Final Bruins exhibition game at Washington Capitals previews the 2015-16 NHL lineup

The Boston Bruins are in the nation’s capital tonight to take on the Washington Capitals and nemesis Braden Holtby (assumption on my part- have not seen confirmation he’s starting but given his history vs. the B’s, why not?) in what is the last of the team’s 7-game exhibition schedule. They are 4-2, having dropped their last two matches to Detroit and the NY Rangers after starting 4-0.

The “so what” to this is if I were a betting man (which I’m not, btw)- this is probably the closest thing to the opening night roster that we’ve seen as this is the final opportunity for Claude Julien and his staff to get a look at the guys they’ll put their hopes in at least to begin the year. With Zdeno Chara injured, it is as of yet unclear as to whether he will be back in time for opening night and if the team will carry eight defenders to begin the season.

Here’s the forward lineup (according to the Bruins Twitter):

Matt Beleskey — David Krejci — David Pastrnak
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron —Loui  Eriksson
Jimmy Hayes —Ryan Spooner — Brett Connolly
Chris Kelly —Joonas Kemppainen — Zac Rinaldo
Max Talbot — Tyler Randell

The defense pairings:

Torey Krug-Adam McQuaid
Matt Irwin-Kevan Miller
Colin Miller- Zach Trotman
Joe Morrow

Guessing that a rotation of Max Talbot and Zac Rinaldo will be how Julien plays it in the first 30 days or so, at least until injuries open up a regular spot for one of them or performance (lack thereof) forces a change. That likely means that Tyler Randell is odd man out and the team could try and slip him through waivers with the possibility that another team claims him after the years the B’s spent developing him. That will depend on how many defensemen the B’s decide to go with.

The video game set will sigh and groan that Matt Irwin is in the lineup over Joe Morrow, but he comes with the most NHL experience between the two if not the intriguing offensive skill set Morrow provides. You figured it was coming.

We’ll see how the squad fares at the Verizon Center tonight and get back to you.

 

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.

B’s go to 3-0 in preseason; Chara leaves with UB injury while Morrow impresses

The Boston Bruins are undefeated in exhibition play with three wins, coming back from a 3-1 deficit tonight against the NY Rangers to score two third period goals including the tying tally from Ryan Spooner with 54 seconds left and Jeremy Smith out for the extra attacker. After a scoreless overtime including 4-on-3 power plays for each team, the B’s got shootout goals from Spooner, Frank Vatrano and Brad Marchand to pull out a 4-3 victory that doesn’t count in the standings.

The biggest news on the night was the loss of captain Zdeno Chara in the first period. He made contact with Rangers forward Ryan Bourque (youngest son of B’s legend Ray). The play did not look like much, but Chara left the ice after 1:57 in three shifts and did not return. The team announced him out with an “upper body injury” and did not have an update after the game.

It goes without saying that should the B’s lose Chara for any extended period of time after already being without veteran Dennis Seidenberg for the first two months of the regular season, they are in trouble deep. We’ll find out soon enough, I guess. But for now- the positives:

Ryan Spooner- Boston’s 23-year-old pivot scored the equalizer when the Rangers allowed him to walk in from the right half-wall to the top of the circle where he sent a low shot through several guys in front. The puck was on target at Rangers goalie Jeff Malcolm’s five-hole and gave the B’s a shot at OT with less than a minute remaining. Spooner followed that up in the shootout with a nice snipe after making a quick hip fake as he came in at an oblique angle before beating Malcolm far side over the blocker. If you like pure speed and skill, Spooner has plenty of both. He’s figuring out who he is as an NHL center and as long as he’s scoring and working hard, Claude Julien will be happy with him, even if he doesn’t always make the right decisions or plays in his own end.

Joe Morrow- The Pens first-rounder in 2011 had a good game, blasting a shot from the point that Tyler Randell tipped home to give the B’s a 1-0 lead while playing a good aggressive transition game and hustling back, blocking shots and playing hard on defense. He made a particularly good play to sacrifice his body late in regulation to block a shot that could have put the game out of reach just before Spooner tied it. He nearly won it in the final second when he jumped in from the point and fired a rebound on net, but the shot hit Bourque and did not go. He was solid in OT, poised when the B’s were down a man and then later working the point well with fellow D-man Colin Miller. If this was a statement game that Morrow wants to play in the NHL full-time this season, he made it.

Austin Czarnik- I said this on Twitter: he’s a player. I’m liking the Michigan native and former Miami University captain more and more each time I see him, and I had a lot of time for him when he was in the NCAA. He was instrumental on Boston’s second goal- anticipating that a Rangers clearing attempt would not get past the blue line and turning on the jets to zoom into the zone and get to the puck first. He then walked to the middle of the slot and fired a shot that hit the post. Jimmy Hayes had fallen down in front of the net and appeared to interfere with the goalie Malcolm, but the puck squirted out and defenseman Brandon Carlo buried it. In the regular season, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault would be able to mount a coach’s challenge on that play, and he probably would win, but not tonight. Back to Czarnik- he might be small, but he’s so fast, smart and creative with the puck. He’s always making something happen. I thought Julien should have put him out for the 4-on-3 Boston had at the end of OT. As it stood, he was finally put out in the last 11 seconds and the B’s mounted a furious assault on the Rangers net with him out there buzzing around…coincidence? I think not. I’m still surprised that the Bruins were able to beat out other suitors for this guy, but you can see why other teams were on Czarnik, at least.

Frank Vatrano- Providence fans watching these games have to be getting excited for the duo of Vatrano and Czarnik…they are making for a magical little pair of skilled offensive players. Vatrano played a solid game, but he scored a jaw-dropping goal in the shootout when he rifled a top shelf shot past Malcolm high to the glove side. On the reverse angle, you could see the puck just explode off Vatrano’s stick in a blur…that’s the vaunted release I’ve been oozing over. But the tiny little spot in the upper corner he then hit…with Malcolm in position to make the glove save…this is a kid who is a pure goal scorer with a move like that. The only thing better would have been if it came against Henrik Lundqvist.

Jeremy Smith- If you looked at the box score, you might think Smitty had a tough night. Not so. Yes, he was beaten for a couple of goals that he wanted back, especially the one he got a piece of but knocked into his own net. However, with the game on the line, he dug in and got the job done. I like his talent and mental toughness…I have little doubt that Smith can be an effective backup, but as a player who’s never seen a second of regular season NHL action, there’s some risk associated with him. However- the more you watch him, the more you realize that he’s a competitor and can probably play at this level. Whether the B’s are willing to accept that risk or go with the safer bet in Jonas Gustavsson…that’s what we’ll find out in the remaining preseason contests.

Colin Miller- He had another strong preseason game, showing off the big-time shot, passing and skating skills he was noted for. I saw someone say on Twitter at some point that the Kings hitching their wagon to Slava Voynov over Miller might have been a huge mistake. I guess we shall soon see, but he has that instinctive, aggressive and attacking mindset when he gets the puck. He was dropping bombs from the point in OT and with Morrow, the two did a nice job of keeping the puck away from the Rangers PKers. If Miller can translate his solid preseason play and production in the NHL going forward, this will have been one of those trades that benefits both teams. Milan Lucic is very likely going to go off in Tinseltown in a contract year and new setting back on the West Coast where he is happiest, so Miller’s success will be a big win for Boston if it comes together for him.

Tyler Randell- One tough motha…he got things going with a deflection of Morrow’s point shot in the first period. Then followed it with a spirited fight with Brett Bellemore that was pretty one-sided with Randell scoring some big blows before the takedown. Randell did not complete the Gordie Howe hat trick, but it was a solid showing from the 2009 sixth-rounder, whose skating has held him back, but has a nice set of hands for scoring the odd goal on occasion and fighting.

Brandon Carlo- When the B’s made some cuts today, the 18-year-old Tri-City Americans defender was not one of them, a nice vote of confidence. He had a solid outing, scoring a goal by stepping up from the blue line in the third period to pull his team to within one.  He’s got a long reach and does a good job of keeping opponents to the outside. He’s still pretty raw and will get a lot better, but this has been a nice camp experience for him so far.

Brad Marchand- It was nice to see him back together with Patrice Bergeron again. Marchand used his speed and shiftiness all night, but came through at the end when he put an off-speed shot through Malcolm’s leg in the shootout to secure the win. He was wearing an ‘A’ tonight.

Zac Rinaldo- Another game, another standout performance in terms of energy and getting under the opposition skin. He was running around drilling Rangers in the third period, and drew the attention of New York tough guy Tanner Glass. Rinaldo declined Glass’ offer to dance, but then nailed Tommy Hughes with a clean but big-time hit that sent the Ranger flying. Glass went right after Rinaldo and got assessed the roughing minor. Rinaldo is a punk…but he’s Boston’s punk. You shouldn’t play the game like you have eggs in your pockets, but at the same time, Rinaldo has to watch the line and not skate over it. Some people will always have problems with the way he plays, but in two preseason matches, he’s been effective at doing his thing. Time will tell if he can prevent the meltdowns that have contributed to his negative perception around the league, and he came mighty close to penalized for contact with a linesman, who was escorting him to the Boston bench.

The B’s sent Zach Senyshyn back to Sault Ste Marie of the OHL today, along with defenseman Jeremy Lauzon, who returned to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL but was not in their opening night roster against the Quebec Remparts. Goalie Daniel Vladar (Chicago-USHL) and Prince George (WHL) forward Jesse Gabrielle were also returned to their junior clubs.

Colby Cave and Colton Hargrove were sent to Providence, along with AHL contract guys Andrew Cherniwchan, Eric Neiley, Frankie Simonelli, Max Everson, Max Iafrate and Matt Ginn.

Seidenberg to miss 8 weeks; opportunity knocks for Miller, Morrow

The Boston Bruins announced this morning that veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg will undergo surgery tomorrow to repair a herniated disc in his back.

While losing one of the team’s experienced defenders is another step backwards for the B’s, who traded Dougie Hamilton in the offseason, it means for the first two months of the season and perhaps longer, the club will be able to better determine if youngsters Colin Miller or Joe Morrow are ready for primetime.

Miller impressed in his first preseason game Sunday night, notching a pair of power play assists in Boston’s 2-0 win against New Jersey in Providence. He showed off the kind of mobility that Boston desperately needs, moving the puck accurately and using his lateral movement to open up lanes through the Devils’ PK.

Morrow was not as productive last night in the B’s 2-1 OT win over Washington at home, but played a strong game from the back end as well. He’s always been a fine skater and puck mover going back to his WHL days at Portland, but in 15-game audition in Boston last season, Morrow seemed to play more inside of a defensive shell. If the B’s can unshackle him and let him accept a little more risk by doing what he does best- taking the puck and going with it- the team might be able to address the capability gaps opened up with Hamilton’s departure.

Seidenberg out of the lineup means the team does not have to make tougher choices based on who has to go on waivers (Trotman, Morrow, Kevan Miller) and who doesn’t (Colin Miller). If worried about losing a player on the waiver wire, the B’s can now hold onto the players and carry them without the hand being forced. They will have to allocate the cap hit associated with every player on the roster, however- and that’s something to keep an eye on.

We wish Seidenberg well in a speedy recovery, but as of today- Boston’s opening night defense depth chart might look a bit like this (should the Bruins opt to carry 8 defenders as Claude Julien hinted at this week):

Zdeno Chara

Torey Krug

Zach Trotman

Adam McQuaid

Matt Irwin

Colin Miller

Joe Morrow

Kevan Miller

B’s-Caps game notes: Pasta night at TD Garden

The Boston Bruins played their second preseason game of the exhibition schedule, getting both goals compliments of David Pastrnak in a 2-1 OT win against the visiting Washington Capitals.

We got our first game look at new Bruin Matt Beleskey, who skated on a line with Czech Davids- Krejci (with both helpers on the goals) and Pastrnak.

There wasn’t a great deal of flow to this one, and the game was scoreless in the first 40 minutes before getting some offense in the final frame. Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre combined to make 26 stops and secure the win, making the B’s 2-0 in exhibition play.

Here are some notes on the players who caught my attention:

Goaltenders

Malcolm Subban- Solid outing for the 21-year-old, as he stopped all 17 of the shots he faced in 29:43 of action. He seemed to be a little hopped up at first, but settled in nicely and made one memorable shorthanded stop on Jay Beagle, showcasing his natural blend of quickness and power. Subban has come a long way from when he first turned pro and was all over the place technique-wise. He still plays deep in his net, but when you’re as fluid and fast as he is, it isn’t as much of a glaring deficiency as some would have you believe. Even with the 100 percent save percentage- there are still plenty of things to work on, and there’s no better way to do that than down in the AHL as opposed to sitting at the end of the Boston bench.

Zane McIntyre- He was beaten on what appeared to be a screen by Nate Schmidt’s seeing eye shot during a Caps PP but other than that, the first year pro handled business, stopping 9 of 10 shots he faced. He’s a lot more together stylistically than he used to be, employing better economy of motion in his game and letting the puck hit him more than he did earlier in his junior and college careers. The NCAA’s top goalie has not looked out of place so far, but it’s pretty evident that he’s not ready to be an NHL backup and will benefit from the playing time and seasoning in the minors.

Defense-

Linus Arnesson- He looked very good in both rookie games and had another effective, unspectacular outing tonight. He’s a smooth skater who plays with a maturity and poise beyond his years when it comes to his own end. He understands positioning and can get the puck out quickly. I don’t see much in the way of an attacking defender who will put up a lot of points, but he can get up the ice well enough and will be able to evolve into an effective penalty killer because of his feet and defensive awareness. He is what he is, I think- just a solid defenseman who will give you a good effort and consistent, steady play. He doesn’t need to be rushed into the NHL lineup, nor should he be viewed as a real difference maker when he eventually arrives in Boston. Put simply- you win with guys like Arnesson, but fans should avoid making him into something he is not: a top-level two-way D.

Torey Krug- The Michigander was wearing an ‘A’ on his sweater and that will soon become a permanent accessory on his game attire. He’s skating with a lot of confidence and bringing that edge that is important for him even if he doesn’t possess ideal NHL size. With Krug it’s about smarts and effort- he’s getting better with his reads and making the right decisions under pressure, and nobody will outwork him for a puck, even if they might be able to win a physical battle. I could go on and on, but won’t- he’s going to keep improving and for those who haven’t figured it out yet- be a core contributor to Boston’s fortunes for a long time. He led all blue liners in ice time tonight with nearly 24 minutes and his regular season time will surely increase as he eases into that top-four role he’s earning each day with his work on and off the ice.

Kevan Miller- If people are looking for excuses to write off this free agent find and former captain at the University of Vermont, Miller isn’t giving much room there. He played his brand of physical hockey, keeping things simple and preventing the Caps from getting much going offensively with some hits and good breakups. The Californian is a no-frills, bottom-pairing kind of guy, but he’s tough and cheap. He’s back after missing the second half of the year with shoulder surgery.

Joe Morrow- I liked his game tonight. Morrow is at his best when using his piston-like stride to vault up the ice and push the offensive pace from the back end. He’s got to do a better job of hitting the net with that big point drive of his, but you can see the way he can make tough passes with relative ease and Morrow brings the much needed mobility and puckhandling skills to the defense if he can make the big club and stick.

Forwards

David Pastrnak- Scored Boston’s regulation goal with a flourish after taking a Krejci pass and beating Philipp Grubauer with a nifty backhand. He followed that up by scoring the OT goal in 3-on-3 play just 12 seconds in, securing the win. He’s tracking to be a special player- he’s got that rare blend of natural talent plus the attitude, work ethic and charisma to be a franchise presence in Boston. We saw it in flashes last year as a rookie. This time around, as long as he can stay healthy, he’ll score with more regularity, but the big breakout is on the short horizon. It’s hard not to get caught up in the hype with this kid (and he is a kid- just turned 19 in May), but if you’ve been around him for just 30 seconds, you can see why the B’s treasure him (and why, in 2017- they’ll be opening up the checkbook- big time).

Anton Blidh- What is Claude Julien to do? This guy looks like the real deal for your bottom line right wing position, even with the veterans under contract. The Swedish sixth-rounder in 2013 brings a lot of speed, tenacity and relentless forechecking to the mix, even if he may lack the offensive toolbox to be a top-six forward at this level. He was grinding it out early, drawing penalties and attracting notice for his verve and finishing of checks when there wasn’t a lot of flow to this game. Because he can be sent down without being placed on waivers, chances are- Blidh (pronounced “bleed”) will begin the year in Providence. However, if he keeps playing like this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him make the team as a 13th forward.

Austin Czarnik- Carried over his strong showing at the rookie tournament in Buffalo in this one. Little waterbug is so fast, skilled with the puck but shows off the little things away from the puck as well that should endear him to the Boston and Providence coaches. As a player who was skipped over in the draft because of his size, he’s going to have to put in twice the effort, but if the early signs are any indication, Czarnik will be an immediate impact performer for Butch Cassidy and might even play his well into an appearance or two with Boston sooner than anyone thinks. With the team so deep with centers, his time might have to be down the road, but plenty to like here.

Zach Senyshyn- He didn’t have any points tonight, but I continue to like with the big, eager winger brings to the table. With his long, loping stride- he’s rangy and gets up and down the ice so well that he can catch defenders flat-footed if they don’t watch their gaps with him. The Soo Greyhound just needs to keep things simple- take pucks to the net and do the things he’s known for and that got him 26 goals playing on the lower lines in the OHL. The more people who see him play, the less we hear about what a “reach” he was because you can’t teach his size or willingness.

Alex Khokhlachev- It was a mixed bag for him. I thought he looked pretty poor on Boston’s first power play opportunity but he seemed to relax as the game went on and showed his talent off in flashes. Again- flashes aren’t enough, here- he’s got to find ways to produce and pointing to the linemates is just making excuses at some point. If you want to beat out the guys ahead of you on the depth chart, you have to leave the coaches with little choice but to keep you- has he really done that in the two games thus far? Not enough to the degree needed, in my view.

David Krejci- If the B’s get this healthy version of their longtime top-2 center, then they’re on the right track this year. You figured he would come back hungry and motivated after last year essentially being a wash and he was on it tonight, with two primary assists on the only goals his team produced. Now, we’ve seen just 4 goals in two exhibition wins for the B’s, but in this one, you wanted to see some offense from the club’s top unit and they delivered. It’s pretty cool to think that when a young David Pastrnak was looking up at his room’s wall in Havirov and seeing a photo of Krejci pinned up there, he probably never imagined he would one day be getting the puck direct from his hockey hero. That one is just entering his prime and the other has a world of talent to take full advantage is an exciting thought for Boston fans.

Justin Hickman- Dropped the gloves in the second period against Tyler Lewington and scored the takedown after some punches exchanged, but that’s the toughness and presence that the former Seattle Thunderbirds captain was expected to bring. His skill is a work in progress, and he’ll likely not be a major factor down in Providence this season as he’ll gravitate towards the grunt work as he gets acclimated to that level, but he skates well enough and brings the kind of physicality that the B’s value. Watch for him to develop into a Providence fan fave pretty quickly, and he’ll score some nice goals down there, even if they don’t come in bunches.

Frank Vatrano- He came close to scoring in the first when the B’s were on the PP with that shot of his…ooh la la. What can you say? The kid’s release and heavy, accurate drive is just sublime. He’s getting quicker and will round out the rest of his game as he’s allowed to develop in the minors. B’s just might have a real homegrown diamond-in-the-rough here.

Matt Beleskey- Oof. He’ll get better, but it looked like he was trying a little too hard. He did win kudos early in going to Krejci’s defense in a scrum- he’s not afraid to stick his nose in and defend teammates even if he doesn’t have Milan Lucic’s size or toughness. Needs to go have fun, loosen up on the stick and cut down on the turnovers/forcing of the play. You see the chemistry that Krejci and Pastrnak already have- he’ll benefit from it too, if he just lets the play come to him a bit and doesn’t overthink it. This is why we have a preseason schedule…

Scouting dispatches: Twitter mailbag # 3

I’m back with a third edition of the Twitter hockey mailbag, where I solicit questions and followers hit me up on a variety of topics. This week’s mailbag has a little bit of everything, with some questions about the Bruins (mostly about prospects), some draft queries related to Auston Matthews and the process itself. Thanks as always to those who took the time to submit and if I didn’t get to a question you asked- apologies but keep trying.

 

Here’s the mailbag:

Since you focus on prospects, what is the organization doing wrong in prospect development and who is responsible?- Olsonic @BruinsScience

I won’t lie- wrestled with this question because of the way it is worded. Instead of trying to simply approach the question by answering what I think is “wrong” with the process, I’ll also attempt to point out some things I feel the team is doing right.

First of all, the Bruins are a long way from the old days when they would typically draft a player and then spend little to no time interacting with them as the majority of them returned to their junior clubs or played in the NCAA before they were ready to compete for a Boston job. There are some tough stories involving players like 1989 first-round draft pick Shayne Stevenson that would be hard to wrap your head around given the investment the B’s and all the other teams now (smartly) make in player development to help set the conditions for an eventual NHL payoff. Stevenson was a cautionary tale, but he was far from the only promising player to never reach his big league potential, and the Bruins are hardly the only NHL team to move on from a talented young player because something was just not there to justify the expense.

In getting to your question- prospect development is not a black and white issue. It depends on a lot of different factors, only some of which are- overall talent/ability, draft position, character/work ethic, maturity, and a big one I don’t think enough people put weight into- the drafting team’s roster opportunities. In a perfect world, every first-round pick would just show up to camp, plug right into his allotted position and go off to enjoy success, but the world we live in is far from perfect.

Without writing a book here, I get the consternation over departures of young core players like Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton, but simply pointing to the team and trying to allocate responsibility to any one individual is an exercise in futility. Could the teams have done things differently to keep both players in the fold? Perhaps. Could the players have done more to instill confidence in their commitment to the team and/or expressed more of a desire to be in Boston over the long haul? Possibly. When you’re dealing with people and personalities, developing prospects becomes more art than science, so the best thing the Bruins can do is try and capture lessons learned from disappointments and successes alike.

The Bruins spend considerable time and resources working with their prospects and trying to bring them along at a pace that will set them up for success when it eventually is time for them to be pros and make a run at an NHL career. Player coach Jay Pandolfo joined the team in a full-time capacity last season to mentor the youngsters and his own experiences having come up through the ranks at Burlington High and Boston University before winning several Stanley Cups. A respected defensive forward who spent most of his nearly 900-game NHL career with the New Jersey Devils means he has a broad base of experience and wisdom to impart. He was a second-round pick as an offensive player at the lower levels but had to reinvent himself as a defensive forward to keep younger, more skilled players at bay for years as he skated in the big show. I think he’ll continue to relate well to Boston’s prospects and provide a good example for them going forward.

In the end, no matter how good a team’s developmental program is or how much money they pump into it, not everyone is going to play in the NHL with the team that drafted them, and unfortunately, some high picks will fall off along the way. If we only ask what’s wrong with something while not making an effort to find out what’s right in any given situation, it’s a good bet that we’re missing out on a significant part of the equation.

 

How good is Austin Matthews [sic]? Better than Eichel?- RJ @mrshark444

I’d say an acronym that fits for Auston Matthews is PDG- Pretty (Darned) Good. He’s got the size, skating and offensive skills to be a threat on each and every shift. He’s still developing his 200-foot game, but there’s a reason he’s the early favorite to be the NHL draft’s top selection next June. He looked the part of a top NHL prospect at the USA WJC camp last month, and I can’t wait to see how he acquits himself in Switzerland’s top pro league this year.

As far as him being “better” than Eichel, that’s not something I’m interested in tackling right now. Those two will have a chance to settle that debate in the NHL eventually, and I’ll leave it to them to let their play do the talking when the time comes.

 

(Joe) Morrow, (Zach) Trotman, and (Colin) Miller- what areas do they need to work on to make the NHL roster, respectively?- Chuck Finley @cnjs5kpj

I would not be surprised to see all three on the Boston roster at some point this season, but the chance of the trio being in the lineup at the same time is less likely to happen in my view.

Morrow has the skating, passing and shot you look for in the more offense-minded defensemen, but the irony with him in his 15-game audition last year is that he looked more like a conservative, stay-at-home D playing more not to lose than opening it up and giving his team the chance to benefit from what he does best- pushing the pace and running the power play. Now, it’s certainly possible that Claude Julien and Doug Houda told Morrow to keep it simple, but I think that if he’s going to be a regular this year, he’ll have to show more flash in terms of using his speed to lead the rush and back defenses up. He needs to be more assertive in the offensive end, because the B’s have plenty better defense-minded players than Morrow- they don’t need another one.

Trotman needs to keep raising his execution level while playing situational hockey for the Bruins. He’s big and pretty fluid for his size, but he’s not all that physical nor projects as a consistent point producer, so he’ll have to be most effective at even strength to earn the coaches’ trust. That means he’s going to have to play a smart positional game, use his long reach and strength to keep attackers to the outside and cut down on the mental mistakes that have at times have been noticeable. I like his chances of grabbing a 5/6 role right out of camp the best of the three.

Miller is interesting- he’s a late bloomer; a latter-round pick who has superb skating chops and a big shot who is coming off a far more productive AHL season than the one Morrow, a former 1st-rounder, just had. He’s mature and talented enough to make the big club right away, but the B’s will have to balance how he performs at camp and preseason with the kind of role they want to give him. He’s not known as a particularly instinctive player, so while he has the wheels and howitzer, there’s much more to it than that, so he’ll have to demonstrate enough of a defensive awareness so that they keep him up rather than try to get him more seasoning in the minors.

How’s Peter Cehlarik coming along?– John C @JohnnyRiingo

Cehlarik had a better 2014-15 campaign than he did the year before, when he bounced around to several teams in different leagues and never settled in. I see him playing one more year in Sweden with Lulea and then signing and coming over to North America either at the end of this year or for the start of 2015-16 to play in Providence or possibly Boston.

On the positive side, I like the Slovak’s size, long arms and shot release and accuracy. He’s one of those players who can make an electrifying play with the puck on one shift and then score a mundane, take-out-the-garbage kind of goal a few minutes later. He’s got some dangle and creativity with the puck.

He’s not a plus skater, but he does have a long stride, so he tends to look like he’s gliding around sometimes. He’s not all that heavy on the puck and I know that different Bruins scouts have told me that they want to see a little more “want to” in his game at times.

The Bruins don’t have a lot of similar players to Cehlarik in their system, but I don’t know that he projects to be a high-end, top-six forward in the NHL, even if the tools are there. He’s an intriguing player, but I want to see how he adjusts to the North American game first.

How mad should I really be that the B’s gave away Dougie Hamilton?– Lundeaner @Deaner1000

The Bruins didn’t “give away” Hamilton, though I understand where you are going here.

If your point is to be mad because they didn’t get NHL players who are known commodities at this level and are ready to step in and perform right away, that’s a legitimate gripe. Whether salary cap dictated what direction the B’s went in when Don Sweeney made the decision to move him or something else, that Boston defense took a step backwards and there’s no sugarcoating that.

However- I’d just offer up that once upon a time (in 2002), people griped about the Bruins letting Bill Guerin “walk for nothing,” only a funny thing happened a year later- they used the compensation pick for him on Patrice Bergeron and the rest is history. They used the 45th pick on him in 2003 and this past June, one of the three picks they got from Calgary for Hamilton was No. 45- Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson– who reminds folks of a young Bergeron. Zachary Senyshyn and Jeremy Lauzon are two more players who could one day help turn the trade in Boston’s favor.

With the Hamilton trade there is no question the B’s accepted a lot of risk on the return from Calgary and it might end up on the negative ledger in the long run. I’m certainly not going to try and sell it as a win for Boston in September 2015, so if you want to be mad, I won’t try to stop you. But, if the scouts got it right with those three players, we might not be too concerned that Hamilton is out in Western Canada in about 3-5 years…that’s a big “if” though, and with jobs potentially on the line- the B’s must get something out of these three picks.

 

Any chance Noel Acciari and or The Planet’s kid play on the 4th Line this season? Can’t see Chris Kelly down there all year– Mark Clinton @mark_clinton

Is there a chance? Sure- there’s always a chance, but how much of one is the question, and I’m not sure Acciari will be at the top of the list of players to be called up to Boston in his first pro season, with a bit of a glut of more experienced wingers to choose from.

Does he have the maturity to do it? I think so- he’s someone I have followed since his days as a Kent Lion and Acciari’s game lends itself to fourth line duty. By the same token, unless he’s so much better than everyone else vying for fourth line duty, I’m of the opinion that the chance to play more of a role in the AHL is probably more beneficial to Acciari at this stage of his development.

I guess we’ll find out. I wouldn’t have a problem with Acciari getting that chance, but without seeing how he looks in camp or performs at the AHL level, it’s not a hill I am going to die on either way.

 

How should the Bruins manage their goalie assets? Do B’s have any chance at getting a reasonable return, or is best bet to develop?- Greg Babbitt @babbitt_greg

The two are not mutually exclusive and it’s about doing what management feels is going to make the team better.

That’s why instead of keeping a more proven Martin Jones in the fold right after acquiring him from the Kings, they moved him for other assets while saving the money re-signing him would have counted against the cap. Part of that no doubt was to accommodate Jones’ desire to have a chance to start somewhere, which wasn’t going to happen this year in Boston barring an injury, but part of it was deciding to get a solid, closer-to-being-ready NHL prospect and a potential lottery pick next June for a guy who would have been sitting more than playing.

Throwing out the fact that they don’t currently have a proven NHL commodity to back up Tuukka Rask, they have three solid assets and I’m not sure trading one makes a whole lot of sense right now given how little depth they truly have if Rask gets injured. Daniel Vladar is not pro-ready, so beyond Jeremy Smith, Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre, there isn’t a large safety net for contingencies. I still think they’ll bring a veteran with some level of NHL experience into the mix before camp- either through invitation or with a low-cost, take-the-minimum-while-you-can money so as not to throw their backup hopes behind a trio of guys who have less than one NHL game between them.

As for the reasonable return versus developing them question, I’ve never understood the segment of fans that immediately jumped up and assumed Subban would be traded when the B’s signed Rask to his big extension in 2013. When the Bruins acquired Rask in 2006, the B’s had Tim Thomas and Hannu Toivonen as their goalies entering the 06-07 season, and even when Thomas continued to perform at a high level as the starter (except for his injury-riddled 2009-10 season), Rask had to bide his time. Why wouldn’t the B’s employ a similar patient approach to Subban and/or McIntyre while their veteran continues to be the No. 1 in Boston?

It all comes down to protecting the club against catastrophe, and that’s what the team will be facing if it loses Rask for an extended period anytime soon. If you don’t think you can get the kind of return that justifies the investment you’ve made in a player, there is nothing wrong with holding onto him and seeing if he can deliver on the promise that prompted the team to draft him in the first place. At that point, he either wins a bigger job with the NHL squad or he increases his trade value, but there’s no set answer that applies universally.

I believe the Bruins have done it the right way, but I also thought Niklas Svedberg would succeed as the backup a year ago based on his AHL track record in Providence.

 

What are the most important attributes you look for in prospects? Personally think hockey sense & work ethic should trump all– Hash Marks @hash_marks

Thanks for the question- I enjoy getting ones like this.

Those are two important attributes for sure, but in the end, I’m of the belief that you can’t apply a cookie cutter-type approach when it comes to evaluating players, so I do my best to evaluate them on their own merits without introducing too much personal and preferential bias into the process up front.

Hockey sense and work ethic will likely result in a smart hockey player who is driven to succeed, but based on his position, would a lack of size and skating be enough for those areas to overcome those deficiencies? I’ve seen some players who possessed elite hockey sense never reach the NHL because they were smaller and couldn’t skate well enough- it happens and some guys have the misfortune to get drafted by NHL teams whose systems aren’t the right fits for their strengths and weaknesses.

I’m a big proponent of the “foxhole test” in terms of asking whether you’d want to go to war with a player to measure that individual’s character and mental toughness. Because of my military background and a few trips to the big sandbox, I often find that I have some pretty high standards in that regard, but there are always a few guys each and every year who answer the foxhole test question with a resounding yes in my mind. At the same time- you have to be able to skate and up and down a 200-foot sheet of ice and put a vulcanized rubber disk into a 4 x 6-foot cage past a highly athletic and (often times) tall guy with octopus-like arms and whose gear would make Sir Lancelot jealous. How hard someone works or ferocious their character may help them do that, but I’m not sure that “trumps” other attributes that might lend themselves to being a better scorer or defenseman. So- while I don’t disagree that hockey sense and work ethic are key components in the evaluation process, I’m not ready to definitively say that those attributes  are enough to take precedence over the other skills/tools in a vacuum.

It’s a balancing act, and every team and the scouts they employ do things differently than everyone else. How much of a difference varies, but it’s a big reason why drafting future NHLers tends to produce such varied results, especially in the later rounds when so many of these players hit their stride later and end up being better pros than a lot of guys taken ahead of them.

Boston Bruins 2015-16 season preview: Defensemen

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

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

In retrospect: It was a rough ride for the Boston D party in 2014-15, as former GM Peter Chiarelli traded glue guy Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the new season, a move that went on to have significant second- and third-order effects on a roster ravaged by injuries to  Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller. Adding to the struggles was the lackluster performance of Dennis Seidenberg, who returned from a major knee injury suffered in 2013-14, but was not the effective, shutdown presence for Boston he had been previously.

The Bruins allowed 30 more goals last season than the year before, and the lack of collective team foot speed often found them susceptible to being beaten off the rush and often collapsing into their own end while struggling to generate a transition to offense the other way. Torey Krug was a bright spot for the club, finishing second on the blue line in scoring with 12 goals and 39 points. The team’s offensive leader, Dougie Hamilton, was traded to Calgary on the day of the 2015 NHL draft in a rapidly developing (and shocking) move that sent the 22-year-old out West and left a sizable hole on the Boston depth chart that the team has yet to fill.

Younger guys like Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow showed promise in flashes, but ultimately, the disappointing non-playoff 96-point finish was reflected in a defense that lost a major on- and off-ice contributor in Boychuk and never really got a healthy Chara going for the duration, as he returned to action after missing nearly two months at well less than 100 percent.

The view from here: Chara remains the face of the franchise on the blue line, though he is past his prime at age 38 and is coming off his lowest production (8 goals, 20 points in 63 games) since the 2001-02 campaign, his first as an Ottawa Senator. He faces the prospect of playing the rest of his NHL career on a wonky knee, which essentially makes him day-to-day for life, and means that the B’s must be prepared to lose him to injury at any time.

Chara is the consummate pro and veteran, but his injury complicates the often armchair GM discussion of the team simply trading him. Even at his age and declining offensive numbers, Chara is more valuable to the Bruins than he is to other teams that might be in the position to trade for his $7 million salary (he’s signed for two more seasons- at $5M and $4M respectively before becoming an unrestricted free agent again in 2018), simply because with Hamilton out in Boston, the B’s don’t have any other legitimate player to thrust into the top role today. The onus is now on Claude Julien the Boston coaching staff to better manage Chara’s ice time and game situations to get the most of his experience and 6-9 frame with the lengthy reach. His best days are clearly behind him, but it’s not quite so simple to sit back and talk about trading Chara for cap relief and a younger talent- you’d not only need a willing buyer to give up a roster player worthy of the move, but Boston’s captain would have to waive his no-trade to go. It’s not unthinkable to consider it, but the likelihood of it happening is slim- the Bruins need Chara this year more than ever.

The team can only hope Seidenberg can rebound from as brutal a year as he’s had in his career. His struggles underscored the fact that literally days after signing his four year, $4M per extension with the B’s he suffered his knee injury and the very real possibility exists that at age 34, he’ll never get back to the player who was so instrumental in one Stanley Cup championship and a second trip to the finals in three seasons. The German has given a lot to the Bruins, but his contract, only in its second year, looms like an albatross around the team’s collective neck if he is unable to round back into form. The analytics from last season do not paint a pretty picture, however, and things may get worse before they improve.

Krug is preparing for an expanded role given Hamilton’s departure, and the B’s could greatly benefit from him taking his offensive production to the next level to help offset the loss of their former 2011 top choice’s numbers, especially on the power play. At 24, the diminutive Michigander has the heart of a lion and is embracing the challenges that await him with increased minutes at even strength, but like Chara, the team will have to manage the matchups when he’s defending against the NHL’s bigger, powerful forwards and live with the higher-risk style Krug employs when carrying the puck on his own. Krug has enough talent, hockey sense and an off-the-charts work ethic/character to compensate for his undersized frame, and the belief here is that he’s going to make it work.

The team raised eyebrows when it re-upped Adam McQuaid, the club’s resident baggage-smasher at 6-5, 210 pounds. Another quality person and teammate, McQuaid has overcome a lack of foot speed with a tenacious, pay-for-every-inch-of-real-estate approach that has served him well. When it comes to toughness, no one on the current roster can bring it better than the former Sudbury Wolf can, but he’s a pretty one-dimensional shutdown defender. One of the biggest issues with McQuaid is in his struggles to stay healthy and play a complete 82-game schedule over the course of his career. Since breaking into the NHL full-time in 2010-11, he’s never played more than 72 games, and appeared in just 93 contests over the last two seasons. If how honest, dedicated and hard-working a player was all you needed, McQuaid would be worth every cent of the 4-year, $11 million contract he signed this offseason. As it stands, the Bruins can only hope he can reverse past trends and become a durable presence. Even if he does, the debate will rage on as to how wise an investment it is for a rock-solid third-pairing defenseman.

Veteran Kevan Miller played 41 games last year before being lost to season-ending shoulder surgery. He’s a similar player to McQuaid, but at a substantially less cap hit of around $800k. A gritty, character undrafted free agent who worked his way to the NHL after captaining the University of Vermont Catamounts, Miller’s mobility and experience stand him in good stead heading into the new season, but there isn’t much in the way of offense from him.

The B’s signed free agent Matt Irwin to add to the mix from the San Jose Sharks. The 27-year-old played about 17 minutes (you’ll hear the sheltered minutes argument with both he and Krug) with the bulk of his 8 goals and 19 points coming at even strength last season. He doesn’t bring a lot of pure foot speed with him to Boston, but he’s not a substandard skater either. Irwin has NHL experience and has shown promise as a two-way contributor- he’s third on the blueline behind Krug and Chara in scoring from last season.

This leaves a trio of younger defenders with the two-way potential that Boston desperately needs, two of whom spent some time with the big club a year ago in Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow. Trotman is bigger than Morrow, but does not have the former 2011 first-round pick’s speed or puck skills. Both can hammer the puck from the point and move it effectively, but of the two, Morrow is more of the offensive threat and special teams presence, whereas Trotman is a little safer and more polished defensively. Both will battle it out for a sixth position in the regular rotation if you believe that Miller or Irwin could end up being the seventh defender. Trotman was the last pick of the 2010 draft out of Lake Superior State, and Morrow’s been a disappointment as a pro after leaving the Portland Winterhawks. He was traded to Dallas from Pittsburgh and just a few months later, flipped over to the Bruins in the Tyler Seguin trade. Given what we’ve seen from Loui Eriksson, Morrow (and Jimmy Hayes to be fair) is the last best hope the team has in getting a long-term return on that deal.

As for Colin Miller, the AHL’s reigning champ in the hardest shot and faster skater competition at the 2015 All-Star Game doesn’t have NHL experience, but he has the offensive skill set to see time and even win himself a full-time role with Boston this year. This is a huge camp for him, but at 23, it won’t be the end of the world if he’s not on Boston’s opening night roster, but given that he was part of the Milan Lucic deal, if he earns a spot, the B’s will gladly take it.

A Dennis Seidenberg rebound could be an important factor in a Boston return to the playoffs (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

A Dennis Seidenberg rebound could be an important factor in a Boston return to the playoffs (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

On the farm: Boston’s first pick in 2013, Linus Arnesson, will be playing in his first complete AHL season. The late second-rounder has good size and mobility, but he’s more of a no-frills, solid defensive presence than he is a player who will push the pace, join the rush and contribute consistent offense for his team. If he’s in the Boston lineup next year, then something has likely gone terribly wrong in terms of injuries and/or performance. Arnesson is steady and consistent, but he’s not going to wow you in any one facet of his game. Every good team needs players like him to win with, but he’s not going to be a savior.

Chris Breen is back for a second year in Boston’s system and at 6-7, 224 he certainly provides the size and reach for a defensive-minded defender.  He has some limited NHL experience and doesn’t move his feet all that well, but will be another key contributor in Providence and can help in a pinch.

Gone is David Warsofsky, but fellow New Englander Tommy Cross is back for another tour of duty in Boston’s system with Providence. If only that’s all it took to be an NHL regular… Cross is the very last piece remaining from that disastrous draft year and he’s ticketed for the AHL once again, where he could see an injury recall at some point as a reward for his hard work, but in all reality, the one-time Boston College captain will be fortunate to ever establish himself as a bottom-pairing player at the NHL level.

Chris Casto is underrated, and as a free agent signing out of University of Minnesota-Duluth back in 2013, he looked as if he might have the size and wheels to develop into a solid NHL defender, but it just hasn’t happened for him in the AHL. Nobody ever talks about him, but he’s a fluid skater with a big shot, who has at times struggled with processing the game and pace. He’s got one more year on his ELC to raise his profile in the organization.

A look to the future: The B’s drafted three defensemen in the first two rounds this past June, all of whom bring much needed skating and size to the mix. Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon are the ones the team hopes will be more complete two-way defenders who can help kickstart the attack, whereas Brandon Carlo is a huge (6-5) and mobile rearguard who is a better shutdown guy than offensive producer. All three look like players, but won’t likely help out in the short term (though with all three being products of major junior- they’ll at least be at training camp and one could pull a surprise- it’s happened before).

One player who has a shorter wait to making an impact in Boston as early as next spring is Yale senior Rob O’Gara. The fifth-rounder in 2011 has patiently and steadily progressed in the system, winning championships at both the prep (2011) and NCAA (2013) while developing his two-way game. At 6-4, he has a rangy stride and fluid footwork and pivots. He started out being a top shutdown defender, even earning that honor this season in the ECAC. He also improved his offensive production in his junior year, leading the Bulldogs’ blue line in scoring. He’s a smart, industrious 22-year-old who is expected to sign at the conclusion of Yale’s season and who knows? He might even get a quick look in Boston depending on how the defense is situated by then. If not, watch for him to help Providence down the stretch if he’s not still in school finishing up his course work.

Matt Grzelcyk is another prospect worth watching this year. The BU senior and captain is on the shelf for a while after May knee surgery, but he’s expected to be a major contributor to the Terriers’ fortunes again after posting career bests in all offensive categories a year ago. He’s undersized but brings excellent speed, vision and skill to the mix. Watch for him and O’Gara to push one another as complementary players to one another going forward. At the very least- they’ll be helping Providence in the AHL until they can push for time in Boston.

On the longer track, collegians Matt Benning and Wiley Sherman still have time in the NCAA to hone their respective games (Sherman is still a major project just entering his sophomore year at Harvard) while Swedish defender Emil Johansson will spend another season at least in HV71 before he might come over.

The wild card: Cody Franson, D. We know that Franson and Don Sweeney have both admitted that the two sides have talked contract, with Franson reportedly holding out for value and longer term than Boston is willing to give. With about $4M in available cap space, Sweeney wants to preserve as much flexibility, and as we get closer to September, Franson may have to come off plan A in favor of incentives and a chance to prove himself this season for a bigger payday next July. On the upside- Franson is an experienced NHL veteran who will help offensively and especially on the power play with his booming point shot and ability to distribute the puck. One thoughtful Twitter follower I engaged in a debate today over Franson pointed out that in Nashville after the winter trade, Franson was on the ice for just 9 even strength goals against and that he accounted for 56% of shots attempted from the blue line- good for the lead among all Predators defensemen. On the downside, he’s not a swift skater for a club in major need of getting faster and his hockey IQ at times lends itself to him running around and making bad turnovers in his own end. There is no doubt he’d make the Bruins defense better than it is today, but how much and at what cost is a question Don Sweeney has to answer. One shoe dropped today with Christian Ehrhoff agreeing with the Los Angeles Kings to a team-friendly 1-year pact at $1.5 million. If Franson’s price tag is expected to go down as he gets closer to the start of NHL camps, then other teams are likely to start sniffing around. Something’s gotta give here.

The wild card pt 2: Maxim Chudinov, D SKA St Petersburg. The KHL champ is getting ready for another year in Russia after the Bruins made him the 195th overall pick in 2010 as an undersized but speedy and feisty offensive player. Truth in lending- I don’t think Chudinov adds much more than what the Bruins already have in Krug, though he’s faster on his skates (but in my view lacks Krug’s leadership and heart). If the Bruins want to add him to the mix, that’s a call they’ll have to make and information is out there (h/t Dominic Tiano) via Chudinov’s agent that the 25-year-old is willing to give the NHL a shot. I guess we’ll see, and you can never have too much depth, but it’s hard to imagine that he’d want to sign and play in Providence, so it would have to be a similar situation to Carl Soderberg a few years back.

Adam McQuaid was extended four years in June (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Adam McQuaid was extended four years in June (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The verdict: I have to call it like I see it and this defense as a whole doesn’t scare many (except for perhaps some Bruins fans).

Team speed, which was the biggest need in the offseason, was addressed in the draft, but those kids won’t help this year unless the B’s luck out with another David Pastrnak-type situation. They’ll get faster with Morrow or Miller added to the mix, but the team will still have their hands full trying to generate an attack through the neutral zone or standing up opponents who can push the pace of a game.

The time has come to actively manage Chara’s role and put some constraints on what is asked of him. He’s got a lot of tread on the tire, and it’s time for others to step up and take some of the pressure off. I don’t know how much longer that troublesome knee and his huge frame will hold up. Forget trading him for now- Boston needs him and if things change (especially if he decides he’d like a change of scenery) then that can be revisited. In all reality, unless Chara wants out, it’s hard to imagine the Bruins trading their captain and getting anywhere near close to the value that would make such a move worth it.

Krug is the one player who appears primed for an important role this season. It’s a chance for him to answer questions about his ability to play upwards of 21 minutes or more a night, against top opponents and continue to carry the offensive mail for this team. Mistakes are bound to happen, but how much Julien trusts him going forward will be something to watch. Krug loves playing with McQuaid…will the two stay together or will the team break them up and try something else?

Whether the team adds Franson or goes with 1 or more of the youngsters in Trotman, Morrow and Miller- the Boston defense is not going to be much of a threat offensively, so they’ll have to take care of things in their own end. Without the requisite speed and ability to contain speed to the outside, that’s going to be a challenge.

It’s a game and gritty group- but there are a lot of if’s heading into the new season. That means the goaltending and the forwards are going to have to pick up the slack.

Scouting Dispatches: Twitter mailbag #2

Happy Saturday, folks. Just watched Canada win their eighth consecutive Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tourney championship- congratulations to the Under-18 team for continuing to run the table with a dominating 7-3 gold medal-winning triumph over Sweden (it wasn’t even that close, folks). They’re truly the best draft eligible talent every year and Canada can send their best players because they don’t have to compete with the major junior/CHL playoffs in April when the Under-18 Championships are held. More on that later…I’ll post some thoughts and notes on some key standouts, as six out of Red Line Report’s top-15 for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft (as of June)  were on Team Canada, with Sweden boasting two more to round out the top-20.

I’m back with another “Ask Kirk” Twitter mailbag. Every 2 weeks or so, I hit up the followers on Twitter to see what they have, so thanks to those who submitted questions. I don’t get to them all, but if your question didn’t get answered, keep plugging away. The first edition of this we did got some pretty good traffic and insights/debate, so if you don’t agree, feel free to comment or hit me up on Twitter.

Keep checking back on the blog this weekend as well, as I will be posting a “point/counterpoint” feature on Bruins first-round draft pick Zach Senyshyn with my friend and guest columnist- Dominic Tiano– one of the most knowledgeable OHL evaluators around.My RLR colleague Mark Staudinger will also be in to provide some detailed analysis on a pair of Bruins prospects he just watched at Team Canada’s WJC summer evaluation camp in Calgary- the Two Jakes- Jakub Zboril and Jake DeBrusk.

So- onto the mailbag. We’ll do this again around the beginning of September, so keep the questions coming. You can also submit them here via the comments feature if you’re not on Twitter.

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Don Sweeney wants B’s D to be more systemically mobile to create faster up-ice transition. Can Claude Julien & current D roster make that happen? BB Bruin @waltorr4

Thanks Walt- Overall team speed on defense is still an issue, as Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid and even Torey Krug don’t bring much in the way of open-ice speed and mobility. You do have a couple of real good skaters in the mix to earn jobs with Joe Morrow and Colin Miller, but neither are all that proven at this point. Zach Trotman is mobile for such a big man, but that’s all relative- he’s not going to put defenses on their heels in the neutral zone with his speed- it’s not there either. Matt Irwin has NHL experience and provides nice depth, but he doesn’t have rockets on his skates and I see him as more of a depth guy than someone who is going to be a major contributor this season.

That’s why the clamoring for Cody Franson in some circles seems to be counterintuitive at this point, because Franson is more of the same in terms of being a clunky skater who will take away from the back line’s quickness, even if he is a veteran at this level. I don’t see him as a great fit at this point, but the Bruins are still in the mix for him, so we’ll see how that goes.

I think that if the Bruins are going to succeed in making a faster transition, they’ll rely on the favored Julien method of quick D-D passes in the defensive zone followed by a longer breakout pass to try to hit the quicker forwards in the neutral zone with speed.

Having said that Krug is not a pure burner with a top skating gear, but he is the team’s best rearguard in terms of his quickness, agility and ability to handle the puck through traffic. He gets the puck out quickly using his vision and stickhandling to shake forechecking pressure and carry the puck out on his own. He’s exhibit A for how skating isn’t everything to a fine transition game, but there isn’t enough speed right now on the other pairings. That could change with a trade or if both Miller and Morrow find a way to stick this season.

The D is going to struggle to generate a speed rush in my view, though- that will have to come more from the faster forwards like Ryan Spooner, David Pastrnak and so on.

What are chances of midseason Chara trade? Michael Dunn @mikedunnfamily

I’m thinking dealing Chara falls somewhere between slim and none…with the caveat that if he asked out, Sweeney would probably accommodate that request. However, while I could be wrong, even with his declining play, I just don’t see the team trading him, Mike.

In my view- Chara is worth more to the Bruins than he is to other teams at this stage of his career. Sure- a contender would love to add him to the mix, but whatever they would offer to Boston is not going to make the B’s a better club today. And, of course- there’s that thing called a no-trade clause that complicates things. Yes, the Bruins could likely get Chara to waive it for the right destination, but limited landing spots mean that you’re getting less in return.

Unless he wants out, I see him finishing his career in Boston.

What do you see for Joe Morrow this season? Will he get an extended look in Boston, or another year in Providence? Brian briand_82

This is an important season for Morrow.

He was drafted in the first round four years ago because he could really skate and move the puck…the Bruins desperately need to add more of that element to their back end, especially with Dougie Hamilton now in Calgary.

Morrow will be 23 before January, and he’s physically ready to take the next step to playing NHL minutes in my view. With his puck skills, cannon shot and quick feet, he’d be an asset given what the team currently has, but the experience is working against him.

In his limited stint with Boston last season, I got the impression he was playing it overly conservative and safe, either on orders from the coaching staff or on his own initiative because he didn’t want to get stapled to the bench. While he performed okay in that role, that’s not really what the Bruins need from him. My advice would be to open it up, play to his strengths and give the team more of what they currently lack, as they don’t really need another solid shutdown type, but more of a defender who will jump up into the play with his wheels and be a consistent threat with the man advantage.

He has the tools to do it, but I don’t know if he’ll have a long enough leash or will even beat out new acquisition Colin Miller at camp. Miller’s production has been significantly higher in the AHL than Morrow’s has, but the latter put up better numbers in junior and was a top-30 pick. This will be an interesting camp battle for sure.

What do you think of Yale’s chances this year!! Can D win championships ? Bob Rittmeyer @bobrittmeyer

I’m not the best person to ask, but the Bulldogs are contenders every year it seems, and they manage to get into the NCAA championship mix despite not having much scoring, which puts tremendous pressure on the defense and goaltending.

I’ve always been impressed with Rob O’Gara’s size, skating and character, and he took a major step forward offensively last season- they’ll need him to keep that up. I also feel that Frank DiChiara should be some NHL club’s property at this point, and this could be a breakout year for him with a possible big free agency payoff if he decides to turn pro in the spring. He’s always been an opportunistic scorer and he has a pro build and power game already. Ryan Hitchcock is another underrated forward who can do just about everything- I was surprised nobody drafted him in 2014 or 2015, but scouts tell me his size scares them off.

Do they have enough horses to go all the way? I’ve always had time for Chicago prospect John Hayden, and Yale is a balanced group. They’re not favorites, but as they showed in 2013, once they get in, they’ll have a chance to knock off some of the more celebrated teams.

What would be the Best, most realistic, 7 DMen for the Bruins? Willy @willysteam

Well, barring any trades, signings or surprises- Chara, Seidenberg, Krug and McQuaid are all locks given their contracts and veteran status with the team. That leaves three open spots between Trotman, Irwin, Colin and Kevan Miller and Morrow. Tommy Cross and Christopher Breen are still hanging around as well, but I don’t envision any scenario where either player makes the team out of training camp.

Trotman is on a one-way deal this season and he played 27 NHL games last season after having an up-and-down (mostly down) year in Providence. Trotman played better in limited situations in Boston, including getting his first NHL goal, the late winner against the Red Wings in front of friends and family (he’s from Indiana but went to HS in Novi, Michigan). He’s one of the strongest men on the team, and he can move the puck pretty effectively even if he won’t ever put up big offensive numbers. I think he’s got the inside track for the fifth spot and only a horrendous performance or trade will derail him from starting the year in Boston.

For the sixth and last regular position in the three-pairing rotation, I like Colin Miller’s chances of winning that one. He scored 19 goals in the AHL last year, can really skate, and has outproduced Morrow in the pros to date. He’s also a right shot, which helps balance the blue line, while Morrow is another left-side shooter. Now, if it isn’t Miller, I think Morrow wins that job because he’s a toolsy D that Julien and the coaches are familiar with after 15 NHL games last year. Flip a coin- neither is subject to waivers at this point of their careers, so they can be recalled and sent down without fear of being poached by another team.

That leaves Kevan Miller and Irwin (maybe Morrow or Colin Miller) to fight it out for the seventh and resident press box denizen position, waiting for an opportunity to open up. Miller’s toughness and NHL experience means he’s probably the first to go in and if the team faces a more physical contest, he’d likely dress as a 7th D when needed, with Irwin becoming Providence’s top defender and veteran leader, first on the recall list if the blue line gets into trouble.

How do you think UMass-Lowell is going to do this year? A solid veteran team returns Gary Whittick @bigwhitt1956

I alluded to it above, but  projecting NCAA winners is not really what I’m best at. I’m not a college hockey analyst the same way others are, so you’re probably better off asking someone like Mike McMahon, Andy Merritt or one of the many other college hockey scribes out there who have far more collective knowledge than I do about the Riverhawks’ chances in 2016. I tend to focus on individual prospects and in the process get a feel for how their teams perform overall. Because Lowell has not been a landing spot for NHL prospects of late, I haven’t followed them as closely as others.

Having said that- the good news is that they’re a solid club. The bad news is- they play in the Hockey East and I don’t see a Connor Hellebuyck-like presence in net for them to help keep up with the conference powers, even with a seasoned, balanced squad. I mean no disrespect to Kevin Boyle, who is a solid stopper and will get some attention next spring come free agency time, but I look at the roster and it looks like a solid top third team again.

I like what Norm Bazin is doing there and had time for incoming freshman Ryan Dmowski– a former prep standout at the Gunnery who put up some nice numbers in the USHL last year despite not getting drafted. He doesn’t have the greatest speed, but he’s got a nose for the net and finds ways to finish off plays down around the blue paint. Keep an eye on him.

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Well, that about does it- thanks again for the questions and thanks for supporting the Scouting Post!