Feeling Minnesota

I just looked in the mirror/And things aren’t looking so good

I’m looking California/And feeling Minnesota…oh yeah  Outshined- Soundgarden

The Boston Bruins won their second consecutive road game Saturday afternoon with a 4-2 contest in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild. The team’s 30th win of the season earned them sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division, just four points out of first. The B’s had to get it done today without Patrice Bergeron, who missed the game with an undisclosed injury after fighting Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg Thursday.

Brad Marchand (27), David Krejci (13), Loui Eriksson (18) and Zdeno Chara (8) all scored for the B’s, and Jonas Gustavsson had a solid game in net with 33 saves to earn his tenth W of the season. Claude Julien earned his 500th win in the NHL and moved closer to Art Ross to take over the top spot in team history- six more victories ties him at 387.

On the other end of the spectrum the Wild dismissed head coach Mike Yeo after his team’s eighth consecutive loss. Yeo, you may recall, was the toast of the Twin Cities a year ago after his club made the playoffs with a great second-half run (of which Devan Dubnyk played a huge part), but pro sports is a results oriented business, so less than a year later, Yeo is out.

The bigger issue with the Wild is all of the passengers- they’re paying boatloads of money to veterans who simply aren’t producing/giving the the team any bang for the buck. If Bruins fans think their team has problems, they ought to take a close look at Minnesota’s woes. I don’t think a coaching change (John Torchetti will take the reins on an interim basis to finish out the year) is going to make much of a difference if the guys earning the big dough don’t start holding up their end of the bargain.

After Marchand tallied his fourth shorthanded tally of the year to take a 1-0 lead, the B’s gave up a bad goal in the second period on a fumbled exchange behind the net between Gustavsson and Kevan Miller, who heeled the puck over to Thomas Vanek at the left side. He pinballed a shot that squirted through the B’s goaltender for his 15th tally.

Krejci came right back moments later with a nice 2-on-1 rush that was started with a nifty play by Matt Beleskey in the neutral zone to take a hit to make the pass that launched the Czech Mates- Krejci and David Pastrnak– up the ice. The two did a give-and-go with Krejci instantly recognizing that Nino Niederreiter was sliding towards his own net and rapidly running out of an angle to shoot into the open side, he victimized Wild backup Darcy Kuemper (and Niederreiter) by banking the puck  off the crashing forward and over the goal line before he knocked the Minnesota net of its moorings.

Boston extended its lead to 3-1 when Eriksson took a pass from Ryan Spooner and broke away from the Wild defenders, sliding a backhander under Kemper. After Chara fired a 160-foot shot down the ice and into the empty net to make it 4-1, rookie Mike Reilly scored his first NHL goal and point with a late shot that beat Gustavsson but did nothing to alter Minnesota’s fate.

The B’s continue on their road swing Sunday afternoon where they take on the Detroit Red Wings in an important Atlantic Division contest. Tuukka Rask will be back in net for the B’s, and the fans will hope to get a shot in the arm from Bergeron as well.

5 big Boston Bruins storylines from 2015

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

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

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

1.  Bruins miss playoffs, fire GM Peter Chiarelli

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

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

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

2. Boston names Don Sweeney new GM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 HM: 10 picks re-stock the organizational cupboard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Why Claude Julien is a top NHL coach

Claude Julien (and family) riding the Boston Duck Boats at the 2011 Stanley Cup victory parade (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Claude Julien (and family) riding the Boston Duck Boats at the 2011 Stanley Cup victory parade (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

With 370 wins as head coach of the Boston Bruins, Claude Julien is just 18 victories away from bumping Hockey Hall of Fame resident Arthur “Art” Ross from his perch as the franchise’s all-time leader (earned in three different coaching stints), a distinction Ross has held since 1945.

You would think that Julien’s success as the Boston pro hockey team’s coach (1 Stanley Cup victory, 1 SCF appearance, only one season without making the playoffs) would have him a near-unanimous for favorite son status among Bruins fans, but there is a vocal minority that never seems pleased with the job he’s doing. This post will attempt to make an effective argument in favor of Julien and explain why he’s a candidate for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top head coach this season.

Background

Julien was born in Blind River, Ontario (near Sudbury) and hails from Navan near Ottawa (across the river from Gatineau, Quebec) played major junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires in the late 1970s. Undrafted by the NHL, he worked his way up as a free agent in the Quebec Nordiques system after turning pro in 1981, playing a combined 14 NHL games in 1984-85 and 1985-86. He was a solid minor league puck-moving defenseman who finished out his playing career with stops in Kansas City (IHL) and the AHL’s New Haven Nighthawks in 1992.

His first major head coaching job was with the QMJHL’s Hull (now Gatineau) Olympiques, where as a rookie coach, he led that team to the 1997 Memorial Cup championship. His next stop on the coaching rung was coaching Montreal Canadiens’ AHL farm team in Hamilton, Ontario. He coached that club for two full seasons and parts of a third, promoted to the NHL after helping the Bulldogs to an impressive 33-6-3-3 record (.800 winning percentage) in 45 games before replacing the fired Michel Therrien behind the Montreal bench. Julien’s Habs went 12-16-4-4, missing the ’03 playoffs.

In his first full year as NHL coach, the Habs bounced back under Julien, making the 2004 postseason and bouncing the Bruins in a seven-game battle in the opening round before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in their next series. It was during the Bruins-Canadiens matchup that he coined the popular term “700-pound line” to describe the unit of Mike Knuble-Joe Thornton-Glen Murray for the Bruins. The Habs fired Julien halfway through the 2005-06 post-lockout season with a record of 19-16-6 in 41 games (Bob Gainey fired Julien to be interim HC, then named Guy Carbonneau to the post)- [thanks to a Eagle-eyed reader who pointed out this error in fact- sloppy on part- KL].

Julien’s next stop was with the New Jersey Devils, hired before the 2006-07 season. In one of the more curious developments of that year, Julien was pink-slipped by Lou Lamoriello after 79 games- just three games short of completing the regular season and with an impressive mark of 47-24-8.  Julien was fired as rumors swirled of a dressing room uprising in New Jersey, though Lamoriello would never go into detail as to why he made the controversial move. In a 2013 New Jersey Star-Ledger piece penned by veteran Devils beat reporter Rich Chere, Lamoriello was asked if he had any regrets about firing Julien and said:

“No, because I made the decision at that time with the information I had in front of me,” Lamoriello told The Star-Ledger. “If you could go back and make decisions again, knowing what you know now, things would be different.

“You can’t look back. You’ve got to trust the position you’re in and the information you have. Nobody else has that information.”

Lamoriello went on to say in the article that he did not feel the Devils were mentally or physically ready for the 2007 playoffs. With the current Maple Leafs GM behind the bench that year, New Jersey was ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup runner-up Ottawa Senators.

That opened the door for Peter Chiarelli to give Julien his next and current opportunity, replacing Dave Lewis after a disastrous single season in Boston, the B’s GM’s first at the helm. Julien’s departure from New Jersey created plenty of discussion points when he was introduced as the new head coach, with the news greeted for the most part with skepticism.

The early years: 2007-10

Under Julien’s watch, the Bruins returned to the 2008 NHL playoffs for the first time since 2004 (with rookie coach Mike Sullivan), making the dance thanks to strong play from veterans Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, Tim Thomas, Marco Sturm and others, minus Patrice Bergeron, who was hit from behind by Flyers defenseman Randy Jones 10 games into the season and lost for the balance of the regular campaign and playoffs with a severe concussion. Rookie Milan Lucic became an instant fan favorite, and the well-traveled Glen Metropolit provided tangible contributions from the lower lines.

Julien and company pushed the far superior Montreal Canadiens to a seventh game after wining games 5 and 6 with rousing performances that saw Phil Kessel begin to emerge as an offensive force after he was benched by the coach early on. Although the Bruins were no match for the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in a sound Game 7 defeat, better things were ahead for the team.

In 2008-09, Julien and his team finished with the second-best regular season record, earning Julien the Jack Adams Award for that one, and even better- wreaking havoc on the hated Canadiens in a four-game sweep in the 2009 playoffs’ opening round. However, the B’s were unprepared for a grittier, opportunistic Carolina Hurricanes bunch that prevailed in another seven-game series. This one hurt not only because Carolina beat the B’s at home in overtime in that final game, but because series villain Scott Walker scored the winning tally. It was a crushing setback, and the first real sign that a segment of fans questioned whether Julien was the right coach of this team.

If the end of the 2009 season was a tremendous disappointment, the 2009-10 campaign raised the bar on setbacks with a crushing end that was even more profound than the unexpected loss to Carolina the year before. After limping through a regular season marred with at times brutal play by Thomas which ultimately gave way to Tuukka Rask becoming the starter in January 2010, the B’s squeaked into the playoffs and then upset the higher-seeded rival Buffalo Sabres. Injuries that had devastated them (starting with the beginning of the end blindside hit by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke on Savard earlier in the spring) finally caught up to them in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers, as the Bruins became just the third NHL team ever to blow a 3-0 series lead, losing another decisive Game 7 on home ice after taking a 3-0 lead in the first period only to watch a spirited comeback that left a Boston fanbase beyond befuddled, as the outcry for Julien’s ouster reached a new high.

Chiarelli doubled down with his guy and tied his own fortunes to Julien in 2010-11.

Turning Point- 2011 Playoffs

And so it came down to one goal.

The Bruins had looked done after losing both home games to fall in a 0-2 hole to none other than the Canadiens in the 2011 postseason. But here they were- back at the TD Garden in a Game 7 after clawing back to even the series and taking a 3-2 lead before Montreal won Game 6 to return the series to Boston for what would likely be the end for both of Chiarelli’s and Julien’s tenure with the Bruins if they were sent packing for a third straight year on home ice.

A regular season of highs and lows had ultimately ended well for Boston, and the club entered the playoffs with a new-look roster bolstered by the addition of veterans Chris Kelly and Tomas Kaberle to go with the previous summer acquisition of Nathan Horton, rookie second overall pick Tyler Seguin and an upstart young scoring winger in Brad Marchand who posted his first career 20+-goal campaign. A repaired hip and second Vezina Trophy for Tim Thomas was a huge part of the team’s success as well, and as fans would discover, the best was yet to come for the quirky, yet ferociously competitive Michigander.

As the teams battled in what was literal sudden death (in sporting parlance at least) for Boston’s GM and coach, it looked like it might be curtains when a Montreal shot hit a player in traffic and skittered towards the B’s net before ultimately just going wide and being cleared out of danger. The tension was beyond description- the home team had held a one-goal lead well into the third period before Boston nemesis P.K. Subban scored the equalizer. The old salts who had seen the “too many men on the ice game” against Montreal 1979 swore that the ghosts of Guy Lafleur and Yvon Lambert were about to descend on the TD Garden ice, but then, Horton’s deflected shot goal sent the home crowd and club into euphoria. Julien earned a stay of execution, and his team rode it all the way to the first Stanley Cup championship for Boston in 39 years later that spring with series wins over Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Vancouver.

With that, the “Fire Julien” crowd disappeared overnight. He pushed all the right buttons, got great play from his team and never seemed to push the panic button even when the club had their backs against the wall. To this day, the calm cool with which he handled falling into an 0-2 hole in the Stanley Cup Final, is worth remembering. The B’s battled back to make it 2-2 and 3-3 before earning one final decisive win on the road, and through it all, Julien’s steady hand played an important role, overcoming the loss of Horton in the finals, while benefiting from the best hockey of Thomas and Marchand’s career.

2012-15: Highs and Lows

In the years since the championship season, the Bruins have come close to winning a second Stanley Cup, but have also largely underachieved in the postseason, losing to the Washington Capitals in the opening round of 2012 and the Canadiens in 2014 (both going seven games). When Boston failed to make the 2015 postseason one year after Julien’s club had earned the B’s a President’s Trophy for top regular season record (the team’s first since 1989-90), the “Fire Julien” crowd came back with a vengeance.

When Chiarelli was relieved of his duties shortly after the end of the 2015 regular season (and subsequently hired as President and GM of the Edmonton Oilers) it was natural to think that Julien might follow him out the door (and very likely right to Edmonton). It didn’t happen, but if Julien was expecting a firm vote of confidence from Bruins President Cam Neely, he didn’t get it. Instead, reports surfaced that Neely had proposed a coaching change back in January. Having said all of that, no one from management ever spoke out against Julien, and Neely addressed his relationship with the coach shortly before the start of the 2015-16 season. Countering speculation that Julien was entering the year on the coaching hot seat after the disappointment of the previous season, Neely was quoted by ESPN’s Joe McDonald, saying:

“It’s unfair to say that,” Neely said. “Claude’s a very good coach in this league. [New Bruins GM] Don [Sweeney] came to us with a plan of how he would like to see the team play, and he’s had many conversations with Claude about that, but a lot of things happen throughout the course of the year that’s not necessarily just on the coach. It’s unfair. I know why certain things are said at times, but it’s really unfair to start the season where it’s out there that the coach could be on the hot seat. It’s unfair to Claude.”

McDonald closed out the piece with Julien’s own take on the situation, which was not unexpected given the timing:

Julien has said many times since the spring that he’s not concerned or burdened by his job security. He understands it’s a business and his job is to get the most from the players he’s given.

“I’m good where I am right now,” he said. “I’m not even thinking about that. The only time I have to is when [media] asks me. Other than that I just go ahead and I do my job, and I enjoy doing my job.

“I’m happy to be here. This is a place I’ve felt really comfortable with the people around me, the organization, the city and the fan base. I love working for this organization. I just keep coming in every day, trying to do my best and try to last as long as I can.”

As the old adage goes, watch what a person does more than what he says. And as we’ve seen in 2015-16, Julien has let his actions behind the bench do the talking en route to the team’s 19-9-4 record in the early going.

Changing on the Fly

Spend enough time on message board and social media sites long enough, and the common theme you’ll see and hear from Julien’s most vocal critics is that he employs an unimaginative, smothering defensive system that his players are unable to execute properly. What’s more, Julien is rigid, inflexible and refuses to change his ways by employing more effective personnel packages. That’s certainly an opinion, but those who believe that will have a harder time proving it other than blowing a lot of hot air and getting indignant with those with whom they disagree.

To debunk the idea that Julien slavishly employs his defense regardless of his roster makeup, we’ll turn it over to the Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa. The veteran hockey scribe chronicled the coach and his staff’s attempt to better tailor the team’s breakout to better take advantage of his rosters abilities and limitations, back in mid-September as training camp was just about to get underway.

Now, there is a legitimate debate to be had as to the effectiveness of this change and if, in fact, the B’s players are actually executing this proposed change to a real degree of consistency. However, if you point to the boost in offensive production and the ability the Bruins have shown to score goals off the rush this season when compared to a year ago, there’s enough anecdotal evidence to say that Julien and company were onto something, at least.

When it comes to personnel, Julien has shown a willingness this year to try new things. He’s given different players at every position except goaltender the opportunity to demonstrate their worth, and with waiver claim Landon Ferraro and rookie recall Frankie Vatrano striking gold in key games over the past month-plus, he’s not shied away from sitting more veteran players like Jimmy Hayes for example, in favor of keeping players with skill, speed and the ability to push the pace in the lineup. It hasn’t been perfect, and he’s shown more of an inclination to stick with the struggling Kevan Miller longer than fans and analysts might like, but that is more a reflection of trust that Julien has in that player to execute the gameplan versus other players who might look better on paper, but who the rest of us don’t really have all that much of a handle on outside of limited sample sizes of game action. That’s not to say Julien is right or wrong here, but he’s moving pieces around and hitting on winning combinations. Some of us might not like those combos or agree with the reasoning behind them, but with the team on a roll, the coach will stick with what is working.

Julien deserves consideration for a second Jack Adams Award this season because he’s finding ways to keep his team on a winning track despite a lot of star power on a young, rather untested club. Beyond that, with the way the Bruins were almost universally mocked for the moves made at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, some of those snickering pundits are already coming out of the woodwork to express respect (and astonishment) at how Julien and his fine staff- Doug Houda, Doug Jarvis and Joe Sacco– have put together a team that is not only scoring (104 goals and counting) at a much better clip, but showing the verve and drive to gut out some tough wins. They’re far from perfect, but there aren’t many who were lining up to bet on the B’s this year, and they’re making it fun for the fans at the very least.

The intangibles and why Julien is a great NHL coach

What makes a great or even decent/successful NHL coach?

In hockey, just like any other major team (or individual) sport, it comes down to preparation, focus, intensity and execution.

A friend of mine named Ian Wilson, as passionate and knowledgeable a fan of the Bruins as anyone I know, used to quote the old saw that said- “You need an awfully long stick to score from the bench,” and that’s true. The modern NHL coach can’t do a great deal to directly influence the outcome of games on a regular basis other than giving the players focus, direction, discipline and at times that extra shot of experience and motivation needed to go out and get two points on any given nights.

This blog post doesn’t need go down the road of what makes a truly great NHL coach just that, but in Julien’s case, his demeanor and personality has a lot to do with it. He’s not a taskmaster who employs fear and intimidation in the mold of a Mike Keenan, but he is demanding in terms of what he wants from his players and will not tolerate if they make certain transgressions. If you’re a fan of one of those guys who just doesn’t or won’t get it, then there’s a good chance you don’t care a whit for one Claude Julien, but he’s nothing if consistent in terms of how he levies his expectations and treats the players like adults.

You got a sense of that in the recent first episode of the EPIX-produced hockey show Road to the Winter Classic, where scenes inside the Boston dressing room between periods demonstrated his business-like demeanor, pulling no punches in telling the team where they were falling short, but not screaming at them. Not that Michel Therrien did any of that either from his perch with the Montreal team, but compare and contrast the way both coaches talk to the players and then tell me honestly which guy you’d rather have behind your bench. More than one player has told me in the years since Julien arrived in Boston that they appreciate the way he conducts himself, and the word ‘fair’ has come up repeatedly with them. You know where you stand with Julien- there aren’t any mind games and if you’re one of his guys, his trust and faith in you is rewarded with ample ice time and a chance to contribute, perhaps sometimes to a fault. However, if you’re not one of those guys, then…well, not so much. Finding the balance is important, but lest we forget- hockey is a sport played AND coached by humans. The players don’t always get it right, and neither, for that matter, do the coaches. But a willingness to change and adapt one’s approach is the real secret to sustained success.

As a military officer with nearly 22 years of service, I’ve seen the personality dynamic of how a coach is perceived in a room play out in similar fashion by commanders and staff of general officers. What I’ve learned is pretty simple- no matter how well (or poorly) a particular general or senior leader is perceived by the rank and file and those on their staff who know them best, no one is ever completely loved 100 percent or completely free from criticism. There’s always an inner circle of some kind- it’s human nature. And if you’re inside it- you love your patron. If you’re not inside that circle, then you’ll begin to hear the criticisms. It’s no different with NHL coaches and I would submit to you- any coaches in any sport or profession which requires an abundance of teamwork. When you’re in a business that requires people to achieve an ultimate end state, whether it’s accomplishing a military objective or winning the Stanley Cup, you need most of everyone on board, but if you’re being honest with yourself, you’ll never truly find complete consensus support of your leadership, no matter how effective and approachable those leaders or coaches are.

Successful NHL coaches win the same way military leaders get credit for missions their charges accomplish: because they inspire those players (and troops) to give their absolute best for the common cause. Players want to play for guys they respect. Tyrants will have some level success when they lead with fear, but that success can only be fleeting, because eventually, players will rise up and resist that tyranny. Those who impose their will with an iron fist cannot expect to sustain their hold over those they rely on most. If the reports out of New Jersey are true and Julien had lost the room right before the playoffs (and after a superb regular season), then perhaps that important lesson was learned by Julien before he arrived to Boston and he became a better man and coach for it.

When it comes to Julien, I’ve never had a single player vent in negative fashion about the way he is or handles his duties as Boston’s head coachDoes that mean such players do not exist? Absolutely not. But when guys who play or previously played for him go out of their way to talk about the respect they have for the way he coaches or coached them, you know that you’re onto something good. Don’t change it. Don’t go looking for that next big thing or sexy name out there, because the right person might be exactly where you want him to be.

And that’s  a wrap, but before I go…

Last point about Julien is his personal and professional humility.

He had just a cup of coffee in the NHL, so he spent a playing career trying to work his way to the very top and got there for only the briefest of moments. Without much if anything being handed to him, he’s one who can relate to those younger players trying to establish themselves in the NHL with the Bruins. Imagine, if you will- some of the discussions he had with a young Brad Marchand, who looked like anything but a sure thing when he got his first taste of NHL action late in the 2009-10 season. The way Marchand has evolved in his career since is all the food for thought you probably need to know there. He did some head-shaking stuff, both on and off the ice, but his coach gave him a chance to work through it and didn’t try to change him, while at the same time, forcing him to be accountable. Julien has coached superstars and grinders along with those players in between, but through it all, he’s not let an ego come between his room and the final desired result that only one of 30 teams and coaches can achieve in a single season.

The personal humility comes from a story I was told by a junior hockey coach in Ontario who was part of Julien’s billet family when he played for Windsor and was a surrogate little brother to the Boston coach. The family owned a chicken farm, and between school and hockey, Julien found time to pitch in with the chores. Julien happened to be walking past me at the 2011 draft in St. Paul, and after exchanging a quick hello, I mentioned the coach’s name to him. Julien stopped in his tracks and immediately lit up with a wide smile and immediately began regaling me with stories about early mornings on that chicken farm and how much the family patriarch had taught him about responsibility, discipline, and the importance of being able to get a lot of things done when people are depending on you.

Think about that for a second- the coach who had just 10 days earlier risen to the very summit of professional hockey when he hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head on the Rogers Arena ice, was more interested and energetic about talking about a farm in Ontario.  He had time to dish on just one of the many waypoints in a potential Hall of Fame coaching career,but he seemed to enjoy that more than he does holding court with reporters and supporters. He could have simply acknowledged the name, made a perfunctory comment and continued his path to the Bruins draft table. Instead, he stayed a good several minutes to talk about that family and their farm. It didn’t take much to connect the dots on how much his time there taught him and how much he values the experience. And watching the twinkle in his eye as he spoke about those days taught me more about who Claude Julien the man is…much more than any brilliant game plan or sketched out play on a rinkside wipe board ever could.

Julien’s time as Bruins coach won’t last forever, and regardless of what happens this year and beyond, he’s given the Boston fans a lifetime of good memories to draw from.  But if his departure comes sooner than later, I’ll leave you with one more old adage:

Be careful what you wish for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More cuts on Sunday as 4-0 preseason Bruins roster takes shape

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney announced today that eight players under NHL contract have been sent down to Providence of the AHL. Defenseman Chris Breen and forward Brandon DeFazio were put on waivers yesterday and designated for assignment- they both cleared today and will participate in the Baby B’s camp. Defenseman Ben Youds, on an AHL deal, was released from Boston camp (PTO) and sent to Providence. You can read the transaction announcement here.

Additionally, the B’s returned their remaining junior players to their respective teams, with Jakub Zboril (Saint John- QMJHL), Jake DeBrusk (Swift Current- WHL) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City- WHL) all going back to the CHL. The B’s released Zach Senyshyn (Sault Ste. Marie- OHL) and Jeremy Lauzon (Rouyn-Noranda- QMJHL) prior to the weekend’s slate of games.

In the spirit of and with a nod to the always outstanding Mike Reiss and his Patriots blog at ESPN Boston throughout the NFL training camp leading up to the final cuts day before the start of the 2015 NFL season, here’s the remaining players- locks and bubble guys along with a little analysis on what it all means going forward.

Centers

Locks: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner, Chris Kelly, Max Talbot (5)

On the bubble: Joonas Kemppainen

AHL-bound: Alex Khokhlachev, Austin Czarnik, Zack Phillips

Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci…Krejci and Bergeron…Boston’s 1-1A center punch is well entrenched, and I won’t fool around with the argument I see some people engage in over who is the B’s 1 and 2…it’s a pretty meaningless debate, because without one or the other, the team’s in deep trouble. Ryan Spooner hasn’t had a great deal of time to establish himself with new linemates, but he’s been an opportunistic scorer with the man advantage and is clearly the No. 3 man in the center pecking order. Even if the B’s might opt not to use Chris Kelly and/or Max Talbot at center, expect the team to retain both as veteran options for the bottom line with the ability to play the wings- they’ve done it before. Joonas Kemppainen has been a solid if unspectacular presence in the exhibition games he’s suited up for, and he’s effective on the draws, plays a mature two-way game, and has the size and strength to start the year as the team’s fourth-line center if that’s the plan. Austin Czarnik has been a revelation in his first pro camp after signing with the B’s last spring, using his speed, smarts and quick hands to make an impact in all three zones, but he’s better off playing on Providence’s first or second line and on both PK and PP units. If injuries take a toll on the B’s depth, don’t be surprised to see him get a chance at some point this season. If not, he’ll make it tough to cut him next year with a full season under his belt. Alex Khokhlachev, for all his talent, just hasn’t been able to find the production in his game. He’s without a doubt more talented than Kelly, Talbot or Kemppainen, but building an NHL roster isn’t just about plugging in the most skilled guys on the bottom line and expecting them to thrive. He’s improved his overall game, but if Koko had found a way to actually…you know…score some goals, then you might have more of an argument than the simple “SKILL!” that I have people hit me with onTwitter quite a bit. The B’s need to figure out how to best use him or trade him, but just because he said he doesn’t want to play in Providence forever does not mean he’s ready for primetime now. He’ll have  a few more chances before the final cuts come in, so if ever there was a time for him to impress the brass with a breakout individual performance, it’s now. Zack Phillips was waived yesterday (and cleared) but is still with the team, where he is rehabbing an injury.  Even if he had played in any of the preseason games, it’s hard to see Phillips being in the mix for a center job given how deep the team is at that position right now.

Right Wings

Locks: David Pastrnak, Loui Eriksson, Brett Connolly

On the bubble: Anton Blidh, Tyler Randell

AHL-bound: Brian Ferlin, Seth Griffith

David Pastrnak is not only a sure thing, he’s the most exciting combination of pure speed/scoring talent *and* character since…well…quite a long time. He’s similar to Bergeron in terms of the kind of impact he could have on this franchise, but he’s a higher-end scoring winger and will eventually put together some impressive numbers. I don’t know if he’s quite ready to bust out with the All-Star production this year, but he’ll give it his all. Loui Eriksson plays the off-wing and will go about his business being the smart, stealthy scoring presence he was a year ago when he finished second on the team in goals. However, if the B’s are going south in the standings, don’t be surprised to see Sweeney try and move Eriksson to a contender- his current contract is up next summer and it’s doubtful he’ll be back. Brett Connolly has not had a great preseason thus far, but the team gave up a pair of second-round picks for him and has high hopes. Unlike impatient fans who expect instant near-perfection, the B’s will give Connolly a chance to see if the 2010 draft hype was real or not. Listed as a left wing but shifting over on the right  side thus far, Swedish pest Anton Blidh has impressed with his speed, energy and grit. He’s the kind of guy who could start the season right away on the bottom line, but as a young player on the first year of his ELC, he can be sent down to Providence without being placed on waivers, whereas other players can’t, so he might need to bide his time in the AHL as a third-liner who can grind it out. Tyler Randell has yet to even come close to making the NHL roster since the B’s drafted him late in 2009, but he’s in the mix because of his sheer toughness and ability to make the odd offensive play. Randell’s feet are an issue and he’ll have to be waived to get sent down, so the B’s might carry him as an extra forward to spot play when facing the more rugged teams (which admittedly are decreasing rapidly in number). Brian Ferlin scored a nice backhand goal off a turnover against Detroit and impressed in a small sample size call up a year ago, but like Blidh, he can go down without waivers, so the B’s would rather have him playing a lot than the limited time he’ll get on the bottom line. He’ll be among the first to be recalled if injuries hit. Seth Griffith’s sprained MCL suffered in a preseason game essentially means he’ll rehab the injury but likely go down to start the year and work his way into shape and consideration to be brought up when that time comes.

Left Wings

Locks: Brad Marchand, Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, Zac Rinaldo

AHL-bound: Frank Vatrano

Brad Marchand led the team in scoring a year ago and he’s going nowhere- will keep riding shotgun with Bergeron to consistent effect over the past several seasons. Boston’s big-ticket free agent Matt Beleskey hasn’t set the world on fire in his first couple of preseason outings, but he’s done and said the right things. Working with Krejci and Pastrnak means that he’ll have plenty of chances to find the back of the net, but expectations need to be tempered- the B’s need him to stay healthy more than anything else right now. Local boy makes good in the case of Jimmy Hayes, who has used his enormous 6-foot-6 frame to good effect and done pretty well skating with Spooner. He’s going to grunt it out in the trenches, but he looks like an ideal fit in Boston’s top-9, playing over on the left side after being a right wing in Florida. Zac Rinaldo was acquired with a third-round pick, so even the most ardent critics will have to grudgingly admit that he’s here to stay for now at least, and we’ll see how much of a role he’ll have on the team going forward. If the B’s opt to use Kelly on the left wing of the fourth line, then Rinaldo will have to move around. Thus far, he’s drawn more penalties than he’s taken and played his patented physical style.  Frank Vatrano, along with liney Czarnik, has been a revelation, but he’s not ready to take on a full-time NHL role. He’s better off playing a lot of minutes in all situations and building his confidence by unleashing that killer shot down in the AHL for now, but watch for him to get some looks if he’s productive and keeps playing hard in all zones.

Defense

Locks: Zdeno Chara (inj.), Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Zach Trotman, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Matt Irwin, Kevan Miller *Dennis Seidenberg (inj.)– 8-week timetable for return (mid-to-late November)

On the bubble: Linus Arnesson

AHL-bound: Tommy Cross, Chris Casto

The Bruins are hoping Zdeno Chara is ready to begin the season after taking a hit the other night in action against the NY Rangers and leaving the game in the first period. Torey Krug has stepped up in his absence, scoring the OT-winning goal against Detroit and playing with the confidence and heart of a much bigger man. Adam McQuaid is safely entrenched on the Boston roster, and Zach Trotman is also a solid bet for now as a known entity, even if he does not possess the uptempo game and sexy upside that Colin Miller and Joe Morrow bring. Both offense-minded blueliners have impressed in the preseason and the injury situation means they will both likely make the cut. Matt Irwin and Kevan Miller bring veteran ability and know-how to the mix, and if Claude Julien was serious about carrying eight defenders to begin the year (he said that even before Chara got banged up) then these are your guys. Linus Arnesson has played very well- his ice time against Detroit was notable early for how much of the first 20 minutes was played on special teams and he did well in all situations. However, with more experienced options in play, the expected move is for him to go down to the AHL where he can develop and thrive in a top role. Experienced farmhands Tommy Cross and Chris Casto will help Arnesson form a nucleus of a relatively young but game defense corps in Providence.

Goaltender

Lock: Tuukka Rask

On the bubble: Jeremy Smith, Jonas Gustavsson

And then there were three…with both of Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre being optioned to Providence today, this leaves it between Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith to be Tuukka Rask’s backup. Gustavsson just returned to the team after dealing with a personal matter, so he hasn’t had much playing time outside of an 18-shot, 18-save half of work in Boston’s first preseason contest against the New Jersey Devils. Smith has been a little up and down, struggling to find his game against the Rangers, but digging in and making some key stops at crunch time to preserve a 4-3 shootout win after letting in some softies to fall behind 3-1. In Gustavsson (who is on a PTO and would still need to be signed if the B’s like what they see), the team gets an NHL-experienced backup who has proven he has the tools to be a capable starter should something happen to Rask (knock on wood, please). On the downside, ‘the Monster’ has had injury issues, so even if the B’s go with him this year, there is a chance he’ll end up on IR at some point, meaning the team has to go deeper into the bullpen. As for Smith, he’s a one-time second-round pick from 2007, so at one point, he was seen as an impressive pro prospect, but he has zero NHL experience, so the B’s are going right back where they were a year ago when they went with the unproven Niklas Svedberg, who could not win Julien’s confidence to spell Rask more than once in a blue moon. It would be one thing if Smith had completely shut everyone down thus far in exhibition play, but he hasn’t done that. He also hasn’t been as bad as some folks have shared with me online, either. At the same time, Gustavsson’s effort was in a very small sample size…but then again- you know he can stop pucks at the NHL level, at least. My guess: Gustavsson stays, Smith goes down to the AHL, and at that point, the B’s will probably need to either option McIntyre to the ECHL or figure out another AHL team for Smith- three goalies in Providence is not the kind of situation Boston wants.

Scouting Dispatches: Twitter mailbag #4

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Boston Bruins training camp is in full swing after the rookies had their day in Buffalo over the weekend, going 1-0-1 in 2 exhibition games against the Devils and Sabres. Frank Vatrano certainly turned heads with his performance, but now, all eyes are on the B’s veterans who are back and looking to build on last year’s disappointing non-playoff finish.

With that in mind, let’s get to your questions. As always- thanks for sending them along. I try to answer one per person, so if I didn’t get one because you sent multiple entries, try again next time.

If you had to pick one dark horse that’d surprise all and force his way onto roster (now or later in year), who would it be?– Jason Silva @JasonSilva67

Honestly, I’m not sure there are many “dark horses” who are in line for a big opportunity this year unless the bottom falls out of things injury-wise.

We’re getting a closer look at the three first-round picks from 2015 and they all look like they need to go back to junior.

Based purely on the rookie camp, my dark horse is Frank Vatrano– the former UMass standout scored three goals in two games including the OT-winner against the New Jersey rookies when he helped to force a turnover deep in the Devils’ end, then cut right to the net where linemate Austin Czarnik found him with a shot he tipped home. If the B’s suffered an unusual rash of injuries or just wanted a shakeup up front for game or two, Vantrano would be an interesting player up front because of his hands and energy. I cannot say enough how impressive he’s been over the last couple of seasons after playing just one NCAA game in 2013-14.

Realistically speaking, though- we’re probably not going to get a David Pastrnak-like breakthrough this year. Free agent Joonas Kemppainen was signed last spring on the heels of his Finnish league championship run. He’ll turn 28 this year and so I wouldn’t really call him a surprise- the B’s brought him on board I believe with every intention of getting him some time with the big club as a natural center who plays a strong three-zone game. If he makes the roster out of camp, it will be more by design than overachieving on his part.

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Pastrnak, Emil Johansson and Zane McIntyre take a break during 2014 Bruins development camp (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Where do Pasta, Hayes and Connolly play?- Matt Kalin @katomck1981

David Pastrnak is firmly entrenched on David Krejci’s right side for now, and I think the Bruins will try to capitalize on the potential those two have together, not just as fellow Czech Republic natives but because they both bring elite creativity and offensive vision to the mix and Pastrnak’s speed and tenacity is a perfect match for what Krejci brings when on top of his game. Matt Beleskey on that left side filling the spot vacated by Milan Lucic is a good call- he’s not as big as Lucic, but will bring the physicality to help address the loss of time and space ML17 used to bring.

I’ve seen that Jimmy Hayes (normally a RW) is over on the left side flanking Ryan Spooner and Brett Connolly in early B’s camp sessions, and I think that is an intriguing trio for sure. I thought that perhaps the B’s would move Loui Eriksson over to the left side on third line to allow one of Connolly and Hayes to move up to the second line behind Pastrnak (if you slot the Krejci line at the top, that is). However, it looks like Claude Julien and Co. want to keep Eriksson with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and Eriksson (a left shot) playing on his off-wing.

What’s interesting to me about a Hayes-Spooner-Connolly third line is that this has the potential to be a model example of the new trend towards NHL clubs icing more of a top-9 attack, with three balanced and skilled scoring lines to aggressively attack opposing defenses as opposed to the older top-six/bottom-six design. Connolly was drafted 5 years ago to be a scoring wing, while Hayes is coming off a career-best 19 goals for Florida. Spooner was taken in the same draft as Connolly, and believe me- it wasn’t to be a grinder. If the B’s can figure out how to get enough ice for all three forward units, that third line could give other teams fits, allowing a clamp-down line of Chris Kelly and Max Talbot (and Joonas Kemppainen?) to grind it out and spell the top-9 forwards.

Jared Knight – any NHL upside at all at this point ? Thanks- @pprohaska

If Knight makes the NHL, it will be as a bottom-six, grinding forward in all likelihood.

It’s been a tough road for him over the past three seasons, so the team did him a big favor by getting him out of there and providing a change of scenery. I thought he played with more confidence in the AHL when he went out West, and so I would not rule him out of eventually earning an NHL job. The issue with him is- will he ever justify his draft position as the 32nd overall selection? That might be a bridge too far, as he’s a rugged, hard-working winger but does not appear to have the natural scoring ability to be an NHL-caliber top two line guy.

The deal appeared to be one of those “my bust for your bust” things- where neither Knight nor Zack Phillips, who was quite the hot shot going into the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, sneaking into the late first round, got off on the right foot and things seemed to compound for them. Phillips is more skilled than Knight is, but his lack of pure foot speed works against him. I expect Phillips to be a key cog in Providence’s machine this year, and who knows? If he’s productive enough, he might get a brief look at some point. Realistically, though, like Knight- Phillips is an unenviable position right now as a high draft pick who still needs to prove he can play at the AHL level before we even start talking about the NHL.

I’ve known Knight since the B’s drafted him and he’s a quality person with a great attitude. If anyone can reinvent himself to be that gritty lower-line forward who skates up and down the wing and chips in some modest offense while playing a strong 200-foot game, it is him. I wish him the best.

What do you think about (Joonas) Kemppainen and his potential fit on the team?– davrion @davrion

I think the signing made sense from a pragmatic standpoint- the B’s have an opening for a bottom-line center and the 27-year-old Finn has spent nearly a decade in the pro hockey circuit there, meaning that instead of taking an NHL-inexperienced skill player who is probably ill-suited to play the fourth-line center role as Alexander Khokhlachev is, they’re hedging their bets with an older, more mature player who is more refined and has the intelligence, size and pro hockey experience to come right in and not look too out of place.

I don’t know how effective Kemppainen will be…the B’s have had mixed results when they have brought over older European forwards in the past, but I don’t buy the Carl Soderberg comparisons I’ve seen cropping up on the internet, either. Soderberg was talented, and a lot more was expected of him offensively, but he ultimately played too passive a game and his personality was not a great fit in the room. Kemppainen is quiet and perhaps shy, but I’m told by people who know him that he’ll earn respect because he’s willing to do whatever is asked of him. Plus, having Tuukka Rask around will help him adjust to North America and the B’s dressing room culture.

I like the move- it’s a no-risk attempt to infuse a winner who possesses the size and two-way game (and perhaps some underrated offensive ability) on the checking unit without taking a square peg and forcing it into a round hole. This is not an indictment of Koko, but if people are honest with themselves, they know that expecting him to thrive on the fourth line when he’s a player who is at his best in scoring role (just don’t ask me who he’s going to beat out to provide that in Boston as of today) is a tall order. You don’t call an electrician if your toilet needs fixing…the same principle applies here, so Kemppainen seems like a much better fit at least to start the year. Whether he has the ability to keep the job, however…we’ll find out soon enough.

Could you see Ryan Spooner having a 2008-09 Krejci-esque year (70 points) in his third line role w/ good line mates & PP time?– ETD51 @ETD51

I try not to set expectations on players today based on what others did in the past.

Spooner is to be lauded for seizing the opportunity presented him at the end of last year to establish himself as one of the few bright spots on the 2014-15 Boston Bruins.

Having said that, even though the two players’ (David Krejci and Spooner) numbers are similar at the same age and experience level, unless something happens to move Spooner up to the top two lines for a big chunk of the 2015-16 season, that 70 points is going to happen for him on the third line.

He’s a talented player and if he gets 50 points on that third unit, it will be a big win. Scoring is so down around the league- Jamie Benn won the NHL’s points title last year with 87- so thinking that a third-line player on any team, let alone one that struggled mightily to generate consistent offense a year ago is going to hit 70 points in this current environment (unless there is a major swing of the pendulum that is) isn’t very realistic.

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Do you see Subban being traded or will he be the backup goalie all year?- Chris @FribbleLover

How about…neither?

I think the B’s would certainly entertain any offers they get for Malcolm Subban, but they aren’t just going to deal him for the sake of doing so.

I’m also not sure Subban wins the backup job in Boston this year after as yet not having established himself as an AHL starter.  I’m not a believer in young (and he’s not even 22 yet) goalies sitting and watching games as a backup during a critical development period in their careers, and I just don’t think the Bruins are going to put Subban in that situation when he could be starting and honing his technique/building confidence at the lower levels.

As for trading Subban, I’ve said this before- the value they would receive for him right now is not likely to justify the effort. Hold onto him and see how he performs in this important third season since he turned pro. If a team comes along and wants to give the B’s a good return for him, they’d be silly not to consider it, but while I’m sure more than a few teams would be happy to take him off of Boston’s hands for a song, that’s what I believe they want to give up. That doesn’t help Boston. Remember- the B’s once hoodwinked Toronto in getting Tuukka Rask even-Steven for Andrew Raycroft. How did that work out for the team that gave up an at-the-time unproven goalie talent for an established commodity?

Patience, young Grasshopper. Resist the urge to play fantasy hockey GM questing for shiny new toy returns and leave Subban where he is for now. The B’s used a top-30 pick on him for a reason.

I would like to know the upside/possibilities of Brandon Carlo?- Anthony Amico @anthonyamico

Carlo looks like the prototypical modern NHL defender: big at 6-foot-5, mobile, physical with a long reach and an ability to make a strong first pass.

I’m not sure that I buy into the over-the-moon excitement I’ve seen about him in some circles on the Internet, however.

Don’t misread that remark into believing I’m not high on the kid, but some fans have let the hype machine get out of control already, with some penciling him into the NHL lineup and I think we have to slow the roll on him. Given the other veteran and other pro defenders vying for spots, it would take a jaw-dropping camp and exhibition performance from the 18-year-old Colorado native to leapfrog some of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart. I fully expect he’ll be back in the WHL this year, but as a late ’96 birthdate, he’ll be eligible to play in Providence for the 2016-17 hockey season, at least.

As for Carlo’s upside, he has a big shot from the point, but I wonder about the vision and offensive creativity that is needed to emerge as a true-blue, top two-way threat at the NHL level. Instead, I see Carlo as more of a solid middle pair defenseman who can shut down opposition offenses because he moves well and uses his stick and physical strength to keep forwards to the outside. He’s also on the snarly side and will be his team’s captain this year at Tri-City, so there is a lot to like about the kid.

Just temper the expectations and don’t be in such a rush to see him in Boston- all in due time.

Brandon Carlo- "shiny new toy?" (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo- “shiny new toy?” (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: Goaltenders

1. In retrospect: It was a season of discontent in Boston as the Bruins watched Pittsburgh smoke the hapless Buffalo Sabres on the final night of the 2014-15 regular season to take the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and relegate the B’s to the late spring sidelines for the first time since 2007.

Goaltending played a part in Boston’s early trip to the links. Tuukka Rask and Niklas Svedberg played their part in the unsuccessful season to be sure, but you can make the case that if not for Rask’s Vezina-caliber talent on many nights, Boston’s fall from the top-eight in the East would have been even more precipitous than it was. Draft watchers will tell you that it might not have been such a bad thing for that to happen, but for a team with higher expectations going in, Rask was often the most consistent glue that gave the fans hope that a better team was hiding behind the curtain of up-and-down play.

Unfortunately, Svedberg did not inspire enough confidence from head coach Claude Julien to earn more starts that might have given Rask more of an opportunity to re-charge and re-focus later in the year when every point was at a premium. Boston’s drop from having the third-best offense in 2013-14 to 22nd last year, not to mention the gaping hole Johnny Boychuk’s pre-opening night departure to Long Island certainly put a significant amount of pressure on the men between the pipes, and we can argue all day about Svedberg’s viability as an NHL backup and that his overall numbers (7-5-1, 2.33 GAA, .918 save percentage) should have been worthy of more than 18 total appearances. The plain truth is, however- Julien did not put him into games with much regularity because he didn’t believe in him. It’s the classic saw- don’t tell me how good someone is- show me. And I get it- the statistics paint a better picture of Svedberg than he showed with his playing time and overall performance. But, in the end, Julien had ample opportunity to put Svedberg in and passed, instead going with Rask to the point that the body language seemed to indicate that Boston’s starter was frustrated with not getting more of a break (I would add, too, that Julien could have thrown Jeremy Smith into an NHL game later in the year but opted not to do that, either). The fact that no other NHL team was eager to line up for the Swede’s services after Boston informed him of their decision not to re-sign him tells you that the B’s coach is not the only one who wasn’t willing to invest in Svedberg, now playing in the KHL this year.

So, that brings us to the dawn of a new NHL season in Boston.

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

2. The view from here: Not much has changed in the state of Massachusetts since the team packed up their stuff and headed home after game 82. Rask is still the top man in net, entering the third of his eight-year, $56 million pact signed after the team’s run to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013. At 28, he is firmly in his prime and has a 2014 Vezina Trophy to go with his reputation as one of the NHL’s top workhorse netminders. Like Henrik Lundqvist, a Stanley Cup ring (as starter) still eludes him- he came oh-so-close against Chicago, but the Bruins have taken steps backwards since that first post-lockout postseason.

Rask played a career-best 70 games in 2015, and in the modern NHL, these athletes are physically capable of playing all 82 games, just as former Bruin Eddie Johnston was the last goalie in team history to play every minute of the Boston season (70 games, 4200 minutes in 1963-64), but physics and reality can be two different things. Rask numbers were down compared to his previous and personal best 2013-14 campaign, but plenty of NHL clubs would embrace a guy who posted 34 wins and a .922 save percentage despite having an offense in the bottom third and a defense that often played not to lose in front of him.

The questions that seed ongoing debates, however, is just because they *can* do it- *should* NHL teams entrust huge swathes of the regular season to just one player, then expect them to thrive in another potential of a maximum 28 games in the playoffs? What is the mental and emotional toll of playing so many games under the pressure-packed conditions that NHL goaltenders exist under? Some guys can handle and even thrive in that (see Brodeur, Martin) environment. Others, not as much. And- how effective the team in front of them is also factors into the equation as well.

Earlier this month, Rask told the Boston Globe this when asked about his 70 games last season and if it was too much:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2015/08/10/tuukka-rask-not-worried-about-his-workload-bruins-defense/FbOUF1PxG0QzHgvlAzkkTO/story.html

“No, not really. I don’t think you can put a number on it, but a lot of things depend on how tight the games are, how many games you play in a row, stuff like that.’’

“Last year happened to be 70. If it’s going to be like that, it’s going to be like that again. We’ll play it by ear.”

To those who would wave their hands dismissively over the concern about the number of games he’ll play in 2015-16, my response is- OF COURSE HE’S GOING TO SAY THAT! These players are professional athletes and competitors/type-A personalities! Furthermore, they also have a stake in not making public statements that would allow opponents to leverage that to an advantage against their own team. You can’t have it both ways, guys- you can’t question what players say when you don’t like what it is they are being quoted on, but then point to other things they say on the record with absolute certainty when it validates your own point of view. In other words, I would actually be critical of Rask had he come out and said “Yeah- I think 60 games is about my regular season limit and the team had better play great in front of me or the GM’s gonna have some work to do,” because you simply don’t admit weakness- even if that might constitute the proverbial elephant in the room. Rask played it exactly right, but whether he truly feels that way or not is something only he can answer and it won’t be in the Globe or anywhere else.

Rask gets criticized in some circles for not having won the big games for the B’s, but that is far too simplistic an argument to make and smacks of an agenda aimed at his cap hit. His $7 million AAV is a major bone of contention for fans who think the team can spend that money better elsewhere. The problem with that thinking is- just who, exactly, is going to replace Rask? It’s absurd to argue at this point in time (August 2015) that any one of Malcolm Subban, Zane McIntyre or Smith are up to the challenge of matching Rask’s production and trust. Which brings us back to the current situation: Tuukka Rask is Boston’s main man in net and still very much in the upper tier of NHL goalies at this stage of his career. Should any of the prospects emerge with the promise to stop pucks a the NHL level, Boston GM Don Sweeney will at least have some options to go back and evaluate Rask’s long-term viability with the team, but in all reality- trading an All-Star in his prime without anything less than a guaranteed return (not bloody likely) would be a fool’s errand.

The onus is on Julien and his staff to better balance Rask’s workload if they think that is the issue, but 10 shootout losses (the Bruins were actually 9-4 in OT during 4-on-4 play- a bright spot for them) a year ago says that what ails this team goes well beyond simply giving more starts to the backup.

3. Who’s No. 2?: As Yogi Berra said- it’s deja vu all over again. Boston is about to enter the season with a collective 31 minutes worth of NHL experience at the backup position split between Subban, McIntyre and Smith.

Subban survived a scoreless first 20 minutes against St. Louis in his NHL debut last year by facing only a handful of shots only to see things come unraveled in an 11-minute horror show in the second, resulting in Rask coming back in for relief. You can’t put that all on Subban, and a lot of ink has been spilled arguing that he would have been in a better position making his first start against the Edmonton Oilers a few nights earlier. Either way- Subban has the talent if not the pro experience to play in the NHL. The biggest issue with that is we’re talking about a soon-to-be 22-year-old who has yet to enjoy a run as starter at the AHL level. His statistical performances in the last two years with Providence are fine- indicative of being a first-round selection, but the one crack in the armor happens to be the number of games played. Last year, Subban was expected to take the No. 1 role and run with it, but it was the AHL journeyman Smith who ultimately earned Bruce Cassidy’s trust when the games mattered most.

Smith is back on the cheap with another 1-year contract. He played 39 games for Providence last season posting a highly impressive .933 save percentage. I actually saw him live in one of his worst performances (neither he nor Jeff Zatkoff had a good night in net) and although he gave up several softies in the first 40 minutes that had the Dunk Center crowd gasping in frustration, he slammed the door home in the final 10 minutes, making multiple scintillating saves before Alex Khokhlachev won the game in the final 180 seconds. Sometimes, we have to remember that way back in 2007, Smith was a top-60 NHL draft selection, so it’s not like he’s a nobody. At age 25, he looked like someone who was never going to reach the NHL, but one year later, my guess is- he’ll see time in Boston if nothing else changes. What he does with that time, however, is anyone’s guess.

Having said all of that- aren’t the B’s doing exactly what they did a year ago with Svedberg, who had started just one NHL game?

If I have to choose today the best option between the three goalies not named Rask currently under contract, Smith makes the most sense to be the team’s backup on opening night. But, I also believe the team is risking more of the same in terms of a heavy workload for Rask and very little in the way of a safety net should he get injured at all. For those reasons, I cannot imagine them going into the new season without someone like Jonas Gustvasson or Ray Emery or even Viktor Fasth on an NHL deal to build a little risk mitigation into the equation. If you just threw up a little in your mouth at that last sentence- I hear you. But this team has too much invested in the roster to simply throw caution to the wind and trust the youngsters at this point.

Subban is the most talented of the signed backup candidates, but sitting him on the bench for extended periods in lieu of forcing him to hone his technique and build up experience by establishing himself as a No. 1 at the AHL level would be a mistake. Ditto McIntyre, who doesn’t even have a pro body of work to reference. Does anyone really think that it benefits him to sit and watch most nights when Rask is taking the net and then expecting him to thrive when he goes in every fourth or fifth game? Just because he has the mental toughness and character to possibly do it doesn’t mean that he should. Finally- Smith has to be put on waivers to go down. What if…when the Bruins decided hypothetically to go with one of the kids to start the year, another team lost a goalie to injury and claims Smith away from Boston? It’s happened to Boston before and the results weren’t pretty. If you can remember the 2000-01 season when the B’s were forced to run with Andrew Raycroft and Kay Whitmore (all because Buffalo claimed the immortal Peter Skudra on waivers) in tandem, you get a gold star. That team, too, barely missed the playoffs and would have had a different fate had Byron Dafoe and John Grahame been available the whole year.

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

4. Looking to the future: Between Subban and McIntyre, the B’s have two promising young prospects. But that’s what they are right now…prospects. This team, as currently constructed, is hard-pressed to make the playoffs let alone contend, so there is little upside to forcing either player into the 2015-16 lineup unless injuries or their own play at the lower level gives the team no choice.

McIntyre will play in the NHL one day. He’s got the right mix of talent and heart. But that day is not today, in my view. There’s a lot he can learn in the AHL, and while he undoubtedly would love to make the Bruins out of camp, he’s better served seeing some time at the pro level outside of the NHL pressure cooker. For now. But just because I think he should apprentice in the AHL first does not mean he won’t go all the way. I believe he’s got “it”- all things in good time.

I like the Daniel Vladar pick in the third round this past June, but I don’t love it. He’s the epitome of what NHL clubs are trending to: massive (6-5), athletic/toolsy guys in net that give shooters very little to hit other than their oversized bodies and long limbs. The problem with Vladar right now is that technique-wise he’s a hot mess…he’s inconsistent with his stance and positioning, lets in more than a few goals that go through him- hit a portion of his body/equipment but still squeak by (coaches hate that, btw), gets real scrambly at times with his play and I’m not sure about the mental toughness yet. He’s as raw as they come, but make no mistake- he’s got the things you can’t teach, so why not? He was a solid value where the Bruins took him, so no issues on that front. Like McIntyre in 2010, he’s a long way off from being NHL ready. Vladar is playing in the USHL this year and will either go the NCAA route or probably play in one of the major junior leagues next season.

So in getting back to Subban and especially McIntyre, people love to talk about the shiny new toy, but the Bruins have an obligation to cultivate and protect their assets, too. Rushing goaltenders into primetime before they are ready, no matter how much they’ve accomplished in junior or the NCAA, rarely bears fruit. There’s a time and place for it, and even Rask, who spent two full seasons in the AHL and this despite the fact that he was playing a near AHL-equivalent level in the Finnish pro league for two more years before he crossed the Atlantic, didn’t jump right in, and he had to work with Tim Thomas and spend a good deal of time sitting on the bench before he became the team’s true No. 1. That’s how it should work in most cases, and when fans apply that “fast food” mentality to goalies (Gotta have it hot and right now!), it’s not really the way the world works.

Zane McIntyre and Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zane McIntyre and Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

5. The verdict: Some 2,500 words later we’re back to a basic truism: you cannot win a hockey game if you don’t score any goals.

Rask will give the Bruins a chance to win every night. Unfortunately, for those who fear the team being not good enough to make the playoffs let alone contend for a Stanley Cup but being too good to finish in the basement where the Connor McDavid types (how long before we see another one like him?) fall into their laps, Rask brings little solace. He’s kind of like an in-his-prime Sean Burke, whose at times brilliance on some very mediocre Hartford Whalers teams in the early-to-mid 90’s is one of the forgotten story lines of that era. Those Whalers teams couldn’t make the playoffs, but they were on the close-but-no-cigar side of the spectrum so aside from Chris Pronger in 1993 (Burke’s worst year in the Insurance Capital), they could not build through the draft (trading their 1st rounders from 1995-97 to Boston for Glen Wesley didn’t exactly help either).

Watch for the makeup of Boston’s goalie group to change before camp opens up- the team will sign someone on the cheap with NHL experience to provide competition and see how things shake out. If Smith is lights out, then maybe he earns the job, but as it stands right now, there are far more questions than answers with the No. 2.

The Bruins have a winner in net, but without a quality supporting cast up front, and a capable backup the coach trusts to give the workhorse some meaningful rest throughout the marathon of a hockey season,we’ll see history repeating itself in Boston this year. Unless something changes- even when on top of his game, Rask is not enough to make the B’s more than they are: a middle-of-the-pack, bubble club to make the 2016 playoffs.

(Thanks to Ali Foley for permission to use her photos in this post)

Summer cooler interview series 2: Torey Krug pt. 1

The summer cooler interview series rolls on and Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug took time out on a Tuesday night to chat about a lot of different topics as the 2015-16 NHL season draws closer.

The former Michigan State Spartans captain signed with the Bruins as a free agent in the spring of 2012 and took the 2013 playoffs by storm when he found his way into the Boston lineup agains the New York Rangers in the second round, then never relinquished his spot in the NHL lineup.

He enters the new season on a mission to capture a top-4 spot in Boston’s rotation where he will have to play upwards of 20 minutes per night in an expanded role, but if anyone has paid attention to the way Krug has proven his critics wrong over the years, he’ll not only pull it off, but surprise a lot of people along the way.

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison Foley

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison M. Foley

Here is the transcript from my complete and unedited interview with Torey. Because it’s so long, I’m going to break it up into several posts, so I won’t lose people in the length. His answers are typical of what folks who have covered the Bruins and Krug know to be the case with him- he provides detailed, thoughtful answers to the questions you pose to him.

So, without further ado- here’s part 1 of the Torey Krug interview, where he talks about his off-season, his mindset after missing the NHL playoffs for the first time in his career, how the trades of his close friend Milan Lucic and fellow defenseman Dougie Hamilton have affected him, and how he expects to compete for…and earn…a spot in the top-4 come October.

***

Scouting Post: We’re in August and before we know it- it’ll be time for Boston Bruins training camp and the veterans to report, so can you bring the fans up to speed on what you’ve been up to since the 2014-15 NHL season ended?

Torey Krug: Yeah- I’ve been gearing up for this season and it’s a slow process with how much time we’ve had this offseason- it’s a little bit more time than we’re used to after missing the playoffs last year. That obviously strikes up a hunger for me to get back on the ice surface and play with my teammates, but when the season ended I was able to continue playing for Team USA in the World Championships (held in Austria).

That was a great experience for me not only being on the ice playing against other teams’ top lines- the likes of Alex Ovechkin and others- but off the ice it was a great experience- my first time ever to Europe. Being a part of USA Hockey was an important experience for me because I had never represented my country and I was able to take a little vacation with my wife after that tournament wound down and it was overall just a great experience.

I took a little bit of time off after that tournament to enjoy myself, relax and recharge those competitive batteries because you’ve been in the competitive world for so long. Then, the training starts and there’s multiple phases throughout the summer where you make sure you start gearing up so that you make sure you don’t peak at training camp. I think that’s a common misconception- a lot of guys want to peak at training camp to make sure they give a good impression but the way I have been taught to train is to make sure I peak when the time is right later in the season. So, it’s just been a solid progression: lifting weights, starting to skate three, four times a week now in August, and I’ll make my way to Michigan State next week for a training camp that they invite all the alumni back for and put together, so it’s been a very long summer and I’m looking forward to getting back on the ice with my Bruins teammates.

SP: Let’s go back- because you made the team in earnest during the 2013 playoff run and it was a memorable debut for you. Then, your first full season in the NHL was a President’s Trophy campaign- disappointing outcome in the second round of the playoffs that year, but this is the first time as a pro where you didn’t make the playoffs. What was your mindset as you did the exit interviews to pack up and head home for the summer and what will be important for the Bruins as a team to get off on a better footing this year?

TK: To be honest, it’s extremely disappointing. The group that we had- we obviously lost a few key pieces from our President’s Trophy-winning campaign, but when you really look at it the core group of guys- we still have them to day even though we subtracted Dougie (Hamilton) or Looch (Milan Lucic)- we still have that core group here, so it’s really disappointing to miss the playoffs last year.

What it does do is it builds your appreciation for how hard it is to not only get into the playoffs but to win the Stanley Cup. I was very blessed and fortunate to play in the Stanley Cup finals my first run and you can take it for granted how hard it is to get there and how hard it is to compete in the playoffs, so I think no one wants to say at the time it happens, but it might be a good thing that this team- the core group of guys- goes through this together because it’s an emotional experience and you realize that you can’t take things for granted and you have to really work for what you earn.

I think heading into the offseason it was to mentally prepare yourself for what’s to come. You watch the playoff games and you realize how hard it is- how you have to earn every single inch of ice that you get out there- how hard it is to score goals…it’s a learning experience. Everything you do you try to learn from, so even if there’s bad situations like missing the playoffs and Peter Chiarelli gets fired and people are getting traded, guys are getting moved- you’re always learning and I think that’s an important thing for this group and I know we’re not taking it for granted anymore.

SP: You’re not a rookie anymore and are no stranger to trades and changes with your team in Boston, but the trades for Hamilton and Lucic happened within the span of a few hours, so can you take the fans through where you were at the time and how that played out? What were your initial reactions and where are you now that it’s sunk in that you have new teammates that you’re getting ready to play with for the first time?

TK: Well, it surprised me. I think anytime you hear teammates’ names in the media, you realize it’s a possibility that guys are going to get moved and nothing really sinks in until they are actually traded.

I was sitting in my living room watching draft day unfold and watching (Don Sweeney) do his thing and Milan Lucic is one of my best friends- I talk to him every single day and there’s literally not a day that goes by that we don’t reach out to each other and chat so it was a tough one. My wife and I spent every holiday at their house and a lot of Sunday football days at his house…it’s tough to see friends go. But that’s the nature of the business and I know that’s something that a lot of people say, and it’s tough for fans to understand how big of a change it is for these people and their families to pick up their kids. Milan and his wife have roots (in Boston) and have been here for eight years. It’s tough. At the same  time, it’s exciting for him to be able to go to a new situation. Being on the other side of that, it’s disappointing to watch your friends go, but it’s an opportunity for new people to come in; you get to meet new people, new teammates…you get to gain a new experience that way.

With Dougie leaving it opens up a hole for me within the team and obviously other players as well- there’s a lot of ice time that needs to be made up with his absence. With guys leaving and guys coming and going and everything else there’s a lot to take in, and it’s hard sometimes for the everyday fan to see that.

SP: That’s a great segue because I was going to ask you about the recent Boston Globe article kind of laying out what might be next for you in terms of your role on the Boston Bruins. As you said it- Dougie Hamilton is gone and there’s a spot in the top-4- you wouldn’t be who you are if you weren’t eyeing that. Can you talk about what it means to have that kind of a role in the NHL and based on your past teams where you played a lot of minutes for other clubs, what you bring to the table for the Boston Bruins?

TK: I can tell you that defensemen that play a lot of minutes are very well respected and highly appreciated on teams. With Johnny Boychuk moving and the valuable minutes he played and the valuable role on our team that he played and then you see that when he’s gone how it works out and you really appreciate the job that these guys do.

So, for me- as a hockey player that’s trying to move up and improve his role, you realize what a big deal it is. Dougie leaving…a friend is leaving the team…but I just see it as an opportunity and I hope that the other defensemen that are with the organization, whether they’re fighting to make the team or they’re trying to improve their role on the team- I hope everybody’s getting excited about that. It creates better competition within the group and it’s only going to make myself better so I hope guys’ eyes light up like mine do when I see that opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to going out and earning it.

I don’t think anything is given to anybody on our team. The guys that are coming in like myself trying to improve their roles in the organization, we earn those. So for me it’s about going out and earning this opportunity and making sure nobody takes it away from me. All of this comes as Sweens and Claude (Julien) are going to make those  decisions and I’m going to do everything I can make sure they are making a decision that best fits.

***

We’ll be back later this evening with the second part of the interview, as Krug will expand on how he’s had to earn it at every stop along the way before Boston, he’ll answer the critics who don’t think he has it in him to be a top-4 NHL defenseman, talks more about teammate and defense partner Adam McQuaid, the  2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium and the influence his family has had on his success.

(H/T and thanks to Alison Foley for providing the above image and  some others from her collection to this blog)

Summer cooler interview series 1: Ryan Spooner

Ryan Spooner finally got the scoring monkey off his back last spring, and bigger things are expected of him in 2015-16

Ryan Spooner finally got the scoring monkey off his back last spring, and bigger things are expected of him in 2015-16

The Boston Bruins drafted center Ryan Spooner 45th overall in the second round five years ago, but it took the 23-year-old Ottawa-area native  some time to find find his NHL groove. Despite showing flashes of promise in several stints with the big club during the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, around Christmas of last year, it was looking more and more like the Bruins were giving up on him, as he was linked to several trade rumors and it was later reported that former GM Peter Chiarelli had at one point earlier in the 2014-15 campaign offered him to Buffalo as part of a package to land veteran winger Chris Stewart. In a classic sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make moment, Spooner recovered from some nagging injuries in mid-winter to become one of Providence’s most consistent forwards and when given another opportunity to skate with the big club when David Krejci was injured in late Feb., Spooner seized upon his chance.

Fast forward to August and he’s under contract for two more seasons and enters the 2015-16 season with expectations to be a regular performer for Boston. He’s currently No. 3 on the center depth chart behind Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, but for Spooner, that’s a good place to be.

I had a chance to catch up to him at his home in Kanata, ON where he is spending the bulk of his offseason (he took some time off with a visit to Mexico), and we talked about his new lease on life with the Bruins and how he feels about the new season among other things.

***

Kirk Luedeke: Talk to me about the the end of last season and the call up to Boston- how your confidence ended at the end of the year as opposed to where you were at the beginning?

Ryan Spooner: The beginning of the year was a bit strange for me- I would say that it was the most absolutely challenging position I’ve been put in starting in terms of being sent and then getting hurt and missing months of hockey which had only happened to me (in my career) once. When you miss that much hockey, especially when you’ve been sent down and are trying to get called back up and you just want to play well, that was a challenge for me; I tried to stick with it and stay positive. When I got called back up, that was an opportunity to play and play with some awesome players, so I’m grateful for that. I feel a whole lot better about myself how I played at the end and I know a lot of that was because of the people I was playing with. In terms of my confidence at the end, scoring that first goal definitely helped by taking the pressure off me, so that was good.

KL: On that first goal- you were drafted to score in this league and you had several other opportunities with the team but the pucks had not gone in for you. Go back to that night against New Jersey and that goal and what it felt like to score and how that changed your outlook going forward?

RS: Each day I went in asking myself ‘I wonder if I’m going to score this game?’ and I was thinking how long would I go without scoring a goal and it was in the back of my mind- I was kind of tense around the net. It was a 4-on-2  and it was a great play where all of the sudden I had the puck on my stick and I just tried to hit the net- I didn’t even know if it went in. It hit the goalie’s arm, went in and hit back of the net and came out . When it turned out that it went in, I was extremely relieved. I think after that I felt a lot better around the net, more willing to shoot the puck- that was good to feel like that again.

KL: Two-year extension signed in the off-season- the message that sends to you is that you’re a part of the process, the solution going forward in Boston…how does that security and the knowledge that the team wanted you back change your approach going into training camp?

RS: I think it takes a little weight off my back. In the past, I came into camp on a two-way (contract) and it was very easy for them to send me down, and I just feel like going into camp this year and playing like I did at the end of the season by showing I can produce (in Boston). I feel better about myself going into camp and knowing I can help out- that’s all I really want to do. I want to help the team win at the end of the day, that’s why I play. It’s about helping the team in any way I can by doing all the little things beyond the scoring, so that’s what I want to do.

KL: Given that your coach has spoken openly in the past about you and areas where he felt you were falling short, how do you feel about your relationship with Claude Julien going into the new season based on your time on the club last spring?

RS: At the beginning of the year, I think he expected a lot more of me. I don’t think I was playing up to how I should have been and at the end of the day, he’s going to tell me what things he thinks I should be doing better. I think he just wants me to be the best player I can be and that’s why he called me out. In the long run it helped me; I think at the time I felt he was being a little hard on me, but now that I look back on it, he was trying to help and make me a better player and I’m grateful that he did that. In terms of the beginning of the year he was good with me and told me ‘We want you to use your speed and your skill, we want you to be a good two-way player. As long as you do that, I have no issues with you creating offense,’ so that’s what my coaches say to me- as long as I am good in my own end you can go out and make the plays you make, just make sure that you’re responsible.

In terms of next year coming up I want stress getting better at the faceoff dot; trying to work on that and maybe even start a faceoff in my own zone, which I didn’t do a lot of. I know that it takes time as a young guy, and we have some of the best faceoff guys in the league, and he’s going to use them, but I’m striving towards being trusted in situations like that and it’s giving me something to work towards.

KL: It’s been a summer of change for the Bruins- I can imagine some of the changes came as a shock to the guys…how are you processing the changes in terms of the departures of Milan (Lucic) and Dougie (Hamilton) and the arrivals of Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, plus management in what looks to be a different construction of the club in October versus where you finished last April.

RS: Yeah- it’s always sad to see some of the guys get moved. You build friendships with them and that kind of stuff and then in a split second they’re gone and you don’t really get to see them again so that’s the tough part about playing. At the same time, I’m excited to see what the new team can do and the new additions to the team and I think we’ll be an exciting team to watch- I think we should be good.

KL: So- the rest of August- what is in store for Ryan Spooner- what is your focus going to be so you can be ready for the main camp in September?

RS: I’m going to see John Whitesides, actually- I’m leaving tomorrow morning and driving to Boston. So, I will be there for about three days- just to do a checkup and do a couple of workouts and stuff. Then, I’ll come back home and get back in the gym. I’m going to a charity tournament in Quebec City with me, (Patrice) Bergeron, Jordan Caron- we’re all playing on the same team. It’s a tournament run by Cedric Desjardins– he plays in the American League I believe with Syracuse- he gets a tournament together and gets all the guys and we all play, so I’m going to go out there for about three days. And then back home to see the family for a bit before I head back to Boston.

KL: Will you attend some of the annual non-official captain’s practices that Zdeno Chara leads in the area before the start of camp?

RS: I remember last year I went up around the 10th of September, I believe. Camp opened up on the 18th, so I’ll probably head out there around the same time- around six days beforehand and get to skate and get into the gym there- get settled in and all that.

***

Spooner’s biggest challenge will be to build on the positive momentum he generated at the end of the year, when his team was struggling to score, but he was one of the few consistent bright spots. He can’t afford a sluggish showing at camp given the depth that the organization has, and given the peaks and valleys Spooner has experienced to date in his young career, he’ll be ready to go.

Scouting Post Dispatches- Twitter mailbag #1

I want to thank everyone who submitted questions to me for the first edition of the electronic mailbag of questions. If you want to participate in this effort that we’ll do every two weeks or so, shoot your question to my Twitter account @kluedeke29 or use the comment feature on the blog itself to make your query.

1. Who is leading in the race for backup goalie and how short will their leash be?- Tyler @tylerbingham123

As a former beer league goalie, I’ll give this one a shot.

The current backup situation invites a lot of risk in my view. On paper, Jeremy Smith makes a lot of sense because of his low cap hit and the fact that the Bruins can afford to let him sit for long periods while Tuukka Rask makes a lot of starts. Smith was the most dependable option in net last year in the AHL, but that’s also the issue with him- he has no NHL experience, which essentially puts them right back to square 1 where they were a year ago when they gambled on a similarly inexperienced Niklas Svedberg to be the No. 2.

Some might point to the idea that Svedberg was a serviceable player who was poorly used, but the bottom line is that Claude Julien had very little confidence in him. There are compelling statistical arguments that Svedberg wasn’t utilized properly, but be that as it may- a good backup goaltender enjoys the trust of the coach and team to spell the starter in a lot of different situations. That Julien seemed almost perversely unwilling to use Svedberg when it appeared Rask needed a break the most is beside the point if you believe that going to the well with Rask repeatedly cost the Bruins a playoff spot in 2015. Part of what helped the Bruins earn the President’s Trophy the season before had to do with backup Chad Johnson and Julien’s willingness to give him starts and ease the starter’s burden. Johnson can’t be a starter in this league, but he was an effective backup in his one season with the B’s.

The question becomes- will Smith find himself in a similar predicament to Svedberg? Can the Bruins afford to have a repeat of last spring, when Rask went on a hockey-like death march of consecutive starts without rest because the head coach was not willing to put the backup in? This is the same kind of scenario the Bruins are inviting with Smith and Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre as well- all three are capable options on paper, but none are established NHL players- with Subban alone of the trio even having seen a minute of big league action.

On Subban- I just feel he’s better off playing his way into a more prominent role in the AHL with Providence while McIntyre apprentices behind him. Heck- McIntyre might even wrest more starts away from him like Smith did a year ago, but as fine a goalie as Zane looks like coming out of college as the NCAA’s top goalie last season, he’s still in his very first pro year. Expecting him to just go right to the NHL and then have to sit behind Rask most nights is not a realistic option in my view.

So- I think Smith makes the most sense as B’s backup as of July 31, but I still think the team will look to add someone with more of an NHL body of work, either as a bargain bin signing or training camp invite with the option to sign before the season if the coaches feel good about him. Who that is at this point is anyone’s guess- I thought Jason LaBarbera would be someone to fit the bill, but the best of the free agents are gone, so the team might just feel like going with Smith or one of the other kids depending on things go at camp and preseason is the best option. We’ll see, but I’m a believer that younger guys like Subban and McIntyre are best served by playing and not spending the bulk of their time opening and closing the door to the bench for their NHL teammates. We’ll see.

2. If Koko pushes Spooner out of 3C job, what happens with the two of them? Leave Spooner there and try Koko on wing? Jbench @jacobbench

The short answer to this question is that I don’t see Alexander Khokhlachev beating Ryan Spooner out of the 3C job anytime soon.

At this point, Spooner has done a lot to earn Claude Julien’s trust as someone who has grown up a lot over the years he’s been in the organization and finally started putting the offense together when the team needed it the most. Koko needs to prove he can do the basic things the team expects of him, so until that happens, it does no real good to fret over what to do. I will say that Koko is probably better suited to transition to wing and be effective there, and if he’s going to break camp and enter the 2015-16 on the NHL roster, that’s probably his best chance to do it unless Spooner gets hurt or plays so poorly against a lights-out showing from Koko.

That’s not impossible, but  it is a tall order. I think Koko fell victim to the hype machine that often occurs in the internet age- he simply wasn’t ready to compete for NHL time at 18, but that didn’t stop overzealous fans and analysts like myself from being dazzled by his offensive talent and overlooking the glaring defensive deficiencies in his game. He’s come a long way since 2011, but the team tried to trade him in the past and you can’t overlook that. If he is as valuable to the Bruins as he is on Twitter to a select group of folks- he would not have been in play. It’s the old adage that says if they traded you once- they’ll do it again. It would be great for Koko to establish himself as a Bruin, but as far as trade-worthy commodities go, he’s one of the few pieces that could fetch something of value right now.

3. Where do you see Mark Jankowski projecting to in an NHL lineup? Thoughts on John Gilmour as well please Nigel @red_monster

Jankowski still has top-six  NHL forward potential in my mind, and he was really starting to come on when Providence College needed him to. With an earlier-than-projected draft position comes high expectations, so I believe realistically, if he makes it in Calgary it will be more of a third-line center role. When you look at who is ahead of him on the depth chart, third line duty with the Flames would be a win for him and the team.  I do like that there is still room for growth and development with him, even if he’s fallen short of some of the lofty goals envisioned of him three years ago with his pure points and production, which has admittedly not been what everyone was hoping for. He’ll have to continue to get stronger and play heavier if he’s going to make it in Calgary, though.

Gilmour has the makings of a serviceable pro who is going to have to put in the work at the lower levels. He has good all around ability, but because he has less-than-ideal size for the position, he’ll have his work cut out for him. I personally think Gilmour is a journeyman big leaguer/solid AHL player at best, but I love it when players prove prognosticators wrong. He’s a winner, and if he uses that as a springboard to bigger things, more power to him.

What Bruins dman is most likely to slot alongside Chara? Greg Babbitt @babbitt_greg

Barring a change, I could see the team trying big Zach Trotman there to see if it can work. He lacks experience, but showed big league ability in flashes last season and if he keeps things simple, his mobility and long reach would make for a solid defensive partner. He’s a right shot and while not a physical, snarly kind of player, with more experience and the benefit of skating next to one of the game’s all-time greats much like young Kyle McLaren did with Ray Bourque two decades ago, Trotman might be a quiet but effective internal solution to that which has vexed the Bruins since Johnny Boychuk was sent to Long Island…kind of like what happened in 2009 when Johnny Rocket came to town and established himself as an NHL defenseman when some had all but written him off.

If the Bruins want to infuse more offense with Chara, then Colin Miller also makes sense there. He doesn’t have a lick of NHL experience, but he skates extremely well, would add another right-shot, howitzer cannon from the point, and seems to be a player who would thrive next to Boston’s captain, especially on the power play. He’s not as big as Trotman, and his hockey sense is a bit of a question mark right now, but Miller could be the one who takes that top pairing job if not on opening night, but perhaps as the season progresses.

Assuming Miller plays for the Bruins this season (I believe he will) the Barry Pederson for Cam Neely trade will continue for Boston into a third decade as the Glen Wesley-Sergei Samsonov-Milan Lucic branch continues to bear fruit.

4. I’d like to see Hamilton/Saad stick with their teams for longer. But do scouts think the current model is bad for development?- brimcq @mcqbri

It’s not something I’ve discussed with scouts or management types to be honest, but it makes for an intriguing topic.

Ever since the league instituted cost certainty- the salary cap- in 2005, we’ve seen the game’s economic landscape evolve over several trend lines. For a while, it was long-term frontloaded deals that allowed for teams to bury or move them at short money later on. Now, it’s the dissipation of second or bridge contracts for key performers coming out of entry-level contracts or ELCs in favor of significant dollars- those used to be reserved for top tier talents, but I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift with players like Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad whose cap-crunched teams are either forced to move them or the player is able to leverage the lack of cap flexibility for a change of address. This drives the talk of the NHL’s middle class getting squeezed, which is becoming more and more prevalent as clubs will have bigger ticket contracts and then have to rely on cheaper ELCs or bargain basement deals with little room for the middle ground/solid veteran types who typically clock in at around $3-4M a the current (and rising) market rate.

Hockey is a business- it always has been. But the days where owners and teams held the cards are long gone, so I think that teams and players/their representatives will continue to evolve with each emerging economic trend. I don’t blame Hamilton for seeking a situation he thought would be better for him, and in Saad’s case, they made a decision that they could not afford him at the going rate- that was a tough business decision that more and more teams will have to make if things continue. But, both situations have jolted teams and fans alike into the realization that you can’t simply assume restricted free agents will remain all that restricted for long depending on a team’s salary structure and how much they have invested in the veterans.

At some point- you wonder if the ever-rising salaries and the kabuki dances teams go through to stay cap compliant will kill the golden goose and force a seismic sea change, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. With the Bruins prospect pool now overflowing who would be consider the 5 untouchables in the organization.- Mike O’Connor @mike77ca

The Bruins have quantity in their system for sure. The quality of the prospects is very much up for debate, however so it will be interesting to see how the 10 picks from 2015 plus the others from previous years perform and develop in the new season.

I don’t know that when it comes to prospects there is ever truly an “untouchable” because if another team is willing to pay a king’s ransom for an unproven player, I believe a savvy GM will often times make that deal. Of course- that position is becoming tougher to defend for the precise reasons I explained above as economics and the importance of landing impact players on 3-year (max) ELCs becomes ever more critical for teams who want to win the Stanley Cup. It’s hard to imagine the Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres parting with either one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel for any offer given that reasoning, but I do believe that GMs have to at least listen and think hard about a team that comes in with high-end NHL players to offer, not the proverbial two dimes and a nickel for a shiny quarter kind of trade. In the end, the money and cap play much bigger roles than ever before.

The Bruins don’t have a McDavid or Eichel so to speak, so their situation is different. I’ll take a stab at it and offer these three players up in an effort to answer your question:

1. Danton Heinen, LW Denver U.- I have it from several sources that the one name teams asked about repeatedly at last winter’s deadline was the 2014 fourth-rounder who finished as the NCAA’s third leading freshman scorer. He may not have ideal size or speed, but his hands and hockey sense are top-shelf. As a late bloomer, Heinen has the look and feel of a classic diamond-in-the-rough who is going to one day play very well for the Bruins, so unless a team wants to give up the moon and stars for him, don’t expect him to go anywhere. His upside will also likely drive the team to court him to come out of school earlier because ELC term and CBA loopholes will force them to act.

2. Zane McIntyre, G Providence- The B’s are all-in on this kid, and he showed loyalty to them by not exploiting free agency to get the biggest money or a better opportunity to start elsewhere. Now, folks will say there is no room for sentiment in pro sports and they’re right, but I just feel like that Bruins are sold on the soon-to-be 23-year-old’s potential, character and all-around ability. They want him to be a part of the organization, so unless a team comes in to blow their doors off with an offer, he’s as close to untouchable as you will get. Besides, unproven non-NHL goalies don’t tend to fetch enough of a return from teams to make dealing him at this point worth the effort.

3. Jakub Zboril, D Saint John- He’s the top pick, he’s signed and the Bruins think he is going to be a future top-2 defender for them. Both Don Sweeney and Scott Bradley used the word “elite” to describe his ability, so you can be sure the B’s had him higher on their list than the 13th spot where they took him. They’re not going to turn around and flip him without seeing if all that potential they’re banking on starts to pay off for them. You can almost throw Zach Senyshyn into this same category as well- they have a lot riding on him and want to prove that he was worth the risk they took by grabbing him in the top-15. It’s hard to imagine a team coming in to offer the Bruins a top-6 NHL forward for a raw prospect like Senyshyn, so they’ll sit back and see if their gut instincts about him are proven correct.

That does it for this first edition- thanks to everyone that submitted questions and I hope we can do this again in a couple of weeks. You can follow me on Twitter at @kluedeke29