What D? The elephant in the room for the Bruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s legit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rangers land second big Boston-area NCAA free agent in Vesey- the aftermath

The Jimmy Vesey saga ended Friday when word leaked out via Bob McKenzie that the North Reading native and Harvard graduate after winning the 2016 Hobey Baker Award, agreed to terms with the New York Rangers.

The decision, made some four-and-a-half months after Vesey declined to sign with the Nashville Predators, who owned his rights after drafting him 66th overall in 2012, was met with disappointment and disgust in some Boston circles, but shouldn’t be all that surprising given some of the warning signs that pointed to the 23-year-old leaning away from choosing his hometown Bruins as one of seven teams he formally met with this week.

Like Kevin Hayes two years ago, the B’s were in the running, but the player decided to play close to home but not with the Boston organization. Not surprisingly, Hayes himself, the younger of two hockey brothers who both played at Boston College, was instrumental in helping to convince Vesey to choose Broadway over Causeway.

For those familiar with this blog and typist, you know that I have had a personal connection with the Vesey family for more than five years, but throughout the process, I purposefully stayed away from trying to leverage that connection for information. In many respects, not really knowing which way Vesey was definitively leaning was refreshing, as it allowed for a shared experience with the vast majority of fans and non-insiders. When the word came down that it was the Rangers, I was hearing it for the first time, and I was also wrong- my own guess was that he would go with the New Jersey Devils because of a personal connection to Tom Fitzgerald, the Devils’ assistant GM. Shows you how much I know…

There are a lot of different views out there on the subject, so these notes are based on my own personal knowledge and insights gained from several conversations over the weekend with NHL insiders who have knowledge of the Vesey situation. This is why I didn’t rush to post something on it Friday or Saturday, as I wanted to get my ducks in a row first. But truth in lending: take my observations with a grain of salt. There is a personal element to it so I am not completely free of bias in all of this, nor do I pass myself off as completely objective here. I am writing an opinion piece, so you have the choice to agree or disagree with any or all of the points made.

  1. My gut feeling is that the Bruins lost their real shot at Vesey five years ago, when they drafted Norwegian goalie Lars Volden in the sixth round. In doing that, they snubbed the Belmont Hill star who had been told by someone in the organization that they liked him and were going to take him. That’s the tragedy in all of this from Boston’s perspective- they *knew* in 2011 that he had some big time potential and recognized it, but at the draft table in St. Paul, they went with someone else and it cost them what could have been a huge success story for their scouting staff. This kind of stuff happens all the time, but when you look at the attention Vesey has received (much of it earned), it’s something the B’s have been kicking themselves over. There is no doubt that had Boston drafted Vesey, he would not have pursued free agency in the manner he did and none of this would have been necessary. That snub motivated Vesey to destroy the EJHL in 2011-12, smashing all major offensive league records, but even then- the B’s could have spent a first-round choice on him over Malcolm Subban, especially since they didn’t have a second-rounder and knew deep down he wouldn’t be there in the late third. In effect, the B’s chose two goaltenders over Vesey- one is a complete washout and the other has yet to deliver on significant promise. It goes to show that scouting future NHL players is more of an art than a science, and projecting stars between the pipes is even more difficult. The B’s didn’t do what they allegedly said they would, and you have to know that Vesey didn’t forget it. When you add in all of the other factors that went into his decision, it’s not surprising. Boston did it to themselves- they had two legitimate shots at really showing Vesey that they wanted him, but didn’t take them. That left the Bruins in the position to ask for him to choose them this week, and all he did was return the favor.
  2. Give Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and his staff credit- they put together a compelling pitch, leveraging New York’s natural draw as a big market destination and myriad celebrities and sports figures associated with the Big Apple to put the finishing touches on a successful pitch. It’s easy to hate the Rangers as a natural extension of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, and given Gorton’s history with the B’s, you know he enjoyed sticking it to Boston on this one, just as was the case with Hayes two years ago. Former Hobey Baker winner and Stanley Cup champion Chris Drury captained the Rangers and is the team,’s developmental guru- he had a major hand in convincing Vesey to sign on in Broadway, and don’t underestimate the lure that someone with Drury’s cachet brings to the process. In the end, there can only be one destination for a player’s services, and everything counts (not necessarily in large amounts as Depeche Mode once sang). While Vesey had close friends like Matt Grzelcyk, Ryan Fitzgerald and Harvard teammate Ryan Donato in the Boston organization, none of them have ever played a professional game with the B’s. Kevin Hayes, on the other hand, is the only close friend of Vesey’s in the NHL- he was able to identify with the signing process, but even more important- Hayes could tell Vesey firsthand what he was in for if he signed with New York. The other NHL teams in the running all brought out some of their biggest stars to try and sway Vesey, but none of them had the powerful personal connection Hayes does…that was big. Game, set and match. Remember- Boston is in some good company- the NHL’s modern dynasty Chicago Blackhawks and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins were also told “thanks but no thanks” by Vesey. The Rangers might seem like an odd choice to some, but for him, the team was the best fit. Now, time will tell how well he plays there and if he regrets that choice in the long run.
  3. In talking to one key insider, it was pointed out that Vesey has a large family and everyone is in the Boston area. It’s not just about Vesey taking heat during the inevitable times when he might not play as well as he’s capable of or like the human he is, goes into a slump. You have to take into account the effect that the media and fan negativity will have on Vesey’s immediate and extended families. It’s easy to dismiss that when you’re sitting behind a keyboard and have no concept of what it’s like to have your every move scrutinized and thinking about the possibility of rude, socially-stunted strangers accosting you in public to demand to know why your son, brother, nephew or cousin isn’t living up to the lofty expectations the modern information age created. It might sound like a cop out, and I’m sure there is an element of people that will scoff at the notion no matter what. That’s fine- I’m not trying to reach them, but the more fair-minded of those in hockey fandom will get it. “We know everyone,” came a quote via text yesterday. “And in the offseason (Jimmy) can come home and get away from it.” If he had signed in Boston, there would be no escape from the scrutiny of his profession. By going to the Rangers, he can go home to Boston in the summer months and decompress rather than stay in  what could be a crucible of discontent if the B’s fortunes don’t improve. That’s a lot to put on someone’s shoulders, even if there is a case to be made that by embracing the challenge, Vesey truly could have made himself into a legitimate Boston star. It was probably not meant to be, and that’s okay.
  4. It’s unfortunate that there is an element of sour grapes already taking hold and a segment of fans rejected by Vesey are already bringing out the sharp knives. It’s predictable. And lame. Look, the biggest mistake us “mortals” make is in assuming that because we would kill for a chance to play professional hockey for our favorite teams, everyone else should think the way we do. Observations 1 and 3 have already laid out why Boston was not the obvious choice for him, and to be honest- the B’s should be glad they were even in the final running. A more petulant, immature person would have stuck it to them and made a public spectacle of that rejection. Vesey is not that guy, and I think he showed the team respect by giving them a chance. Some might say he “used” them, but I would argue he leveraged every team in the running to determine his final landing spot.That might be what a Harvard degree teaches you, but that’s just me. It would be nice if people could show the same kind of maturity by respecting the decision and not seeking to point fingers or play the blame game. It might be human nature to lash out when things don’t go your way, but take a step back and evaluate your life and priorities. If you spent more time than you should have getting yourself worked up over the idea of Vesey skating in Boston and now feel hurt or betrayed after he chose the Rangers, then there are probably some important things in your life that you are neglecting. To put it another way (Ben Stiller style): It’s just a game, Focker.
  5. What was distasteful to everyone was the amount of attention the whole thing got for as long as it did, and the comparisons to Kevin Durant are valid. This is something Vesey will have to deal with and the best way to put it behind him is to simply go out and prove himself at the NHL level. At the same time, he probably invoked the old Shakespeare “Methinks thou doth protest too much,” when he commented about not enjoying the spotlight. A couple of points- I know Jimmy and believe him on that score: he’s not an attention-seeker. His handlers have more to do with that than anything, but as the player, he’s got to own that this became something that got out of hand. Second- there’s little doubt that deep down, he enjoyed being able to dictate the terms to NHL teams. Remember- all 30 clubs snubbed him in 2011 and 2012. Any one of them could have drafted him before Nashville in the 3rd round in his second year of eligibility. He went from being a kid who was hurt and disappointed at being skipped in his first year (who wouldn’t be?) to someone just about everyone would have gladly taken on their team. It’s human nature to enjoy an element of revenge when the tables are turned. I don’t blame him. Finally, the timing stunk- there just isn’t any hockey news to be had in mid-August and that fed the beast of the media circus surrounding Vesey, especially since he’s the reigning Hobey Baker recipient. Many of us might find the kind of hype surrounding him ridiculous, but this is the world we live in. Had Jonathan Drouin been able to leave Tampa Bay at midseason and become a free agent open to bidders, we likely would have seen the same exact thing. And those Canadian CHL-centric folks who wagged their fingers and tut-tutted at Vesey leveraging his right in the CBA would probably have made the same allowances for a player like Drouin that they seemed unwilling to extend for Vesey. That’s life, but again- you know who you are. Take a step back and be honest with yourself- every team seeks an edge, and Vesey is a good risk to take. We might not like the attention he got, but if it wasn’t him, it would likely be someone else. Besides, it made for an interesting story to follow at least. I’m just glad it’s over and we can now focus on the next big things: the World Cup of Hockey and the start of the new NHL season.

The onus is now on Vesey to go out and prove himself at the NHL level. There will be many out there rooting for him to fail, but he’s done a nice job of silencing the critics so far. Playing for the Rangers will be business as usual for him, and if the past is any indication, he’ll likely build more fans and supporters than detractors.

***

So, where do the Bruins go from here?

They accepted risk in waiting to see what happened with Vesey because by bringing him into the fold, they would have built a bigger war chest with which to make a trade for much-needed defensive help.

That ship has now sailed for Don Sweeney, so he needs to reset and figure out how he can address a very mediocre defensive group (and that’s being charitable at this point). He’s talked about the difficulty of finding the right players in a constricted market where skilled two-way defensemen are at a premium, but as the GM, the fans aren’t interested in that kind of reasoning. They expect action, and so it will be interesting to see what he and the team does between now and the start of rookie camp in about 30 days or before opening night in October.

The Bruins have some impressive young defenders coming down the pipeline via recent drafts, but those kids aren’t realistic options to help the 2016-17 NHL roster, so something has to give. Sweeney needs to find a way to close some deals and get some wins under his belt. Here’s guessing that he might re-open the lines of communication with St. Louis or Anaheim to look at Kevin Shattenkirk or Cam Fowler. 29-year-old free agent Kris Russell has not yet been signed (boy, is THAT ever telling!) and at this point, you have to think that someone will land him, especially if the right money makes his shortcomings easier to swallow. But how much of an upgrade is he on a team like the Bruins? Again, it will come down to contract term and AAV, but that he’s still sitting out and available in mid-August is interesting.

Yes, it would have been easier for Sweeney and staff to make a deal with Vesey on board to free up other assets to be moved, but Boston also has to play the longer game with Brad Marchand headed to unrestricted free agency in July 2017 if the B’s don’t extend him. And let’s face it- they can’t afford *not* to extend him unless they work an unreal trade that the majority of fans can get behind. To lose Marchand in the wake of so many other grievances fans have about the team is as unpleasant an outcome as you can find right now.

The major priority is to improve the defense. You can’t “fix” this group, but Sweeney can build a more sturdier unit than what we saw last season with one move. When you look at the promise of players like Charlie McAvoy and perhaps Brandon Carlo or Rob O’Gara plus others in the next 1-3 years, the defense will improve. However, the status quo in 2016-17 is simply not going to work. Sweeney has to find a way to identify and acquire a bridge player or two.

It won’t be easy, but if it were, then anyone off the street could manage an NHL team to a Stanley Cup championship.

 

The undrafted free agents: Kevan Miller

Next in the undrafted free agents series covering the Boston Bruins is California-bred, Massachusetts and Vermont-developed defensive defenseman Kevan Miller. He caught Boston’s eye during a late-season ATO with the Providence Bruins in 2011, and then got an invite to the team’s rookie camp and main training camp that fall. I still remember traveling to Nassau Coliseum and seeing him get involved in a major donnybrook to start the second of the two-game series between the B’s and Islanders rooks. Miller earned an NHL contract a few weeks later, and by the midway point of 2013-14, was playing in the NHL full-time.

He’s a classic American story of hard work and overcoming hurdles, and yet Miller may be one of the more criticized players on the Boston roster, despite an impressive body of work in the realm of analytics that we’ll attempt to shine some light on later on.

This is his story.

Hard as a Rock: Kevan Miller

When it comes to Kevan Miller, few players are more polarizing to a respective fanbase than he is to supporters of the Boston Bruins.  Here’s a video courtesy of friend “Dafoomie”:

The soon-to-be 29-year-old defenseman should be one of those feel good stories in hockey- a California born-and-raised defenseman who went East in high school, rose to the University of Vermont captaincy, and after being ignored in the NHL draft, willed his way into the Boston lineup less than three years after turning pro. Instead, he’s become a convenient scapegoat- a player who is an easy target for frustrations because he was asked to play a bigger role than the one to which he is best suited.

Miller was a few months away from his first birthday when the Los Angeles Kings made “the trade” to bring Wayne Gretzky to Tinseltown in August, 1988. Raised in Santa Clarita, Miller represents the first generation of players who were born when Gretzky arrived and went on to reach the highest levels of professional hockey thanks in large part to the hockey boom the Great One inspired in Southern California. Miller wasn’t the first Golden Stater to make the big time, nor is he the most successful, but all things considered, the guy who the Bruins took a chance on back in 2011, and who recently earned a four-year NHL extension is much better than he gets credit for.

I realize this won’t be a popular opinion to some, who will rightly cite some of Miller’s bungled plays leading directly to goals as proof positive that he should be exiled forever to the lower rungs of the professional hockey ladder, never to take another shift for the Bruins. Of course, the flip side of that is- show me any NHL defenseman who plays enough minutes at this level, and you’ll see some poor plays that lead to bad goals. Like the dead people in the Sixth Sense, once folks lock onto a favorite target- they’ll see what they want to see, so if Miller is a bum, it’s easy to single him out for abuse.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that Miller is a potential All-Star, nor is it to feed into the idea that he’s a drag on the rest of his team and was not worthy of the $2.5M AAV and four-year investment the B’s made in him.

As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Miller is a fairly vanilla defender: he’s an average skater without much in the way of quick acceleration, but who is rugged and plays with an edge. His offensive numbers are better than one would expect for a shutdown style ‘D’ without high-end skills. He’s a natural leader and former prep (Berkshire School) and college captain who is a respected teammate and put in tremendous work to reach the NHL.

Here’s an interesting study on the top defenders from last season, posted on Reddit by ChrisCFTB97

It’s a thoughtful, analytics-driven look at the most effective defensemen in the NHL from last season, and while advanced stats don’t tell the whole story, Miller’s numbers when compared to those of Zdeno Chara and Colin Miller, the other two teammates the author used for the study (boy, I sure would’ve liked to see him use Torey Krug here), are pretty favorable. If anything- it directly contradicts the idea propagated around the Internet that Miller is “horrible” or “can’t defend.”

Here’s the HERO (Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic) chart comparing Miller to that of trade deadline darling Kris Russell, done courtesy of the most excellent hockey analytics source and blog Own The Puck by MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com:

Kevan Miller's HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Kevan Miller’s HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

The numbers don’t lie. When it comes to things that matter on defense such as shot suppression and possession, Miller clearly has the advantage over Russell and it isn’t close. Again- advanced stats aren’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to debating the merits of an NHL player, but Miller is nothing if a serviceable defender who actually looks like a solid bargain at $10M/2.5M per through age 32.

Now, some of the friction points working against Miller could lie in the following observations:

  1. Both of Miller and Adam McQuaid on the 2016-17 Bruins roster is problematic. They’re both right shots and bring similar attributes in terms of style and substance. McQuaid is bigger and not as adept offensively, but both are nasty and because of the physical toll their rugged style takes on their bodies, they’ve missed significant time to injuries in each of the past several NHL campaigns. Neither guy is a classic top-4 player (though if you look at the advanced metrics Miller is closer to that between the two), and when you add up their cap numbers, it’s far too much green to invest in a pair of guys like that. To say that Miller is incapable of making a positive impact is wrong. To argue that having both of Miller and McQuaid on the Boston roster puts the team at a disadvantage is a far more effective way of looking at it. One or the other…Miller or McQuaid. Something should give before the season starts because the pair effectively blocks a younger player from establishing himself at the NHL level, and if either one is on Claude Julien’s top pairing (and even middle pair is an issue), then this is not a playoff-caliber defense.
  2. The tail end of observation No. 1 leads to a second significant challenge with Miller and that is simply- the B’s put him in a position to fail last season. At times, he was expected to carry the mail in a top-three role with expanded minutes and special teams, and naturally- his limitations were exposed. Miller is effective closer to the bottom of an NHL rotation, and he’s capable of being a solid matchup play and at even strength, when he doesn’t have his hands full as much with opponents who can make good use of added time and space. He’s not as big as Hal Gill was, but Miller is a better all-around player and defender. Unfortunately, like Gill later on in his Boston career- Miller has become an easy target with fans who just want to blame someone when a goal is scored against, never mind that the opposition’s top scorer was able to exploit a 1-on-1 matchup with the game but limited Miller.
  3. Let’s face it- sometimes, it’s all about draft pedigree. Fans want to get behind sexy draft picks and big names- they tend to be much more skeptical of and harder on guys like Miller who come in as unknowns and outplay the “big guns.” Go back to the Reddit link I posted and look at some of Dougie Hamilton’s numbers in those categories. He’s better than Miller in a couple, egregiously worse in others. In the end, Kevan Miller’s 84.5 average (lower is better) across the various evaluated categories is better than Hamilton’s 98.2. One guy was drafted 9th overall in 2011, the other one had to make it on an invitation, fight his way onto the team and has managed to stick. Again- you can’t just hang your hat on the analytics, and no one in their right mind would trade Miller for Hamilton even-steven (no, not even Don Sweeney, guys- but nice try). The difference is- one player is making half of what the other guy makes, and maybe that $2.5AAV isn’t so terrible after all. (One more time- *not* saying Miller is better than Hamilton- put the straw man down) It’s all in how you use him, folks. That’s a legitimate debate to have, but you can’t do it in a vacuum- context matters.
Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay- we had some fun with the image, but it’s tongue-in-cheek from this blog space. The reality is- TSP has time for Miller. He’s an honest, hard-nosed player who will give you every ounce of what he has. Unfortunately, in a results-oriented business, that alone isn’t going to lead his Bruins team to success, so the onus is on the GM to upgrade the talent around Miller so that he can be a capable and serviceable piece.

And therein lies the rub- I don’t think fans inherently dislike Miller at all. In fact, he was pretty popular when he first showed up and was hitting, fighting and playing solid D at a near veteran minimum cap hit. Alas- he lacks the high-end talent to be a firm top-4 NHL D, even if the analytics indicate he has a chance at it. Realistically- the more he plays, the more people will see him get burned, but by the same token, he suppresses a lot of chances he simply doesn’t get credit for because human nature means that those with an axe to grind will dwell on the mistakes.

Ultimately- Miller has been a nice find by the Boston scouting staff. He’s scrapped for every opportunity, but he’s a smart, driven guy- derailed a bit by shoulder injuries and the ruggedness of his style of play. On the downside- Miller and McQuaid are two fine soldiers, but the team can’t really afford to keep both. It’s the tough part of the business, but you figure the B’s signed the former before he could hit unrestricted free agency for a reason.

We’ll have to see what Sweeney and Co’s vision is for the defense and where Miller fits in, but he deserves a more even shake than the one he’s gotten. In the right role, he’s a lot like what these guys are singing:

Take it away, Millsy.