Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

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Dominic Tiano: The best goal scorer in NHL history is…

Is Alex Ovechkin the most prolific goal scorer in NHL history?

3 Amigos Podcast with special guest Jesse Gabrielle + B’s prospects and the legend of Moe Lemay

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The boys are back with another 3 Amigos podcast- Reed Duthie, Dominic Tiano and me bring you our sixth episode since we started doing these before the 2016 NHL Entry Draft last June.

This time, Bruins prospect Jesse Gabrielle joins us fresh off of signing his entry-level contract with Boston over the weekend. The Prince George Cougars winger scored 40 goals a year ago and is on pace for more with a surging team that already has 24 wins on the season.

We also talk Bruins prospects and the upcoming World Junior Tournament. Defenseman Jeremy Lauzon made the final roster for Team Canada, announced last night, while Zachary Senyshyn was the last forward cut. That disappointment will probably provide some extra motivation for Senyshyn, but we can’t help but question Canada’s decision here. His speed and scoring prowess seems like a no-brainer, but they have their reasons. If at the end of the tourney, Canada is not skating around with gold medals around their necks, the decision not to include the player with the second most goals scored in the OHL since the 2015 draft will likely be revisited.

We also have a discussion about the Bruins’ poor home record over the past several seasons, which goes in several different directions before revisiting Boston’s memorable 1988 playoff series win over the Montreal Canadiens and cult hero (former Ottawa 67’s star) Maurice “Moe” Lemay.

It’s a jam-packed 1.5 hours, so we hope you’ll stay with it. We eschew the normal 3 Amigos theme to go all Christmas on you, as well. The Waitresses classic “Christmas Wrapping” is a great way to close it out.

Thanks for listening!

 

 

Providence Bruins swept, rough seas for organization

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to jump into the mix on the state of the Boston Bruins organization after the season ended two weeks ago, with the team throwing out a complete and total dud at home against the Ottawa Senators in a do-or-die final game.

I was away at Grand Forks, N.D. watching the World Under-18 Hockey Championship (which ends today in a gold medal game that features neither USA nor Canada, winners of the gold medal going all the way back to 2007), so I wasn’t paying strict attention to the pair of season-ending press conferences the Bruins leadership held. The accountability reviews happened Thursday, April 14 with GM Don Sweeney and Claude Julien, and then about a week later with team president Cam Neely and owners Jeremy Jacobs and his son, Charles Jacobs, who is the Jacobs family’s most visible influence on the club as the Chief Executive Officer of the Delaware North company’s Boston holdings (ie- the Bruins, TD Garden and all the various mechanisms related to those entities).

I was holding off because there was no shortage of coverage analyzing the pressers and what was and wasn’t said by the various stakeholders, and I wanted to see what the Providence Bruins would do in the AHL playoffs after a strong season given that club’s bumbling start out of the gate. Alas, the P-Bruins dropped game 3 in double OT last night, swept out of the playoffs unceremoniously by the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in three consecutive overtime wins, each time Providence failing to get that fortuitous play that the Penguins managed in all three contests.

So, here we are: the Boston Bruins are done. The Providence Bruins are done. If you’re a B’s fan, the 2015-16 season ended the way it began- with deep pessimism about the team’s direction and ability to achieve the perennial high standards that everyone had come to expect since capturing the 2011 Stanley Cup championship in memorable fashion and then reaching the final series just two seasons later.

The recurring theme I keep going back to is this: it isn’t that the Bruins failed to reach the playoffs two seasons in a row in 2015 and 2016, but it’s how they’ve lost out- with a pair of consecutive spring swoons that just about everyone save the most ardent of optimists could see coming. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying on the team’s part, and the cynics will likely even debate that point, but I think by and large- modern sports fandom and by that, I mean people who cheer for successful teams- has become an entitled lot. They simply come to expect enduring excellence, and why not? Aiming high should be lauded not derided, and when your team summits one of the toughest challenges (if not *the* most difficult) in capturing the Stanley Cup, there is an expectation that follows. Unfortunately, as Boston fans have learned over the past three seasons in the wake of the Bruins coming up short against the NHL’s modern dynasty in the Chicago Blackhawks, savvy management coupled with a long-term vision and sprinkled with some good old fashioned luck, is critical to the kind of sustained success that the Blackhawks are enjoying, with three championships since 2010.

How did we get here? Where did it all go wrong?

Just two years ago, the Bruins were President’s Trophy winners and had just blitzed the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round, preparing to face their historical nemesis- the Montreal Canadiens. Although it was the Habs, spirits were high and Boston fans, some of them, were already making their plans for an Eastern Conference Final matchup. When it all came crashing down, it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. And so, two non-playoff finishes later, the team is looking at the ruins of a pair of close-but-not-quite regular seasons and an exodus of players either a part of those two Stanley Cup runs (Milan Lucic, Johnny Boychuk, Tyler Seguin) or those who were expected to carry the torch well into the next decade (Dougie Hamilton, Reilly Smith) and there isn’t much to show for it. To add to the concern, the B’s have several higher-dollar contracts invested in aging veterans with injury challenges (Zdeno CharaDennis Seidenberg, David Krejci) and three years after trading Seguin in a blockbuster deal, the Bruins have very little to show for one of the NHL’s biggest stars in 2016.

All of this leads naturally to the sharp knives coming out and in a results-oriented business like pro sports, when you don’t win, the recriminations will follow. That’s just life. But, the Bruins didn’t help themselves, and I’ll attempt to explain why in the coming passages- just bear with me.

The B’s were slow to react to another spring of disappointment, and that added to the friction and frustration in Boston. None of the team’s top brass came out publicly in the wake of the sinking of the S.S. Bruins 2016 as is the tradition when players pack up their things after a season and head home, talking to the media on their way out in addition to their internal exit interviews.

In this case, it was a mistake by whomever made the call- Neely, Sweeney…are we sure who is making those kinds of decisions at 100 Legends Way these days? But whoever decided to go into complete radio silence/blackout mode misjudged the fan angst this time. A statement, even a simple one, such as “As an organization, we thank our fans for their support in what has been a disappointing season for all of us. In the coming days, we intend to talk about what happened, why it happened and what we plan to accomplish not only in 2016-17, but in the years beyond as we strive to give our city a team worthy of the Boston Bruins name,” or something to that effect would have gone a long way. It would not have erased the negativity, but at the same time would have at least demonstrated a modicum of accountability. After all, the top brass knew there would be a day of reckoning with the media and by extension, the fans who felt so let down (go look at the club’s home record this year), so what possible purpose did it serve for the team’s leadership to go completely silent while allowing the negative narrative to fester and become even more toxic for five full days?

Fill disclosure: I work in public relations, so regardless of who my boss is, I would never advise that kind of course of action. This story wasn’t going away, and the B’s front office added to their problems by going silent when public scrutiny on them was at its most intense. They might have had some very good reasons for it, but now it doesn’t matter. Why? Because it simply reinforced the growing narrative that the current regime doesn’t know what it is doing. Right, wrong…who cares? In life, we tell ourselves to focus on what we can control. In this case, the B’s had some control over the narrative and how the media presented their side of things.

By going MIA when the wound was at its most critical, they surrendered an essential opportunity to win some confidence by those fair-minded but concerned supporters in the middle. A statement would not have done much to affect the extremes- those who want the entire front office and Julien fired, nor those who are staunch in their support and believe that the team’s leadership deserves more time to get things right no matter what. Those groups are loud and vocal…but they are also a minority. The larger element of the Bruins fanbase tries to take a more logical, less emotional and reactionary stance- they call things like they see them. And when the B’s leadership sent the players out but were nowhere to be seen, it didn’t matter what reasons they had for doing so- they lost more supporters than they gained.

Sweeney and Julien came out to face the music first…five days after the Saturday afternoon massacre at the TD Garden when the B’s not only blew a lead (again!) in what was essentially win or go home scenario but also utterly collapsed in the process with a nightmarish second period with $7M goalie Tuukka Rask ill and unable to even try to be a difference-maker.  Of course, it wouldn’t have made a difference, but again- it isn’t that we arrived to this boiling point in Boston- it’s the HOW it all happened.

As Steve Conroy wrote in the Boston Herald, if folks wanted to see someone’s head on a pike over what happened this year, they were not appeased. Here was the defining quote from Sweeney, and one that will continue to be brought up during his tenure as GM of the Bruins going forward if progress is not made:

“I don’t believe we need a major overhaul. I believe we need to continue to forge depth in the organization,” said Sweeney. “You have to have a plan that allows players to develop at the right time that they’re supposed to, rather than force a player.

“At times when you don’t have the depth overall, you do (force); you can expose a younger player and we’d like to have the patience in that regard.”

Sweeney knows there is work to be done. He’s certainly not resting on his laurels, because the day after that presser, he was out in North Dakota watching those Under-18 championships. Say what you will about Sweeney, but I saw firsthand that he was working with his scouts and trusted personnel men to try and identify the kind of longer-term solutions that might help the B’s return to legitimate contention down the road. Nobody that the Bruins scouted over the past 10 days is going to ride into town next October and reverse the direction of the franchise, but no one can accuse Sweeney of leaving the details to others, either. He’s clearly invested in the way ahead and was present at the last major tournament of the season to see for himself the players his guys want the Bruins to put their faith in at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

Unfortunately for Sweeney, he has become fair game for those who question his managerial acumen, and as he said in the presser, there is much work to do. His most pressing needs remain in addressing a woeful defense that was a question mark going into the season and came undone at the absolute worst possible time. Not to beat a dead horse, but we all knew for certain that the Boston defense was an issue after the very first three games of the season, but Sweeney made no moves to address it until very late in the year when he acquired John-Michael Liles at the deadline. The Boston D cost the B’s critical points throughout the season, but it was the offense and at times, the goaltending that covered up for them and kept the team winning. That is, until the very end- when all facets of the roster began sputtering and ultimately dropped out of the playoff race in spectacularly frustrating fashion.

Had the B’s been in and out of the playoffs all season long and ridden more protracted valleys from December to March, then there’s a good chance the backlash would not have been as severe. Sure, there is always anger and sharp criticism when a team fails to reach the postseason, but most fans in Boston feel like simply making the playoffs should not be a goal in itself. They’d rather see a burn-the-boats and build-it-from-the-waterline-up approach to cut out the rot and start anew than a strategy that swaps out a few pieces but leaves the larger holes and vulnerabilities (the defense) unaddressed.

Sweeney is a smart guy and he/his team works hard. One team source told me that the organization was “devastated” after what happened and I believe him. Even though it is easy to sit back and point fingers and say, “I told you so” after the fact, the reality is- the Bruins played over the heads so much that by March 18, many of us wanted to believe…no, we believed they were going to make the postseason. Few had many illusions of how far the B’s might get, but taking steps forward after the 2015 offseason and the questions surrounding the team going into the year would have been a moral victory for the organization and its players. These guys don’t go through the grind of an entire NHL campaign and all that comes with it just to tank and lose on purpose. As simple as we sometimes might think it is to just sell off pieces and swirl down the drain, the players had sent a message that making the push was worth a try. It’s easy to say now that it wasn’t worth it, but most of us, if we’re truly honest with ourselves, that is- know in our heart of hearts that we were pleasantly surprised at what the Bruins had accomplished, especially in those critical days after the trade deadline when they went on their best winning streak of the season only to match it with an even more horrific downward spiral.

That opens the door for a debate that there is more good on this team than bad, but the Bruins are now at a critical crossroads and if any goodwill existed before, it will take a lot of work by Sweeney and Neely, the two faces of the team’s management, to earn it back.

Cameron Michael Neely is a far more complex figure in this drama.

It is pretty disconcerting that in the several years since the B’s faltered against Montreal in the 2014 playoffs up to now, he has gone from being one of the most beloved figures in team lore to one of the major villains of the current chapter in the eyes of some.

As a player, he was the premier power forward of the late 1980s and through the early-to-mid 90’s until chronic hip and knee injuries forced his retirement from the game at just 31 years of age. He was everything fans loved about their Bruins- tough and rugged, but able to come through with the workmanlike goals when the team needed them. He parlayed those heroics into a place in the Hall of Fame in 2005, even though he never won a Stanley Cup as a player. Other more accomplished skaters are still awaiting entry, but Neely’s tenure on the Bruins transcended the stats and individual accomplishments. His emotion and iron will often took the team places it had no business being, and that’s what made him a hero in Boston sports lore. When you look up into the rafters at TD Garden, Neely’s No. 8 hangs proudly there, as a testament to his legacy as a player who was the  club’s heart and soul and who often wore his emotions on his sleeve. He didn’t go out on his own terms in 1996, and that fact, more than any other, might be feeding into the perilous waters his legend has navigated into of late.

Because now, as an executive, that same emotion threatens his standing as one of the city’s icons. As more questions emerge as to how much involvement, no- power– he has within the B’s hierarchy, his stewardship and the direction the team has gone in since reaching a zenith in 2011 and appearing to be on the cusp of being the Blackhawks of the East with a return to the Stanley Cup final in 2013, is under fire.

Steve Harris quoted Neely in the Boston Herald after his (and ownership’s)  presser this past week:

“We know where our better players are in their careers,” said Neely. “We have an idea on how many good years they have left to be at the top of their game. It’s very important for us to add pieces around them to compete for a Cup. That has to happen sooner rather than later.

“I hate to lose more than I love to win. I don’t like missing the playoffs. And I want everybody else to feel the same way.”

That’s some good copy and on its face makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t play well to the skeptics who don’t want the focus to be on missing the playoffs. Just making the postseason is not the goal…and their point that it shouldn’t be the emphasis on where the Bruins went wrong this year is a valid one. The flip side of that argument is that exposing the team’s younger players to the intensity and pace of playoff hockey was a bigger reward than going home in mid-April. We can see both sides of the argument, but one of them opens the door to the old mistrust and negative outlook fans had for the Jacobs family and the perceived profit-over-winning mentality that dogged the Bruins during the pre-2004 lockout era of escalating salaries from about 1996 and on.

For their part, Jeremy and his son Charles Jacobs have reinforced their support for management and insisted that there was no “make the playoffs or else” ultimatum which drove the half-in, half-out perception that has dogged Sweeney and the team since the deadline with the decision to not move UFA-to-be Loui Eriksson and instead acquire a pair of marginal veterans in Liles and Lee Stempniak, who certainly had their moments, but were ultimately unable to make a difference when the team needed it the most. We have no choice but to take them at their word.

It does beg the question, though- if former longtime Bruins GM and President Harry Sinden is somewhere in the mix dispensing advice and serving as a consultant (his position is “senior advisor”, what exactly is he doing? Exactly what kind of role does he have? What form is his potential influence manifesting on not one but two of his player proteges- Neely and Sweeney?  Hmmm…that’s more than just one question, isn’t it?

But I won’t stop there: how much are Sweeney’s hands tied as a GM who doesn’t hold the dual title of President and GM? Meaning, he does not wield the complete autonomy that other people like Stan Bowman in Chicago, for example, do. And, that, as the Bard once said- is the rub. Who’s the one with the vision? And who truly is the one who is behind the decisions that have moved this team backwards since looking like a perennial power as recently as 2014? Plenty of questions, not a lot of definitive answers after a couple of press conferences to be honest.

So this brings us back to the present.

The seat has gotten hotter at the top, and we saw some of the frustration boil over this week in Neely’s most recent radio spot with 98.5’s Michael Felger and Tony ‘Mazz’ Massarotti. I briefly spoke to Sweeney in Grand Forks, but out of respect to him and our relationship, I won’t discuss it here other than to say that he understands where the fans are coming from. In a perfect world, he could snap his fingers and simply fix what ails his hockey club. Alas, we don’t live in that world, so he faces major challenges in trying to work trades and transactions in a league where 29 other general managers know what he needs and will try and squeeze every last asset out of Boston to make something happen.

There are reasons for optimism in the youth movement (and I didn’t even get to the notion that Julien and the B’s “failed” to develop the younger players this season- that’s a whole different can of worms and not one I wish to open today). The Bruins have some promising rising forwards such as Frank Vatrano, Danton Heinen and Austin Czarnik, all of whom saw action in the pro ranks this year, with Vatrano’s 36 goals in 36 regular season games leading the way. None of them are first-round picks, but a couple who are- Zach Senyshyn and Jake DeBrusk– showed progress in different areas this season after going 14 and 15 overall last June.  By virtue of Senyshyn’s 45 goals, DeBrusk will likely become the lightning rod for criticism given that the B’s passed on several higher-profile players to take them, but what’s done is done- none of Boston’s drafted forwards performed poorly this season, and guys like Jesse Gabrielle, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Ryan Fitzgerald, Anders Bjork and Ryan Donato all had very good years for their respective teams.

On defense, as tough as it may be for some to admit it, Colin Miller was not the key difference-making player fans were clamoring for. He’s got fine offensive tools to be sure, but his defense left a great deal to be desired and we saw that in the final NHL games and AHL postseason. He’s got some NHL potential yet as a complementary piece, and by no means am I advocating the scrapheap for him, but there was a reason the Kings were willing to part with him, Martin Jones AND a 1st-round pick for Milan Lucic. If they saw him as a stud future No. 1, Dean Lombardi never agrees to include Miller in that trade. “Chiller” has his place on this team going forward, but he didn’t do enough to earn the coach’s trust to play more and that is as much on him as it is anyone else. We can argue all day over whether he would have been a better option than Kevan Miller or if the B’s were better off just throwing him out there in the wake of committing defensive mistake after defensive mistake in the name of seeing him “grow” but that didn’t happen. What we see from him next is what matters most.

Brandon Carlo, Rob O’Gara and Matt Grzelcyk could bring some more immediate help, but with no NHL experience between them, it is probably too much to expect a major impact and move in the right direction at defense without some proven NHL talent coming to Boston this summer by trade and free agency. 2015 1st-rounder Jakub Zboril didn’t have a great season, but he’s been playing much better in the QMJHL playoffs, and the B’s appear to have dodged a major bullet when Jeremy Lauzon’s throat was cut by a skate blade, but it just missed doing crippling damage. There’s some hope in the stable of prospects for some positive contributions, but the Bruins are lacking one true, young thoroughbred on the blue line, so the solid types like these guys tend to get lost in the shuffle a bit.

Assuming the Bruins keep the 14th overall selection with the NHL’s draft lottery to happen on April 30 (don’t hold your breath for a magical top-3 scenario for the club), they still stand to get a very good player, as the non-playoff clubs are all in position to benefit from the first-round before the talent drops off. They also own San Jose’s pick, currently at 19th overall, but the Sharks upset the favored Los Angeles Kings in round one, and if they win the next round, that pick will slide lower in the round. There’s no telling if Boston will trade one of their firsts as part of a package deal for a legitimate NHL d-man before the draft, but fans need to prepare for that scenario. You have to give to get.

Ultimately, where we are with the Bruins is largely of management’s making. Former GM Peter Chiarelli limited the team’s flexibility and options, but they aren’t where they are solely because of him, either. Management has got to start talking in one voice and it wouldn’t hurt to lose some of the platitudes and speaking more plainly about accountability and a vision for the club’s future. The fans will fill the building when the team wins, but they have to believe in what the organization is doing.

Right now, we’re not sure if the ship is rudderless in a roiling sea or the man at the helm has quietly been making a more dangerous-looking course correction that will in time take us into calmer waters.

What we do know is that change must happen. This team as currently constructed is an also-ran, middle-of-the-pack at best. Sweeney showed us last June that he is capable of bold, decisive action.

What we don’t yet know is if he has the vision, evaluation ability and power to get the Boston Bruins back to the level that the fans have come to expect.

As the great Canadian band Rush sang in 1989- “Show don’t tell”

 

 

 

Requiem for the Bruins: the Podcast

Oops- I did it again.

I wrote extensively on the demise of the Boston Bruins yesterday on this space and there was a lot (even after that near 3,000-word opus) I did’t say.

So, here’s the audio companion to that post. I know, I know, I have not yet put these podcasts on iTunes. I’m a bad blogger. But, you can click on the “Podcasts” category to catch up on anything you missed.

Expounded on each of the 4 points about the B’s talent (mainly on defense), Claude Julien, management (to include ownership and thoughts on el Presidente- Cam Neely) and the B’s core, including a bit of a rant on Tuukka Rask. I’m sure that some folks won’t be happy about that, but I just call it like I see it. When Rask has played well, I’ve been sure to single him out to provide balance. But, enough is enough with the extremes.

Finally, I closed out with what needs to come next for the Bruins (in my view).  Talked a little about the defense and who they might go after in the coming weeks, including local (Milton, Mass.) product Keith Yandle, one of the top unrestricted free agents hitting the market on July 1.

1 podcast. 50 minutes. If you get through it all, more power to you, but as always- appreciate the support.

It’s going to be a long offseason, but here’s to change and doing something different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. The defense must be the offseason priority.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connolly is even more maddening.

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

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

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

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

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

3. Loui Eriksson– caveat emptor!

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

5 big Boston Bruins storylines from 2015

As we say farewell to 2015, we’ll take a look back at a turbulent year for the Boston Bruins franchise, one that saw the team miss the postseason for the first time in eight years.

With a solid 20-12-4 record and third place in the Atlantic Division heading into Friday’s Winter Classic against Montreal (just one spot and point above the B’s in the standings) Boston has a chance to start 2016 on a brighter note.

Here are five stories and an honorable mention that highlight the year the was for Boston Bruins hockey:

1.  Bruins miss playoffs, fire GM Peter Chiarelli

Just two years prior, the Boston GM’s team nearly captured a second Stanley Cup since 2011 before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks (winners in 2010, 2013 and 2015) in six games. He followed that up a year later with the top team in the 2013-14 regular season before a second-round seven-game flameout to the Montreal Canadiens. However, with his team in a salary cap mess and missing the playoffs to a tie-breaker on the final night of the 2014-15 campaign, team president Cam Neely relieved Chiarelli of his duties.

It’s an indicator of just how fickle and results-driven the professional sports business is, but personalities and power consolidation might have played a bigger role than Neely and ownership want to admit. Regardless, Chiarelli soon resigned his position in the organization and the Edmonton Oilers went all-in on him building another success story in Alberta, naming him president and general manager just a few weeks later. Chiarelli then had the benefit of watching a generational talent in Connor McDavid fall into his lap at the 2015 draft (he inherited Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask at the 2006 draft- technically before he officially assumed GM duties in Boston).

Chiarelli’s Oilers teams won both games against his old organization this year, but it took a shootout and overtime respectively to do it. This sets up a fun East-West grudge rivalry between the two teams for years as he attempts to change the Oilers’ ways from perennial doormats to legitimate hockey power.

2. Boston names Don Sweeney new GM

Neely’s old teammate and close friend was named to step into Chiarelli’s old position on May 20, 2015 after being his assistant for several years and starting out as a player development consultant from day one of the post-Mike O’Connell (and interim GM Jeff Gorton) era. To think that Sweeney got the job solely because of his connection to the team president is wholly unfair to a man who not only played more than 1,000 NHL games on the Boston blue line, but who also spent countless hours in rinks around the world scouting future talent and working to develop B’s prospects into successful pros.

Sweeney has been active and aggressive since taking the helm. His first (and perhaps most astute) move was to keep Claude Julien in the fold. Make no mistake- had Boston dismissed him behind Chiarelli, another team (Edmonton?) would have pounced quickly. Since then, Sweeney made a series of bold moves that so far, most of which, have worked out (see No. 3 below). One longtime (and very respected) NHL director of scouting I ran into Sunday night in Fort Lauderdale told me point blank that Sweeney had “balls” and that you had to give him credit from making what was sure to be (at least initially) two unpopular and risky trades without a whole lot of proven assets coming back in return. “He’s doing what he thinks is right,” the scouting director said outside a local watering hole. “We’ll see if the heat he’s getting is even warranted by the time we’re halfway through next season.”

With a hot take like that, you might be right to look up a list of chief scouts to see if anyone’s last name is Nostradamus.

There’s plenty of hockey left before we get too carried away, but if most were told the B’s would be 8 games over .500 heading into the Winter Classic, they’d have taken it.

3. 2015 draft day trades: Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton go West

“Trader Don” did not waste much time in making several aggressive, even shocking moves to shed salary and re-work the Bruins roster to fit his vision.

Initial reaction to the decision to trade Dougie Hamilton, with news breaking in the early Friday afternoon before the draft’s first round, was not positive. Beyond the shock of finding out that the new GM had just dealt a 22-year-old and the last piece of the Phil Kessel trade return from Toronto was one thing, but that the B’s got three draft picks from Calgary- their first and two (of three) second-rounders all in 2015- was even more stunning. The team had just opened up a sizable hole on its blue line, which had been exposed in the spring when Boston failed to earn a playoff berth, and in return- the team was placing its hopes on future assets, none of whom had a chance to fill the void of Hamilton’s departure.

Before fans could come out of the daze, more rumors swirled, this time less surprising but nevertheless polarizing when it looked like Sweeney was on the verge of trading fan favorite Milan Lucic to Los Angeles.  On its face- it made sense. Sweeney was trying to rework Boston’s dire cap situation- created by his former boss- and with Lucic entering the last year of a contract that already paid him $6 million, the writing was on the wall that the B’s couldn’t afford to extend him, nor did many feel his play warranted it. This time, Sweeney landed more immediate assets from the Kings- backup goaltender Martin Jones and prized defense prospect Colin Miller, coming off a 19-goal season in the AHL which culminated in a championship. These two players were topped with LA’s first pick- one spot before Boston’s own 14th overall position, giving them picks 13-15. The rest is, as they say, history.

However- there are reports that the Bruins acquired the many assets as currency to move up in the draft to the top-five in order to grab Boston College star and Norwood, Mass. native Noah Hanifin. It didn’t work out, but if in fact that was Sweeney’s vision, the decision to trade Hamilton for what he received in return makes perfect sense. In dealing Hamilton but drafting Hanifin (say that three times- real fast), Sweeney could have spun moving his young defender to the Flames as an eventual upgrade with a marketable asset like Hanifin, viewed by most scouts (including this one) as a future franchise cornerstone and legitimate 2-way defenseman. Hamilton has proven he can generate offense, but his defensive zone play has always been and continues to be an adventure with his new team. Hanifin, who is already in the NHL at 18 with Carolina, is breaking in slowly, but you can see that he’s growing and maturing. It won’t be long until he and Justin Faulk are forming as formidable a 1-2 punch at the position as any in the league.

Sweeney didn’t just stop wheeling and dealing at the draft, though.

He then traded Jones, who was unsigned and not going to be happy sitting behind Tuukka Rask after previously backing up Jonathan Quick, to San Jose for their first-rounder in 2016 plus defensive center prospect Sean Kuraly, captain of the Miami University RedHawks (a 2011 fifth-round pick of the Sharks).

Sweeney added Zac Rinaldo from Philly for a 2017 third-rounder, then made another move by sending Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract to South Florida for Jimmy Hayes.

Those transactions didn’t match the surprise or impact that dealing Hamilton and Lucic did, but so far, they haven’t blown up in Sweeney’s face, either.

Signing veteran farmhand D Matt Irwin was a poor move, but picking up Landon Ferraro off of waivers from Detroit was another solid add for Sweeney and his pro scouts. When you add pieces like Frank Vatrano and Austin Czarnik, signed as undrafted college free agents under the Chiarelli regime, there is hope for the future.

The question that dogs Sweeney now is- how can he find a way to add that heir apparent and future No. 1 to replace Zdeno Chara? When at first you don’t succeed as was the case with Hanifin, then try, try again. It’s much easier said than done, however, and might take a bit of luck.

4. Claude Julien enters ninth season behind B’s bench, in range of coaching record

Boston’s longest-tenured coach since Art Ross stands to break the hockey icon’s franchise record, which has stood since the end of World War II. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun has an excellent article on Julien and the idea (I agree with it) that he’s a legitimate Jack Adams Award candidate because of what he’s doing with Boston’s roster amidst all the off-season turmoil and expectations. Go here and read it.  It’s a detailed piece replete with sources and I think it effectively captures the essence of Julien’s legacy in Boston and why an active movement to oust him without a clear solution in place borders on the absurd. Here’s an excerpt from LeBrun’s article:

The Bruins’ season ended in April, Don Sweeney was named general manager on May 20, and Julien had to wait until June 5 for an announcement that he would return as coach.

Bruins star Patrice Bergeron remembers chatting with Sweeney last summer, but the head coach wasn’t a topic of conversation.

“I think he knew what I thought of Claude anyway, that I love playing for him and I’ve learned so much from him,” Bergeron said Tuesday night. “So he didn’t need to ask me the question. I think he just needed time to figure out things is all.”

Julien is the best Bruins coach in my lifetime, and although doesn’t have the longevity of Ross because the NHL played far fewer games when he coached as opposed to now, will deserve his spot on top of the franchise’s coaching list. Not convinced? More from Bergeron:

“He always finds a way to get the best out of each player, it’s really his strong suit to recognize if the team lacks confidence, or has too much confidence, up and down, he has a good pulse for the feeling out of the dressing room,” said Bergeron. “And he’s really fair. It’s easy to play for a coach like that. You want to give him all you’ve got.”

Julien gets criticism for his personnel decisions, and no amount of success is going to bring everyone completely on board because of that. In the minds of some- even if he wins with certain veterans, the fact that he’s not icing a more skilled group will keep the critics supplied with fresh gripes. Having said that, he’s 17 career wins from passing Ross and has managed to keep his players loyal and playing hard for him. With a club that had major questions surrounding it entering the season, you’d need a pretty enticing option in place to supplant Julien for such a move to make sense.

5. Bruins host 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium vs. Canadiens

In 2010, the B’s needed overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers at frozen Fenway Park in a memorable first foray in the NHL’s annual New Year’s Day outdoor game tradition. This time, they host their hated rival from the north- the Montreal Canadiens- and go south to Foxboro and the home of the New England Patriots to do it.

There’s plenty of information out there on the game, which has become quite the spectacle since the NHL introduced it more than a decade ago, so I won’t rehash it all here. Three of my friends and colleagues- ESPN’s Joe McDonald, DJ Bean of WEEI and Joe Haggerty of CSNNE are a trio to follow for fine coverage. Be sure to hook on with Brian “Rear Admiral” McGonagle of Barstool Sports, too- he’s a good egg with a large following who blends hockey and pop culture like no one else I know. Finally, the writers at the Boston dailies are all fine people who will give you the ins and outs, starting with the alumni and women’s pro hockey games tomorrow.

 HM: 10 picks re-stock the organizational cupboard

The team entered draft weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with two picks in the first two rounds, and by the time Sweeney & Co. walked into the BB&T Center for Friday’s primetime event, those selections had swelled to six in exchange for Lucic and Hamilton.

Boston was high on Czech defender Jakub Zboril, so when their reported attempts to move up for top-rated D Hanifin proved unsuccessful, he was in that second tier of defenders and made sense at 13th overall. On the plus side, Zboril has size and is highly talented with skating, passing and shooting skills galore. He’s also got some real nasty to his game and he plays with a physical edge. He is inconsistent with his effort and intensity, however- that is something the Bruins will watch closely.

Jake DeBrusk was the team’s second pick at 14th overall and began to raise eyebrows when the B’s did not opt for either of smallish but uber-skilled and fast playmaking center Mathew Barzal or USHL leading scorer Kyle Connor. DeBrusk, who scored 42 goals for the Swift Current Broncos a year ago and was just traded to the Red Deer Rebels as they gear up for the 2016 Memorial Cup, has a natural nose for the net and can score goals by the bushel. The left wing is not a dynamic game-breaker like Barzal, but the B’s wanted a finisher and they got one. The son of former NHL enforcer Louie DeBrusk is a completely different player than his dad was, but is a keeper.

The sharp criticism Boston drew in taking Soo Greyhounds right wing Zach Senyshyn has been much more muted this season, as he has scored 22 goals in his first 33 games of the OHL season. With his impressive NHL tools- a 6-2 frame, fast wheels, superb puck skills and finishing ability, there is much to like about this fledgling power forward. He’s still raw and addressing consistency in his game (more on that in a future blog post), but after getting ridiculed in trading Hamilton for the pick that became Senyshyn, you’re not hearing that as much in pundit circles these days, especially with how shaky Hamilton’s start in Calgary was. This is a trade that in time analysts will say both teams won, but the Flames are getting the more immediate returns.

Big shutdown defender Brandon Carlo came next at 37, acquired with Philadelphia’s pick (obtained from the Islanders in the much-criticized Johnny Boychuk deal on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign). At 6-5, he’s massive, but his long arms give him an even bigger reach than other guys his size. He’s a fluid, mobile skater for one so big, and we’ve seen it in the WJC, as he pretty much shuts down players who try to get to the net on his side of the ice either by using his long stick and strength to block a straight net drive or his quickness to deny opponents room on the outside. He’s as good a shutdown player as you will find in the prospect ranks, but his offensive potential at the NHL level is a question mark at this stage. He scored his first goal of the tourney today against Switzerland in USA’s 10-1 drubbing, so there’s much to like about this player.

Swedish center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, acquired with the second of three Flames picks for Hamilton at 45 overall (the same draft spot that the B’s got Bergeron at in 2003, btw) is surging up the prospect rankings with a superb freshman season at Boston University. ‘JFK’ is smooth, poised and intelligent- he doesn’t push the pace a lot, but is creative and slick- he uses his vision and deft stick to set up quality scoring chances and can find the back of the net, too. He’s very good at the faceoff dot and has surprised many with his poise and maturity for one so young. He’s playing well for Sweden at the WJC.

The B’s also grabbed Quebec defender Jeremy Lauzon with the last of Calgary’s picks at 52nd overall in the second round. The big, rugged and skilled two-way guy was one of Canada’s last WJC cuts and has impressed with a career offensive season while logging upwards of about 30 minutes for Rouyn-Noranda.He doesn’t quite have the flash and polish of higher-regarded blue line prospects, nor does he possess the early draft pedigree of  others, but he’s a perfect blend between the offensive skill of Zboril and defensive prowess Carlo.

With six picks in the books, the B’s could have called it a successful two days, but they landed two more particularly intriguing players with some boom potential down the road.

Huge Czech goalie Daniel Vladar went off the board to them in the mid-third round. At 6-5, he has outstanding size and quickness, and looks like someone who could one day evolve into a legitimate NHL goalie. On the downside, he’s raw and seems to guess at where shots are coming from rather than effectively tracking the puck or reading the unfolding play. There’s no pressure on him to succeed right away, so like Zane McIntyre, the B’s can afford to put him on the long track and take their time.

WHL agitator Jesse Gabrielle looks like fantastic value in the fourth round. A Bruins fan growing up in his native Saskatchewan, he played some Minnesota high school hockey before major junior and likens his playing style to idol Brad Marchand. He’s not quite as blazing fast, but is plenty quick enough. Gabrielle is bigger, stronger and perhaps meaner than Marchand is. He’s well on pace to shattering his previous career bests with his third Dub team- Prince George- after Regina traded him over the summer. He needs to stay focused and make sure the hockey comes first, but this is certainly a player with legitimate NHL potential if he keeps maturing and growing.

Boston rounded out the draft (after trading their 5th-round selection to Minnesota for the Wild’s 5th in 2016) with Wisconsin center Cameron Hughes- a smallish but offensively talented pivot who toils on a struggling club. They took raw but developing Minnesota forward Jack Becker with their final pick in the seventh round.

While none of the ten picks immediately jump out on paper as having elite high-end potential, the initial returns look promising with more than a few who have a chance to one day make the Boston roster and contribute. There’s much work left, but in a deep draft, the B’s appear to have added some quality depth with a few players like Senyshyn, Lauzon, JFK and Gabrielle in particular- who might one day far exceed their draft positions and perform better than players drafted ahead of them.

Only time will tell.

 

 

 

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