Bruins are out…what’s next? (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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McAvoy, JFK in the Bruins’ fold…Bjork is on deck

McAvoy2

UPDATE: 14 April 2017

Editor’s note- The Anders Bjork watch continues more than a week after the Fighting Irish were eliminated by the eventual NCAA champion Denver University Pioneers. What can we say? Our optimistic outlook was based on a reliable source, but also illustrates the fluid situation and challenges involved in signing young players to NHL contracts. We’re not completely closing the door on Bjork reaching an agreement to turn pro and forego his senior season in South Bend, but each day that passes without an agreement looks less favorable to an ELC. We’ll see, but once again- we learn an important lesson about information and perhaps value in sitting on things to let them percolate before we contribute to hopes being built up. The information we received was accurate, but things changed, beginning with  the Irish overachieving and going far deeper in the NCAA tourney than expected, not to mention the bad luck of the NHL’s regular season ending so soon after Notre Dame was eliminated. We have no further updates, so we’ll have to see how it all plays out. We’re leaving the original post as is- we stand by our source and will chalk this one up to an evolving situation that perhaps changed due to other factors that intervened in what was believed to be a solid course of action for player to turn pro.

The one-and-done 80’s alt-pop band Timbuk3 sang about the future being so bright- they had to wear shades. Boston Bruins GM Don Sweeney might be having similar sentiments after he got ink to paper for two of his club’s top prospects this past week in a pair of Boston University studs- defenseman Charlie McAvoy and center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson or “JFK” as he is more popularly known.

Now, with the University of Notre Dame preparing to take on Denver University on Thursday night in one of two NCAA Frozen Four semifinal games, junior winger Anders Bjork is expected to be the third and final domino to fall in terms of new blood coming to the Bruins. Reliable sources (some of the same ones who told TSP several weeks ago that JFK was leaning towards coming out/turning pro) have told us that Bjork essentially has a deal with Boston in place pending his NCAA team’s status. Obviously, if the Irish beat the Pioneers- he’ll keep playing. The college championship/big enchilada is on Saturday night, the same day Boston would play their final regular season game, so whether Bjork is seen this season or makes his NHL debut in the 2017 playoffs (B’s still have work to do on that front) or next season remains to be seen. But, for those fans who watched the Jimmy Vesey saga last spring, it would appear that the B’s don’t have to worry about that, as arguably one of the best NCAA players in the country in Bjork- will leave school a year early to turn pro with the team that drafted him in the fifth round three years ago.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the signings and what each player might do for the Black and Gold:

Charlie McAvoy, RD

As reported a week ago Sunday by your TSP founder, McAvoy was the first of the dominoes to fall- he signed an amateur tryout (ATO) to turn pro with the Providence Bruins, and has already made a positive impression in two AHL games, registering an assist in each contest.

Amidst speculation that there might have been a wink-and-handshake NHL option included in the offer to get McAvoy to come out after two years at BU, the feeling on this blog all along was that the 19-year-old and 14th overall pick in last June’s NHL draft is ready for the show right now. There is always a segment of folks who believe that minor league seasoning is the smart play, and there is probably higher than average concern about losing a year off of the entry-level contracts of any one of the three NCAA prospects featured in this post. While you can’t dismiss that business-centric aspect of the signings, there’s probably more concern than warranted. Sure, a player like McAvoy incurs some risk by being one year closer to restricted free agency as a result of playing one or two games at the end of a season, but if the B’s were to make the postseason and McAvoy were to play or at least be around the team to practice with the veterans and work out with the NHL club while being subjected to the higher-intensity atmosphere of the postseason, that would in itself carry enough of a benefit to at least make a worthy case to “burn” the year off the ELC. For some, it won’t matter, but at the end of the day- fans sitting behind computers aren’t going to impact the decision process- Bruins management will ultimately weigh the cost/benefits and make that decision.

In McAvoy, the B’s are getting a skilled right-shot defender who can play with pace and move the puck better than just about anyone on the team right now not named Torey Krug. He’s an aggressive offense-minded player who still has a good bit to learn defensively, but the B’s have enough vanilla shutdown guys that can protect him when he goes into riverboat gambler mode and is deep in the offensive zone trying to force the play. He’s a fun kid who has a magnetic personality and will likely add to the dressing room dynamic with his good nature and ability to keep things loose. His U.S. National Team coach, Don Granato, told us at the draft last June that other players tend to gravitate to C-Mac- they want to be a part of his circle and he’s a guy who knows when to dial it in and get down to business. He has the potential to come into the Boston room and thrive under some of the veteran players on defense and up front.

Simply put- while he’s a still a bit of a wild young colt, you don’t want to clamp the reins on him- McAvoy’s pure skill and big play ability (check out his overtime goal vs. North Dakota or highlights from the gold medal WJC game vs. Canada) have a better chance at helping the Bruins now than hurting them. Sure- keeping him in Providence is the safe play, but I don’t know if playing it safe makes the most sense with a potential high-ender like this guy. We’ve seen a lot of talk about him being “ruined” or his confidence “damaged” by getting a shot at the NHL, but enough with the coddling- if you know even a little about McAvoy, he’s the type of guy who will benefit from the experience, even if there are some rocky moments for him.

We think he’s ready and that he’ll make his Boston debut soon.

JFK

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson aka “JFK”

Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, RC

When the B’s announced that he signed and would join the big club for the 2016-17 on Sunday evening, it ended the “will he/won’t he” drama that had been circulating around Boston since BU’s season ended a week ago Saturday at the hands of Minnesota-Duluth.

JFK could just as easily have gone back to BU for his junior year, where there’s a good chance he would have been the captain and could have taken his production to another level. We’re sure Coach Quinn and the BU Terriers wish that were the case- he’s a serious student and we hear that his family wanted him to get a little closer to his degree with another year in school.

Ultimately, however, the Bruins felt that the slick Swede’s time was now and made a final, aggressive push to sign him on Friday, meeting with him and obviously convincing the 45th overall selection in 2015 to make the pro plunge. We had reported several weeks ago that he was leaning towards turning pro, but like many youngsters, that sentiment had gone back and forth, with it looking more and more in recent days that he would stay in school- give credit to the Bruins for getting their guy, and fans will get a good lesson in the idea that if you feel strongly enough about a player, then close the deal. Anything could happen if JFK had gone back to school for another year, so the signing makes a lot of sense.

He’s been repeatedly compared to Patrice Bergeron, and like Boston’s star and longest-tenured player, he’s not a dynamic type who is going to pull you out of your seat. However, if you love the game of hockey, you will be drawn to the details in his game- the smart stick and vision; the ability to change gears and match the tempo of play; the ability to play effectively in all zones. He’s not zooming up the ice with his hair on fire, but if you stop and look closely at what he’s doing, he’s disrupting opposition breakouts by being in the right place and getting his stick into passing lanes; in the faceoff dot, he’s winning far more draws than not and in key situations both offensively and defensively; he’s aiding clean zone entries with on-target passes or gaining the blue line himself with shifty, but controlled movements with the puck to evade defenders and force opponents off their spots with his agility. JFK is also known for popping in big goals or making money passes for scores when his team needs it most. Yes, he didn’t put up dominant scoring totals at BU, but then again, neither did Bergeron when he was with the Bathurst Titan of the QMJHL.

Questioning whether JFK is ready to come in and make more positive plays than negative ones in the NHL is a fair one, and there is always an element of risk to putting in younger players in pressure-packed situations, but at the same time- if there is one player who has the mature, refined game and temperament to do it, then this centerman is it. His Omaha (USHL) coach told us at a team dinner last night as the news of JFK’s signing broke that his pulse/emotions are always in the green- he’s as cool as ice and that shouldn’t be mistaken for being laid back or having no pulse, but that he brings a relentless kind of steady state to his performance in that you’re getting the same level of execution and production, regardless of the situation. Earlier in his junior career, some questioned his sense of urgency, but JFK has answered that in definitive fashion with his two years at BU.

Now, the fun begins- we’ll have to wait for him to get his work visa stuff straightened out and see where Coach Bruce Cassidy (note to reader- this is a more formal way of saying, don’t ask us when he’s going to play or where he’ll slot into the Bosotn lineup) has him on the lines at practice, but getting JFK signed and in the fold was a major step- the payoff might not be that far behind.

Again, don’t fixate on the numbers- there’s not always a direct correlation between scoring at the lower level and to the NHL. There’s a good chance JFK isn’t going to be a big point-getter at the NHL level, but it’s not always about the pure production. If he’s value-added with his versatility and ability to play any role in key situations, that in itself is a big reward.

Anders Bjork, RW/LW

When it comes to prospects, few have generated both the buzz and concern than Boston’s fifth-round pick in 2014.

The buzz stems from his third consecutive season of improved offensive output for the Fighting Irish after an impressive freshman debut in 2014-15. Since the 7-15-22 line in 41 games that first NCAA year, Bjork jumped to 12-23-35 in 35 games before taking it to another level this season with 21-31-52 totals in 38 games with one or two more left depending on what happens this week in the Frozen Four.

Pigeonholed in a defensive forward role with the U.S. National Team, Bjork slipped down to the middle of the draft, but one team source in Boston told TSP that several of the scouts high on him during the 2013-14 season felt that he was miscast and could have been more effective as a top-6 winger with Team USA.

Versatility and speed/pace are Bjork’s calling cards: he can play any of the forward positions and while playing more on the right side in his last two campaigns under head coach Jeff Jackson, he started out as a left wing in South Bend and could potentially slot in alongside David Krejci sometime soon given his style and smarts. Bjork played some center in Ann Arbor with the NTDP, so that Swiss Army Knife flavor is something that the B’s (and every team for that matter) look for in their forwards. He’s an explosive skater- getting up to speed in just a few slashing strides, and he is dangerously creative, able to thread the needle with pinpoint passes or take pucks to the net himself. He can dangle or snap off shots in tight spaces. Like JFK- he’s a three-zone player, and with his wheels and head- we’re sold. Bjork is the real deal and the B’s were ahead of the curve on him- it’s about time to be rewarded for that foresight.

Fans (and the team) can breathe a little easier for now, in that it appears that Bjork is ready to begin his pro career. The Fighting Irish’s run to the Frozen Four has put that on hold, in large part- thanks to his heroics especially against the University of Minnesota, when he assisted on the tying goal, then scored the game-winner, figuring in all three of his team’s scores. For good measure, Bjork set up the OT-winner against UMass-Lowell to secure the trip to Chicago, which is where he grew up.

The B’s will have to wait a little longer, and the details and timeline are TBD- but it looks like all signals are green (no pun intended) and that whether the NCAA season ends for Bjork on Thursday or Saturday night, we’ll be seeing him in Boston soon.

 

Bruins add veteran Drew Stafford for conditional (late) pick

A largely uneventful NHL trade deadline day (the more meaningful adds happened before the Wednesday afternoon cutoff) ended with the Boston Bruins acquiring former 2004 13th overall draft selection and RW Drew Stafford from the Winnipeg Jets for a reported conditional (B’s making the playoffs? unconfirmed) 6th-round pick.

(Here are some YouTube highlights from a Buffalo fan “Topshot Elite 19):

After a year ago, when GM Don Sweeney added a pair of veterans in John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak for a total of four draft picks, only to see the team crater down the stretch and miss the playoffs for a second consecutive spring, this move is a bit more well-received because it represents a low cost/risk to add a solid veteran forward with size and scoring ability, albeit one who’s been hampered by injuries and a poor season.

Some of the rumored trades involving Gabriel Landeskog and Dmitri Kulikov never materialized for Boston, but in all honesty- anything more than Stafford would have likely required a cost that Sweeney and Co. were not willing to take on. The current Bruins team is 7-1 under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, and adding him gives the new bench boss more flexibility at the forward position with a player who starred at the University of North Dakota and was a member of the USA’s first-ever gold medal-winning squad at the World Jr. Championship in 2004.

Here’s a quick look at what Stafford brings to the table for the B’s in the final make-or-break stretch of the season, one that has ended in the final weekend in each of the last two campaigns.

Upside: Four goals in 40 games with the Jets is a stark contrast to the 21 in 78 he scored a year ago (Stafford’s best season was in 2011 when he tallied 31 goals in just 62 games- a 40-goal pace). He’s likely to replace Jimmy Hayes on Boston’s third line and assuming Ryan Spooner stays at the center position, the two are a good fit, with Frank Vatrano over on the left side. Stafford is more of a north-south, crash-the-net kind of player, while Vatrano drifts through layers in defenses to find space to unleash his lethal shot. Spooner is your classic slasher who jitterbugs in and out of traffic to set up plays…if he and Vatrano can get pucks to the net, then Stafford has a better than average chance of banging some of them in. Stafford is a good fit for the way that the Bruins like to play. With more than 700 games of NHL experience and 31 years old, he’s been around enough but is not so long in the tooth that he can’t give the B’s offense a modest jolt.

Downside: The unrestricted free agent to be is having his poorest season to date, so to expect anything but a minimal upgrade to what Hayes gave the B’s this year is probably setting the bar too high. The knock on Stafford has always been a lack of consistency- he can go through long periods where he simply doesn’t accomplish much. That’s near criminal, when you look at the highlights of some of his better scoring plays, where he drives with power into traffic and through would-be checkers to crash the net and score with a quick and sneaky release.

Verdict: For a conditional sixth-round pick, this is a low-risk move that expresses faith in the current roster and lets them try and make the postseason with what they have. Fans sometimes forget that no team wants to have a bad year and tank, and 2017 is certainly not the season to do that- no disrespect intended to top prospects like Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier, etc.- it’s just that we’ve been spoiled in recent years with top-2 selections like Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine– this year, the bottom feeders aren’t likely to get players with that kind of elite franchise cornerstone cachet.  The benefit of making the playoffs, even if the Bruins aren’t considered by just about everyone to be legitimate championship contenders, is that the younger players get a taste of the intensity of playoff hockey and that helps to develop them. The B’s are not a team that needs to blow everything up, so Stafford is a solid if unspectacular add.

For years, Boston fans saw him score some big goals against the Black and Gold. Now, they’ll get a chance to see if he can help propel the spoked B into the NHL postseason. In a division where every other team added pieces to improve, it might be moot, but Stafford gives his new team a fighting chance at least. And that’s really all most people want.

 

 

Breaking: Julien out, Cassidy in

The Boston Bruins announced this morning that the franchise’s all-time wins leader and 2011 Stanley Cup-winning head coach Claude Julien has been relieved of his duties after nearly a decade in the position and more than 400 victories. B’s assistant and former Providence Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy will serve as interim head coach in Boston. Cassidy, who previously held the head coaching job with the Washington Capitals, inherits a team that most recently lost critical points to the division rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a crushing 6-5 defeat and is fighting for its playoff lives.

With the New England Patriots victory happening today, GM Don Sweeney will hold a press conference to officially announce the move and discuss the way ahead. The timing of Julien’s dismissal is curious, to say the least, but given his pedigree- he is sure to land on his feet and won’t be unemployed for long.

More analysis on Julien’s legacy and expanded context on Cassidy and the organization to follow on the blog later tonight or in next 24 hours.

EDITOR’s note- The conference is over, with GM and new coach meeting the press, plus revelation that Joe Sacco will cover down on D and Jay Pandolfo will move to the bench during games. A lot to unpack and not sure the first/hottest take is going to cut it.

 

 

Jakub Zboril: the Good Cop-Bad Cop theory

good-cop-bad-cop-lego-movie

When the Boston Bruins drafted Czech defenseman Jakub Zboril 13th overall in 2015 out of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, few raised any eyebrows.

After all- the pick made sense at the time for myriad reasons: talent-wise, he was right around where he could and should go. He had posted a 13-goal, 33-point season in just 44 games in his first North American stint. He had the size, skating, puck skills, shot and even some physical nasty to his game to validate being chosen there. Defense was also becoming a major issue for Boston- then-GM Peter Chiarelli had traded veteran two-way machine & fan favorite Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign for futures (well, as we type this Brandon Carlo is certainly thriving in the present) and he subsequently went off, posting a career-best 9 goals and 35 points, while Boston’s defense contributed to the late-season swoon that cost the B’s a playoff appearance for the first time since 2007. In short- Zboril was a typical crowd-pleaser in that not only did he address an obvious organizational need, but no one could screech loudly on Twitter and Internet message boards about his being a “reach” for the team where he was picked.

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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