2006: Turning Point

Brad_Marchand

Brad Marchand is the team’s top LW period. End of story. (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

(This is a re-worked and updated story done for the New England Hockey Journal in 2011- KL)

If ever there was a year that altered an NHL franchise’s destiny, 2006 was the pivotal one for the Boston Bruins as we look back nearly a decade-and-a-half later.

As the calendar flipped over to January 2006, the post-lockout campaign was a disaster.

Already, the team traded its captain and 1997 first overall pick Joe Thornton. Soon, it would fire GM Mike O’Connell and head coach Mike Sullivan. The B’s finished out of the playoffs with the fifth-worst record. Free agent signings supposed to help put the B’s in contention like Alexei Zhamnov and Dave Scatchard were complete busts, with a grand total of 40 games and five goals in Boston between them.

The franchise had stumbled badly in a decade since the bottoming-out of 1997 that had netted Thornton and Sergei Samsonov. That new era that began with so much promise when the latter took NHL Rookie of the Year honors and the late Pat Burns helped lead the B’s back to the postseason in 1998 was about to be officially done when Samsonov was dealt to Edmonton at the trade deadline in a few weeks. Although few realized it in 2006, a series of critical trades, hires, signings and events paved the way for Boston to become a championship city once again.

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Oil change- Benning to Edmonton & other musings

Today’s news made official what had been rumored for a while now- that former Bruins prospect defender Matt Benning has signed an Entry-Level Contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

Benning inked a deal with the team his dad, Brian, played for (albeit very briefly) and with the GM who drafted him in 2012- Peter Chiarelli.

The younger Benning, nephew of former B’s assistant GM now Vancouver head manager Jim Benning, was a solid if unspectacular player who showed some promise as a lower-end defender with some untapped potential.

Matt Benning doesn’t have much in the way of size, but like Noel Acciari, he hits hard and clean, separating opponents from the puck but not taking himself out of plays or hurting his team with undisciplined, selfish antics. Benning is a good puck distributor; not blessed with a killer shot, it was nonetheless pretty heavy, and he showed progression in his offensive game. Where Benning really established his value was with his smart, effective positional play.

So, while he wasn’t a higher-end prospect who spent a lot of time at the top of Boston’s prospect depth chart for defense, he has a shot at developing into a solid role player at the NHL level given his smarts and bloodlines.

Now, how & why did this happen? To put it simply- Benning took the Blake Wheeler option.

The NHL’s CBA stipulates that a non-major junior player’s rights are held for four years after the team drafts him. That doesn’t include NCAA eligibility, so if a player is drafted in 2012, plays a year of junior hockey before going to school, he can either play all four years in college, which extends his team’s hold on him, or if he turns pro at anytime after that four-year mark, the team must sign him within 30 days of his formal relinquishment of any remaining college eligibility or he becomes a free agent.

So, like Wheeler, Benning came out of school after three years and left NCAA time on the table, but because he spent a full year in the USHL (winning a championship with the Dubuque Fighting Saints- a team Chiarelli had part ownership in at the time and still might to this day), was able to leverage free agency to go wherever he felt was the best fit for him. It’s not about loyalty- it’s about using the tools at one’s own disposal to choose a preferred destination, which is not something every player is able to benefit from.

According to veteran ProJo hockey writer Mark Divver, who had talks with a Bruins source, the B’s wanted Benning to return for his senior year and would have signed him next spring, but to the kid’s credit, he probably looked around, saw all the younger defensemen in the system, and realized that cracking the Boston roster would be a tough sell. Now, some will ask why the Bruins couldn’t just trade him for something, but this isn’t Jimmy Vesey we’re talking about here, so there’s little chance any team would offer so much as a seventh-round pick for a guy who may or may not sign there a month after he notifies the NHL that he’s leaving school (which is what Benning did), when they could just wait Boston out and make their pitch for Benning like anyone else. Given his history with Chiarelli, it isn’t all that surprising that he ended up in Edmonton, though.

TSP had time for Benning- he was lost in the sauce a bit here, but was a solid player for a sixth-round pick and it wouldn’t surprise to see him establish himself in the NHL as a role guy at some point. Or not. Even with expansion looming, breaking into the top hockey circuit is a tough racket- here’s to wishing Benning the best. He leveraged his options as the CBA allows and Boston has plenty of other players to focus on.

You can’t sign ’em all. Here’s to Benning finding his way out West- he’ll attract some attention at camp next month.

***

A veteran NHL scout texted yours truly the other day to lament the fact that his team didn’t draft Charlie McAvoy when they had the chance. “We (effed) up…” is how the note began and went downhill from there. In a nutshell- his team had McAvoy in their sights and passed him up for someone else. Now, there’s a little second-guessing going on. Happens all the time, especially once the post-draft euphoria wears off and the real scrutiny begins.

McAvoy is generating a lot of buzz and rightfully so- having a brilliant WJC evaluation camp will do that for you when so many NHL guys are watching. But- let’s pump the brakes here and remember that player stocks fluctuate. The 14th overall pick in last June’s draft has a mountain of expectations heading into his sophomore season at BU- he needs t build on his outstanding second half and take his play to the next level, while staying healthy. His presence at the 2017 WJC in Canada this winter will be a big test, too- the kid has broad shoulders, so the prediction here is that he’ll continue to build excitement among the fans who take the time to follow prospects much like Dougie Hamilton did after being drafted 9th overall in 2011.

But as for my NHL scout friend and his team’s buyer’s remorse- that stuff happens when your pick has an “ehhh” development camp, but the message was only half serious. It was more like- Boston landed a nice player at 14 than anything else. We can sit around and get excited about analysis and discussion, but the real rubber will meet the road in the coming season when McAvoy gets a chance to prove himself.

***

Being told by a solid (non-Bruins) source that he believes that Boston is quietly working on a trade for a defenseman, but no details are forthcoming. If you haven’t already, you can read my post about the Boston D- the elephant in the room for thoughts on possible targets.

Wouldn’t be surprised to see them bring in another veteran forward as well. Some will question that, and it’s the nature of the beast- especially since it could block a younger (yet unproven) player from a roster spot in October, but teams hedge their bets and look to build depth (to stave off the injury bug) and foster training camp competition.

Watch for the B’s to extend a training camp invite to an experienced, and as-of-yet signed player. Can’t tell you who that might be, but some name-recognition guys still out there (who might appeal to Boston-  by no means a comprehensive list and in no particular order) are: Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Santorelli, Shawn Horcoff, Alex Tanguay, David Jones, Tyler Kennedy, Patrik Elias (he’s already 40 but hard to imagine him playing for anyone else after spending all of his 1,240 NHL games and 1,025 points with the Devils), Dainius ZubrusMike Richards. Did I really type that name? Well, he is only 31, but yeah- slim pickings for sure.

I know, I know- there are some of you who will look at that list and immediately want to comment that none of them are needed. I get it- save yourself the trouble by not shooting the messenger, please- I’m just passing on what I’m being told. If we see another veteran forward brought in, don’t say you weren’t warned, and we’ll analyze who that someone is if/when it happens.

***

What Bruins player are you most intrigued with entering the season?

For me, it’s rookie Danton Heinen, who was a surprise fourth-round pick out of the BCHL in 2014, but went on to post two very good offensive seasons at Denver University before signing with Boston last April.

He’s a winger, but played center in junior, so he’s played all three forwards in the last three seasons going back to 2013-14. The Bruins and coach Claude Julien do love their versatile guys, don’t they?

But what stands out about Heinen is his smarts and offensive creativity. He’s not this explosive, dynamic presence who grabs the spotlight and demands your attention when he’s on the ice, but when you watch him closely, he’s always around the puck and tends to own the walls when a possession battle is up for grabs. Heinen has a deft passing touch and he’s no slouch with the puck on his stick when it’s time to pull the trigger, either.

Watch for him to make the big club out of camp, and he wouldn’t be a bad option to try out on that third line right out of the hopper.

 

 

 

Shots fired: Report- Eriksson to Vancouver, Khudobin back to B’s

Nick Kypreos reporting that Loui Eriksson has agreed to terms on a 6-year deal with the Vancouver Canucks. AAV to be determined, but have to think it will be around $5.5-6M range- too rich for the Bruins, in all honesty.

The Bruins now just have D Joe Morrow and winger Jimmy Hayes to show for the Tyler Seguin trade that happened just three years ago on July 4th. The criticism will only grow, as once again- it was the return, dummy. Seguin still has a lot of growing up to do, but man- the guy is a super star and the B’s failed to get commensurate value. Period. End of story. There’s no dodging that one, even if I still maintain that I understood the reasoning behind moving him.

What adds fuel to the fire is that the B’s could have flipped Eriksson to St Louis back in February for Kevin Shattenkirk, but neither team could make the money work. Based on connected sources to both teams, I am told that there is a sense of regret that the sides did not work harder to make it happen. The Bruins have now lost Eriksson to free agency for zip and the Blues may have lost David Backes to the open market as well.

Ultimately, though- unrestricted free agency represents a sense of insanity, where teams pay above market prices for older players who more often than not represent the law of diminishing returns. If the Bob McKenzie rumor that the Bruins are in heavy on Backes, (and hey- it’s Mr. McKenzie- no one is going to doubt it for a second) and they end up with him, this one is going to sting for Doug Armstrong, as dealing Shattenkirk to the B’s would have likely given him the cap space to get a deal done with his captain.

Backes makes perfect sense when you look at what the Bruins value- size, ability but leadership and character. They have to get bigger up the middle, and getting him would mean that Don Sweeney can flip other assets for help on defense.

Farewell, Loui- he was a good Bruin and had his best season in Boston at the right time. These guys should be given every chance to cash in, and Eriksson did just that. The B’s wanted him back, just not at the price Jim Benning was willing to pay. Now, we wait to see who the B’s bring in to shore up their non-playoff squad that is weaker than it was without Eriksson.

Also from Mssr. McKenzie- the Bruins are reportedly bringing back goalie Anton “Dobby” Khudobin– the diminutive but plucky netminder who played well for them as Tuukka Rask’s backup before signing with Carolina a few years back. He’s bounced around after failing to earn that elusive No. 1 spot elsewhere, and this is a fine (and cheap) signing to bring in veteran insurance, while Malcolm Subban may still be given every opportunity to earn the backup spot. Jeremy Smith is no doubt gone now that Borat is indeed back.

EDIT: He’s on a 2-year, $2.4 M deal which helps keep the costs down on Rask’s $7M hit- $1.2M for a capable backup is a little higher than ideal, but the B’s know what they are getting and he’s shown he can get the job done when called upon, despite the lack of ideal NHL size for the position.