Dominic Tiano: Grading the Bruins D

Dominic Tiano is back with his assessment of how the Boston Bruins defense has played through one quarter of the 2021 NHL season. Enjoy!- KL

When Torey Krug signed with the St Louis Blues and Zdeno Chara ultimately decided to sign with the Washington Capitals, there was nothing but unanswered questions surrounding the Boston Bruins blue line for the 2020-21 National Hockey League season.

Who was going to replace Krug on the powerplay? Who is going to replace the offense from the blue line? Who was going to replace Chara on the penalty kill? Who was going to shut down the opposition’s top lines? Who was going to replace Chara’s leadership? It was question after question after question, and when you tried to answer them, fans didn’t like the answers.

We are officially at the quarter-way point of the season, so this is a good sample size to look at how the young defense has performed thus far.

The 2019-20 President’s Trophy winners dressed ten different defensemen and they combined for a total of 32 goals and 112 assists in the 70-game shortened season.

This season, the Bruins have dressed eight defensemen and only because of the injuries to Matt Grzelcyk and have scored 3 goals and 21 assists. That projects to 12 goals and 84 assists for the season. Pro-rated over 70 games, that is 15 goals and 105 assists. The helpers are fine, but they are on pace to score half of what last year’s blue line did and despite the 10-2-2 start, it could be a problem moving forward.  

Last season, the Bruins had the third best penalty kill with an 84.19% success rate Mostly on the backs of Chara and Brandon Carlo. To date this season, the Bruins rank second with an 88.0% success rate largely on the backs of Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon. They are backed up by Charlie McAvoy and Kevan Miller, with Lauzon and Miller picking up the Chara minutes.

At the other end of the ice is where the loss of Krug was thought to be most impactful, especially the powerplay. Coach Bruce Cassidy has tried different things including five forwards at times. A year ago, with Krug manning the point, the Bruins had the second best powerplay in the league converting on 25.22% of their opportunities. This season they rank eighth but are converting on 27.27% of their chances, an increase of 2.02%. But they need a blueliner that can take the reigns there and the injuries to Grzelcyk don’t help. As we saw last against the Islanders, using 5 forwards can cost you.

The loss of Chara on the blue line, and Krug for that matter, takes away some leadership on the back end, but you can’t underestimate the leadership of Miller, now the grey-beard on the team. He can keep his teammates calm and cool under pressure. Not to mention the young guys stepping into the role. Carlo has over 300 games under his belt and Grzelcyk and McAvoy around 200. They will be counted on to take up some of the leadership slack left by Chara’s departure.

Cassidy and his coaching staff have also adjusted the system employed now that he has a more mobile unit on the backend. First off, they’ve tried to employ a more traditional shut-down defender with a puck mover on each pair, something that has worked so far.

Secondly, when defending, the defense has the green light for both guys to activate below their own goal line with the centerman usually covering the net in front of Tuukka Rask or Jaroslav Halak. Third, they all have the green light to skate out of the zone. And finally, because of the young legs, they can all activate at the offensive blue line and pinch down deep, something the coaching staff keeps encouraging them to do.

Coming into the season we preached how young this defense was going to be and that there would be growing pains. The growing pains have been evident, but not consistently and it has yet to hurt the team but, there is a long way to go.

Here’s a look at the Bruins defense, our Grade, and what we’ve seen so far:

CHARLIE MCAVOY Grade: A

I will be the first to admit it: Charlie McAvoy should be an A+. But for me, to earn an A+ you need to excel in every area of the game and McAvoy is doing that in every situation except one and that is the power play, although that is through no fault of his own. Cassidy prefers a left shot defender up top on the first unit which is why, when Grzelcyk is healthy, he gets those opportunities first. Cassidy has also used five forwards (at times) in the absence of Grzelcyk instead of McAvoy with David Krejci (who happens to be a right shot) at the point.

In the absence of Krug, McAvoy has taken his game to another level offensively. He is on pace to set career highs in goals, assists and points – all in just a 56-game schedule. He leads the team in assists and points, shot attempts and shots on goal and he can drive the offense from the back end like few others can.

It’s not just about offense though. He’s trusted to defend, almost always going up against the opposition’s top players. He kills penalties, he’s physical, he’s a one-man breakout machine and he easily leads his fellow blue liners in blocked shots with 29.

McAvoy is a minute eating defender who does it with quality. He leads the blue line averaging 24:19 in time on ice – 4:34 more per game than the next closest, his partner Lauzon. He leads them by a wide margin in even strength time on ice, exactly 20 minutes and he averages 2:09 in powerplay time and 2:14 in penalty kill time per game.

McAvoy will get some serious consideration for the Norris Trophy this season. Well deserved consideration. His time as a true number one defenseman in the NHL has arrived.

JEREMY LAUZON Grade: B

A lot of eyebrows were raised when it was suggested here, and the coaching staff gave Lauzon the duties of skating beside McAvoy. Has he disappointed anyone? Lauzon has been the steady defensive defenseman that can be relied upon and that in turn, gives McAvoy the opportunity to concentrate more on offense. He refuses to be outworked and leads his team in hits with 39.

He’s been winning the majority of his battles along the walls and in front of the net. Not only is he good at clearing his zone, he can make a good first pass as well and usually makes the right decisions. He’s become a staple in the penalty kill leading all Bruins blueliners in PK time on a PK that had an efficiency of 84.19% a season ago to 88.0% this season. The coaching staff is showing they are gaining more and more confidence in him and it is reflected in his average time on ice. Averaging 19:45 TOI, Lauzon trails only McAvoy at 24:19 in that department.

As we saw against the Washington Capitals on February 1, Lauzon does have some offensive abilities. Where the coaching staff used him mostly for defensive zone draws prior to that, they have been giving him more and more offensive starts lately, to the point where is starts are virtually even. Again, he trails only McAvoy in attempted shots on goal with 41 and shots on goal with 21 and Grzelcyk in percentage that get on goal with 51.2%.

MATT GRZELCYK Grade: B-

Playing in just one game in between two injuries has limited Grzelcyk to just six games on the season. Despite his size, we know what we get from him. Quick on his skates, retrieves pucks quickly and transitions even faster. Uses his positioning and his stick to defend well. His metrics across the board are very good and there is no denying that.

I know many people will question this grade but hear me out. Grzelcyk is suppose to be the guy to replace Krug on the point on the first powerplay unit. Six games just aren’t enough of a sample size to determine if he is that guy – yet. But if he is, then an A Grade is definitely on the horizon.

What we do know is Grzelcyk can sure pass and he can make smart plays. While he doesn’t posses the same kind of shot from the point that can beat a goaltender like Krug can, Grzelcyk shoots smartly. He likes to send pucks towards the goal and in just six games has directed 20 shots towards the net. A whopping 65% of those shots have reached the netminder. How good is that? Only one other defenceman is above 50% (Lauzon, 51.2%). Even McAvoy is firing at 46.4%.

That’s an important skill for a point man to have, especially since the Bruins appear to have found their permanent net front presence in Nick Ritchie. If Grzelcyk can come back and take the reigns and be effective on the powerplay, his grade can only go up.

BRANDON CARLO Grade: B

Carlo is quite simply one of the premier shut down defenders in the NHL. At 6’5” and over 210 pounds, he is a superb skater. Although he isn’t as physical as many fans want him to be, Carlo has some amazing strength that makes him a force in front of his goaltenders and a defender that the opposition doesn’t relish battling along the walls. He can go up against the oppositions best and paired with Lauzon on the penalty kill, form on of the better PK pairs in the NHL.

It’s noticeable that Carlo wants to be more involved in the offense and he has taken it upon himself to do just that. Carlo could very well surpass his career high of 19 points from a season ago, and do it in the shortened 56-game schedule.

Carlo has somewhat slowed that offensive down lately, largely due to the turnstile of partners he’s had, with little chance to get some chemistry going. He’s usually paired with Grzelcyk, but injuries have limited him to just 6 games. When the latter was out, it was with Clifton and then on what was a back-to-back situation, John Moore. And as mentioned, he is usually paired with Lauzon on the PK but also with Miller at times.

We fully expect that once Grzelcyk returns and Carlo gets a regular partner, that he will continue to push forward offensively.

JAKUB ZBORIL Grade: B-

Perhaps the growing pains are more evident in Zboril than any of the other d-men. And that is not a knock on him. He is the least experience of the group and the talent he possesses is clearly evident. But once in a while he might make you want to throw your remote through your 72” TV.  

Again, they were expected to happen. But if you can set them aside for a moment and look at the good things, then we should be happy with what we are seeing. It’s true that Cassidy is somewhat sheltering him with the most offensive zone starts on the blue line at 63.4%, but the coach is also trying to get him accustomed to the NHL at the same time. When Lauzon was serving his 5 plus 10 with his fight in New York, Cassidy had no hesitation in throwing Zboril out there to kill a penalty. It’s in him, but it is evident the coach wants to take it slowly.

Cassidy is also willing to use Zboril on the powerplay and eventually, Zboril might just excel at it. He has an excellent shot from the point but he definitely needs to work on getting it through. He’s third among the blueliners with 36 attempted shots on goal, but is a team worst 36.1% getting it on the net, either missing the target or having it blocked. It’s not a matter of if, but when he gets better at that, good things will happen for him.

In his own zone, he’s good at retrieving pucks and transitioning, makes a good first pass, but more importantly, he can skate out of danger. He’s learning how strong NHL players are as compared to AHL players, but that to will come and some of the misfortunes he’s had will become less and less frequent.

KEVAN MILLER Grade: B-

When General Manager Don Sweeney inked Miller to his contract there was an uproar through Bruins Nation. Many eyebrows were raised and many questions were asked. Why sign Miller before Chara? Why sign a player that has not played in almost two years? And more importantly, why sign a player that is coming off of two major knee surgeries?

Well, 14 games into the season things have changed, and might I add, dramatically. In a poll I conducted on Twitter with over 500 hundred votes, Miller was the overwhelming choice by fans as the 7th Player Award winner to date with over 40% of the vote. (He was followed by Nick Ritchie with 28%)

However, it’s more than just being able to skate in 14 games when there was doubt (in the minds of fans) that he could not just play quality hockey, but play at all. Miller can play both sides of the ice with little difference when on his weak side. We’ve seen it a lot when paired with McAvoy on the second pair killing penalties. He’s physical and hits hard, trailing only Lauzon in hits with 30.

He’s a guy the coaches can depend on to defend a one goal lead in the last minute. He wins his battles along the walls and is hard to move. As we saw against the Rangers, down a man and the Rangers goaltender pulled for an extra attacker, Miller on his off side paired with Carlo, ate up a lot of the time remaining on the clock buy keeping the puck along the boards behind the goal line.

Despite Miller’s superb work on the PK and in key defensive situations, he and his usual partner in Zboril are getting some sheltered starts from Coach Cassidy, with over 61% of the pair’s zone starts being in the offensive zone.

CONNOR CLIFTON Grade: B-

Cliffy Hockey, what can we say? If there is one player in the NHL that plays much bigger than 5’11” and 175 pounds, it’s Clifton. While Lauzon leads the team in hits, it’s actually Clifton that leads the squad in hits per game with 3.3. He plays physical, he can defend and he can skate. He’s pretty underrated in some circles as a puck carrier, but he can move the puck. And he will stand up for a teammate.

Clifton doesn’t get much specialty team time on ice. The coaching staff use him primarily in 5 on 5 situations, but when one of the other d-men are in the box, they have no hesitation in using him on the PK.

It’s hard to imagine that on many teams he wouldn’t be a starter in the top six. For now, he is the 7th defenseman on this squad who will see time when someone goes down with an injury or is in need of a break.

With Clifton what you see is what you get: 100% effort on every shift, accountability and determination. You couldn’t ask for more from a player in his spot.

John Moore was left off the list because one game just isn’t enough to grade him on, even though he had a very good first game of the season against the Islanders.

We’ve sometimes repetitively said there would be growing pains with this young defence. And there has been on any given night one guy is not at his best. What we haven’t seen is those growing pains as a group. When one is struggling, the other five pick up the slack, and that is part of the reason they sit 10-2-2 one-quarter of the way through the season.

4 Amigos Answer 5 Burning Training Camp Questions for the Boston Bruins

We’re a couple of days into the 2021 season training camp and for a change of pace, we got the amigos (KL, Dom Tiano, Anthony Kwetkowski and Reed Duthie) together to answer 5 questions about the Boston Bruins going into the new season.

1. What does the defense look like on opening night?

And that is the million-dollar question. I’m not a traditionalist when it comes to naming your number one defenceman, then number two, and so on. I prefer first pair, second pair and third pair.

The right-side seams to be set with Charlie McAvoy anchoring your first pair, Brandon Carlo the second pair and a healthy Kevan Miller on the third pair. All three can kill penalties but I think you’ll see Carlo and Miller get the bulk of that saving McAvoy for more 5 on 5 duty and powerplay time.

But where the questions on the blue line are is on the left side. I’d be tempted to try Jeremy Lauzon with McAvoy. It appears Bruce Cassidy and the Bruins brain trust are at least willing to give that a look on the first day of camp. Lauzon has shown he is a capable penalty killer.

Joining Carlo on the second pair would be Matt Grzelcyk. They’ve spent some time together and have shown some great chemistry when paired. Gryz can also kill penalties and like McAvoy, will be given powerplay minutes.

I think Jakub Zboril will be given every opportunity to grab that third pair minutes alongside Miller. Zboril can also kill penalties, but a bulk of that time should go to Lauzon and Grzelcyk. If he were to reach his potential, he could one day quarterback the powerplay. If Zboril falters, John Moore can fill that spot.

Each pair gives you a puck mover along with a guy capable of taking on the defensive responsibilities should his partner decide to “go with it.”- Dominic Tiano

No matter how promising young, unproven talent might be, coaches and general managers are in business to win hockey games, so you’ll likely see the NHL/pro veteran defenders get first crack at rotational play, with the less-experienced blue liners seeing more spot duty unless injuries or preseason play forces the staff to rethink the depth chart.

McAvoy is Boston’s top defender now, and he’ll be given every opportunity to log the top minutes in all situations and see where that leads. He’s ready to be an anchor, but the question remains as to how productive he will be both at even strength and on the power play. The left side of that top pairing is currently open, with fellow BU Terrier product Matt Grzelcyk an option, though the Charlestown native might be better suited to slot down to the second pairing if, as Dom mentioned (and the early practices have shown), the B’s want to give Lauzon’s defense-first approach with some bite/jam a chance out of the gate.

This is where the departures of Krug and Chara hurt the B’s in the short term, but another option could be to try Brandon Carlo on the left or his “off” side to give the team more experience and defensive acumen on that top pair with McAvoy, but it would probably mean that Kevan Miller would have to play on the second pair in Carlo’s spot on the right side with Grzelcyk- not ideal. Moore is the other defender with the most NHL experience, and while he’s a fan favorite whipping boy, he’s at least mobile and keeps things simple enough. I like the idea of a Moore-Miller third pairing or Moore-Connor Clifton duo.

Zboril and/or Urho Vaakanainen will likely have to break in more gradually and have their roles and time managed at least initially- both lack the experience to be the kind of player you can count on to play 15+ minutes a night right away, but you could see a revolving door of left-shot D moving in and out of the rotational pairings based on their game play and how practices go…at least until they prove they can or can’t play. The B’s have much riding on the success of both of Zboril and Vaakanainen, so now is the time for them to establish themselves as roster regulars.- Kirk Luedeke

Well, like Dom said above, isn’t this the million dollar question? I think there’s a lot of ways that this could play out, but using the benefit of training camp pairings, it would appear that Jeremy Lauzon could ride shotgun with Charlie McAvoy. I know, I know— but, but, but what about Grzelcyk?! Well, there’s definitely merit behind the idea of a Grzelcyk-McAvoy pairing, especially when considering their mutual time at Boston University together. 

With that said, I’m still not sure that Grzelcyk is the long-term solution for Boston’s top defensive pairing. Yes, the metrics and underlying numbers grade heavily in their favor. However, I think Lauzon-McAvoy, which also carries short-sample size positives, is much more natural to what the Bruins need to replace. Zdeno Chara, Boston’s 14-year captain and top-pair defender, signed with Washington and left the reins to to McAvoy. Lauzon, 6’3”, has more size, reach and coverage than Grzelcyk. 

The dynamic of Lauzon-McAvoy, on paper, is much more similar to what McAvoy has been playing with since entering the NHL compared to that of Grzelcyk-McAvoy. With Lauzon as his partner, McAvoy can do his own thing as a two-way threat as the bigger, rangier, tougher Lauzon stays defense-first on the backend. 

The rest of the pairings would then fall into place as follows:

Lauzon-McAvoy

Grzelcyk-Carlo

Zboril-Clifton 

Again, there’s also some issues with this setup given that it doesn’t account for John Moore or newly resigned Kevan Miller. These are some obstacles that Bruce Cassidy will have to answer for himself one way or another. – Anthony Kwetkowski

With the changes over the off-season on to the Bruins defense corps and young players knocking on the door for spots, opening night will look different on the back end than any season in recent memory.

Lauzon – McAvoy: It’s Charlie McAvoy’s defense now and the now veteran rearguard picks up the 6’2’’ 196lbs rugged Jeremy Lauzon, it will take some time for McAvoy to adjust to a new regular partner and although Lauzon isn’t 6’9” he brings the same attitude to the defensive zone and will allow McAvoy to get up ice and contribute to 5-on-5 offense.

Grzelcyk – Carlo: Brandon Carlo is used to being the defensive minded member of his pair and now picks up the developing Matt Grzelcyk. Although Grzelcyk hasn’t been the offensive force that Torey Krug is, he is a better skater and advanced metrics have shown in a 3rd pairing role that he could likely handle more. Much like with Lauzon & McAvoy, Carlo’s defensive acumen and speed for his massive frame will allow the smooth skating Grzelcyk to get up ice 5-on-5.

Zboril – Miller: The maligned 2015 1st round pick teams up with a defender who’s missed 21 months due to injury. That could sound crazy, however, Jakub Zboril has found the chip on his shoulder and is using it as motivation. A revelation in Providence for the 2019-20 season, Zboril took that momentum and was the best defenceman in the Czech Extraliga to open up the season and looks ready to take on a serious NHL role. Kevan Miller meanwhile, is a warrior, coming back from injury in what’s been described as the best shape of his career, his size and physicality will be an asset in a sprint of a season, making life miserable for any who step past his blueline.- Reed Duthie

 2. Did the team do enough to shore up the forwards in the offseason?

I was happy about the Craig Smith signing and think he will fit in well. But when it comes to the forwards there are a lot of questions that can only be answered in time. How will the surgeries to David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand affect them? Can Jake DeBrusk finally find his consistency? Will Anders Bjork finally break out? Does father time slow down David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron? Will Ondrej Kase be Kase with a full camp in Boston? Jack Studnicka has proven he is ready for the NHL and will get his chance while Pastrnak is recovering, but can he stick on the roster for the full season and who comes out when No. 88 returns?

We don’t know what the taxi squad will look like, but how will guys like Trent Frederic or Zach Senyshyn handle it if the need arises to insert them into the lineup? Are they even going to be on the taxi squad?

In a best-case scenario, I think the forwards are fine, maybe even an improvement over last season. But it’s 2021 and if we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s to expect the unexpected.– D.T.

In a word, no. There isn’t enough depth and a safety net to counterbalance the significant changes in the defense, at least on paper.

Smith was the team’s marquee free agent signing and it evokes some memories of Steve Begin in 2009, after the B’s were coming off a great regular season only to lose in the second round of the playoffs. While Smith is not a direct comparison to Begin the player, but more to the situation in 2009, Smith is a good complementary winger and will provide a stable presence playing alongside Charlie Coyle. The Bruins are mainly counting on a few things to happen: Marchand’s hernia surgery to bring him back to 100%, Bergeron and Krejci to have another strong season without any major offensive fall-off (or injuries to test the thin depth chart), Kase to provide more production given his skill/shot and Studnicka to seamlessly slot into a top-six wing spot until Pastrnak returns to the lineup. If all of that happens, the Bruins will be fine. If not, there isn’t a lot of depth to bail them out. I’m not all that keen on Kase- I want to see results and production…in an admittedly small sample size, we haven’t gotten that from him. Don’t talk to me about potential- the B’s need scoring from Kase right now.

In getting back to Begin, the B’s took a big step back in 2009-10 and barely squeaked into the playoffs, upsetting Buffalo in R1 on the back of Rask before dropping the 3-0 lead in R2 to the Flyers. We all know what happened in 2011, but this offseason is reminiscent of that one- not much new talent in, but counting on the pieces in place to carry them for another year. Only thing is- the 2021 Bruins don’t have a still-in-his-prime Zdeno Chara on the back end to help cover up for deficiencies elsewhere.- K.L.

Contrary to what the doom and gloom brigade on Twitter has been saying for months now, I think the Bruins did well with forwards recently. No, they didn’t land a “big fish” like Taylor Hall or even Mike Hoffman, however, they landed exactly what they needed— enter Craig Smith. Being one of the top play-driving forwards at 5-on-5 in the entire NHL, Smith, 31, is exactly the kind of contagious forward that Boston needs. Smith is someone who has wheels, density and a killer shot. He’s a North-South forward and can play anywhere needed in the top-nine, though being the right-wing on the third-line is most ideal. 

Something the Bruins have been lacking recently, especially in the RTP bubble, is selfish players who want to shoot the puck. Smith is the type of player to take matters into his own hands and shoot from wherever he deems fit. This type of play and attitude will also be contagious amongst the younger Boston forwards like Bjork, DeBrusk, Studnicka and even Kase.

Speaking of Ondrej Kase, let’s not forget about him. Limited to a handful of games after being acquired for David Backes, Axel Andersson and a first-round pick, Kase is another play-driving winger who likes to shoot and generate offense. Like Smith, Kase is exactly the type of forward this team was missing. Unfortunately, he was injured before being acquired and then the COVID-19 shutdown kind of derailed the season for him. When he returned, he played rather well alongside Krejci and DeBrusk, but the numbers were never posted. 

Moving forward with a full season under his belt, I think Kase will be a great addition for the Bruins provided he can remain healthy. These two right-shot forwards are exactly what this team needed and I don’t think they’ve received nearly enough credit as roster additions. – A.K.

Much has been made about the Bruins chase of Taylor Hall or Mike Hoffman in the off-season, and while those are the “sexy” names that fans clamoured for, they already had more than enough up front to improve where the team needed it most, 5-on-5 offense. Ondrej Kase arriving last year from Anaheim will go a long way and has the track record of NHL offence with a previous 20 goal season and 30 goal pace season. Due to injury and illness we didn’t get to see the best of Kase in 19-20 but with a full camp next to David Krejci & Jake DeBrusk they should be able to build on the chemistry we saw really begin in the Carolina series.

Additionally, Craig Smith steps in as the major off-season acquisition from Nashville having averaged over 20 goals a season since the 13-14 campaign, with only two seasons below the 20 mark (16-17 and the pandemic shortened 19-20) over that time. Comparing to where the Bruins forward group was on opening night for the 19-20 season compared to the 2021 season, this year’s group is far, far improved.- R.D.

3. What is the next phase of Boston’s goaltending situation?

This is the hardest Bruins related question one could ask.

Both of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak are unrestricted free agents after the season and will turn 34 and 36 years of age respectively. Rask certainly has more game in him if he wishes to sign an extension with the Bruins. It may be time to move on from Halak considering Dan Vladar will require waivers beginning with the 2021-22 season.

But it’s Jeremy Swayman who looks to have that future number 1 status. I would have said the same thing about Kyle Keyser, but injuries last season have derailed his development for the time being.

For the Bruins to have success in the blue paint for the short-term future, they absolutely need to lock Rask into an extension until Vladar or Swayman are ready. Otherwise, they may be forced to look at the free agent pool or seek a trade.– D.T.

The Rask and Halak tandem goes one more round this season and will likely see more rubber than they did in the previous two campaigns. The clock is ticking on both players. Rask will be 34 in March, but it looks like his workload will increase with the shortened season and travel schedule. Halak turns 36 in May, and is a capable player, though not a No. 1 as evidenced by the 2020 playoffs. Look for the Bruins keep one of their veterans in net with an extension, but not both going forward in 21-22.

Vladar was drafted with a third-round selection in 2015, and he’s gotten his development firmly on track after some early pro hiccups. Is he capable of being an NHL No. 1? He certainly looks the part with his size and has a pedigree for it, even though Swayman has enjoyed more consistent excellence at the lower levels. The B’s are probably hoping to groom either player as their future top option in net, but Keyser is the wild card who we hope can get back on track and playing again after regaining his health.- K.L.

Another interesting question with many moving parts, one of In thwhich is the outcome of this season. If the Bruins win it all this season, I could certainly see a situation where they’re heading into a rebuild-like era whether drastic or not. Given that Tuukka Rask is in the final year of his $7m AAV contract, I think Don Sweeney would be okay with moving on following ultimate victory. However, I think this is something that they’ll realistically face when they get to it this summer. 

Rask, who’s had his ups and downs in Boston including a recently opted out playoffs, has remained Boston’s go-to net minder for essentially the last decade. His backup, Jaroslav Halak, is also an aging player who’s on the back nine of his career. I think it makes sense for the Bruins to possibly explore having Rask back on short-term contracts if mutual interest is there. Otherwise, they’ll be turning to the system. 

Leading the professional charge in that regard is Dan Vladar— Providence’s standout goalie from last year. As someone who watched every game he played in, some multiple times, I can tell you he’s turned into a legitimate NHL prospect. Goalies are weird, man, you know? Vladar, selected in 2015 by Boston, is still in his prime developmental years for a goalie. He was also lights-out last year in Providence where he posted a 1.79 GAA and .936 SV% in 25 games. Vladar needs another full-year in Providence before we can fairly evaluate him further, but that might be tough. 

Provided that two of Providence’s top-four defenders and multiple top-nine forwards are slated to potentially be in Boston, the P-Bruins might have to ice a non-optimized roster in front of their netminder. This is going to be a weird season, but also a good one because we get to see Jeremy Swayman in Providence as well. Swayman is coming off an exceptional year playing for UMaine in the NCAA. He has been the back bone of the Black Bears while playing behind a shoddy defense and structure. 

Swayman, in my opinion, is as legitimate a number one goalie prospect as anyone else around the league. He’s tall, lanky, athletic and skilled. Swayman is a competitor and capable of making the tough and easy saves— all night long. I think Swayman is going to be the future of Boston goaltending in a few years from now. Another intriguing prospect is Kyle Keyser, currently shaking off some post-injury rust in the ECHL this season. 

Keyser is a prospect that Dom, is very familiar with and high on after following him extensively throughout his OHL career. That said, although Keyser has struggled with injuries and concussions, I also believe he has the skill set and intangibles of a number one goalie. Unfortunately, he’s had some bad luck and will take more time than probably anticipated. Let’s see how he does this year seeing a ton of rubber in the ECHL and Providence next year. – A.K.

With the Tuukka Rask & Jaroslav Halak aging, the question of where will the Bruins go in net has loomed large.

Digging in to the future of the crease, the Bruins appear to be in solid shape. Despite an ugly outing in his emergency NHL debut, Dan Vladar has been incredible over the last year sporting a 1.79 GAA / .936 SV% with 3 shutouts over 25 games with Providence last season, Vladar continued his momentum in the Czech Extraliga to open this season with an eye-popping 1.29 GAA / .965 SV% over 6 starts for Dynamo Pardubice before returning to Boston. With another season at the professional level under his belt the towering Czech keeper of the crease will be ready for the NHL jump, likely serving as backup to Tuukka Rask in 2021-22. Meanwhile, behind Vladar, NCAA star Jeremy Swayman will step into a major role in Providence, coming off a year which saw him garner a laundry list of accolades including the Mike Richter award as the NCAA’s top goaltender. Finally- Kyle Keyser, who actually might be the most naturally talented of the trio, appears to have put concussions problems behind and the former Oshawa General who has stolen not just games but playoff series at the junior level looks prepared to start his pro ascent.- R.D.

4. How will key departures (Chara, Krug) and injuries (Pastrnak) impact the team in the immediate and longer-terms?

Short term, I think they will all hurt. Especially Pastrnak and Torey Krug on the powerplay. And if Pastrnak doesn’t come back 100%, that’ll really hurt.

Zdeno Chara I am torn on. I think the transition game will improve as a team without him. Certainly, everyone is questioning how much their defence will hurt without him. With the defensive system the Bruins deploy, I think eventually it will be fine, but there will be growing pains and there will be nights Rask and Halak will have to bail them out. Where it will hurt the most is on the penalty kill. No one can replace the wingspan of Chara’s to be able to take away passing lanes with little movement. Miller can replace some of the net front strength required on the PK and Carlo will really need to step up that part of his game. But let’s face reality, there is no one like Chara in the NHL who can match up physically with anyone the way he can.

Krug’s departure will hurt in both transition and the powerplay. His ability to transition by either skating or making a great first pass will surely be missed, as well as his vision and how he can process the game quickly. McAvoy will surely further develop those things and Grzelcyk will be asked to take on a bigger role. Gryz will also turn 27 on January 5th so there isn’t much room for development at that stage. Whether the tools he possesses for the expanded role are enough to take up some of the slack is yet to be determined.

The departure of Krug and Chara also means the leadership will take a hit. I believe there are enough leaders in the group that in time, they can overcome that. Many of the players on the roster learned from one of the greatest captains in the history of the game and what it takes to be a great teammate and leader. They won’t forget that overnight.– D.T.

The Bruins lost a lot of experience and production (especially on the PP) with the key departures on defense, and Pastrnak is one of the NHL’s best young players under 25, and would have been Boston’s first 50-goal scorer since Cam Neely in 1994 if not for the season being paused when it was. Replacing his production (especially on the PP) won’t be easy, so fans should be ready for it.

The B’s will need top-shelf performances from the goaltending- Rask and Halak will almost certainly see an increase in volume shots on goal and shot quality as well, so they will need to hold the fort. The Boston forwards are experienced enough to counter the weaker defense, but this isn’t a team that can win a lot of games if they become track meets, so key to Boston’s success will be in the coaching staff managing the players and getting the most out of the lineup while handling the various in-game situations and adjustments appropriately to mitigate the losses until Pastrnak returns and some of the younger players in the lineup can get their feet under them. Tall order, but the B’s are still a good team, even with the departures. Good teams don’t win the Stanley Cup, however…great teams do. – K.L.

In the present, I think the departures of Chara and Krug will have an impact that’s both good and bad. For sake of readability and time, please forgive my brevity when discussing the departure of the 14-year captain, but I think we’re going to see younger players on the roster respond by bringing energy and providing some sparks. 

Players like McAvoy, Carlo and Grzelcyk have already been here for several years behind Chara and will know that they need to turn it up a notch without him. Lauzon, who was around last year, will now be tasked with the bearing the weight of “replacing” Chara in some capacity as well. This is a good thing for someone like Lauzon as he’s got a natural chip on his shoulder as it is. Jakub Zboril, who’s had his ups and downs, also falls into the same category. 

The same goes for Torey Krug, as McAvoy and Grzelcyk will look to replace his offense from the backend at both even strength and the power play. Granted it won’t be as easy as it sounds, replacing someone like Krug that is, but the Bruins still have plenty of talent around to make it work. Even if things are a little different, I think there’s potential for newer structures and game plans that emphasizes the youth and in some cases, more size on the roster.

On the flip side, the loss of Chara and Krug will definitely be felt. We’re going to see more mistakes and growing pains from the younger defensive core. We’re going to see nights where this team is outmatched and overpowered. Replacing the 14-year captain on top of the longtime PP QB is quite the task, even if the Bruins have plenty of talent to step in and take the next step.– A.K.

The departures for the Bruins will have an effect in both the immediate and long-term but it may not all be negative. While the majority of Bruins fans will agree its not the way they would have liked to see Zdeno Chara leave the Bruins and there will be a learning curve for the young defenders, it creates a massive opportunity for the likes of Jeremy Lauzon, Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, etc. to step forward and make their claim to an NHL spot. Torey Krug will be the hardest to replace, his ability to QB the PP and move the puck isn’t obviously replaced by any member of the current Bruins defense group, but the additions of players like Ondrej Kase & Craig Smith should up the 5-on-5 offense for the team, hopefully covering for the loss of Krug in a different fashion. The injury to David Pastrnak is another potential opportunity, although the Bruins lose their leading goal-scorer, even for a short length of time, it does allow Jack Studnicka to step to the Bergeron line and potentially begin to realize some of his massive potential at the NHL level and in a long-term thought, allow the Bruins to see the type of player they can hopefully build around for years to come.- R.D.

5. Who will be the surprise performers who elevate themselves early and earn an opportunity to contribute right away?

I’m going to pick a defenceman and a forward here.

On defence I am going with Lauzon. He got a taste of the NHL and I believe the Bruins brass really like him. At camp, he was given the first opportunity on the top pair with McAvoy and if he sticks to his game, he can succeed there. The only question I have is whether he can sustain it over a condensed 56-game season. It’s probably too much to ask.

Up front I am going with everyone’s choice to replace Pastrnak while he recovers – Jack Studnicka. I think Studnicka is going to make it extremely difficult to take him out of the lineup once Pastrnak returns and an even more difficult decision on who to take out of the lineup. I’ll go out on a limb and say Studnicka even gets some Calder votes. He won’t win it, but he’ll get some votes.– D.T.

I would like to see John Moore emerge as a solid middle-of-the-roster option, as he’s been much-maligned since signing with the Bruins in 2018. The former first-round pick in 2009 has over 500 games of NHL experience, can wheel and is a better player than he’s gotten credit for. His $2.75M cap hit through 2023 is a reasonable figure for what he can provide and the feeling here is that with a bigger role, he can take some of the pressure off the younger players at least in the short term. No one is ever going to confuse him with Chara or Krug with the impact he’s likely to make, but this team needs Moore to be a stabilizing presence right off the bat. Whether retrieving pucks and moving them up and out in quick transition or keeping it simple defensively, if he does that, fans might gain a new appreciation for him. Of course, there is always that segment of folks who aren’t going to like Moore no matter what he does, and that’s the world we live in.- K.L.

Players to step up and make an impact immediately this season include Bjork, Studnicka, Kase, Frederic and Lauzon. I think Studnicka is ready and able to contribute right now whether he’s at wing or center. The dynamic, Jack of all trades type (see what I did there?) forward is exactly the type of player Bruins fans have wanted to see for years now. He’s finally going to get his shot and it’s well deserved to boot. 

Trent Frederic saw time in the NHL with Boston, but not after his excellent run he went on towards the end of the year in Providence. Frederic is faster, more agile and aggressive than he was during that ~15-game sample we saw him in. He’s got a chip on his shoulder and I think he’s the type of player to really own the moment and do whatever it takes to stick around this season. – A.K.

In looking at a player who will surprise and take the next step for the Bruins, I believe Jakub Zboril will be a breakout player. Long known as a great skater through his junior career Zboril is also an underappreciated puck mover having led the Czech Republic in scoring at the 2017 World Junior Hockey Championship and posting 41 points in 50 games in his last season in the QMJHL, Zboril became more of a defensive player at the pro level. Growing into and learning how to use his now 6’1” 196lbs frame took time but the always mean Czech defender appears to have figured that part of his game out and has grown into his skill set. Taking a big step forward as a top defenceman in the AHL a season ago and opening this season as the best defenceman in the Czech Extraliga, it appears the mountain sized chip on Zboril’s shoulder is working in his favour and now looks to be an imposing figure on the Bruins blueline who is right on the cusp of a breakout at the NHL level. – R.D. 

On Zdeno Chara signing with the Capitals

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

As 2020 came to a merciful end, (many) Boston Bruins fans were greeted with one more bit of unwelcome news this week as captain Zdeno Chara’s 14-season run with the team came to an end with news he accepted a one-year offer from the Washington Capitals at age 43.

It seems both unimaginable and inevitable that the greatest free agent signing in team history would end in a whimper the way it did with a sudden announcement that after months of little to no movement on the renewal of a contract that most supporters felt was sure to happen. Like former Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield at the end of his major league career, it appeared as if the team and player had an unofficial deal to stay in Boston until both agreed that Chara’s playing days were over.

Clearly, that was not the case, as initial news brought anger and disbelief, especially when the base salary of $795,000 for the new season to exchange the black and gold for red, white and blue, came out. Chara’s deal calls for performance bonuses that would bring his total compensation to a $1.5 million AAV (per CapFriendly.com), but it was understandable that most fans would think it ridiculous that the Bruins weren’t willing to find the money to re-sign their captain, a player who had inked four separate contracts in Boston since he first came to town at age 29 in 2006.

However, as things are often the case with Hall of Fame-caliber players, and let’s be clear- four years after Chara calls it a career, whether in 2021 or later, he will be enshrined in Toronto- the truth of the matter is rarely black and white.

As the news has settled and more has come out on the negotiations that took place between Boston and Chara, both have said complimentary things and it appears that the following are both true:

  1. The Bruins wanted Chara back for a 15th season as captain, but with caveats.
  2. Chara was not willing to return to the team he cemented his legendary status with in a reduced role.

The purpose of this post is not to defend the organization for what did or didn’t happen to facilitate an icon’s departure, but to add context and provide food for thought to those fair-minded observers who are interested in what might have happened and why the team and player took positions they did. We weren’t there, so while we have been given some information based on sources familiar with the negotiations, this is merely one view on what might have happened.

It is fair to be disappointed that Chara and the team his greatest collective and individual accomplishments happened with couldn’t find a way to keep him until age 44 or when he finally calls it a stellar career. It is also fair to be okay with the realization that Chara is no longer the player he was and that his lack of mobility and inability to play in all situations like he once did means that the organization had to make a tough choice about answering the player’s questions about how he would be employed should he sign a fifth contract and third one-year extension since 2018.

The biggest challenge the Bruins face right now is with expectations for 2021. The team is coming off of a President’s Trophy as top regular season club in 2019-20 until COVID-19 forced the campaign’s pause in March. Prior to that, they took the St. Louis Blues to a seventh game of what would have been a second Stanley Cup championship team under Chara’s captaincy out of three trips to the final series. Given Torey Krug’s departure to those very Blues via free agency, fans have a right to be concerned about how the B’s power play and penalty kill special teams units will fare without two key anchors from a season ago.

From this view in the saddle, the issue so much isn’t Chara’s departure due to a fundamental disagreement between player and team over usage going forward and how to better manage the development other players in the organization, but more of a realization that without Chara and Krug, the Boston defense as a unit is almost certain to take steps backwards in 2021. In a few short months, we’ve gone from a team many thought might win a championship after the COVID pause resumed, to one that is on the outside looking in right now and in the immediate future.

Even if one or more of Matt Grzelcyk, Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, Jeremy Lauzon and even Jack Ahcan were all primed to step in and fill those roles vacated by Chara and Krug with much more certainty than what we’re currently dealing with, there would still be questions about their basic experience and ability to replicate the x-factor that such battle-tested veterans provided Boston over the last 5-7 years. That, in our view, is what is really at the heart of the negativity surrounding Chara’s departure. More than anything else, it’s a harbinger of darker times and a window that has essentially closed after the team watched other teams around the league get better while Boston’s biggest name addition in the offseason was complementary forward Craig Smith.

Boston lost the opportunity for a second championship in three years when they dropped a six-game series to the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013, the dawn of Krug’s era as a PP staple in Boston, while Chara was still at the height of his two-way productivity as an all-situations stalwart. The B’s followed up that disappointment with a President’s Trophy in 2014, then lost in the second round of the playoffs to their hated rival Montreal Canadiens and subsequently missed the playoffs for two years before a renaissance largely sparked by Patrice Bergeron’s continued excellence, plus the emergence of Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak as offensive forces from 2017-20 brought the team back into contention. Charlie McAvoy is the heir apparent on defense as potentially the next top/franchise cornerstone defenseman in Boston.

And it is right for those who see the parallels between the B’s teams from 2013-14 and 2019-20 to point out that by allowing Chara to leave like this, things are setting up for another precipitous fall like the one we witnessed in 2015 and 2016.

Five years hence, the 2015 draft was a major missed opportunity. Though all three first-round picks are still in the fold and Jake DeBrusk has become a solid complementary scorer with the B’s, the chance to draft three driver-types didn’t happen, and has exacerbated the concerns surrounding the club’s current fortunes. We’ll not open that can of worms in the Chara piece at present, as the 2015 draft’s failings deserves its own treatment at some point soon, but the reality is- as the 2021 season dawns, the B’s have far more question marks on the left side of their defense corps than answers at present, and that is at the heart of the angst surrounding Chara’s exit.

Also at issue is the captain’s legacy and how things should have ended in Boston. One can certainly argue that he deserved better- a final curtain call in Boston and the ability to close out a two-plus decade career in the NHL that saw him endure as the league’s tallest player who evolved into a curious project into a dominant, Norris Trophy-winning, franchise icon who helped the Bruins organization to its first championship in nearly four decades, the first such accomplishment since Bobby Orr manned the Boston blue line. On several levels, it doesn’t make sense that the Bruins as a whole- whether you’re talking Cam Neely, Don Sweeney, Bruce Cassidy or even ownership as a collective brain trust, wouldn’t see the black clouds gathering on the horizon and know that they would take a major PR hit by not closing the deal to keep Chara in the fold.

At the same time, we have to admire the team’s courage for looking at the situation and deciding that simply offering him a new contract to maintain a status quo in Boston and turn 44 in the midst of the new season without addressing what has been a declining return on investment, was a bridge too far. Right or wrong, what is always lost on fans and media members, no matter how well sourced they may be, are the team dynamics of what goes on behind the scenes. They are not sitting in the meetings that take place when leaders lay out the depth chart and talk through the myriad scenarios of player usage combined with future financial constraints and contract negotiations. No one is privy to the discussions that talk about who the team is likely to lose when the NHL’s newest expansion club, the Seattle Kraken gets to leverage the changed rules to build a far more competitive roster than all of the other NHL’s expansion clubs in history. We all watched the Las Vegas Golden Knights create a blue print for in 2017, and the Bruins are trying to manage the challenge of not losing a driver-type of player to Seattle because they didn’t know what they had in order to make the right decision when it comes to whom they protect and those who get exposed in the impending expansion draft.

Sound like excuse making? Perhaps. But, ask yourselves this: If Chara returned and continued to log key minutes in the rotation and on the PK and another player further down the depth chart departed either to Seattle or other club only to blossom as a top performer there, many of those same people unhappy about Chara’s departure would also savage the Bruins organization for allowing an aging veteran to hang on for so long and hindering the development of others in the system or at least- camouflaging their potential and preventing the B’s from making an informed decision on who to protect.

Building a winning team is a never-ending master-level jigsaw puzzle. It isn’t just about acquiring talent and skill but supplementing those stars with the right kinds of players who can come together and embrace a team’s structure and organizational values. Some fans might scoff at this quaint notion of the herculean task managers face at all meaningful levels, but the reality is- that’s why they’re fans. They might build a successful Twitter following, but they’ll never be part of a high-level team, nor will they understand the constant challenges of juggling the many dynamics needed to build a winning, championship team. For them, it is more about pointing fingers and playing to a crowd of like-minded toadies and sycophants in a social media echo chamber than thoughtful analysis and a fair-minded approach to what is going on. Like barking, clapping seals, they speak in absolutes they know nothing about. And that’s fine- it’s the world we live in, but it is also completely fair to point this out and call out some of the mind-numbing nitwits who have the loudest voices on matters they haven’t earned a shred of credibility to comment on.

What does seem to be playing out is this: the Bruins have put themselves at a disadvantage by selling off draft capital to remain competitive for playoff runs in recent years, but the time has come for them to start accruing picks and looking at building a better system. Prospects like Jack Studnicka and Mason Lohrei show significant promise as two of Boston’s most likely candidates to be drivers one day, but unlike many other teams around the league, Boston lacks the volume/depth of star power and pure skill/dynamic upside players in other systems who are on their way to the NHL in the next 3-5 years. The B’s have long done pretty well with savvy undrafted free agent signings to help bolster their draft misses and disappointments, but this puts tremendous pressure on the organization to find the rare players everyone else has not identified, and causes the GM to expend assets and capital on talent acquisition via trades and the bloated unrestricted free agent market.

Losing Chara to Washington stings, because he had so many amazing moments as a Bruin and was in many cases, the face of a franchise that had fallen on hard times when he was signed, and played a major role in a resurrection that ended with the Stanley Cup five years later and a near 10+ year run of sustained success. Just about everyone who rooted heart and soul for the Boston Bruins should be sad to see him go and appreciate what he did when he was here. But nothing, especially those lives spent in professional sports, lasts forever. Et tu, Tom Brady?

Those who are upset that Chara and the current core didn’t bring more championships to Boston have a point. Those who feel that Chara should have been treated a little differently so that he wouldn’t have felt the need to take his game elsewhere in the twilight of a tremendous career are also right. But so are those who understand that the business side of hockey sometimes means that you lose these battles and teams have to make highly unpalatable decisions because they truly feel that those are in the best interest of the club. No one has a crystal ball…sometimes, those tough decisions pay off and sometimes they don’t. But the Bruins felt that keeping the status quo for another year without addressing it with the captain was the wrong thing to do. Even if they had agreed to give him the role he was used to, would fans have demanded a change if he was unable to keep up, unable to make the plays needed for success at age 44? It’s easy to say that the team *should* have done what it took to keep him, but remember- Chara himself had a choice to stay and perform in the role that the team had for him. He chose a different path. It’s not just on the Bruins for that.

In the end, it may be precisely true that the Bruins take steps backwards in 2021. It seems a certainty in fact, that they will. But even if that happens, it does not stand as proof that the leadership lacks a plan or vision. Sweeney and his staff dug the club out of the malaise of 2015 and 2016 and built a squad that was three periods away from a championship just 1.5 years ago. History is never kind to those who are unable to close it out and attain ultimate victory, and those with an agenda to do so will almost certainly continue to overlook that or harp on the failures of the 2015 draft (without ever citing the multiple successes of 2014), but just because you feel strongly about something does not make it true.

We wish Zdeno Chara the best as he embarks on what could be one last hurrah with a new team. It’s a shame that he couldn’t finish his storied run in Boston, but like Ray Bourque before him, the show will go on.

Thanks for everything, Big Z- You were everything we thought you would be when you signed 14+ years ago…and then some.

Dominic Tiano: The Dollars and Sense of the Boston Bruins Offseason

Guest post by Dominic Tiano

The Boston Bruins season didn’t end as they or their fans had hoped it would when the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Bruins in 5 games in the second round of the NHL Playoffs. Since then, we’ve heard President Cam Neely and General Manager Don Sweeney talk about “change”. We’ve heard Zdeno Chara speak about wanting to return for the 2020-2021 season. And of course, there are the few words spoken from both sides of the Torey Krug situation.

Depending on where you look (and it’s more about the rosters that different cap sites use) the Bruins have around $15.5 million in cap space to use this offseason. That’s around the 10th most in the league so, there is an opportunity for some movement there.

The Bruins were charged with a performance bonus overage of $1,928,445 in which they can take the cap hit entirely during the 2020-2021 season or split it over 2 seasons. For this conversation we have chosen the latter.

Below you will see our roster comprised of players under contract, restricted free agents and players that will require waivers to be sent to the AHL or other leagues. Some of you will certainly ask “where is Karson Kuhlman?” (much to the chagrin of my fellow Amigos, he is absent). Well Kuhlman does not require waivers, that is until he plays 11 more NHL games, so it is likely he will begin the season in Providence (or elsewhere depending on which leagues will be paying).

Our roster also doesn’t include Chara, Krug or Joakim Nordstrom, all unrestricted free agents. (We don’t believe Nordstrom will be offered a contract to return).

If both Chara and Krug return, it will almost certainly cost the Bruins over 50% of the cap space they have today. That will also mean that they would have to loan two bodies to other leagues to get down to the 23-man roster. That would leave the Bruins somewhere between $5 million and $8 million to sign RFA’s Jake DeBrusk, Jakub Zboril, Matt Grzelcyk and Zach Senyshyn. That’s certainly do-able, but leaves little to no room to improve on the forward group.

If only Chara were to return, that may paint a rosier picture as they would have in the $14 million range to sign the RFA’s and fill that green square next to Charlie McAvoy as Chara’s days there should be over and to improve on the forward group.

It is imperative that the Bruins find a way to move out John Moore and his $2,750,00 cap hit as Connor Clifton and Jeremy Lauzon have shown they are ready to play bigger roles on the backend. Not to mention that it may be time to see if Zboril can play, even in a bottom pairing role. In the end, the extra $2.75 million can only help in improving the squad overall.

Then there is Nick Ritchie and his $1,498,925 cap hit and what to do if he is not able to break the lineup next season or has not taken the necessary steps to do so. The obvious answer would be to loan him to another league and save $1,125,000 of his cap hit. (This is an increase from last season because of the increase to the minimum league salary to $750,000. (Minimum league salary plus $375,000 is the new cap relief). This would put the Ritchie cap hit at $373,925 while costing the team $2 million in real dollars – his salary for 2020-2021.

What might make more sense for the Bruins in terms of both real dollars and in cap hit is a buyout. But because the buyout window is not yet confirmed, the Bruins would have to make a premature decision on Ritchie.

Why might it make sense?

CapFriendly and its buyout calculator will explain. Because Ritchie is under 26 and only 1/3 of his remaining salary would have to be paid, the Bruins would only have to pay $666,667 in real money. Where it gets a little complicated is the cap hit, which would be spread out over two seasons. Next season, the Bruins would receive a credit of $167,742 and a cap hit of $333,333 in 2021-2022.

Effectively what this does is removes Ritchie’s cap hit for 2020-2021 and gives them a small credit to use towards the bonus overage incurred. In other words, $1,666,667 more cap flexibility next season for a cap hit of $333,333 in 2021-2022.

Then there is the situation surrounding Tuukka Rask. Others have called it a dilemma. There are conversations among fans and media about retirement. There are many that believe the Bruins should trade him.

Certainly, any team would welcome $7 million in cap space, but in this case the Bruins would have to find another goaltender capable of carrying the load as the number one goaltender, and what is that going to cost? And if you trade him, what are you bringing back in salary and how much are you going to spend on a replacement netminder? Until Rask and the Bruins come to a decision, this is just all moot right now.

We’ve seen how performance bonuses can affect the cap. Let’s turn our attention to Rask’s partner, Jaroslav Halak. The Bruins 1-B netminder is set to earn $1,750,000 in salary for next season with a $500,000 signing bonus for a cap hit of $2,250,000. Halak is scheduled to earn a performance bonus of $1,250,000 for playing in 10 games, a bonus he will surely attain barring a season ending injury early on. The Bruins should and probably will keep an eye on that as to not have a bonus overage for 2021-2022.

No one knows for sure whether Sweeney will turn to the free agent market or go the trade route, although he is talking to other teams. He could use both options and still infuse some youth from within, for instance, Trent Frederic centering the 4th line over Par Lindholm. Jack Studnicka also showed these playoffs that he’s about ready to make a push for a roster spot.

There is certainly room for maneuvering and this should prove to be Sweeney’s most active offseason since 2015.

Barnburner: B’s steal 3-1 series lead

Krejci2

It wasn’t a textbook victory, but the Boston Bruins went on a 15-0 shots run in the 3rd period to overcome an 0-2 deficit and steal a 4-3 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on a night that goaltender Jaroslav Halak was not sharp and the team in front of him had trouble getting anything done around the net in the game’s first 40 minutes.

Here are some quick notes on what we saw and what the B’s will need to do to close out Rod Brind’Amour’s crew on Wednesday in Game 5.

  1. Boston won despite a poor performance in net from Halak. He gave up a leaky first goal to Justin Williams that beat him cleanly from the outside and without a screen. Jordan Martinook’s tally in the second period, wasn’t much better- a shot from the outside that an NHL goalie has to stop. The third goal, which happened on a 6-on-5 and admittedly when the Bruins were running around ineffectively, was the first shot of the final frame from Carolina again- was shaky and made the final 39 seconds a white-knuckle nail-biter. Simply put, Halak must be better going forward- that kind of a performance is usually a recipe for disaster, but the B’s pulled it out.
  2. Zdeno Chara is a first ballot Hall of Famer, but he’s playing too much- and it’s going to burn the B’s at some point. He simply doesn’t have the footspeed and range to do what we all marveled at when he was in his prime. He’s such a competitor that he’s not going to willingly limit his minutes, so the onus is on Bruce Cassidy and his staff to figure out how to manage his workload effectively. Easier said than done, but has to happen- he’s one of the weaker links in the defense chain, and that’s not a slight on the legacy he owns as one of the all-time greats- it’s just that his best years are well behind him.
  3. Cliffy hockey is back! A year after bursting onto the scene in the 2019 playoffs, Connor Clifton did it again as No. 75 jumped up from the point and hammered home the tying goal on a nice rip. He’s the perfect playoff depth defenseman, as he can wheel and plays a robust physical game with the ability to score in timely situations.
  4. Jake DeBrusk came through with two goals- the first to get the B’s off the schneid and then the eventual winner on a nice net drive. Streakiness is what we all have to live with, but there is no doubting that he’s one of the purest natural scorers on the team and when he gets it going, the 2015 first-rounder provides important secondary scoring for the team.
  5. You just knew that when Brad Marchand got in behind the Carolina defense, he was going to bury it and that he did, going against the grain to slide the puck through the five-hole to take the lead. Big-game play there.
  6. Charlie McAvoy’s hit on Jordan Staal showed us another important dimension of Boston’s future workhorse on the back end. We obviously all see the offensive upside McAvoy brings, but that kind of a tone-setting hit that forced the veteran to the locker room was not only clean, but made an immediate impact on the game and started the comeback. It’s like you tell younger players- don’t worry about scoring on every shift- just find a way to make a difference and finish with a net positive on your shifts at the end of the game. That hit was a big positive.
  7. David Krejci had it going last night, creating some quality scoring chances including a hit post on a nice feed from rookie Jack Studnicka in the second period. These two started to show some chemistry and an invigorated Krejci is a good sign for Boston, especially with David Pastrnak expected back for Game 5.
  8. Speaking of Studnicka- he’s the Joe Juneau ’92 of this year’s postseason run. He’s picking up steam and is sure to get more ice going forward after last night’s performance. 28 years ago, Juneau joined the B’s after the Albertville Olympics and No. 49 became an instant fan favorite for his dazzling offensive prowess. Studnicka plays a different style, but he’s generating a similar buzz as a player who looks like a veteran despite his youth.
  9. You have to hand it to Justin Williams– the final pick of the 2000 draft’s first round is Mr. Playoffs and continues to make big plays for his teams in the postseason. Last night’s first goal is indicative of his three Stanley Cup rings (1 with Carolina, 2 with the Kings)- he had a shooting lane and got the puck to the net. He shouldn’t have scored on that shot, but this is why kids should not pass on chances to shoot- Halak whiffed and boom- 1-0 just like that. Carolina needs more from its top youngsters, though- and missing Andrei Svechnikov doesn’t help matters.
  10. Deja vu all over again for James Reimer who played a heck of a game for 40 minutes and stymied the Bruins- just like another playoff game way back in 2013. However, when the B’s started that comeback, you just sensed Reimer was thinking about what happened at TD Garden seven years ago, and in less than 7 minutes, his 2-0 lead was a 2-4 deficit.

Keys to victory in Game 5:

  1. Shoot often and from anywhere. Whether it’s Reimer or Petr Mrazek in net, the B’s cannot afford to let Carolina catch a glimmer of hope. Hammer pucks to the net, drive the lanes and be relentless…perimeter passing and looking for the perfect shot won’t get it done.
  2. Tighten up defensively- the Hurricanes will be looking to push and catch the Bruins D flat-footed, driving wide with speed and getting pucks to the net after Halak’s shaky play. This means the Boston forecheck will be critical in disrupting Carolina’s ability to generate speed through the neutral zone and that the Bruins D will have to gap up and not take chances will ill-timed steps or activate at the wrong times.
  3. The Pasta Factor- assuming No. 88 returns to the lineup, Boston might be well served funneling pucks to him especially on the man advantage. He excels in finding quiet ice much like HHOFer Mike Bossy did in his glory years with the Islanders. If Pastrnak can find soft seams in the offensive zone, he should be able to unleash his trademark shot to good effect, even if he’s not quite at 100 percent.
  4. Roll with the hot hand. Cassidy does a good job of sensing who is hot and who isn’t and getting matchups in their favor. With Boston back as home team for Game 5, this matchup game will be to the B’s advantage- leave nothing on the table and get after it.

TSP Podcast: 4 Amigos Boston Bruins Playoff Preview

Got the gang together this week to discuss the Boston Bruins, return to play and their chances in the 2020 NHL Playoffs.

Unfortunately, we had some glitches in the recording and some good stuff was lost- apologies for that, but you still get nearly an hour of solid hockey talk.

Plus, there’s a brief commentary at the end on the Anders Bjork 3-year extension at $1.6M AAV- which broke after we recorded. Once again, Don Sweeney’s cap maneuvering is serving as an example for the rest of the league to get in line with.

So, away we go with Dom, Reed, Anthony & Kirk- Welcome Back, NHL…

Bruins Playoff Roster Quick Hits: Defense

Grizzy draft

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

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

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

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

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

Carlo

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

Boston Bruins v New York Rangers - Game Four

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

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

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

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

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

McAvoy2

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dominic Tiano: How the new NHL CBA affects the Bruins

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

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

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

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

Minimum Salary

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

35+ Contracts

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

NTC/NMC Trades

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

Arbitration

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

Conditional Draft Picks

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

Free Agent Interviews

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

10% Salary Deferred

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

Front Loaded Deals

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

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

European Waivers

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

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

Urho Vaakanainen: Then & Now

The prospect series returns on Tuesday with a then and now look at Boston’s top selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft.- KL

Urho Vaakanainen: Then

June 24, 2017:

A smooth-skating defender who describes his own playing style of one similar to NHL All-Star Roman Josi, Vaakanainen has spent the last two seasons playing pro hockey in the Finnish SM-Liiga. Tall, with a thin build, the 18-year-old was a member of Finland’s gold medal and silver medal-winning U18 teams in 2016-17, and also played on the 2017 WJC (U20) squad that woefully underperformed in Canada last winter.

Described by one NHL scout as a player whose “skating is first-rate; he can pivot and cut decisively in tight spaces and change direction on a dime,” the same talent evaluator also said that Vaakanainen “may not possess the high-level hands and offensive hockey IQ to be a top scoring presence on an NHL blue line.”

In going with Vaakanainen, the B’s bolstered the left side of their blue line while passing on some popular names up front who were projected to be good fits in pre-draft analysis, namely the big and talented Vesalainen (whose slide ended with Winnipeg at 24), Ryan Poehling (Montreal) and Robert Thomas (St. Louis).

“I’m a great skater, I can move the puck, I have a great first pass,” Vaakanainen said after his selection. “I’m a complete package- a two-way defenseman and steady guy.”

August 9, 2018:

Talent Analysis

Although not overly tall and having a relatively lean build, Vaakanainen plays with a long stick and uses his reach effectively. He’s got fluid feet: very good initial burst, an effortless stride and is crisp and balanced on his edges. This is a player who can move well in all directions- what is known as a “compass skater” in scouting parlance- and has the explosive first couple of steps and quick, smooth direction change that translates well in the short area game, something becoming more and more critical for NHL defenders going forward. Forwards who try to drive wide on him with speed will almost always run out of room to the far wall before they can make that sharp net drive- his feet are simply too good for that.

Intelligent and poised, UV sees the ice and is capable of defending the rush and keeping opponents away from the front of his net with an active stick. An economy of motion player, he is patient and will often allow skaters to take themselves out of lanes because he moves so well and keeps his stick in passing lanes.

Vaakanainen is not an exceptional player with the puck on his stick. When we scouted him at the U-18s two years ago, he moved pucks efficiently, but kept it pretty simple with higher percentage breakouts, a style in stark contrast to Charlie McAvoy, who is dynamic when in possession of the puck and can carry it out on his own when he has ice in front of him. This is not to say UV doesn’t have any skill, but he tends bring a simplified approach- he gets back quickly on retrievals and can then move the puck to the right areas. Where we have seen him get into trouble is when an aggressive forecheck either with an explosive F1 or 2-skater attack gets in on him quickly and forces UV to make faster decisions. In order to maximize his impressive skating, he’s going to have to be more decisive and avoid the temptation to hold onto the puck too long or just try the blind rim, which can lead to d-zone turnovers. He doesn’t have a heavy or overpowering shot- he tends to score by using a quick-release snap shot that he gets off his stick quickly versus an exaggerated windup and clapper. We’d like to see him try and get more pucks to the net, however.

Not a physical defender, UV manages his gaps well, using his lateral agility and long reach to angle effectively and close off skating lanes in the middle of the ice, where attacking forwards are at their most dangerous. The lack of physicality and bulk means that he’ll likely need support from his forwards when the puck gets down low and along the walls.

Overall, the offensive projection is still a work in progress- the B’s don’t need him to shoot the lights out or rack up assists as long as he can help speed the transition game to break pucks out while also keeping the opposition to the outside. His pro experience gives him a refined game, maturity and poise beyond where  many of his peers are- he doesn’t turn 20 until January and many of the guys picked in the same draft are going back to junior for one more year.

Urho Vaakanainen now:

Two years into his North American pro career, Vaakanainen has been a mixed bag so far.

His rookie pro season, split between Providence of the AHL and Boston was derailed with concussion issues, but he showed promise, putting up nearly a half a point per game in the AHL with the Baby B’s- solid production for a player in his first campaign. That was likely a reflection of his several years in the Finnish SM-Liiga, which compares favorably to the level of play seen in the AHL, so unlike junior players who face a transition to pro hockey, Vaakanainen’s transition was more in line with the smaller ice surfaces here versus what he competed on at home.

He made his NHL debut, playing sparingly in Boston before getting hurt (thanks to a dirty Mark Borowiecki elbow when Vaakanainen went to the net looking for a rebound), and missing a bulk of the 18-19 hockey season, with just 32 total appearances split between the show and minor league.

He played more games in 19-20 with Providence, getting into 54 before the AHL season was postponed in March due to COVID-19 (it was officially canceled yesterday). His production. however, was down significantly from where it was the year before, with the same amount of points, but with 24 more games played. He got into five NHL games with the B’s, again playing sparingly as a depth piece during his call up.

When drafted, Vaakanainen was talked about by the team as a 2-way defenseman and other hockey sources touted his offensive upside, but to be frank- we never really saw it. He’s more of a smooth, efficient defender who can chip in offensively and is mobile in retrievals and breakouts, but isn’t the prototype 2-way defender who joins the rush, quarterbacks the power play and is a consistent impact performer at both ends of the ice.

That is not a knock on him, but at the same time, he was not a significant offensive presence in 84 pro league games with JYP and SaiPa in his native Finland, and we’re doubtful that his point production is going to be all that significant at the NHL level. That is not to say that he won’t be a successful defenseman, but expectations should be tempered.

He can skate and move pucks, and has a good stick- those attributes will all help him establish himself as an everyday D at the highest level. We would like to see more of a competitive side and edge to his play- at times, the pace looks pretty average and he’s not all that tough a player to go up against. There are some intriguing positives, and his superb skating is a top carry tool. But we’d be lying if we said we didn’t expect more from him in year two. Granted, the injuries have set him back, but at some point, potential needs to translate into tangible results.

Outlook:

At this stage, he looks to project as more of a middle-of-the-roster depth player than a true blue 1/2 NHL D. You can certainly take that, but given where he was drafted and what some of the other options were at the time, if we redid the 2017 draft’s 1st round, he’s a bubble guy in our view.

The 20-21 is going to be a critical one for Vaakanainen. Smooth and efficient is fine- but on a relatively crowded Boston blue line, you’d like to see some more assertiveness and pop to be comfortable projecting that he’ll develop into an NHL regular. He’s still plenty young and there’s a lot to like, but he’s got his work cut out for him.

***

Sportsnet Clip then: When B’s selected Vaakanainen (note the comments after the pick- not much about offensive upside- all about his defense/stay-at-home acumen as Miro Heiskanen’s D partner in international competition)

NESN video on his 2018 development camp

Here’s the Borowiecki elbow- no call. Bravo to Billy Jaffe for calling out the officials’ incompetence on this one. Ladies and gentlemen- your moern NHL referees- where they can stand mere feet away and watch a flagrant foul but since it happens to some unknown Finnish rookie? No call. But boy- hook some 1st class NHL citizen away from the play with no impact, and you’d better believe the whistle is coming out…gross.

 

 

Off the top of the head: Jack Ahcan

Continuing the Bruins prospect series where we do quick break downs on players based on what we know about them through viewings and have read recently- not a comprehensive deep-dive but just enough information to get the conversation started.

Jack Ahcan, LD

Undrafted; Signed 2-year ELC; March 2020

Current team: TBD (Providence Bruins AHL- expected)

Previous team: St. Cloud State Huskies (NCHC)

Strengths: Outstanding skater; dynamic speed, small-area burst/first-steps, straight-line speed and superior edgework and agility. 4.5/5 out of 5 skater. Very good puck skills; can skate pucks out of danger on his own or hit any range of passes to kickstart the transition game into high gear. Good vision and hockey sense; can anticipate/read/react to help him defend or distribute pucks when he joins the rush or runs the PP. Activates at the right times. Good stick. Leader- was team captain as a senior and plays with pace and jam- a little engine that could type.

Weaknesses: Undersized; will have to be smart in how he plays the position/employs his stick- won’t be able to match up physically with most of the players he’ll find himself in 1-on-1 battles with. Shot is an area for improvement- release is quick/snaps off his stick and is accurate/low for net-front tips and deflections, but power/velocity is a work in progress.

Overall analysis: A coup for Boston- he probably should have been drafted at some point, so the Bruins did very well to sign him away from teams like Colorado. The Avalanche had an inside track due to his attendance of their development camp/previous relationship. Boston employed team effort approach, leveraging multiple connections in Minnesota (Player development director Jamie Langenbrunner) and their NCAA scouting staff (Scott Fitzgerald, Brett Harkins), a scout with junior coaching connections (Doug Leaverton) and players (Charlie McAvoy– WJC roommate and Tuukka Rask– same player agency) to land their target. Ahcan may not have size, but he brings all the attributes NHL teams desire in smaller players, regardless of position. He’s fast, skilled, smart and competitive- don’t be surprised if Ahcan is playing games in Boston at some point this season.

Projection: Smart signing that serves as a hedge as Torey Krug’s potential unrestricted free agency draws closer and the expansion draft looms a little further in the distance. The Bruins could lose a good, young D in the expansion draft, so bringing in a player like Ahcan helps to shore up the organizational depth to help guard against that. The inevitable comparisons to Krug, Matt Grzelcyk and other smallish D around the NHL is inevitable, but Ahcan’s all-around body of work (he was USHL defenseman of the year, was a member of the USA gold medal-winning 2017 World Jr. team, received numerous NCHC honors) and his skill set, along with work ethic and leadership intangibles, make him an impressive add given his status as a UDFA.

Watch for him to start out in Providence of the AHL, where he’ll get a chance to earn a significant slice of playing time and special teams play. As an NHL D, his ceiling could be as a solid 3/4 and PP contributor. He’ll have to overcome the stigma associated with being on the smaller side and being undrafted to boot- much like Krug has had to do (and let’s face it- some fans have never gotten on board with No. 47), but when you talk about the hackneyed word (at least in scouting parlance) upside, Ahcan has it.

Here’s a dated profile from his freshman season and also interviewed is then-SCSU (and USA WJC coach) Bob Motzko