Bruins hammer Penguins in decisive home win

Are the Boston Bruins Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?

Are they a good team with clear shortcomings on the defensive side that sometimes make them look worse than they are, or a mediocre team that is able to pound opponents so decisively on occasion so as to fool the optimists out there who support them?

The answer just might represent a little of both.

On Wednesday night, the B’s completed a three-game series sweep against the Pittsburgh Penguins, which is a similar team in that it has been a perennial contender since the Sidney Crosby era revitalized the team’s fortunes, but this year has been a shadow of its former powerful self since squeaking into the playoffs at Boston’s expense last spring.

Like Boston, the Pens have a powerful 1-2 punch at center (though Evgeni Malkin was unable to return from injury to help his team at the TD Center last night), a leaky defense made up of game, but  often overmatched 4/5/6 types and a goaltender who can minimize the damage but can’t do it all himself in Marc-Andre Fleury.

As was the case in Dallas last Saturday, the B’s didn’t exactly dominate the contest, as the Penguins came at them early, hemming them in their zone. Tuukka Rask withstood a 13-shot opening period, not allowing any pucks by him, and David Pastrnak scored the third penalty shot goal of the season for Boston to make it a 1-0 contest.

Pastrnak (his eighth) and Penguins forward Tom Kuhnackl traded goals in the second period to set the stage for a critical third period with the B’s still smarting after getting zinged at home the other night against Columbus.

Jimmy Hayes, Landon Ferraro and Brad Marchand, who scored his team-leading 31st goal, tallied three goals on three shots in the final 10 minutes to push the score to 5-1 and give the Bruins a much-needed home victory.

Hayes finished off a brilliant rush by Ryan Spooner, who got the puck from Hayes after Adam McQuaid blocked a shot (after losing his helmet- no fear) and took off like a rocket up the ice, crossing with Matt Beleskey at the offensive blue line to gain extra space. He then approached the net from the left side and threaded a pass right to Hayes, who didn’t miss for his 13th marker.

Ferraro then broke away after slipping behind the defense and getting a home run pass from Dennis Seidenberg, beating Fleury with a top-shelf laser for just his fourth goal of the season. Ferraro also had an earlier fight with Scott Wilson and gave better than he got, showing off the kind of energy that has made him a capable bottom-line player since the B’s snatched him off the waiver wire from Detroit.

Marchand’s final tally was vintage No. 63, as he got the puck from Torey Krug, cut to the net and let a jumpy Fleury make the first move before going around the defender and sprawling goaltender to slip the puck in on the far side.

Rask, for his part, was magnificent in a 41-save effort- he gave up just the Kuhnackl goal, scored off the German forward’s skate after a fat rebound. This is the kind of game that the Bruins typically need from their one-time Vezina Trophy-winning netminder. The defense still gives up a good number of quality scoring chances, but when Rask is on top of his crease and in the zone, he’s as good as anyone else in the league. The problem is- when the B’s go up against clubs with better top-to-bottom roster depth, they have a tough time matching up against teams that have the speed and skill to employ an effective forecheck that disrupts Boston’s timing on the breakout and leads to defensive zone turnovers.

Pastrnak’s performance gives the team multiple reasons for optimism. For one thing, it’s been a tough slog for the 19-year-old, who burst onto the scene a little over a year ago when he was called up in January and then proceeded to become Boston’s brightest hope for the future. Beyond his obvious offensive talent, Pastrnak is an easy kid to get behind because he wears his love of hockey openly, with a wide, infectious smile that reminds everyone who watches him of how all of these pro players began their lifetime association with this sport. Pastrnak is also serious and hard-working. He’s not quite on the same level as Patrice Bergeron was at the same age, but he’s not that far off, either. Pastrnak made the NHL at 18 because he not only gave the Bruins something they desperately lacked, but also because the coaches saw his work ethic and desire to improve manifested at practice. Some people have to be taught by others how to work harder to maximize their natural gifts, but Pastrnak needed no such coaching, and was often the last player off the ice (and still is). Claude Julien and his veteran coaching staff saw that, and so even with the setbacks the second-year right wing has dealt with this season, they’re willing to stick with him and maintain the faith that he can become the regular scorer he’s shown the penchant for in flashes.

Where do we go from here?

The Loui Eriksson trade watch continues, and I’ve been intrigued by the polarized sides on Twitter and the Internet- the two camps that are clearly at odds with one another within the B’s fandom. I explained at length last week why the Bruins will trade Eriksson and try to leverage him into the assets that can allow GM Don Sweeney to more properly address the elephant in the room: the defense.

Although there seems to be a group of folks who believe Eriksson can and should be signed, I have yet to see any plausible explanation from that side on how it will work. Assuming his agent JP Barry wants to secure money and term from his client (and why wouldn’t he?), the Bruins would essentially be rolling the dice that the soon-to-be 31-year-old would be able to maintain his current level of contributions for another four years at least to make an extension worthwhile. While that’s not impossible, the odds are certainly not in favor of that. Eriksson has never been a dynamic skater, so if he loses a step over the next couple of years as many players on the wrong side of 30 tend to do, his production could essentially drop off a cliff. The B’s cannot afford to be shortsighted here- that thinking is what got them into salary cap jeopardy in the first place.

Loui is a fine man and teammate. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, and in the scope of the here and now, he obviously makes the Bruins a better team than they will be without him. But fans demand that their teams be in the winning mix year after year, and extending Eriksson puts that philosophy in peril. Sure- he’s one of the team’s most versatile and dependable forwards, but one can also make the argument that there are young players in the system that can capably address what Eriksson brings to the club given a little time. They won’t cost upwards of 5.5-6 million dollars a year (at least not right away) and dealing Eriksson gives the Bruins the much-needed coin of the realm: assets in the form of picks and futures that every team covets to off-set the ever escalating salary structures needed to retain the top talent across the league.

Should the B’s prove me wrong and hold onto Eriksson, either extending him or keeping him for the playoffs, we’ll revisit the implications of that when the time comes. Even if he’s not moved at the deadline, they can still flip him to a team that wants his exclusive negotiating rights before the July 1 free-for-all for a middling pick, which is not ideal but better than nothing. If they commit the term and dollars to him, then I think it works in the short run, but could have profound consequences by the years 2018 or 2019. I guess for those who like to live in the now, that may not be such a bad thing.

What we’re figuring out here is that making trades and acquiring the kinds of essential players needed to assemble a winning mix in the modern NHL is easy to talk about, much harder to pull off. It isn’t like Boston is bereft of young defensemen in the organization, but nobody is truly ready to step in and make the kind of difference this team needs right now with a goalie in his prime along with multiple forwards whose window might be closing by the time the B’s home grown blue line talent can make an impact.

Colin Miller has shown he can create offense, but he’s still got much to learn defensively. Rob O’Gara is having a down senior year at Yale but has size and mobility to become a bottom pairing staple after a little seasoning in the AHL. Matt Grzelcyk has the speed and offensive talent to be a two-way threat, but like Krug, will need some time to develop in the minors and will be a wild card in terms of what kind of role he can carve out for himself in Boston. Jakub Zboril, Brandon Carlo and Jeremy Lauzon were all drafted last June and are not realistic options to make a difference for at least another full season but likely two or three more years at the earliest.

That means Sweeney needs to add a key piece now or at least in the coming off season. You have to give to get, and Eriksson represents the kind of asset that can increase the GM’s options, not diminish them. Yes, fans may not be thrilled with the kind of return he brings back in a few days (assuming he’s dealt), but you have to play the long game here and realize that a trade made today could set up the even bigger haul tomorrow (or in about three or four months).

If we’ve learned anything about the recent wins over Dallas and Pittsburgh, it is this- the scores didn’t represent how close the games actually were. The B’s benefited from shaky goaltending play from their opponents, but in the playoffs, when every game’s intensity is ratcheted up a few notches and the better teams can make you pay for every mistake, this Boston club isn’t going anywhere far as currently constructed.

That means you have to live with the tough calls and some short-term disappointment in order to benefit from a potential sustained run of excellence. Ask Columbus fans how much fun it has been to cheer for a team that has always tended to fiddle around the margins rather than make bold decisions to build for the long term and you’re not going to like the answer. Teams like Edmonton and Columbus should serve as a reminder that picking at the bottom of the draft every year is no sure path to contention. The Bruins have the pieces to be a contender, but the team has to be smart about how they streamline the effort.

Making decisions based on emotion, loyalty and what someone did in the past versus what they will do is more of a recipe for failure than success. When it becomes time to come to grips with the fact that Bergeron, Krejci, Rask and Marchand can no longer do what Boston fans have enjoyed and come to expect for so long now, the team cannot afford to have multiple albatross contracts around the neck.

Digging out from that kind of hole could take years.

On Loui Eriksson and the easy(er) right over the harder wrong

Loui Eriksson…on the block or not on the block?  (credit SAP clips on YouTube)

Sign him to an extension now or take what you can get while his value is high?

Keep him for the stretch drive and then flip his rights to a team serious about committing money and term to him for a pick in the days prior to the start of unrestricted free agency?

These are just three of the options facing the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney as the team sits in second place in an albeit mediocre Atlantic Division as we draw closer to the Feb 29 NHL trade deadline.

Let me start by saying this: Eriksson is a fine player and has been a model citizen for the Bruins since they traded for him on Independence Day, 2013. He’s on pace for 30 goals for the first time since he scored 36 in his breakout with the Dallas Stars in 2008-09. His 20 goals in 57 games is double his total in 61 games his first season in Boston, when he suffered two concussions over the course of the year that forced him out of 21 contests. Back in 2014, the trade that centered around Eriksson as the main return from Dallas was looking like an abject disaster with his 10 goals and 37 points, followed by just two goals and 5 points in Boston’s disappointing 12-game playoff run that ended in a second-round defeat to their arch nemesis Montreal Canadiens.

After a season ago with the offense-starved B’s, Eriksson was one of the club’s most consistent scorers, tallying 22 goals and 47 points to finish second on the club behind Patrice Bergeron. This year, and at age 30, Loui has been even better- not only hitting the 20-goal mark for the sixth time in his nine NHL campaigns. Eriksson is smart, industrious and excels in boosting Boston’s possession game when he is on the ice. He goes to the net with his stick down and gets a lot of his goals on deflections or redirections because he always seems to be in the right place at the right time to make a play. Eriksson is not the flashiest or dynamic of forwards- he has just average speed and lacks a breakaway gear, especially as he moves forward on the other side of 30, but for the students of the game who closely watch for the little things that make a difference- the stick positioning, the high percentage passing, the responsibility with and without the puck.

Setting all of that aside, the question that Sweeney and Co. must ask themselves: Is Eriksson worth the investment in cap dollars and term it will take to keep him in Boston? In terms of the current calendar year, the answer is almost certainly an unequivocal yes- the veteran is one of three 20-goal scorers on the team, has always been one of the most respected players in the room since he arrived to the TD Garden, and does a lot of little things that have been instrumental in the team’s 30+ wins in a year where expectations were admittedly lower on this end, especially the way things started out.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, the GM has to take a longer view and make a tougher call here. One of the things that got Peter Chiarelli in trouble and why he’s the former GM of the Boston Bruins is that he invested a large chunk of the team’s salary cap dollars on aging, limited return on investment players on the wrong side of 30. At the time, all of the questionable contracts that ultimately came to a head in the 2014-15 season which ended with his dismissal (and subsequent move to Edmonton where he was given the keys to that dysfunctional kingdom) made sense in the short term. You have to think Sweeney, who has been with the B’s since the beginning of Chiarelli’s tenure a decade ago, remembers that and also understands Albert Einstein’s famous quote about the definition of insanity.

One of the problems with the NHL’s current salary structure is that the no-trade clause has almost become a routine mechanism to ensure that important players don’t decline a team’s extension offer and hit the open market. Outside of management and Eriksson’s agent, veteran negotiator JP Barry, none of us are privy to the talks that have taken place to determine the right wing’s status. A reasonable assumption therefore can be made that in addition to the rumored money and term (5-6 years and somewhere around $6 million AAV), Barry would also want to maintain Eriksson’s no-trade status if not escalate that into a no-movement clause for the first two years of the extension.

If that’s the case, then the Bruins need to swallow hard, wish Eriksson well and get the best deal they can for him at the Feb 29 deadline. Even with the rumors of prices being down, someone will give Boston a good return for him, though fans should steel themselves for the return being for future assets and not NHL roster-ready players. In other words- the B’s will be harder-pressed to get that young defenseman that is so crucial to the team’s way ahead in a deal for Eriksson alone. Assuming he’s moved as a rental piece, the best Boston can hope for is that late 1st-round selection in a contender’s spot at 25-30 that has become standard fare, or perhaps a middle tier prospect with some upside or some kind of combination of both.

But, I learned that in Army, promotions are given based on what the organization believes you have the potential to contribute at that next rank, not because of what you did at your current level. Of course, in order to secure that promotion, the board members who determine who makes the cut and who doesn’t have to look at what you accomplished in the past and more weight is placed on your most recent performance.

To put it more simply- Eriksson is going to get his term and money. The short-sighted approach would be to do what it takes to keep him in the fold, but if Loui truly wants to remain with the Boston Bruins, he and Barry should be willing to take a compromise to help the B’s fit him into their picture without knee-capping themselves in 2 or 3 years when he’ll be 33 or 34 and the possibility exists for a precipitous drop off in production.

Because we live in a free market system, there is simply no reason for Eriksson to make that compromise.

And that’s why the fans who so like and respect what he’s accomplished for the B’s should enjoy him while they can but understand that the old NHL where how deep an owner’s pockets were could guarantee a player’s stability on a team for years is no longer a reality. If you don’t believe the Bruins are a Stanley Cup contender (and how can you really believe that given last night’s 2-0 loss in Nashville and Boston’s 1-8 record against teams with a playoff record since mid-December?), then you don’t have to like the idea of Eriksson being moved, but you know in your heart of hearts that it is the more practical decision to set the team up to return to that status we’ve gotten used to since 2011.

If you love something, then set it free. Nothing can take away from what Loui Eriksson has brought to the team, but his contributions are not so essential that Sweeney and his pro and amateur staff can’t find a more cost effective replacement that could eventually match and even eclipse the Swede’s almost three-year run.

At this stage of where things stand with he Bruins franchise, Eriksson is a “nice to have” player, but with salaries getting more and more out of whack and faced with the possibility that the NHL’s cap ceiling is actually going down by some $4 million, he’s a luxury that Boston really can’t afford without robbing Peter to pay Paul. If your house is on fire, you don’t remodel your kitchen- you put out the fire and invest your money on fixing the real damage to the house.

The B’s need to address the defense. I know it. You know it. The team knows it.

Eriksson represents one of the bigger assets that Sweeney can leverage for the real package needed to right his organizational ship (and that might not happen until the offseason or later). With the clock ticking until the end of the month, it is time to set Loui free.

 

 

Scouting Post podcast: pre-NHL trade deadline

I solicited questions on Twitter and got a lot of solid queries about various topics, much of them related to the Boston Bruins, but some of them not.

The podcast is a little over an hour long, and in it- I address the chances of the B’s landing a younger, higher-end defenseman at the trade deadline, what will happen with Loui Eriksson going forward, whether the team should bring Frank Vatrano back, a few questions about the 2016 NHL draft, and other topics. I close out by answering who I would keep if the Bruins could have just one prospect at every position, which is a much tougher question to answer than you might think.

So, settle in, grab some popcorn and check it out. Or not. An hour is a lot of anyone’s time to give up, but I appreciate the support this blog has gotten since I launched it back in July.

Feeling Minnesota

I just looked in the mirror/And things aren’t looking so good

I’m looking California/And feeling Minnesota…oh yeah  Outshined- Soundgarden

The Boston Bruins won their second consecutive road game Saturday afternoon with a 4-2 contest in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild. The team’s 30th win of the season earned them sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division, just four points out of first. The B’s had to get it done today without Patrice Bergeron, who missed the game with an undisclosed injury after fighting Blake Wheeler in Winnipeg Thursday.

Brad Marchand (27), David Krejci (13), Loui Eriksson (18) and Zdeno Chara (8) all scored for the B’s, and Jonas Gustavsson had a solid game in net with 33 saves to earn his tenth W of the season. Claude Julien earned his 500th win in the NHL and moved closer to Art Ross to take over the top spot in team history- six more victories ties him at 387.

On the other end of the spectrum the Wild dismissed head coach Mike Yeo after his team’s eighth consecutive loss. Yeo, you may recall, was the toast of the Twin Cities a year ago after his club made the playoffs with a great second-half run (of which Devan Dubnyk played a huge part), but pro sports is a results oriented business, so less than a year later, Yeo is out.

The bigger issue with the Wild is all of the passengers- they’re paying boatloads of money to veterans who simply aren’t producing/giving the the team any bang for the buck. If Bruins fans think their team has problems, they ought to take a close look at Minnesota’s woes. I don’t think a coaching change (John Torchetti will take the reins on an interim basis to finish out the year) is going to make much of a difference if the guys earning the big dough don’t start holding up their end of the bargain.

After Marchand tallied his fourth shorthanded tally of the year to take a 1-0 lead, the B’s gave up a bad goal in the second period on a fumbled exchange behind the net between Gustavsson and Kevan Miller, who heeled the puck over to Thomas Vanek at the left side. He pinballed a shot that squirted through the B’s goaltender for his 15th tally.

Krejci came right back moments later with a nice 2-on-1 rush that was started with a nifty play by Matt Beleskey in the neutral zone to take a hit to make the pass that launched the Czech Mates- Krejci and David Pastrnak– up the ice. The two did a give-and-go with Krejci instantly recognizing that Nino Niederreiter was sliding towards his own net and rapidly running out of an angle to shoot into the open side, he victimized Wild backup Darcy Kuemper (and Niederreiter) by banking the puck  off the crashing forward and over the goal line before he knocked the Minnesota net of its moorings.

Boston extended its lead to 3-1 when Eriksson took a pass from Ryan Spooner and broke away from the Wild defenders, sliding a backhander under Kemper. After Chara fired a 160-foot shot down the ice and into the empty net to make it 4-1, rookie Mike Reilly scored his first NHL goal and point with a late shot that beat Gustavsson but did nothing to alter Minnesota’s fate.

The B’s continue on their road swing Sunday afternoon where they take on the Detroit Red Wings in an important Atlantic Division contest. Tuukka Rask will be back in net for the B’s, and the fans will hope to get a shot in the arm from Bergeron as well.

Thoughts on Dennis Wideman, loss to Leafs and Loui (Loui) Eriksson

The NHL dropped the hammer on Dennis Wideman, giving him 20 games of unpaid vacation for his cross-check of NHL linesman Don Henderson on January 27. I won’t rehash the incident here- it is well-documented and there is plenty of room to debate how sound of mind he was when the incident occurred, but the bottom line is that the league had to do this.

Had to.

Physical abuse of officials cannot ever be tolerated in any form. Equivocating in the form of accepting that Wideman was loopy (and allegedly concussed) after a big hit immediately prior is a slippery slope that no league can afford in this day and age. Even if the NHL wanted to cut the player a break, it opens the door for any player to physically engage the on-ice officials and be able to claim a precedent for leniency.

No, the NHL got this one right. Wideman and the NHLPA are well within their rights to appeal and if Gary Bettman wants to take the mitigating circumstances into account, that is up to him. The rule of law here is critical and leaves no room for selective application of the rules, so Wideman got the book thrown at him and rightfully so. What happens from here on in is anyone’s guess, but he’s eligible to return on March 11, some two weeks after the trade deadline.

That leads me to my next point.

If recent rumors are to be believed, the B’s might have dodged a bullet with Wideman’s lengthy suspension. Several sources to include Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, recently discussed the team’s interest in bringing Wideman back to the Bruins given the team’s struggles on defense. Wideman played in Boston from late in the 2006-07 season through the end of 2009-10, before he was part of the package dealt to the Florida Panthers for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell in June, 2010.

While in the Black and Gold, Wideman was an effective if polarizing and uneven player for the team. He posted a career year in 2008-09 with 50 points (until he eclipsed that mark last season with a 15-goal, 56-point campaign with the Flames). This season, Wideman was well off that pace with just two goals and 19 points in 48 games at the time of his suspension. He was in effect,  continuing his career trend of following his best years with numbers well short of those marks. In stops with Boston, Washington and Calgary, Wideman alternately had seasons with very good offensive output followed by barely mediocre campaigns. His most recent stint with the Flames is no exception.

While Wideman to Boston would have given the team a more experienced defender to play more minutes and do some good work on the power play, his lack of foot speed, and advancing age (he’ll be 33 next month) in conjunction with his $5+ million cap hit would have limited Boston’s options going forward.

It would be one thing if Wideman was in his prime, but on the wrong side of 30 and never the most fleet-of-foot defender to begin with, his presence might have constituted a slight upgrade on what the B’s can currently field, but he’s more of an offensive contributor than a defensive stalwart, which is what the team needs more than anything right now from the blue line. Unless the Flames were retaining salary in the deal with Boston (rumored to involve mid-round pick and/or prospect), the move made little sense for Boston, who would likely be saddled with a bottom-3 defender with diminishing returns and a high cap hit for what he brings.

If Don Sweeney was in fact preparing to bring Wideman back into the fold, then count me in as someone who feels the suspension was a blessing in disguise. It’s a short-term minimal upgrade, but limits the GM’s options when trying to do the critical roster building in the next 1-2 years that will determine if the B’s can get back into contention or solidify their status as an also-ran.

This is why the loss the other night to the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s cellar dwellers, was so confounding.

When David Krejci popped home his 12th goal of the season early in the 3rd period, the B’s were up by two goals and positioned to cruise to the finish with another two points in hand. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t get the memo and battled back, winning the game in overtime on a P.A. Parenteau power play goal after Boston frittered away its 3-1 lead.

This was a game the Bruins could have had. Should have had. Too often last season, we saw them surrender points to teams lower than them in the standings and it caught up to them in the final weekend when they were on the outside looking in. The B’s had their chances to beat Toronto decisively, and wasted a two-goal game from Brad Marchand, whose blistering goal-scoring pace has been a treat to watch. You’d like to have seen Tuukka Rask make just one save in there on Toronto’s last three shots that went in, but its hard to fault the goaltender too much on seeing-eye redirections and perfect puck luck that the Leafs translated into success. In the end, poor puck management was far more costly for the Bruins than Rask’s inability to deny Toronto’s comeback, but allowing come-from-behind wins to the other guys has been the most profoundly negative story of Boston’s season thus far.

It marked the seventh time this year Boston has blown a two-goal lead (and it’s only February for goodness sake), and underscores why lateral moves like Wideman aren’t worth it.

Frustrated fans (and they’re right to be angry, believe me) want a change and want one now, but unless it’s something that can address Boston’s shortcomings in the short and longer term, then I would submit to you that it is better for Sweeney and Co. to ride it out.

We knew very well coming into the season that Boston’s collective defense was not a strength. What has been a pleasant surprise has been the way the forwards have collectively fared, though the production itself has been largely top-heavy of late, with not enough production on the lower lines. However, even with the uptick in offense, the defense was an identified concern coming into the 2015-16 season. Whether you staunchly believe that Sweeney could (and should) have done something to address the flaws at that position last offseason, or feel that getting out from under the cap crush was the first priority and that rolling the dice with some of the younger players in the system was worth trying, the reality is- it is now February and we know that this group is not a playoff-caliber defense. I went over that in more detail in a previous post, so I won’t revisit and pick at a scab many of you are already well aware exists.

The problem with the “do something now” mentality is that it leads to short-sighted transactions like a trade for Dennis Wideman, who would have likely cost the team assets that would be better allocated elsewhere, or it feeds this idea that there is a surplus of fine talent at the defense position just waiting to be picked up. The first point isn’t going to fix the team’s woes, and the second is becoming more and more of an unintended consequence of the NHL’s move to impose cost certainty (a salary cap) 11 years ago. It was a different league back then and hockey trades for talent were far more prevalent because there weren’t a lot of complex rules and constraints on a club’s salary structure and the return on investment that has become more and more important over the past decade.

Nowadays, teams recognize pretty early the importance of the skilled defenseman in the modern NHL and lock them up long-term before the possibility of getting them via free agency is there. Unless, of course, they trade them (see: Hamilton, Douglas) first. Today’s reality is a stark one if you’re Don Sweeney: there simply isn’t much out there to be had if you need to truly bolster your blueline for the present and future. And, if there is a GM out there willing to even talk about moving such a prized asset, the cost will be astronomical. It is a seller’s market and with the parity the NHL currently enjoys, there aren’t many teams looking to unload anyone right now.

This leads me to Loui Eriksson

If we accept that a. this Boston Bruins team simply isn’t that good- they perhaps make the 2016 playoffs as a fringe club in a wildcard spot and then subsequently bow out to those better teams above them in the seeding and that b. Eriksson is pretty bound and determined to leverage what he can as an unrestricted free agent this summer, then it stands to reason that the Bruins should move on from him and get what they can at the deadline.

Now, given how well he’s played, the good news is- such a return stands to be a pretty fine one for the B’s. The bad news: any contender looking to add someone like Eriksson will be happy to part with futures, but good look getting any NHL roster/prime potential talent back in return. The whole idea of trading for a soon-to-be UFA like Eriksson is to add him to the very good group you *already* have- not robbing Peter to pay Paul by giving up a key contributor from your lineup at a different position. That’s just not how it works.

Loui has been a team player and good guy since the B’s acquired him nearly three years ago. Alas, Tyler Seguin became one of the real forces in the NHL, while Eriksson has largely continued his steady, effective play. That has led to his getting the short shrift in Boston, though there is no shortage of real students of the game out there who recognize what Eriksson brings to the table and appreciate him for it.

Having said all of that, it would be one thing if the Bruins were contenders and they held onto Eriksson to make that one last run, then lost him to free agency in July. The Bruins aren’t that team. So, at some point, unless they’re willing to re-up him, which, as he turns 31, is probably not the best idea to commit to term and dollars he’ll likely get on the open market, means he has to go.

At this point, I think the Bruins are better off taking their lumps- resisting the urge to pay a premium for a mediocre return in the here and now, and ultimately build up more of a war chest of assets that can allow Sweeney to make some more aggressive moves down the line to absorb the going rate for a true, difference-making and cost-effective defender with some longer term retainability.

Dennis Wideman was not that player, so his suspension becomes exhibit A for the case that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. And, I would submit to you- any player a team offers up before the trade deadline is not likely to be that guy either. Boston needs not panic, but do the best they can with tweaks and then make a more concerted effort to address the real holes in the lineup this summer. Trying to plug them now will cost a fortune, and in the case of a player like Eriksson, he’s not likely to bring the kind of return that fans are clamoring for.

This is why you saw a trade like the one between Columbus and Nashville in an even-Steven deal with Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones. Both teams got young, high-upside players, neither of whom were finding success in their respective systems. No package of picks and prospects would have enticed either GM into moving prized assets and former top-5 picks in 2010 and 2013- it had to be a roster for roster swap of established NHL players needing a change of scenery. So, unless Bruins fans are prepared to lose someone like David Pastrnak for a defenseman with similar promise, dreaming up scenarios involving Eriksson isn’t going to get it done, and be prepared to be disappointed at the deadline- don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In a perfect world, the Bruins could go out tomorrow and make their team better. The reality is- the world of the modern NHL is far from perfect, and in it, you can certainly make things a whole lot worse before they get any better.

If Sweeney and his staff somehow find a way to get that impact two-way defenseman who could be a future mainstay in the Boston lineup between now and the end of February, then lock him up to an extension now, because that’s the kind of move that flies in the face of the established handicaps that most of the other GMs are dealing with as they try to improve their hockey clubs.

 

Final Buzzer: Bruins edge Devils in goalie duel

Jonas Gustavsson and Cory Schneider came to play yesterday, which isn’t to say that their teams didn’t, but the men between the pipes shined in a 2-1 shootout contest that went the Boston Bruins’ way.

Ryan Spooner tallied the lone goal out of six attempts Sunday between the Bruins and New Jersey Devils to secure the extra point for the home team, putting them just one point behind idle Atlantic Division leader Montreal with two games in hand.

Goals from Loui Eriksson and defenseman Andy Greene were the only pucks that got past the masked men, who were more like thieving bandits all game long, stealing quality scoring chances away in a game that had at times some impressive tempo and pace despite the low score. The tension came to a head in overtime, when Boston and New Jersey traded glittering opportunities during the B’s 4-on-3 power play and in the 3-on-3 setting, with neither goaltender yielding an inch.

Boston overcame at times ragged play in the first 40 minutes, getting the first goal of the game quickly from Eriksson, then going stretches of not being able to get much going in the way of sustained offensive pressure. Gustavsson was there to bail them out when they faltered however, giving up the one Devils goal on a deflected shot when exciting rookie Frank Vatrano lost his check in the defensive zone and Greene was able to exploit the extra time and space.

Eriksson continued his outstanding play, netting his 13th goal and 28th point of the season (he had 22 markers a year ago and just 10 goals in 61 games his first full campaign in Boston 2013-14) in 32 games. The 30-year-old is on pace for the best offensive season of his career and has been a consistent presence alongside David Krejci all year.

But the story of the game for Boston was Gustavsson, who made 29 saves to earn his first win of December and post his best game since signing with the Bruins in early October. The veteran Swede has six wins in 10 games, to go with a 2.42 goals against average and .912 save percentage. No save was better than the one he made on Travis Zajac in OT while the Devils were killing a John Moore penalty. Captain Zdeno Chara’s attempted pass near the point was intercepted by superb two-way forward Adam Henrique, and as was the case against Calgary, the former Norris Trophy winner got caught flat-footed as the Devils broke out and took a 2-on-1 rush the other way with Colin Miller back to defend. Henrique sent a perfect saucer pass to Zajac who did not miss, but Gustavsson got an excellent push and extension of his left pad to deny the low shot. ‘Gus’ would later be tested again during 3-on-3 play, and made a late routine-looking stop (that was anything but) to prevent the Devils from stealing one in Boston. Gustavsson’s heroics (Schneider faced a higher volume of chances, especially in OT) set the stage for Spooner to win the game.

As Boston’s first shooter, Spooner attacked the New Jersey net with speed, did a quick hesitation fake to freeze Schneider before beating the Marblehead native with a bullet shot to the blocker side. Max Talbot, whose usage as second shooter was heavily criticized more for the way his attempt looked than anything else, was denied after he came in slowly and then managed a weak shot from outside the hashmarks that Schneider stopped easily. Patrice Bergeron beat a sprawling Schneider, but hit the post, forcing Gustavsson to deny all three Devils shooters to seal the win, Boston’s 20th of the season.

UP

Jonas Gustavsson- The game’s 1st star played an ideal game for a backup, giving his team confidence during a run in which Tuukka Rask has looked like the all-world goalie he has the talent to be. Being a backup goalie is tough at any level- you have to work just as hard in practice, but you aren’t afforded the benefit of knowing you’ll play most of the games. When your number is called, you must be ready to go, and a poor performance could mean an even longer break in between starts. What’s bigger is the way a team will play in front of the backup. If you do well, the club’s trust translates into a more effective, aggressive mindset. If the team lacks confidence in the backup, it’s human nature to be more conservative, playing a tighter, more defensive game that often just leads to more goals and losses. Contrast the way the B’s played in front of Niklas Svedberg last year compared to Gustavsson this time around, and you start to catch the drift.

Ryan Spooner- The soon-to-be 24-year-old is playing the best hockey of his career. Coming off a four-assist night against Pittsburgh, he has 10 points in his last seven games. Although yesterday’s contest goes down in the ledger as no points for the third-liner, his nifty little move in the shootout stood up as the decisive tally to secure the extra point for Boston. In typical New England fashion, too many fans focus on Spooner’s shortcomings defensively to see the forest for the trees. He’s currently fifth on the team in scoring with 22 points in 32 games, and has really come on over the last month. It would be one thing if he wasn’t producing, but he’s pulling his weight in that regard and is only getting better and more confident as the season goes on. There is always room for improvement for any player, and he could stand to improve on his draws and overall consistency in all three zones, but for the most part, he puts in the effort. If you focus on one player enough, you’ll see them make mistakes, and there are plays Spooner makes where a lack of effort hurts the team, but those are fewer and far between and not because he doesn’t care, but because he’s human. For years, Bostonians have wanted skill and excitement at the center position, and Spooner brings that. A year ago, he looked d-o-n-e in the organization, but to his credit, he was ready to do something with that last chance they gave him in late February and he’s still finding ways to contribute.

Loui Eriksson- He so smooth and effective. Sure, he doesn’t have the blazing wheels, but you can appreciate how he’s managed to be such a consistent 20+ goal scorer over the course of his entire NHL career. It’s hard to praise Eriksson and recognize his contributions to Boston’s success this season on the one hand, and then talk about trading him because of his impending unrestricted free agency on the other. However, that’s part of the business of hockey, and Don Sweeney will have to weigh the pros and cons of either signing him to what will likely be a higher cap hit and AAV than the public will be happy with given he’s on the wrong side of 30, or moving a key piece out of town for future assets. We’ll just have to see where the Bruins are in late February as we hit the trade deadline, but if they’re still sitting near the top of the division, it’s hard to square with sending him away from the team. It’s easy to sit at home when you don’t have a job on the line and talk about how it’s better to get a return rather than risk losing a player in free agency, but the teams themselves have a different outlook given their skin in the game and the fact that they’re trying to win hockey games. Only a select few clubs can be considered “legitimate contenders” every year, but that doesn’t mean that everyone else in the mix is just going to give up and pack it in. That’s what trading Eriksson would signal, and right, wrong or indifferent- dealing him just to get something is more akin to what you do in EA Sports NHL 2016 video game than what happens in real life.

Cory Schneider- The former Phillips Andover and Boston College star (he was the best prep goalie I have ever seen in 2003-04- better even than Jonathan Quick and that’s saying a hell of a lot) kept the Devils in it and by most accounts, they should have won. He’s been everything Lou Lamoniello traded for at the 2013 NHL draft (in Newark, btw) and more, and as long as he’s healthy and between the pipes for New Jersey, they’re in every game. He should enjoy a better fate on most nights, but as long as Ray Shero can build around him, this team is headed upwards under new coach John Hynes. Schneider was like an Octopus in the OT, especially when the B’s were on the power play and getting pucks to the net, but they could not solve him.

Final Buzzer: Vatrano’s 1st NHL hat trick caps wild night of scoring

The Boston Bruins cruised into the Consol Energy Arena in Pittsburgh after winning the first of the home-and-home twofer against the Penguins on Wednesday and hung six goals on beleaguered goalie Jeff Zatkoff and company in a 6-2 victory.

It was a memorable night for a pair of former UMass Minutemen, however, as Bruin Frank Vatrano (first NHL hat trick) and Penguins forward Conor Sheary (first NHL goal plus an assist) shined for the Amherst faithful.

Patrice Bergeron also tallied a pair of goals including one shorthanded marker early in the second frame. Loui Eriksson’s power play goal (12th goal of the season) to make it 3-2  after Pittsburgh tied it on Trevor Daley’s first goal with his new team after the Pens’ power play expired stood up as the game-winner. Vatrano, who scored the first goal of the game for Boston on a nice pass from Ryan Spooner (four assists- a career best for him), scored Boston’s last two markers. Landon Ferraro continues to play well for the B’s and had a third period goal erased on a questionable goalie interference on Max Talbot.

Once again, Tuukka Rask was very good in net for Boston. He was beaten on two excellent shots, but settled in and denied Pittsburgh in the last 38 minutes or so. In his last 10 appearances, he’s posted a .959 save percentage (8-0-2)- (h/t DJ Bean), so it’s pretty safe to say that the B’s are getting their money’s worth from him after a brutal start. I broke it down on Wednesday night’s post, so I won’t give Rask too much more attention in this one other than to say that on his talent alone, he gives his team a chance to win each and every game. When he’s on top of his game, they’ll win more than they lose, and since mid-November, Rask has righted the ship and is playing some of the most consistently good hockey of his career.

What more can you say about Vatrano, who now has five goals in his young career since the Bruins brought him up to Boston after a scintillating start in Providence? His potent shot is well documented, but it’s the aggressiveness and his willing to shoot from anywhere that is so impressive.

The first goal he tallied tonight happened when he quickly wired Spooner’s pass over Zatkoff’s glove hand. It was a laser, and it hit a very small space in the net while using a defender as a screen that caused the goaltender to be a little late in picking it up. His second goal was pure hustle and refusal to quit- Zatkoff made an initial save, but flopped down on his back and was hoping the puck was underneath him. It somehow squirted out and Vatrano was able to locate it down around his feet, with a defender also battling for it, and then fire it into the net before either Pittsburgh player could locate it. The one-time Minuteman was able to complete the trick when he broke in on an odd-man rush with Spooner (who earned his fourth helper on the night), showed no shyness in shooting on Zatkoff on the break, then gathered his own rebound and put it in.

In so doing, Vatrano became the first Boston rookie since Blake Wheeler in 2008-09 to post a three-goal game. He’s feeling it, and even though there will be ups and downs, I’m revising my earlier statement that said we might see him returned to Providence when David Pastrnak returns to the lineup. Now, it looks like Vatrano may be here to stay. A lot can still happen over the course of the season, but with the speed, energy, and…oh yeah…the natural scoring abilities he brings, the Bruins should keep him in the NHL until further notice.

Dennis Seidenberg played a pretty good defensive game in shutting down Evgeni Malkin tonight. The Pittsburgh star didn’t have much room to operate, and Seidenberg gave him little time and space to create. He’s not been the defenseman he was before the grotesque knee injury in early 2014, but Seidenberg is playing some capable hockey right now. It’s probably not up to snuff with what a contending team would need from a guy with his minutes, but you never have to worry about the effort with him. He’s helping to stabilize the blue line group, which was the team’s Achilles heel in the first month and into mid-November.

The Boston defense on the whole has been better in the two wins against Pittsburgh and last weekend’s matinee over Florida. Torey Krug isn’t getting the goals but its not for a lack of trying and he’s using his mobility to good effect. We’re still seeing turnovers from Zdeno Chara and Kevan Miller, but they haven’t been killing the team of late with those. Colin Miller has a wealth of talent and promise, so long as you resign yourself to being okay with some bad reads, pinches and risky plays that will culminate with the puck in his own net or at the very least- a quality scoring chance against. He more than makes up for it with his skating and pure ability to generate something at the other end. Adam McQuaid is what he is. Trying to justify his cap hit won’t get much traction with those who are opposed to the contract extension he got in June, but I’m more than happy with him in the lineup because of the sheer effort and toughness he brings. McQuaid is one of those guys where, if you lose him and you start to see things going south here and there, you might not realize it at first, but eventually it hits you that he means more to the team than most want to give him credit for. Super guy and tough as nails- let’s hope he can stay healthy.

Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand continue to make magic together. They’ve tallied 26 goals between the two of them, which is pretty darn impressive in a 31-game stretch. Both plays started with Marchand, using his quickness and evolving high-end hockey sense to beat Pittsburgh defenders individually to open up space for his linemate. The second goal was especially a thing of beauty, as Marchand beat his man off the wall to find Chara in the high slot. Chara’s shot went high and wide, but it bounced back down in front of the net, and Bergeron was able to bunt it back into the open net before Zatkoff could locate it.

And speaking of magic, it is all coming together for Spooner who had his first career four-point night and has seen his hard work pay dividends of late. There will be peaks and valleys with him because of the style of hockey he plays, but Claude Julien’s postgame remarks on Spooner were telling. Four helpers aside, Spooner went after Patric Hornqvist when he decked Seidenberg with a hard (but clean) hit and Spooner got the lone two minute foul, but Julien said that he didn’t mind seeing his young forward take that kind of penalty because it showed his mates he’s there for them. Claude translation: We’ve been trying to instill character, grit and all-for-one/one-for-all in Spooner’s play and tonight he showed it, even if his timing might have been a little off. Spooner gets an ‘A’ for effort- guys like McQuaid saw that and will have his back the next time he finds himself in a situation he’s not ideally suited for.

For the Penguins, it was more frustration, as not one of Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Chris Kunitz or Malkin was able to get much of anything going. With all the money the team has invested in those guys alone, this is a complete disaster for the fans in the Steel City, and Mike Sullivan has the same look he wore behind the Boston bench in 2005-06 when he had a pretty talented group of players on paper, but didn’t seem to get much in the way of consistent and even passionate performances from them aside from a couple of guys. It’s an easy joke to make right now, but this team is the total pits.

And that’s all for this recap. The Bruins are back in action at home this Sunday agains the New Jersey Devils.

***

The Bruins had a wild night of scoring outside of the NHL team.

Vatrano’s linemate and AHL roommate, Austin Czarnik, tallied a hat trick tonight, as did Soo Greyhounds right wing Zach Senyshyn, his third hat trick over a two-week period (one of those was a four-goal game).

To have three players in the same organization tally three-goal games on the same night is pretty rare and gave Boston fans something to get excited about.

Czarnik is like Vatrano- an undrafted free agent who came into Boston during the rookie camp and opened a lot of eyes, making an extended run at making the team during training camp. Watch for the former Miami University standout and former Hobey Baker finalist to get his turn in Boston soon…it’s coming earlier than a lot of people think. With his speed, craftiness and energy/pace- I’m betting he’ll get a reward recall at some point this season.

Final Buzzer: B’s stumble in first game of road swing

The Boston Bruins came up short against the Edmonton Oilers in their final visit to Rexall Place, formerly known as the Northlands Coliseum, ending their five-game win streak. The chances were there but the B’s dropped a 3-2 shootout loss to the team that hired former GM Peter Chiarelli and has not enjoyed much success early in the 2015-16.

The B’s negated 1-0 and 2-1 deficits compliments of Mark Letestu and former Bruin Matt Hendricks with goals by Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara late in the second and third periods. Matt Beleskey played another solid game

The teams each posted eight shots apiece in a scoreless opening period that, but Edmonton broke through at 10:23 of the second frame while on the penalty kill when a poor line change by David Krejci left Krug alone to fend off a 2-on-1 break. With Krug backing in and Hendricks skating in on net, the Boston defender lost his edge and went down. Hendricks put the puck back against the grain to Letestu, who redirected it into the net with Tuukka Rask leaning over to his right and unable to get back over to prevent the puck from crossing the goal line.

Krug evened the game with 1:33 remaining in the period after he took the puck out near the left point and threw it on net. It hit Oilers defenseman Andrej Sekera and bounced into the cage on the short side past Edmonton goalie Anders Nilsson. It was only Krug’s second goal of the season and his first tally in seven games since lighting the lamp against his hometown Detroit Red Wings on November 14.

Letestu returned the favor to Hendricks in the third period to restore the Edmonton lead, getting the puck to his linemate as he drove to the Boston net for the deflection.

That set the stage for Chara to get the equalizer after an excellent shift by the Beleskey-Krejci-Loui Eriksson line to gain possession along the end boards. Krejci then came out from behind the right post and found the captain uncovered between the hashmarks for his fourth goal of the season to make it 2-2 with less than four minutes remaining in regulation.

The teams battled hard in overtime, which was made interesting in the final minute and change when the referees whistled Beleskey for an interesting (a mild way of putting it) interference call in the Boston crease when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had the puck. Beleskey buried him from behind and knocked the goal off the moorings, shaking Rask up in the process, but the B’s top goalie stayed in and made several crucial stops in the 4-on-3 power play to keep the score tied.

In the shootout, Rask denied Hendricks, not taking the bait on the head fake as the puck slid wide. Patrice Bergeron was unable to get the puck over a sprawling Nilsson. Jordan Eberle then beat Rask with a forehand shot in off the post. Nilsson then denied Brad Marchand and Krejci to get his sixth shootout win of his career to extend his record to 6-0.

Bruins take on Calgary next on Friday night.

No ups or downs tonight- early work call.

 

Matt Beleskey- not quite your MVP but a key contributor

If not for the numbers, it would not be a stretch to argue that left wing Matt Beleskey is one of the Boston Bruins’ most valuable players over the first quarter of the 2015-16 NHL season.

The two goals and 10 points in 20 games is disappointing given he scored a career-high of 22 a year ago with the Anaheim Ducks and was expected to reach the 20-goal plateau at least this season after the B’s made him their priority target in free agency last July. Signed to a five-year pact that carries an AAV/cap hit of $3.8 million per season, Beleskey is currently the eighth-highest paid Bruin on the roster. However, this blog post will argue that he’s closer the top-five in terms of impact and importance to the team’s fortunes. That may not translate when it comes to pure production, but in terms of other traditional and advanced metrics, Beleskey has been one of the more consistent forwards on a team that has had other players provide the needed scoring impetus early on. Based on his role in Anaheim a year go, Beleskey will eventually bring more in terms of production, and when he does, his overall physicality, energy and grit will be even more significant in proper context.

Background: Beleskey was the 116th overall selection (fourth round) by Anaheim in the 2006NHL Entry Draft, spending his entire OHL career with the Belleville Bulls (2004-08). His best season was a 41-goal, 90-point affair for the Bulls in his final junior campaign in 2007-08, signing with Anaheim and spending the 2008-09 season in the AHL (he did have a two-game scoreless NHL stint with the Ducks that year.) Beleskey scored 11 goals in 60 NHL games the following season and established himself as a full-time NHLer in 2011-12. The lockout and injuries have conspired to deny him more than 70 games in a single season, but he hit a career best for goals and points last season in only 65 games. The Ducks attempted to keep him out of free agency with a contract extension offer before the regular season ended, but Beleskey opted instead to go the free agency route.

Traditional statistics: With just a pair of goals in 20 games, there is no denying that Beleskey’s production is way down from a year ago. He’s scored in a loss against Montreal and an October 31 win over Tampa Bay, so both of his goals have come against division rivals. However, his assist totals put him on pace for about 40 helpers, which will far exceed his career-best 15 assists from 2013-14. His points/60 min average is a little off from what it was a year ago, but is comparable, and he is on pace to surpass his top output of 32 points.

Granted- you expect more from your $3.8M than 40-50 points, but that’s not terrible value offensively. At even strength, where the B’s have not been the greatest this season, Beleskey is among the team’s leaders in points with a 1.89 points/60 rating. Compare that to David Krejci– 2.41; Patrice Bergeron– 1.23; Loui Eriksson– 1.73 and Brad Marchand– 1.70. That Krejci leads Beleskey by .52 P/60 5v5 is not a surprise, but would you have put money on him beating everyone else- and Bergeron by .66? Beleskey’s even strength P/60 are No. 3 on the team overall- behind Krejci and Tyler Randell (2.30), who has played a paltry 78 minutes at even strength. Beleskey’s  even strength 1.89 P/60 would be only seventh-best on the Montreal Canadiens (just ahead of Tomas Plekanec), but he would lead the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose best 5v5 player, Jonathan Drouin, has just a 1.88 P/60 to boast of.

Beleskey has not had an opportunity of any significance with the man advantage or on the penalty kill, with just 6:39 of power play time (compared to his 285:38 and counting at even strength) and 49 seconds  on the ice while shorthanded. The lack of impact on special teams is both a ding on him in terms of how valuable he is and an example of how successful he’s been despite the opportunities that his higher-scoring teammates receive in the special teams game. When you factor in the Bruins P/60 rates in all situations- Beleskey (1.97) drops to 10th on the team, with every forward on the active roster save for Frank Vatrano, Landon Ferraro, Joonas Kemppainen and Zac Rinaldo ahead of him. Colin Miller’s (2.00) rating puts him ahead of Beleskey, the only defender in the top-nine. On the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, Beleskey’s 1.97 P/60 puts him fourth on that team.

Where Beleskey is shining is in the hits department, where he is currently in the top-10 with 82 hits, more than 4 per game on average. By comparison, Milan Lucic, the Boston forward Beleskey was widely considered to have been brought in to address the lost production from, has 78 hits in two more games. Beleskey doesn’t have Lucic’s natural size or ability to be as physically dominant, but he’s a scrappy, physical guy for his 6-foot-and change size. He’s always willing to finish his checks and make a big hit. Just ask Derek Stepan. Ouch…too soon? Que dites-vous, Alain Vigneault?

Beleskey is shooting the puck more than he did a year ago and right now, not a whole lot is going in for him, but when he starts finding the back of the net, watch for him to get on a streak. Beleskey fired five shots on Henrik Lundqvist Friday and if he continues to get pucks to the net, he’ll raise the scoring bar. A year ago, he scored 18 even strength goals on just 124 shots, a shooting percentage of 14.5 percent- well above his typical numbers (he tallied 10.3 percent in his 11-goal season during 2009-10, but typically scored at under a 10 percent clip in his other years), but most analysts predicted (correctly) a natural regression from that 14.5 percentage this season. Admittedly, the B’s need more than his current 6.67 shooting percentage, and he’s a good bet to get that number up closer to his career average of about 9-10 percent by season’s end.

Advanced statistics: Beleskey is on the positive side of the ledger in terms of goals scored for his team when he is on the ice versus goals against (per 60 minutes), with a GF60 of 2.941 and GA60 of 2.101. good for a GF percentage of 58.3. Bergeron’s even strength offensive numbers for example aren’t as good- the B’s have scored just 2.255 GF/60 but his GA/60 average is better with a 1.845.  That gives him a 55.0 GF%. Bergeron’s iCorsi (74) is higher than Beleskey’s (66) because he takes more shots, but his even strength shooting percentage is lower.

Beleskey’s PDO (shot percentage + save percentage while player is on the ice- I like this stat because it tends to be a little more predictive versus some of the others) is 101.7, which is lower than his 103.8 and 103.0 in each of the last two seasons. Bergeron’s even strength PDO is 98.8- up two percentage points from the less productive 2013-14 season, when he posted a 96.8. Even in his 30-goal campaign of two years ago, his PDO was 102.4- just .7 points higher than Beleskey’s number as of today.

Bergeron significantly overtakes Beleskey on the power play where his production is tops on the Bruins with 9.88 P/60 (he has 11 of his 21 points against Beleskey’s 0.00. Bergeron’s PDO on the power play is 120.6 (compared to his 5v5 of 98.8), which gives you an idea of just how much his production with the man advantage skews the scoring totals in his favor. The bottom line for me when I look at the two players- at even strength, where the two have similar minutes on the ice, Beleskey is the more productive (note- I said productive not better) player. I won’t peel the onion back too much more in terms of Beleskey’s zone starts or how he does when close or trailing, but he’s been one of the more consistent performers at even strength- admittedly and area that the Bruins need to improve on going forward if they want to remain in the playoff picture.

(Statistical source: Hockey Analysis.com- David Johnson)

Intangibles: Going back to July 1, when Beleskey chose the Bruins in free agency, he’s said and done all the right things. He and his wife were active on social media and quickly traveled to Boston after signing, showing their excitement to be joining the organization at a time when the team’s outlook was anything but rosy. The B’s and Don Sweeney had just traded Dougie Hamilton and more questions than answers swirled around the B’s, even though Beleskey and trade acquisition Jimmy Hayes pumped some excitement into fans who had seen their contributions while wearing other team jerseys and envisioned good things from the new additions. Thus far, the two have combined for just six goals, which is well off of expectations given that they posted a total of 41 between the two of them with the Ducks and Florida Panthers a year ago.

Beleskey is hard-nosed- he’s had a couple of fights with Minnesota’s Brett Bulmer and NY Ranger Dylan McIlrath in the past seven days, racking up an impressive 10 total hits in both contests. He’s a gritty, willing combatant, which should endear him to Bruins fans as they warm up to him in Boston and see where his consistency and ruggedness comes from.

Against McIlrath, Beleskey was out of his weight class and took some shots and jabs from the much larger former WHL pugilist and first-round pick before coming back with a right cross and then went to the ice.

Beleskey did a lot better in his scrap against Bulmer, however…

What’s more- Beleskey wants to be here. Sweeney did a good job of moving guys who didn’t feel the same way out. If you’re going to invest millions in a player- at least pay for the ones who want to be a part of the solution. These guys are only human and sometimes we forget that if someone doesn’t want it as badly, we can expect them to be professionals, but without being able to see inside a person’s heart, we don’t know if they are giving it their all. One need not do any more than simply watch the way Beleskey hurtles around the ice on every shift, looking to to make a hit or force a turnover if he’s anywhere near the puck when someone with another jersey has it, to know that the guy is giving it his maximum effort.

Beleskey was in the news this past week when he and his wife purchased $2,000 worth of pies and distributed them to homeless veteran charities in Boston for Thanksgiving. It’s a nice gesture from a player who has backed up his words of being proud to be a part of the Bruins organization with the kind of gritty play the team values, as well as taking the time to give back to the community.

Summary: The Bruins are getting the guy they coveted from the West Coast. The goals aren’t there, but he’s brought a needed effort each and every night and plays hard, providing the all-important leadership by example. His 10 points in 20 games has him on pace for his best offensive season, and he’s creating space for his line mates with his physical brand of hockey. Beleskey doesn’t have the natural size to be a classic and even feared power forward, but he’s not shy about sticking his nose in and taking one for the team.

There are some who will just point to the $3.8M cap hit and draw a direct correlation to the downturn in goals, but when you consider that some pundits were predicting him to sign for upwards of $4.5 or 5 million last July, the Bruins are getting solid value. At age 27 and with four more years on the books, he’ll probably live up to the contract and then some so long as he can stay healthy. Because of his kamikaze style of play, it takes a toll on his average frame. However, when all is said and done, no one will ever accuse Beleskey of being soft.

In short, you win with guys like that, and this is why- as we look at Boston’s record after 22 games- they sit at a solid 13-8-1 overall. There aren’t many who would have put money on them being 5 games over .500 at the quarter pole with the team they had on paper coming into the season. Beleskey’s contributions, especially at even strength when the power play has not been there to carry the club offensively, are a big reason you can make a case that he’s right up there with the big guns- Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Eriksson as one of the team’s most valuable players during this stretch of the season.

 

Final Buzzer: Bruins take Black Friday matinee over Rangers

The Boston Bruins showed the urgency of rabid Black Friday shoppers in a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the Eastern Conference power New York Rangers in a post-Thanksgiving matinee.

Ryan Spooner and David Krejci scored goals 2:03 apart in the third period to erase a 3-2 deficit and give the B’s their fifth consecutive victory, a season high. Patrice Bergeron and Brett Connolly also tallied for Boston, keeping the team in the thick of the Atlantic Division standings. Tuukka Rask made 24 stops and was good when he needed to be in getting over .500 (8-7-1) for the first time this year.

For the Bruins, they put forth a strong effort in scoring four goals against longtime nemesis Henrik Lundqvist. In contrast to other recent wins, the team played a solid 60 minutes, losing an early 1-0 lead to stay within striking distance to negate 2-1 and 3-2 scores to grab an emotional two points at the end of regulation.

For Boston, the offense has played pretty well over the course of the season, posting an NHL-best power play (two goals) but the team defense has been much improved during the five-game winning streak. A lot of it has to do with the return of Dennis Seidenberg, who has stabilized the pairings with his experience and strong defensive play after missing the first month of the regular season.

The Rangers did’t play their best game at TD Garden, but on paper, the Broadway Blueshirts are a significantly better team than the Bruins are. Where Lundqvist is concerned, there might be a psychological edge over Boston (though the 2013 playoffs went a long way towards erasing a long-term dominance he had previously enjoyed), but he looked mortal in this one.

Boston got on the board first when Bergeron converted a blocked Torey Krug drive after the veteran center won an offensive zone draw to the B’s top scoring defender. The puck hit traffic out front, but Bergeron was on the spot and zipped a shot through Lundqvist’s five-hole to get the home crowd into the game early. It was the eighth goal of the season, the 214th of his career. Bergeron is closing in on 600 career points with 571.

Rangers goals by Oscar Lindberg and Rick Nash in the first five minutes of the second period put Boston in a 2-1 hole, but Connolly got the equalizer on the power play, the first time the B’s scored with the man advantage in three games. Connolly found the back of the net after Colin Miller faked a shot from the point and then put a pass to the streaking forward’s tape.

The Rangers grabbed a lead once more in the final period when J.T. Miller got a power play goal thanks to a Brad Marchand goalie interference penalty. The call drew a cascade of boos from the TD Garden because it appeared that Lundqvist was on the edge of his crease and fell to the ice as if shot once Marchand made contact with his knee to the goaltender’s head, but the call stood, and the Rangers capitalized.

With time winding down, Jesper Fast took a hooking penalty on Miller which set the stage for Boston’s furious comeback.

With the Bruins in possession of the puck, Krug got another shot from outside through to the front of the net. Loui Eriksson got his stick on it and found Spooner who was driving towards the crease from the right circle. He took the puck and flipped it up and over Lundqvist who was down on the initial shot and unable to make the save. Spooner’s fifth goal of the season came with 3:46 left in the third period.

Krejci then tallied the winning goal with 1:43 left when he drove a hard shot from the outside that appeared to pinball off a Rangers player (Emerson Etem) in front and into the twine behind Lundqvist.

The game was not without some controversy, as Matt Beleskey drilled Derek Stepan with a hard check that drove the Rangers star into the boards, breaking several ribs as the team would report afterwards. The hit itself was not an illegal one, but delivered perhaps a tad late and with Stepan off balance as he was turning to chase the puck he had just passed. When Dylan McIlrath challenged Beleskey and was assessed an extra two minutes for instigating, Connolly scored on the ensuing power play, adding insult to injury.

Claude Julien moved rookie fan favorite Frank Vatrano to the right side on a line with Bergeron and Marchand, and showed some promise on his off-wing. He’s using his speed and hustle to win puck battles along the walls and has been so impressive given how quickly he’s emerged as an NHL option. His father recently pointed out that in one calendar year Vatrano has scored his first NCAA, professional (AHL) and NHL goals- talk about a white Christmas!

The Bruins are off until Wednesday, when they go on the road for three games in Western Canada, but with Rask enjoying his best stretch of hockey this season and the rest of the club playing with confidence and verve, the B’s are giving their fans a lot to be happy about. As expected, the season has been a series of peaks and valleys, but the brutal start to the year and winless homestead seems to be a distant memory.

The Bruins showed they can run with some of the NHL’s big dogs with this win over the Rangers, and after some poor showings at home, are giving their fans more reasons to get excited for the games again.

UP

Seidenberg2

Dennis Seidenberg has been ‘steady as he goes’ since returning to the lineup this month (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

David Krejci- Scored the winning goal late by doing something he hadn’t been doing enough of in recent seasons- shooting the puck on net. A core player who was signed to a big extension a year ago, one that raised eyebrows, the Czech veteran has been one of the NHL’s top offensive players since opening night and is one pace for his best scoring season at age 29.

Matt Beleskey- He didn’t have any points, but had five hits including the momentum-changing play on Stepan, five shots on net, a fight and key drawn penalty resulting in Connolly’s PPG, along with 13 minutes of ice time. As Bruins analyst Bob Beers has said- Beleskey might not be getting the points, but he shows up every night and makes a difference in other key areas. He’s not going to give you the pure physical dominance of Milan Lucic (when he was on his game) but Beleskey is giving the team every ounce of his talent right now.

Ryan Spooner- The debate on his even strength effectiveness continues, but he came through in the clutch when the B’s needed a power play goal with a key score that took full advantage of his speed and puck skills. Simply put- when Spooner has extra time and space, he’s been deadly in the season’s first quarter. As long as he continues to produce, he’ll stay firmly in the mix with the big club.

Colin Miller- With two goals and 10 points, Chiller is on pace for a superb rookie season. His skating and puck skills are so obvious whenever he’s out there, but his defensive game is progressing and the former Kings farmhand’s confidence is growing with each game. With Dougie Hamilton struggling in Calgary, Miller is giving the Bruins comparable production and has been an important factor in Boston’s current hot streak.

Loui Eriksson- His assist on the game-tying goal was typical Eriksson- a heads up play by a poised veteran. He could have just tried to drive the puck past Lundqvist, but instead recognized Spooner was attacking from an oblique angle and had a better chance of beating the Rangers goalie with it. With nine goals and 20 points in 22 games, he’s playing the best hockey of his Bruins tenure by far.

Dennis Seidenberg- He’s not fancy, but the German veteran is playing well after coming back from injury earlier this month. His overall play is up compared to his problems a season ago when he was returning from a major knee injury suffered in January of 2014 and appeared tentative and ineffective. He’s no longer in his prime, but Seidenberg’s experience and poise has helped to stabilized Boston’s defense. They’re not a top group by NHL standards, but with the team’s offense and goaltending, they’re good enough to get the job done. He’s a big-time shot blocker and leads by example, even if he’s not going to provide the pure talent and production of other defenders on this club.

Brett Connolly- Scored his first goal in 12 games. He’s got some zip and has the ability to be the scorer that the Tampa Bay Lightning felt good enough to pick sixth overall despite missing just about all of his draft season. Connolly is a low-cost player who could be a key to keeping this offensive chugging away, but consistency is the main thing.

DOWN-

Alain Vigneault- We can understand the frustration over losing a key player like Stepan to the Beleskey hit, but invoking the Aaron Rome hit from the 2011 Stanley Cup final? Come on, man. Vigneault has a good track record as an NHL coach, but he also has an earned reputation for being a whiner and this was vintage AV.