What D? The elephant in the room for the Bruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s legit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

3 Amigos Podcast: the Free Agency edition

The 3 Amigos ride again!

Dom, Reed and I are back with our 3rd podcast together, recapping the 1st week of NHL free agency with a decided Boston bent, covering David Backes, Anton Khudobin, Riley Nash, Tim Schaller and Alex Grant to name a few. Dom will tell you why he thinks Khudobin for two years, beyond the solid addition of a proven backup, has key implications for Malcolm Subban not getting snapped up in the expansion draft.

We also issue a Danger, Will Robinson! alert to fans of the Edmonton Oilers as we look at the impacts of recent signing and additions to that club’s cap picture and we see some eerie parallels to how it all came unraveled in Boston.

We also discuss (about 55 minutes in) the Bruins and Don Sweeney’s still pending move to upgrade the NHL talent on defense- that kind of a move to shore up the club’s right-shooting depth chart has been curiously lacking. Dom mentions an interesting name with Ontario connections and Reed has had plenty of looks and shares his thoughts on why this particular player (an RFA) might be a stealth target of the Bruins via trade.

All in all, it’s a little over 90 minutes of hockey talk, unvarnished and calling it like we see it. Ole!

In Backes aftermath, the Bruins still need a D

Your Scouting Post founder was on 98.5 today with Hardy and Chris Gasper (great guys who know how to ask the right questions, I would add- always love talking hockey with them) and the subject of the Boston Bruins’ elephant in the room- the clear and present need to upgrade the defense naturally came up.

To paraphrase- I talked about a “bridge” D- someone young and talented enough to help grow the team while recognizing that Don Sweeney is not going to be able to likely find a true heir apparent to Zdeno Chara via trade. We now know that Sweeney was trying hard last winter to wrangle Blues veteran and former BU star Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis in an aborted deal involving Loui Eriksson and the San Jose 1st-rounder that went from 18th to 29th (the B’s chose USA center Trent Frederic with it after finding no takers at the 2016 draft).

(Audio file courtesy of 98.5 the Sports Hub)

(EDIT- I mentioned Ryan Spooner as a possible “tradable commodity”- I am *not* advocating Spooner be moved at all. I responded to a direct question about the possibility of David Krejci being dealt and responded with my reasoning as to why that is less of a possibility. TSP has been and will continue to be a supporter of Spooner’s as a player who has the modern NHL skill set and has grown immeasurably since Boston drafted him in 2010. However, in order to get you must give and the Bruins’ cupboards aren’t overflowing whenever it comes to enticing assets to trade with. That’s reality.)

With Backes and Troy Brouwer now gone, Shattenkirk probably stays in St. Louis (and I suspect there are some hurt feelings that the B’s snaked Backes with a big-ticket offer the cap-strapped Blues had no chance to match), but Sweeney could strike gold via trade if he can figure out a way to get Jacob Trouba in the fold, for example- Trouba showed enormous promise but his play has fallen off, constituting risk. At the same time- you can do much worse than a physical, skilled specimen in his early 20’s like Trouba. It won’t be cheap, but with David Backes on board the Bruins freight train (it’s certainly not a bullet-speed train, is it?), Sweeney has more trade options available to him than he did yesterday, even if the leverage is debatable. Trouba is just one example- the B’s are undoubtedly looking at other options that might not only be that “bridge” but potentially a talent that could eventually evolve into a star. To say nothing of the impressive crop of recent Boston draft picks who are several years away yet, but could give the team the relief it seeks at the position. The problem with trading for such a promising talent is in the cost, and that’s a drum Sweeney has been beating for some time now. Or more succinctly- it takes two to tango.

“There’s not a level of disappointment,” Sweeney said about his quest for upgrading the defense in Friday’s media conference call to announce Backes and the other signings on day 1 of the NHL’s open hiring period. “If deals don’t materialize you guys both understand the types of players that were exchanged and the quality of players in the last few days. Things have to line up. People do not want to part with those types of players.”

There was talk of an offer sheet (James Murphy and Joe Haggerty doing the initial reporting) potentially being prepared for a defenseman in the days leading up to July 1. My good friend and hockey savant Dom Tiano, who is pretty well connected himself, confirmed hearing similar chatter and was tipped that the team was preparing a buyout in advance. That domino fell with Thursday’s Dennis Seidenberg announcement, which led to the Torey Krug four-year extension. But in our Thursday “3 Amigos” podcast with Dom and Reed Duthie of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs (such a passionate, articulate and informed hockey mind!) Tiano brought up the key point that the buyout was not there (as offered up by former Bruins D turned hockey analyst Aaron Ward) to give flexibility to sign Krug- the B’s had plenty of space to do that all along.

What gets interesting is that the *assumption* (and what’s the old saying about what those do to ‘u’ and ‘me’?) was that Trouba would be an offer sheet target. Entirely plausible…but that was never firmly established.

Now, the thing about offer sheeting anyone is that it is a strategy that invites anger and delayed retaliation. In the gentleman’s NHL, signing to someone to an offer sheet isn’t just burning the bridge…it’s detonating a copious amount of C4 explosive to annihilate it…leaving no trace behind. At the same time- offer sheets have been done in the past with mixed results. The Bruins were reportedly trying to re-acquire the pick they dealt to New Jersey Devils (for the now Carolina Hurricane Lee Stempniak) or the third-rounder Sweeney foolishly peddled to Philly for Zac Rinaldo (can’t defend it, folks- sorry) to give the B’s the kind of flexibility on an offer sheet to avoid paying max cost and the four 1st-rounders (Dom covers this on the podcast, so if you haven’t listened yet, what are you waiting for?)

What does this all mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but there’s chatter that the B’s are looking at moving Adam McQuaid (he and Kevan Miller are redundant for what they provide, but that cap hit on both contracts is anything but redundant- something’s gotta give) and we can’t think Sweeney is finished with shaping his defense.

Let’s go back to Sweeney and more of his comments about the defense yesterday:

“We’ve set a course here to identify some areas that we needed to strengthen,” he said.  “And the last, you know, for the last year, we’re almost to a year on the job here for myself and the number of young players, in particular in defense and some of the center positions that we’ve added, will complement the young players of skill that we have on the wings. And you have to exercise some patience in this regard.

“These players don’t just grow up overnight and turn into NHL players. And we’re going to have to exercise patience, you know. Our group as it stands has a balance to it with hardness of [Zdeno] Chara and Kevan Miller and [Adam] McQuaid. [John-Michael] Liles brings a veteran savvyness that he can play with Colin Miller. Joe Morrow is an emerging player and Torey [Krug], we’re very happy to have him signed. You know that being said, we have other young players in the pipeline that are going to be welcoming an opportunity and we have to at some point in time continue to provide that and let them step up. Will it stop me from pursuing having conversations that I’ve maybe planted seeds or whatever? But again it’s going to take…you know there’s a high acquisition cost for these types of players and I think you’re better served to identify them, grow them and put them in the lineup when they’re ready to play.”

The cynics and skeptics will focus on the last sentence and say that Sweeney is hedging his bets and allowing for the possibility that he won’t be able to get anything done trade-wise. My gut says that as a former 1000+ game NHL defenseman, Sweeney knows his group is in the hurt box without at least one substantial add.

Offer sheet? Trade? I believe that the trade route is far preferable to blasting the bridge he will no doubt incur if Boston goes down that road. The threat of an offer sheet might be enough to get a GM to the table to take Sweeney’s offer more seriously. Hey- if nothing else- we can at least opine that the B’s GM speaks from experience. Whether true or not, that was the talk surrounding the hasty decision to move Dougie Hamilton at the 2015 NHL draft for futures.

I don’t have the answers, but there is certainly an element of fans and observers who are sharpening their knives because of a lack of movement on defense yesterday. Understandable. However, training camp doesn’t open until mid-September, so I would offer up the idea that a little more patience wouldn’t hurt. Ultimately, whether you are pessimistic because the B’s opted to bring in an experienced but aging forward in lieu of finding a way to get a key piece on D, or you are a little more optimistic because Backes gives him insurance and options, we can probably all agree that Sweeney isn’t finished.

Whether his next big move will be seen as an “a-ha!” moment after a series of transactions fell in place to set it up, or it will be more of a “I can’t believe they just (bleeping) did that!” remains to be seen.

What we do know is that right, wrong or indifferent- the Bruins are adding pieces that address what the club’s leadership said was the direction they wanted to go in. We’ll all have to see if they have it right or whether the B’s are headed for rougher oceans ahead.

“I think (our team) has the ability to play in all three zones,” Sweeney said.  “For our standpoint, Riley Nash, you look at possession, you look at versatility to play both center, wing, PK, go up and down the lineup. We’ve still got other young players that I mentioned that are going to be given opportunities in these roles. We need to do a better job. Once we get pucks into the offensive zone, being able to withstand that cycle game and possession, it’s not just going to be about off the rush.

“Albeit, we have skill coming that is going to complement this group and play a little faster pace, that we have balance on the back end that we’re building in depth there. I think that you have to be prepared to play, have an identity, which we will, play a 200-foot game.”