B’s, Marchand top Devils in shootout to begin 2021 season

The Boston Bruins took a 3-2 shootout victory in Newark, NJ Thursday night to open the the 2021 regular season.

The B’s got goals from Brad Marchand and Nick Ritchie in regulation, along with some big saves from Tuukka Rask in regulation and OT, before Marchand scored a walk-off shootout goal on Devils top player and goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. Miles Wood and rookie defenseman Ty Smith scored for New Jersey.

Observations:

Marchand was the game’s first star with a goal and assist, plus the shootout winner. He accomplished this after offseason hernia surgery that originally put his opening night availability in doubt. If you want to know why he was named a permanent assistant captain, there you go. Although he’s on the wrong side of 30 now, he still shows off his explosive, dynamic offensive element and has multiple years of excellence left in him so long as he stays healthy. His goal happened when he went right to the net and fired home a David Krejci pass on the PP. Marchand then returned the favor to Ritchie with Wood in the box a second time, firing a cross-ice pass at the top of the crease that Ritchie was able to corral and elevate. He finished off the game by going straight at Blackwood and smoking a low laser right by him. Three cheers for 63.

The B’s got a nice lift from veteran defenseman Kevan Miller, who was playing his first NHL game for the Bruins since April of 2019. He impacted the game with some big hits, tenacious defense and a good veteran presence, paired up with Jakub Zboril on the third pairing. Miller’s long road back through multiple injuries and surgeries shows a dedication to hockey that is to be commended, and you couldn’t ask for a better opening night from him. Teammates respect and adore him, and “Killer” showed real leadership by example last night.

Rask wasn’t tested often, but had to be good when he was. He surrendered a couple of leads in the third period, but stood tall in the OT and shootout periods. When he plays like that, he gives the Bruins a chance to win each and every night.

Trent Frederic slotted into the lineup after Craig Smith was unable to go with a lower body injury he tweaked this week, and showed signs of why the B’s drafted him 29th overall in 2016. He played well with Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner, bringing speed and physicality, not to mention a couple of solid scoring chances. He’s big, athletic and tough- a real good fit for the bottom-2 lines in Boston and based on last night’s performance, the coaches should figure out how to keep him in the lineup.

Zboril and Lauzon, as expected this season as full-time NHLers, did some good things and also showed that they’ll have some down times as well. They were solid, and neither performed poorly (though Lauzon was on the ice for both goals against), but the lack of experience showed in moments, and against a better, more skilled/dangerous team up front, there are going to be turnovers and blown coverages. However, for the first game in the post-Zdeno Chara era, they were fine. They’re going to make plays going forward, but they’re also going to have their hands full, too. It’s all a part of the learning process.

Matt Grzelcyk showed that he is going to see a good amount of minutes each night, getting 1st crack on the B’s PP, and on the ice for both goals.

Blackwood was outstanding for the Devils. Had he been off his game, the B’s would have blown them out, as the Black and Gold had the territorial advantage and better scoring chances for most of regulation. The home team turned the tables in OT, but Blackwood made a superb save on the one key scoring chance Boston generated. He was a difference-maker.

Wood, a Nobles prep and Boston College product, was a contributor both good and bad, for the Devils. He was flying around the ice, driving the net, agitating, but also drew a couple of goalie interference calls that the Bruins made him pay for, scoring on both. He also forced a Kuraly turnover and scored off the rush, tying the game at 1-1 in the third period. The son of former NHLer Randy Wood, a NY Islanders and Buffalo Sabres supporting cast member (Yale University) during the late 80’s/early 90’s, he’s more rugged than his old man and is the type of player who would fit in well with the Bruins.

On Zdeno Chara signing with the Capitals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dominic Tiano: Can the Bruins Fit Mike Hoffman Under the Cap?

Dominic Tiano is on fire, and brings us another intriguing piece laying out a scenario in which the Boston Bruins could potentially work a 1-year contract with unrestricted free agent Mike Hoffman into their current cap crunch (while also making a Zdeno Chara extension work). No one does cap maneuvering like Dom does, so sit back and enjoy his latest. -KL

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us individually in one form or another. It has also affected the arts, entertainment and the sports world.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 9 months, there is no need for me to explain how the pandemic has affected the National Hockey League, your favorite team, or your favorite player so, we won’t go there.  

When it comes to unrestricted free agents in the NHL, maybe no one has been more negatively impacted then one Mike Hoffman. While the likes of Taylor Hall, Alex Pietrangelo and others signed contracts relatively quickly, Hoffman waited. It’s not that there weren’t offers on the table for him.

But why wait in a world with as many financial question marks as the NHL has? Were there only one-year offers being thrown his way? Was he adamant that any contract be a long-term deal? Not according to his agent Robert Hooper who made it clear they’d be willing to accept a one-year offer. (By the way, it must be noted that Hooper is also the agent for David Krejci.)

Could we see the two Hooper clients skating side-by-side on TD Garden ice (or wherever they may be playing) for the 2021 NHL season? When free agency began, Hoffman was being linked to the Bruins by many in the hockey world. Over the last couple of days, those links to Boston have been resurrected. As they say “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”

As free agency moved along, we saw the cap space the Bruins had begin to evaporate after signing Kevan Miller, Matt Grzelcyk, Craig Smith and Jake DeBrusk all while waiting on a decision by Captain and future Hall of Famer Zdeno Chara and his plans.

The independent website CapFriendly currently shows the Bruins with $2,982,686 in cap space for the upcoming season. So how could the Bruins possibly fit a player of Hoffman’s caliber with the little wiggle room they have? It’s doable. And they could even fit Zdeno Chara in.

At the top of the list is what the Chara decides to do. You could almost bet that if Chara was to return, that he would eat up the majority of the cap space the Bruins have remaining. Would Chara be open to returning on a deal with a $1.5 million cap hit with performance bonuses? (I believe we’ll have an answer to the Chara questions before the holidays, if not sooner.)

Assume that he would. Would Hoffman agree to a one-year deal with a $5 million cap hit?

Under normal circumstances, the answer would be a resounding no. And I will be the first to admit that is a lowball offer for Hoffman. But we’ve seen in these uncertain times, players take less money on short term deals and wait out the ugly financial uncertainty that sits over the NHL’s head.

Many players took pay cuts. Braden Holtby, Justin Schultz, Tyson Barrie, Craig Smith, Tyler Toffoli, just to name a few. Not that they are on the same level as Hoffman but it’s the sign of the times. Under normal circumstances, most, if not all those players would have earned more.

What about term? Of the 278 non-entry level contracts signed since October 8, 2020: 167 were one-year deals (60%), 76 were two-year deals (27.3%), 21 were three-year deals (7.5%), 8 were 4 years deals (2.8%) and 6 were for 5 or more years (2.1%).

How does that compare to the 2019 free agency period beginning on July 1, 2019 through to October 1, 2019? There were 265 contracts through the free agency period, just 13 less than the current period. That breaks down as follows: 159 were 1-year deals (60%), 63 were 2-year deals (23.8%), 15 were 3-year deals (5.7%), 8 were 4-year deals (3.0%) and 20 were 5+ year deals (7.5%).

While 1-year contracts went unchanged percentage wise, there is a clear trend that suggests players and owners both moved away from long term deals in favor of 2-year deals, suggesting financial uncertainty plays a role.

Even if Chara and Hoffman did accept those terms, the Bruins would still be short roughly $3.5 million. Where could they possibly make that up?

In the short term, Long Term Injury Reserve could be an answer as they await the status of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Miller. That would at least buy them some time to get the cap in order.

But what about long term?

Since CapFriendly is the most trusted resource available when it comes to the NHL’s salary cap. Let’s continue by working off of their numbers.

Firstly, we need to add a defenceman in the form of Jakub Zboril if the Bruins are serious about giving him an opportunity. That reduces the cap space available to $2,257,686.

Secondly, we remove the Anton Blidh ($700,000) and Par Lindholm ($850,000) cap hits by sending them to Providence. That cap space now becomes $3,807,686 and a roster that resembles this:

Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak

DeBrusk – Krejci – Kase

Bjork – Coyle – Smith

McKegg/Ritchie – Kuraly – Wagner

Grzelcyk – McAvoy

Moore – Carlo

Lauzon – Miller

Zboril – Clifton

The most obvious answer if you ask Bruins fans in general would be to move Nick Ritchie and John Moore via trade. Combined, that would clear $4,248,925 in cap space but likely would require taking a salary back in return.

That brings us to Anders Bjork. Signed for three more seasons and a controllable $1.6 million cap hit, he would be more enticing to other teams since he would still be a restricted free agent when his deal expires and much easier to move without having to take salary back in the return.

That would leave a roster that would look like this:

Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak

Hoffman – Krejci – Kase

DeBrusk – Coyle – Smith

McKegg/Ritchie – Kuraly – Wagner

Grzelcyk – McAvoy

Moore – Carlo

Lauzon – Miller

Zboril – Clifton

That roster would leave the Bruins with $407,686 in cap space. So, how would you fit Chara in while still adding Hoffman?

It’s likely that any Chara contract would come with some sort of performance bonus. Here’s the issue: Both Jaroslav Halak and Kevan Miller deals include performance bonuses with easily attainable numbers totalling $2 million. The Bruins could use the bonus overage and defer that to the 2021-22 season when David Backes’$1.5 million retained cap hit comes off the books. That’s just replacing Backes’ “dead money” with even more “dead money”. A Chara performance bonus just makes that even greater. And they’re already deferring $964,222 from the 2019-20 season.

No one really knows which direction Bruins cap genius Evan Gold will take. One thing I have faith in is that he will figure it all out. Back to the subject at hand.

Unless the Bruins plan on moving out one of their core players with big cap hits, the only viable solution to these eyes is moving Moore. And to move him without taking any salary back may just mean that you are going to have to move a prospect or a pick to entice a team. That’s where I look at a team like Detroit, who are rebuilding, stockpiling draft picks and prospects and have cap space. And Detroit only has two defencemen signed beyond this upcoming season, and just five if you’re counting prospects. Maybe you could package Bjork and Moore together to a team like Detroit. Bjork would certainly fit into what Steve Yzerman is trying to accomplish in Motown.

If the Bruins can make that happen then we have a roster that will look like this:

Marchand – Bergeron – Pastrnak

Hoffman – Krejci – Kase

DeBrusk – Coyle – Smith

McKegg/Ritchie – Kuraly – Wagner

Grzelcyk – McAvoy

Chara – Carlo

Lauzon – Miller

Zboril – Clifton

That would leave the Bruins with $1,657,686 in cap space and a 23-man roster. That space can be used to eat up performance bonuses, or be used at trade deadline or more likely to get Chara and Hoffman signed to deals they could likely get somewhere else. Especially Hoffman as $5 million is going to be on the light side. Then again, no other contender can afford much more than that.

The purpose here isn’t intended to suggest any or all of this is going to happen. Its intention is to suggest that there are options and that financially, the Bruins could make it work. There’s been plenty of negativity on social media about the handling of the cap when it comes to the Bruins, especially after GM Don Sweeney signed Miller to his contract.

Time after time after time we’ve seen NHL GM’s work themselves out of a cap issue. We’ve even seen Sweeney do it himself with Matt Beleskey and Backes. Hindsight is 20/20 but he was able to do what he needed to do to rid himself of those deals. Yes, of course, they came at a cost. At the same time, Sweeney recognized it was a misjudgement and did what was best for the Boston Bruins.