blues are in the crosshairs.

Let the final game begin.