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

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

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

This is what we’ll focus on today.

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

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

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

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

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Reed Duthie: Bruins are out…What’s next? (Part 2)

Editor’s note- Reed Duthie debuts at the Scouting Post with his thoughts on what could be on the horizon for the Boston Bruins personnel-wise. Reed is not only one of the 3 Amigos, but he is the accomplished play-by-play announcer for the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. With the hockey season over, we hope to see more of Reed’s contributions here in the offseason as a longtime follower of the Bruins and astute analyst.

You have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to walk before you can run. If this season was any indication, the Boston Bruins as a group are certainly finding their way, maybe not running just yet but certainly getting up to a brisk jog.

Although the end of season / early playoff injuries put the Bruins a hole they couldn’t recover from we learned a lot about this team in terms of heart and soul. The additions of traditional blue collar players like Noel Acciari & Sean Kuraly gave the Bruins an energy boost, while Charlie McAvoy made Bruins fans begin to dream in optimistic terms once again.

But after a hard fought loss where do the Bruins go from here?

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Bruins are out…what’s next? (Part 1)

For the sixth time in as many games in the Boston Bruins-Ottawa Senators 2017 NHL playoff series, the contest was decided by just one goal, and went to overtime for the fourth occasion. Unfortunately for the B’s and their faithful, an untimely David Pastrnak penalty (and it was a penalty, even though the men in stripes once again open themselves up to criticism by not calling other similar infractions in OT) opened the door for the Senators to send them home.

Given the tumultuous season that ultimately ended in what we feel is positive fashion despite the disappointing outcome (the B’s lost all three of its home games), there are reasons for fans to be optimistic about the organization going forward. Here are a few story lines to keep an eye on as the B’s made the postseason for the first time in Don Sweeney’s tenure as GM, and gave the Senators all they could handle. Some bounces here and there, and perhaps a little more consistency in the officiating, and who knows? Maybe the team could’ve pulled off an upset, but we see more reasons to  be positive than negative given where things stood in early February when Claude Julien was fired.

This post will focus on Bruce Cassidy and Charlie McAvoy as the team clears out lockers and begins the offseason. Other parts will look at different topics rather  than generate one gigantic 4,000-word (or more) post. Yes, the posts have been more and more infrequent- what can we tell you- professional and personal life has intervened and this is a side project. As always- appreciate the support of this blog.

Now, for the first in a series of “calling it like we see it” posts about the Bruins and where they go from here:

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Becoming Pastrnak

smells-like-victory

It’s official…we can stop speaking about potential because David Pastrnak has arrived on hockey’s biggest stage and he isn’t going away.

13 goals into the 2016-17 NHL campaign, we had every indication that the 20-year-old’s rapid ascension from late first-round pick (23 teams and Vancouver two times passed on him before he got to Boston at 25th overall in 2014) to NHL rookie to a regression in his sophomore campaign to the straw stirring Boston’s scoring drink in just his third big league season was no fluke.

Last night, the native of Havirov in the Czech Republic, practically willed his Bruins to an important victory at home against the flailing Florida Panthers, an Atlantic Division opponent they could ill afford to surrender points to.

The B’s blew three leads, giving up the tying goal late before Pastrnak put on an electric laser show of his own during the 3-on-3 overtime period, taking a David Krejci Harlem Globetrotter-esque behind-the-back pass just inside the Panthers blue line. After that, it was pure magic as Pastrnak took the puck and rushed at former Boston College Eagle defender Michael Matheson who was caught standing still and only helplessly able to wave his stick at Boston’s young star as he went one way, then the other, skating around the blue paint to pull Roberto Luongo practically out of his own gear before firing the puck into the open net on the far side for his second tally of the night and 15th of the season.

We’re only six days into December and Pastrnak has already tied his career-best for goals in a single campaign, doing it in just 21 games where it took him 30 more to hit that total last year. He’s overcome nagging injuries and a ridiculous two-game suspension to keep pumping home the rubber in a year when Boston’s bigger stars- Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand– have had trouble finding the back of the net compared to their own normal lofty standards.

After Tuukka Rask, there is little doubt that the most important player to the B’s having been able to keep their heads above water in the early going this season is Pastrnak.

To put it more simply, the kid, who is still some six months away from being legally able to consume alcohol in the city in which he’s found a home, is a player.

Even with the subpar 2015-16 performance, exacerbated by a fractured foot and other ailments that cost him 31 games out of the schedule, we all had an idea that this was coming. Pastrnak made an immediate NHL splash in January 2015 after being a point-per-game player with Providence of the AHL, and has never really looked back.

Now healthy and benefiting from an aggressive and diligent offseason weight training regimen that has allowed him to win far more puck battles and drive the net with greater effectiveness than he could at ages 18-19, we’re seeing the pure skill and joy with which he plays the game paying off.

It’s not going to change, either.

So, how did we get here? There are a few important factors in Pastrnak’s breakout third NHL season, and we’ll try to break them down. This isn’t by any means an all-encompassing list of what drives the young right wing and explains the enormous success he’s having, but it gets to the heart of how he’s become the Pastrnak that has enthralled the city of Boston and Bruins fans all over the globe.

It’s the talent, stupid…

With apologies to former President William Jefferson Clinton, Pastrnak was a top-10 skill forward who fell to the final five selections of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft not because teams didn’t think he could play, but over injuries that took him out of action with Sodertalje in Sweden during the 2013-14 hockey season’s most important stretch drive…January thru March.

Hockey scouts typically confirm the players they are keen on (or not so keen on) during this 90-day (give or take) period, and if you’re not playing, then you could fall out of sight/out of mind.

Pastrnak is not the biggest guy, so a back injury that cost him just about that entire range of pro games probably scared some teams off in terms of durability concerns. To be fair, his struggles to stay healthy last year in Boston don’t alleviate the risk that will likely follow Pastrnak throughout his career. Because he plays the game with such abandon, he tends to put himself into compromising positions to take big hits. However, for Pastrnak to slide out of being a top-15 pick at worst all the way down to 25 was Boston’s great fortune.

Here’s the Red Line Report draft guide scouting report on him from June 2014 (he was ranked 14th and would have been higher if not for so much missed time), and you be the judge as to whether this sounds like a late 1st-round player to you or someone who should have been off the board inside the first 10 selections or so:

Shifty with excellent east-west moves and lateral agility- tough to contain. Needs very little time or space to get shots away from the slot or even off balance or on passes in his skates. Kicks passes from his skates up to stick blade in one motion without slowing or breaking stride. Very active running the PP from both the half-boards and down low- makes great cross-crease set ups. Edges well and is smooth out of his breaks with quick, slashing changes of direction. Great on the rush, utilizing dynamic puck skill and change of pace. At his best driving aggressively into lanes- not big, but fearlessly bulls his way through checkers to storm the net. Absolutely loves the game; great desire and plays every shift as if it were his last. Determined battler in traffic. Dangerous in open ice and impossible to corral 1-on-1. Terrific stickhandler buys time for linemates to get open and shows deft passing skills.

In the end, we can’t definitively explain why Pastrnak slipped so far, but we can say that the Bruins themselves valued him significantly more than where they were picking. According to one team source, they tried to trade up about 10 spots to take him at or around 15 but were unable to pull off the deal. Imagine their unmitigated thrill when they stood pat (and likely resigned themselves to not getting the player they really wanted) and he was still there at 25.

Humble beginnings in Havirov

Believe it or not, Pastrnak himself says he wasn’t always passionate about hockey.

We know…that’s hard to fathom in 2016, but despite his late father, Milan, having been a pro player in Europe’s lower-end league, cresting in Germany’s second division in the late 90’s, the younger Pastrnak was not an instant fanatic of the game.

During his second (and permanent) recall to Boston in January of 2015, TSP’s founder had a chance to sit down with the young rookie and interview him after a Bruins practice and Pastrnak told a story about how supportive his parents were when he was in his first years of organized hockey.

To paraphrase: There were days I just didn’t feel like going to practice, and they never pressured me or forced me to go. When I got older and all I wanted to do was live at the rink and play hockey, they allowed me to do it and were there for me. I think that’s important for kids- that their parents just let them take to hockey on their own schedule. It might explain why some kids burn out or lose their passion for it…it isn’t fun for them anymore. Hockey has always been fun for me, because my mom and dad let me develop my own love for the sport without any extra pressure.

Pastrnak said that there was one rink in his hometown and that he would dress up into full equipment (carrying his skates of course) at the family’s humble apartment and then ride the bus to the end of the line to practice and play. He maintains that the humble beginnings for him have been instrumental in his appreciation for the different places he’s gone since…Sodertalje in Sweden, then Providence, Rhode Island…and of course- Boston, where his pure ability and love of hockey has made him an instant fan favorite. He’s a blue collar kid who plays a decidedly more finesse style, but let’s face it- the love affair started right away because he has embraced Boston with as much force as B’s fans have taken to him.

Drive north on I-95 and never look back

The plan was for Pastrnak to spend a full year in the AHL with the Providence Bruins and if Boston was lucky, he might be ready to get a full-time NHL look for the 2015-16 season.

From the get-go, he emerged as one of the Baby B’s top players, impressing current assistant coach Bruce Cassidy with his maturity, work ethic and humility to go along with the obvious high-end offensive skills that translated immediately to a point-per-game seamless transition to North American hockey.

“He wants to be a player and it shows in everything he does,” Cassidy told us in early 2015 after a Providence game played without the rookie, summoned to Boston days before. “I think we’ve lost him (to Boston)…I’d be surprised if he comes back, and that speaks a great deal to not only his ability to play in the NHL, but the way he came in an absorbed everything we threw at him and not only was able to make an adjustment that not every European kid can, but performed as one of our top forwards. He’s a mature, driven guy- you don’t always see that because he has that easy smile and seems like a typical teenager, but he came in hungry and determined and it’s nice to see him rewarded for it.”

Another story from Pastrnak’s Providence days comes from respected Providence Journal hockey scribe Mark Divver, who talked of the rookie going down to the farm team after spending all of the preseason with Boston. Most of the “good” jersey numbers had been claimed at that point, according to Divver, and Pastrnak was offered No. 32- hardly a distinguished set of digits for a forward, let alone the parent club’s top pick and prospect.

“He said, ‘Yeah- I’ll take that number,’” Divver said (paraphrased). “’My father wore 32 and I’m happy to wear it, too.’ That’s the kind of kid he is- some might have sulked at not getting something more exciting, but he took 32 without complaint and then did some pretty good things with it while he was here.”

Seems like a trite and trivial anecdote, but it’s really not- Pastrnak showed up without an ounce of pretentiousness or entitlement. He just wanted to fit in and be treated like anyone else. Even when he was producing to the tune of 11 goals and 28 points in 25 AHL games before he went up to Boston permanently (Pastrnak did play three games in Providence last season going 1-3-4 in a conditioning stint after returning from his foot injury), he kept it grounded and humble, which is one of the things that the Bruins loved about him to begin with.

He took the lessons and experiences he had in the AHL, hopped in a car and drove up I-95 to Boston in January 2015, applying them effectively and not looking back.

 

Roll up the sleeves and get to work

In that Boston practice early in Pastrnak’s Bruins tenure, TSP was talking to B’s defenseman Torey Krug and asking him about the exciting newcomer. Krug’s immediate answer was pretty telling:

“Look around,” he said waving his arm around the cramped confines of the Ristuccia Arena dressing room. “Pasta’s not in here- I think he’s still out on the ice right now.”

Krug went on: “He’s always the last one off the ice, and I think that’s what makes the young players that stick. That’s what makes them special.”

Now a grizzled veteran, Krug couldn’t be more different from Pastrnak in terms of pedigree and path taken to the Bruins, but the two are kindred spirits when it comes to passion for hockey and the desire to achieve above and beyond what was expected of them.

Pastrnak indeed was the last player off the ice and into the room that day…we even had to ask for permission to stay in the room after it closed so we could talk to him. Permission granted, it was an enjoyable look into the mind of a young man who at 18 already understood the importance of hard work, and he pulled no punches in pointing out that he was motivated by those teams that skipped over him in the draft and made his wait at the Wells Fargo Center longer than it should have been.

“I love Boston and the Bruins,” he said after talking about proving “all the other teams” wrong. “What (do) they say…things happen for (a) reason?”

That attitude and the willingness to work on the ice and off- his conditioning has been a critical difference-maker in his rise near the top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaders this season- is what defines Pastrnak well beyond his impressive ability to play hockey and score goals.

As the old saying goes- “Talent will get you in the door, but character will keep you in the room.”

But don’t take our word for it- here’s what Patrice Bergeron, who back in 2003 knew exactly what Pastrnak was going through as another 18-year-old who beat the odds to make the big club right away, had to say:

“He’s one of those kids who wants to learn, wants to get better,” Bergeron said in 2015. “He’s excited and happy to be here and I think we’re seeing a shell of what he can be and that’s something very special.”

As usual, Boston’s Mr. Everything is on point.

One day, there’s a very good chance that Bergeron will hand the torch and mantle of being the face of the Bruins franchise to Pastrnak.

For now, Pastrnak has become what the team has needed most, and he shows no signs of slowing.

(Editor’s note- For additional reading, here is a link to the original article written by TSP founder Kirk Luedeke on David Pastrnak’s NHL coming out party from the February 2015 issue of New England Hockey Journal- this story and associated quotes and research formed the basis for this blog post.

http://digital.hockeyjournal.com/nxtbooks/seamans/nehj_201502/index.php#/10)

 

 

Big trouble

Two games, two goals for and 10 goals against.

Malcolm Subban was chased Tuesday against Minnesota in a 5-0 home drubbing, and Zane McIntyre’s first career NHL start began with promise Wednesday at Madison Square Garden where the B’s took a 2-0 lead on goals from David Pastrnak and Austin Czarnik (his first in the NHL), but were undone by another putrid second period and allowed five unanswered to drop to 3-4 overall.

We knew the Bruins were going to have ups and downs, but to have lost both of Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin…they’re in it deep because neither one of Subban nor McIntyre appears to be prepared to carry the B’s through their current injury woes. Khudobin is on the shelf for several weeks, but the B’s have been completely silent on Rask’s status…that could mean he’s close or it might be the worst kind of news- any long-term injury to the veteran netminder and former Vezina Trophy winner and the Bruins are screwed. Let’s be clear- last night’s loss was not McIntyre’s fault. Sure- he gave up a soft goal to Kevin Hayes (both Boston guys the Bruins courted- Hayes and Jimmy Vesey tallied for the Rangers- file it under “rub salt in the wounds” category) to tie it at two, but he was outstanding at other times in making saves that should have been goals. Unfortunately, the NHL is an unforgiving business and the final score, even though the offense went dormant and the defense left McIntyre in a vulnerable position time after time…that 5-2 end result is what we’re left with.

The defense is struggling, but not in the ways we anticipated. Torey Krug is still not himself since his offseason shoulder surgery. He’s a step behind the play and trying too hard from the looks of it. He’s too good a player to stay in a prolonged slump for much longer, but he’d be the first to tell you he’s played poorly from the beginning. Last night, he was a key contributor to New York’s first goal on the power play by Rick Nash, failing to clear the puck when it was on his stick and then being so far out of position so as to allow Nash two shots to get it in uncontested off to McIntyre’s left. Adam McQuaid, who missed the first five games to injury, is now back and to say he’s not been good is the understatement of the century right now. His lack of mobility has a spotlight on it right now and last night, he was exposed multiple times by long lead passes in the neutral zone. For all the praise we saw Brandon Carlo getting on Twitter last night- he simply wasn’t very good either. He at least battled hard and competed, but he wasn’t effective in several 1-on-1 situations and was burned several times when he pinched up and then found himself behind the play. Note- constructive criticism of a player’s performance is not “hate” but it’s typical of fans to scapegoat certain players while conveniently ignoring the mistakes of the ones they’re solidly behind. Carlo’s a heck of a young defender, but he doesn’t get a pass on his mistakes. Last night, he was part of the problem and not the solution, but to be absolutely truthful- Carlo had a lot of help on the blame line.

We could go on and on…David Backes is out with an elbow injury and his absence could be weeks vs. days…Matt Beleskey is a game hitter but is completely MIA offensively. Ryan Spooner can’t seem to get in gear- the wing thing isn’t working. David Krejci assisted on the Czarnik goal, but like Krug, he hasn’t been himself either after hip surgery. Jimmy Hayes…enough said.  And the beat goes on.

We don’t have the answers you seek. Dan Vladar, he of 35 saves for Providence last night vs. the Toronto Marlies in an OT loss, isn’t one. He’s simply not ready, even if there are promising signs to his development. To those who want the Bruins to go out and trade for a goalie- it’s not that simple. Guys like Ondrej Pavelec (Jets) and Mike Condon (Penguins) can be had, but with their GMs knowing teams like the Bruins and the several others with goalie issues like the L.A. Kings, are over the barrel, the cost is probably not worth it. The type of player that could be had via trade or waivers isn’t going to make enough of a difference to justify the cost. Had a fan on Twitter say yesterday that a guy like Pavelec could be had “for a song,” and perhaps that person is right, but we would submit that unless that song is future considerations or unless Rask is gone for the foreseeable future, what is the point of giving up a pick or prospect just to be stuck with three NHL goalies and a mediocre one in Pavelec when Boston’s 1-2 goalies return to health?

The goaltending position is not the issue here. Yes, Subban and McIntyre aren’t likely to be the answer in the short term, but with the defense and offense misfiring badly, that need not be the focus for change. GM Don Sweeney knew coming in that his D wasn’t very good and was hoping they would surprise and overachieve. That hasn’t happened, and the struggles are now magnified without the top net minding talents, so here we are.

With the schedule getting tougher, it sure looks like things are going to get worse before they get better, but for now- we’ll have to wait for the other shoe to drop on Rask. We’re seven games in, and you’d think the team is 0-7 as opposed to 3-4 but the woes are exacerbated by the knowledge that the defense was a problem area going in. The team was counting on Krug to be a key cog, and right now, he’s not delivered- that puts pressure on everyone else. Colin Miller looks great…at not accomplishing much. We just don’t think he has the vision and head to be anything more than a role player who can chip in with offense but who doesn’t process the game quickly enough to be an effective player in his own end. John-Michael Liles has not been good and looks like he’s 36 after giving the B’s a shot in the arm when he first arrived at the trade deadline last year. Zdeno Chara and Carlo have been the bright spots, but let’s be honest- it’s a mediocre group. We all know it…counting on Kevan Miller to stabilize the blue line play is a pipe dream, too- he’s just not that player. That means some kind of change has got to happen at some point, and the change must be meaningful, otherwise we’re just papering over what is holding the Bruins back.

That’s on management to figure out.

Brad Marcha-ching!

Just in case you missed it- the Boston Bruins came back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits against the Columbus Blue Jackets to win their first game of the 2016-17 NHL regular season, thanks in huge part to Brad Marchand’s two goal, five-point night (the second of his career). Marchand and linemates David Backes (2 goals, 3 points) and David Pastrnak (2 goals, 4 points) provided all of the B’s offense in a 6-3 win.

There were a lot of positive storylines to the victory. Boston continued the 2015-16 trend of being road warriors. To whit- the B’s didn’t win their first game last season until the fourth contest on the schedule, dropping its first three home games before winning on the road against Colorado.

In Columbus, it was the Marchand Show, however. Before he went on a tear in the final period, he stood out with inspired play, establishing himself as a puck possession machine while bringing his trademark speed and energy. With Patrice Bergeron out with a lower body injury, Marchand and Backes didn’t miss a beat, putting the home team on their heels once the visiting club managed to tie the game on Backes’ second tally of the second period.

After that, Marchand took over, underscoring why he was Boston’s MVP a season ago and validating the wisdom behind GM Don Sweeney’s move to lock him up to an eight-year, $49 million extension before the season began.

The 71st overall selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft has clearly established himself as one of hockey’s elite players. He always had a penchant for big-game play, developing a reputation as a clutch scorer in key playoff and international tournament play as a junior in the QMJHL and in his rookie AHL campaign with the Providence Bruins in 2009. Marchand’s 293 points are by far the best of any third-round player taken in ’06 (Cal Clutterbuck is next with 169 points…in 82 more games played). In rounds 4-7 no one else is even close to Marchand’s point totals, and he’s climbing on many of the guys taken ahead of him in rounds 1-2 as well. Only 10 players drafted between picks 1-70 have more career offense than Marchand does, and you can bet he’ll move up on the list as he hits the prime years of his career.

When younger, Marchand’s questionable discipline on and off the ice distracted from his emergence as one of Boston’s go-to guys, beginning in 2010-11, when he became a full-time NHLer, until last season. He wore the alternate captain’s ‘A’ for one game, then received a suspension for low-bridging Ottawa defender Mark Borowiecki, and losing the leadership symbol. However, if that was one bump in an otherwise outstanding hockey season (37 goals), Marchand is out to prove to the world that he is every bit as good as he looked in the World Cup of Hockey last month, combining with Sidney Crosby and Bergeron to form one of hockey’s most lethal lines for the ages. It was like something out of a Fantasy Hockey nightmare, as opponents of Team Canada discovered, as the trio rode the showcase’s wave all the way to the title.

With Crosby and Bergeron both out of the first games of the new NHL season, Marchand took it upon himself to grab the spotlight (along with super rook Auston Matthews) and even the most ardent fans who dislike Marchand’s style and antics have to grudgingly admit that he is one of the league’s top performers.

The Bruins knew it. That’s why they made sure he didn’t hit the open market next July.

But to think that Boston got him for an annual value of a little over $6M per season is a gift that appears sure to keep on giving. At 28, Marchand is primed for even more.

Here’s a highlight package from Marchand’s night in Ohio compliments of Dafoomie- you can follow him on Twitter:

Time to go- Bruins raise curtains on 93rd season with new faces, youth movement

New Englanders tend to be realistic (pessimistic?) by nature, so while the focus has been on the defense and the potential for gaping lanes that skill teams will find available to them, as the 2016-17 NHL season begins for the Boston Bruins tonight in Columbus, Ohio, there’s some excitement swirling around the big league debuts of four players in the lineup.

Injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller have opened the door for a pair of forwards in Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen, and a defense duo of Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara to get their first taste of NHL action against the Blue Jackets. Bergeron is expected back in the lineup for the weekend action versus Toronto and rookie sensation Auston Matthews, who last night became the only player ever to score four goals in his first NHL game. McQuaid and Miller will be out a little (in the former’s case, a lot for the latter) longer, so we temper the eagerness with which we greet the young rookies with the belief that perhaps half of them have a realistic chance of staying on Boston’s roster for the duration of the season.

In Czarnik, the B’s have a fast and skilled little (emphasis needed) center who was snubbed in the NHL draft, but looks like a pretty savvy pickup after four years at Miami University, the last two of which he wore the captain’s ‘C’. He took a high hit from behind that targeted the head in the final preseason game by Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas (he got a six-game layoff from the NHL’s department of player safety) but cleared the concussion protocol in time to play in his first big league game. Czarnik is a classic little engine that could as a player who always had to overcome size bias to work harder than just about everyone else to hone his skills and three zone game. After a 61-point first year in the AHL, he’s made the initial cut to stick in Boston, and that’s the stuff NHL dreams are truly made of. Czarnik is an exciting buzzsaw of a forward- he zips in and out of lanes and can put the shake n’ bake on less-agile defenders. When the puck is on his stick, he brings a similar kind of playing style to that of Brad Marchand. Note- we’re not saying he is the next Marchand, but you can see it in the way he uses his speed, vision and hands to create and give opponents fits. He’s not the abrasive agitator Marchand is, but Czarnik is a big man trapped in a little man’s body who plays the game with heart and energy. Fans love an underdog, and when coupled with Czarnik’s electrifying offensive element, it’s not hard to understand why so many are jumping on the AC Train.

More was expected of Heinen and he entered training camp as a prohibitive favorite to win a spot with the big club, but he is also a feel-good story. Passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility in 2013, the British Columbia native hit a significant growth spurt and then opened eyes as captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles. The Bruins liked Heinen enough to snatch him in the 2014 draft’s fourth round despite his being an almost complete unknown in NHL draft pubs. The rumor at the time was that several other teams were hoping to steal Heinen later on, not the least of which was none other than the Montreal Canadiens. That story isn’t verified, but damn- it feels good to B’s fans to hear it. Heinen is a thinking fan’s hockey player- he’s not especially fast or dazzling in the way he handles the puck, but he goes to the right spots, moves it to the correct spaces and plays a quietly effective and productive three-zone game. He’s the quintessential Claude Julien-style forward because he’s both intelligent and efficient. If you’re expecting to be entertained by Heinen, you’ll probably wonder what the hype is about, but if you watch the wall work, the way he slices through layers of defenses and puts himself in position to make plays at both ends of the ice, you’ll gain an appreciation for him.

On the defensive side of things, Carlo is a favorite of those B’s fans who religiously follow the NHL draft and Boston’s prospect development system. Picked 37th overall in 2015, he looks like a brilliant pick in hindsight as his natural 6-foot-5-inch size, mobility and reach instantly jump out at you. Back in 1997, a young Hal Gill caught the eye of fans because he was 6-7, and was the biggest cat in the NHL before some guy named Zdeno Chara showed up on Long Island about a year later. The thing about Carlo is that while he’s not quite as tall as Gill, he’s a better skater and has long arms, therefore brings a similar reach. Fans are excited about Carlo because he’s big and fluid and does a real good job of keeping opposing forwards from walking straight to the net…a turnstile he is not. The jury is out on how much offensive hockey sense/creativity Carlo has, but he’s certainly not limited in terms of being able to handle the puck and join the rush. Having said all that, there will be natural growing pains as is with the case with any 19-year-old defenseman, but to the Coloradan’s credit, he impressed a year ago in his first NHL training camp and exhibition season and then carried that forward to make the Boston Bruins before age 20. He’s not a snarly, intimidating beast on the physical side, but he will rub guys out and is sure to be well-liked in the dressing room because he’s got an even-keeled personality.

Last but not least is O’Gara- a TSP personal favorite going back to 2010-11 when he left the Long Island Royals AAA midget program to win a prep championship with the Milton Academy Mustangs. The B’s drafted him with the final selection of the fifth round, and he was described by then-assistant GM Don Sweeney as a “big piece of clay” that required a great deal of molding and shaping. Five years later, the 23-year-old Yale grad might not be a finished product, but he’s close enough and tonight will earn a status no one can take away from him- NHL player. O’Gara is a good skater- it’s less about speed and stride with him than it is fluid and agile footwork, which allows him to pivot and change direction quickly and efficiently. He’s got size and reach…and he can make an effective outlet pass to aid in the transition game. Like Carlo, there are sure to be mistakes and mishaps, but O’Gara is smart and motivated- he’s a quick study and character guy who has been around long enough that he understands the system and is ready to prove himself. It might mean more of an apprenticeship in Providence when other players return, but for now, O’Gara has earned the opportunity and will begin on the second pairing with Torey Krug on the right side (ROG shoots left, so it speaks volumes about the level of trust he’s earned that the Boston coaching staff is fine with him playing his “off” side).

David Backes will skate on a line tonight with Marchand and David Pastrnak if nothing changes between now and puck drop, and with Bergeron out (albeit temporarily), maybe bringing in an experienced veteran center wasn’t such a bad idea after all. David Krejci has a great deal to prove, and with Heinen and Ryan Spooner flanking him, there’s no shortage of offensive creativity on that unit. Spooner’s speed is a welcome addition to the lessened pace of Krejci and Heinen, but the trio provide quite an intriguing matchup on paper. All three of them are or have been centers before, so that’s a line that gives Julien a lot of flexibility and versatility.

Czarnik will likely test his NHL mettle with Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. Beleskey doesn’t have the high-end skill to put up big numbers (and he’d be on the top two lines in any event if that were the case) but he’s gritty and should develop some chemistry with Czarnik. Hayes is the wild card- the B’s desperately need a revival from him this season much like Reilly Smith had with Florida a year ago. It would be foolish to think that Hayes doesn’t want to make it work in Boston, but he’ll have to shrug off the external pressures and get down to the basics by just doing what he does best. He doesn’t have either of his linemates’ wheels, so it will be interesting to see if they have some set plays to leverage Hayes as a trailer into the zone with his soft hands and big shot.

Tim Schaller is back up with Boston with Bergeron out and may get a chance to skate with Noel Acciari and Dominic Moore, but the guess here is that Riley Nash will round out the fourth line. It’s not a nasty unit in terms of abundant physicality, but they’ll all grind it out and bring some veteran smarts to go with Acciari’s exuberance.

Defensively, the Bruins need their veterans- Chara, Krug and John-Michael Liles– to provide some glue for the younger guys- Carlo (Chara), O’Gara (Krug) and Colin Miller (Liles) as they shake out the butterflies and deal with the immense difference in speed, skill and pace from what they are used to. Chiller got enough action in last year, and Joe Morrow is also around to step in should anyone get hurt or falter, but this is an untested bunch and the biggest source of consternation with the 2016-17 Bruins.

Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin were the tandem in Boston’s net the last time the B’s went to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013, so there are no concerns with the talent or experience. They can’t carry a team on their backs, though- so everyone will have to row hard in the same direction. If the talent gap becomes too great, then Sweeney will have to act at some point.

That’s all going to have to wait for the time being, because this is what the B’s are going with to begin the new season.

As the Dropkick Murphys so aptly like to belt out- drop the puck…it’s time to go. (Thanks BruinsBabe176)

2016-17 Boston Bruins preview series 2: the Right Wings

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

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

After a bit of a hiatus, we’re back to continue the 2016-17 Boston Bruins season preview by breaking down each position and analyzing where the B’s sit going into the new hockey campaign.

We started out with the centers, and if you haven’t seen it yet and listened to the companion podcast, you can check that out here.

Today, we’re looking at the right wings- another pretty solid position of strength for the B’s. Loui Eriksson is gone, having signed with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1, but the B’s signed David Backes from the St. Louis Blues on the same day. The conventional thought is that Backes will remain in his capacity as a center, but with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci solidly established as the 1-2 punch up the middle, it makes quite a bit of sense that the B’s will take their 5-year, $30 million investment and put him over on the right side with Bergeron and left wing Brad Marchand, who tallied 37 goals last season.

Expected to skate on the right side with Krejci is fellow Czech and David- David Pastrnak. After an electrifying NHL debut in the latter half of the 2014-15 NHL season, the 25th overall pick in 2014 struggled out of the gate last year and then was felled by a foot injury that cost him about 30 games and much of his offensive jump and effectiveness. This is an important season for the David Squared duo, as a healthy and productive Krejci and Pastrnak will be needed to take some of the pressure off of the top line.

Third line is where there could be some opportunities for change. Right now, Dorchester native Jimmy Hayes is the guy to fill that spot on paper. Even with the disappointing season a year ago, Hayes should not be written off yet. Consistency was the biggest thing with the 6-5, 215-pound former second-round pick in 2008. When on his game, Hayes is capable of scoring goals and adding offense both off the rush and in close where he uses his gigantic frame and long arms to pounce on loose pucks. Hayes was an easy scapegoat last year, and he does need to own the fact that when the team needed his offensive production the most, he went largely MIA down the stretch. Having said that, he’s young (turns 27 in November) and talented enough to raise his game and surpass the 20-goal mark, but he’ll have to get back to basics and start with the little things that brought him success in Florida, when he tallied his career-best 19 goals in 2014-15. When you look at Hayes’ possession stats, there’s a case to be made that he’s more effective than he gets credit for, and given his contract structure when compared to others around the NHL, he didn’t exactly embarrass himself. Hayes is never going to be a top-level player, but he has more to offer and if the B’s can get it from him this season, he can be an asset.

If Hayes falters, rookie forward Danton Heinen could fill the void on that third line. A fourth-round pick in 2014, Heinen spent two highly productive NCAA seasons with Denver University before turning pro with Boston last April. The British Columbia native by way of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles is a slick, cerebral playmaking wing who can skate on each of the forward positions, but saw his most production as the RW on the famed “Pacific Rim Line” last season with Toronto free agent signing Trevor Moore and Sharks second-rounder Dylan Gambrell. Heinen could be best served by playing a lot in the AHL, but of all the prospect forwards in camp this month, he’s the one guy who has the best mix of skill, maturity and a three-zone game- all of which should combine to impress Claude Julien and the other Boston coaches (Joe Sacco, Jay Pandolfo, Bruce Cassidy).

On the fourth line, the B’s added free agent forward Riley Nash in July, and as a rugged, versatile forward, the 27-year-old right-shooting former first-rounder in 2007 is good for about 20-30 points while playing that grinding, checking style that is valuable on the bottom unit. There’s not much to get excited about here, but the former Cornell Big Red point-per-game guy gives you NHL experience, physicality and the example that will help to build team cohesion.

Like Backes, we previewed Peter Mueller at center, but in all likelihood, he’ll compete for a roster spot at the RW position as the eighth overall pick in 2006 has spent more of his pro career flanked out wide as opposed to playing in the middle. Temper expectations with him, but if he plays well and earns a contract, his presence allows B’s GM some flexibility to add assets in a potential trade deal for a much-needed defenseman. Mueller has the size and hands to be an effective bottom-six player, but one only knows how he’ll look after spending the last three seasons in Europe. At one point, he looked like an NHL star, so it’s not a bad risk to take as a PTO invite to camp- nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Other right wings in the mix vying for NHL jobs are Seth Griffith, Brian Ferlin and Tyler Randell– all impact performers for the Providence Bruins. Of the three, Randell is the one who is best positioned to come out of camp with a job- he scored six goals in 27 NHL games last season- his first taste of big league action after being drafted in 2009 (and shot an unsustainable 33.3 percent as well). He’s rugged and tough- even though he lacks speed, the B’s can carry him as a 13th forward and plug and play him into the roster as needed. I like that he showed enough to stick around long after other players likely would have been given up on.

Some of the prospects that fans are eagerly looking forward to are 45-goal man Zach Senyshn, drafted 15th overall in 2015. Although he’s struggled with mono and a recent emergency appendectomy that will cost him the rookie tournament portion of camp. He’s big, fast, skilled and ready to take a big next step forward. This year is probably not Zach’s year to make it in Boston, but that’s not a knock on him- not everyone can play in the NHL as a teen, but the patience will likely pay off- he’s a player.

Also talked Swedish forward Oskar Steen, who is listed as a center but plays right wing and projects as a wing at the pro level in North America. Steen is a Bruins-type of player and was a favorite of scout and former Boston cult hero P.J. Axelsson.

Also not covered in the podcast, but Notre Dame right wing Anders Bjork had a very good sophomore season, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring (35 points in as many games). He’s a gritty, fast, high-energy player, but also showed off some impressive offense. Watch for the Bruins to try and sign him this spring to avoid him going back to school for a fourth year and becoming a free agent in 2018. It will be interesting to see what the Wisconsin native does.

Justin Hickman also has promise as a second-year pro as a big power forward who can bang and add some offense after struggling a bit to find his niche. Don’t count the former Seattle Thunderbirds captain out- he was a sought-after undrafted free agent and shows a willingness to scrap and fight for his team.

Now, you’ve read the post- listen to the podcast (I also talk a little 2017 NHL draft and Shane Bowers)! Will be back in this week to break down the left wings next. Thanks for reading/listening.

 

 

Report: Keith Gretzky to Oilers as assistant GM

Multiple reports on Twitter to include the esteemed Bob McKenzie have Bruins amateur scouting chief Keith Gretzky heading west to join former B’s GM Peter Chiarelli as part of the Edmonton Oilers braintrust. I chatted with a Boston team source who didn’t confirm it, but indicated it was a done deal, so all we do now is wait for the official announcement.

Gretzky, who joined the B’s scouting staff during the 2011-12 season after being let go from his previous post as chief scout for the Arizona Coyotes. Gretzky was promoted to the head scout position in Boston in August 2013, replacing Wayne Smith.

The move is not all that surprising, as Chiarelli brought the younger brother of Wayne Gretzky to Boston as a scout and then elevated him to head up the team’s drafting efforts after two seasons in a crossover capacity.

In the three drafts since, more optimism accompanied Boston’s efforts. Gretzky and Co. hit immediately on David Pastrnak, who slipped to 25th overall. However, every other player from that 2014 draft class looks promising as well: Ryan Donato enters his sophomore season at Harvard and is primed for bigger things in Cambridge. Danton Heinen has done nothing but impress after being an unknown plucked out of the BCHL in his second year of NHL draft eligibility, posting two prolific scoring years as Denver University. Heinen could win a job in Boston right away given his skill level and versatility. Anders Bjork was a fifth-round find and gem, who led the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in scoring as a sophomore, and even seventh-rounder Emil Johansson shows promise for being a late pick.

Gretzky’s 2015 draft could pay big dividends for Boston as well, even if some of the choices in the first round were not popular ones at the time. With 10 picks thanks to the Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic trades, the B’s have a bevy of prospects with a trio of second-rounders who have generated buzz in their own right. Time will tell whether not picking one or two of forwards Kyle Connor, Colin White and Mathew Barzal will hurt Boston in the long term, but Boston’s first six choices all seem to be developing, with 37th overall pick Brandon Carlo having the best chance to play in the NHL this season. Zach Senyshyn and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson show real promise at key forward positions (RW, C) and the B’s appear to have some potential in huge but lithe goalie Daniel Vladar (3rd round) and agitating winger Jesse Gabrielle. The B’s can’t employ all 10 of their draft picks from 2015, but they’re going to hit on a few at least.

This past June, Gretzky and his scouts went with Charlie McAvoy over Dante Fabbro– both will play at BU this season, but don’t be surprised to see McAvoy headed to the pro ranks sooner rather than later. Early returns on his Team USA development camp in Plymouth, MI this week are good and Ryan Lindgren (taken 49th) overall has really stood out. “He nearly killed a kid,” with a hard but clean open-ice hit, according to a text I got from an NHL scout on Saturday. The same individual also singled McAvoy out as the “best player on the ice.”

Gretzky caught some heat for the Trent Frederic pick and some of his subsequent comments where he admitted that the B’s don’t see the 29th overall selection as a top-six forward. He probably didn’t articulate that as well as he could have, but if we learned nothing from the Senyshyn pick the year before, it’s probably best to see how Frederic does going forward before casting judgment.

If Gretzky’s work with Boston was promising, then his track record in Arizona is more of a mixed bag. The Coyotes didn’t hit on a great deal of picks the team made on his watch, but the point I would offer up is that not every scouting staff in the league is the same. Just like the teams themselves- some clubs are more talented than others, and there’s always a multitude of factors that go into drafting. Even so, some in the business point to Gretzky’s tenure in Arizona, and with the jury still out on his Boston body of work, you just have to take it from there.

Boston could promote from within- Scott Fitzgerald is the club’s assistant director of amateur scouting and has recovered from a serious car accident in 2013 that nearly cost him his life. Dean Malkoc has also impressed as one of the club’s workhorse scouts who goes all over from his Western Canada base of operations to look for talent. Ryan Nadeau has done tremendous work in the NCAA ranks and elsewhere. B’s GM Don Sweeney could also bring in an experienced chief scout from the outside. It will be interesting to see.

All that is left to do is congratulate Gretzky for the promotion and move up. It hurts Boston, as he appears to have done fine work for the club in his five seasons here. He’ll join an Edmonton organization flush with major talent after winning the Connor McDavid sweeps a year ago and then falling into Jesse Puljujarvi at fourth overall in Buffalo. Old friend Lucic is in town, and we’ll see what Gretzky can do to help develop the talent in the system and identify new players down the road.

In the meantime, changes in Boston continue to shape the front office and Sweeney has another key hire ahead.