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

cropped-fitzgeraldbs.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, on to the new guys:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don Sweeney named NHL GM of Year

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

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

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

The successes, by and large, have been prolific.

Continue reading

Bruins in their 3rd Stanley Cup Final since 2011

The Boston Bruins are back to playing for Lord Stanley’s glittering prize- they defeated the Vancouver Canucks in 2011 for the first NHL championship parade in Boston since 1972, came up short in 2013 against the Chicago Blackhawks and now join the Windy City team as the only the second team this decade to reach the SCF three times.

How did we get here?

Tampa Bay and Washington both flamed out in the first round, opening the door for the B’s (or as old Blue Eyes used to croon “Luck be a lady tonight…”) to handily defeat Columbus and Carolina after battling it out with the Toronto Maple Leafs in a second consecutive 1st-round seven-game barn-burner of a series. Out West, wagons like Calgary and 2018 SCF runner-up Vegas were knocked out in the first round as well. Not a bad draw when all is said and done, but no matter who you have to play- winning a championship is never easy.

Now, onto some thoughts on the players:

Continue reading

Happy 2019- Winter Classic thoughts

2019 is here and the Boston Bruins helped ring in the new year in style with a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s annual (since 2008) Winter Classic outdoor game.

Boston’s third trip outside on New Year’s Day was played at the iconic University of Notre Dame football stadium in South Bend, Indiana, the first time a non-football event was played in the home of the Fighting Irish. The B’s were 1-1 in the NHL’s signature event, beating the Philadelphia Flyers at (Frozen) Fenway Park eight years ago on a Marco Sturm OT goal, but getting pumped by the Montreal Canadiens at the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, in 2016 by a 5-1 score.

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

For goaltender Tuukka Rask, the 2019 game was a chance for redemption, and he found it, playing well with 36 saves including multiple breakaways and grade A scoring chances. It was also a milestone event for the veteran netminder who has only known Boston as his NHL home since the 2007-08 season. He passed Hall of Fame goalie Cecil “Tiny” Thompson as the goalie with the most career appearances in franchise history. Rask will soon own the most regular season victories for the team as well.

The soon-to-be-32-year-old may be the most polarizing figure we have seen and covered in the 40+ years of following the team as fan and correspondent. A top talent and former 1st-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs before he was dealt to the B’s for Andrew Raycroft even-steven nearly 13 years ago, Rask is often a study in extremes. Ardent fans and supporters often pointing fingers at everyone else on the roster but the man in net when the team doesn’t win with him in the net, while there is an equally obnoxious segment of Boston fans who seem to revel in affixing blame to Rask at every opportunity and making him a convenient scapegoat for their frustrations with the club. There seems to be very little middle ground in the increasingly toxic social media environment when it comes to Rask, but at least in this space, we’ve always tried to be fair-minded in our treatment of the embattled veteran. On this day, he did his job well, and looked every bit the player the Bruins need him to be if they are going to secure a spot in the NHL playoffs for the third consecutive season this spring. The combat math is pretty simple: Rask and Jaroslav Halak give the Bruins the best 1-2 goalie punch in the league. When both of them are on top of their games, the team can beat anyone.

Which brings us to the next point- Patrice Bergeron. It never gets old watching the de facto captain play a textbook complete game of hockey. NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp talked yesterday after the game about how if you polled most NHL players about which player they would want on their team in a one-game, winner-take-all match for the Stanley Cup, you would probably see a large percentage of them vote for Boston’s consummate pro.

Yesterday, we all saw his greatness for what it is- a furious back check to deny a scoring chance at one end that would have opened up a 3-1 advantage for the ‘Hawks, and moments later, an effortless backhand shot that tied the game and opened the door for the B’s to win it on Sean “Clutch” Kuraly’s third period rebound marker (another backhand shot).

At this point of Bergeron’s career, we’re out of superlatives to describe him. He’s the hockey student of the game’s idol- a player who simply does everything right, all day, every day. Some folks are drawn to the sizzle that so many super talents of hockey provide with their speed, pace and skill- you absolutely need those guys. And, the players who rack up oodles of points are always going to get more positive attention than those with middle-of-the-pack numbers. Here’s the rub, though-  those who have careers with skin in the game- whose job security depends on being on the right side of the win-loss column- Bergeron is an inspiration. The Bruins may not have multiple Stanley Cup championships to show for it, but since Bergeron joined the club as a precocious 18-year-old rookie in 2003, it has been a prosperous era for the team despite setbacks and disappointments along the way.

It’s hard to believe because there were other players who popped offensively earlier in their careers, but Bergeron has quietly and steadily climbed to be the third-highest scorer in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft class, behind only Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf with his 769 career points in 989 games. He’s tied with Thomas Vanek (who will play his 1,000th NHL game on Jan. 4), but Vanek’s days of high production are over- Bergeron will blow by him and establish himself solidly in 3rd behind Staal and Getzlaf. What’s important about this is that offense has never really been the thing that has defined Bergeron’s Hall of Fame career, but he’s proven that the consistent approach of 50-60 points year after year, has helped to propel him to the top of one of the greatest collective draft groups in NHL history. He should have gone over 1,000 NHL games played about 2-3 years ago and would be closing in on 1,000 career points and might be the No. 1 scorer of the 2003 draftees had it not been for 1.5 years of  lockouts and almost 2 full seasons lost to injuries of various types. But even with all the missed time, Bergeron’s impact on the Bruins and the game of hockey cannot be undersold. He is the greatest defensive forward in NHL history. No disrespect to Canadiens great Bob Gainey, who inspired the very Frank J. Selke Trophy which rewards two-way excellence up front, but Bergeron hasn’t benefited from a dynastic machine that the Habs were in the 1970’s, and the offensive production isn’t close.

Simply put- No. 37 is the best there ever was, and he’s inspired a generation of players who want to do things the right way and focus on the habits and details that are lost on so many who can only really focus on the flashy stuff that makes the game so great. There’s room for it all of course, but if I’m in a 1-game knife fight for my hockey life, there’s one guy I’d sell my soul for to have in my lineup: Patrice Bergeron.

Brad Marchand is heating up at the right time. We of course love what David Pastrnak is doing, but the driving engine of Boston’s offense is the Lil’ Ball of Hate, and when he’s finding the back of the net, the wins are plentiful. He generated multiple scoring chances and in the waning seconds, hit the empty net- notching his 42nd point of the season to quietly move closer to Pastrnak’s team-leading 50 points.

Just like Bergeron, both of these forwards embody the luck of the NHL draft- had anyone known what kind of an impact they would have, you’d have seen them go off the board with the 1st or 2nd overall selections in their respective years, and yet, they both essentially fell into Boston’s lap. In a time where fans spend more time kvetching about who the team missed on, it’s sometimes nice to be reminded that the B’s scouting staff, long under the guiding hand of veteran talent chief Scott Bradley and Ryan Nadeau’s vision and leadership, has had some tremendous bargain finds over the years. And we haven’t even gotten into Charlie McAvoy, Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka and Jakub Lauko yet.

And like Bergeron, Marchand is ascending to the top of the 2006 draft’s scoring list. Of all the players from that class, only Niklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux and Jonathan Toews have more than Marchand’s 503 points and counting.

Finally, it was great to see Zdeno Chara out there after returning from injury. Like Tim Wakefield near the end of his MLB career, Chara is a lifetime Bruin, though he played elsewhere before making the Hub his home. He has quietly racked up nearly 1,000 games in the Black and Gold, and like Bergeron, is headed for a place in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s not the horse he was in his prime, but the steady play, experience and value he provides cannot be understated. Once he retires, whenever that is, the B’s will have a challenge to replace what he means to the club on and off the ice. Instead of rushing to anoint the next wave of youth (and there are some worthy heirs coming down the pipeline), we should all embrace the legend and enjoy him for as long as we can. Once he’s gone, we may not ever see another player quite like him.

Okay- that about does it. Here’s hoping you all have a great and prosperous 2019. Thanks as always for reading the sporadic posts on the blog- didn’t cover all the ground I wanted to on this one, but be on the lookout for more content as the season goes on.

Boston Bruins v Calgary Flames

Another B’s audio cast: Frederick, Studnicka, Zboril, Cehlarik plus Joe Murphy & NJ Devils new/old threads

Hey all- back with another audio cast file (Eric Carmen voice) all by myself

In this 60+ minute audio cast, I continue my Boston Bruins prospect series, going with a couple of centers in Trent Frederic and Jack Studnicka, both of whom I have a strong feeling will play for the B’s at some point (unless one or the other is involved in a higher-profile trade, which is possible- you never know). Also covered is 2015 13th overall pick Jakub Zboril, who had a solid 1st pro season- we try to be fair to him here. Last on deck for this one is Slovak forward Peter Cehlarik, who faces an important season after being a late third-round selection in 2013, a draft that hasn’t produced a great deal for Boston.

Continue reading

Bruins prospect of the week 3: Urho Vaakanainen

We’re back with another installment of the B’s prospect series. This time, we’ll swing back over to a player who is closer to playing NHL games, and the 2017 first-round selection’s time could be closer than we think.

IMG_1900

Urho Vaakanainen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Urho Vaakanainen, LD

Born Jan. 1, 1999 (Finland)

6-1/185 Shoots: Left

Background Summary

The 18th overall selection in the 2017 NHL Entry Draft was a bit of a surprise pick by the Bruins given that there were some higher profile players on the board at the time, including Finnish countrymen Kristian Vesalainen (24- Winnipeg) and Eeli Tolvanen (30- Nashville), dynamic scoring forward Kailer Yamamoto (22- Edmonton), heavy/skilled forward Ryan Poehling (25- Montreal) and impressive 2-way center Robert Thomas (20- St. Louis). However, the 19-year-old entering his fourth season of pro hockey serves as yet another example of the B’s sticking with their own process and how they evaluate talent.

Unlike many of his peers, Vaakanainen had played in the Finnish SM-Liiga (pro) at age 16 and 17, competing against men while the bulk of his fellow draft picks were playing junior hockey (he first played 25 pro games with the Espoo Blues in 2015-16 before switching to JyP for the 2016-17 campaign). The left-shot defender was just one of three skaters on his JyP HT Jyvaskyla squad under age 20 (Sami Niku-19, Jerry Turkulainen– 17) with a fourth teen being goalie Vaini Vehvilainen (also 17). Although billed as a two-way defender, Vaakanainen’s point totals were (understandably) modest in his rookie pro season (41 gp 2-4-6 +5), but the B’s praised his skating, mobility and potential in Chicago after making the selection.

Shifting over to SaiPa Lappeenranta last season, Vaakanainen was the youngest regular on the roster by a couple of years. He upped his production to 11 points (43 games) and got a liberal share of playing time for one so young, leading all SaiPa D with a +8 rating.

CBS Boston reporter Matt Kalman has a good article published in June that covers Vaakanainen’s season with SaiPa and speaks to several of his veteran pro teammates for an interesting perspective on him. It’s worth checking out here.

Scouting Post first saw him in Grand Forks, N.D. as a member of the eventual gold medal-winning squad at the 2016 Under-18 World Championship. He put up a respectable 1-2-3 line in 7 games and was part of a larger core of late 1998 and 1999-born players comprising that Finnish defense a year before their NHL draft (Miro Heiskanen, Juuso Valimaki, Oskari Laaksonen) . He also earned silver at the 2017 U18 tourney, doubling his production to 6 points in 5 games. The rare player who skated for his country in both the World Junior (U20) and U18 tournaments in the same season (2017), also played for Finland at the 2018 WJC.

The B’s signed him to a three-year entry level contract on June 13 and he is expected to spend the year in Providence of the AHL, but the door is open for him to potentially win a spot on the NHL club either out of camp or at some point this season.

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.

2018-19 Projection

Signs point to an AHL campaign with Providence, a level of competition comparable to what he’s spent the last two full seasons skating in. This means that there shouldn’t be a huge learning curve- he’ll have to transition to playing on the smaller ice surface where he won’t have as much time and space to read, process and react, but Vaakanainen’s natural confidence and adaptability to the pace/tempo, an aspect that often confounds junior-to-pro players, isn’t expected to be a factor.

Don’t rule out UV breaking camp with the big club, either, especially if some unforeseen injuries take a toll as was the case a couple of years ago because of the aforementioned pro experience in his native Finland. The B’s won’t force the issue, but the thinking here is that the Boston brain trust will be more comfortable will trying him out if he gets off to a strong start and can make consistent plays at both ends.

The smart money says that developing him in Providence makes the most sense, but the player should get a vote here, and the expectation is that he might not look that out of place. GM Don Sweeney alluded to the fact that he might not have been in ideal condition for the development camp in late June, so that will be something to watch.

At the end of the day, we think UV is a safe selection- he’s going to play in the NHL, and even if he doesn’t reach the desired production Boston sees him capable of providing, he’s probably going to be a solid middle-of-the-roster player who gives them success at the 18th overall spot of the draft. If you wanted more boom potential from the pick, you’re left wanting more, but he’s a good player.

(Here’s SportsNet’s analysis after the B’s made the pick- some interesting observations)

 

Urho Vaakanainen factoids

Born in Joensuu, but raised in Jyväskylä.  Father, Harri, played pro hockey in Finland.

Vaakanainen’s coach at SaiPa, Tero Lehtera, is the uncle of NHL forward (PHI in 2017-18) Jori Lehtera.

In pre-draft interviews, Vaakanainen said that he patterns his game after Hampus Lindholm and Roman Josi.

His 109 total games in the Finnish SM-Liiga (comparable to the AHL) is 41 more than Jakub Zboril’s AHL total of 68 last season…the B’s 2015 1st-rounder is 2 years older than Vaakanainen.

 

Recapping the Bruins’ draft & free agent signings

Okay, so we’re a little behind here, but wanted to do a blog post on the Boston Bruins most recent transactions, which includes the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas  and free agency, which opened with a boom on Sunday for the Toronto Maple Leafs, landing a true crown jewel in John Tavares, who leaves the NY Islanders in his prime (not yet 28) for his childhood team. The Bruins were in it as a possible Tavares destination, but in hindsight, it was probably the Isles or the Leafs and everyone else didn’t really have a shot. That’s life, but more on that later.

And, if the Isles need some comforting, they had what looks to be a successful draft, leveraging multiple first-round picks and value throughout the subsequent rounds into an impressive haul for them.

First up, the B’s draft recap:

Continue reading

Dominic Tiano: What’s Next for the Bruins (pt 5)- Zdeno Chara

Editor’s note- After a bit of a hiatus, we’re firing up the What’s Next series with Dominic Tiano addressing what could be considered by some as the “elephant in the room” with the Bruins- Zdeno Chara’s future- as he enters the final year of his contract, signed back before the B’s won the Stanley Cup- a seven-year extension on October 10, 2010. He’s not the bell cow defender he once was, but Dom tries to present a balanced case for both sides here, and so we leave it to you, the reader, to decide…- KL

Chara4

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

It was January 7, 2017. The Boston Bruins were facing the Florida Panthers in the Sunshine State, a game they would win 4-0. But the biggest news from that game came when Panthers color commentator and Hall of Fame Defenceman Denis Potvin announced that he had a conversation with Zdeno Chara. Potvin stated Chara said he would like to play beyond his current contract and that he looks to Jaromir Jagr as inspiration. We now know, as reported by several media, that is the case.

Continue reading

Dominic Tiano: What’s Next for the Bruins? (Part 3)

Editor’s note: We continue our series here at the Scouting Post on the end of the 2016-17 Boston Bruins season and 3 Amigo/guest columnist and fan favorite Dominic Tiano is here to provide his informed perspective once again. -KL

TSP founder Kirk Luedeke began this series once the Boston Bruins were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators Sunday from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When he asked 3 Amigos Podcast Partners Reed Duthie and myself for our contributions, I immediately jumped on the task of shining some light on a few of the boys in Black in Gold that have, for a large part of the season, been “whipping boys” among the Bruins faithful.

Take this as one person’s opinion. Constructive criticism is always welcome but it is what it is, an opinion.

Continue reading