Notes from around the NHL on opening night

The NHL’s 2015-16 campaign officially opened on Wednesday night with the 2015 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks hosting the New York Rangers and raising their third big banner since 2010 after going 49 years between their previous title in 1961. The Chicago Cubs are hoping to capture some of that magic, and in case you forgot- the last time they won a World Series was 1908.

The Rangers-Hawks game was what hockey is about- it was a fast-paced game that saw the visitors take a 3-2 victory after a late Patrick Kane goal was waved off (due to the referee losing sight of the puck while behind net and blowing the whistle before Kane could poke it through Henrik Lundqvist’s pads). Hank was very good- surrendering a pair of goals to Chicago Euro young guns Artem Panarin and Teuvo Teravainen after his defense broke down on both occasions. Beyond that, he was his usual stellar self and at age 33, shows no signs of slowing.

Jonathan Toews is such a fine player. Granted- I finally landed him in an ESPN fantasy hockey league I participate in after that league did away with keepers for the first time in 4 years, but Toews is such a cerebral guy out there- less is more with him. On one play, he was hooked by Mats Zuccarello, but calmly pivoted and threaded a pass over to Teravainen, who got a good shot off and forced Lundqvist to make a key save. That play won’t show up in Toews’ stats, nor will it make the highlight reel, but stack enough of those up together over the course of the season and you’re going to win a lot more games than you lose.

I really like Kevin Hayes as an NHL player. His raw potential was so evident way back in 2009-10 when he was a star at Nobles prep, but we knew back then that he was going to require a lot of patience and seasoning. The B’s reportedly came close to getting him in the summer of 2014, but he opted for Broadway instead and watch for him to emerge as one of that team’s more consistent forwards in the next season or two. He and older brother Jimmy are different- Kevin is more of a finesse, skilled scorer who can beat you in a variety of ways, whereas Jimmy is more of a straight-ahead, north-south winger who generates his offense through hard work and parking his gigantic frame in front of the net where very few in the NHL have the size/strength to move him.

Hayes, who was drafted by the Blackhawks, used the system to his advantage to choose his destination and as mentioned last night, we could see a similar scenario play out with Harvard’s own Jimmy Vesey, who was snubbed in the 2011 draft, but picked up by Nashville in the third round a year later and will have the same option for free agency available to him after his senior season in Cambridge if he does not sign with the Predators. Just a guess, but I bet the folks in Smashville will work very hard to get the lethal scorer into the fold…I’ve spoken to Nashville scouting director Jeff Kealty (a Massachusetts guy  and former 1st round pick in 1994 out of CM back in the day) and it’s no secret that the team loves him (as did the Bruins except for the fact that they didn’t have a second-rounder in 2012 to use on Vesey).

Out West, the Kings took an early lead at home, jumping on the San Jose Sharks and former L.A. (and Boston for a few days) goalie Martin Jones when Nick Shore deflected a shot just 1:42 into the game. However, San Jose stormed back, including a wicked shot from Joe Thornton on a 2-on-1 when the entire building including Jonathan Quick figured he would pass it. That shot reminded me a lot of the 38-goal Jumbo Joe we saw in Boston during Mike Keenan’s one and only season behind the Bruins bench in 2000-01.

After that the rout was on and the Sharks closed out the Kings by a 4-1 score. Milan Lucic went after Logan Couture in the final frame after he took exception to a hit. This is the Lucic on-the-edge guy whose emotions don’t always work for the team…I didn’t have a problem with Lucic going after Couture as I do with the fact that in the grand scheme it was not that big of a deal and was just as easily something he could have taken a number on and then crushed Couture with a big but legal hit the next time they went into a corner together. All Couture did was turtle (and that’s not an insult to him- he’d be foolish to try and fight in that situation) Lucic once again looked like a bully and a bad guy, which many believe he is.

In any case- for those thinking that the Sharks are going to tank this season, this one game is reason for pause. They played well on the road against a fired-up Kings team that along with the Bruins and Blackhawks, has won every Stanley Cup for the last six years.

The Calgary Flames dropped their season opener to Vancouver. I didn’t watch the game live but will catch the replay today and see how Mr. Dougie Hamilton looked. I am intrigued to see if Sean Monahan can make that next big step in his development after a fine season a year ago.

All in all- it’s been a long offseason and it’s great to have games that count once again.

The Bruins open up their season tonight at home against the game and dangerous Winnipeg Jets, who are my pick to reach a Stanley Cup final series here in the not-too-distant future with the pieces they continue to stockpile. The Jets are a young team, but they’ve got a nice balance of skill, grit and character. These are not your daddy’s Atlanta Thrashers, that’s for sure!

The wait is over, Bruins fans- the 92nd season  begins tonight.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams- Bruins drafts 2007-09

2009The While working out this morning I was listening to my sleaze rock/hair metal playlist and a song by Finnish glam band Hanoi Rocks provided some inspiration. Here’s what sprang up from one of Michael Monroe (Matti Fagerholm) and Co.’s signature songs.

Three years of draft futility didn’t have an immediate impact on the Boston Bruins’ fortunes, but after winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, the lack of production from 17 total picks from 2007-09 has caught up to the team. Blown drafts are nothing new to NHL clubs- every single team has had at least one in their history, with a surprising number of clubs faring poorly over a stretch. It happens. However, in the old days (read: pre salary cap era), richer clubs could at least attempt to buy back draft mistakes through free agency (didn’t work so great for the late 90’s New York Rangers). Now, with the importance of having impact talent on cheaper ELC deals and the necessity of building a quality supporting cast from within, nobody can afford to string together multiple busted drafts as Boston did early in former GM Peter Chiarelli’s tenure.

Here’s a quick look at three bad draft years with hindsight being 20/20 and who the B’s should have taken when they had the chance.

2007

Background: After striking it rich in Vancouver a year earlier with Phil Kessel and Tuukka Rask (Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand had yet to pay off, but that haul made 2006 the best single draft class in about 26 years when the team strung together two brilliant summers in 1979-80) the B’s regressed under coach Dave Lewis, missing the playoffs in Chiarelli’s first Boston season. The eighth pick put them out of range for the guys they reportedly wanted, but a top-10 selection nonetheless came with high expectations.

Who they wanted: London Knights forward Sam Gagner (Edmonton) and the Halifax Mooseheads’ Jakub Voracek (Columbus) both went off the board in the immediate picks prior to Boston’s selection. Gagner made the NHL at 18 but has stagnated, while Voracek was traded to the Flyers and has emerged as one of the league’s better offensive players over the past three seasons.

Who they took: Zach Hamill, C Everett Silvertips. Ouch. At the time, I felt Hamill was a solid pick because he had just led the WHL in scoring at age 18 while playing in a defense-heavy system under former NHL coach Kevin Constantine. What I and most didn’t know is that Hamill had some personality/off-ice challenges that made him a risky pick right off the bat. Suffice to say that his lack of speed and strength were big enough hurdles to overcome and he just didn’t have enough skill to overcome that. He finished his Bruins career in parts of three NHL seasons with just 20 games and four assists; he was traded to Washington for Chris Bourque in 2012, but never saw another NHL shift.

Who they should have taken: Logan Couture, C Ottawa 67’s. Double ouch. The San Jose Sharks knew a deal of the century when they saw one and jumped up to the ninth overall selection behind Boston to grab the OHL star. The All-Star has played in 379 games entering the 2015-16 NHL season with 139 goals and 287 points plus another 18 goals, 36 points in 56 career playoff games. Injuries have interfered with Couture’s production, but for the most part, he’s been everything you want in a top-10 pick and more. Couture here over Jamie Benn is based purely on how the players were projected in 2007, not now. More on Benn below…

The best available player (to Boston) of that draft:  Jamie Benn, C- Dallas Stars 5th round, 129th overall. Benn is exhibit A for how some players don’t hit their stride until after drafted at 17-18. In a re-draft today, Benn goes behind Patrick Kane, and maybe even edges him out for the top pick given his production of late- I’ll leave that debate to others. To know that the Bruins drafted Hamill, Tommy Cross before him is rubbing salt in the wounds. Hey- it’s not all bad, at least German bust Dennis Reul was selected with the pick immediately *after* Benn in the 5th round and not before (the Bruins didn’t have picks in the 3rd or 4th rounds).

The picks: 8- Hamill (20gp, 4 assists), 35- Cross (0 NHL gp), 130- Reul (0 NHL gp), 159- Alain Goulet (0 NHL gp), 169- Radim Ostricil (0 NHL gp), 189- Jordan Knackstedt (0 NHL gp)

The verdict: With 2 picks in the top-35 and just 20 games to show for six selections overall, this is one of Boston’s all-time poorest drafts. Yes, 2007 was not a great year, but imagine what this team would look like if they took Couture or Benn in the 1st and then P.K. Subban in the 2nd.

2008

Background: The B’s surged into the playoffs late and gave a good fight to the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, going down in seven games but making it fun to be a Bruins fan again. With the 16th overall pick in what was considered a better draft in Ottawa than the year before, the team was looking at a pick with a longer-term payoff.

Who they wanted: Joe Colborne. The Bruins scouted the AJHL standout heavily that season, and so it was no real surprise that they ended up with him, as the team was essentially bidding against themselves. Not many clubs were reported to be as high on the talented but enigmatic center as Boston was.

Who they took: Joe Colborne, C Camrose Kodiaks. No surprise as said above– he was a talented gamble of a player who was controversial for questions over his fire and competitive drive because of his family’s wealth. I always felt that criticism was unfair and while Colborne has reached the NHL after being traded away from Boston and Toronto, he’s not anywhere near the player the Bruins thought they were getting. They moved him in spring of 2011 with picks to the Leafs for veteran defenseman Tomas Kaberle. In a good news/bad news scenario, the B’s won the Cup but in spite of Kaberle not because of him. He helped, but wasn’t the player Boston hoped for. Luckily, neither Colborne, nor the picks the B’s traded have come back to bite them.

Who they should have taken: Jordan Eberle, RW Regina Pats. Eberle’s star has fallen a bit in recent seasons, but he’s still the kind of speedy scoring forward that would have been a fine fit with the B’s.

The best available player (to Boston) of that draft: Derek Stepan, C Shattuck St. Mary’s. The Rangers got a steal with him at 51st overall…the B’s opted for speedy but hockey IQ-challenged Max Sauve instead in the second round. Capitals defenseman John Carlson (27th) is also in the discussion.

Hit: Michael Hutchinson, G Barrie Colts- 77th overall pick in the 3rd round was a good one as he emerged to help lead the Winnipeg Jets to their first playoff berth since the club moved to Canada and overall since 2008 when they were the Atlanta Thrashers. In fairness to Boston, he was inconsistent, alternating in Providence between brilliance and profound mediocrity, and never established himself as a No. 1 at that level in three seasons as a Bruins prospect, but just think how different their season would have been last year with ‘Hutch’ as the backup instead of Niklas Svedberg.

The picks: 16- Colborne (160gp 19-43-62-83- TOR, CGY), 47- Sauve (1gp), 77- Hutchinson (41gp 23-11-5, .918), 97- Jamie Arniel (1gp), 173- Nicolas Tremblay (0 NHL gp), 197- Mark Goggin (0 NHL gp)

The verdict: Colborne at least made it and helped the Bruins acquire a small championship piece, but nothing to show for Hutchinson and lack of success anywhere else (Former OHL forward Rob Flick– acquired for Sauve- was not re-signed) makes this another draft failure for Boston.

2009

Background: As the B’s headed to Montreal for the draft they had plans to make a splash by trading disgruntled star Kessel, reportedly to the Leafs for Tomas Kaberle and a top-10 selection. Apparently Leafs GM Brian Burke didn’t get the memo about the pick and even thought the Bruins were going to give them their first-rounder (25th overall), but this is hearsay. Bottom line- the deal fell through though Burke would pay a higher price for Kessel a few months later, while Boston held their first and hoped to do something with it after a great regular season and second-round playoff flameout vs. the upstart Carolina Hurricanes.

Who they wanted: Rumors abound that the B’s would have used that Leafs first-rounder on OHL power forward Zack Kassian. At the time, he was being compared to Lucic as a player with the physical prowess and skill to make a difference in all facets of the game. It hasn’t happened for him yet, and B’s fans can be glad that Kaberle and Kassian were not the trade returns the team got for Kessel, though Tyler Seguin and Dougie Hamilton and their ultimate fates as Bruins are a discussion for another day.

Who they took: Jordan Caron, RW Rimouski Oceanic. Sometimes, a player looks like absolutely the right fit and things just don’t work out. Anyone who says they questioned Caron at the time is probably writing revisionist history, because though his skating issues were documented, Caron also had some of the better hands and pure finishing skills of anyone in the draft class. He even made an early impact in Boston, coming up during the 2010-11 season and flashing some impressive scoring on a few plays. Unfortunately, he never seemed to put it together during his time in Providence, and when in Boston, his play (and Claude Julien’s confidence in him) regressed to the point that by 2014-15, he was a popular internet message board whipping boy. When Caron was dealt to Colorado for Max Talbot, most looked back at the pick and felt like he was the can’t miss prospect who did exactly that.

Who they should have taken:  Ryan O’Reilly, C Erie Otters. The 33rd overall pick made the NHL right away and developed into the gritty, two-way forward and heavy player that suits the Boston style so well. He has since been traded to Buffalo and landed in hot water with the law recently, but on the ice, he’s tough to play against and can provide timely scoring, something Caron was never able to do.

The picks: 25- Caron (153gp 12-16-28-78), 86- Ryan Button (0 NHL gp), 112- Lane MacDermid (21gp 2-2-4-36), 176- Tyler Randell (0 NHL gp), 206- Ben Sexton (0 NHL gp)

The verdict: Again, not much to show for the draft picks, though Caron, Button (part of the Seguin trade) and MacDermid (part of Jaromir Jagr trade) all fetched return assets for the Bruins, so it’s not a total wash. Still- teams don’t draft players with the idea of making them trade chips. Randell and Sexton are still in the Boston system, but neither flash anything more than potential as NHL journeymen/role players, so another missed year in 2009 looks like fait accompli.

Conclusion: It’s easy to go back and play Monday Morning GM 8, 7 and 6 years later, and the Bruins are far from the only ones who have hosed up drafts in multiple years (hey- Vancouver, Phoenix, Calgary and so on- here’s looking at you!), but this is what we tend to do. After the Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011, the team began a natural progression downwards without fresh, young, skilled talent to replace aging veterans. To the B’s credit they got back to the finals in 2013 but could not beat a superior Chicago Blackhawks squad that had effectively re-tooled after winning it all in 2010 and captured another Cup this past June. The Blackhawks have done a great job of hitting on drafts, which was essential to their keeping enough talent in the system to off-set salary cap-driven personnel moves. They’ll be an interesting team to watch with their new look.

As for Boston- those missed years from 2007-09 forced the Bruins to play catch up and while the 2010-14 drafts have been more productive with talent yet to sink or swim, the team’s future may ultimately lie with how well the club did in 2015- with 10 picks, 6 of them in the top-52.

Here is Michael Monroe and Hanoi Rocks to bring it on home…