Thud! (And ideas on what the B’s need to address going forward)

That’s the sound of the Boston Bruins coming out of an important game last night against the Anaheim Ducks.

The reality is- you can’t win in any league without scoring goals, so this one was over just a few minutes into it- as long as it took trade deadline pickup Jamie McGinn to put the puck past Jonas Gustavsson at 2:51.

The Bruins outshot and outhit the Ducks, and after a rough 1st period, pulled things together until giving up a Hampus Lindholm goal early in the third period.  However, on a night that the B’s couldn’t get any of their 38 shots past starting netminder Frederik Andersen, no one should be all that surprised- the Ducks are one of the league’s top teams after a brutal offensive start. The defense and goaltending has been there for them all season, and when the scoring picked up, you just knew that Bruce Boudreau’s club would be a force. The B’s have been outscored 10-2 in their pair of games against the Ducks this season. In a head-to-head matchup like this one, it was evident that the B’s is not as talented, not as deep, not as strong, not as fast.

I know fans are disappointed, and there’s no doubt more is expected of this B’s club that went on an impressive hot streak after keeping Loui Eriksson and picking up John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak on February 29th’s NHL trade deadline. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that there still seems to be this sense of entitlement by so many out there who flood the airwaves and internet with negativity in the wake of a loss. No team has ever posted a perfect record in any regular season in NHL history and no one ever will. The B’s are far from a powerhouse team, so nobody should really be surprised that they came up short against the Ducks last night. Not giving a pass to the Bruins here, but they were overmatched against Anaheim last night and it showed- they put up a solid effort and had their moments, but their opponent is that much better. McGinn and Ryan Kesler scored in the first 5 minutes and while the game seemed closer than the final score, the B’s were unable to solve the defense and goaltender at the other end.

The honeymoon with Stempniak and Liles is ending. They’re solid veterans, but not true difference makers. Boston’s showing against San Jose and Anaheim give you an indication that while the team improved at the deadline, how much of an upgrade the duo represent looks to be relatively minimal compared to the strength and core of the recognized top clubs in the league, especially out West. Liles played poorly last night…it happens, but his -3 against the Ducks is probably more reflective of what he is at age 35 than anything else, but after infusing the B’s with a shot of energy after arriving, he’s coming back down to earth a bit.

The team should be grateful that they didn’t lose sparkplug Matt Beleskey to a serious eye injury after he got caught with a Simon Despres high stick on the follow through of a puck battle. Once again, there were missed calls on some blatant stuff that should have gone Boston’s way, but it didn’t happen and who is to say that the B’s power play could have made a difference? The good news for the Bruins is that their penalty killing has been pretty dangerous this season with 9 shorthanded goals, so perhaps it pays them to be without the man advantage. In any case- the fan frustration that Boston continues to be at the bottom of the league in power play chances is palpable, but I’m not sure we can do anything about it.

Last night wasn’t about the missed calls as much as it was about missed opportunities- the second period was much better and a goal or two could have changed the game entirely, but sometimes we have to take a step back and understand that Ducks are a superior team. They made their chances count and Boston didn’t. That’s life and hockey.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Bruins as they face a rested L.A. Kings team in their home digs tonight, the same club that demolished Boston in the Hub, and that word probably doesn’t begin to describe the one-sided drubbing the Kings gave them on their home ice in Milan Lucic’s return to TD Garden. They’ll go home briefly and then head down to New York to face the Rangers on Wednesday, so there is a chance they can salvage a point or three in the final two games of their roadie, but it won’t be easy.

With that in mind, here are some (obvious) thoughts for Don Sweeney and the team to ponder going forward:

  1. The defense must be the offseason priority.

No disrespect intended to Dennis Seidenberg, but serious thought should be given to either trading him for an inconsequential return or, if no NHL team is willing to take him and his $4 million cap hit, buying him out and moving on. Kevan Miller is a good teammate and has had his moments in Boston, but the B’s need to look at using his roster spot on someone else. He’ll land on his feet with someone else, but the B’s already re-signed Adam McQuaid to a questionable extension (and I say questionable in terms of pure economics- will always respect McQuaid for what he brings to the team, but he’s yet to make it through an entire NHL unscathed and the wear and tear on him appears to be showing)- they don’t need to add another one with a game but limited Miller.

Zdeno Chara can’t carry the team- that much is certain- but he still carries value in the right role. Trading him is the popular talking point by folks who don’t seem to understand that he has a no movement clause. I get that trading him makes sense on multiple levels, but the contract he signed makes that highly problematic, even if the GM was willing to move in that direction. Bottom line- unless he does a Ray Bourque and asks out, Chara isn’t going anywhere. Having said that, Sweeney and his staff understand that he simply cannot be an effective workhorse anymore. Not only does the team need a legitimate No. 2 defender to balance the three pairings, but they also need to seek out an effective defense partner for Chara. They weren’t able to find one this season.

Maybe Colin Miller can be that guy, but the more I see of him, the more I believe he’s just a middle-tier player who has some nice offensive tools and will be an above average power play specialist with 40-point NHL upside but is not instinctive enough of a player to be a bell cow 2-way threat who will be a dependable defensive presence. He’s still young and will develop into an NHL regular, but I’m not sure he’s someone the Bruins and their fans should be placing an inordinate amount of faith in as a top-2 or even 3 solution for the team.

It’s been a disappointing season for Torey Krug as far as the goals go- he has just three. It isn’t for a lack of trying but he’s gotten no breaks this year. He’s still one of Boston’s best options on defense in terms of his skating, puck-moving, smarts and energy/tenacity. He’s posted a career-best in assists and is an important character guy for the team. In a perfect world he’d have a lot more goals, but it might be a blessing in disguise- if he was lighting it up, he’d be looking at a bigger payday. As it stands, the B’s should be able to lock him into a reasonable, fair-market extension at around $5 million AAV, perhaps a little less, and considering what Seidenberg is getting, that’s about right. Some folks won’t like it, but those people are nowhere near the team and can’t even comprehend what Krug means to the club on and off the ice. Unless he’s part of some major trade and massive plan to re-shape Boston’s defense by bringing in multiple players, Krug should be a part of the solution going forward. He might not have the ideal size, but his oversized heart and hockey IQ mean he can be highly effective- he just doesn’t have a lot of help at present.

The Bruins need to make something happen at the position. Kevin Shattenkirk is the biggest name out there (and Boston might/should have their sights on a few other options), and he won’t come cheaply from the St. Louis Blues if they were to trade him. But should Boston land him, they had better have the ability to retain him for the long-term. If it’s someone else, so be it- but whomever the B’s are looking to bring in, it needs to be a player who can be part of a winning present and future.

2. Boston needs to upgrade Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly.

There’s no way around it- both have been major disappointments.

In Hayes’ case, you would think the local guy would have shown more consistent energy and desire but it seems like the pressure got to him. Although huge, the former Nobles prep star and Boston College product has always been more of a gentle giant than a premier power forward, and his skating is what prevented him from being a first-round pick in 2008- he struggles to play a consistent uptempo style. Hayes gets his goals and points by going to the net and boxing out defenders with his massive frame, but we don’t see it enough. The Bruins acquired him in hopes that after a 19-goal campaign in Florida (including a dagger game at the end of the season that essentially knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs) he would take it to the next level. That hasn’t happened and I don’t know if it ever will…he’s such a curiously passive player given what he could be with that pure size and the soft hands around the net. I can only imagine the coaches are even more baffled. Bringing him home to Boston hasn’t worked and a lot of this is on Hayes- the team has tried a lot of different things to get him going (and we’ve seen what he’s capable of bringing) but he’s not responded in any meaningful, consistent fashion. That’s one of the reasons why he watched last night’s contest from the press box. He’s on the books for two more years, so the B’s either have to remain invested in him and hope he gets the funk out (Extreme reference!) of his game or they’ll have to take pennies on the dollar (and perhaps retain salary in the process) to get some other team to take him off their hands.

Connolly is even more maddening.

The sixth overall pick in 2010 flashes all of those tools that saw him selected before some pretty damn fine NHL players, but we see it only in fleeting fashion. The size and speed combo catches the eye for sure, but it’s what he doesn’t do with it that leaves you often shaking your head in disbelief. The scouting reports on Connolly coming out Prince George of the WHL near unanimously praised him for his hockey sense and killer instinct around the net, but the NHL version of Connolly flies in the face of those observations. If he’s not doing fly-bys in front of the opposition net or missing shots from prime position, Connolly can’t seem to do the little things that matter- battles for loose pucks, a net-front presence, won foot races- he often seems to be a step behind.

That’s not to say Connolly can’t be an effective fourth-line winger, but the Bruins didn’t give up not one but two second-round picks for a bottom line player. The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t draft him where they did for a checking/energy guy. He’s not yet 24, so you don’t want to completely close the door on Connolly, but at the same time- like Hayes- the B’s have given him a lot of different looks and chances and he simply hasn’t done much with it. 9 goals in 69 games with some healthy scratches thrown in there simply doesn’t cut it for a player as talented as Connolly is. Where’s the beef?

Frank Vatrano is the obvious player to give a chance as the season comes to an end over the disappointing duo. He just turned 22 this week and has 31 goals in 31 AHL games, not to mention another six goals in 30 NHL games after an earlier stint with the big club this season. My personal feeling is that right now- Vatrano is better off playing top line, PP and PK minutes in Providence as opposed to being on a lower unit with limited ice time. Of course, the B’s are only allowed four recalls after the trade deadline, so it isn’t as simple as just brining him up.

Having said all that, the B’s could do worse than giving the Springfield Rifle a shot- he’s got speed and energy to burn and just might give the Boston offense a shot in the arm. He’s a left wing who could replace Eriksson in the top-six and then Eriksson could move over to the right allowing coaches to move out either one of Connolly and Hayes. The issue for Boston (other than burning the call up and concerns about the defense factor of a Vatrano-David KrejciDavid Pastrnak line) is that in order to bring Vatrano up, they would have to put someone else on waivers, so right now, it appears that the business of hockey and economics are playing a more prominent role. I can’t argue with those who say that exposing Connolly and/or Hayes to waivers is no big loss, but if Sweeney is convinced he can eventually move them for some kind of return, you begin to understand his reticence to put them on the waiver wire where any team can put in a claim.

Either way, I think we see Frankie “Vats” in Boston next season in some kind of full-time capacity. Natural goal scorers like him don’t grow on trees and the B’s will want to cultivate some returns, especially if the club sees a key roster departure up front, which leads me to my next point.

3. Loui Eriksson– caveat emptor!

Let me get this out of the way- I like Loui. Always have.

He’s been unfairly maligned in the wake of the trade that sent Tyler Seguin (btw- that achilles tendon injury he suffered was gruesome- luckily for him, he may have dodged a bullet by only being out a few weeks versus how serious it could have been) to Dallas. He’s not flashy, but is just smart and consistent- you always know what you’re going to get with Eriksson. But, he’ll be 31 soon, and with what he brings you, 5 or 6 years at close to $6 million per if not more is simply not money/term well spent, and the Bruins need to walk away.

For those who regularly read TSP  and listen to the podcasts (this blog for those who might not have had their coffee)- you know I was all in favor of moving Eriksson at the deadline and was surprised when the Bruins did’t. Of course- if you believe Cam Neely and the lackluster offers he claims were made for Eriksson, then it is understandable that the B’s would hold onto him and take their chances, and he’s continued to make timely contributions. Unfortunately, with two tough losses, it’s easy to revisit the wisdom in not moving Eriksson, especially when it stands to reason that he’ll either leave Boston in early July or the B’s will have to overpay significantly to keep him in the fold.

What to do?

The positives- even without the high-end foot speed, Eriksson is an ideal forward for Boston’s system. He’s smart, industrious, thinks the game at such a high level that he keeps the puck and makes the right decisions in every zone. Versatility is a plus- he’s proven he can play either wing. Eriksson is a smooth playmaker, goes to the net and finishes plays off in close, does good power play work, kills penalties and is a threat shorthanded (witness his shortie the other night against San Jose). He’s a quiet guy, but leads by example and has earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates alike.

On the downside- he’s a good player, not a great one. He’s going to get his money because teams out there with cap space to burn will give him what he and his agent are asking for. That means the B’s will either pony up or have to swallow hard and let him go, because unless Eriksson orders his agent JP Barry to stand down and decides to take a more team-friendly deal, they’ll get little in the way of a break. And honestly- why should Eriksson leave money and term on the table if he can get it elsewhere? I don’t begrudge him getting what he can, but that puts the Bruins in a tough spot.

Ultimately, I think that if the B’s are serious about getting a long-term but young enough defenseman to rebuild their blue line corps around, they need to trade Eriksson’s cap space to make sure they can invest that savings in a long-term deal. That means that if they aren’t willing to go beyond the four years they’ve already offered Loui (and that’s a risky proposition as it is with his concussion history), then they should offer him up to a team that wants the exclusive negotiating rights and is willing to give them a mid-round pick. It’s a far from ideal return, but if the Neely claims are true, getting a fifth-rounder for him isn’t that terrible. After all- Jamie Benn was a fifth-round pick once upon a time, right (it could happen again…yeah, right!)?

I guess we’ll find out, but at some point, the Bruins will need to see if the young crop of forwards in their system can play. Keeping a known (and relatively safe) commodity like Eriksson benefits them in the short term, but leaves them little wiggle room if he skates off a cliff at age 33 or 34 or something unforeseen happens to his health. Marc Savard and Seidenberg are recent reminders of just how rapidly a player and team’s outlook can change when devastating injuries happen.

But in getting back to Loui and why he wasn’t moved, I can only surmise it is because the team and coaches trust him to give his level best each and every night.  That trust factor is why keeping Loui made far more sense for Boston than dumping him for a mediocre futures return would have. It’s easy for fans to say- just take the second-round pick so he doesn’t walk for nothing on a team that has no chance to win! But fans don’t work, sweat, bleed for the team- they can make detached pronouncements on Twitter, internet message boards and over the radio airwaves and don’t have to be accountable for them. Dumping Eriksson would have sent a message to the team that in my mind would have been far more detrimental. If you’re a prospective free agent who might be considering whether to stay or go, or you’re thinking you might like to sign with the Bruins down the road, does your trust that the team is committed to winning go up or does it go down if management hurts a playoff-bound roster at the deadline? Players get the business of hockey, sure- but they also want to feel like the GM has their back. They are…after all…human.

TSP doesn’t have the definitive answers for what ails the Bruins and how to fix it.

Winning the Stanley Cup is hard- only 1 out of 30 teams can do it every year. This team deserves credit for fighting hard and exceeding expectations this season, but it’s hard to get past what we’ve seen in terms of how they match up against the better clubs around the league.

To expect the Bruins to win every night and then be angry when they don’t is a fool’s errand, but at the same time- management’s job is to make this team viable not just for this year but in the seasons to come. Last year, we heard about “passengers” and the B’s still seem to have a couple of those. The defense tries hard, but they don’t have the ability to seriously compete for a championship.

The Stanley Cup window is barely open for the B’s, but it isn’t shut. Whether they can force it open more to match up better with the NHL’s big dogs in the next 1-3 years is very much an unanswered question at this point.

This will be a pivotal couple of months for Sweeney and his legacy as GM in Boston.

 

 

 

 

Trade deadline Blues- Boston edition

Don Sweeney is in a bind.

NHL general managers, especially ones in the thick of a playoff race in a season that many (including this columnist) would be a clear step backwards as the Boston Bruins are, don’t like to operate from a disadvantage. Yet, as we are less than 24 hours from the NHL’s annual trade deadline frenzy, that’s exactly where the B’s GM and key decision maker finds himself.

On the one hand, forward Loui Eriksson is precisely the kind of player you win with in the modern NHL. His 23 goals and counting only begin to the tell the story of an experienced winger who is an integral part of Boston’s puck possession game and brings leadership and respect to the room as a quiet professional.

On the other, his $4.3M AAV cap hit has been one of the league’s bargains for the past four years, and as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent at age 31, he’s positioned to cash in on one last contract that will bring him both term and value on the open market.  He knows it. Sweeney knows it. His agent, JP Barry, most certainly knows it. There will be very little in the way of hometown discounts on any extension he signs with Boston, because all parties know that if he rides it out, some sucker GM with cap space to burn will eagerly give him what he’s worth on the open market at or around July 1.

Why call the GM a sucker? Well, because that’s what many of them are. When a team has cap space, many of them burn through that wiggle room like a college student through their parents’ credit card limit. Spending upwards of $6M on a player who is on the wrong side of 30 and who is a very good complementary player, but not a core guy you do everything in your power to keep is a risky move that often times has more of a down side than a clear benefit. Eriksson could be an outlier- the rare player who gets better with age and manages to avoid any more concussions that could cost him the rest of his career.  More on that later.

But if you’re the Boston Bruins, given the state they’ve found themselves in since winning the President’s Trophy in 2014, can you really afford to take that chance?

There is no question that Eriksson on the 2015-16 B’s makes them a better team than they would be without him. But how much better, and how much more of a prayer do they have at winning the Stanley Cup now and in the next few years if they allocate those cap dollars to Eriksson instead of seriously shoring up the blue line is the six million dollar question.

The dominoes are falling- Stan Bowman, the three Stanley Cup ring-wearing GM of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, seems intent on adding a fourth. In the span of 72 hours, he’s gone out and added veteran forwards Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise,  and Tomas “Flash” Fleischmann along with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, surrendering picks and a couple of young players in Marko Dano (to Winnipeg for Ladd) and Phillip Danault and a cap hit/bad fit in veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who goes back to the L.A. Kings for Ehrhoff. The ‘Hawks also added former Bruin Matt Fraser in the Ladd deal, so when it comes to depth, the Windy City Winners are at a zombie apocalypse-level of protection up front. The scary thing is- Bowman might not be finished shoring up his club on the back end.

Elsewhere in the West, the other contending clubs will have to adapt or die in response to Chicago’s shots across the bow. Bob Murray and his Anaheim Ducks are back with a vengeance after they began the season with a dormant offense that has awakened with a roar and now has opponents fleeing in abject terror. Murray has a plethora of defensemen that he can dangle to get forward help back with. Could 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin be SoCal-bound for someone like Sami Vatanen? Tampa GM Steve Yzerman has said he wants immediate help back, mainly in the form of a talented right-shooting defenseman with some retainability (read: not a rental). Drouin has been a monumental disappointment to date, but you have to admit- the thought of plugging him in with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry must have Murray (and Bruce Boudreau) licking their chops. Those offensive issues early on? Might be a thing of the past if Drouin ends up on that roster and starts realizing his immense potential.

The Kings are…well…the Kings. They’re already a dangerously lethal group- all they have to do is get into the playoffs. You just know that Dean Lombardi will find a way to slide in and acquire some difference-making player under the wire like he did two years ago with Marian Gaborik. We’ll have fun waiting to see what he does. Scuderi’s a nice start, but more is coming.

This leaves the Doug Armstrong-led St. Louis Blues. They looked unstoppable early on, but have taken some hits with injuries and can’t match their nemesis Blackhawks on paper if the season ended today. Luckily, they got star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo back today in a much-needed win over the sinking Carolina Hurricanes (who dealt captain and franchise face Eric Staal to the Rangers today for a prospect and a pair of second-round picks and looked like a rudderless ship for it) and he provided a multi-point game with five blocked shots to go with, as Jake Allen shook off a couple of early goals. This took place just after the ‘Hawks gave all of us perhaps a glimpse of what will come in early June when Chicago defeated the Washington Capitals at the United Center.

Does anyone in St. Louis think the Blues have a prayer against those guys without some key adds? I’ll hang up and listen to your answer off the air.

But seriously, folks- it’s absurd to think that Armstrong and the Blues aren’t sweating right now. The clock is ticking…Alexander Steen is out for several weeks if not longer, and who’s to say how effective he’ll be when he gets back? A Brian Elliott injury forced them to trade for an experienced backup (I almost said capable- but even that might be a stretch) in Anders Nilsson from Edmonton. One guy the Blues could definitely benefit from adding is Eriksson. The question is- are the Blues serious about competing for Lord Stanley *this* year or are they willing to go through another early exit and disappointing spring and long offseason? (EDIT- The Blues are tight against the cap and that’s limiting Armstrong’s freedom of maneuver for sure, but the best in the biz find ways to get creative…see Bowman, Stan. I don’t think Blues fans will be in much of a forgiving mood if that’s the excuse trotted out after another postseason dud, but that’s just me.)

With that in mind, here are some current scenarios revolving around Eriksson. One thing is certain: by this time tomorrow, we’ll know that he’s still on the Boston roster. Or he won’t be. For everything in between, get ready for the final hours of the Loui watch.

Why Eriksson will be traded: Sweeney is smart enough to be playing long ball. As a former NHL defender with more than 1,000 career games at the highest level, he understands the importance of a strong defense and he undoubtedly knows that Boston’s current group on ‘D’ is nowhere near what is needed to contend.

Those who insist that Eriksson must be traded for immediate help or the move is not worth it are missing the larger picture, and that is- trades involving prime, No. 1 or 2 defensemen in season are pretty rare (note- I said “prime” so beware jumping in to remind me of the Dion Phaneuf deal- he’s essentially cooked and will make Ottawa rue the day they took on his albatross contract). Boston can set a longer game play into motion by dealing Eriksson now for the kinds of assets that can be packaged into a more realistic summer trade for a defenseman when cap and personnel issues will force other GMs to come to the table more readily. But right now, with so much parity in the league and teams looking to finish strong no matter the situation, it doesn’t make sense for a team to flip Boston a primetime defender for Eriksson, because the teams that want him desire to add his production and experience to their lineups while not weakening the roster elsewhere.

The B’s need too much help up and down the roster to roll the dice and risk keeping him only to recoup maybe a 5th or 6th pick for him before the draft if he stays. Even if they make the playoffs, the B’s will be hard-pressed to get out of the East with  the lineup they currently have. Sure- Claude Julien and the players deserve a lot of credit for fighting their way into the midst of the postseason derby when expectations coming in were so modest. But at this stage- is whatever Eriksson is going to contribute going to be worth it in the long run?

That’s the tough call Sweeney and his staff have to make.

Why Eriksson will not be traded: The coaches and players have a great deal of respect for Eriksson and what he brings to the table. It’s easy to say to just trade him by people without skin in the game, by fans who get to sit back and observe and make pointed critiques of the team’s chances and shortcomings, but none of whom really see behind the curtain or understand what he contributes to the effort.

Sweeney unfortunately has to bear the cross of a preceding GM who was known for his loyalty in overpaying veteran players who were already beginning the downward slides of their careers. That scar tissue is what creates a charged environment by the team’s supporters who don’t want to see Eriksson stay through the stretch run only to see the Bruins (assuming they don’t collapse in a tough March schedule) bow out of the playoffs and then get his big payday in July with just a latter-round pick to show for it if Sweeney can send him to a club that wants exclusive negotiation rights through 11:59 p.m. on June 30, 2016.

The thing is- the game isn’t played by robots. Real people often have a harder time making such clinical, dispassionate decisions. Eriksson’s 23 goals represent the second-best production on the team and what help Brad Marchand to the damage he’s done because opposing coaches have to respect Boston’s top two lines. Remove Loui from the equation and regardless of who you replace him with, you’re creating an easier matchup play for the other guys. Beyond that, Eriksson handles the puck smartly, goes to the net and plays about as good a 200-foot game as any of the top forwards in the league. The Bruins know that trading him means a step backwards for their roster. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially with all the scrapping and effort the team has put into getting them to this point.

Although the pragmatists don’t want to hear it, hasn’t this club earned the right to get a shot with their best foot forward? If other teams aren’t willing to pony up, then why should the B’s just make it fait accompli that Eriksson be dealt for whatever they can get?

And then of course, if Sweeney thinks that he can sign Eriksson to an extension that won’t cripple the team going forward and retain him for the next 4-5 years, then perhaps it’s not as bad a risk as so many perceive. After all- at 31, Eriksson is at the age that the NHL first allowed players to be unrestricted free agents before the 2004 lockout. It’s a mixed bag of results when you go back through the years and look at how big-name UFAs performed after 31, but there are worse moves the Bruins could make than investing in a player they know, trust, and respect.

Conclusion: Your guess is as good as mine. I’m not going to speculate on players or rumors beyond what I’ve written here. I don’t have any significant leads at this time, and those of you who know me understand that’s not really my shtick.

I will be here to break it down when the deadline comes and goes at 3 p.m. tomorrow. We can expect the Bruins will do  something, but what that something is…well, that’s all part of the excitement, isn’t it?

And on that note- let’s see how the team does against Tampa Bay, shall we?

Postscript: Well, we sure saw how the Bruins did against the ‘Bolts: a 4-1 loss after taking a 1-0 lead. Another decisive defeat at home to drop the B’s three games under .500. Good teams just don’t do that, folks. And that’s why, I can’t for the life of me, see the trade deadline coming and going tomorrow without Eriksson being moved for assets that will help get the Bruins on track for the long haul. It’s a balancing act to give the club a shot at playoffs and maybe winning a round or two and conceding that this group just doesn’t have it, but that’s what the team is paying the GM for. The prediction here? Eriksson is gone to the Western Conference for more of a futures return, Sweeney will make a separate trade or two to bring some veteran talent in, but the real shoring up of this team will happen in the offseason.

 

 

 

Bruins hammer Penguins in decisive home win

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

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

The answer just might represent a little of both.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digging out from that kind of hole could take years.

Thoughts on Dennis Wideman, loss to Leafs and Loui (Loui) Eriksson

The NHL dropped the hammer on Dennis Wideman, giving him 20 games of unpaid vacation for his cross-check of NHL linesman Don Henderson on January 27. I won’t rehash the incident here- it is well-documented and there is plenty of room to debate how sound of mind he was when the incident occurred, but the bottom line is that the league had to do this.

Had to.

Physical abuse of officials cannot ever be tolerated in any form. Equivocating in the form of accepting that Wideman was loopy (and allegedly concussed) after a big hit immediately prior is a slippery slope that no league can afford in this day and age. Even if the NHL wanted to cut the player a break, it opens the door for any player to physically engage the on-ice officials and be able to claim a precedent for leniency.

No, the NHL got this one right. Wideman and the NHLPA are well within their rights to appeal and if Gary Bettman wants to take the mitigating circumstances into account, that is up to him. The rule of law here is critical and leaves no room for selective application of the rules, so Wideman got the book thrown at him and rightfully so. What happens from here on in is anyone’s guess, but he’s eligible to return on March 11, some two weeks after the trade deadline.

That leads me to my next point.

If recent rumors are to be believed, the B’s might have dodged a bullet with Wideman’s lengthy suspension. Several sources to include Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, recently discussed the team’s interest in bringing Wideman back to the Bruins given the team’s struggles on defense. Wideman played in Boston from late in the 2006-07 season through the end of 2009-10, before he was part of the package dealt to the Florida Panthers for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell in June, 2010.

While in the Black and Gold, Wideman was an effective if polarizing and uneven player for the team. He posted a career year in 2008-09 with 50 points (until he eclipsed that mark last season with a 15-goal, 56-point campaign with the Flames). This season, Wideman was well off that pace with just two goals and 19 points in 48 games at the time of his suspension. He was in effect,  continuing his career trend of following his best years with numbers well short of those marks. In stops with Boston, Washington and Calgary, Wideman alternately had seasons with very good offensive output followed by barely mediocre campaigns. His most recent stint with the Flames is no exception.

While Wideman to Boston would have given the team a more experienced defender to play more minutes and do some good work on the power play, his lack of foot speed, and advancing age (he’ll be 33 next month) in conjunction with his $5+ million cap hit would have limited Boston’s options going forward.

It would be one thing if Wideman was in his prime, but on the wrong side of 30 and never the most fleet-of-foot defender to begin with, his presence might have constituted a slight upgrade on what the B’s can currently field, but he’s more of an offensive contributor than a defensive stalwart, which is what the team needs more than anything right now from the blue line. Unless the Flames were retaining salary in the deal with Boston (rumored to involve mid-round pick and/or prospect), the move made little sense for Boston, who would likely be saddled with a bottom-3 defender with diminishing returns and a high cap hit for what he brings.

If Don Sweeney was in fact preparing to bring Wideman back into the fold, then count me in as someone who feels the suspension was a blessing in disguise. It’s a short-term minimal upgrade, but limits the GM’s options when trying to do the critical roster building in the next 1-2 years that will determine if the B’s can get back into contention or solidify their status as an also-ran.

This is why the loss the other night to the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s cellar dwellers, was so confounding.

When David Krejci popped home his 12th goal of the season early in the 3rd period, the B’s were up by two goals and positioned to cruise to the finish with another two points in hand. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t get the memo and battled back, winning the game in overtime on a P.A. Parenteau power play goal after Boston frittered away its 3-1 lead.

This was a game the Bruins could have had. Should have had. Too often last season, we saw them surrender points to teams lower than them in the standings and it caught up to them in the final weekend when they were on the outside looking in. The B’s had their chances to beat Toronto decisively, and wasted a two-goal game from Brad Marchand, whose blistering goal-scoring pace has been a treat to watch. You’d like to have seen Tuukka Rask make just one save in there on Toronto’s last three shots that went in, but its hard to fault the goaltender too much on seeing-eye redirections and perfect puck luck that the Leafs translated into success. In the end, poor puck management was far more costly for the Bruins than Rask’s inability to deny Toronto’s comeback, but allowing come-from-behind wins to the other guys has been the most profoundly negative story of Boston’s season thus far.

It marked the seventh time this year Boston has blown a two-goal lead (and it’s only February for goodness sake), and underscores why lateral moves like Wideman aren’t worth it.

Frustrated fans (and they’re right to be angry, believe me) want a change and want one now, but unless it’s something that can address Boston’s shortcomings in the short and longer term, then I would submit to you that it is better for Sweeney and Co. to ride it out.

We knew very well coming into the season that Boston’s collective defense was not a strength. What has been a pleasant surprise has been the way the forwards have collectively fared, though the production itself has been largely top-heavy of late, with not enough production on the lower lines. However, even with the uptick in offense, the defense was an identified concern coming into the 2015-16 season. Whether you staunchly believe that Sweeney could (and should) have done something to address the flaws at that position last offseason, or feel that getting out from under the cap crush was the first priority and that rolling the dice with some of the younger players in the system was worth trying, the reality is- it is now February and we know that this group is not a playoff-caliber defense. I went over that in more detail in a previous post, so I won’t revisit and pick at a scab many of you are already well aware exists.

The problem with the “do something now” mentality is that it leads to short-sighted transactions like a trade for Dennis Wideman, who would have likely cost the team assets that would be better allocated elsewhere, or it feeds this idea that there is a surplus of fine talent at the defense position just waiting to be picked up. The first point isn’t going to fix the team’s woes, and the second is becoming more and more of an unintended consequence of the NHL’s move to impose cost certainty (a salary cap) 11 years ago. It was a different league back then and hockey trades for talent were far more prevalent because there weren’t a lot of complex rules and constraints on a club’s salary structure and the return on investment that has become more and more important over the past decade.

Nowadays, teams recognize pretty early the importance of the skilled defenseman in the modern NHL and lock them up long-term before the possibility of getting them via free agency is there. Unless, of course, they trade them (see: Hamilton, Douglas) first. Today’s reality is a stark one if you’re Don Sweeney: there simply isn’t much out there to be had if you need to truly bolster your blueline for the present and future. And, if there is a GM out there willing to even talk about moving such a prized asset, the cost will be astronomical. It is a seller’s market and with the parity the NHL currently enjoys, there aren’t many teams looking to unload anyone right now.

This leads me to Loui Eriksson

If we accept that a. this Boston Bruins team simply isn’t that good- they perhaps make the 2016 playoffs as a fringe club in a wildcard spot and then subsequently bow out to those better teams above them in the seeding and that b. Eriksson is pretty bound and determined to leverage what he can as an unrestricted free agent this summer, then it stands to reason that the Bruins should move on from him and get what they can at the deadline.

Now, given how well he’s played, the good news is- such a return stands to be a pretty fine one for the B’s. The bad news: any contender looking to add someone like Eriksson will be happy to part with futures, but good look getting any NHL roster/prime potential talent back in return. The whole idea of trading for a soon-to-be UFA like Eriksson is to add him to the very good group you *already* have- not robbing Peter to pay Paul by giving up a key contributor from your lineup at a different position. That’s just not how it works.

Loui has been a team player and good guy since the B’s acquired him nearly three years ago. Alas, Tyler Seguin became one of the real forces in the NHL, while Eriksson has largely continued his steady, effective play. That has led to his getting the short shrift in Boston, though there is no shortage of real students of the game out there who recognize what Eriksson brings to the table and appreciate him for it.

Having said all of that, it would be one thing if the Bruins were contenders and they held onto Eriksson to make that one last run, then lost him to free agency in July. The Bruins aren’t that team. So, at some point, unless they’re willing to re-up him, which, as he turns 31, is probably not the best idea to commit to term and dollars he’ll likely get on the open market, means he has to go.

At this point, I think the Bruins are better off taking their lumps- resisting the urge to pay a premium for a mediocre return in the here and now, and ultimately build up more of a war chest of assets that can allow Sweeney to make some more aggressive moves down the line to absorb the going rate for a true, difference-making and cost-effective defender with some longer term retainability.

Dennis Wideman was not that player, so his suspension becomes exhibit A for the case that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. And, I would submit to you- any player a team offers up before the trade deadline is not likely to be that guy either. Boston needs not panic, but do the best they can with tweaks and then make a more concerted effort to address the real holes in the lineup this summer. Trying to plug them now will cost a fortune, and in the case of a player like Eriksson, he’s not likely to bring the kind of return that fans are clamoring for.

This is why you saw a trade like the one between Columbus and Nashville in an even-Steven deal with Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones. Both teams got young, high-upside players, neither of whom were finding success in their respective systems. No package of picks and prospects would have enticed either GM into moving prized assets and former top-5 picks in 2010 and 2013- it had to be a roster for roster swap of established NHL players needing a change of scenery. So, unless Bruins fans are prepared to lose someone like David Pastrnak for a defenseman with similar promise, dreaming up scenarios involving Eriksson isn’t going to get it done, and be prepared to be disappointed at the deadline- don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In a perfect world, the Bruins could go out tomorrow and make their team better. The reality is- the world of the modern NHL is far from perfect, and in it, you can certainly make things a whole lot worse before they get any better.

If Sweeney and his staff somehow find a way to get that impact two-way defenseman who could be a future mainstay in the Boston lineup between now and the end of February, then lock him up to an extension now, because that’s the kind of move that flies in the face of the established handicaps that most of the other GMs are dealing with as they try to improve their hockey clubs.

 

5 big Boston Bruins storylines from 2015

As we say farewell to 2015, we’ll take a look back at a turbulent year for the Boston Bruins franchise, one that saw the team miss the postseason for the first time in eight years.

With a solid 20-12-4 record and third place in the Atlantic Division heading into Friday’s Winter Classic against Montreal (just one spot and point above the B’s in the standings) Boston has a chance to start 2016 on a brighter note.

Here are five stories and an honorable mention that highlight the year the was for Boston Bruins hockey:

1.  Bruins miss playoffs, fire GM Peter Chiarelli

Just two years prior, the Boston GM’s team nearly captured a second Stanley Cup since 2011 before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks (winners in 2010, 2013 and 2015) in six games. He followed that up a year later with the top team in the 2013-14 regular season before a second-round seven-game flameout to the Montreal Canadiens. However, with his team in a salary cap mess and missing the playoffs to a tie-breaker on the final night of the 2014-15 campaign, team president Cam Neely relieved Chiarelli of his duties.

It’s an indicator of just how fickle and results-driven the professional sports business is, but personalities and power consolidation might have played a bigger role than Neely and ownership want to admit. Regardless, Chiarelli soon resigned his position in the organization and the Edmonton Oilers went all-in on him building another success story in Alberta, naming him president and general manager just a few weeks later. Chiarelli then had the benefit of watching a generational talent in Connor McDavid fall into his lap at the 2015 draft (he inherited Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask at the 2006 draft- technically before he officially assumed GM duties in Boston).

Chiarelli’s Oilers teams won both games against his old organization this year, but it took a shootout and overtime respectively to do it. This sets up a fun East-West grudge rivalry between the two teams for years as he attempts to change the Oilers’ ways from perennial doormats to legitimate hockey power.

2. Boston names Don Sweeney new GM

Neely’s old teammate and close friend was named to step into Chiarelli’s old position on May 20, 2015 after being his assistant for several years and starting out as a player development consultant from day one of the post-Mike O’Connell (and interim GM Jeff Gorton) era. To think that Sweeney got the job solely because of his connection to the team president is wholly unfair to a man who not only played more than 1,000 NHL games on the Boston blue line, but who also spent countless hours in rinks around the world scouting future talent and working to develop B’s prospects into successful pros.

Sweeney has been active and aggressive since taking the helm. His first (and perhaps most astute) move was to keep Claude Julien in the fold. Make no mistake- had Boston dismissed him behind Chiarelli, another team (Edmonton?) would have pounced quickly. Since then, Sweeney made a series of bold moves that so far, most of which, have worked out (see No. 3 below). One longtime (and very respected) NHL director of scouting I ran into Sunday night in Fort Lauderdale told me point blank that Sweeney had “balls” and that you had to give him credit from making what was sure to be (at least initially) two unpopular and risky trades without a whole lot of proven assets coming back in return. “He’s doing what he thinks is right,” the scouting director said outside a local watering hole. “We’ll see if the heat he’s getting is even warranted by the time we’re halfway through next season.”

With a hot take like that, you might be right to look up a list of chief scouts to see if anyone’s last name is Nostradamus.

There’s plenty of hockey left before we get too carried away, but if most were told the B’s would be 8 games over .500 heading into the Winter Classic, they’d have taken it.

3. 2015 draft day trades: Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton go West

“Trader Don” did not waste much time in making several aggressive, even shocking moves to shed salary and re-work the Bruins roster to fit his vision.

Initial reaction to the decision to trade Dougie Hamilton, with news breaking in the early Friday afternoon before the draft’s first round, was not positive. Beyond the shock of finding out that the new GM had just dealt a 22-year-old and the last piece of the Phil Kessel trade return from Toronto was one thing, but that the B’s got three draft picks from Calgary- their first and two (of three) second-rounders all in 2015- was even more stunning. The team had just opened up a sizable hole on its blue line, which had been exposed in the spring when Boston failed to earn a playoff berth, and in return- the team was placing its hopes on future assets, none of whom had a chance to fill the void of Hamilton’s departure.

Before fans could come out of the daze, more rumors swirled, this time less surprising but nevertheless polarizing when it looked like Sweeney was on the verge of trading fan favorite Milan Lucic to Los Angeles.  On its face- it made sense. Sweeney was trying to rework Boston’s dire cap situation- created by his former boss- and with Lucic entering the last year of a contract that already paid him $6 million, the writing was on the wall that the B’s couldn’t afford to extend him, nor did many feel his play warranted it. This time, Sweeney landed more immediate assets from the Kings- backup goaltender Martin Jones and prized defense prospect Colin Miller, coming off a 19-goal season in the AHL which culminated in a championship. These two players were topped with LA’s first pick- one spot before Boston’s own 14th overall position, giving them picks 13-15. The rest is, as they say, history.

However- there are reports that the Bruins acquired the many assets as currency to move up in the draft to the top-five in order to grab Boston College star and Norwood, Mass. native Noah Hanifin. It didn’t work out, but if in fact that was Sweeney’s vision, the decision to trade Hamilton for what he received in return makes perfect sense. In dealing Hamilton but drafting Hanifin (say that three times- real fast), Sweeney could have spun moving his young defender to the Flames as an eventual upgrade with a marketable asset like Hanifin, viewed by most scouts (including this one) as a future franchise cornerstone and legitimate 2-way defenseman. Hamilton has proven he can generate offense, but his defensive zone play has always been and continues to be an adventure with his new team. Hanifin, who is already in the NHL at 18 with Carolina, is breaking in slowly, but you can see that he’s growing and maturing. It won’t be long until he and Justin Faulk are forming as formidable a 1-2 punch at the position as any in the league.

Sweeney didn’t just stop wheeling and dealing at the draft, though.

He then traded Jones, who was unsigned and not going to be happy sitting behind Tuukka Rask after previously backing up Jonathan Quick, to San Jose for their first-rounder in 2016 plus defensive center prospect Sean Kuraly, captain of the Miami University RedHawks (a 2011 fifth-round pick of the Sharks).

Sweeney added Zac Rinaldo from Philly for a 2017 third-rounder, then made another move by sending Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract to South Florida for Jimmy Hayes.

Those transactions didn’t match the surprise or impact that dealing Hamilton and Lucic did, but so far, they haven’t blown up in Sweeney’s face, either.

Signing veteran farmhand D Matt Irwin was a poor move, but picking up Landon Ferraro off of waivers from Detroit was another solid add for Sweeney and his pro scouts. When you add pieces like Frank Vatrano and Austin Czarnik, signed as undrafted college free agents under the Chiarelli regime, there is hope for the future.

The question that dogs Sweeney now is- how can he find a way to add that heir apparent and future No. 1 to replace Zdeno Chara? When at first you don’t succeed as was the case with Hanifin, then try, try again. It’s much easier said than done, however, and might take a bit of luck.

4. Claude Julien enters ninth season behind B’s bench, in range of coaching record

Boston’s longest-tenured coach since Art Ross stands to break the hockey icon’s franchise record, which has stood since the end of World War II. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun has an excellent article on Julien and the idea (I agree with it) that he’s a legitimate Jack Adams Award candidate because of what he’s doing with Boston’s roster amidst all the off-season turmoil and expectations. Go here and read it.  It’s a detailed piece replete with sources and I think it effectively captures the essence of Julien’s legacy in Boston and why an active movement to oust him without a clear solution in place borders on the absurd. Here’s an excerpt from LeBrun’s article:

The Bruins’ season ended in April, Don Sweeney was named general manager on May 20, and Julien had to wait until June 5 for an announcement that he would return as coach.

Bruins star Patrice Bergeron remembers chatting with Sweeney last summer, but the head coach wasn’t a topic of conversation.

“I think he knew what I thought of Claude anyway, that I love playing for him and I’ve learned so much from him,” Bergeron said Tuesday night. “So he didn’t need to ask me the question. I think he just needed time to figure out things is all.”

Julien is the best Bruins coach in my lifetime, and although doesn’t have the longevity of Ross because the NHL played far fewer games when he coached as opposed to now, will deserve his spot on top of the franchise’s coaching list. Not convinced? More from Bergeron:

“He always finds a way to get the best out of each player, it’s really his strong suit to recognize if the team lacks confidence, or has too much confidence, up and down, he has a good pulse for the feeling out of the dressing room,” said Bergeron. “And he’s really fair. It’s easy to play for a coach like that. You want to give him all you’ve got.”

Julien gets criticism for his personnel decisions, and no amount of success is going to bring everyone completely on board because of that. In the minds of some- even if he wins with certain veterans, the fact that he’s not icing a more skilled group will keep the critics supplied with fresh gripes. Having said that, he’s 17 career wins from passing Ross and has managed to keep his players loyal and playing hard for him. With a club that had major questions surrounding it entering the season, you’d need a pretty enticing option in place to supplant Julien for such a move to make sense.

5. Bruins host 2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium vs. Canadiens

In 2010, the B’s needed overtime to beat the Philadelphia Flyers at frozen Fenway Park in a memorable first foray in the NHL’s annual New Year’s Day outdoor game tradition. This time, they host their hated rival from the north- the Montreal Canadiens- and go south to Foxboro and the home of the New England Patriots to do it.

There’s plenty of information out there on the game, which has become quite the spectacle since the NHL introduced it more than a decade ago, so I won’t rehash it all here. Three of my friends and colleagues- ESPN’s Joe McDonald, DJ Bean of WEEI and Joe Haggerty of CSNNE are a trio to follow for fine coverage. Be sure to hook on with Brian “Rear Admiral” McGonagle of Barstool Sports, too- he’s a good egg with a large following who blends hockey and pop culture like no one else I know. Finally, the writers at the Boston dailies are all fine people who will give you the ins and outs, starting with the alumni and women’s pro hockey games tomorrow.

 HM: 10 picks re-stock the organizational cupboard

The team entered draft weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with two picks in the first two rounds, and by the time Sweeney & Co. walked into the BB&T Center for Friday’s primetime event, those selections had swelled to six in exchange for Lucic and Hamilton.

Boston was high on Czech defender Jakub Zboril, so when their reported attempts to move up for top-rated D Hanifin proved unsuccessful, he was in that second tier of defenders and made sense at 13th overall. On the plus side, Zboril has size and is highly talented with skating, passing and shooting skills galore. He’s also got some real nasty to his game and he plays with a physical edge. He is inconsistent with his effort and intensity, however- that is something the Bruins will watch closely.

Jake DeBrusk was the team’s second pick at 14th overall and began to raise eyebrows when the B’s did not opt for either of smallish but uber-skilled and fast playmaking center Mathew Barzal or USHL leading scorer Kyle Connor. DeBrusk, who scored 42 goals for the Swift Current Broncos a year ago and was just traded to the Red Deer Rebels as they gear up for the 2016 Memorial Cup, has a natural nose for the net and can score goals by the bushel. The left wing is not a dynamic game-breaker like Barzal, but the B’s wanted a finisher and they got one. The son of former NHL enforcer Louie DeBrusk is a completely different player than his dad was, but is a keeper.

The sharp criticism Boston drew in taking Soo Greyhounds right wing Zach Senyshyn has been much more muted this season, as he has scored 22 goals in his first 33 games of the OHL season. With his impressive NHL tools- a 6-2 frame, fast wheels, superb puck skills and finishing ability, there is much to like about this fledgling power forward. He’s still raw and addressing consistency in his game (more on that in a future blog post), but after getting ridiculed in trading Hamilton for the pick that became Senyshyn, you’re not hearing that as much in pundit circles these days, especially with how shaky Hamilton’s start in Calgary was. This is a trade that in time analysts will say both teams won, but the Flames are getting the more immediate returns.

Big shutdown defender Brandon Carlo came next at 37, acquired with Philadelphia’s pick (obtained from the Islanders in the much-criticized Johnny Boychuk deal on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign). At 6-5, he’s massive, but his long arms give him an even bigger reach than other guys his size. He’s a fluid, mobile skater for one so big, and we’ve seen it in the WJC, as he pretty much shuts down players who try to get to the net on his side of the ice either by using his long stick and strength to block a straight net drive or his quickness to deny opponents room on the outside. He’s as good a shutdown player as you will find in the prospect ranks, but his offensive potential at the NHL level is a question mark at this stage. He scored his first goal of the tourney today against Switzerland in USA’s 10-1 drubbing, so there’s much to like about this player.

Swedish center Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, acquired with the second of three Flames picks for Hamilton at 45 overall (the same draft spot that the B’s got Bergeron at in 2003, btw) is surging up the prospect rankings with a superb freshman season at Boston University. ‘JFK’ is smooth, poised and intelligent- he doesn’t push the pace a lot, but is creative and slick- he uses his vision and deft stick to set up quality scoring chances and can find the back of the net, too. He’s very good at the faceoff dot and has surprised many with his poise and maturity for one so young. He’s playing well for Sweden at the WJC.

The B’s also grabbed Quebec defender Jeremy Lauzon with the last of Calgary’s picks at 52nd overall in the second round. The big, rugged and skilled two-way guy was one of Canada’s last WJC cuts and has impressed with a career offensive season while logging upwards of about 30 minutes for Rouyn-Noranda.He doesn’t quite have the flash and polish of higher-regarded blue line prospects, nor does he possess the early draft pedigree of  others, but he’s a perfect blend between the offensive skill of Zboril and defensive prowess Carlo.

With six picks in the books, the B’s could have called it a successful two days, but they landed two more particularly intriguing players with some boom potential down the road.

Huge Czech goalie Daniel Vladar went off the board to them in the mid-third round. At 6-5, he has outstanding size and quickness, and looks like someone who could one day evolve into a legitimate NHL goalie. On the downside, he’s raw and seems to guess at where shots are coming from rather than effectively tracking the puck or reading the unfolding play. There’s no pressure on him to succeed right away, so like Zane McIntyre, the B’s can afford to put him on the long track and take their time.

WHL agitator Jesse Gabrielle looks like fantastic value in the fourth round. A Bruins fan growing up in his native Saskatchewan, he played some Minnesota high school hockey before major junior and likens his playing style to idol Brad Marchand. He’s not quite as blazing fast, but is plenty quick enough. Gabrielle is bigger, stronger and perhaps meaner than Marchand is. He’s well on pace to shattering his previous career bests with his third Dub team- Prince George- after Regina traded him over the summer. He needs to stay focused and make sure the hockey comes first, but this is certainly a player with legitimate NHL potential if he keeps maturing and growing.

Boston rounded out the draft (after trading their 5th-round selection to Minnesota for the Wild’s 5th in 2016) with Wisconsin center Cameron Hughes- a smallish but offensively talented pivot who toils on a struggling club. They took raw but developing Minnesota forward Jack Becker with their final pick in the seventh round.

While none of the ten picks immediately jump out on paper as having elite high-end potential, the initial returns look promising with more than a few who have a chance to one day make the Boston roster and contribute. There’s much work left, but in a deep draft, the B’s appear to have added some quality depth with a few players like Senyshyn, Lauzon, JFK and Gabrielle in particular- who might one day far exceed their draft positions and perform better than players drafted ahead of them.

Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Matt Beleskey- not quite your MVP but a key contributor

If not for the numbers, it would not be a stretch to argue that left wing Matt Beleskey is one of the Boston Bruins’ most valuable players over the first quarter of the 2015-16 NHL season.

The two goals and 10 points in 20 games is disappointing given he scored a career-high of 22 a year ago with the Anaheim Ducks and was expected to reach the 20-goal plateau at least this season after the B’s made him their priority target in free agency last July. Signed to a five-year pact that carries an AAV/cap hit of $3.8 million per season, Beleskey is currently the eighth-highest paid Bruin on the roster. However, this blog post will argue that he’s closer the top-five in terms of impact and importance to the team’s fortunes. That may not translate when it comes to pure production, but in terms of other traditional and advanced metrics, Beleskey has been one of the more consistent forwards on a team that has had other players provide the needed scoring impetus early on. Based on his role in Anaheim a year go, Beleskey will eventually bring more in terms of production, and when he does, his overall physicality, energy and grit will be even more significant in proper context.

Background: Beleskey was the 116th overall selection (fourth round) by Anaheim in the 2006NHL Entry Draft, spending his entire OHL career with the Belleville Bulls (2004-08). His best season was a 41-goal, 90-point affair for the Bulls in his final junior campaign in 2007-08, signing with Anaheim and spending the 2008-09 season in the AHL (he did have a two-game scoreless NHL stint with the Ducks that year.) Beleskey scored 11 goals in 60 NHL games the following season and established himself as a full-time NHLer in 2011-12. The lockout and injuries have conspired to deny him more than 70 games in a single season, but he hit a career best for goals and points last season in only 65 games. The Ducks attempted to keep him out of free agency with a contract extension offer before the regular season ended, but Beleskey opted instead to go the free agency route.

Traditional statistics: With just a pair of goals in 20 games, there is no denying that Beleskey’s production is way down from a year ago. He’s scored in a loss against Montreal and an October 31 win over Tampa Bay, so both of his goals have come against division rivals. However, his assist totals put him on pace for about 40 helpers, which will far exceed his career-best 15 assists from 2013-14. His points/60 min average is a little off from what it was a year ago, but is comparable, and he is on pace to surpass his top output of 32 points.

Granted- you expect more from your $3.8M than 40-50 points, but that’s not terrible value offensively. At even strength, where the B’s have not been the greatest this season, Beleskey is among the team’s leaders in points with a 1.89 points/60 rating. Compare that to David Krejci– 2.41; Patrice Bergeron– 1.23; Loui Eriksson– 1.73 and Brad Marchand– 1.70. That Krejci leads Beleskey by .52 P/60 5v5 is not a surprise, but would you have put money on him beating everyone else- and Bergeron by .66? Beleskey’s even strength P/60 are No. 3 on the team overall- behind Krejci and Tyler Randell (2.30), who has played a paltry 78 minutes at even strength. Beleskey’s  even strength 1.89 P/60 would be only seventh-best on the Montreal Canadiens (just ahead of Tomas Plekanec), but he would lead the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose best 5v5 player, Jonathan Drouin, has just a 1.88 P/60 to boast of.

Beleskey has not had an opportunity of any significance with the man advantage or on the penalty kill, with just 6:39 of power play time (compared to his 285:38 and counting at even strength) and 49 seconds  on the ice while shorthanded. The lack of impact on special teams is both a ding on him in terms of how valuable he is and an example of how successful he’s been despite the opportunities that his higher-scoring teammates receive in the special teams game. When you factor in the Bruins P/60 rates in all situations- Beleskey (1.97) drops to 10th on the team, with every forward on the active roster save for Frank Vatrano, Landon Ferraro, Joonas Kemppainen and Zac Rinaldo ahead of him. Colin Miller’s (2.00) rating puts him ahead of Beleskey, the only defender in the top-nine. On the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, Beleskey’s 1.97 P/60 puts him fourth on that team.

Where Beleskey is shining is in the hits department, where he is currently in the top-10 with 82 hits, more than 4 per game on average. By comparison, Milan Lucic, the Boston forward Beleskey was widely considered to have been brought in to address the lost production from, has 78 hits in two more games. Beleskey doesn’t have Lucic’s natural size or ability to be as physically dominant, but he’s a scrappy, physical guy for his 6-foot-and change size. He’s always willing to finish his checks and make a big hit. Just ask Derek Stepan. Ouch…too soon? Que dites-vous, Alain Vigneault?

Beleskey is shooting the puck more than he did a year ago and right now, not a whole lot is going in for him, but when he starts finding the back of the net, watch for him to get on a streak. Beleskey fired five shots on Henrik Lundqvist Friday and if he continues to get pucks to the net, he’ll raise the scoring bar. A year ago, he scored 18 even strength goals on just 124 shots, a shooting percentage of 14.5 percent- well above his typical numbers (he tallied 10.3 percent in his 11-goal season during 2009-10, but typically scored at under a 10 percent clip in his other years), but most analysts predicted (correctly) a natural regression from that 14.5 percentage this season. Admittedly, the B’s need more than his current 6.67 shooting percentage, and he’s a good bet to get that number up closer to his career average of about 9-10 percent by season’s end.

Advanced statistics: Beleskey is on the positive side of the ledger in terms of goals scored for his team when he is on the ice versus goals against (per 60 minutes), with a GF60 of 2.941 and GA60 of 2.101. good for a GF percentage of 58.3. Bergeron’s even strength offensive numbers for example aren’t as good- the B’s have scored just 2.255 GF/60 but his GA/60 average is better with a 1.845.  That gives him a 55.0 GF%. Bergeron’s iCorsi (74) is higher than Beleskey’s (66) because he takes more shots, but his even strength shooting percentage is lower.

Beleskey’s PDO (shot percentage + save percentage while player is on the ice- I like this stat because it tends to be a little more predictive versus some of the others) is 101.7, which is lower than his 103.8 and 103.0 in each of the last two seasons. Bergeron’s even strength PDO is 98.8- up two percentage points from the less productive 2013-14 season, when he posted a 96.8. Even in his 30-goal campaign of two years ago, his PDO was 102.4- just .7 points higher than Beleskey’s number as of today.

Bergeron significantly overtakes Beleskey on the power play where his production is tops on the Bruins with 9.88 P/60 (he has 11 of his 21 points against Beleskey’s 0.00. Bergeron’s PDO on the power play is 120.6 (compared to his 5v5 of 98.8), which gives you an idea of just how much his production with the man advantage skews the scoring totals in his favor. The bottom line for me when I look at the two players- at even strength, where the two have similar minutes on the ice, Beleskey is the more productive (note- I said productive not better) player. I won’t peel the onion back too much more in terms of Beleskey’s zone starts or how he does when close or trailing, but he’s been one of the more consistent performers at even strength- admittedly and area that the Bruins need to improve on going forward if they want to remain in the playoff picture.

(Statistical source: Hockey Analysis.com- David Johnson)

Intangibles: Going back to July 1, when Beleskey chose the Bruins in free agency, he’s said and done all the right things. He and his wife were active on social media and quickly traveled to Boston after signing, showing their excitement to be joining the organization at a time when the team’s outlook was anything but rosy. The B’s and Don Sweeney had just traded Dougie Hamilton and more questions than answers swirled around the B’s, even though Beleskey and trade acquisition Jimmy Hayes pumped some excitement into fans who had seen their contributions while wearing other team jerseys and envisioned good things from the new additions. Thus far, the two have combined for just six goals, which is well off of expectations given that they posted a total of 41 between the two of them with the Ducks and Florida Panthers a year ago.

Beleskey is hard-nosed- he’s had a couple of fights with Minnesota’s Brett Bulmer and NY Ranger Dylan McIlrath in the past seven days, racking up an impressive 10 total hits in both contests. He’s a gritty, willing combatant, which should endear him to Bruins fans as they warm up to him in Boston and see where his consistency and ruggedness comes from.

Against McIlrath, Beleskey was out of his weight class and took some shots and jabs from the much larger former WHL pugilist and first-round pick before coming back with a right cross and then went to the ice.

Beleskey did a lot better in his scrap against Bulmer, however…

What’s more- Beleskey wants to be here. Sweeney did a good job of moving guys who didn’t feel the same way out. If you’re going to invest millions in a player- at least pay for the ones who want to be a part of the solution. These guys are only human and sometimes we forget that if someone doesn’t want it as badly, we can expect them to be professionals, but without being able to see inside a person’s heart, we don’t know if they are giving it their all. One need not do any more than simply watch the way Beleskey hurtles around the ice on every shift, looking to to make a hit or force a turnover if he’s anywhere near the puck when someone with another jersey has it, to know that the guy is giving it his maximum effort.

Beleskey was in the news this past week when he and his wife purchased $2,000 worth of pies and distributed them to homeless veteran charities in Boston for Thanksgiving. It’s a nice gesture from a player who has backed up his words of being proud to be a part of the Bruins organization with the kind of gritty play the team values, as well as taking the time to give back to the community.

Summary: The Bruins are getting the guy they coveted from the West Coast. The goals aren’t there, but he’s brought a needed effort each and every night and plays hard, providing the all-important leadership by example. His 10 points in 20 games has him on pace for his best offensive season, and he’s creating space for his line mates with his physical brand of hockey. Beleskey doesn’t have the natural size to be a classic and even feared power forward, but he’s not shy about sticking his nose in and taking one for the team.

There are some who will just point to the $3.8M cap hit and draw a direct correlation to the downturn in goals, but when you consider that some pundits were predicting him to sign for upwards of $4.5 or 5 million last July, the Bruins are getting solid value. At age 27 and with four more years on the books, he’ll probably live up to the contract and then some so long as he can stay healthy. Because of his kamikaze style of play, it takes a toll on his average frame. However, when all is said and done, no one will ever accuse Beleskey of being soft.

In short, you win with guys like that, and this is why- as we look at Boston’s record after 22 games- they sit at a solid 13-8-1 overall. There aren’t many who would have put money on them being 5 games over .500 at the quarter pole with the team they had on paper coming into the season. Beleskey’s contributions, especially at even strength when the power play has not been there to carry the club offensively, are a big reason you can make a case that he’s right up there with the big guns- Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Eriksson as one of the team’s most valuable players during this stretch of the season.

 

More cuts on Sunday as 4-0 preseason Bruins roster takes shape

Patrice Bergeron is Boston's "Mr Everything" and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Patrice Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything” and the team will need him to be that and more at age 30. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney announced today that eight players under NHL contract have been sent down to Providence of the AHL. Defenseman Chris Breen and forward Brandon DeFazio were put on waivers yesterday and designated for assignment- they both cleared today and will participate in the Baby B’s camp. Defenseman Ben Youds, on an AHL deal, was released from Boston camp (PTO) and sent to Providence. You can read the transaction announcement here.

Additionally, the B’s returned their remaining junior players to their respective teams, with Jakub Zboril (Saint John- QMJHL), Jake DeBrusk (Swift Current- WHL) and Brandon Carlo (Tri-City- WHL) all going back to the CHL. The B’s released Zach Senyshyn (Sault Ste. Marie- OHL) and Jeremy Lauzon (Rouyn-Noranda- QMJHL) prior to the weekend’s slate of games.

In the spirit of and with a nod to the always outstanding Mike Reiss and his Patriots blog at ESPN Boston throughout the NFL training camp leading up to the final cuts day before the start of the 2015 NFL season, here’s the remaining players- locks and bubble guys along with a little analysis on what it all means going forward.

Centers

Locks: Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner, Chris Kelly, Max Talbot (5)

On the bubble: Joonas Kemppainen

AHL-bound: Alex Khokhlachev, Austin Czarnik, Zack Phillips

Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci…Krejci and Bergeron…Boston’s 1-1A center punch is well entrenched, and I won’t fool around with the argument I see some people engage in over who is the B’s 1 and 2…it’s a pretty meaningless debate, because without one or the other, the team’s in deep trouble. Ryan Spooner hasn’t had a great deal of time to establish himself with new linemates, but he’s been an opportunistic scorer with the man advantage and is clearly the No. 3 man in the center pecking order. Even if the B’s might opt not to use Chris Kelly and/or Max Talbot at center, expect the team to retain both as veteran options for the bottom line with the ability to play the wings- they’ve done it before. Joonas Kemppainen has been a solid if unspectacular presence in the exhibition games he’s suited up for, and he’s effective on the draws, plays a mature two-way game, and has the size and strength to start the year as the team’s fourth-line center if that’s the plan. Austin Czarnik has been a revelation in his first pro camp after signing with the B’s last spring, using his speed, smarts and quick hands to make an impact in all three zones, but he’s better off playing on Providence’s first or second line and on both PK and PP units. If injuries take a toll on the B’s depth, don’t be surprised to see him get a chance at some point this season. If not, he’ll make it tough to cut him next year with a full season under his belt. Alex Khokhlachev, for all his talent, just hasn’t been able to find the production in his game. He’s without a doubt more talented than Kelly, Talbot or Kemppainen, but building an NHL roster isn’t just about plugging in the most skilled guys on the bottom line and expecting them to thrive. He’s improved his overall game, but if Koko had found a way to actually…you know…score some goals, then you might have more of an argument than the simple “SKILL!” that I have people hit me with onTwitter quite a bit. The B’s need to figure out how to best use him or trade him, but just because he said he doesn’t want to play in Providence forever does not mean he’s ready for primetime now. He’ll have  a few more chances before the final cuts come in, so if ever there was a time for him to impress the brass with a breakout individual performance, it’s now. Zack Phillips was waived yesterday (and cleared) but is still with the team, where he is rehabbing an injury.  Even if he had played in any of the preseason games, it’s hard to see Phillips being in the mix for a center job given how deep the team is at that position right now.

Right Wings

Locks: David Pastrnak, Loui Eriksson, Brett Connolly

On the bubble: Anton Blidh, Tyler Randell

AHL-bound: Brian Ferlin, Seth Griffith

David Pastrnak is not only a sure thing, he’s the most exciting combination of pure speed/scoring talent *and* character since…well…quite a long time. He’s similar to Bergeron in terms of the kind of impact he could have on this franchise, but he’s a higher-end scoring winger and will eventually put together some impressive numbers. I don’t know if he’s quite ready to bust out with the All-Star production this year, but he’ll give it his all. Loui Eriksson plays the off-wing and will go about his business being the smart, stealthy scoring presence he was a year ago when he finished second on the team in goals. However, if the B’s are going south in the standings, don’t be surprised to see Sweeney try and move Eriksson to a contender- his current contract is up next summer and it’s doubtful he’ll be back. Brett Connolly has not had a great preseason thus far, but the team gave up a pair of second-round picks for him and has high hopes. Unlike impatient fans who expect instant near-perfection, the B’s will give Connolly a chance to see if the 2010 draft hype was real or not. Listed as a left wing but shifting over on the right  side thus far, Swedish pest Anton Blidh has impressed with his speed, energy and grit. He’s the kind of guy who could start the season right away on the bottom line, but as a young player on the first year of his ELC, he can be sent down to Providence without being placed on waivers, whereas other players can’t, so he might need to bide his time in the AHL as a third-liner who can grind it out. Tyler Randell has yet to even come close to making the NHL roster since the B’s drafted him late in 2009, but he’s in the mix because of his sheer toughness and ability to make the odd offensive play. Randell’s feet are an issue and he’ll have to be waived to get sent down, so the B’s might carry him as an extra forward to spot play when facing the more rugged teams (which admittedly are decreasing rapidly in number). Brian Ferlin scored a nice backhand goal off a turnover against Detroit and impressed in a small sample size call up a year ago, but like Blidh, he can go down without waivers, so the B’s would rather have him playing a lot than the limited time he’ll get on the bottom line. He’ll be among the first to be recalled if injuries hit. Seth Griffith’s sprained MCL suffered in a preseason game essentially means he’ll rehab the injury but likely go down to start the year and work his way into shape and consideration to be brought up when that time comes.

Left Wings

Locks: Brad Marchand, Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes, Zac Rinaldo

AHL-bound: Frank Vatrano

Brad Marchand led the team in scoring a year ago and he’s going nowhere- will keep riding shotgun with Bergeron to consistent effect over the past several seasons. Boston’s big-ticket free agent Matt Beleskey hasn’t set the world on fire in his first couple of preseason outings, but he’s done and said the right things. Working with Krejci and Pastrnak means that he’ll have plenty of chances to find the back of the net, but expectations need to be tempered- the B’s need him to stay healthy more than anything else right now. Local boy makes good in the case of Jimmy Hayes, who has used his enormous 6-foot-6 frame to good effect and done pretty well skating with Spooner. He’s going to grunt it out in the trenches, but he looks like an ideal fit in Boston’s top-9, playing over on the left side after being a right wing in Florida. Zac Rinaldo was acquired with a third-round pick, so even the most ardent critics will have to grudgingly admit that he’s here to stay for now at least, and we’ll see how much of a role he’ll have on the team going forward. If the B’s opt to use Kelly on the left wing of the fourth line, then Rinaldo will have to move around. Thus far, he’s drawn more penalties than he’s taken and played his patented physical style.  Frank Vatrano, along with liney Czarnik, has been a revelation, but he’s not ready to take on a full-time NHL role. He’s better off playing a lot of minutes in all situations and building his confidence by unleashing that killer shot down in the AHL for now, but watch for him to get some looks if he’s productive and keeps playing hard in all zones.

Defense

Locks: Zdeno Chara (inj.), Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid, Zach Trotman, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, Matt Irwin, Kevan Miller *Dennis Seidenberg (inj.)– 8-week timetable for return (mid-to-late November)

On the bubble: Linus Arnesson

AHL-bound: Tommy Cross, Chris Casto

The Bruins are hoping Zdeno Chara is ready to begin the season after taking a hit the other night in action against the NY Rangers and leaving the game in the first period. Torey Krug has stepped up in his absence, scoring the OT-winning goal against Detroit and playing with the confidence and heart of a much bigger man. Adam McQuaid is safely entrenched on the Boston roster, and Zach Trotman is also a solid bet for now as a known entity, even if he does not possess the uptempo game and sexy upside that Colin Miller and Joe Morrow bring. Both offense-minded blueliners have impressed in the preseason and the injury situation means they will both likely make the cut. Matt Irwin and Kevan Miller bring veteran ability and know-how to the mix, and if Claude Julien was serious about carrying eight defenders to begin the year (he said that even before Chara got banged up) then these are your guys. Linus Arnesson has played very well- his ice time against Detroit was notable early for how much of the first 20 minutes was played on special teams and he did well in all situations. However, with more experienced options in play, the expected move is for him to go down to the AHL where he can develop and thrive in a top role. Experienced farmhands Tommy Cross and Chris Casto will help Arnesson form a nucleus of a relatively young but game defense corps in Providence.

Goaltender

Lock: Tuukka Rask

On the bubble: Jeremy Smith, Jonas Gustavsson

And then there were three…with both of Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre being optioned to Providence today, this leaves it between Jonas Gustavsson and Jeremy Smith to be Tuukka Rask’s backup. Gustavsson just returned to the team after dealing with a personal matter, so he hasn’t had much playing time outside of an 18-shot, 18-save half of work in Boston’s first preseason contest against the New Jersey Devils. Smith has been a little up and down, struggling to find his game against the Rangers, but digging in and making some key stops at crunch time to preserve a 4-3 shootout win after letting in some softies to fall behind 3-1. In Gustavsson (who is on a PTO and would still need to be signed if the B’s like what they see), the team gets an NHL-experienced backup who has proven he has the tools to be a capable starter should something happen to Rask (knock on wood, please). On the downside, ‘the Monster’ has had injury issues, so even if the B’s go with him this year, there is a chance he’ll end up on IR at some point, meaning the team has to go deeper into the bullpen. As for Smith, he’s a one-time second-round pick from 2007, so at one point, he was seen as an impressive pro prospect, but he has zero NHL experience, so the B’s are going right back where they were a year ago when they went with the unproven Niklas Svedberg, who could not win Julien’s confidence to spell Rask more than once in a blue moon. It would be one thing if Smith had completely shut everyone down thus far in exhibition play, but he hasn’t done that. He also hasn’t been as bad as some folks have shared with me online, either. At the same time, Gustavsson’s effort was in a very small sample size…but then again- you know he can stop pucks at the NHL level, at least. My guess: Gustavsson stays, Smith goes down to the AHL, and at that point, the B’s will probably need to either option McIntyre to the ECHL or figure out another AHL team for Smith- three goalies in Providence is not the kind of situation Boston wants.

A Farewell to Arms: Milan Lucic

Milan Lucic at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Milan Lucic at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver (Kirk Luedeke photo)

I almost opted not to post this at all, because I do not want to this to turn into a debate about whether he should have been kept or traded, but in the end, I’m using this space to say goodbye to Milan Lucic, one of the more important (if misunderstood in recent years) players for the Boston Bruins over the near decade he skated up and down the left wing and (often) left a trail of tears in his wake.

For those who follow the NHL, Lucic’s body of work is well known, regardless of whether you are a fan of the Boston Bruins or not.

From the moment he arrived to the big league in his first real veteran main camp after the 2007-08 season (more on that later- yes, I know he was drafted in 2006), until draft day this past June when Chris Pronger of all people (it isn’t like I know him- he just happened to sit behind me on the bus headed to the BB&T Center from the hotel in Fort Lauderdale and happened to be checking his phone when I sat down.)  broke the news to me that Lucic had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings for their 2015 first, defenseman Colin Miller and goaltender Martin Jones (since dealt to San Jose for their first in 2016 and college forward Sean Kuraly), Lucic was one of the most visible faces of the Bruins franchise. As the league’s premier power forward in terms of his blend of physical prowess and ability to score, Lucic was far more appreciated outside of Boston by media and fans of other clubs who longed to have a similar presence on their respective teams, but could often only watch helplessly if Lucic was on his game and hurtled around the ice like a wrecking ball, daring anyone to stop him. Alas, in recent years, that version of Lucic, the one who had arrived like a meteor at age 19 on the heels of a Memorial Cup championship, and went supernova in terms of his popularity and impact by the time the B’s captured the 2011 Stanley Cup in his own hometown of Vancouver, had become at times an empty caricature- a player who wanted to intimidate and be that force of nature, but often got caught up in sophomoric displays on and off the ice that detracted from the immense player and person he was capable of being.

By the time the 2015 NHL season came to a merciful end for the B’s, a lot of fans were ready to see Lucic go. To a degree, I understand that. The salary cap has made the folks who cheer for the laundry much more clinical in their assessments, especially when players like Lucic see their salaries rise to the point of being cost prohibitive.

Lucic’s cap hit was too high for what he was bringing to the team, and with unrestricted free agency looming in the summer of 2016, he was due to receive offers seemed certain to go north of $6 million, perhaps as high as $7 million or more- a price that Boston simply could not afford. So, new GM Don Sweeney, recognizing that the timing was right rather than wait and risk an injury that might crater his value, moved him to the one team that has been reported should have been the club that had him all along- the Kings. I get it, I really do. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Rather than recap all of his years in Boston, I thought I would share a lesser-known tale about Lucic- how he almost was not a Bruin in the first place, and also provide some perspective on my own personal connection to him- one that in my mind- transcended the game he played and the job I did to cover the team for New England Hockey Journal.

How it all happened…also- hometown kid makes good

At age 15, no one in the WHL had time for Milan Lucic.

Completely snubbed in the WHL bantam draft, he almost gave up his dreams of playing pro hockey. That’s what quitters do, after all– they make excuses and justify their lack of success as something unattainable in the first place. Not the son of Serbian blue collar parents from Vancouver, though- he got over his disappointment, rolled up his sleeves and went to work in the BCHL, earning his way to the WHL the hard way…with his fists and on occasion- soft hands with the Coquitlam Express. He caught the eye of the Vancouver Giants- the WHL club nearby and by the end of that year, was brought in for one regular season game and a pair of playoff contests. Coach Don Hay saw all he needed to at that point, and Lucic came back for his NHL draft season, spending the entire year in the WHL, and scoring just 9 goals but showing flashes of the talent that would eventually make him one of the the NHL’s most recognizable if polarizing players.

As fate would have it, Boston’s then amateur scouting director was convalescing in his hometown of Vancouver after beating a sudden onset of cancer in his knee and having successful surgery to remove it before it was too late. Unfortunately (or fortunately as this tale will show) for Scott Bradley, he couldn’t travel, and so whereas he would normally be jetting all over North America and Europe at the beginning of the 2005-06 season to watch the top-rated late 1987/1988-born hockey talent, he was stuck at home. As a result, Bradley saw far more Giants games than he would have, and the burly No. 27 whose skating was rough beyond belief but was creating space for his teammates and establishing a reign of terror in the toughest league in the CHL started to grow on him after Bradley saw little early on with Lucic that resembled NHL material. By the time Bradley was cleared to do more work-related travel to scout other areas, Lucic was his guy, a player he believed was only scratching the surface of his potential.

Fast forward to the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Bradley was still sky-high on Lucic, but so were the Kings, whose guys Bradley had seen at Giants home and way games and guessed were also impressed with his upside. That year, the B’s had a pair of second-round picks- they had traded their own (35) to Washington as part of the 2004 trade for defenseman Sergei Gonchar, but picked up a compensatory selection (37) for not signing bust first-rounder Lars Jonsson from 2000 and then acquired Edmonton’s 50th overall choice as part of the deal that sent Sergei Samsonov to the Oil a few months earlier. Bradley, who had watched the Nashville Predators grab defenseman Cody Franson just a few spots before the B’s a year earlier in the third round, when the team had seriously talked about grabbing him early in the second round instead (they went with Petr Kalus), pushed for Lucic at 37th overall. Yes, he reasoned, it was early, but he was sure to be there, and given his potential payoff, was the best way to ensure the B’s landed him.

However, a disagreement at the table occurred, with several scouts lining up together to argue for talented Russian defenseman Yury Alexandrov there instead. Interim GM Jeff Gorton, in what most folks connected to the game would say was surprising given that his amateur scouting director wanted Lucic there at 37, sided with the area scouts and went with Alexandrov, leaving Bradley to sweat out the next 12 selections in hopes he could get his man at 50. You see, the Kings owned the 48th selection, and all the signs pointed to the fact that they were all set to take Lucic there.

Fate intervened once again, however. A report in the Montreal Gazette quoting former Kings scouting director Al Murray, said that at the time of the 2006 draft, recently hired Kings GM Dean Lombardi felt that the team needed a defenseman, so as their pick came up, he turned to his scouts, most of whom were on the same page and united in their desire to draft Lucic. Instead, the new boss wanted to know who the top defender on their board was, and the answer came back- Joey Ryan of Malden Mass. by way of the Quebec Remparts. The rest, as they say, is history- Ryan to the Kings and two picks later, the Bruins called Lucic’s name to a spontaneous (and loud) ovation of cheers at the old GM Place as many of the Canucks supporters in the place were well acquainted with Lucic from his Giants days.

Many saw the pick of Lucic as a reach at the time. After all, he’d managed a paltry nine goals that season, and even if he was tough- why would you take a player like that in the top-50? Some of those concerns were allayed when we first met Lucic in the bowels of the arena in his Bruins sweater for the first time. He was thrilled and genuinely earnest in his assessment of the situation- being a top-50 NHL pick after being passed over in the WHL lottery felt pretty damn special.

That fall, Lucic came to Boston, but was only allowed to participate in the rookie camp portion. Phil Kessel was dominating the buzz as the team’s top selection and after cratering the year before, the B’s had spent huge in free agency to bring in Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard. With other veterans up front like Shean Donovan, Mark Mowers, Petr Tenkrat (TENKRAT!- sorry inside joke there), Yan Stastny and Jeff Hoggan to name a few, the club sent Lucic and Brad Marchand (taste the irony, eh?) back to their junior clubs without giving them an opportunity to take the ice with the veterans.

I remember talking to Lucic about it after the last rookie camp scrimmage and he was genuinely ticked about it. I recall very clearly him telling me “I skated my bag off” all summer to prepare for main camp…it clearly did not sit well with him that he wasn’t welcome there with the vets. At the same time, he said he understood and would work that much harder to make an impression during the season and be ready to compete in 2007. Therefore, when I said earlier, that he made the Bruins out of his first training camp opportunity- that’s the truth. Like the WHL, he was snubbed his first time out.

We ended up talking a few times while he was still around the team, and he remembered me from the draft. I mentioned in passing that I might not be around to see him at camp in a year because there was a good chance my unit would be sent to Iraq. I recall him stopping what he was doing, getting very serious, and shaking my hand while putting his hand on my shoulder and wishing me luck and safety. He was genuine there, and while I didn’t want to make a big deal of my Army service, it was nice to see a young guy show his appreciation the way he did.

Indeed, my unit was soon after alerted for a deployment (my second) to Baghdad where we would spend 15 months as part of the troop surge in 2007-08. While I was over there, I followed Lucic as best I could- tracking his 30-goal WHL campaign followed by winning the 2007 Memorial Cup. He was named captain of the Giants for the 2007-08 season, but that would not come to pass as he made the Bruins the following fall and went on to post a memorable rookie season with modest scoring (8 goals, 27 points) totals but won the hearts and minds of the Boston faithful with his energy and physicality.

Milan Lucic's Vancouver Giants away sweater worn in the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Milan Lucic’s Vancouver Giants away sweater worn in the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Lucic makes it big in Boston

By the time I returned from my deployment at the end of the 2008 season, I was transferred to the Washington D.C. area over the summer. The Bruins played their last preseason game at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals (an overtime loss with Manny Fernandez in net). When I walked into the visitors’ dressing room, Lucic was seated over at the far end, still with most of his gear on, but we made eye contact and he immediately bounced up and came across the room to shake my hand and welcome me back. It was a small thing for sure…but for me it was a big thing. Though we did not stay in contact during my tour in Iraq, he remembered that I had been overseas, and seemed extremely glad to see me again. It’s not like I had covered him extensively before I left for the desert, but I guess I made enough of an impression and that simple recognition and act of making a small effort to simply say hello went a long way and tells me a lot about who he is as a person.

That interaction framed all further contact I had with Lucic while covering the team from late 2009 until this past June when he was dealt. Even if not interviewing him as part of the coverage, he would always make time for a friendly chat to catch up, as I am not around the team on a daily basis as the beat reporters are. In short, it was the Milan Lucic I got to know when the cameras and recorders were not turned on that I got to know the best, and will always be grateful for. He was honest, sincere, and even if some of his actions reflected poorly at times, I believe that he tried his best to do the right thing and the emotions of playing on the edge like he did sometimes pulled him over to the wrong side.

So, to make a long post short (and thank you for allowing me to indulge in my own personal accounting here), Lucic will be missed far more than most are letting on. Even if he didn’t fight as often near the end as he had done before…even if he didn’t move his feet with the consistency that a player of his status and cap hit demanded, there were times when he was in a class all his own as a force of nature. Those moments simply weren’t enough for a lot of fans…and the team decided to move on as well. But to me, Lucic symbolizes an important time in Bruins history- as the franchise has won just six total Stanley Cup championships since 1924, he and his 2011 mates established a legacy that will always be respected in Boston. He was the right player, at the right time. His 139 goals, 342 points and 772 penalty minutes in 566 career NHL games with the B’s won’t land him at the top of any of the team’s statistical categories, but they do tell part of the story of a player who wore his heart on his sleeve for eight seasons.

The Kings fans and media, if they haven’t figured it out already, are getting a heck of a player. One, if his career trajectory is to be believed, is probably going to bounce back with the best season of his career. 35 goals is not out of the question, and the Western Conference clubs that used to see Lucic only on occasion are going to quickly tire of him finishing his checks and wreaking havoc.

How do you wrap up a blog post about a player who had such a significant impact in Boston? I can think of no better way than to post this farewell/highlight video made this week by Twitter friend “dafoomie” (who does a lot of great work- you should check out his YouTube channel). The images will capture all I could not, but the shadows grow long and it is time to bring this to a close.

Good luck, Looch- thanks for the memories.

Brett Connolly’s moment of truth

Leading up to last February’s NHL trade deadline, there was a lot of talk about the Boston Bruins acquiring veteran forwards for that late season push to make the postseason after struggling to put together sustained stretches of high-level play and wins.

That’s why it  came as a mild surprise when Peter Chiarelli pulled the trigger on a deal for then-22-year-old Brett Connolly, the sixth overall selection in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft by the Tampa Bay Lightning. The move raised eyebrows because ‘Bolts GM Steve Yzerman was moving on from his first-ever draft choice with that organization, a player who had been selected just four spots after Chiarelli tabbed Tyler Seguin. Unlike Seguin, Connolly was dealt for different reasons, and ironically enough- the player whom Boston hoped would help them earn enough points to get into the dance was felled in his very first practice with the team, missing all but five of the final 18 games, as the B’s came up short on the last night of the regular season.

Connolly arrived to pro hockey with great expectations, and at least thus far, has been a disappointment given where he was drafted. After signing a one year, $1.075 million “show me” extension with the B’s, he is in position to establish himself as a legitimate top-six NHL right wing this season on a team that was starved for goals at the 22nd overall position for offense after finishing third overall in 2013-14.

In this post, we’ll take a look at Connolly then and now- and try to project what he’ll bring to Boston at age 23.

Then (the 2010 NHL draft and beyond): A little over five years ago, questions swirled around Connolly’s long-term viability because of a serious hip injury he sustained early in the 2009-10 season, which limited him to just 16 games (10 goals) for the Prince George Cougars of the WHL. A season after posting 30 goals as a rookie, Connolly was seen as the consensus top WHL player available in the 2010 NHL draft class, and though Portland Winterhawks forward Nino Niederreiter would move up to edge him by just one draft position (NY Islanders) in Los Angeles, most conceded that given a full and healthy season, Connolly had impressive potential.

Take a look at this NHL draft profile, which features the late great Central Scouting director, E.J. McGuire, former Maine Mariners coach, who lost his battle with cancer in 2011. RIP E.J.- a true class act who did so much for the CSS when he was in charge.

Here are excerpts from the profile I did on Connolly for my 2010 Bruins Draft Watch blog, which some of you may or may not remember.

One of the most skilled and dangerous forwards in the draft had an injury-marred campaign and faces questions about his lower body’s long-term health..Excellent skater with a flash initial burst and ability to separate when observed last season before his hip problems flared up during the Ivan Hlinka tourney in August ’09. A dynamic presence when fully healthy and on top of his game: darts into open spaces with the puck and can wire it into the back of the net in the blink of an eye. Has that offensive zone killer instinct you want in your forwards; takes the puck to the net and shows off some real grit when it comes time to pay the price down low and in front of the net.

His health was the biggest obstacle facing Connolly, as he returned to action for the Under 18 championship tournament in April, but did not look all that effective after such a long layoff. Here are the downsides to him as I saw them back in June of 2010:

Faces some major scrutiny in light of serious hip flexor injuries this season that shelved him for all of 16 games. Looked strong in a late-season stint in the WHL, but raised real concerns with his tentative, ineffective performance for Team Canada at the World Under-18 tourney in Belarus in April. Lacked explosiveness and jump in his stride. Word out of the NHL combine is that the hips aren’t chronic problems, but with the failure of New Jersey 2001 first-round pick Adrian Foster still fresh in a lot of minds, many teams can’t afford to gamble. Not an overly physical player despite a long frame that will bulk up in the next few years. Needs to add a lot of mass/fill out his lanky build.

My draft day and after projection for Connolly was this (after mocking him to Dallas with the 11th pick):

He’s got all the tools you look for in a high-end scoring wing, and it’s a shame that he had such problems with injuries this season, because it robbed him of the chance to generate a potentially intriguing draft subplot to challenge Hall and Seguin near the top. Now, he’s caught in that limbo/Twilight Zone between those publications that are steadfast in their belief that he’ll go off the board around No. 5 overall, and those who are a little more conservative and who think NHL teams will take some safer options rather than risk taking a player who could be damaged goods and never again look like the 16-year-old who scored 30 goals in the WHL. Bostonians know all too well how devastating bad hips are to a hockey player; it was a degenerative hip condition that forced Cam Neely to tearfully hobble away from the game he loved at just 31 years of age in what was a memorably heart-wrenching press conference. Teams who don’t take the potential disaster of a player who faces a lifetime of being day-to-day the way Neely was over the last five years of his career seriously may jump on Connolly well inside the top-10, but they do so knowing that if he can’t go, it could cost the jobs of those management and personnel types who made that call.

Okay, so the hip hasn’t proven to be all that big a factor, though he’s had other health issues (more on that later).  Tampa grabbed him early and he appeared to justify that faith in 2010-11, as he put his hip woes behind him to the tune of 46 goals in 59 WHL games. That was good enough for the team to sign him and give him a shot in the NHL for the 2011-12 campaign, but he had a bit part, scoring just 4 goals and 15 points in 68 games. With the lockout occurring the following year, he began the season with Tampa’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse and stayed there, scoring 31 goals and leading the Crunch to the AHL championship series. Unable to lock down an NHL job the following year, Connolly had another solid if unspectacular AHL outing in 2013-14 (21 goals, 57 points in 66 games).

Now: A year ago, Connolly made the big club, but found himself skating on the bottom-six, where he was able to score a respectable 12 goals in 50 games at the time of his trade to Boston.

Much was hoped for when he arrived, but a freak injury suffered when a Dennis Seidenberg shot in practice caused a displaced fracture in his right index finger, forcing him out of action for the next five weeks. He got into Boston’s last five games (2 assists) but could not have been 100 percent- especially for a shooter who needs his hands to be at his most effective.

For a club that gave up a pair of second-round selections in 2015 (Tampa took Peterborough Petes d-man Matt Spencer) and 2016, losing Connolly when they needed him most was one more added insult to injury (pun intended), but he has never played more than 71 games in any of his pro seasons whether spent in the AHL or NHL. There always seems to be some kind of physical issue preventing him from playing a full 82-game schedule.

“Obviously, it’s tough for him coming off his hand (injury) right when he got here, but he’s got a natural ability to skate,” B’s defenseman Zach Trotman said this week when asked about the player he competed against in the AHL and was teammates in Boston with to close out last season. “He’s a really good skater and he’s got a good shot even with his hand being…I don’t know what percentage it was at the end of the season but I’m sure it wasn’t full. He seemed pretty hungry and anxious to get the puck to the net and go in after it. I’m not going to project on what line he’d be or anything, but as far as skill goes, he’s got that hunger and he’s got that ability to skate and get the puck on net and just having those tools alone is going to be very advantageous for our team and I’m excited to see him play more this year fully healed and see what all he can do. I thought at the end of the year he was impressive and his speed and skill will help make the pace of our team faster.”

Trotman may not predict what line Connolly will be on, but I’ll take a stab. He’ll work in early on the bottom-six with special teams time on the power play, but I think the Bruins are hoping he and Jimmy Hayes will give them enough confidence to perhaps have the confidence to trade Loui Eriksson to open up some breathing room on that right side. This is not a slight to the veteran Eriksson, but with his impending unrestricted free agency, the team cannot afford to be sentimental. If neither Connolly nor Hayes are up to the task to take on more of a scoring role for the B’s, then Claude Julien may stick with Eriksson, as he is a more proven player at this stage of his career. However, with just $3.5 million invested in the two younger wingers, that salary flexibility is how a team like Boston can get further out of the cap hell that dogged them the last two years, forcing the parting of ways with key contributors and fan favorites like Johnny Boychuk, Jarome Iginla, Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton.

Nobody said building a Stanley Cup-caliber team would be easy, but it goes without saying that if Connolly can develop into a 25-30 or more goal scorer this year for the B’s, Don Sweeney would have more options open to him to make the club better in the present and longer term. Of course- that kind of success comes at a price and if Connolly comes through with a season like that, he’ll be looking at a hefty raise in 2016.

All in due time, I suppose- and first things first. There’s a hockey season to play…in the meantime, Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita & Billy Zabka know what we’re talking about in the style of Survivor.

Confirmed: Bruins hire veteran scout Andrew Shaw to cover Ontario

Since letting Mike Chiarelli go after his brother was relieved of the GM duties, the Boston Bruins had been without a dedicated Ontario amateur scout.

Several sources have told me that Don Sweeney, Keith Gretzky and Co. have brought longtime scout and OHL veteran talent evaluator Andrew Shaw on board. He, obviously, is not the Chicago Blackhawks forward who was instrumental in beating the B’s in the 2013 Stanley Cup final.

You can read more on Shaw here- it’s a press release announcing his hiring as head scout of the OHL’s Sudbury Wolves back in 2012.

Shaw is a respected presence and voice of scouting experience throughout Ontario, though the Wolves did not have the greatest of runs while he was a part of that organization. We’re in a wait-and-see pattern with his three OHL drafts as Sudbury’s scouting chief, but he did some good work with Columbus and Sarnia.

To have NHL guys already coming up on the net and telling me that this is a good hire is solid enough evidence for me, so watch for news coming out of the organization in the coming days announcing Shaw formally, along with perhaps another addition in the Quebec and Maritimes (QMJHL) region.

Update: Team source says yep. Shaw now in the fold- good guy, good add sayeth scouts from outside the org. NY Islanders’ Matt Martin one of his guys from Sarnia days, I’m told.