Thursday Flashback: My 1st David Pastrnak feature- Feb 2015

David_Pastrnak

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

If you’re a Bruins fan, then it’s likely you’re indulging on a steady diet of Pasta.

Even if you’re cutting the carbs, is there anyone to be more excited about these days than David Pastrnak? With 17 goals in his first 18 games in 2018-19, we haven’t seen scoring this fierce in Boston since Cam Neely’s 50 goals in 44 games way back when yours truly was a senior in college during the 1993-94 season.

I was in Boston in January 2015 on the night then-GM Peter Chiarelli announced that the B’s would keep the Czech wunderkind in the NHL (thereby burning the 1st year of his ELC), and was lucky enough to sit down with him a day later to do the February 2015 New England Hockey Journal feature for that month.

Even back then, you just knew he was going to be special- he was humble, self-deprecating, and extremely hard-working, with Torey Krug pointing out that the 18-year-old was the first player on the ice at practice and the last one off. I still owe Eric Tosi (now with the Vegas Golden Knights) a debt of gratitude for not kicking me out of the B’s dressing room when he came in after most every other player had left. “Tos” hooked a brother up, and this remains one of my most favorite pieces written in 17 years covering the Bruins for the NEHJ.

Here it is- enjoy the journey back a little less than 4 years ago. He’s smashed expectations and to me- he’s the modern 21st century version of Rick Middleton.

Enjoy!- KL

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Pasta! Rookie sensation makes a big splash in the Bay State

By Kirk Luedeke

(Originally published in New England Hockey Journal, Feb. 2015)

David Pastrnak’s pro hockey journey has only just begun.

It started out with bus rides to a small rink in a small, blue collar European city, followed by two years in Sweden before the young prodigy with the infectious smile and a world of potential arrived in Boston last fall. The 18-year-old Czech Republic native has energized the Bruins with his mix of talent and unbridled passion for the game.

He’s a rare find in the modern era of the NHL: a teenager who is immediately ready to contribute, yet somehow managed to slip past the decision-making cycles of those early-drafting teams who could have benefited from his services and maturity the most. Instead, the Bruins landed Pastrnak in the bottom five selections of last June’s NHL Entry Draft and in just eight months since, he’s managed carve out a niche with the big club.

On Jan. 15, Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli announced that the kid everyone expected would be in Sweden playing pro hockey is staying in Boston beyond the 10-game window that will toll the first of a three-year Entry-Level Contract signed last July.

“Right now I’m going to be with the team but I just need to keep working hard,” said Pastrnak. “I try to play my best and don’t think about anything else, just try to do all for the team and just play hockey.”

For anyone who saw Pastrnak’s electrifying play in a two-game stretch where he potted four goals, the decision to keep him up was a no-brainer. The B’s now have an opportunity to develop their young prize while also getting some immediate bang for the proverbial buck.

“He’s been a real pleasant surprise in terms of his coachability and willingness to learn the other things that successful NHL players can do,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said recently. “We’re encouraging him to round out his game while still maintaining that 1-on-1 skill that he brings, but we need to have a little patience to see him get stronger. “

Although the 6-foot, 172-pound right wing is sure to face a season of peaks and valleys as he adjusts to the daily grind of the NHL, legions of Bruins fans clamoring for more skill in the Boston lineup have quickly embraced his electrifying style of play and obvious speed and puck skills as a man dying of thirst would take to an oasis in the desert.

The speedy Pastrnak has been forced to grow up fast in the face of personal tragedy. His own back story and the rapidity with which he’s emerged as the NHL’s youngest gun speaks to a remarkable talent, character and maturity that belies his youth.

Born and raised in the Czech Republic city of Havirov, Pastrnak grew up around the game. He said that his father, a former professional hockey player in their native country who also spent a couple of seasons in Germany, put him on skates for the first time at age two-and-a-half. By age three, he was playing competitive hockey.

But if Pastrnak’s love of the game today shines through in much of what he says and how he carries himself on and off the ice, he didn’t necessarily start out as a fanatical devotee of the sport.

“My mom told me that sometimes I didn’t want to go to practice so she (would) just leave me (at home),” Pastrnak said. “My parents were never like, ‘ you have to go practice’ they always asked me: ‘do I want to go practice?’ and I said yes or no, but if I said no, I stayed home. I think that’s an important thing too, because right now some parents are just pushing their children to play hockey all the time and that’s maybe how they stop liking it, you know?”

Pastrnak wanted to be a goalie when he first started playing, but the cost of equipment and his own father’s influence as a forward changed his mind pretty quickly in his early minor hockey days in Havirov.

Built as a coal-mining town after the Second World War, the city’s some 77,000 inhabitants work hard for all they have. With just one hockey rink in town and a single professional team (AZ Havirov) that plays a rung below the Czech Republic’s top league, it’s not surprising that those humble roots and beginning for Pastrnak have allowed him to identify with a lot of what Boston stands for and certainly a lot of the die-hard fans who come out to cheer on their Bruins.

“I live on the beginning of main-street going through the whole city and at the end of the street is (the only) hockey rink,” said Pastrnak. “I always went there on the usual bus with all the people because we didn’t have a car. It’s a small town and the only sport in Havirov is probably hockey, so we have a really good crowd and fans there.”

He began his hockey developmental path in his native Havirov, rising through the pro club’s corresponding minor system until age 16, when his father and family encouraged him to make the big step of leaving home for a higher level of competition in Sweden.

In 2012, he landed in Södertälje, an industrial city about 20 miles to the southwest of the Swedish capital Stockholm. Pastrnak’s new locale was known for being the headquarters and manufacturing base fro the Scania AB truck company as well as former tennis great Björn Borg’s hometown.

It was difficult for Pastrnak to leave when he did because his dad was battling cancer at the time. On the one hand, the teenager knew going to Sweden meant he would have a much better chance of landing on the NHL’s radar, but on the other, he didn’t know just how much time Milan Pastrnak had left. Unfortunately for David and the rest of his family, his dad lost the fight against the illness in May, 2013.

That personal loss saw the younger Pastrnak emerge as a force the following season, his draft year, opening eyes with his play with Södertälje’s top pro club, competing in Sweden’s Allsvenskan or second division. It was then that he dedicated every goal, every point to his father’s memory- beginning a personal practice of kissing his hand and pointing to the sky when he found the back of the net. As the calendar flipped over to 2014, Pastrnak had made the Czech Republic World Junior Championship team and was cruising to be selected in the June entry draft’s first round.

“At that time it was easy because my dad and my mom and everybody told me to just go there because it’s the best for you and just improve,” he said of leaving home. “It doesn’t matter how old I was –it was an important move and I don’t think I would be here if I didn’t go to Sweden.”

Riding the wave of a strong performance in the storied Under-20 tournament at the tender age of 17, Pastrnak soon took a big hit that knocked him out of the lineup for several months with a concussion. Although he was able to make it back to be a part of the Czech Republic’s silver medal-winning entry at the 2014 World Under-18 Championship in April, he wasn’t himself.

The lack of playing time in a stretch of about 80 days, a key period when NHL scouts are solidifying their views, and the mediocre performance in the event that left teams with their last impression of him didn’t help his case. More than one talent evaluator has said since that the missed games and subpar U18 showing factored into his draft day slide being projected as a top-15 pick entering the season.

Of course, there are positive stories of Pastrnak at this time, too. He arrived in Toronto for the NHL’s annual pre-draft combine, but the airline lost his bags, so he had to borrow clothes from fellow Czech and good friend Petr Vrana for his initial interviews. He took it all in stride, exhibiting none of the nervousness one would expect and made a positive impression on the teams he interviewed with.

Boston was one team in particular that was sold on his potential and attitude. Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli spoke openly on the draft floor in Philadelphia after the team snagged Pastrnak with the 25th overall selection that the team tried to move up from that spot to get him. That attempt was unsuccessful, yet the B’s still got their man, and with hindsight being 20/20, they’re real glad they did.

Management wasted little time in getting Pastrnak signed to a three-year deal after he shined at their July prospects development camp, and made it clear to him that with some work, there was a pathway to the NHL as soon as the upcoming season.

“Since I’ve been drafted I just try to do the best what I can to show they picked the right player,” he said after a recent game in Boston. “And (it’s) just kind of motivation to show everybody, even the 24 teams in front of (Boston) which picked another guy, so it’s kind of motivating to work hard and show the mistake to everybody.”

A shoulder injury suffered in early training camp sessions prevented the team and its fans from getting an extended look at Pastrnak in the preseason, but he immediately established himself in Providence.

“It’s his foot speed, ability to make plays, putting defenses on their heels and second effort on the puck,” Providence Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said when asked about the things Pastrnak did in the AHL that will keep him in Boston. “He plays better away from the puck than when he got there in training camp. There’s guys who come down here and they take it to heart what you tell them and there’s other players who are like, ‘when I get (to Boston) I’m an offensive guy,’ and they don’t get it- there’s a Bruins way and that’s just the way it is.”

Growing up, Pastrnak idolized current Boston linemate David Krejci, 10 years his senior. With the announcement that the B’s were keeping the rookie beyond the audition window, Krejci commented about his new “Czech buddy,” a line rounded out by hulking left wing Milan Lucic, whose heavy game own Serbian roots make him a welcome part of the trio.

“It’s not set in stone that we’re going to play together for the rest of the year, but for now the last couple of games have been pretty strong games, so as long as we keep working on things in practices and working hard in games there’s a pretty good chance we’ll stick together,” Krejci said.

Beyond the obvious natural ability and gifted hands, Pastrnak’s intelligence and willingness to learn and improve his overall game have not only resonated with the coaching staff, but with the players in both Providence and Boston as well.

“He’s got all the talent in the world and I think that energizes this team when a guy like him comes in and he’s always smiling, he’s always have fun and he’s always looking to get better,” Boston defenseman Torey Krug said after a team practice. “I think he’s still on the ice right now- he’s always the last one off the ice and I think that’s what makes the young players that stick…that’s what makes them special.”

He put up more than a point-per-game scoring clip in Providence to begin the season, earning an initial five-game stint in Boston near the end of November (1 assist). However, Pastrnak’s coming out party came in a two-goals each outburst against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay in back-to-back games last month. Even if he might not be a consistent presence on the scoresheet night in and night out, Pastrnak certainly showed why the B’s were so high on him after the draft.

“He’s definitely a great player,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said after Pastrnak’s ninth game, the win over the Rangers. “We all want him here and I think the decision that was made was pretty unanimous. As a coach, I want him on my team.”

Boston veterans like Patrice Bergeron, who was exactly where Pastrnak is some 12-plus seasons ago when he made the Bruins as an 18-year-old rookie, are happy for the youngster’s success and what he’s bringing to the team dynamic.

“I’m really happy for him and it’s well deserved,” said Bergeron. “Like I said before, he’s one of these kids that wants to learn, he wants to get better. He’s excited and happy to be here and I think we’re seeing a shell of what he can be and that’s something very special and we’re all here to help him and teach him the way I guess, but so far he’s been great and doesn’t need much help.”

The young boy who rode that bus down Havirov’s main street so many times is now a Boston Bruin, but the smile that could power the TD Garden jumbotron and his natural exuberance is very much ingrained in the fabric of who Pastrnak is as a player and person.

As he continues to grow and develop into the player his father always knew he would be, that natural love of the sport Milan Pastrnak helped foster in David will allow him to carve out his own legacy in Boston, one his dad would be proud of.

“I was there one day (being new to the NHL) and I was having a lot of fun, and I know he’s having a lot of fun,” Krug said. “He can help our team win right now and that’s why he’s here. That’s the biggest thing.”

Sunday Flashback: 2013 B’s-Pens playoff column “Sweep dreams will end the Steel City nightmare”

An old friend recently reminded me of a column I wrote in 2013, after the Boston Bruins had taken a 3-0 series lead over Sidney Crosby and the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference final (you remember- the guys who were anointed Stanley Cup champs when they scooped Boston on Jarome Iginla at the trade deadline?) Alas, the B’s were unable to close the deal against the Chicago Blackhawks, who earned their second of three rings between 2010-15 against the Black & Gold, but he asked me to dig the piece up and so here it is- in its raw and unedited glory prior to being posted on HockeyJournal.com.

All of my old work at NE Hockey Journal that was not in the printed issues is gone forever from the Internet, as no archive exists given the different format changes the website went through over the years since I started covering the Bruins there in the summer of 2000. All I have left are the files on my computer and so, on occasion, I’ll bring out the dead and we can take some trips in the Wayback Machine to save you any time otherwise wasted with a Google search- the old stuff no longer exists online.

Enjoy the column…in the 5 years hence, the Penguins have fared certainly better than the Bruins, with a pair of championships in 2016-17, but I have to admit- this one was a ton of fun to write. -KL

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Sweep dreams will end the Steel City nightmare (June 7, 2013- HockeyJournal.com)

For some reason, one particular ‘s’ word has somehow evolved to be on par with the one goalies don’t want you using before the shutout is actually in the books.

But say the word ‘sweep’ when your team is up 3 games to none, and everyone starts to get that queasy feeling in the pit of their stomach. In Boston, it’s understandable, given that we are just three years removed from a historic collapse against another team from the Keystone State after building a commanding series lead.

This column is not for the superstitious (another s-word since we’re on the subject), so if you’re one of those types, then you probably should stop reading now. However, if you’ve got an iron constitution and will in line with Gregory Campbell, or don’t take yourself (or sports) too seriously, then forge ahead.

On Friday, the Boston Bruins will sweep the Pittsburgh Penguins to take their place in the Stanley Cup final series for the second time in three years.

There it is. Carve it in stone or put it up in lights…it’s happening, folks.

Just as the B’s exorcised the demons of their agonizing 2010 seven-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers in style with a sweep of their own just one year later, Boston can revisit history on Friday at the TD Garden. That was important, because it put an exclamation point on the Olde Towne’s first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years. That 2011 Cup victory was a euphoric rush for the Bruins and their fans, but does anyone deny that crushing the Flyers on the way to the summit of hockey supremacy made it all the sweeter?

Two years later, the Bruins have stunned the mighty (and heavily favored) Pittsburgh Penguins in capturing the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final series. This opportunistic, lunchpail group of Black and Gold-diggers have laughed in the face of the vaunted Steel City juggernaut thanks in large part to goaltender Tuukka Rask’s otherworldly performance in net and gritty production from stars like Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Nathan Horton.

In short, the B’s have taken everything the Penguins have thrown at them and then counterpunched to the tune of an 11-2 drubbing on the scoreboard. In those three games (and almost two extra periods), the front line skaters like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Jarome Iginla, and Kris Letang have combined for a grand total of no points between them.

It’s as if Dean Vernon “Zero Point Zero” Wormer were staring down Bluto Blutarsky as we speak.

The Bruins will sweep because even if they decisively won the first two games on the road in Pittsburgh by a combined 9-1 score, the Penguins showed some remarkable pluck by battling back in Game 3 to give the B’s all they could handle.

Aside from a Krejci puck off Matt Niskanen’s skate that got behind Tomas Vokoun at the 1:42 mark, the Penguins netminder was near flawless. Until Bergeron took a Marchand feed (thanks to a play along the boards by veteran Bruins forward Jaromir Jagr that would have made Peter Pan’s pirate nemesis proud) and put a dagger in the hearts of the Pittsburgh hopeful just after midnight in Boston.

By all rights, the Penguins should have won. But the hockey gods…ye gods…frowned on Crosby and Co., allowing the Bruins to hand flightless fowl a soul-crushing loss.

And so- the B’s are in position to not only sweep the Penguins, but to put the screws to one team that has been every bit the villain of any in the Boston franchise’s history.

Back in 1991, it wasn’t Crosby, but Mario Lemieux who led his Penguins back from a 0-2 deficit in the Wales Conference championship series. That club, complete with a 19-year-old rookie wunderkind in Jagr, smacked the B’s down in six games en route to easily handling the Minnesota North Stars for the first of two consecutive Stanley Cups. It was Ulf Samuelsson, however, who’s dirty hit on Boston legend Cam Neely hastened the end of No. 8’s Hall of Fame career.

A year later, the Bruins got a rematch in the Wales final, but without Neely (still suffering the after effects of the Samuelsson low blow), the high-flying Penguins blew Boston out of the water in a sweep. The series was punctuated by a highlight reel goal of Lemieux turning Ray Bourque inside-out, outside-in on the way to a back-breaking goal.

It has been 21 long years since the two teams met in the playoffs, but for many Boston fans, the Pens are still a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Matt Cooke’s blindside hit on Marc Savard in 2010 is only the tip of the iceberg, but the incident served as a flashpoint to escalate the rivalry between the teams.

Many cannot ignore the fact Pittsburgh not only landed a franchise player in Malkin in 2004, but also struck gold with the top lottery pick in the cancelled season a year later, essentially handed another hockey king in Crosby. Some won’t forget that when Ray Shero was on the verge of becoming the GM of the Boston Bruins in 2006, he opted for a more promising situation in Pittsburgh at the last minute.

If hell hath no fury like a Bruins fan scorned, then Iginla is the newest Boston target. In a much-publicized aborted trade fiasco, Iginla, the Calgary Flames and Penguins humiliated Peter Chiarelli and the Bruins. In what everyone but Iginla thought was a done deal, the Calgary captain instead elected to lift his no-trade for the Steel City only, leaving the Bruins holding the bag.

If you know the ever-simmering cauldron of intensity that is one Cameron Michael Neely, then you know that the way Pittsburgh embarrassed Boston by scooping Iginla and seeing the B’s snubbed so publicly must have re-ignited his burning desire to pay them back one hundredfold. So far, his team is doing just that.

Even if Iginla is proving that the best trades are sometimes the ones you don’t make, the smugness with which the Penguins and their fans swooped in to exult in the bitterness of Boston’s disappointment cemented that team’s status as Public Enemy No. 1.

If having a villain to focus your angst and anger is a cathartic, then consider the Penguins the therapist you have on speed dial.

The Bruins are in position to sweep away the nightmares of two crushing playoff defeats more than two decades ago. They’re poised to erase the visceral disgust of having lost so many prime years of Neely’s playing career to one of the dirtiest and unaccountable players in history.  They’re on the verge of gaining the ultimate revenge against all of the real and perceived slights that have accompanied one of the most heralded teams on paper in quite a few years.

They say revenge is sweet.

Or is it sweep?

It’s not over yet, but the best thing the Bruins can do is close the deal in Game 4 and put the bitterness behind them once and for all.

(As a bonus- Here’s the brilliant HNIC opening for Game 3 after the B’s won both games in Pittsburgh to Radiohead’s classic “Karma Police” with some amazing juxtaposition of imagery & lyrics)

 

On Rick Middleton’s No. 16 going to the rafters

81-82 Rick Middleton Home Sandow Mesh 004

The Boston Bruins announced Tuesday that Richard D. Middleton aka Rick Middleton aka ‘Nifty’ the right wing who starred for the team from 1976-88, will have his number 16 retired in a game later this November (29th- vs the NY Islanders). The longtime New Hampshire resident and Bruins Alumni fixture is deeply touched by the gesture, which comes three decades after he skated off into the sunset (more on that later).

The former Oshawa Generals star broke into the NHL with the NY Rangers, who selected him in the 1st round, 14th overall, in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft. Middleton was also picked by the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the rival WHA that same year, going in the second round, 21st overall.

The trade is right up there with Cam Neely as one of former Bruins GM Harry Sinden’s best heists, sending the over-the-hill Ken Hodge to Broadway for the 22-year-old, who put up 90 points in two seasons with the Rangers. The catalyst for the deal was believed to be Phil Esposito, who was dealt to the Rangers the season before in a blockbuster, which sent Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to the B’s. Espo wanted his old (no pun intended) reliable right wing back, and Middleton was rumored to be a bit of a wild card off the ice…his -38 in 1975-76 certainly didn’t help.

So, Middleton headed off the Boston and after a couple of solid, if unspectacular years (by the standards of the 1970’s), he took off, posting 38, 40, 44, and 51-goal seasons from 1978-82. He peaked in 1984 with a 47-goal, 105-point year (finishing second to Barry Pederson’s 116 points) but the Boston offensive juggernaut was silenced in the opening round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens and Steve Penney, who sent them out with a whimper in 3 games (no points for Nifty). The year before, Middleton had posted a playoff season for the ages (33 points in 17 games), leading the Bruins past two rounds of the playoffs including the memorable 7-game affair against Buffalo where he registered a team-record (for one series) 19 points. Unfortunately, the B’s ran into the NY Islanders dynasty in the spring of 1983. Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith & Company dispatched them from the Wales Conference final in a series that never seemed that close, en route to a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, leaving so many B’s fans to wonder…what if?

Middleton’s production steadily declined after that career 105-point campaign, due in part to age and injury, but he did preside over the historic defeat of the Montreal Canadiens in 1988, a first for any Bruins team since 1943. Middleton’s breakaway game-winner in Game 3 (2-0), to put the B’s up 2-1 in the series after splitting the games in Montreal was a fitting coda for a man who had been a part of so many heart-breaking losses to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge during his entire Bruins tenure. He split the captaincy with Ray Bourque that year, wearing the ‘C’ for home games, until his retirement after the B’s were swept by Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers (their 4th NHL title since 1984) giving way to Bourque’s sole leadership from 1988 until his trade to Colorado in the spring of 2000.

As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, Nifty was an ubiquitous presence in my budding love of hockey and the Bruins. Although not a pure burner, his golden locks (later shiny pate as his hair thinned and ultimately gave way to a Jofa helmet late in his career) looked like they were on fire as he would bob and weave through the neutral and offensive zones, often putting on a display of stickhandling prowess at impossible angles and contortions, ending with pucks in the back of the net or sublime back-door feeds for gift-wrapped tap-ins for his lucky linemates. The Mike Krushelnyski-Pederson-Middleton line racked up 111 goals in 1983-84…a number that seems awe-inspiring some 35 years later.

Although Middleton’s scoring numbers paled in comparison to Gretzky’s (The Great One scored 100 more points than Middleton’s 105 in 83-84 just for perspective), or Mario Lemieux or Bossy to name a few, he was a veritable King Midas for the B’s, creating magic from the mundane and turning pucks into goals. But don’t take my word for it- Channel 38 once paid tribute to him with a highlight reel video now on YouTube to America’s “You Can Do Magic” and I had it recorded on VHS and must’ve watched it 1000 times…

Ignored by the Hockey Hall of Fame, 30 years after he retired, taking his number out of circulation is a welcome move for those who watched him (and maybe a good percentage of fans who didn’t, but who appreciate history). Sure- there are some who may be opposed to the honor (it is the 11th so number retired by the B’s) but that’s just a curmudgeonly nature of New Englanders at work- deep down, even the grumblers get it. After all- we’ve seen Peter Douris, Jozef Stumpel, Randy Robitaille, Ken Belanger, Marco Sturm and most recently, Kaspars Daugavins (in 2012-13), wear the digits in the intervening years. None hold the distinction and cachet Middleton did, and in the end- it’s just a number. It’s time to admit that he wore it well…better than anyone in the Black and Gold. As his 402 goals as a Bruin can attest, he could finish plays off just as easily as he set the table, and was the heir to Espo as the next pure scoring forward to put on the spoked B.

If the Bruins can take the time to honor for a player who grew up and matured in Boston as a model of consistency and was the face of the franchise at least up front for the better part of a decade, then why not?

It’s about time.

 

Dominic Tiano: What’s Next For the Bruins (Pt. 12)- Front Office & Coaching

We all know Boston Bruins President Cam Neely and General Manager Don Sweeney have decisions to make, some of them tough ones, when it comes to players. But what decisions are there to be made in the front office or behind the bench, if any?

Let’s begin with the position of Director of Amateur Scouting, a position that has been vacant since Keith Gretzky departed to join former Bruins’ General Manager Peter Chiarelli with the Edmonton Oilers as an Assistant General Manager. Assistant General Manager Scott Bradley has been filling the role and will run the 2017 NHL Draft for the Bruins.

A decision must be made whether to keep Bradly in the duo role or focus more on one position or the other. If the Bruins brass decides to keep the two positions separate, they could look outside the organization to fill the role, much like Chiarelli did when he brought Gretzky to Boston.

They could also promote someone from within, and there are a couple of very good possibilities currently scouting for the Bruins.

Dean Malkoc has been through ten drafts with the Bruins and has scouted Western Canada, but has done more cross-over scouting recently. Ryan Nadeau is about to enter his 15th season with the Bruins. He has served as Director of Hockey Operations/Analytics for the past three seasons while also scouring the NCAA as a scout. The Bruins have done well drafting from the NCAA the past few seasons and Nadeau deserves some credit.

With the interim tag being removed from coach Bruce “Butch” Cassidy, the head coaching job is filled. As an assistant under Claude Julien when he was dismissed by Sweeney during the season, could/should the Bruins be looking for another assistant now to serve under Cassidy?

Joe Sacco and Jay Pandolfo serve as assistants. Bob Essensa is the goaltending coach, but spent a lot of time watching from upstairs once the coaching change was made. It’s not known yet who may become available that has a professional resume under his belt, or if one will even become available.

The Bruins could also look at the minor-league level, juniors or the NCAA for coaching talent.

Allow me to throw a name into the circle if I may, he’s a long shot, but a very capable coach. Rocky Thompson, head coach of the Windsor Spitfires, who are currently competing for the Memorial Cup.

Thompson began his coaching career with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League. He would become an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League and in 2014, spend a season as an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oilers. Last season, he returned to junior hockey and was named head coach of the Spitfires.

If you know me, then you know one area of concern I’ve had for the Bruins for some time now is the professional scouting department. The group is made up of Matt Lindblad, Adam Creighton, Tom McVie and Dennis Bonvie.

Creighton and McVie are the elders of the group, having been with the Bruins for 16 and 23 years respectively. There really isn’t enough of a sample size to judge Lindblad, added a year ago, and Bonvie, added two years ago. But this is one area I feel Neely and Sweeney must address this off season.

 

Dominic Tiano: What’s Next for the Bruins (Part 4)

So, here I am with another post with my 3 Amigos colleagues Kirk Luedeke (the founder of TSP) and Reed Duthie. If you missed the previous posts, look back not too far and you will find them. I hope (I’m sure) you will find them informative.

Decisions, decisions, decisions: That’s what is facing Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney, President Cam Neely and the brain trust of your Boston Bruins. The most critical decision dropped this week when the interim tag was removed from coach Bruce Cassidy. It was crucial for this to be done as early as possible because, despite being two months away from the expansion draft and the entry draft, some key decisions are going to have to be made by mid-June as to which players receive qualifying offers and contracts, and who moves on, potential buyouts and buried contracts.

This is what we’ll focus on today.

Continue reading

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.