David Backes Boston-bound with 5x 30

 

Boston’s first major free agent signing since 2013 when the B’s inked Jarome Iginla to a one-year, incentive-laden deal fell quickly in the opening moments of the annual July 1 NHL free agent frenzy when word broke that St. Louis Blues captain David Backes had signed a 5-year pact with the Black and Gold worth an AAV of $6M.

Here is a dated, but  informative video from the NHL:

What’s interesting is that Backes had been somewhat of a hot topic of late with B’s 1st-round choice and St. Louis native Trent Frederic mentioning him at the draft as his hockey idol and player he most tries to emulate. Now, Frederic will likely share the Boston dressing room with him at some point.

As for Backes- where to start? How about with this OT goal vs. Chicago to kick off the opening round?

We’ll hit the good:

The Blues captain has been one of the most effective two-way centers in the NHL since he broke out with 31 goals and 54 points (165 PIMs) in 2008-09.  He’s never topped more than 62 points in a year, but he’s so valuable as a space-eating, versatile forward who can move between center and the right wing. He plays that physical, grinding game the B’s want to get back to, but he’s skilled enough to be a consistent scoring presence.

Loui Eriksson was also a versatile winger for Boston, but he lacked the size and physicality that the 6-3, 220-pound Backes brings. He’s a year younger than Backes, but where the Bruins were only willing to go four years for him, they went an extra 365 days for their newest player.

There are things Backes can do that Eriksson simply couldn’t. What is interesting to me here is that if the Bruins and Blues had been able to get past the stumbling blocks of a reported bad contract needing to go back Boston’s way in order to consummate that trade, Backes would likely have remained put in St. Louis and the B’s would be working on signing Shattenkirk to an extension instead. It’s interesting food for thought, but the Blues, who allegedly really wanted to extend and keep Backes and Troy Brouwer (who signed with Calgary today) and were more than willing to sacrifice Shattenkirk to get that done, now are essentially stuck with their third choice. Blues GM will have some personal relationship management to do, and in the end- Shattenkirk could very well be a big trade deadline move for the team next winter if he’s not willing to sign on in the long term.

As a captain and character guy- Backes is a proven leader who will instantly bring a needed leadership presence that the B’s have missed. Since Mark Recchi was in the room, the team has lacked for a vocal leader who commands respect beyond the quiet professionals that currently comprise the club’s core of leaders.

Now for the bad:

To get Backes, the B’s had to commit five years and $30 million. That’s a deal that immediately represents risk for the team and the front office that signed him.

Since I raised the point repeatedly with respect to Milan Lucic and his (still awaiting the details) contract with the Edmonton Oilers in terms of not much tread on the tire/much mileage on the engine- it’s the same, if not an even bigger case for Backes, because he’s four years older than Lucic is and has similar wear and tear concerns given the style of game he plays. It takes a heavy toll on the body and if Backes can’t hold up physically in years 3-5, the B’s will be in it deep.

When you look at the potential for the Bruins to get a less-than-average return in the long term on the big contract, the possibility is real that Boston could be hamstrung when it comes to retaining some of the higher-end youngsters who will come due for deals when Backes is still on the books. If he isn’t producing for the club, then they’ll be back to where they were when the previous GM had to move the ever popular Johnny Boychuk for futures at a time when expectations for the club were high. In hindsight, Brandon Carlo and Ryan Lindgren are promising prospects who will in all likelihood play for the Bruins, but there is no question that not having Boychuk for the last two seasons has been an enormous factor in the defense’s plunge to the bottom of the league.

Don Sweeney and Cam Neely are courting disaster with a signing of this magnitude- they aren’t gambling here…because Backes is a proven commodity who despite his age still brings a lot to the table. However, when we’ve watched the way injuries and age have helped speed Zdeno Chara’s decline, it is a fair point to raise here. Backes is leaving his prime, but the Bruins just paid him like a guy who is in it…kinda like Lucic is.

Now, here’s some encouraging news- Backes scored 7 goals and 14 points in 20 playoff games. His level of play went up, as he posted career bests in the postseason and led his team by example to the Western Conference final, where they ran out of gas against the upstart San Jose Sharks club. His previous postseason high for games played was just 9 contests, so it isn’t like Backes has had much experience going deep into the playoffs, but he performed like a star and captain at age 32- that had to be a key in terms of what impressed the Bruins enough to take the plunge.

Unfortunately, the modern NHL continues down a path whereby exorbitant prices are paid in the offseason to players who typically won’t justify those contracts from start to finish. That makes the lower-cost ELC and bridge contracts for younger players more critical than ever, so when people express concern for what could happen down the road to rising stars like David Pastrnak, for example, that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, which is what I did. A mistake for which I apologized. I have to think that management is already looking ahead to Pastrnak and figuring out how to keep him. That, in my mind, started last year when he asked for the Bruins to release him to play for his country at the World Jr. Championship and they obliged- even though they incurred all the risk had some catastrophic injury happened to him. That’s the kind of thing that can help strengthen the bridge to longer-term contracts and a presence with the team that showed you respect, though it would be naive in the extreme to think that a player like Pastrnak would turn down a massive offer sheet elsewhere because the B’s honored his request.

Ultimately, Backes is now a Bruin. Fans should look forward to what he can bring as someone who can do just about everything and has come up against Boston in big moments in the past. But, that doesn’t mean embracing a player without taking a hard look at the dollars and cents and where a deal like this could come back to haunt down the road.

The big question is the same for all GMs who are spending available cap space today: are you paying the player for what he did for someone else, or because you think he’s going to provide the same level of performance for you? If the answer is the latter, then we have no choice but to cross the fingers and hope that the worn tread on the tire won’t be an issue. Because if injuries force Backes out for extended periods, or his normal 20-30 goals per season drops to 10, seeing that $6M bite out of the cap will be a bitter pill.

For now, you look at the team today- and they’ve lost a little offense from Eriksson, but gained a measure of size and heaviness- made themselves tougher to play against. Backes is a good fit for Boston, and one can only hope that unlike other big-ticket free agents of the past who signed bloated deals at age 32, that he’ll stave off the effects of Father Time and be a part of a winning solution for the Bruins going forward.

***

The Bruins also re-signed trade deadline acquisition John-Michael Liles to a one-year $2M extension. That’s solid for the player who still has the wheels and puck-moving chops to be an effective middle tier role player. He helped boost the B’s offense in the first 10 days after he was picked up, but like the rest of the club, came down to earth and wasn’t able to make enough of a difference to prevent the late-season implosion.

It will be interesting to see how Liles does with a full training camp and opportunity to adjust to the new coaching staff.

However, Boston’s biggest need remains at the defense position and Sweeney has yet to address it.

Whether that comes via trade involving forward parts that can now better afford to be moved with the Backes addition or the team is looking at another bigger name (there aren’t many) UFA remains to be seen. The right-shooting Jason Demers is still on the market at the time of this writing, but probably not for long.

2015-16 Boston Bruins in Red Line over the years

I have every Red Line Report draft guide going back to 1999, the first year that the service issued the guide in its known format.

Periodically, I go back and look at what the draft year scouting reports and rankings looked like, so I thought that to help get the juices flowing in anticipation for the 2016 draft (as if the B’s draft strategy post from last night wasn’t enough, right?) I’d do the exercise for all of you here on the blog and take a trip in the wayback machine (or in the case of David Pastrnak– not so wayback) and see what you all think.

I’ll do it in numerical order on the Boston roster, so here we go:

11- Jimmy Hayes, RW Drafted: 2008 (2nd round- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 146

Key comment: “Huge kid with good hands has wasted a lot of talent.”

2016 verdict: At the time, 146 was excessively low for where the Leafs drafted Hayes, but he hasn’t exactly proven RLR wrong, either. Few players did more to frustrate observers this season than Hayes. He’s huge but doesn’t play to his size, but the biggest issue was with how his offense cratered at crunch time. It’s tough to play with heightened expectations and pressures that come with coming home to be on the team you dreamed of skating for, but Hayes has the raw material to at least become a more consistent contributor going forward without the profound peaks and valleys he went through.

14- Brett Connolly, RW Drafted: 2010 (1st round- Tampa Bay)

Red Line ranking: 13

Key comment: “Great talent; only injury keeps him out of top-5.”

2016 verdict: Connolly has been anything but a “great” talent as a pro. It’s hard to fathom where the sixth overall selection six years ago went wrong, but he might be out of time in Boston, even though he only recently turned 24. If the B’s could figure out a way to get him going, it would be huge for them. He’s been a huge disappointment thus far, if not an outright bust given how highly regarded he was by just about everyone in 2010.

20- Lee Stempniak, RW Drafted: 2003 (5th round- St. Louis)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: Oversight! Stempniak has been a serviceable NHL winger since breaking in with the Blues in 2005-06 after Dartmouth. He’s played almost 800 career NHL games for 9 teams- the modern-era Brent Ashton.

21- Loui Eriksson, RW/LW Drafted: 2003 (2nd round- Dallas)

Red Line ranking: 59

Key comment: “Came on like gangbusters down the stretch.”

2016 verdict: Eriksson was one of Boston’s top players last season, and despite not being traded at the deadline, was a good Bruin after being the central piece in the disastrous Tyler Seguin return from 2013. At 31, he’s set to cash in on a free agent payday, which means it won’t happen in Boston, but he’s performed well ahead of the 59th overall projection from 13 years ago.

23- Chris Kelly, C/W  Drafted: 1999 (3rd round- Ottawa)

Red Line ranking: 78

Key comment: “Tenacious and relentless in puck pursuit.”

2016 verdict: Although a broken femur cost Kelly all but 11 games of the 2015-16 season, he has gone on to have a successful NHL career as a checking center who was a key contributor to Boston’s Stanley Cup championship in 2011. The veteran has been a Boston scapegoat because of the 4-year contract extension he got in 2012 coming off a career-best 20 goals, but he’s been pretty much exactly what RLR said he would be and has always brought character and leadership to any team he’s been on.

26- John-Michael Liles, D Drafted: 2000 (5th round- Colorado)

Red Line ranking: 159

Key comment: “Another small offensively-skilled d-man.”

2016 verdict: After being drafted 159th overall, the Avalanche took Liles exactly where RLR had him in their 2000 draft guide. 800 NHL games later, Liles has shown that the size bias that clearly existed 16 years ago had little impact on his ability to play at the highest level. He’s been a successful puck-moving, offensive defenseman over the life of his career, albeit one who is a complementary piece and more of a power play performer than a true difference-maker at present.

29- Landon Ferraro, LW Drafted: 2009 (2nd round- Detroit)

Red Line ranking: 38

Key comment: “Everybody like’s Ray’s kid more than we do.”

2016 verdict: Looks like RLR was onto something…Originally projected as a top-six scorer at the NHL level, Ferraro finally established himself at in the big show after Boston plucked him from the Red Wings off of waivers. However, seven years after being one of the first picks of the second round, he looks like a capable grinder, but has demonstrated none of the impressive upside he had in his draft year with Red Deer. Speedy and smart, Ferraro doesn’t have the high-end skills to be a top scorer, but looks like a solid role player who will likely bounce around.

30- Jeremy Smith, G Drafted:  2007 (2nd round- Nashville)

Red Line ranking: 29

Key comment: “Long, lean flexible netminder is the best of a mediocre crop.”

2016 verdict: Yikes! First-round billing even with that caveat for a player who has yet to play an NHL game. Although, for what it’s worth- Scott Darling is the only goalie of note to come out of the 1989-born class. Smith, who came to Boston as a free agent two years ago, has yet to suit up for an NHL game, although he’s been very good in the AHL.

33- Zdeno Chara, D Drafted: 1996 (3rd round- NY Islanders)

Red Line ranking: not available

2016 verdict: Future HHOFer and Stanley Cup champion has been Boston’s captain since the 6-9 d-man signed a decade ago, but Father Time has caught up to him. The great draft value pick (77th overall) by Mike Milbury 20 years ago turns 40 this season and Boston’s priority must be to surround him with a better supporting cast. Given how low he was out of the radar in Slovakia, it is doubtful he would have been high on anyone’s list back then.

37- Patrice Bergeron, C Drafted: 2003 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 71

Key comment: “Not big or fast but smart and productive.”

2016 verdict: Missed opportunity! When I was scouting the U18s with my Red Line boss Kyle Woodlief, the subject of Bergeron came up and he ruefully admitted that he missed on him rankings-wise. Woodlief really liked him (as evidenced by the comment above) but said Bergeron had two things working against him at the time: 1- he had only played the 1 season in the QMJHL in his draft year after spending his 16-YO year in midget AAA; and 2- Acadie-Bathurst is an out-of-the-way hockey backwater. No excuses- RLR got it wrong, but the Bruins and Scott Bradley didn’t, at the time “reaching” for Patrice when other sexier names were available (the team used the compensation pick they got from the NHL when Bill Guerin bolted for Dallas to take Bergeron, btw). He wanted Bergeron in the 1st round that year, but the team knew they could roll the dice and get him at 45 whereas Mark Stuart would not have been there for them in the 2nd. If they had known how important Bergeron would be to this franchise, they never would have risked it, but that’s the draft for you. Bergeron’s #37 will one day hang from the TD Garden rafters, and he’s got a shot at the Hockey Hall of Fame when all is said and done. As Chris Kelly likes to say, Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything”- a modern-day Milt Schmidt if you will.

39- Matt Beleskey, LW Drafted: 2006 (4th round- Anaheim)

Red Line ranking: 122

Key comment: “Playing against him is like nails on a chalkboard.”

2016 verdict: Correctly projected for the draft, but a little low given what he provides as a solid third-liner. After signing as a free agent last July, the former Belleville Bull was arguably Boston’s most consistent player wire-to-wire last season, he delivered what the team was looking for. Obviously, you’d like to see more goals after he topped the 20-goal mark the previous year with the Ducks, but he set a new high in assists and points, provided a large amount of hits and was that gritty leader by example type the Bruins need.

40- Tuukka Rask, G Drafted: 2005 (1st round- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 14

Key comment: “Wins our annual Mr. Gumby flexibility award.”

2016 verdict: The former Vezina Trophy winner had an up and down season but Carey Price and Rask were RLR’s top goalies in the 2005 draft and that’s how it’s played out in their careers as both have been recognized as the top player at their position (with Price earning a league MVP nod as well). When on top of his game, Rask is an elite puck stopper, but he’s also shown that like most, with a porous defense in front of him, he can’t carry the team on his back. It will be interesting to see what the Bruins do with him in the long term, as he turns 30 next March and will be in the fourth of the seven-year extension he signed in 2013 that is a $7-million annual chunk of change on Boston’s cap.

 

44- Dennis Seidenberg, D Drafted: 2001 (6th round- Philadelphia)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: It was a tough season for the game but rapidly declining German. He signed a four-year, $16M extension in the 2013-14 season, only to suffer a catastrophic knee injury shortly thereafter, costing him the rest of the campaign. He hasn’t been the same player since, losing mobility (he wasn’t ever a plus skater to begin with) and effectiveness as an aging defender who struggles to be the effective shutdown presence he was from 2010-14. The B’s could be looking at trading him or buying him out (he has two years remaining on his contract at $4M per), but he’s been counted on to log a lot of minutes on the second pairing without much effectiveness over the last two seasons.

 

45- Joe Morrow, D Drafted: 2011 (1st round- Pittsburgh)

Red Line ranking: 30

Key comment: “Few made bigger strides than this fine puck mover.”

2016 verdict: It looks like RLR had it right, as Morrow has made the NHL and shows flashes, but has not yet established himself as a regular. The Penguins made Morrow their top choice in 2011 (23rd overall) after he impressed with his skating, passing and shot as a member of the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. He was dealt to Dallas for veteran Brenden Morrow (no relation) in 2013. He was then moved to Boston as part of the Seguin trade a few months later on July 4. The skating and the passing are clearly evident, but Morrow has not asserted himself all that much in the Boston lineup, playing a relatively conservative brand of game. The more you watch him, the more you start to come to the conclusion that he’s essentially a complementary 4/5 defender who could thrive on a deeper blue line corps, but isn’t going to emerge as a top performer and one who can carry the mail.

 

46- David Krejci, C Drafted: 2004 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 130

Key comment: “Tiny but great hockey sense.”

2016 verdict: Like Bergeron, the B’s got outstanding value from a player who was ranked far too low by Red Line in his draft year. In fact, Krejci wasn’t really regarded by anyone- Central Scouting rated him just 21st overall on their Euro ranking behind such luminaries Rostislav Olesz, Lauri Tukonen, Kirill Lyamin and Sergei Ogorodnikov to name a few. Because Boston had traded their first- and second-round picks that year to Washington for Sergei Gonchar, Krejci’s selection at the end of the second round (from Los Angeles via Detroit for Jozef Stumpel in a deal made a year earlier at the 2003 draft) was met with a collective shrug, but 12 years later, he’s broken into Boston’s all-time top-20 scorers list and has been one of the team’s best offensive players during his tenure. Unfortunately for Krejci, his hot start cooled off considerably, aided by a hip injury that required offseason surgery. Because he’s got a small frame, the physical toll on him is starting to catch up, making his $7.25M annual cap hit and lengthy extension done by Peter Chiarelli in the 2014-15 season something to watch. On sheer achievement alone, however- Krejci’s career numbers (even better in the playoffs when Boston has gotten in) have made his draft rankings look silly. After Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who went 1-2 overall that year, Krejci is the third most productive player of the 2004 class.

 

47- Torey Krug, D Undrafted: 2012 (Free Agent- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: The undersized former Michigan State captain posted career highs for assists and points, but his goal totals fell off a cliff, finishing with just four tallies. Despite being a productive defenseman not only in the USHL, where he helped the Indiana Ice win a Clark Cup championship, but in three seasons at Michigan State where he was named captain in just his second year in East Lansing, Krug got nary a sniff on anyone’s rankings. In hindsight, he was dinged for size bias, but has become a go-to player for the Bruins since they signed him in the spring of 2012 and he burst onto the NHL scene against the Rangers in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. He’s due a new contract, but as currently constructed, no one else on the Boston defense can do what Krug can. With the right partner, he could be even more effective and productive than he’s been so far. The low goal totals were an aberration, but consider this- if he had scored his usual 12-15 markers this past season, he’d be in line to get a lot more on his next deal. The down season in goals might be a blessing in disguise for Boston when it comes to negotiations, but anyone who doesn’t think he’ll get $5M at least is fooling themselves. The B’s will pay the market rate and if Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon got it, so will Krug- he’s a better player.

 

48- Colin Miller, D Drafted:2012 (5th round- Los Angeles)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: Swing and a miss for RLR on a player who was first eligible in 2011 and played very little for the Soo Greyhounds but caught the eye of the Kings after attending their development camp and was drafted a year later. Acquired in the Milan Lucic trade, Miller made the big club out of camp but had trouble staying in the lineup. He has some of the most impressive skills of any Boston defenseman but his defensive instincts and decision-making are a work in progress. Many fans wanted “Chiller” in the lineup over Kevan “Killer” Miller, but the Boston coaches saw things differently. The younger Miller has the ever-desired upside, but he’s also got a lot to learn about playing the position, as he was a healthy scratch down in Providence during the season after being sent down. This is the kind of thing that fans sometimes don’t pick up on- it’s one thing for the Boston coaches to pull a player from the lineup, but when the AHL coaches do as well, then there’s obviously something there that the player isn’t doing. Miller still has impressive potential as a late-born 1992, but he benefited from shiny new toy syndrome last year. Now, he needs to work to demonstrate his value and worth as a two-way D, not just someone who can bring the offense.

 

50- Jonas Gustavsson, G Undrafted: 2009 (Free Agent- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 1*- on RLR draft guide’s top-10 European free agents list

Key comment: “Extremely flexible and smooth side-to-side.”

2016 verdict: “The Monster” was the top free agent target in 2009 and got a big ticket deal with the Leafs, but never really had the kind of anticipated impact given his tremendous performance in Sweden before coming over. Injuries have contributed to him never really establishing himself as a top-flight No. 1 in the NHL, but after being a training camp invite last year, he played well for the Bruins as a backup. It is unfortunate that in the last game of the season against Ottawa, when Rask couldn’t go due to illness and the B’s took a 1-0 lead, that Gustavsson ended up playing a pretty mediocre game. The team collapsed in front of him, but he didn’t do them many favors, either. Don’t expect a reprise for the 31-year-old in Boston this year.

 

51- Ryan Spooner, C Drafted: 2010 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 29

Key comment: “Creative playmaker was derailed by injury.”

2016 verdict: A power play weapon, Spooner had his peaks and valleys at even strength but completed his first full NHL season by establishing career highs in all categories. He was drafted 45th overall in 2010, and in retrospect, he should have been picked 32nd overall by Boston with Jared Knight going at 45 (well, if the team had a do-over Knight wouldn’t have been picked at all in the round, but spilt milk). Spooner has outperformed some ranked before him and many after, but it has taken him a while to establish himself in Claude Julien’s system. Truth be told- Bruins fans are fortunate that he’s still in the organization given the way things appeared to be headed in early 2015. He’s got the NHL talent to be a top-two center, but in Boston, he’s got to figure out how to be consistent and impactful as their third-line guy. T’s worth noting that when Krejci was injured in late December and Spooner moved to the second line for several weeks, he played the best NHL hockey of his career.

 

54- Adam McQuaid, D Drafted: 2005 (2nd round- Columbus)

Red Line ranking: 68

Key comment: “Nobody talks about him but he has good raw tools.”

2016 verdict: When it comes to toughness and rugged play on the back end, they don’t come much more game than “Quaider.” He was a surprise late second-round pick by Columbus but his skating was an even bigger issue then than it is now. Facing the prospect of not signing him and losing him to free agency, the Blue Jackets traded McQuaid to Boston in late May, 2007 for a fifth-round pick. That draft choice, subsequently flipped to Dallas, ended up being none other than Jamie Benn. Go figure. McQuaid is a great guy- one of the best I have covered on the Bruins in my 16 years with NEHJ, but he’s limited and has never played a complete, injury-free season. Oh, and he turns 30 in October, too. There have been whispers that at least one NHL team has expressed interest in him, so don’t be surprised to see a trade at some point this offseason. It would at least begin to explain why the Bruins locked up Kevan Miller.

 

62- Zach Trotman, D Drafted: 2010 (7th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: The final player selected in the 2010 NHL draft has appeared in games with Boston for each of the past three seasons, but this could be it for the Indiana native and Lake Superior State product. He has NHL size and skating, but found himself often the odd-man out on a crowded blue line with similar mid-to-lower tier defenders who all bring something similar to the table. Trotman worked hard to reach the NHL and is a solid citizen who could hook on in a different organization that has need for his ability as a serviceable role player.

 

63- Brad Marchand, LW Drafted: 2006 (3rd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 115

Key comment: “Super skilled little waterbug with some jam.”

2016 verdict: Marchand was the team’s best success stories in a tough season after setting personal bests in goals and points. Red Line had him ranked lower than he went (early third round) and Marchand has been the most productive of any player selected in the same round that year. He’s a top performer and goal threat, despite his lack of height and stature. Some of what might have contributed to his lower draft ranking was off-ice/maturity concerns, but to Marchand’s credit, he’s established himself as a Boston regular and fan favorite, albeit one who still lets his emotions get the best of him on occasion, but who has become one of the team’s top performers in the clutch. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017…cha-ching! Boston can begin negotiating with him this year on an extension to prevent that from happening, but it’s going to cost a lot.

 

64- Tyler Randell, RW Drafted: 2009 (6th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 164

Key comment: “He will go higher than this but frustrates us greatly.”

2016 verdict: Actually, he went right about where RLR said he should, which is interesting. The late-rounder out of Belleville and Kitchener of the OHL. Randell made his NHL debut for Boston and provided more value for scoring vs. minutes played than anyone in the lineup. Although often a healthy scratch and relegated to bottom line duty, Randell made the most of his gifts: slick hands and toughness. He’s got heavy feet, but hits like a truck and is a good fighter. The knock on him in junior was motivation and consistency, but he put in the work and Boston stuck with him, finally seeing their late-round investment pay some dividends.

86- Kevan Miller, D Undrafted: 2011 (Free agent- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Unranked

2016 verdict: The former Berkshire School and University of Vermont captain (from California) is as tough as nails and willed himself into the NHL after showing little big league potential at the lower levels. When used in the right role, Miller is capable. The challenge for Boston is that injuries and declining play elsewhere in the lineup caused Julien to use Miller in significant situations, and some of his limitations were exposed. For an undrafted free agent, he’s been a pleasant surprise, but without a top skill set, he’s more of a depth player thrust into a bigger role than suits him. That’s an issue.

88- David Pastrnak, RW Drafted: 2014 (1st round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 14

Key comment: “Smallish, but fiery and passionate. Lives to score.”

2016 verdict: RLR was ahead of the curve here, as Pastrnak slid down to 25th overall mostly because of a concussion that forced him out of the lineup during the key months of Jan-Mar. He made the NHL at age 18 and was a breath of fresh air for the Bruins and their fans in 2015. Last season was a bit of a step back for Pastrnak largely due to a fractured foot suffered on a shot off the skate in late October, but the foundation is in place for the future face of the franchise. He’s got a good attitude and is willing to work- the Bruins just desperately need Pastrnak to continue his upward developmental trajectory and blossom into the 30+ goal man he’s capable of becoming.

Observations:

  1. The glaring thing that sticks out is a lack of production in the Bruins drafts to account for the current roster. Of all the B’s regulars, only one- Pastrnak (14)- carries a top-15 draft ranking by Red Line. Connolly was ranked 13th, but would have carried a higher grade if not for a hip injury that caused him to miss most of the 2009-10 season. Rask was ranked 14th overall in 2005, but he was drafted by Toronto at 21st overall- just one spot ahead of Boston (Matt Lashoff) and acquired in a 2006 trade for Andrew Raycroft. Of all the other players drafted by the B’s- only Spooner (29) was a projected first-rounder (Morrow at 30, but he was drafted by PIT). There are no top-10 draft-projected (by RLR) players anywhere on Boston’s active roster.
  2. Phil Kessel (2), Tyler Seguin (2) and Dougie Hamilton (5) are the highest-rated Red Line guys Boston drafted going back 10 years, but they’re helping other teams. Ironically, Seguin and Hamilton were both had for Kessel…all the B’s have left to show for moving Seguin to Dallas is Morrow and possibly Eriksson if he re-signs in Boston. As for Hamilton, the jury is out- Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Jeremy Lauzon might all be a part of the future equation in Boston as the three players selected with draft choices acquired from Calgary for the 2011 first-rounder.
  3. Boston’s top players Bergeron (71), Marchand (115) and Krejci (130) weren’t even ranked in the top-50 of their draft seasons. The Bruins selected all three and cultivated them as homegrown stars- where would the team be without them?
  4. Only one player- Chara- had no record to consult with Red Line, but six roster regulars in 2015-16 were not even ranked by RLR: Stempniak, Seidenberg, Krug, C. Miller, K. Miller and Trotman.

Conclusion: The Bruins simply must get more production from their drafts. They’ve managed to make some value picks over the years, but management frittered away most of the high-end talent and it shows in the club’s current trajectory. No team escapes failure in the draft process to a certain degree, but when you look at how many undrafted players or guys who were not projected as impact contributors are on the roster and being employed in big roles, the importance of Boston improving their drafting and development efforts is even more critical.

I will continue the exercise with the Boston prospects to see if we have some similar trends, keeping in mind that there is no guarantee of success for them at the NHL, even if they appear to be on a solid developmental track. Watch for that post to hit in the next 24 hours.

Gong Show at TD Garden

It all came down to one last game at home, and after taking a 1-0 lead (on David Pastrnak’s 15th goal of the year), the wheels came off in a span of 8:18 in the second period in Boston’s 6-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators.

Even the depleted NY Rangers did their job, beating Detroit today, but because the Wings own the ROW tiebreaker (regulation and overtime wins) over Boston, they clinched 3rd place in the Atlantic Division and the NHL playoffs for a 25th consecutive season. That’s rubbing salt in the wound, but it’s what even some of the most optimistic of Bruins fans have come to expect from their team this season.

It wasn’t Jonas Gustavsson’s fault- Tuukka Rask would not have made a difference with the egregious number of turnovers the Bruins committed today. But even if we do hang a couple of goals surrendered (Chris Neil, Zack Smith-2, Matt PuempelMika Zibanejad, J.G. Pageau tallied including Page’s league-leading 7th shorty on an empty net with some 8+ minutes left) on Gus, the B’s inability to finish their best chances once again came back to haunt them.

In a game they really had to have, it isn’t the fact that they lost- it’s the way it happened. Story of the season, really.

Even worse, fans are now reduced to scoreboard watching today and (possibly) tomorrow to see what the Flyers do against the Pittsburgh Penguins (reportedly sitting Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang today) and NY Islanders tomorrow (they have a host of injuries and are resting guys as well). The Flyers must go 0-2 or 0-1-1 and then the Bruins back into the postseason.

At this point, the players didn’t appear to care today, so why should anyone else?

“For Whom The Bell Tolls”- Metallica- from Ride the Lightning (1984)- nathanbehar101

I’ll be back after Boston’s final fate is known, but this was such a lousy way to go.

Once we do the postmortem on the season and what’s next for the Bruins, assuming the Flyers do the job Boston couldn’t, then the focus will shift to the 2016 NHL Draft, so all is not lost.

 

Scouting Post founder on TSN 1260 Edmonton to talk Bruins & 2016 NHL Draft

I was invited to go on host  on Edmonton-based Allan Mitchell aka Lowetide’s mid-day sports radio show on TSN 1260 yesterday.

Mr. Mitchell is a thoughtful guy with a lot of interest in hockey at all levels. Before the Oilers came along, he was a Bruins guy during their glory years of the early 1970s, so he’s been kind enough to have me on his show to talk Boston since 2011, when he got his own show and has developed quite a following. I do appreciate his kind words about the blog (and me) on his show.

Yesterday, I was asked about Boston’s youth movement (David Pastrnak, Noel Acciari), drilled down on Ryan Spooner’s progress, and an update on the Dougie Hamilton trade. I also talked Riley Tufte, Dante Fabbro and a New England prep sleeper for the 2016 NHL draft.

I hope you will give it a listen. I come on at the 6:55 mark of the SoundCloud clip for a 12-minute segment. And you can follow me on Twitter if you want more: @kluedeke29

Are You Not Entertained? Bruins recover to grab critical 2 points in South Florida

The Boston Bruins blew a pair of three-goal leads- 3-0 and 4-1 to the Florida Panthers, but got a tremendous top-shelf snipe from Lee Stempniak to get out of the BB&T Center with a critical two points in a 5-4 sudden death victory Monday night. It marked the 388th coaching victory of Claude Julien’s Boston career, moving him past Art Ross for sole possession of first place in Bruins franchise history.

Stempniak’s 17th goal of the season was his first as a Bruin- he broke into the zone during 3-on-3 overtime play with Ryan Spooner, took a cross-ice dish from Boston’s third-line pivot and then wired the puck over Al Montoya to escape Southern Florida after the Panthers tied it late on Jiri Hudler’s second marker of the night.

Things started well enough for Boston- Patrice Bergeron, No. 37 in your programs, No. 1 in your hearts one-handed a feed from Brad Marchand into the Florida net behind starter Roberto Luongo to give the road team a 1-0 lead just 37 seconds into the game. On 3.7.2016. Coolness.

David Pastrnak went five-hole on Luongo after slipping past the Florida defense for his 10th strike of the year (equaling last season’s total in 46 games) to make it 2-0 and then Brett Connolly rushed into the zone after getting the puck from Noel Acciari (his 1st NHL point) and firing a shot past Luongo to make it 3-0 at 12:22, his ninth goal.

Third-year center Aleksandr Barkov ( he’s Finnish, btw) cut the Florida lead to a pair of goals when he jumped on the rebound of a Jaromir Jagr shot and ripped home his 20th. The Jagr apple moved him past Gordie Howe for sole possession of third place all-time on the NHL’s scoring list (he trails No. 2 Mark Messier by 37 points).

Bergeron restored the three-goal lead with his 28th goal of the season and second at 17:25 of the opening frame when he took a Stempniak pass and buried it on a rush.

It looked like the B’s would cruise, as Luongo gave way to Montoya to start the second period. The Panthers had other ideas and jumped on the B’s when they came out for the middle frame stuck in neutral. The game seemed to turn when Shawn Thornton fought Adam McQuaid after a heavy hit in the corner, and fired up his team and the fans. Of course, the Bruins skating like they were in quicksand might have had something to do with goals by Hudler and Jussi Jokinen to cut the lead to 4-3, while allowing the Bruins to get just four shots on Montoya in the entire period.

That set up a back-and-forth third, which started to click down to the wire when the B’s lethargy in the neutral zone caught up with them and Hudler pounced on a rebound of an Alex Petrovic shot to make it a 4-4 game with under five minutes left in regulation.

Tuukka Rask gave up a couple he’d like to have back, but faced 51 Florida shots (he’s 7-0-1 when the B’s surrender 36 shots or more) and turned aside 47 (for a .922 save percentage). It was Rask’s 27th win of the season and put Boston in position to jump past both the Panthers and Lightning if they can beat Tampa on Tuesday.

Every point counts- the B’s can’t afford to leave anything on the table and tonight nearly got away from them if not for Stempniak, who now has one goal and six points in four games since coming over for a fourth-round pick this year and a second in 2017.

Although it was an ugly win, the scoreboard don’t say how, just how many. And it also allowed the Bruins to take on a little swagger (just a little- they did blow a couple of three-goal advantages, after all) and head out of South Florida saying this:

Gladiator

 

 

Bruins hammer Penguins in decisive home win

Are the Boston Bruins Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Are they a good team with clear shortcomings on the defensive side that sometimes make them look worse than they are, or a mediocre team that is able to pound opponents so decisively on occasion so as to fool the optimists out there who support them?

The answer just might represent a little of both.

On Wednesday night, the B’s completed a three-game series sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is a similar team in that it has been a perennial contender since the Sidney Crosby era revitalized the team’s fortunes, but this year has been a shadow of its former powerful self since squeaking into the playoffs at Boston’s expense last spring.

Like Boston, the Pens have a powerful 1-2 punch at center (though Evgeni Malkin was unable to return from injury to help his team at the TD Center last night), a leaky defense made up of game, but  often overmatched 4/5/6 types and a goaltender who can minimize the damage but can’t do it all himself in Marc-Andre Fleury.

As was the case in Dallas last Saturday, the B’s didn’t exactly dominate the contest, as the Penguins came at them early, hemming them in their zone. Tuukka Rask withstood a 13-shot opening period, not allowing any pucks by him, and David Pastrnak scored the third penalty shot goal of the season for Boston to make it a 1-0 contest.

Pastrnak (his eighth) and Penguins forward Tom Kuhnackl traded goals in the second period to set the stage for a critical third period with the B’s still smarting after getting zinged at home the other night against Columbus.

Jimmy Hayes, Landon Ferraro and Brad Marchand, who scored his team-leading 31st goal, tallied three goals on three shots in the final 10 minutes to push the score to 5-1 and give the Bruins a much-needed home victory.

Hayes finished off a brilliant rush by Ryan Spooner, who got the puck from Hayes after Adam McQuaid blocked a shot (after losing his helmet- no fear) and took off like a rocket up the ice, crossing with Matt Beleskey at the offensive blue line to gain extra space. He then approached the net from the left side and threaded a pass right to Hayes, who didn’t miss for his 13th marker.

Ferraro then broke away after slipping behind the defense and getting a home run pass from Dennis Seidenberg, beating Fleury with a top-shelf laser for just his fourth goal of the season. Ferraro also had an earlier fight with Scott Wilson and gave better than he got, showing off the kind of energy that has made him a capable bottom-line player since the B’s snatched him off the waiver wire from Detroit.

Marchand’s final tally was vintage No. 63, as he got the puck from Torey Krug, cut to the net and let a jumpy Fleury make the first move before going around the defender and sprawling goaltender to slip the puck in on the far side.

Rask, for his part, was magnificent in a 41-save effort- he gave up just the Kuhnackl goal, scored off the German forward’s skate after a fat rebound. This is the kind of game that the Bruins typically need from their one-time Vezina Trophy-winning netminder. The defense still gives up a good number of quality scoring chances, but when Rask is on top of his crease and in the zone, he’s as good as anyone else in the league. The problem is- when the B’s go up against clubs with better top-to-bottom roster depth, they have a tough time matching up against teams that have the speed and skill to employ an effective forecheck that disrupts Boston’s timing on the breakout and leads to defensive zone turnovers.

Pastrnak’s performance gives the team multiple reasons for optimism. For one thing, it’s been a tough slog for the 19-year-old, who burst onto the scene a little over a year ago when he was called up in January and then proceeded to become Boston’s brightest hope for the future. Beyond his obvious offensive talent, Pastrnak is an easy kid to get behind because he wears his love of hockey openly, with a wide, infectious smile that reminds everyone who watches him of how all of these pro players began their lifetime association with this sport. Pastrnak is also serious and hard-working. He’s not quite on the same level as Patrice Bergeron was at the same age, but he’s not that far off, either. Pastrnak made the NHL at 18 because he not only gave the Bruins something they desperately lacked, but also because the coaches saw his work ethic and desire to improve manifested at practice. Some people have to be taught by others how to work harder to maximize their natural gifts, but Pastrnak needed no such coaching, and was often the last player off the ice (and still is). Claude Julien and his veteran coaching staff saw that, and so even with the setbacks the second-year right wing has dealt with this season, they’re willing to stick with him and maintain the faith that he can become the regular scorer he’s shown the penchant for in flashes.

Where do we go from here?

The Loui Eriksson trade watch continues, and I’ve been intrigued by the polarized sides on Twitter and the Internet- the two camps that are clearly at odds with one another within the B’s fandom. I explained at length last week why the Bruins will trade Eriksson and try to leverage him into the assets that can allow GM Don Sweeney to more properly address the elephant in the room: the defense.

Although there seems to be a group of folks who believe Eriksson can and should be signed, I have yet to see any plausible explanation from that side on how it will work. Assuming his agent JP Barry wants to secure money and term from his client (and why wouldn’t he?), the Bruins would essentially be rolling the dice that the soon-to-be 31-year-old would be able to maintain his current level of contributions for another four years at least to make an extension worthwhile. While that’s not impossible, the odds are certainly not in favor of that. Eriksson has never been a dynamic skater, so if he loses a step over the next couple of years as many players on the wrong side of 30 tend to do, his production could essentially drop off a cliff. The B’s cannot afford to be shortsighted here- that thinking is what got them into salary cap jeopardy in the first place.

Loui is a fine man and teammate. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and in the scope of the here and now, he obviously makes the Bruins a better team than they will be without him. But fans demand that their teams be in the winning mix year after year, and extending Eriksson puts that philosophy in peril. Sure- he’s one of the team’s most versatile and dependable forwards, but one can also make the argument that there are young players in the system that can capably address what Eriksson brings to the club given a little time. They won’t cost upwards of 5.5-6 million dollars a year (at least not right away) and dealing Eriksson gives the Bruins the much-needed coin of the realm: assets in the form of picks and futures that every team covets to off-set the ever escalating salary structures needed to retain the top talent across the league.

Should the B’s prove me wrong and hold onto Eriksson, either extending him or keeping him for the playoffs, we’ll revisit the implications of that when the time comes. Even if he’s not moved at the deadline, they can still flip him to a team that wants his exclusive negotiating rights before the July 1 free-for-all for a middling pick, which is not ideal but better than nothing. If they commit the term and dollars to him, then I think it works in the short run, but could have profound consequences by the years 2018 or 2019. I guess for those who like to live in the now, that may not be such a bad thing.

What we’re figuring out here is that making trades and acquiring the kinds of essential players needed to assemble a winning mix in the modern NHL is easy to talk about, much harder to pull off. It isn’t like Boston is bereft of young defensemen in the organization, but nobody is truly ready to step in and make the kind of difference this team needs right now with a goalie in his prime along with multiple forwards whose window might be closing by the time the B’s home grown blue line talent can make an impact.

Colin Miller has shown he can create offense, but he’s still got much to learn defensively. Rob O’Gara is having a down senior year at Yale but has size and mobility to become a bottom pairing staple after a little seasoning in the AHL. Matt Grzelcyk has the speed and offensive talent to be a two-way threat, but like Krug, will need some time to develop in the minors and will be a wild card in terms of what kind of role he can carve out for himself in Boston. Jakub Zboril, Brandon Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon were all drafted last June and are not realistic options to make a difference for at least another full season but likely two or three more years at the earliest.

That means Sweeney needs to add a key piece now or at least in the coming off season. You have to give to get, and Eriksson represents the kind of asset that can increase the GM’s options, not diminish them. Yes, fans may not be thrilled with the kind of return he brings back in a few days (assuming he’s dealt), but you have to play the long game here and realize that a trade made today could set up the even bigger haul tomorrow (or in about three or four months).

If we’ve learned anything about the recent wins over Dallas and Pittsburgh, it is this- the scores didn’t represent how close the games actually were. The B’s benefited from shaky goaltending play from their opponents, but in the playoffs, when every game’s intensity is ratcheted up a few notches and the better teams can make you pay for every mistake, this Boston club isn’t going anywhere far as currently constructed.

That means you have to live with the tough calls and some short-term disappointment in order to benefit from a potential sustained run of excellence. Ask Columbus fans how much fun it has been to cheer for a team that has always tended to fiddle around the margins rather than make bold decisions to build for the long term and you’re not going to like the answer. Teams like Edmonton and Columbus should serve as a reminder that picking at the bottom of the draft every year is no sure path to contention. The Bruins have the pieces to be a contender, but the team has to be smart about how they streamline the effort.

Making decisions based on emotion, loyalty and what someone did in the past versus what they will do is more of a recipe for failure than success. When it becomes time to come to grips with the fact that Bergeron, Krejci, Rask and Marchand can no longer do what Boston fans have enjoyed and come to expect for so long now, the team cannot afford to have multiple albatross contracts around the neck.

Digging out from that kind of hole could take years.

Thoughts on Boston’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers

In a familiar refrain, the Boston Bruins dropped a close game late in regulation to the New York Rangers when a Jesper Fast deflection beat Tuukka Rask with less than two minutes left to break a 1-1 deadlock.

Despite the lack of offense, it was an uptempo game with both teams trading some good chances, perhaps none better than Max Talbot’s doorstep shot that Henrik Lundqvist somehow got his skate on while pushing left-to-right and essentially falling prone to the ice while his legs kicked up into the air in a fashion similar to a scorpion’s tail.

All in all, the B’s had just one goal by Jimmy Hayes (his 10th and set up by Ryan Spooner) on a heavy shot from high out in the slot to show for it. As was the case last year when Boston’s offense was among the league’s worst, that puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the goaltender to play a near-perfect game between the pipes.

The loss represented a missed opportunity- the Bruins carried the play in the second period but had only the one goal to show for it. As the cynics suspected, it was the Rangers who managed to capitalize when Claude Julien shortened the bench later in the third period, moving Landon Ferraro into David Pastrnak’s spot only to see defenseman Keith Yandle’s point shot sneak through when Fast got a piece of it and the puck changed direction.

We’re past the moral victories stage at this point of the season- every point counts and this is a game the Bruins should have had. To look for silver linings out of this one doesn’t get them any closer to the playoffs.

And, now- some thoughts and observations.

Designated scapegoat Kevan Miller had a rough night, on ice for both goals against and standing around when the winning goal was scored instead of clearing the much smaller Fast out of the crease. Miller has born the brunt of much fan angst and it is understandable- the undrafted free agent and former University of Vermont and Berkshire School captain has made some glaring mistakes throughout the season that get magnified because the puck has ended up in the net. However, much of the reason Miller is struggling is because he’s been put in a position to fail. The rugged, hard-nosed defensive defenseman is a serviceable 5/6 D when used correctly. Unfortunately, a lack of personnel and injuries have meant that the B’s have been using Miller as a 2/3 D for most of the year and he is simply not suited for that role- he’s in way, way over his head. This is not to absolve him of his errors- he’s had problems with his decisions and in basic execution, with gaffes that have cost the B’s in several instances, most notably in Boston’s 6-3 home collapse to Buffalo a few weeks ago. However, for anyone to think that Miller is not an NHL defenseman is a bit harsh: if he was on the bottom pairing and played somewhere around 17 minutes per night as opposed to the 20+ he’s been pressed into, there’s a good chance he’d be pretty respected because he plays the game hard, tough and works hard. Alas, for Miller, he’s limited and not capable of carrying the load, making him a magnet for fan frustrations. It happens to someone every year.

I wonder if Tuukka Rask has been checking the internet (10 years ago I would have said the Yellow Pages) for the numbers of good lawyers in Boston. He could sue the team for non-support after last night. He wasn’t able to do much on either the Fast winner or Derick Brassard’s rebound goal to tie it early in the third frame. But, Rask did what every good goalie must- gave his club a chance to win it.

Would like to see Julien give Pastrnak more of an opportunity to be a difference-maker late in games. Ferraro was not a terrible option to move up into his spot last night with a 1-1 game on the line, but the waiver pickup has cooled considerably since his first month as a Bruin.You live and you die by the talent you have, and when your team has only scored one goal in some 55 minutes of action, I’m not sure taking out the one guy who is arguably your most gifted scorer makes sense when you are trying to secure at least one point. Julien has coached 900 career NHL games, so there’s a reason he’s behind the bench and I’m not, but it’s about time to take the shackles off of No. 88. It’s really saying something about how woeful Boston’s offense was last night when Zac Rinaldo is in the conversation as your most effective forward. I don’t mean that as a slight because he’s been a pretty decent fourth-line option this season, but with just one goal and one assist- he is who we thought he is.

Frank Vatrano and Tyler Randell took a seat as healthy scratches last night after both being in the lineup against Ottawa Saturday night. Vatrano has a bright future ahead of him, but if this is to be his lot in life going forward for the rest of the season, then I suspect Butch Cassidy would love to have him back on the team in Providence. The undrafted free agent from Western Mass. has been a revelation, and his speed, dynamic shot and hustle are exactly what this Bruins team needs, but he had just 10 AHL games under his belt before going up to the big show, so there is more room for development on the farm rather than eating popcorn at press level.  Just saying.

Keith Yandle is a Milton, Mass. guy and former Cushing Academy star who had been linked to the Bruins in rumors for a couple of years before Arizona traded him to the Rangers last year at the deadline. There’s been some real grumbling in circles about how Alain Vigneault has used him this season, and let’s be honest- defense was never really Yandle’s strong suit. That said- with time ticking down and his team needing a play, they got one when his point shot was tipped in for the winner. He’s not the player a lot of people thought he would be early in his career when he showed signs of developing into something special, but a team like the Bruins sure could use him in a No. 2 role right now. Yandle only has two goals (on 88 shots) but his 23 points lead the Rangers from the blue line. He’s still a good offensive presence, even if the defensive side of his game isn’t there. He’s an unrestricted free agent this coming summer and will cash in- the question is where, and for how much/long?

Hayes netted his 10th goal last night, which puts him on the same pace as last year, when he established a career high 19 goals. It’s the inconsistency that has bothered Hayes this season, however- he had a brutal November, enduring a nine-game pointless streak at one point, and he went without points in nine of 12 December games. However, with his big body and soft hands, he’s capable of bringing more to the table. Last night’s goal was a rocket of a shot- scored from out near the tops of the circles when Hayes does most of his damage in close near the paint. He’s a good kid and wants to do well. I criticized him the other night because he stood around while Patrick Wiercoch worked over Vatrano after the diminutive forward crashed the Senators net. I felt that some kind of response- not necessarily fighting Wiercoch but at the very least, trying to restrain him so that Vatrano could extricate himself- was warranted, but many feel that he was right not to intervene and risk a penalty late in regulation of a tie game. Even if I don’t like it- that’s a fair assessment and with the way the NHL’s referees call games nowadays, any kind of intervention would be risky. That said- if Hayes is not going to bring much of a physical presence, then he’s got to keep scoring because he won’t be doing much else for this team.

It’s been a quiet couple of games for Patrice Bergeron (he was beaten by Mats Zuccarello on Brassard’s tying goal) and Brad Marchand since the latter returned from his three-game suspension. The B’s need those two to get it going.

Ryan Spooner continues to play well in David Krejci’s absence. Later this week, I’ll do a post dedicated to him and address some of the things he’s done behind the scenes to make himself a better all-around player, along with the help he’s gotten to get him there.
And that’s it. The B’s are 1-1-1 on their current road trip. They’ve been a good away team this year but they’ve got to find ways to get more points in the final two games at Philly and Buffalo before returning home Saturday to take on the Leafs with an ever-tightening Eastern Conference.

 

Final Buzzer: Stone OT goal powers Sens in 2-1 victory

The game was theirs had things been a little different for the Boston Bruins Saturday night in Canada’s capital city.

After young guns Mika Zibanejad and David Pastrnak traded goals in the first two periods of play, not another puck got past either one of Craig Anderson or Tuukka Rask until the 3-on-3 overtime period. Loui Eriksson had two glittering chances to give his B’s the extra point but could not cash in. Denied on a breakaway early in sudden death, he rang a shot off the post during a 2-on-1 break, and Ottawa took it the other way, finishing off the play to secure the home victory.

The winning goal came off the stick of Mark Stone, who had previously scored a pair of goals when Ottawa beat the B’s in the same building a few weeks earlier. Give the Senators forward credit- after Erik Karlsson’s shot hit off of Rask’s crest and bounced away from him, Stone gathered it up and attempted a wrap around goal. Rask somehow reached back in time from the left post to get his goal stick up against the far post to deny Stone’s initial bid. Unfortunately, with Eriksson behind Stone and out of the play, along with Colin Miller slow to react and put the body on the Senator player, Stone was able to corral the puck after it bounced off Rask’s stick paddle and flipped it up and over the goalie to end it.

Zibanejad’s first period tally, his eighth, was scored on a jailbreak rush after C. Miller’s shot attempt was blocked and Ottawa worked it back the other way. Karlsson slipped a pass to Zibanejad in the B’s zone after he broke in all alone and the Swede made a nifty deke before lifting the puck into the open side.

Pastrnak’s goal came on a deflection in the second frame, when he worked the puck around to Patrice Bergeron, who gathered it on the left half-wall and then passed back to Zdeno Chara at the point. Pastrnak rotated over to the slot in front of the net so that when Chara’s shot came in, Pastrnak was able to get a piece of it with his stick, making sure he made contact below the crossbar to make it a 1-1 game with his third marker of the year (in 12 NHL games).

That left it to the two teams to trade chances, with both Rask and Anderson holding down the fort until Stone finished off the B’s. Ryan Spooner and Senators forward Shane Prince (acquired with the 2nd-round pick in 2011 that Boston sent to Ottawa for Chris Kelly, btw) had particularly effective chances but neither player could find the back of the net.

 

World Junior Championship tourney underway- notes on B’s prospects in Helsinki

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)

The 2016 World Junior (Under-20) Championship showcase is underway from Finland, as the tradition kicks off annually on the day after Christmas, better known in Canada and other parts of the world as Boxing Day.

In a rare twist, USA took on Canada, normally a match in the 2-week tourney’s round robin round reserved for New Year’s Eve, scoring a solid 4-2 victory thanks in large part to the stellar goaltending of Carolina Hurricanes prospect Alex Nedeljkovic (2nd round- 37th overall in 2014) and some opportunistic scoring by USA after falling behind 1-0 in the second period. The Americans overcame an Alex DeBrincat spearing match penalty late in the opening frame that could have put them behind the 8-ball, killing the 5-minute period between the first and second periods. After Islanders 1st-rounder Mathew Barzal scored on a jailbreak play to give Canada the first lead, Senators prospect Colin White (Hanover, Massachusetts) answered for USA. Questionable power play chances yielded goals by both sides (Zach Werenski– Blue Jackets and Dylan Strome– Coyotes). With time winding down in a 2-2 game, a Louis Belpedio (Wild- third round in 2014) shot from the point was inadvertently deflected into the Canada net by Red Wings prospect (and undrafted free agent) D Joey Hicketts past his own netminder, Mason McDonald (Calgary- 2nd round 34th overall in 2014). 2016 NHL draft top candidate Auston Matthews got an insurance goal after a puck squeaked through McDonald and lay near the goal line for the easy tap-in to close out the scoring.

In other games, Finland hammered Belarus (6-0), Russia beat the Czech Republic in a 2-1 shootout in a game where defense and the goaltending shined, while Sweden took vengeance against the Swiss by an 8-3 score but lost key players William Nylander (Leafs- 1st round, 8th overall in 2014) and Adrian Kempe (Kings- 1st round, 29th overall) to injuries. Swiss forward Chris Egli was suspended three games for his vicious blindside check to Nylander, knocking him out of the game with what is believed to be a concussion. The latest report has Sweden keeping him off skates for a ‘few days’ but hopeful the high-end forward can be back by the quarter final round.

The Boston Bruins have seven players at the tournament, with GM Don Sweeney announcing Saturday between the first intermission of the team’s 6-3 loss to Buffalo at home that David Pastrnak is being released to play for the Czech Republic and will be available when the 28 December NHL holiday roster freeze is lifted.

The Bruins have the following players at the WJC, which ties Arizona for the most players league-wide:

USA

Anders Bjork, F (5th round, 146th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility

Brandon Carlo, D (2nd round, 37th overall- 2015) late ’96 – last year of eligibility

Ryan Donato, F (2nd round, 56th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility

Czech Republic

David Pastrnak, F (1st round, 25th overall- 2014) ’96- last year of eligibility

Daniel Vladar, G (3rd round, 75th overall- 2015) 2017 WJC eligible

Jakub Zboril, D (1st round, 13th overall- 2015) 2017 WJC eligible

Sweden

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, F (2nd round, 45th overall- 2015) late ’96- last year of eligibility

Defenseman Jeremy Lauzon was one of two final cuts for Team Canada. Watch for him, Zach Senyshyn, Jesse Gabrielle all to be staple players on Canada in 2017, when both are still eligible for the tournament.

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)

On Pastrnak being released to the WJC

You may have seen me commenting on this on Twitter, so I want to clarify my position on a forum that allows me more than 140 characters:

While good news for the Czech Republic and Pastrnak, this is a risky move for the Bruins in that they stand the most to lose should something happen to him over there to affect his availability for his NHL going forward.

Too often, I think the WJC has gained an almost mythical status in the minds of hockey fans in this day and age- it’s a symbol of status that often drives opinions and perceptions of players both positively and negatively. Like some kind of video game, it seems that the more players a team has at the WJC, the bigger the bragging rights fans can claim, even though merely being a part of the carnival atmosphere is no guarantor of future NHL success. I get it- because of the prestige factor associated with the U20 WJC as the premier global showcase for the best hockey talent, many of whom have either already tasted the NHL or will be there soon, there is an expectation that if a player isn’t there, then that means something is wrong with them. Conversely, if a player is named to his country’s WJC roster, their status tends to get elevated, rightly or wrongly, and in turn, a player’s performance is often scrutinized and magnified in a way that either over-hypes them or leads to negative perceptions of their future NHL chances.

What bothers me about Pastrnak going to the WJC is that he is coming off an injury that caused him to miss 24 NHL games after he took a hard shot off the skate and received a fractured foot (or “bone bruise” as reported). On the one hand- the B’s want to rehab him and the WJC provides a way to do that. It also exposes him to risk of either aggravation of the foot or possibly another injury. To those who have tweeted at me about the “safer” aspects of the larger ice surface and more skill/finesse at the WJC, go look at film on the Egli hit on Nylander yesterday in the Sweden-Swiss match and take note. Boston accepts all the risk here- Pastrnak is now playing games that won’t help the Bruins in the standings (nor would Providence, but the similar system would be beneficial to working him back into mental shape for the big club) but he’s also playing for coaches with different priorities/agendas than Claude Julien and Bruce Cassidy over in North America.

Another argument I’ve heard is about how important the “experience” at the WJC will be for Pastrnak. Okay. Assuming that is the case, how is playing in his third WJC going to give him any more experience than he got when he appeared at the same tourney at age 17 and then again a year ago when Boston released him at 18? He played only about half a season in the AHL a year ago before going up to the NHL, so the argument that the talent and overall experience he’d get in the WJC vs. being in Providence at this stage of his career is certainly debatable. You can make good cases for each scenario, but the whole “He *needs* to be at the WJC to develop properly” is hogwash. Nor is it a matter of this being his only chance to skate for his country there- he’s already done it. Twice. And you can bet he’ll do it again, perhaps as soon as the Men’s World Championship, or at the next World Cup of Hockey.

In the end- what I think doesn’t matter, because the Bruins made the decision to send him. I suspect they are acceding to his own wishes, and I get Pastrnak’s desire to play in the WJC versus going to the AHL with the chance to play for his country providing him with a compelling alternative. They might see the WJC as a better opportunity for him to get himself back on track after missing considerable time than riding the buses in Providence will. Perhaps the B’s feel that by doing this- they are acting in good faith and will only solidify their relationship with the player who by most accounts, is probably being groomed to one day replace Patrice Bergeron as the face of the franchise. It’s completely understandable. However, what do the Bruins get if something happens to Pastrnak in his 10-day stint overseas? The answer is- absolutely nothing…aside from blistering questions and second-guesses that will swiftly follow if the team suffers a setback with their prized asset in a game he didn’t really need to be playing, some 3,000 miles away from Boston.

It’s all about risk management here, and the Bruins obviously feel it’s the right thing to do. So, we’ll cross our fingers and hope they are proven right.

B’s WJC prospect notes and updates

Anders Bjork, USA- One of the last cuts a year ago, Bjork is a top two-way forward at Notre Dame, known for his speed, hockey IQ and playmaking skills from the wing position. He played a typically solid game yesterday, showing off his effectiveness on the forecheck to deny Canada puck carriers time and space. He uses his speed to close quickly and has a quick stick to force turnovers or clog passing lanes with. He’s a highly confident, effective penalty killer- he leveraged his vision and instincts to be in the right place and prevent Canada from collapsing USA’s formations and exploiting the extended power play time on the DeBrincat major. You won’t see a great deal of offense from Bjork in the pros, but he’s the kind of player NHL clubs win with.

Brandon Carlo (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Brandon Carlo, USA- He was beast yesterday defensively, using his 6-5 frame and long reach to repeatedly deny lanes to the American net all game long. Guys as big and mobile as the WHL veteran from Colorado is don’t grow on trees, and he played an effective game; making good decisions, maintaining his gaps effectively and electing the right times to play the body and puck. What I like about Carlo is that he doesn’t think he’s something he isn’t- he plays a refined, disciplined game positionally- not taking himself out of the play to score a big hit, nor pinching up in the offensive zone if a play isn’t there. He’s smooth and effective- he has all the tools to evolve into a very good shutdown defender at the NHL level in the not-too-distant future. Now for the bad news… While I recognize and respect his defensive acumen, I don’t see much in the way of consistent offense from Carlo that would lead me to believe he’s going to be a legitimate two-way threat at the NHL level. He’ll chip in with points on occasion, but his repeated missed shots from the point yesterday illustrate the kind of work he has yet to do on his game. I don’t see the vision or creativity once he’s in the offensive zone to be a real No. 1 defender at the highest level, but he’s only 19, so maybe that comes out in time. As far as the game against Canada goes- he played about as well defensively as you can ask, and that’s what matters most, as it translated into a key aspect of USA’s tone-setting win.

I would only caution folks to slow the roll on the hype train and understand that he has the look of an NHL player for sure- but how much of an impact (I’m studiously avoiding the use of the term ‘upside’ in case you hadn’t noticed) he’ll have is still very much a question mark at this point. I’m not down on Carlo at all- he’s a great kid with a bright future. But for those who don’t see him but hear all these glowing reports about him- just trying to keep things in perspective. In Carlo’s case- I would be thrilled to have him wrong on this score, but when my 2016 Boston Bruins prospect ranking comes out in the New England Hockey Journal next week, you’ll understand why Carlo is not in my top-6.

Ryan Donato, F- I’ll be brief. It was not a good look for the Dexter School prep star and Harvard freshman. He seemed to struggle with the pace and might have been a victim of nerves in his first-ever WJC game against an opponent like Canada. His ice time reflected that, as he didn’t get the regular shifts to work himself into a groove and when he was out there, he made some noticeable mistakes.

Donato is an excellent prospect who often times pays a price for the perception of prep hockey and where it ranks in the developmental pecking order. A sensational season in 2013-14, and one in which I would have been fine with taking him at the end of the first round, saw him slip down to the end of the second. Even with that, I saw grumblings about him being drafted there, which I completely did not agree with. Conversely, getting Donato at 56 overall was a fine value pick for Boston if not one that will take time to develop and see the payoff for.

Ted’s eldest son is a hockey savant- his offensive hockey sense and scoring instincts are second to none. He’s not a burner like his dad was, but he’s bigger and more physically gifted to skate in the modern NHL. He’s off to a fine start in Cambridge, a year after a down season at Dexter was then punctuated by a superb finish in the USHL with the Omaha Lancers.

In other words- just as a lot of folks were eager to jump on Twitter yesterday to sing Carlo’s praises, there is absolutely no reason to pile on Donato for his subpar showing. It’s one game in one tournament. The thing to watch going forward with Donato is to see how coach Ron Wilson and the USA coaches use him and if he can settle in and find a way to do what he does best- bring offense. Given the role he had yesterday, however, that’s a tall order for any player.

Czech Republic

Daniel Vladar, G- Was a non-dress yesterday as Capitals prospect Vitek Vanecek (2nd round, 39th in 2014) got the start with Ales Stezka backing up. Vanecek played very well in a 2-1 shootout loss to Russia, so Vladar will likely have to wait for his chance to play if he even sees a sniff of action. His role will likely be to carry the mail in 2017 if he continues to progress in his development this season.

Jakub Zboril, D- Boston’s top pick in June last just 10:17 into the contest when he was assessed a match penalty and ejected for boarding on a questionable hit that looked worse in real time than it was. He was given 25 minutes in penalties on the play, but no suspension is forthcoming.

Sweden

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, F- The second-rounder scored Sweden’s sixth goal in an 8-3 rout at 12:50 of the second period. No scouting report notes as I did not see the game, but it’s a good sign for the BU center, who tends to be more of a passer/playmaker than a finisher.

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka "JFK"

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

I will follow this blog post up later with some observations on some of the 2016 NHL draft hopefuls I saw in action yesterday.

 

 

 

 

Pastrnak out vs. Stars, Bruins recall Koko from Providence

Alex Khokhlachev gets first crack at replacing injured forward David Pastrnak when the Boston Bruins host the Dallas Stars tonight at TD Garden. The team announced today that it is recalling the Providence Bruins’ top scorer for a much-anticipated matchup featuring former Bruin Tyler Seguin.

The 22-year-old second-round pick in 2011 has gotten off to a fine offensive start in Providence, so the move comes as no surprise. He began the season on the right wing, but moved back to center when Austin Czarnik was knocked out of the lineup.

If Claude Julien slots him into Pastrnak’s spot on the right side David Krejci line with Loui Eriksson, then this will be a good opportunity to play and produce with some quality linemates.

Here are excerpts from the Bruins press release announcing his recall:

Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney announced today, November 3, that the club has recalled Alex Khokhlachev from Providence (American Hockey League). Khokhlachev will join Boston for Tuesday’s morning skate and be eligible for Tuesday night’s game against the Dallas Stars at TD Garden.

Khokhlachev has appeared in four games for Boston from 2014 to 2015, including his NHL debut on April 13, 2014 against the Devils in New Jersey.

The 22-year-old has skated in 10 games for Providence thus far this season, registering four goals (third on the team) and nine assists (tied for first in the AHL) for 13 points (tied for first in the AHL).

At the AHL level, Khokhlachev has appeared in 147 career games accruing 42-74=116 totals.

Pastrnak was not at his best in Sunday’s win against Tampa Bay after taking a hard shot off the foot in last week’s Bruins victory at home against Arizona.