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)

Austin Czarnik will make the final roster

Austin Czarnik's 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Austin Czarnik’s 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

It’s the classic hockey saw: Small guys must prove they can play, while big players need only prove they can’t.

NHL teams were scared off by Austin Czarnik’s size, so they didn’t draft him.

The Michigan native was a scoring whiz at every level, displaying speed, creativity, puck skills and a willingness to battle and make a difference. But in the end, when it came to the NHL draft, no joy.

So, he went to Miami University, ended up being the captain and was even a Hobey Baker finalist. He dazzled with some serious scoring mojo while he was at Oxford and the Bruins managed to beat out other suitors to get him on April 1, 2015.

It was no fool’s joke- the kid can just flat-out play. He showed it a year ago as he provided consistent offense and nearly scored at a point-per-game clip for Providence as a rookie pro in the AHL. That after impressing with the Bruins during the exhibition season, where he showed some instant chemistry with Frank Vatrano.

Czarnik played so well that he was a late-season emergency callup to go into the Boston lineup if a banged-up David Krejci was waved off. That didn’t happen, but if not for that, Czarnik would have made his NHL debut already.

He’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, but has pure speed in open ice that makes him so fun to watch. Witness tonight, as he burned past Andrei Markov in the Habs’ zone to get to a loose puck and rifle it over Al Montoya’s shoulder.

TSP has seen all we need to- the guy is skilled enough to play in the NHL…right now. He’s a winner. He’s worked hard to improve in the offseason and he’s putting that effort into practice with consistent offense during exhibition play. Of course, offense alone isn’t a guarantee that Czarnik will make the big club out of camp, but it certainly helps. Working against him is his natural center position and the depth the Bruins currently have there. We suspect he’s versatile enough to play out of position and still make things happen, and he’d probably do manual labor if the team asked him to- he’s that kind of guy.

In other words- Czarnik is earning a job with the Boston Bruins the right way. He’s not a big-time draft pedigree guy, but he’s showing that Ryan Nadeau and the rest of the staff that scouted him and helped to close the deal in 2015 deserve a lot of credit for seeing this kind of potential in him.

Let’s not ruin the party by talking about projections and ceilings just yet- all in good time. For now, let’s enjoy the excellent play and results Czarnik is getting. He’s proving he might be small, but he has big talent and a bigger heart.

That’s a fact we suspect is not lost on Don Sweeney, Claude Julien and the Boston coaches.

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

 

Bruins extend Marchand to team-friendly deal; drop 1st preseason game in SO

Brad_Marchand

Brad Marchand looks to be a Bruin for life after re-signing for eight more years effective in 2017 (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Monday was an exciting day for the Boston Bruins and their fans, as news of the long-awaited Brad Marchand extension popped in the morning to the tune of eight years and $49 million, with an average annual cap hit/value of $6.125 million. That comes in under projections, many of which had the former 2006 third-rounder exceeding $7M per season.

The term is perhaps the only sticking point; the new contract expires when Marchand is 37, and is a bit risky- but the reality is that the B’s not only have locked in their top goal scorer (37 goals) with their top player, Patrice Bergeron (who wears No. 37) in the prime years of his career, all spent in Boston since breaking in as a full-time NHLer in the 2010-11 season.

This is a big win for GM Don Sweeney, John Ferguson Jr. and the Bruins- after Marchand’s outstanding showing at the World Cup of Hockey in the past couple of weeks, there was buzz that his chemistry with Sidney Crosby might see the Pittsburgh Penguins come calling, but the reality is- the Bruins and Marchand had been working on this extension for weeks. It was something the B’s knew needed to get done and Sweeney set about doing it, breaking up each year with a blend of salary and signing bonuses. The signing bonus ($24M of the $49M total compensation package over the life of the contract) is interesting because it is guaranteed during a work stoppage where the standard base salary is not. It also allowed the team to break up Marchand’s compensation structure in that he is getting front-loaded pay to the tune of $8M per season in the first couple of years, and then it goes down to $7M, $6M and $5M at various points per before closing out at $4M at the end. Those numbers combine to lower the cap hit to a manageable AAV.

Bottom line: the B’s have both Marchand and Bergeron ($6.825 AAV), their top two forwards, under long-term contracts for just a combined $13M. When you compare that to other top duos around the league- mainly Chicago’s Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane combo of $10.5M AAVs for $21M total per annum- it’s pretty solid work by Boston’s front office.

Marchand has proven he’s a huge piece of this team’s fortunes, and he’s also grown up considerably after putting himself in difficult situations on and off the ice in his junior career and earlier in his Boston years. Last year, he was the MVP (in our view here) and with goal scoring at a premium, he’s shown that he’s absolutely worth the commitment. Boston needs to get more production (and health) out of David Krejci ($7.25M AAV), but Marchand and Bergeron represent some impressive savings that Sweeney can leverage elsewhere on the roster.

Marchand could no doubt have gotten more on the open market if he had held out, but the pride of Hammonds Plains, Nova Scotia has found a home in Boston and wanted to stay. He’s certainly not getting paid peanuts, but he earned this deal and he’s taken the kind of contract that will help his team be competitive, rather than force the B’s to break the bank.

Fans have every reason to be excited.

***

The first preseason game is in the books, and the B’s kids dropped a shootout contest to the Columbus Blue Jackets after Danton Heinen deflected a Brandon Carlo point shot home to tie the game 2-2 early in the 3rd period.

It’s probably apropos that these two combined on the tying goal because they’re the ones who are thought to have the best chance of making the Bruins out of camp of the new crew of rookies. Carlo is huge, mobile and played a poised and effective game last night that drew post-contest raves from Boston assistant and former Providence Bruins bench boss Butch Cassidy. Heinen is just so smart and you can see his hockey sense on display with the way he works the walls and the front of the net. He had a memorable assist against the New Jersey Devils rookies on a Jake DeBrusk goal by going in for the puck then backing out for the return pass and feeding it over to DeBrusk for the one-timer. That vision, anticipation and soft passing touch are why we’ve been pumping Heinen’s tires here at TSP and could very well land him an NHL job right away given Frank Vatrano’s recent foot surgery (which happened yesterday, btw- start the three-month recovery clock now).

Carlo is so big and smooth- he’s not going to come in and dominate as a major two-way threat, but he’s showing that he could earn a role with the big club right away and help to stabilize the right side, unless the coaches feel that top minutes in Providence takes priority. He’ll have the rest of the preseason to determine that decision, but so far so good.

Jimmy Hayes scored Boston’s other goal off a nice pass from DeBrusk- he’s been impressive at the rookie camp as well and is probably ticketed for Providence (but don’t be surprised to see him in Boston at some point).

Anton Khudobin started the game and gave up two goals in two periods, while Zane McIntyre played the third and 3-on-3 overtime periods before giving up Sam Gagner’s shootout goal to end it. He looked poised and effective, which is a needed shot for his confidence going into the new season.

Heinen

 

Vatrano out three months…Patriots mantra in effect: Next man up!

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Frank Vatrano, UMass Minutemen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Got a tip after the first day of camp- fitness testing (closed to the media) was in the books- that the Boston Bruins were going to be without a player for quite some time due to injury. I had to scrap a bit to get a name, but by the next morning- I was hearing it was Frank Vatrano, and the worst of the fears started to come true after he was a no-show in both on-ice training camp sessions Fridayh at the Warrior Ice Arena.

Now, on Saturday, Don Sweeney and the Bruins have announced that Vatrano tore ligaments in his foot and will have surgery on Monday, Sep. 26 with a three-month recovery window. That’s a major setback for the Springfield Rifle, who was coming into the new season to make the case that he’s the B’s second LW behind Brad Marchand. That’s all on hold now.

Here’s the release.

The details are a little foggy- one player source tells me that Vatrano injured himself “weeks ago” but that the severity wasn’t determined (and player and team hoped that rest would heal it) until he engaged in the fitness testing and the cat got out of the bag that it was far worse than anyone thought.

It also answers the “how full of (bleep) are the Bruins” question that some fans were directing their way when Peter Mueller was announced as a PTO/invite to camp. Given that they had to know Vatrano might suffer such a setback, bringing in the veteran forward makes a lot more sense now. Of course- if he’s not up to the task, the vacancy up front will be filled by someone else, but at age 28 and as a former top-10 draft pick, why the heck not?

Danton Heinen is my choice to step up and grab a spot coming out of camp…he was already a dark horse favorite, but now- I think a spot is his to lose because he’s so talented and brings that high-end hockey IQ to the table. We’ll see, but I like Heinen as someone who understands the opportunity that just knocked for him- I expect the 2014 fourth-rounder to open the door and walk in.

More on Vatrano later- this is a tough setback for a kid who seemed on the verge of taking a next big step in the NHL after a dazzling pro hockey debut a year ago.He’ll be back, but it will be a path he’s likely got to earn every step of the way. We saw Seth Griffith deal with a similar situation when he was injured in the preseason last year and barely saw a sniff. For the record- I think Vatrano will get more of an opportunity to get back into the Boston lineup than Griffith received, but even when he’s cleared to return, the B’s will likely rehab him down in Providence and take their time. At least, that plan makes sense today on September 24, 2016. If the B’s scoring well runs dry in late December, we might see Frankie Vats faster than anticipated.

 

 

B’s add C Dominic Moore to mix on 1-yr, $900k deal

As alluded here the other day, the B’s made good on the rumor that they were looking to add a veteran forward, announcing Tuesday that former Harvard standout Dominic Moore signed a one-year pact that will pay him $1M in 2016-17. He reportedly gets a bonus of $100,000 if he plays north of 42 games, so that deal adds to his announced base salary of $900k. TSP didn’t list him in our option players rundown, but we thought about it- Moore is just one of those players that in hindsight is the kind of guy that appeals to the Bruins and what they like to do.

On the bright side- Moore is an experienced center who is one of the better faceoff men in the league, even if his offense is a far cry from what it used to be (and with a career-high of 41 points- Moore was always known as a bottom-six, defensive forward). He’s a good guy and leader who will be a trusted veteran for the coaches and someone to mentor a few of the younger players.

On the down side, Moore is 36 and if no other moves are made to the roster, represents more of the same old, same old (pun intended) where the progression of younger players on the Boston roster is blocked by a low-upside but established NHL old salt. While you can make the argument that rookie Noel Acciari lacks the kind of higher-end potential to argue against Moore taking his spot on Boston’s 4th line, there are other players who represent an upgrade in skill at the position who now are effectively relegated to Providence (Austin Czarnik comes to mind) with the arrival of Moore in Boston.

It would probably be a bad assumption to say that the arrival of Moore and a possible trade of forward assets to acquire help at the defense position are mutually exclusive, but according to the Boston Herald’s Steve Conroy (via Twitter), B’s GM Don Sweeney said yesterday that “he’ll continue to look for D help but nothing imminent. Believes current group can improve & youngsters can challenge.”

Moore has gone through a lot in his 765 NHL games, including the loss of his wife (and former Harvard soccer star), Katie, to cancer. If you can’t get behind his potential to help the Bruins, even the most clinically detached of fans can recognize that the guy has overcome a lot to get to where he is in his pro hockey career, and sometimes- those intangibles are worth more than meets the eye. HNIC and NHL video on him here (you might want a tissue handy):

http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?id=548835

ESPN E:60 feature on Moore and leaving the NHL for a year to be with his wife:

Don’t believe everything you read, and there are worse players to bring in than Moore. He provides some experienced depth, but if you were a fan who didn’t appreciate the additions of Simon Gagne and Max Talbot to the Boston roster in recent seasons, then there’s likely nothing else that can be said here that will alter your feelings on Moore right now.

But regardless of how you feel about the move from a hockey perspective, it shouldn’t be difficult to get behind the man. Somewhere, Katie Moore is pulling on a Bruins jersey and getting ready to cheer him on for one more season.

 

 

 

What D? The elephant in the room for the Bruins

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

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

It’s been a slow August, but I had an exchange on Twitter today that inspired a new post- the first since the Jimmy Vesey recap last weekend. There will be more content in store as we get closer to the new season and of course the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

With Vesey now officially with the Rangers, Bruins Nation turns its lonely eyes to Don Sweeney, looking at the proverbial elephant in the room- the lack of a clear and meaningful upgrade on the Boston blue line since the end of last season. Re-signing John-Michael Liles was fine on its face, but remember- he was a part of the April implosion that saw the B’s crater after sitting as high as second place in the conference a week and change after the trade that brought Liles to Boston. Also extended- Kevan “Killer” Miller, Colin “Chiller” Miller and Joe (Don’t call me “Blow”) Morrow...what do they all have in common? That’s right- they were all a part of the epic spring collapse for the second year in a row, but 2016 was worse because the B’s seemed to be well-positioned for playoffs at least before coming completely undone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the coda- an embarrassingly bad home loss against the nothing-to-play-for except to be spoiler to a division rival Ottawa Senators was a final humiliating kick in the crotch to a season that had far more peaks than valleys, but will ultimately be remembered for the inglorious ending.

So, here we are- a few days before September and unless we missed something- the only new blood the Bruins brought into the organization over the summer via free agency at the defense position is AHL journeyman Alex Grant. Nothing agains the former 1st overall midget pick in the 2005 QMJHL draft- he’s had a cup of coffee in the NHL and even scored some goals- but doesn’t this look a lot like Matt Irwin from a year ago?

We’re still waiting for a serious move to address a defense that was overmatched at best when skating against the top NHL offenses a season ago. This is not a slam on the current Boston defensive core- we think the world of Torey Krug, for example- he deserves to be surrounded by better talent. Zdeno Chara is at the end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still a serviceable defender…so long as no one expects his old near-30 minutes in any situation. Gone is Dennis Seidenberg, who, despite his huge heart, just couldn’t be effective on his surgically-reconstructed bottom trunk. Ability-wise, Seids is addition by subtraction, but his experience and veteran leadership will be missed, so you can make the case that this defense is actually worse than it was a year ago. This group needs help and one top-three NHL defenseman acquired via trade would do wonder to take some of that pressure off.

Help is coming in the form of a youth movement that shows a ton of promise. Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara could be skating for the NHL club at some point this season (they’re both slated for the AHL at a minimum, maybe more depending on how camp/preseason goes for them) and with their size and mobility, there’s a lot to like about their NHL potential. However, no one should be expecting either player to come in as a rookie and stabilize the Boston blue line. Charlie McAvoy is the cat’s meow after being picked 14th overall and having a sharp B’s development camp in July and even better showing at USA World Junior camp in Plymouth, Mich. earlier this month. But, he’s an NCAA player, so unless he bolts from BU, he won’t help the B’s this season until spring at a minimum when his sophomore year at Boston University is in the books. Jakub Zboril, the team’s top pick from a year ago, is in better shape and rehabbing an image that took a hit from a lackluster start last season- he’s talented enough to be a top-three one day, but how badly does he want it? And don’t forget Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and Ryan Lindgren– all impressive defenders who bring a little something different to the table. Let’s face it, though- even with the optimism, these players aren’t going to give the 2016-17 Boston Bruins what they really need. Hey- if someone within the organization steps up and delivers, more power to ’em, but this is why folks are getting antsy.

It’s legit.

So, based on some things I was told by sources in the Bruins organization and around the NHL, here’s a quick look at some options, or, irons in the fire, that the second year Boston GM and his management group might be looking at. On paper, this defense is simply not much to write home about given how things went a year ago, and while Sweeney has talked about the challenge of finding the right players at the right price, we’re a few days from September and while you don’t want to use words like alarming to describe the situation, what else are we left with. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You could apply that to the Boston defense and someone would have a hard time arguing against it.

Preamble over, let’s look at some options- by no means all of them, but something to get the juices flowing, at least:

Kevin Shattenkirk, Blues: The Bruins thought they had a deal for the former BU standout back in February in a deal that would have netted a return for Loui Eriksson, but according to a source close to St. Louis, those talks fell apart over the Blues’ desire to move another bad contract to Boston. Sweeney balked and no deal. Now, same source tells TSP that trade talks are heating up for Shattenkirk again, but not necessarily between Blues GM Doug Armstrong and the Bruins. It sure sounds like the NY Rangers would be a club sniffing around Shattenkirk, especially given his Empire State roots.

Armstrong’s in a tough spot and he knows it- the Blues came close to reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Bobby Orr took the pass from Derek Sanderson, beat Glenn Hall and hurtled through the air, frozen forever in time (46 years ago), but the San Jose Sharks ruined their (and Boston’s 2016 late 1st-round draft) party. Shattenkirk will be a free agent next summer and he’ll command big bucks even though his value as a two-way defender and power play contributor seems all but assured of declining. Assuming the Blues don’t try to re-sign him, trading Shattenkirk now means Armstrong gets more of a return, but he weakens his talented veteran team. The longer they hold onto him, the more he becomes a “rental” and the acquisition price becomes less than what it could be. Decisions, decisions.

The good: Shattenkirk would instantly upgrade the Boston defense and a top-3 of Chara, Shattenkirk and Krug isn’t a top NHL group, but it’s respectable. He’s very good in transition and paired with an effective shutdown guy (Adam McQuaid?), the shortcomings exposed by San Jose in the Western Conference final series last spring wouldn’t be as profound.

The bad: Let’s be honest- Shattenkirk is a fine player, but he’s on a cap-friendly deal right now, and he won’t be 12 months from now. If you acquire this guy, you either do so for one year and accept that he’ll be gone next July 1 or you have to commit upwards of $7 million a season (ballpark) to extend him. Is he worth it? Remember- you’re going to pay a handsome price to get him from St. Louis, and then you have to commit the cap allocation (and real dollars) to keep him in Boston.

The skinny: Last February, this made sense for the Bruins. Now? Not so much. If Sweeney is going to pay a premium, look for someone younger and more cost controlled. Recommendation: Pass on Shattenkirk and let someone else overpay for him not only in terms of assets surrendered, but in his next deal, which will be a doozy. The B’s already signed David Backes to a controversial big-ticket contract- remember Einstein.

Jacob Trouba, Jets: We’re hearing from several sources around the league that tension and friction is growing more intense between the 2012 NHL draft darling and Winnipeg management. Where he once looked like a franchise player-in-waiting, he’s taken steps backwards after a very promising rookie year, but wants big bucks and more playing time. The Jets committed to Dustin Byfuglien on that, so it sure looks like Trouba’s days are numbered in the ‘Peg, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is under no timetable to resolve the issue…if there even is one. On the positive side- Trouba has all the tools of a top-2 NHL rearguard, even if he hasn’t shown it. The risky aspect is that he’s really in no position to be dictating terms, and yet here he is, apparently. That will make NHL suitors wary for third and fourth contract-type maneuvers, assuming he gets there.

The good: Trouba would give the Bruins a young D they could sign to a “show-me” contract (if he just wanted out of Winnipeg) with a delayed payday, much like they did with Krug. He’d instantly move into the top of the rotation and be given every opportunity to prove he can be a bell cow D and earn that massive deal he seeks. The B’s would benefit from his skill and young legs to take some pressure off of Chara and Krug.

The bad: Trouba is risky right now and pro scouts might be a tad squeamish about laying it on the line for him. Is he just human and his play affected by the environment with the Jets? Or is he more of a dud than a stud? Any trade for him is going to cost a lot- he’s only 22 and was a top-10 pick, so Cheveldayoff can drive up the bidding and come away with a nice package/return- you’ll have to overpay for Trouba to get him, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the player you’re praying he will. If he doesn’t, that’s what costs people their jobs.

The skinny: Go East, young man! Forget the rumors about an offer sheet for Trouba, but if Sweeney could wrangle a deal, Trouba just might be the droid the B’s are looking for. This risk is worthwhile, and when you stack Trouba up against the Bruins defenders player-for-player, he’s better than most, and with the promising defense prospects coming up (at least one or two not named McAvoy would have to go back to Winnipeg, no doubt) within the organization, he’ll get help at some point. But the Bruins need a defenseman now…what good is putting Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Backes, Chara and company through another season like the last two if you don’t find a way to improve your team and give them a chance to build on two very frustrating finishes.

Cam Fowler, Ducks: I talked about him being an option via trade for the B’s in early July here, so I don’t have a great deal to add other than to say, it’s more of the same with Shattenkirk- Fowler improves the Boston defense and makes them more competitive. Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins via trade is probably a pipe dream- if Bob Murray is going to move a blue liner, we can’t see it being him- Fowler is a more obvious choice. But hey- if that happens- that’d be huge (but again- pipe dream).

Just in case you’re disinclined (too lazy?) to click on the link I provided above, here are some nuggets from that Fowler post from July 2:

Fowler’s your “bridge”- he makes $4M and has 2 years left to UFA status, meaning he gives the Bruins two seasons before they have to make a decision and brings them two years closer to seeing one of their recent top-60 D selections evolve further to see where they might be as NHL players. The issue with Fowler is that he shoots left, whereas the B’s need to shore up their right-shooting talent. So, in essence- if the B’s are able to go out and get Fowler, they then probably need to add another right-shot D for depth and hope that Colin Miller takes a big step next season for them.

The good: Fowler makes the Bruins better. How much? That’s up to you, dear reader, to decide.

The bad: If you pay attention to advanced stats and analytics, Fowler’s valuable on the power play but more of a 3rd-pairing guy at even strength, and the B’s have plenty of those. He’s also going to cost a lot to acquire at age 24. Teams with good D-men are in a seller’s market, which the B’s are unfortunately (for them and their fans) on the wrong side of.

The skinny: Fowler is worth pursuing- there’s real ability there, and he might prove to be a good fit to help stabilize the defense until one (and) more of the young guns are able to develop into NHL regulars on the Boston blue line.

Kris Russell, Unrestricted: In the free agent game of musical chairs, the music has stopped and Russell is looking for a seat. It’s surprising really, even with the concerns about how the analytics translated to his overall game and potential going forward. He’s 29 and has nearly 600 NHL games under his belt. The former Medicine Hat Tigers standout and Columbus 3rd-rounder can really move the puck and pass, but his turnovers and decisions (not to mention the fact he’s undersized) get him into trouble. Granted- how is it that we’re almost to September and he still hasn’t found a landing spot? In a word- money. His agents shot far too high, so he’ll have to take a lot less and the lower the cap hit, the more reasonable a guy like Russell will be.

The good: Russell can move and aid in the transition game. He’s a veteran and he’d represent an improvement on paper to the Boston roster, but that assumes his play doesn’t fall off a cliff- a major factor perhaps in why no team was eager to sign on for the big bucks he was looking for on July 1.

The bad: The analytics are not kind…and we need to be honest with ourselves- the Bruins and their fans aren’t either. A player like Russell will be so heavily scrutinized that he’s more likely to wilt in a bigger role with Boston than he would in more of a complementary spot with a better, even contending club.

The skinny: Signing Russell to a prime market deal on July 1 was the major red flag, but now that we’re reaching the end of the offseason, there are worse things the Bruins could do than sign him to a 1- or 2-year team-friendly deal. Having said that- he’s not a great fit as a left-shot D with similar attributes to Krug- do the B’s need two similar players? Probably not- balance is the key and Krug is the much better overall player- it’s not close. Pass- let some other club roll the dice.

Okay- there it is. Not all the bases covered, but if we get to the start of training camp after the World Cup of Hockey and nothing has been addressed with the Boston defense, then you’re going to see and hear the criticisms ramp up. This 16-17 Bruins roster is a game bunch, but they don’t have the talent on the whole to compensate for the lack of skill on the back end, and throwing up the hands and claiming an upgrade is too hard to pull off won’t cut it with the natives.

Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

Rangers land second big Boston-area NCAA free agent in Vesey- the aftermath

The Jimmy Vesey saga ended Friday when word leaked out via Bob McKenzie that the North Reading native and Harvard graduate after winning the 2016 Hobey Baker Award, agreed to terms with the New York Rangers.

The decision, made some four-and-a-half months after Vesey declined to sign with the Nashville Predators, who owned his rights after drafting him 66th overall in 2012, was met with disappointment and disgust in some Boston circles, but shouldn’t be all that surprising given some of the warning signs that pointed to the 23-year-old leaning away from choosing his hometown Bruins as one of seven teams he formally met with this week.

Like Kevin Hayes two years ago, the B’s were in the running, but the player decided to play close to home but not with the Boston organization. Not surprisingly, Hayes himself, the younger of two hockey brothers who both played at Boston College, was instrumental in helping to convince Vesey to choose Broadway over Causeway.

For those familiar with this blog and typist, you know that I have had a personal connection with the Vesey family for more than five years, but throughout the process, I purposefully stayed away from trying to leverage that connection for information. In many respects, not really knowing which way Vesey was definitively leaning was refreshing, as it allowed for a shared experience with the vast majority of fans and non-insiders. When the word came down that it was the Rangers, I was hearing it for the first time, and I was also wrong- my own guess was that he would go with the New Jersey Devils because of a personal connection to Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils’ assistant GM. Shows you how much I know…

There are a lot of different views out there on the subject, so these notes are based on my own personal knowledge and insights gained from several conversations over the weekend with NHL insiders who have knowledge of the Vesey situation. This is why I didn’t rush to post something on it Friday or Saturday, as I wanted to get my ducks in a row first. But truth in lending: take my observations with a grain of salt. There is a personal element to it so I am not completely free of bias in all of this, nor do I pass myself off as completely objective here. I am writing an opinion piece, so you have the choice to agree or disagree with any or all of the points made.

  1. My gut feeling is that the Bruins lost their real shot at Vesey five years ago, when they drafted Norwegian goalie Lars Volden in the sixth round. In doing that, they snubbed the Belmont Hill star who had been told by someone in the organization that they liked him and were going to take him. That’s the tragedy in all of this from Boston’s perspective- they *knew* in 2011 that he had some big time potential and recognized it, but at the draft table in St. Paul, they went with someone else and it cost them what could have been a huge success story for their scouting staff. This kind of stuff happens all the time, but when you look at the attention Vesey has received (much of it earned), it’s something the B’s have been kicking themselves over. There is no doubt that had Boston drafted Vesey, he would not have pursued free agency in the manner he did and none of this would have been necessary. That snub motivated Vesey to destroy the EJHL in 2011-12, smashing all major offensive league records, but even then- the B’s could have spent a first-round choice on him over Malcolm Subban, especially since they didn’t have a second-rounder and knew deep down he wouldn’t be there in the late third. In effect, the B’s chose two goaltenders over Vesey- one is a complete washout and the other has yet to deliver on significant promise. It goes to show that scouting future NHL players is more of an art than a science, and projecting stars between the pipes is even more difficult. The B’s didn’t do what they allegedly said they would, and you have to know that Vesey didn’t forget it. When you add in all of the other factors that went into his decision, it’s not surprising. Boston did it to themselves- they had two legitimate shots at really showing Vesey that they wanted him, but didn’t take them. That left the Bruins in the position to ask for him to choose them this week, and all he did was return the favor.
  2. Give Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and his staff credit- they put together a compelling pitch, leveraging New York’s natural draw as a big market destination and myriad celebrities and sports figures associated with the Big Apple to put the finishing touches on a successful pitch. It’s easy to hate the Rangers as a natural extension of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and given Gorton’s history with the B’s, you know he enjoyed sticking it to Boston on this one, just as was the case with Hayes two years ago. Former Hobey Baker winner and Stanley Cup champion Chris Drury captained the Rangers and is the team,’s developmental guru- he had a major hand in convincing Vesey to sign on in Broadway, and don’t underestimate the lure that someone with Drury’s cachet brings to the process. In the end, there can only be one destination for a player’s services, and everything counts (not necessarily in large amounts as Depeche Mode once sang). While Vesey had close friends like Matt Grzelcyk, Ryan Fitzgerald and Harvard teammate Ryan Donato in the Boston organization, none of them have ever played a professional game with the B’s. Kevin Hayes, on the other hand, is the only close friend of Vesey’s in the NHL- he was able to identify with the signing process, but even more important- Hayes could tell Vesey firsthand what he was in for if he signed with New York. The other NHL teams in the running all brought out some of their biggest stars to try and sway Vesey, but none of them had the powerful personal connection Hayes does…that was big. Game, set and match. Remember- Boston is in some good company- the NHL’s modern dynasty Chicago Blackhawks and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were also told “thanks but no thanks” by Vesey. The Rangers might seem like an odd choice to some, but for him, the team was the best fit. Now, time will tell how well he plays there and if he regrets that choice in the long run.
  3. In talking to one key insider, it was pointed out that Vesey has a large family and everyone is in the Boston area. It’s not just about Vesey taking heat during the inevitable times when he might not play as well as he’s capable of or like the human he is, goes into a slump. You have to take into account the effect that the media and fan negativity will have on Vesey’s immediate and extended families. It’s easy to dismiss that when you’re sitting behind a keyboard and have no concept of what it’s like to have your every move scrutinized and thinking about the possibility of rude, socially-stunted strangers accosting you in public to demand to know why your son, brother, nephew or cousin isn’t living up to the lofty expectations the modern information age created. It might sound like a cop out, and I’m sure there is an element of people that will scoff at the notion no matter what. That’s fine- I’m not trying to reach them, but the more fair-minded of those in hockey fandom will get it. “We know everyone,” came a quote via text yesterday. “And in the offseason (Jimmy) can come home and get away from it.” If he had signed in Boston, there would be no escape from the scrutiny of his profession. By going to the Rangers, he can go home to Boston in the summer months and decompress rather than stay in  what could be a crucible of discontent if the B’s fortunes don’t improve. That’s a lot to put on someone’s shoulders, even if there is a case to be made that by embracing the challenge, Vesey truly could have made himself into a legitimate Boston star. It was probably not meant to be, and that’s okay.
  4. It’s unfortunate that there is an element of sour grapes already taking hold and a segment of fans rejected by Vesey are already bringing out the sharp knives. It’s predictable. And lame. Look, the biggest mistake us “mortals” make is in assuming that because we would kill for a chance to play professional hockey for our favorite teams, everyone else should think the way we do. Observations 1 and 3 have already laid out why Boston was not the obvious choice for him, and to be honest- the B’s should be glad they were even in the final running. A more petulant, immature person would have stuck it to them and made a public spectacle of that rejection. Vesey is not that guy, and I think he showed the team respect by giving them a chance. Some might say he “used” them, but I would argue he leveraged every team in the running to determine his final landing spot.That might be what a Harvard degree teaches you, but that’s just me. It would be nice if people could show the same kind of maturity by respecting the decision and not seeking to point fingers or play the blame game. It might be human nature to lash out when things don’t go your way, but take a step back and evaluate your life and priorities. If you spent more time than you should have getting yourself worked up over the idea of Vesey skating in Boston and now feel hurt or betrayed after he chose the Rangers, then there are probably some important things in your life that you are neglecting. To put it another way (Ben Stiller style): It’s just a game, Focker.
  5. What was distasteful to everyone was the amount of attention the whole thing got for as long as it did, and the comparisons to Kevin Durant are valid. This is something Vesey will have to deal with and the best way to put it behind him is to simply go out and prove himself at the NHL level. At the same time, he probably invoked the old Shakespeare “Methinks thou doth protest too much,” when he commented about not enjoying the spotlight. A couple of points- I know Jimmy and believe him on that score: he’s not an attention-seeker. His handlers have more to do with that than anything, but as the player, he’s got to own that this became something that got out of hand. Second- there’s little doubt that deep down, he enjoyed being able to dictate the terms to NHL teams. Remember- all 30 clubs snubbed him in 2011 and 2012. Any one of them could have drafted him before Nashville in the 3rd round in his second year of eligibility. He went from being a kid who was hurt and disappointed at being skipped in his first year (who wouldn’t be?) to someone just about everyone would have gladly taken on their team. It’s human nature to enjoy an element of revenge when the tables are turned. I don’t blame him. Finally, the timing stunk- there just isn’t any hockey news to be had in mid-August and that fed the beast of the media circus surrounding Vesey, especially since he’s the reigning Hobey Baker recipient. Many of us might find the kind of hype surrounding him ridiculous, but this is the world we live in. Had Jonathan Drouin been able to leave Tampa Bay at midseason and become a free agent open to bidders, we likely would have seen the same exact thing. And those Canadian CHL-centric folks who wagged their fingers and tut-tutted at Vesey leveraging his right in the CBA would probably have made the same allowances for a player like Drouin that they seemed unwilling to extend for Vesey. That’s life, but again- you know who you are. Take a step back and be honest with yourself- every team seeks an edge, and Vesey is a good risk to take. We might not like the attention he got, but if it wasn’t him, it would likely be someone else. Besides, it made for an interesting story to follow at least. I’m just glad it’s over and we can now focus on the next big things: the World Cup of Hockey and the start of the new NHL season.

The onus is now on Vesey to go out and prove himself at the NHL level. There will be many out there rooting for him to fail, but he’s done a nice job of silencing the critics so far. Playing for the Rangers will be business as usual for him, and if the past is any indication, he’ll likely build more fans and supporters than detractors.

***

So, where do the Bruins go from here?

They accepted risk in waiting to see what happened with Vesey because by bringing him into the fold, they would have built a bigger war chest with which to make a trade for much-needed defensive help.

That ship has now sailed for Don Sweeney, so he needs to reset and figure out how he can address a very mediocre defensive group (and that’s being charitable at this point). He’s talked about the difficulty of finding the right players in a constricted market where skilled two-way defensemen are at a premium, but as the GM, the fans aren’t interested in that kind of reasoning. They expect action, and so it will be interesting to see what he and the team does between now and the start of rookie camp in about 30 days or before opening night in October.

The Bruins have some impressive young defenders coming down the pipeline via recent drafts, but those kids aren’t realistic options to help the 2016-17 NHL roster, so something has to give. Sweeney needs to find a way to close some deals and get some wins under his belt. Here’s guessing that he might re-open the lines of communication with St. Louis or Anaheim to look at Kevin Shattenkirk or Cam Fowler. 29-year-old free agent Kris Russell has not yet been signed (boy, is THAT ever telling!) and at this point, you have to think that someone will land him, especially if the right money makes his shortcomings easier to swallow. But how much of an upgrade is he on a team like the Bruins? Again, it will come down to contract term and AAV, but that he’s still sitting out and available in mid-August is interesting.

Yes, it would have been easier for Sweeney and staff to make a deal with Vesey on board to free up other assets to be moved, but Boston also has to play the longer game with Brad Marchand headed to unrestricted free agency in July 2017 if the B’s don’t extend him. And let’s face it- they can’t afford *not* to extend him unless they work an unreal trade that the majority of fans can get behind. To lose Marchand in the wake of so many other grievances fans have about the team is as unpleasant an outcome as you can find right now.

The major priority is to improve the defense. You can’t “fix” this group, but Sweeney can build a more sturdier unit than what we saw last season with one move. When you look at the promise of players like Charlie McAvoy and perhaps Brandon Carlo or Rob O’Gara plus others in the next 1-3 years, the defense will improve. However, the status quo in 2016-17 is simply not going to work. Sweeney has to find a way to identify and acquire a bridge player or two.

It won’t be easy, but if it were, then anyone off the street could manage an NHL team to a Stanley Cup championship.

 

Vesey officially on the open market- let the free agent Kabuki dance begin

In 2008, University of Minnesota forward Blake Wheeler opted to forego his senior year, but in so doing, decided not to sign with the Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted him fifth overall four years earlier.  Wheeler leveraged a provision in the previous (2005) collective bargaining agreement and signed instead with the Boston Bruins, eventually getting traded to the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, where he has become one of that franchise’s more productive players over the past several seasons. Twitter wasn’t as big then, nor did the Wheeler courtship last as long, so at least in one regard, the difference between then and the hype machine surrounding Harvard graduate Jimmy Vesey is significant.

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Vesey, who received the 2016 Hobey Baker Award one year after being the runner-up to Jack Eichel, is now an unrestricted free agent after passing on the chance to sign with the Nashville Predators, who drafted him 66th overall in 2012. There could be myriad reasons why Vesey spurned the Music City, but only he and those closest to him know his true motivations behind doing so. The Buffalo Sabres had multiple third-round picks in the 2016 draft, so they flipped one to the Preds for the chance to convince Vesey to forego free agency altogether and sign with them. Sabres GM Tim Murray gave it his best shot, but when you consider that the North Reading native has come this far for the right to choose his NHL destination, Murray and Co. simply weren’t going to get him to bite, no matter how compelling the sales job.

Now, some 50 days after the Sabres acquired his exclusive negotiating rights, and per the NHL’s (2013) CBA, Vesey can now talk to any NHL club who desires his services. Here are highlights, compliments of Harvard:

This is not a loophole. The 23-year-old is not engaging in any underhanded activity, as much as some out there who don’t apparently understand how collective bargaining works would like to (and of course want to convince others of the righteousness of their own ignorance) believe.

Is it unseemly? That depends on what your definition of that is, but in our free market society, Vesey is taking advantage of his immense talent for hockey while also doing something very few NHL prospects these days get to: determine his own professional hockey destination.

Some out there feel he “owed” it to Nashville to just sign with them and report just like any other draft pick, but that position assumes that we know all of what was happening behind the scenes. We obviously don’t, and there is no requirement for any of these players to come to terms with the teams that draft them. Vesey incurred risk by staying in school and not taking Nashville’s original offer to bring him out in the spring of 2015 after netting north of 30 goals for the Crimson as college hockey’s second-best offensive talent after Eichel. Graduating from Harvard was important to him, and at some point, even after he had talked on the record about signing in Nashville, something changed and he didn’t.

Vesey is not the only player to do this and he won’t be the last. However, by virtue of the ever growing groundswell of social media in the information age, Vesey is a high-profile player…arguably the highest coming off of a Hobey Baker-winning season. No one else who has come before him carries that kind of cachet, but even with the NCAA success (56 goals, 104 points in 70 games in the past two seasons), there is no guarantee he will make the same kind of impact in the NHL. However, when you factor in his skill, hockey IQ and accomplishments to date, plenty of teams are willing to roll the dice.

Two years ago, Chicago Blackhawks prospect Kevin Hayes, he of hockey Clan Hayes of Dorchester, decided not to sign with the team that made him a first-round pick in 2010, and after multiple teams courted him, settled on the New York Rangers. That decision cost him a Stanley Cup, as the ‘Hawks went on to capture their third championship in six years some 10 months after Hayes leveraged his CBA right to be a free agent.

It happens. And it also underscores that different things motivate these players beyond money or opportunity. If winning were the only thing that mattered, Hayes would have signed with Chicago. This points out the folly of anyone who is sure that Vesey will do the same simply because Chicago brain-trustees Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville personally attended some of his summer league hockey games in Foxboro.

At the same time, to believe that Vesey is a done deal to Boston simply because he grew up there and was a Bruins fan as a kid is equally foolish.

What it likely will come down to is which team Vesey feels the biggest connection to. It could very easily be a team like Chicago. Or Boston. Or Buffalo, who according to several sources, are in a nice spot with him, having given him a good faith pitch while benefiting from the behind-the-scenes work done by former Boston hockey rival and now summer liney and pal Eichel.

Vesey could be won over by the Rangers, who because of their success in wooing Hayes after stealthily pursuing him in 2014, are always going to be name players in the NHL’s version of the Game of Thrones– free agency (albeit much less dramatic). Rangers GM Jeff Gorton is a Boston-area guy and he’s got people like Gordie Clark who do well in the recruiting department (both are longtime former members of the Boston Bruins front office/scouting staff). Don’t underestimate the power of Broadway.

The New Jersey Devils are another team emerging as a favorite to get him; GM Ray Shero has added some impressive forward talent to his club over the past two seasons, and the Newark-based club can overcome the negative pull of the playing digs with some solid selling of recent drafts. Hero’s right-hand man,Tom Fitzgerald, has a direct connection to the Vesey family as well.

Then of course there are the Toronto Maple Leafs- they’re sure to be in the mix, too. How much, is up for debate as making the money work might be an issue for them, but Vesey’s father and brother are both in the Leafs organization. When it comes to family, that’s a big selling point for just about anyone.

Finally, I wouldn’t count out a club like the Philadelphia Flyers being in on the Vesey sweeps. Ron Hextall is an aggressive GM who has his team on the rise, as their late-season surge to K.O. the Bruins on the final weekend of the 2016 NHL season can attest. Think the Flyers couldn’t use a plug-and-play LW with Vesey’s upside? Think again. It wouldn’t surprise in the least to see a club come out of left field to land him, and Philly is my dark horse to do it. (EDIT- So, Philly was not in on the Vesey sweeps. Surprising, but another keystone state team- the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins- did meet with him on 8/16. The Penguins were not a club linked to Vesey much since his decision in March not to sign with Nashville, but it makes sense and they might be the ones who sneak in and spirit him away. We’ll see. – KL)

In circling back to the Bruins, there are plenty of reasons to think that they could end up landing the prize. Refuting some reports out there, a source close to the Vesey camp said that  he hasn’t ruled the Bruins out.  On the contrary- the B’s and GM Don Sweeney are in prime position to show him how serious they are. Will Sweeney’s Harvard credentials and the connection he has with Vesey’s representation help? It just might. Getting Vesey is key not just because he’s a talent the team has coveted for years, but because he also opens up trade options to assist Sweeney in landing an upgrade on defense. It’s not a zero-sum game- the Bruins will likely have to move on a defenseman via trade at some point, but Vesey in the fold means flexibility and an ability to be able to give up pieces of value to land the defenseman the Bruins want.

It’s a delicate balance, but Boston has a real opportunity here. When they come to the table, it may or may not be enough to convince him, but you can bet that they’ll try. They, too, have connections- assistant amateur scouting chief Scott Fitzgerald (Tom’s brother) and close friends like Matt Grzelcyk, Ryan Fitzgerald, Harvard teammates Ryan Donato and Wiley Sherman to name a few.  It’s just a shame that they didn’t draft him in 2011 when they had the chance to get him in the sixth round. Or even 2012- when they could have spent the 24th overall choice on him in lieu of Malcolm Subban. The opportunities were there, and one can only wonder if Vesey will remind them of that fact when they meet.

Ultimately, though- only young Vesey himself and those few solidly inside his inner circle truly know what is motivating him here and what things will matter most to him when he meets with the suitors today and tomorrow. We may or may not find out the truth once the final decision is made, probably no earlier than Friday depending on how loose lips are around the camp.

Many are no doubt ready for it all to be over so we can move on to the next thing (World Cup of Hockey, anyone?), none more than Vesey and his family.

For the one NHL club that will gain a valuable asset and one who has shown the kind of promise to make this pursuit worthwhile, that relief should be more than palpable. Sure- there is no guarantee that Vesey will be the NHL performer many believe he can, but if you’ve been paying attention to his profound growth over the past several seasons, you know better than to bet against him.