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.

Seth Griffith faces logjam at RW

Last season, the Boston Bruins got some surprising production from 2012 draft choice Seth Griffith, a former prolific goal scorer in the OHL with the London Knights before turning pro for the 2013-14 hockey season.

Griffith, who was passed over in his initial year of NHL eligibility in 2011, overcomes a lack of size and dynamic skating ability with elite offensive hockey sense and a great set of hands. Fans will no doubt remember this beauty he scored last November against Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils.

The finish is vintage Griffith, but the highlight also shows the lack of open ice foot speed and the difficulty he had in gaining separation once he blocked the shot and chased the puck into the neutral zone. Granted, the now-retired Bryce Salvador took a good angle in recovery, but Griffith would have gone in alone on Schneider if he was a faster skater. Instead, and what makes the goal all the more remarkable, is that he fought off Salvador and Marek Zidlicky to put the shot between his legs and under Schneider’s left pad for one of the prettiest goals of last season.

Griffith has made a career of memorable goals, as he uses his keen offensive instincts, quick release and lacrosse background to pinball off of opponents and make scoring plays that other forwards aren’t capable of creating themselves. However, in the NHL, he won’t be faced with many opportunities like that one, where it all seemed to come together for him for a magical scoring chance. Ultimately, Griffith is going to have his hands full winning a job on one of Boston’s top-three scoring lines as we enter the 2015-16 NHL campaign.

Let’s take a closer look:

Your top spot is pretty well filled with David Pastrnak expected to build on a surprising and successful rookie season, one that saw him score 10 goals and 27 points in 46 games to finish out the second half of the year in Boston. Pastrnak will be given every opportunity to skate on that RW1 spot for Boston next season and if he stays healthy and all plays out the way the B’s expect, the 19-year-old will take another step forward in his development as the franchise’s next face up front.

Loui Eriksson and Brett Connolly are solid bets for second- and third-line duty in Boston.

Eriksson is coming off his best offensive season (22 goals) since 2011-12, when he tallied 26 goals and 71 points. He turned 30 in July, but he’s anything but past his prime. Eriksson has been a popular target of criticism in Boston since the trade that sent Tyler Seguin to Big D, and that’s understandable given that the 2010 second overall selection scored as many points (84) in his first full season with the Stars in 2014, as Eriksson has done in two seasons with Boston. Eriksson dealt with two concussions in 2013-14, but he re-emerged last season with some of his patented ability to make consistent plays on offense. It’s not enough for many Boston fans to accept that Seguin has tallied 74 goals and 159 points for Dallas since the trade- nearly a 2-to-1 advantage over Eriksson, but the veteran Swede often gets the short shrift in Boston for what he does well, which is a creative, opportunistic approach to scoring. His 22 goals was second only to Brad Marchand on the team last year (which is also an indictment of Boston’s popgun offense) and his 47 points trailed only Patrice Bergeron (ditto).

GM Don Sweeney is in a tough spot with Eriksson- the unrestricted free agent-to-be will likely fetch a decent trade return as the season progresses, but timing is everything- pull the trigger on a trade too soon and you’re sending the message that the year is over. Wait too long, and you could end up like Tim Murray and the Buffalo Sabres with Chris Stewart last winter. Eriksson reportedly has a 14-team trade list, so any transaction Sweeney makes short of just riding it out and likely parting ways with him next summer is already constrained with only limited destinations.

Connolly is the big wildcard for the Bruins entering the new year. I won’t go into as much detail, because I plan to dedicate a future and comprehensive blog post to him, but let’s just say that the B’s did not expend a pair of second-round draft choices on a player they expect to remain a third-line presence for them. The sixth overall selection in 2010 (just four spots behind Seguin for those keeping score at home) has yet to justify the faith Steve Yzerman and the Tampa Bay Lightning scouting staff had in him just five years ago, but the B’s signed him to a one-year “show me” deal valued at a little over $1 million.  If that pure skating and sniping ability that manifested itself (in albeit a more limited sample size given the time he missed with a hip injury) during his WHL days with the Prince George Cougars starts translating in the NHL, the B’s could have two exciting right wingers in Pastrnak and Connolly. It’s an intriguing possibility, but not something you can take to the bank.

To complicate matters (for Griffith), the B’s acquired the Boston-born-and-bred Jimmy Hayes on July 1, subsequently signing the 19-goal scorer with Florida a year ago to a three-year extension. They did not do that to stick the 6-foot-5 former Toronto second-rounder in 2008 on the fourth line, so it will be interesting to see what the team’s plans are for Hayes and in all likelihood- Eriksson. Something’s gotta give, and best guess is that the club will do some mixing and matching up front to start the season and see how the makeup looks before acting.

Also on the Boston depth chart’s right side power winger Brian Ferlin, who is more of a natural fit for fourth line duty given his size, skating and modest (projected at the NHL level) ability to chip in offense.

Someone, anyone, might earn some more playing time in Boston with a switch over to the left side, which enters the season with Matt Beleskey and Brad Marchand clearly entrenched on the top two lines, but only veterans Chris Kelly, Zac Rinaldo and Max Talbot as the other NHL-established players over there. Griffith has better offensive chops than both of them put together, but he’s nowhere near the defensive player and veteran dressing room presence. Based on Claude Julien’s body of work to date, unless injuries eat into Boston’s depth, does anyone realistically see Griffith beating those players out for a job out of camp?

That leads us back to the gist of the post. With six goals and 10 goals in 30 NHL games last year, the potential is clearly there given his scoring upside. Working against Griffith is the fact that he does not possess the ideal traits that Cam Neely and Sweeney have said they want to employ in Boston- to be a bigger, faster, harder to play against club. That’s what the guys ahead of Griffith on the current roster projections possess in terms of natural tools, so the 22-year-old has his work cut out for him this year.

Sweeney once told me during a break in the action at the annual Flood-Marr prep tourney at Noble & Greenough School a few years ago that he admired Griffith’s “dog on a bone” mentality when it comes to scoring. He was referring to the fact that although Boston’s fifth-round choice does not have the natural size/strength to win a lot of board battles, nor the pure explosion and separation gear to put defenses on their heels, he nonetheless brings a tenacity and inner fire to out-hustle opponents and find ways to get the puck in the net. In two pro seasons split between Providence of the AHL and Boston, Griffith has scored 32 goals in 108 minor league games. That’s something you don’t just give up on.

At the same time, Griffith is going to want a chance to play in the NHL sooner rather than later. That might just make him an attractive trade chip to include in a larger package at some point to help shore up Boston’s team where it is needed most: on defense.

We shall see.

Another Heinen post

The Rink Blog over at the New England Hockey Journal website is gone, but here is an article I wrote for it on Danton Heinen last March after I had a chance to talk to him during the NCHC playoffs.

It’s some bonus reading for a guy who should be ranked solidly inside the top-10 of Bruins prospect lists in my view because he does so many things well.

Here’s the story:

***

When the Boston Bruins called forward Danton Heinen’s name late in the fourth round of last June’s NHL Entry Draft, fans and prognosticators were sent scrambling for their guides and cheat sheets, to little avail.

There wasn’t a whole lot of information available on the previously passed over forward when the B’s nabbed the 2014 NHL lottery’s mystery man 116th overall. However, in the months since, the former captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles has emerged as one of the best players in the NCAA with a productive and mature game that belies his relative inexperience in the NCHC.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Heinen said before the second-seeded Denver University’s sweep of University of Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the NCHC playoffs. “I don’t know that I expected to have this level of personal success coming into my first year (at DU) but being part of a winning team is what I’m most happy about.”

Currently second only to hockey prodigy Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford, Mass.) in scoring among first year NCAA players, Heinen adjusted immediately to the competition at Denver and never looked back, posting 16 goals and 44 points in 36 games as of March 15, pacing the Pioneers in scoring. Denver head coach (and former University of Maine scoring star and member of 1993 national championship squad) Jim Montgomery is on the record giving much of the credit for Heinen to assistant David Carle, who recognized the potential and acted quickly to bring him into the fold last year.

“It was Coach Carle who did the most to bring me here,” said Heinen. “He came out to see me play (at Surrey) last year and made the team’s interest in me known. They brought me to Denver for a visit and everything clicked right away; I loved it. For me, the decision to commit was a no-brainer, so I came out last summer to do course and conditioning work to get ready for the season and the opportunity to play here right away.”

Heinen’s arrival on the collegiate stage has been so sudden, yet so jarring for certain NHL teams that completely missed the boat on him that the 19-year-old’s season has made for some interesting backroom conversations.

“Our college guys are so impressed with him,” said one NHL scout who told New England Hockey Journal that Heinen has been a topic of conversation recently. “The recurring theme is that he’s played so well for Denver, and we’re trying to figure out how he got so good, so fast given that not many were on him a year ago when he was in junior.”

Some evaluators point to a sudden growth spurt after he turned 18 as one aspect of the 6-foot, 180-pound Langley, B.C. native’s impressive showing at this level. As a July, 1995-born prospect who had been eligible for the 2013 NHL draft, and despite other ’95 players being in a similar situation such as Buffalo fifth-round draft choice and Brown freshman Max Willman (Barnstable, Mass.), Heinen got nary a sniff from the various hockey draft publications.

Even if the public lists weren’t tracking him, Heinen says he interviewed with multiple teams including Boston, during the course of the 2013-14 hockey season. Even though he knew he had some NHL interest, he wasn’t altogether positive he would get a call. He was following the draft on his computer at home, but when the fourth round rolled around, he wasn’t tracking the selections all that closely. Heinen learned of his selection from his family advisor via a phone call.

Although not a blazing skater with game-breaking open ice speed, Heinen displays NHL-caliber quickness and smarts, tenacity around the puck. He is on track to develop into a well-rounded , three-zone player with top-six forward potential in Boston. At the very least, he looks like a future third-line fixture on the wing if he continues his upward trajectory and willingness to compete hard in the greasy areas of the ice.“I see myself as more of a playmaker,” Heinen said. “I can see the ice and set up guys for more scoring opportunities.”

Heinen’s rapid arrival in the NCAA and the potential that more and more around the NHL are acknowledging are why it is all the more baffling that so many seemed to completely miss on his potential a year ago. The Bruins, for their part, played it smart. Western Canada scout (and former B’s defender) Dean Malkoc watched him enough to get a solid perspective on the youngster’s potential, and then as is often the case with Boston, multiple scouts and members of the front office, including current assistant GM Scott Bradley (who makes his off-season home in British Columbia), went out West to see him.

“We had a couple of guys in the west that sat on Danton pretty hard,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said in December. “We were real glad to get him where we did. We’re excited that he made it to school this year after there was talk he might delay it one more season, and clearly- he can handle the college game.”

Unlike other teams who were perhaps on Heinen for a little longer than the B’s were, give GM Peter Chiarelli and his staff credit for taking him where they wanted to instead of playing the we can wait and get him later game that may have burned other suitors (Montreal rumored to be chief among them) and cost them a shot at one of college hockey’s hottest properties.

“He’s an ‘A’ prospect in my view,” said another NHL scout outside of the Boston organization. “Our guys are saying that if Heinen was an undrafted free agent, he’d have 30 offers lined up as soon as he was ready to turn pro because of how promising and complete a player he is. His hockey IQ and vision are outstanding. He just finds ways to make plays whenever he’s out there. He shows an intelligence and refined game that’s rare for someone in their first season of college hockey.”

It stands to reason, then, that at the recently concluded NHL trade deadline, the B’s reportedly had several teams asking them about the prized fourth-round pick. Given what he’s shown, don’t expect the team to give up on this prized asset unless any prospective team is willing to pay a significant return.

All of the high praise aside, Heinen knows that there is still much work to be done. As has been the case for the entire season, he put words to action by scoring goals in both of DU’s playoff wins over UMD, extending his team scoring lead.

The last player Montgomery coached who topped the charts as a rookie was none other than Calgary’s NHL Rookie of the Year candidate Johnny Gaudreau, who did it with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010-11. While Heinen has a long way to go before he will generate the kind of buzz that followed “Johnny Hockey” during his electric Hobey Baker-winning career at Boston College, he’s far exceeded the modest expectations that preceded his arrival in the Rocky Mountains.

“He’s gained 10 pounds and is a cerebral kid on the ice, a hard-worker off the ice,” Sweeney said. “Not enough good things can be said about how much he’s grown under (Montgomery) and he’ll continue to put up points in that system. He’s still an open canvas in terms of how much bigger and stronger he’s going to get, but we’re pleased at the progress he’s making.”

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: Goaltenders

1. In retrospect: It was a season of discontent in Boston as the Bruins watched Pittsburgh smoke the hapless Buffalo Sabres on the final night of the 2014-15 regular season to take the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and relegate the B’s to the late spring sidelines for the first time since 2007.

Goaltending played a part in Boston’s early trip to the links. Tuukka Rask and Niklas Svedberg played their part in the unsuccessful season to be sure, but you can make the case that if not for Rask’s Vezina-caliber talent on many nights, Boston’s fall from the top-eight in the East would have been even more precipitous than it was. Draft watchers will tell you that it might not have been such a bad thing for that to happen, but for a team with higher expectations going in, Rask was often the most consistent glue that gave the fans hope that a better team was hiding behind the curtain of up-and-down play.

Unfortunately, Svedberg did not inspire enough confidence from head coach Claude Julien to earn more starts that might have given Rask more of an opportunity to re-charge and re-focus later in the year when every point was at a premium. Boston’s drop from having the third-best offense in 2013-14 to 22nd last year, not to mention the gaping hole Johnny Boychuk’s pre-opening night departure to Long Island certainly put a significant amount of pressure on the men between the pipes, and we can argue all day about Svedberg’s viability as an NHL backup and that his overall numbers (7-5-1, 2.33 GAA, .918 save percentage) should have been worthy of more than 18 total appearances. The plain truth is, however- Julien did not put him into games with much regularity because he didn’t believe in him. It’s the classic saw- don’t tell me how good someone is- show me. And I get it- the statistics paint a better picture of Svedberg than he showed with his playing time and overall performance. But, in the end, Julien had ample opportunity to put Svedberg in and passed, instead going with Rask to the point that the body language seemed to indicate that Boston’s starter was frustrated with not getting more of a break (I would add, too, that Julien could have thrown Jeremy Smith into an NHL game later in the year but opted not to do that, either). The fact that no other NHL team was eager to line up for the Swede’s services after Boston informed him of their decision not to re-sign him tells you that the B’s coach is not the only one who wasn’t willing to invest in Svedberg, now playing in the KHL this year.

So, that brings us to the dawn of a new NHL season in Boston.

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

2. The view from here: Not much has changed in the state of Massachusetts since the team packed up their stuff and headed home after game 82. Rask is still the top man in net, entering the third of his eight-year, $56 million pact signed after the team’s run to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013. At 28, he is firmly in his prime and has a 2014 Vezina Trophy to go with his reputation as one of the NHL’s top workhorse netminders. Like Henrik Lundqvist, a Stanley Cup ring (as starter) still eludes him- he came oh-so-close against Chicago, but the Bruins have taken steps backwards since that first post-lockout postseason.

Rask played a career-best 70 games in 2015, and in the modern NHL, these athletes are physically capable of playing all 82 games, just as former Bruin Eddie Johnston was the last goalie in team history to play every minute of the Boston season (70 games, 4200 minutes in 1963-64), but physics and reality can be two different things. Rask numbers were down compared to his previous and personal best 2013-14 campaign, but plenty of NHL clubs would embrace a guy who posted 34 wins and a .922 save percentage despite having an offense in the bottom third and a defense that often played not to lose in front of him.

The questions that seed ongoing debates, however, is just because they *can* do it- *should* NHL teams entrust huge swathes of the regular season to just one player, then expect them to thrive in another potential of a maximum 28 games in the playoffs? What is the mental and emotional toll of playing so many games under the pressure-packed conditions that NHL goaltenders exist under? Some guys can handle and even thrive in that (see Brodeur, Martin) environment. Others, not as much. And- how effective the team in front of them is also factors into the equation as well.

Earlier this month, Rask told the Boston Globe this when asked about his 70 games last season and if it was too much:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2015/08/10/tuukka-rask-not-worried-about-his-workload-bruins-defense/FbOUF1PxG0QzHgvlAzkkTO/story.html

“No, not really. I don’t think you can put a number on it, but a lot of things depend on how tight the games are, how many games you play in a row, stuff like that.’’

“Last year happened to be 70. If it’s going to be like that, it’s going to be like that again. We’ll play it by ear.”

To those who would wave their hands dismissively over the concern about the number of games he’ll play in 2015-16, my response is- OF COURSE HE’S GOING TO SAY THAT! These players are professional athletes and competitors/type-A personalities! Furthermore, they also have a stake in not making public statements that would allow opponents to leverage that to an advantage against their own team. You can’t have it both ways, guys- you can’t question what players say when you don’t like what it is they are being quoted on, but then point to other things they say on the record with absolute certainty when it validates your own point of view. In other words, I would actually be critical of Rask had he come out and said “Yeah- I think 60 games is about my regular season limit and the team had better play great in front of me or the GM’s gonna have some work to do,” because you simply don’t admit weakness- even if that might constitute the proverbial elephant in the room. Rask played it exactly right, but whether he truly feels that way or not is something only he can answer and it won’t be in the Globe or anywhere else.

Rask gets criticized in some circles for not having won the big games for the B’s, but that is far too simplistic an argument to make and smacks of an agenda aimed at his cap hit. His $7 million AAV is a major bone of contention for fans who think the team can spend that money better elsewhere. The problem with that thinking is- just who, exactly, is going to replace Rask? It’s absurd to argue at this point in time (August 2015) that any one of Malcolm Subban, Zane McIntyre or Smith are up to the challenge of matching Rask’s production and trust. Which brings us back to the current situation: Tuukka Rask is Boston’s main man in net and still very much in the upper tier of NHL goalies at this stage of his career. Should any of the prospects emerge with the promise to stop pucks a the NHL level, Boston GM Don Sweeney will at least have some options to go back and evaluate Rask’s long-term viability with the team, but in all reality- trading an All-Star in his prime without anything less than a guaranteed return (not bloody likely) would be a fool’s errand.

The onus is on Julien and his staff to better balance Rask’s workload if they think that is the issue, but 10 shootout losses (the Bruins were actually 9-4 in OT during 4-on-4 play- a bright spot for them) a year ago says that what ails this team goes well beyond simply giving more starts to the backup.

3. Who’s No. 2?: As Yogi Berra said- it’s deja vu all over again. Boston is about to enter the season with a collective 31 minutes worth of NHL experience at the backup position split between Subban, McIntyre and Smith.

Subban survived a scoreless first 20 minutes against St. Louis in his NHL debut last year by facing only a handful of shots only to see things come unraveled in an 11-minute horror show in the second, resulting in Rask coming back in for relief. You can’t put that all on Subban, and a lot of ink has been spilled arguing that he would have been in a better position making his first start against the Edmonton Oilers a few nights earlier. Either way- Subban has the talent if not the pro experience to play in the NHL. The biggest issue with that is we’re talking about a soon-to-be 22-year-old who has yet to enjoy a run as starter at the AHL level. His statistical performances in the last two years with Providence are fine- indicative of being a first-round selection, but the one crack in the armor happens to be the number of games played. Last year, Subban was expected to take the No. 1 role and run with it, but it was the AHL journeyman Smith who ultimately earned Bruce Cassidy’s trust when the games mattered most.

Smith is back on the cheap with another 1-year contract. He played 39 games for Providence last season posting a highly impressive .933 save percentage. I actually saw him live in one of his worst performances (neither he nor Jeff Zatkoff had a good night in net) and although he gave up several softies in the first 40 minutes that had the Dunk Center crowd gasping in frustration, he slammed the door home in the final 10 minutes, making multiple scintillating saves before Alex Khokhlachev won the game in the final 180 seconds. Sometimes, we have to remember that way back in 2007, Smith was a top-60 NHL draft selection, so it’s not like he’s a nobody. At age 25, he looked like someone who was never going to reach the NHL, but one year later, my guess is- he’ll see time in Boston if nothing else changes. What he does with that time, however, is anyone’s guess.

Having said all of that- aren’t the B’s doing exactly what they did a year ago with Svedberg, who had started just one NHL game?

If I have to choose today the best option between the three goalies not named Rask currently under contract, Smith makes the most sense to be the team’s backup on opening night. But, I also believe the team is risking more of the same in terms of a heavy workload for Rask and very little in the way of a safety net should he get injured at all. For those reasons, I cannot imagine them going into the new season without someone like Jonas Gustvasson or Ray Emery or even Viktor Fasth on an NHL deal to build a little risk mitigation into the equation. If you just threw up a little in your mouth at that last sentence- I hear you. But this team has too much invested in the roster to simply throw caution to the wind and trust the youngsters at this point.

Subban is the most talented of the signed backup candidates, but sitting him on the bench for extended periods in lieu of forcing him to hone his technique and build up experience by establishing himself as a No. 1 at the AHL level would be a mistake. Ditto McIntyre, who doesn’t even have a pro body of work to reference. Does anyone really think that it benefits him to sit and watch most nights when Rask is taking the net and then expecting him to thrive when he goes in every fourth or fifth game? Just because he has the mental toughness and character to possibly do it doesn’t mean that he should. Finally- Smith has to be put on waivers to go down. What if…when the Bruins decided hypothetically to go with one of the kids to start the year, another team lost a goalie to injury and claims Smith away from Boston? It’s happened to Boston before and the results weren’t pretty. If you can remember the 2000-01 season when the B’s were forced to run with Andrew Raycroft and Kay Whitmore (all because Buffalo claimed the immortal Peter Skudra on waivers) in tandem, you get a gold star. That team, too, barely missed the playoffs and would have had a different fate had Byron Dafoe and John Grahame been available the whole year.

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Malcolm Subban (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

4. Looking to the future: Between Subban and McIntyre, the B’s have two promising young prospects. But that’s what they are right now…prospects. This team, as currently constructed, is hard-pressed to make the playoffs let alone contend, so there is little upside to forcing either player into the 2015-16 lineup unless injuries or their own play at the lower level gives the team no choice.

McIntyre will play in the NHL one day. He’s got the right mix of talent and heart. But that day is not today, in my view. There’s a lot he can learn in the AHL, and while he undoubtedly would love to make the Bruins out of camp, he’s better served seeing some time at the pro level outside of the NHL pressure cooker. For now. But just because I think he should apprentice in the AHL first does not mean he won’t go all the way. I believe he’s got “it”- all things in good time.

I like the Daniel Vladar pick in the third round this past June, but I don’t love it. He’s the epitome of what NHL clubs are trending to: massive (6-5), athletic/toolsy guys in net that give shooters very little to hit other than their oversized bodies and long limbs. The problem with Vladar right now is that technique-wise he’s a hot mess…he’s inconsistent with his stance and positioning, lets in more than a few goals that go through him- hit a portion of his body/equipment but still squeak by (coaches hate that, btw), gets real scrambly at times with his play and I’m not sure about the mental toughness yet. He’s as raw as they come, but make no mistake- he’s got the things you can’t teach, so why not? He was a solid value where the Bruins took him, so no issues on that front. Like McIntyre in 2010, he’s a long way off from being NHL ready. Vladar is playing in the USHL this year and will either go the NCAA route or probably play in one of the major junior leagues next season.

So in getting back to Subban and especially McIntyre, people love to talk about the shiny new toy, but the Bruins have an obligation to cultivate and protect their assets, too. Rushing goaltenders into primetime before they are ready, no matter how much they’ve accomplished in junior or the NCAA, rarely bears fruit. There’s a time and place for it, and even Rask, who spent two full seasons in the AHL and this despite the fact that he was playing a near AHL-equivalent level in the Finnish pro league for two more years before he crossed the Atlantic, didn’t jump right in, and he had to work with Tim Thomas and spend a good deal of time sitting on the bench before he became the team’s true No. 1. That’s how it should work in most cases, and when fans apply that “fast food” mentality to goalies (Gotta have it hot and right now!), it’s not really the way the world works.

Zane McIntyre and Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zane McIntyre and Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

5. The verdict: Some 2,500 words later we’re back to a basic truism: you cannot win a hockey game if you don’t score any goals.

Rask will give the Bruins a chance to win every night. Unfortunately, for those who fear the team being not good enough to make the playoffs let alone contend for a Stanley Cup but being too good to finish in the basement where the Connor McDavid types (how long before we see another one like him?) fall into their laps, Rask brings little solace. He’s kind of like an in-his-prime Sean Burke, whose at times brilliance on some very mediocre Hartford Whalers teams in the early-to-mid 90’s is one of the forgotten story lines of that era. Those Whalers teams couldn’t make the playoffs, but they were on the close-but-no-cigar side of the spectrum so aside from Chris Pronger in 1993 (Burke’s worst year in the Insurance Capital), they could not build through the draft (trading their 1st rounders from 1995-97 to Boston for Glen Wesley didn’t exactly help either).

Watch for the makeup of Boston’s goalie group to change before camp opens up- the team will sign someone on the cheap with NHL experience to provide competition and see how things shake out. If Smith is lights out, then maybe he earns the job, but as it stands right now, there are far more questions than answers with the No. 2.

The Bruins have a winner in net, but without a quality supporting cast up front, and a capable backup the coach trusts to give the workhorse some meaningful rest throughout the marathon of a hockey season,we’ll see history repeating itself in Boston this year. Unless something changes- even when on top of his game, Rask is not enough to make the B’s more than they are: a middle-of-the-pack, bubble club to make the 2016 playoffs.

(Thanks to Ali Foley for permission to use her photos in this post)

Summer cooler interview series 2: Torey Krug pt. 1

The summer cooler interview series rolls on and Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug took time out on a Tuesday night to chat about a lot of different topics as the 2015-16 NHL season draws closer.

The former Michigan State Spartans captain signed with the Bruins as a free agent in the spring of 2012 and took the 2013 playoffs by storm when he found his way into the Boston lineup agains the New York Rangers in the second round, then never relinquished his spot in the NHL lineup.

He enters the new season on a mission to capture a top-4 spot in Boston’s rotation where he will have to play upwards of 20 minutes per night in an expanded role, but if anyone has paid attention to the way Krug has proven his critics wrong over the years, he’ll not only pull it off, but surprise a lot of people along the way.

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison Foley

Torey Krug, David Krejci and Tommy Cross at training camp. Photo by Alison M. Foley

Here is the transcript from my complete and unedited interview with Torey. Because it’s so long, I’m going to break it up into several posts, so I won’t lose people in the length. His answers are typical of what folks who have covered the Bruins and Krug know to be the case with him- he provides detailed, thoughtful answers to the questions you pose to him.

So, without further ado- here’s part 1 of the Torey Krug interview, where he talks about his off-season, his mindset after missing the NHL playoffs for the first time in his career, how the trades of his close friend Milan Lucic and fellow defenseman Dougie Hamilton have affected him, and how he expects to compete for…and earn…a spot in the top-4 come October.

***

Scouting Post: We’re in August and before we know it- it’ll be time for Boston Bruins training camp and the veterans to report, so can you bring the fans up to speed on what you’ve been up to since the 2014-15 NHL season ended?

Torey Krug: Yeah- I’ve been gearing up for this season and it’s a slow process with how much time we’ve had this offseason- it’s a little bit more time than we’re used to after missing the playoffs last year. That obviously strikes up a hunger for me to get back on the ice surface and play with my teammates, but when the season ended I was able to continue playing for Team USA in the World Championships (held in Austria).

That was a great experience for me not only being on the ice playing against other teams’ top lines- the likes of Alex Ovechkin and others- but off the ice it was a great experience- my first time ever to Europe. Being a part of USA Hockey was an important experience for me because I had never represented my country and I was able to take a little vacation with my wife after that tournament wound down and it was overall just a great experience.

I took a little bit of time off after that tournament to enjoy myself, relax and recharge those competitive batteries because you’ve been in the competitive world for so long. Then, the training starts and there’s multiple phases throughout the summer where you make sure you start gearing up so that you make sure you don’t peak at training camp. I think that’s a common misconception- a lot of guys want to peak at training camp to make sure they give a good impression but the way I have been taught to train is to make sure I peak when the time is right later in the season. So, it’s just been a solid progression: lifting weights, starting to skate three, four times a week now in August, and I’ll make my way to Michigan State next week for a training camp that they invite all the alumni back for and put together, so it’s been a very long summer and I’m looking forward to getting back on the ice with my Bruins teammates.

SP: Let’s go back- because you made the team in earnest during the 2013 playoff run and it was a memorable debut for you. Then, your first full season in the NHL was a President’s Trophy campaign- disappointing outcome in the second round of the playoffs that year, but this is the first time as a pro where you didn’t make the playoffs. What was your mindset as you did the exit interviews to pack up and head home for the summer and what will be important for the Bruins as a team to get off on a better footing this year?

TK: To be honest, it’s extremely disappointing. The group that we had- we obviously lost a few key pieces from our President’s Trophy-winning campaign, but when you really look at it the core group of guys- we still have them to day even though we subtracted Dougie (Hamilton) or Looch (Milan Lucic)- we still have that core group here, so it’s really disappointing to miss the playoffs last year.

What it does do is it builds your appreciation for how hard it is to not only get into the playoffs but to win the Stanley Cup. I was very blessed and fortunate to play in the Stanley Cup finals my first run and you can take it for granted how hard it is to get there and how hard it is to compete in the playoffs, so I think no one wants to say at the time it happens, but it might be a good thing that this team- the core group of guys- goes through this together because it’s an emotional experience and you realize that you can’t take things for granted and you have to really work for what you earn.

I think heading into the offseason it was to mentally prepare yourself for what’s to come. You watch the playoff games and you realize how hard it is- how you have to earn every single inch of ice that you get out there- how hard it is to score goals…it’s a learning experience. Everything you do you try to learn from, so even if there’s bad situations like missing the playoffs and Peter Chiarelli gets fired and people are getting traded, guys are getting moved- you’re always learning and I think that’s an important thing for this group and I know we’re not taking it for granted anymore.

SP: You’re not a rookie anymore and are no stranger to trades and changes with your team in Boston, but the trades for Hamilton and Lucic happened within the span of a few hours, so can you take the fans through where you were at the time and how that played out? What were your initial reactions and where are you now that it’s sunk in that you have new teammates that you’re getting ready to play with for the first time?

TK: Well, it surprised me. I think anytime you hear teammates’ names in the media, you realize it’s a possibility that guys are going to get moved and nothing really sinks in until they are actually traded.

I was sitting in my living room watching draft day unfold and watching (Don Sweeney) do his thing and Milan Lucic is one of my best friends- I talk to him every single day and there’s literally not a day that goes by that we don’t reach out to each other and chat so it was a tough one. My wife and I spent every holiday at their house and a lot of Sunday football days at his house…it’s tough to see friends go. But that’s the nature of the business and I know that’s something that a lot of people say, and it’s tough for fans to understand how big of a change it is for these people and their families to pick up their kids. Milan and his wife have roots (in Boston) and have been here for eight years. It’s tough. At the same  time, it’s exciting for him to be able to go to a new situation. Being on the other side of that, it’s disappointing to watch your friends go, but it’s an opportunity for new people to come in; you get to meet new people, new teammates…you get to gain a new experience that way.

With Dougie leaving it opens up a hole for me within the team and obviously other players as well- there’s a lot of ice time that needs to be made up with his absence. With guys leaving and guys coming and going and everything else there’s a lot to take in, and it’s hard sometimes for the everyday fan to see that.

SP: That’s a great segue because I was going to ask you about the recent Boston Globe article kind of laying out what might be next for you in terms of your role on the Boston Bruins. As you said it- Dougie Hamilton is gone and there’s a spot in the top-4- you wouldn’t be who you are if you weren’t eyeing that. Can you talk about what it means to have that kind of a role in the NHL and based on your past teams where you played a lot of minutes for other clubs, what you bring to the table for the Boston Bruins?

TK: I can tell you that defensemen that play a lot of minutes are very well respected and highly appreciated on teams. With Johnny Boychuk moving and the valuable minutes he played and the valuable role on our team that he played and then you see that when he’s gone how it works out and you really appreciate the job that these guys do.

So, for me- as a hockey player that’s trying to move up and improve his role, you realize what a big deal it is. Dougie leaving…a friend is leaving the team…but I just see it as an opportunity and I hope that the other defensemen that are with the organization, whether they’re fighting to make the team or they’re trying to improve their role on the team- I hope everybody’s getting excited about that. It creates better competition within the group and it’s only going to make myself better so I hope guys’ eyes light up like mine do when I see that opportunity, and I’m really looking forward to going out and earning it.

I don’t think anything is given to anybody on our team. The guys that are coming in like myself trying to improve their roles in the organization, we earn those. So for me it’s about going out and earning this opportunity and making sure nobody takes it away from me. All of this comes as Sweens and Claude (Julien) are going to make those  decisions and I’m going to do everything I can make sure they are making a decision that best fits.

***

We’ll be back later this evening with the second part of the interview, as Krug will expand on how he’s had to earn it at every stop along the way before Boston, he’ll answer the critics who don’t think he has it in him to be a top-4 NHL defenseman, talks more about teammate and defense partner Adam McQuaid, the  2016 Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium and the influence his family has had on his success.

(H/T and thanks to Alison Foley for providing the above image and  some others from her collection to this blog)

Scouting Post Dispatches- Twitter mailbag #1

I want to thank everyone who submitted questions to me for the first edition of the electronic mailbag of questions. If you want to participate in this effort that we’ll do every two weeks or so, shoot your question to my Twitter account @kluedeke29 or use the comment feature on the blog itself to make your query.

1. Who is leading in the race for backup goalie and how short will their leash be?- Tyler @tylerbingham123

As a former beer league goalie, I’ll give this one a shot.

The current backup situation invites a lot of risk in my view. On paper, Jeremy Smith makes a lot of sense because of his low cap hit and the fact that the Bruins can afford to let him sit for long periods while Tuukka Rask makes a lot of starts. Smith was the most dependable option in net last year in the AHL, but that’s also the issue with him- he has no NHL experience, which essentially puts them right back to square 1 where they were a year ago when they gambled on a similarly inexperienced Niklas Svedberg to be the No. 2.

Some might point to the idea that Svedberg was a serviceable player who was poorly used, but the bottom line is that Claude Julien had very little confidence in him. There are compelling statistical arguments that Svedberg wasn’t utilized properly, but be that as it may- a good backup goaltender enjoys the trust of the coach and team to spell the starter in a lot of different situations. That Julien seemed almost perversely unwilling to use Svedberg when it appeared Rask needed a break the most is beside the point if you believe that going to the well with Rask repeatedly cost the Bruins a playoff spot in 2015. Part of what helped the Bruins earn the President’s Trophy the season before had to do with backup Chad Johnson and Julien’s willingness to give him starts and ease the starter’s burden. Johnson can’t be a starter in this league, but he was an effective backup in his one season with the B’s.

The question becomes- will Smith find himself in a similar predicament to Svedberg? Can the Bruins afford to have a repeat of last spring, when Rask went on a hockey-like death march of consecutive starts without rest because the head coach was not willing to put the backup in? This is the same kind of scenario the Bruins are inviting with Smith and Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre as well- all three are capable options on paper, but none are established NHL players- with Subban alone of the trio even having seen a minute of big league action.

On Subban- I just feel he’s better off playing his way into a more prominent role in the AHL with Providence while McIntyre apprentices behind him. Heck- McIntyre might even wrest more starts away from him like Smith did a year ago, but as fine a goalie as Zane looks like coming out of college as the NCAA’s top goalie last season, he’s still in his very first pro year. Expecting him to just go right to the NHL and then have to sit behind Rask most nights is not a realistic option in my view.

So- I think Smith makes the most sense as B’s backup as of July 31, but I still think the team will look to add someone with more of an NHL body of work, either as a bargain bin signing or training camp invite with the option to sign before the season if the coaches feel good about him. Who that is at this point is anyone’s guess- I thought Jason LaBarbera would be someone to fit the bill, but the best of the free agents are gone, so the team might just feel like going with Smith or one of the other kids depending on things go at camp and preseason is the best option. We’ll see, but I’m a believer that younger guys like Subban and McIntyre are best served by playing and not spending the bulk of their time opening and closing the door to the bench for their NHL teammates. We’ll see.

2. If Koko pushes Spooner out of 3C job, what happens with the two of them? Leave Spooner there and try Koko on wing? Jbench @jacobbench

The short answer to this question is that I don’t see Alexander Khokhlachev beating Ryan Spooner out of the 3C job anytime soon.

At this point, Spooner has done a lot to earn Claude Julien’s trust as someone who has grown up a lot over the years he’s been in the organization and finally started putting the offense together when the team needed it the most. Koko needs to prove he can do the basic things the team expects of him, so until that happens, it does no real good to fret over what to do. I will say that Koko is probably better suited to transition to wing and be effective there, and if he’s going to break camp and enter the 2015-16 on the NHL roster, that’s probably his best chance to do it unless Spooner gets hurt or plays so poorly against a lights-out showing from Koko.

That’s not impossible, but  it is a tall order. I think Koko fell victim to the hype machine that often occurs in the internet age- he simply wasn’t ready to compete for NHL time at 18, but that didn’t stop overzealous fans and analysts like myself from being dazzled by his offensive talent and overlooking the glaring defensive deficiencies in his game. He’s come a long way since 2011, but the team tried to trade him in the past and you can’t overlook that. If he is as valuable to the Bruins as he is on Twitter to a select group of folks- he would not have been in play. It’s the old adage that says if they traded you once- they’ll do it again. It would be great for Koko to establish himself as a Bruin, but as far as trade-worthy commodities go, he’s one of the few pieces that could fetch something of value right now.

3. Where do you see Mark Jankowski projecting to in an NHL lineup? Thoughts on John Gilmour as well please Nigel @red_monster

Jankowski still has top-six  NHL forward potential in my mind, and he was really starting to come on when Providence College needed him to. With an earlier-than-projected draft position comes high expectations, so I believe realistically, if he makes it in Calgary it will be more of a third-line center role. When you look at who is ahead of him on the depth chart, third line duty with the Flames would be a win for him and the team.  I do like that there is still room for growth and development with him, even if he’s fallen short of some of the lofty goals envisioned of him three years ago with his pure points and production, which has admittedly not been what everyone was hoping for. He’ll have to continue to get stronger and play heavier if he’s going to make it in Calgary, though.

Gilmour has the makings of a serviceable pro who is going to have to put in the work at the lower levels. He has good all around ability, but because he has less-than-ideal size for the position, he’ll have his work cut out for him. I personally think Gilmour is a journeyman big leaguer/solid AHL player at best, but I love it when players prove prognosticators wrong. He’s a winner, and if he uses that as a springboard to bigger things, more power to him.

What Bruins dman is most likely to slot alongside Chara? Greg Babbitt @babbitt_greg

Barring a change, I could see the team trying big Zach Trotman there to see if it can work. He lacks experience, but showed big league ability in flashes last season and if he keeps things simple, his mobility and long reach would make for a solid defensive partner. He’s a right shot and while not a physical, snarly kind of player, with more experience and the benefit of skating next to one of the game’s all-time greats much like young Kyle McLaren did with Ray Bourque two decades ago, Trotman might be a quiet but effective internal solution to that which has vexed the Bruins since Johnny Boychuk was sent to Long Island…kind of like what happened in 2009 when Johnny Rocket came to town and established himself as an NHL defenseman when some had all but written him off.

If the Bruins want to infuse more offense with Chara, then Colin Miller also makes sense there. He doesn’t have a lick of NHL experience, but he skates extremely well, would add another right-shot, howitzer cannon from the point, and seems to be a player who would thrive next to Boston’s captain, especially on the power play. He’s not as big as Trotman, and his hockey sense is a bit of a question mark right now, but Miller could be the one who takes that top pairing job if not on opening night, but perhaps as the season progresses.

Assuming Miller plays for the Bruins this season (I believe he will) the Barry Pederson for Cam Neely trade will continue for Boston into a third decade as the Glen Wesley-Sergei Samsonov-Milan Lucic branch continues to bear fruit.

4. I’d like to see Hamilton/Saad stick with their teams for longer. But do scouts think the current model is bad for development?- brimcq @mcqbri

It’s not something I’ve discussed with scouts or management types to be honest, but it makes for an intriguing topic.

Ever since the league instituted cost certainty- the salary cap- in 2005, we’ve seen the game’s economic landscape evolve over several trend lines. For a while, it was long-term frontloaded deals that allowed for teams to bury or move them at short money later on. Now, it’s the dissipation of second or bridge contracts for key performers coming out of entry-level contracts or ELCs in favor of significant dollars- those used to be reserved for top tier talents, but I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift with players like Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad whose cap-crunched teams are either forced to move them or the player is able to leverage the lack of cap flexibility for a change of address. This drives the talk of the NHL’s middle class getting squeezed, which is becoming more and more prevalent as clubs will have bigger ticket contracts and then have to rely on cheaper ELCs or bargain basement deals with little room for the middle ground/solid veteran types who typically clock in at around $3-4M a the current (and rising) market rate.

Hockey is a business- it always has been. But the days where owners and teams held the cards are long gone, so I think that teams and players/their representatives will continue to evolve with each emerging economic trend. I don’t blame Hamilton for seeking a situation he thought would be better for him, and in Saad’s case, they made a decision that they could not afford him at the going rate- that was a tough business decision that more and more teams will have to make if things continue. But, both situations have jolted teams and fans alike into the realization that you can’t simply assume restricted free agents will remain all that restricted for long depending on a team’s salary structure and how much they have invested in the veterans.

At some point- you wonder if the ever-rising salaries and the kabuki dances teams go through to stay cap compliant will kill the golden goose and force a seismic sea change, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. With the Bruins prospect pool now overflowing who would be consider the 5 untouchables in the organization.- Mike O’Connor @mike77ca

The Bruins have quantity in their system for sure. The quality of the prospects is very much up for debate, however so it will be interesting to see how the 10 picks from 2015 plus the others from previous years perform and develop in the new season.

I don’t know that when it comes to prospects there is ever truly an “untouchable” because if another team is willing to pay a king’s ransom for an unproven player, I believe a savvy GM will often times make that deal. Of course- that position is becoming tougher to defend for the precise reasons I explained above as economics and the importance of landing impact players on 3-year (max) ELCs becomes ever more critical for teams who want to win the Stanley Cup. It’s hard to imagine the Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres parting with either one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel for any offer given that reasoning, but I do believe that GMs have to at least listen and think hard about a team that comes in with high-end NHL players to offer, not the proverbial two dimes and a nickel for a shiny quarter kind of trade. In the end, the money and cap play much bigger roles than ever before.

The Bruins don’t have a McDavid or Eichel so to speak, so their situation is different. I’ll take a stab at it and offer these three players up in an effort to answer your question:

1. Danton Heinen, LW Denver U.- I have it from several sources that the one name teams asked about repeatedly at last winter’s deadline was the 2014 fourth-rounder who finished as the NCAA’s third leading freshman scorer. He may not have ideal size or speed, but his hands and hockey sense are top-shelf. As a late bloomer, Heinen has the look and feel of a classic diamond-in-the-rough who is going to one day play very well for the Bruins, so unless a team wants to give up the moon and stars for him, don’t expect him to go anywhere. His upside will also likely drive the team to court him to come out of school earlier because ELC term and CBA loopholes will force them to act.

2. Zane McIntyre, G Providence- The B’s are all-in on this kid, and he showed loyalty to them by not exploiting free agency to get the biggest money or a better opportunity to start elsewhere. Now, folks will say there is no room for sentiment in pro sports and they’re right, but I just feel like that Bruins are sold on the soon-to-be 23-year-old’s potential, character and all-around ability. They want him to be a part of the organization, so unless a team comes in to blow their doors off with an offer, he’s as close to untouchable as you will get. Besides, unproven non-NHL goalies don’t tend to fetch enough of a return from teams to make dealing him at this point worth the effort.

3. Jakub Zboril, D Saint John- He’s the top pick, he’s signed and the Bruins think he is going to be a future top-2 defender for them. Both Don Sweeney and Scott Bradley used the word “elite” to describe his ability, so you can be sure the B’s had him higher on their list than the 13th spot where they took him. They’re not going to turn around and flip him without seeing if all that potential they’re banking on starts to pay off for them. You can almost throw Zach Senyshyn into this same category as well- they have a lot riding on him and want to prove that he was worth the risk they took by grabbing him in the top-15. It’s hard to imagine a team coming in to offer the Bruins a top-6 NHL forward for a raw prospect like Senyshyn, so they’ll sit back and see if their gut instincts about him are proven correct.

That does it for this first edition- thanks to everyone that submitted questions and I hope we can do this again in a couple of weeks. You can follow me on Twitter at @kluedeke29