2015-16 Boston Bruins in Red Line over the years

I have every Red Line Report draft guide going back to 1999, the first year that the service issued the guide in its known format.

Periodically, I go back and look at what the draft year scouting reports and rankings looked like, so I thought that to help get the juices flowing in anticipation for the 2016 draft (as if the B’s draft strategy post from last night wasn’t enough, right?) I’d do the exercise for all of you here on the blog and take a trip in the wayback machine (or in the case of David Pastrnak– not so wayback) and see what you all think.

I’ll do it in numerical order on the Boston roster, so here we go:

11- Jimmy Hayes, RW Drafted: 2008 (2nd round- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 146

Key comment: “Huge kid with good hands has wasted a lot of talent.”

2016 verdict: At the time, 146 was excessively low for where the Leafs drafted Hayes, but he hasn’t exactly proven RLR wrong, either. Few players did more to frustrate observers this season than Hayes. He’s huge but doesn’t play to his size, but the biggest issue was with how his offense cratered at crunch time. It’s tough to play with heightened expectations and pressures that come with coming home to be on the team you dreamed of skating for, but Hayes has the raw material to at least become a more consistent contributor going forward without the profound peaks and valleys he went through.

14- Brett Connolly, RW Drafted: 2010 (1st round- Tampa Bay)

Red Line ranking: 13

Key comment: “Great talent; only injury keeps him out of top-5.”

2016 verdict: Connolly has been anything but a “great” talent as a pro. It’s hard to fathom where the sixth overall selection six years ago went wrong, but he might be out of time in Boston, even though he only recently turned 24. If the B’s could figure out a way to get him going, it would be huge for them. He’s been a huge disappointment thus far, if not an outright bust given how highly regarded he was by just about everyone in 2010.

20- Lee Stempniak, RW Drafted: 2003 (5th round- St. Louis)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: Oversight! Stempniak has been a serviceable NHL winger since breaking in with the Blues in 2005-06 after Dartmouth. He’s played almost 800 career NHL games for 9 teams- the modern-era Brent Ashton.

21- Loui Eriksson, RW/LW Drafted: 2003 (2nd round- Dallas)

Red Line ranking: 59

Key comment: “Came on like gangbusters down the stretch.”

2016 verdict: Eriksson was one of Boston’s top players last season, and despite not being traded at the deadline, was a good Bruin after being the central piece in the disastrous Tyler Seguin return from 2013. At 31, he’s set to cash in on a free agent payday, which means it won’t happen in Boston, but he’s performed well ahead of the 59th overall projection from 13 years ago.

23- Chris Kelly, C/W  Drafted: 1999 (3rd round- Ottawa)

Red Line ranking: 78

Key comment: “Tenacious and relentless in puck pursuit.”

2016 verdict: Although a broken femur cost Kelly all but 11 games of the 2015-16 season, he has gone on to have a successful NHL career as a checking center who was a key contributor to Boston’s Stanley Cup championship in 2011. The veteran has been a Boston scapegoat because of the 4-year contract extension he got in 2012 coming off a career-best 20 goals, but he’s been pretty much exactly what RLR said he would be and has always brought character and leadership to any team he’s been on.

26- John-Michael Liles, D Drafted: 2000 (5th round- Colorado)

Red Line ranking: 159

Key comment: “Another small offensively-skilled d-man.”

2016 verdict: After being drafted 159th overall, the Avalanche took Liles exactly where RLR had him in their 2000 draft guide. 800 NHL games later, Liles has shown that the size bias that clearly existed 16 years ago had little impact on his ability to play at the highest level. He’s been a successful puck-moving, offensive defenseman over the life of his career, albeit one who is a complementary piece and more of a power play performer than a true difference-maker at present.

29- Landon Ferraro, LW Drafted: 2009 (2nd round- Detroit)

Red Line ranking: 38

Key comment: “Everybody like’s Ray’s kid more than we do.”

2016 verdict: Looks like RLR was onto something…Originally projected as a top-six scorer at the NHL level, Ferraro finally established himself at in the big show after Boston plucked him from the Red Wings off of waivers. However, seven years after being one of the first picks of the second round, he looks like a capable grinder, but has demonstrated none of the impressive upside he had in his draft year with Red Deer. Speedy and smart, Ferraro doesn’t have the high-end skills to be a top scorer, but looks like a solid role player who will likely bounce around.

30- Jeremy Smith, G Drafted:  2007 (2nd round- Nashville)

Red Line ranking: 29

Key comment: “Long, lean flexible netminder is the best of a mediocre crop.”

2016 verdict: Yikes! First-round billing even with that caveat for a player who has yet to play an NHL game. Although, for what it’s worth- Scott Darling is the only goalie of note to come out of the 1989-born class. Smith, who came to Boston as a free agent two years ago, has yet to suit up for an NHL game, although he’s been very good in the AHL.

33- Zdeno Chara, D Drafted: 1996 (3rd round- NY Islanders)

Red Line ranking: not available

2016 verdict: Future HHOFer and Stanley Cup champion has been Boston’s captain since the 6-9 d-man signed a decade ago, but Father Time has caught up to him. The great draft value pick (77th overall) by Mike Milbury 20 years ago turns 40 this season and Boston’s priority must be to surround him with a better supporting cast. Given how low he was out of the radar in Slovakia, it is doubtful he would have been high on anyone’s list back then.

37- Patrice Bergeron, C Drafted: 2003 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 71

Key comment: “Not big or fast but smart and productive.”

2016 verdict: Missed opportunity! When I was scouting the U18s with my Red Line boss Kyle Woodlief, the subject of Bergeron came up and he ruefully admitted that he missed on him rankings-wise. Woodlief really liked him (as evidenced by the comment above) but said Bergeron had two things working against him at the time: 1- he had only played the 1 season in the QMJHL in his draft year after spending his 16-YO year in midget AAA; and 2- Acadie-Bathurst is an out-of-the-way hockey backwater. No excuses- RLR got it wrong, but the Bruins and Scott Bradley didn’t, at the time “reaching” for Patrice when other sexier names were available (the team used the compensation pick they got from the NHL when Bill Guerin bolted for Dallas to take Bergeron, btw). He wanted Bergeron in the 1st round that year, but the team knew they could roll the dice and get him at 45 whereas Mark Stuart would not have been there for them in the 2nd. If they had known how important Bergeron would be to this franchise, they never would have risked it, but that’s the draft for you. Bergeron’s #37 will one day hang from the TD Garden rafters, and he’s got a shot at the Hockey Hall of Fame when all is said and done. As Chris Kelly likes to say, Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything”- a modern-day Milt Schmidt if you will.

39- Matt Beleskey, LW Drafted: 2006 (4th round- Anaheim)

Red Line ranking: 122

Key comment: “Playing against him is like nails on a chalkboard.”

2016 verdict: Correctly projected for the draft, but a little low given what he provides as a solid third-liner. After signing as a free agent last July, the former Belleville Bull was arguably Boston’s most consistent player wire-to-wire last season, he delivered what the team was looking for. Obviously, you’d like to see more goals after he topped the 20-goal mark the previous year with the Ducks, but he set a new high in assists and points, provided a large amount of hits and was that gritty leader by example type the Bruins need.

40- Tuukka Rask, G Drafted: 2005 (1st round- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 14

Key comment: “Wins our annual Mr. Gumby flexibility award.”

2016 verdict: The former Vezina Trophy winner had an up and down season but Carey Price and Rask were RLR’s top goalies in the 2005 draft and that’s how it’s played out in their careers as both have been recognized as the top player at their position (with Price earning a league MVP nod as well). When on top of his game, Rask is an elite puck stopper, but he’s also shown that like most, with a porous defense in front of him, he can’t carry the team on his back. It will be interesting to see what the Bruins do with him in the long term, as he turns 30 next March and will be in the fourth of the seven-year extension he signed in 2013 that is a $7-million annual chunk of change on Boston’s cap.

 

44- Dennis Seidenberg, D Drafted: 2001 (6th round- Philadelphia)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: It was a tough season for the game but rapidly declining German. He signed a four-year, $16M extension in the 2013-14 season, only to suffer a catastrophic knee injury shortly thereafter, costing him the rest of the campaign. He hasn’t been the same player since, losing mobility (he wasn’t ever a plus skater to begin with) and effectiveness as an aging defender who struggles to be the effective shutdown presence he was from 2010-14. The B’s could be looking at trading him or buying him out (he has two years remaining on his contract at $4M per), but he’s been counted on to log a lot of minutes on the second pairing without much effectiveness over the last two seasons.

 

45- Joe Morrow, D Drafted: 2011 (1st round- Pittsburgh)

Red Line ranking: 30

Key comment: “Few made bigger strides than this fine puck mover.”

2016 verdict: It looks like RLR had it right, as Morrow has made the NHL and shows flashes, but has not yet established himself as a regular. The Penguins made Morrow their top choice in 2011 (23rd overall) after he impressed with his skating, passing and shot as a member of the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. He was dealt to Dallas for veteran Brenden Morrow (no relation) in 2013. He was then moved to Boston as part of the Seguin trade a few months later on July 4. The skating and the passing are clearly evident, but Morrow has not asserted himself all that much in the Boston lineup, playing a relatively conservative brand of game. The more you watch him, the more you start to come to the conclusion that he’s essentially a complementary 4/5 defender who could thrive on a deeper blue line corps, but isn’t going to emerge as a top performer and one who can carry the mail.

 

46- David Krejci, C Drafted: 2004 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 130

Key comment: “Tiny but great hockey sense.”

2016 verdict: Like Bergeron, the B’s got outstanding value from a player who was ranked far too low by Red Line in his draft year. In fact, Krejci wasn’t really regarded by anyone- Central Scouting rated him just 21st overall on their Euro ranking behind such luminaries Rostislav Olesz, Lauri Tukonen, Kirill Lyamin and Sergei Ogorodnikov to name a few. Because Boston had traded their first- and second-round picks that year to Washington for Sergei Gonchar, Krejci’s selection at the end of the second round (from Los Angeles via Detroit for Jozef Stumpel in a deal made a year earlier at the 2003 draft) was met with a collective shrug, but 12 years later, he’s broken into Boston’s all-time top-20 scorers list and has been one of the team’s best offensive players during his tenure. Unfortunately for Krejci, his hot start cooled off considerably, aided by a hip injury that required offseason surgery. Because he’s got a small frame, the physical toll on him is starting to catch up, making his $7.25M annual cap hit and lengthy extension done by Peter Chiarelli in the 2014-15 season something to watch. On sheer achievement alone, however- Krejci’s career numbers (even better in the playoffs when Boston has gotten in) have made his draft rankings look silly. After Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who went 1-2 overall that year, Krejci is the third most productive player of the 2004 class.

 

47- Torey Krug, D Undrafted: 2012 (Free Agent- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: The undersized former Michigan State captain posted career highs for assists and points, but his goal totals fell off a cliff, finishing with just four tallies. Despite being a productive defenseman not only in the USHL, where he helped the Indiana Ice win a Clark Cup championship, but in three seasons at Michigan State where he was named captain in just his second year in East Lansing, Krug got nary a sniff on anyone’s rankings. In hindsight, he was dinged for size bias, but has become a go-to player for the Bruins since they signed him in the spring of 2012 and he burst onto the NHL scene against the Rangers in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. He’s due a new contract, but as currently constructed, no one else on the Boston defense can do what Krug can. With the right partner, he could be even more effective and productive than he’s been so far. The low goal totals were an aberration, but consider this- if he had scored his usual 12-15 markers this past season, he’d be in line to get a lot more on his next deal. The down season in goals might be a blessing in disguise for Boston when it comes to negotiations, but anyone who doesn’t think he’ll get $5M at least is fooling themselves. The B’s will pay the market rate and if Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon got it, so will Krug- he’s a better player.

 

48- Colin Miller, D Drafted:2012 (5th round- Los Angeles)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: Swing and a miss for RLR on a player who was first eligible in 2011 and played very little for the Soo Greyhounds but caught the eye of the Kings after attending their development camp and was drafted a year later. Acquired in the Milan Lucic trade, Miller made the big club out of camp but had trouble staying in the lineup. He has some of the most impressive skills of any Boston defenseman but his defensive instincts and decision-making are a work in progress. Many fans wanted “Chiller” in the lineup over Kevan “Killer” Miller, but the Boston coaches saw things differently. The younger Miller has the ever-desired upside, but he’s also got a lot to learn about playing the position, as he was a healthy scratch down in Providence during the season after being sent down. This is the kind of thing that fans sometimes don’t pick up on- it’s one thing for the Boston coaches to pull a player from the lineup, but when the AHL coaches do as well, then there’s obviously something there that the player isn’t doing. Miller still has impressive potential as a late-born 1992, but he benefited from shiny new toy syndrome last year. Now, he needs to work to demonstrate his value and worth as a two-way D, not just someone who can bring the offense.

 

50- Jonas Gustavsson, G Undrafted: 2009 (Free Agent- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 1*- on RLR draft guide’s top-10 European free agents list

Key comment: “Extremely flexible and smooth side-to-side.”

2016 verdict: “The Monster” was the top free agent target in 2009 and got a big ticket deal with the Leafs, but never really had the kind of anticipated impact given his tremendous performance in Sweden before coming over. Injuries have contributed to him never really establishing himself as a top-flight No. 1 in the NHL, but after being a training camp invite last year, he played well for the Bruins as a backup. It is unfortunate that in the last game of the season against Ottawa, when Rask couldn’t go due to illness and the B’s took a 1-0 lead, that Gustavsson ended up playing a pretty mediocre game. The team collapsed in front of him, but he didn’t do them many favors, either. Don’t expect a reprise for the 31-year-old in Boston this year.

 

51- Ryan Spooner, C Drafted: 2010 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 29

Key comment: “Creative playmaker was derailed by injury.”

2016 verdict: A power play weapon, Spooner had his peaks and valleys at even strength but completed his first full NHL season by establishing career highs in all categories. He was drafted 45th overall in 2010, and in retrospect, he should have been picked 32nd overall by Boston with Jared Knight going at 45 (well, if the team had a do-over Knight wouldn’t have been picked at all in the round, but spilt milk). Spooner has outperformed some ranked before him and many after, but it has taken him a while to establish himself in Claude Julien’s system. Truth be told- Bruins fans are fortunate that he’s still in the organization given the way things appeared to be headed in early 2015. He’s got the NHL talent to be a top-two center, but in Boston, he’s got to figure out how to be consistent and impactful as their third-line guy. T’s worth noting that when Krejci was injured in late December and Spooner moved to the second line for several weeks, he played the best NHL hockey of his career.

 

54- Adam McQuaid, D Drafted: 2005 (2nd round- Columbus)

Red Line ranking: 68

Key comment: “Nobody talks about him but he has good raw tools.”

2016 verdict: When it comes to toughness and rugged play on the back end, they don’t come much more game than “Quaider.” He was a surprise late second-round pick by Columbus but his skating was an even bigger issue then than it is now. Facing the prospect of not signing him and losing him to free agency, the Blue Jackets traded McQuaid to Boston in late May, 2007 for a fifth-round pick. That draft choice, subsequently flipped to Dallas, ended up being none other than Jamie Benn. Go figure. McQuaid is a great guy- one of the best I have covered on the Bruins in my 16 years with NEHJ, but he’s limited and has never played a complete, injury-free season. Oh, and he turns 30 in October, too. There have been whispers that at least one NHL team has expressed interest in him, so don’t be surprised to see a trade at some point this offseason. It would at least begin to explain why the Bruins locked up Kevan Miller.

 

62- Zach Trotman, D Drafted: 2010 (7th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: The final player selected in the 2010 NHL draft has appeared in games with Boston for each of the past three seasons, but this could be it for the Indiana native and Lake Superior State product. He has NHL size and skating, but found himself often the odd-man out on a crowded blue line with similar mid-to-lower tier defenders who all bring something similar to the table. Trotman worked hard to reach the NHL and is a solid citizen who could hook on in a different organization that has need for his ability as a serviceable role player.

 

63- Brad Marchand, LW Drafted: 2006 (3rd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 115

Key comment: “Super skilled little waterbug with some jam.”

2016 verdict: Marchand was the team’s best success stories in a tough season after setting personal bests in goals and points. Red Line had him ranked lower than he went (early third round) and Marchand has been the most productive of any player selected in the same round that year. He’s a top performer and goal threat, despite his lack of height and stature. Some of what might have contributed to his lower draft ranking was off-ice/maturity concerns, but to Marchand’s credit, he’s established himself as a Boston regular and fan favorite, albeit one who still lets his emotions get the best of him on occasion, but who has become one of the team’s top performers in the clutch. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017…cha-ching! Boston can begin negotiating with him this year on an extension to prevent that from happening, but it’s going to cost a lot.

 

64- Tyler Randell, RW Drafted: 2009 (6th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 164

Key comment: “He will go higher than this but frustrates us greatly.”

2016 verdict: Actually, he went right about where RLR said he should, which is interesting. The late-rounder out of Belleville and Kitchener of the OHL. Randell made his NHL debut for Boston and provided more value for scoring vs. minutes played than anyone in the lineup. Although often a healthy scratch and relegated to bottom line duty, Randell made the most of his gifts: slick hands and toughness. He’s got heavy feet, but hits like a truck and is a good fighter. The knock on him in junior was motivation and consistency, but he put in the work and Boston stuck with him, finally seeing their late-round investment pay some dividends.

86- Kevan Miller, D Undrafted: 2011 (Free agent- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Unranked

2016 verdict: The former Berkshire School and University of Vermont captain (from California) is as tough as nails and willed himself into the NHL after showing little big league potential at the lower levels. When used in the right role, Miller is capable. The challenge for Boston is that injuries and declining play elsewhere in the lineup caused Julien to use Miller in significant situations, and some of his limitations were exposed. For an undrafted free agent, he’s been a pleasant surprise, but without a top skill set, he’s more of a depth player thrust into a bigger role than suits him. That’s an issue.

88- David Pastrnak, RW Drafted: 2014 (1st round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 14

Key comment: “Smallish, but fiery and passionate. Lives to score.”

2016 verdict: RLR was ahead of the curve here, as Pastrnak slid down to 25th overall mostly because of a concussion that forced him out of the lineup during the key months of Jan-Mar. He made the NHL at age 18 and was a breath of fresh air for the Bruins and their fans in 2015. Last season was a bit of a step back for Pastrnak largely due to a fractured foot suffered on a shot off the skate in late October, but the foundation is in place for the future face of the franchise. He’s got a good attitude and is willing to work- the Bruins just desperately need Pastrnak to continue his upward developmental trajectory and blossom into the 30+ goal man he’s capable of becoming.

Observations:

  1. The glaring thing that sticks out is a lack of production in the Bruins drafts to account for the current roster. Of all the B’s regulars, only one- Pastrnak (14)- carries a top-15 draft ranking by Red Line. Connolly was ranked 13th, but would have carried a higher grade if not for a hip injury that caused him to miss most of the 2009-10 season. Rask was ranked 14th overall in 2005, but he was drafted by Toronto at 21st overall- just one spot ahead of Boston (Matt Lashoff) and acquired in a 2006 trade for Andrew Raycroft. Of all the other players drafted by the B’s- only Spooner (29) was a projected first-rounder (Morrow at 30, but he was drafted by PIT). There are no top-10 draft-projected (by RLR) players anywhere on Boston’s active roster.
  2. Phil Kessel (2), Tyler Seguin (2) and Dougie Hamilton (5) are the highest-rated Red Line guys Boston drafted going back 10 years, but they’re helping other teams. Ironically, Seguin and Hamilton were both had for Kessel…all the B’s have left to show for moving Seguin to Dallas is Morrow and possibly Eriksson if he re-signs in Boston. As for Hamilton, the jury is out- Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Jeremy Lauzon might all be a part of the future equation in Boston as the three players selected with draft choices acquired from Calgary for the 2011 first-rounder.
  3. Boston’s top players Bergeron (71), Marchand (115) and Krejci (130) weren’t even ranked in the top-50 of their draft seasons. The Bruins selected all three and cultivated them as homegrown stars- where would the team be without them?
  4. Only one player- Chara- had no record to consult with Red Line, but six roster regulars in 2015-16 were not even ranked by RLR: Stempniak, Seidenberg, Krug, C. Miller, K. Miller and Trotman.

Conclusion: The Bruins simply must get more production from their drafts. They’ve managed to make some value picks over the years, but management frittered away most of the high-end talent and it shows in the club’s current trajectory. No team escapes failure in the draft process to a certain degree, but when you look at how many undrafted players or guys who were not projected as impact contributors are on the roster and being employed in big roles, the importance of Boston improving their drafting and development efforts is even more critical.

I will continue the exercise with the Boston prospects to see if we have some similar trends, keeping in mind that there is no guarantee of success for them at the NHL, even if they appear to be on a solid developmental track. Watch for that post to hit in the next 24 hours.

Requiem for the 2016 Boston Bruins

It’s less than 24 hours after the TD Garden debacle against the Senators, and many of us are still wondering what went wrong. Actually, it’s not that hard to figure it out. 8 months ago, TSP concluded the season preview for the team’s defense with this:

“…the Boston defense is not going to be much of a threat offensively, so they’ll have to take care of things in their own end. Without the requisite speed and ability to contain speed to the outside, that’s going to be a challenge.

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

As mentioned previously, defensive issues aside, it is still hard to square what happened in the last month, given the optimism that followed the several weeks after the trade deadline. The B’s seemed primed to cruise to a playoff spot with one of the Atlantic Division’s second or third-place seeds, only to suffer a complete and utter collapse that left them hoping for a miracle  in the form of a Philadelphia Flyers flameout, and this after Detroit handed them the path to victory with their regulation loss to an undermanned NY Rangers squad yesterday.

It isn’t that the Bruins missed the playoffs- many of us expected that to happen after they removed Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith and Dougie Hamilton from last year’s lineup and replaced them with Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes up front and Matt Irwin and Colin Miller on the back end.

It’s how it happened.

As of St. Patrick’s Day, the B’s looked all but assured in silencing critics that predicted a major step backwards this season, but over the past 30 days, they crashed to earth and validated the doubts and questions. It isn’t just a matter of blown opportunities this hockey campaign, either- we saw nearly the same thing a year ago, and going back to the 2013 playoffs when they blew a series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. Heck, go back to 2012 and the monumental collapse in 2010 to the Flyers after building a 3-0 lead. One common denominator has consistently reared its ugly head: when playing at home, and needing a big win, the Boston Bruins not only come up empty,  but lose in spectacularly poor fashion. Yesterday was no exception, and if nothing else- that simply has to change.

Boston is a notoriously passionate and tough sports town, so the context is everything when it comes to the Bruins’ second consecutive non-playoffs finish. The cynics are having a field day with this one and rightfully so- Cam Neely and Don Sweeney entered the 2015-16 season with gaping holes that weren’t adequately filled last summer. The vultures will be feasting on the carcass of this fiasco of a season for a good long time. It’s April 10- we’ve got about six months of it coming. If you don’t like being a Boston sports fan in the down times, then you might want to stay off the internet and talk radio, television, avoid the water cooler and anyplace else where the postmortem is sure to be one giant pig-pile.

The thing is- I’m not so sure that the Boston Bruins- from ownership all the way down to the on-ice product and everyone in between- doesn’t deserve the spotlight right now. I mean, how many times do you have to witness the same thing not working before you dispense with the peripheral changes and make sweeping ones?

In order to answer that, we must look at the 2015-16 hockey season and ask ourselves- where did it all go wrong?

1. Talent matters in any sport- hockey is no different

When I was growing up, I wanted to play in the NHL. At 43, I’m writing about it instead and no, I never played the game at any meaningful level. In the end, it all comes down to this in hockey as it is in just about all walks of life: wanting to be a skilled player and actually being talented enough to make the plays consistently to win enough games at the highest level of hockey in the world are two different things. The Bruins have gone out and assembled a roster of gritty, character types that play an effective 200-foot game with the exception of just a couple of skaters.

Unfortunately, they’ve also traded away some of their most talented players for various reasons. Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Hamilton, Lucic, Smith…those are the productive, skilled and tempo-altering players who are no longer on the team. Two of them were acquired for Kessel in 2009, and in 2016 the Bruins have little to show for it. Loui Eriksson will almost assuredly be playing in a new zip code next season unless he has a change of heart and decides to accept Boston’s most recent four-year extension offer.

So while Patrice Bergeron and Beleskey led Boston’s character brigade, and Brad Marchand certainly stepped up his play and leadership with a career-best 37-goal campaign, it simply wasn’t enough.They’re an industrious bunch, but the 2016 B’s had known talent gaps when facing the class of the NHL.

The B’s did not have a talented enough roster- top to bottom- and especially on defense- to close the deal and get into the postseason. I can hammer the defense as a group, but you all saw it unfold throughout the course of the year, so at this point- what purpose does that serve? We knew the defense was the elephant in the room coming in, and yet, Boston’s best hope was that the forwards and goaltending, plus the character and experience on the roster would see the B’s through to the postseason.

Those intangibles weren’t sufficient. The gritty, hard-working types are important, but the top-tier NHL clubs all have them plus the even more critical multiple high-end players on the roster, some at each position. The St. Louis Blues immediately come to mind here.

Ironically- the B’s smashed the Blues in their last outing, which fueled the hope that Boston would hold on and get in. After inconceivable losses to New Jersey and Carolina (two teams looking up at them in the Eastern Conference standings) the B’s teased with a decisive win against Detroit only to crash and burn against the Senators. Those same Senators, by the way, who were also looking up at them in the standings and now get to pick ahead of the B’s, too. As Dennis Miller once said- “Talk about not having a date to the prom…”

When it all comes down to it, the 2015-16 Boston Bruins simply weren’t talented enough to be one of the league’s teams in the NHL’s spring 16, so they’re out. Sometimes, it is as simple as that. On many nights, the better team won, and the better squad wasn’t wearing the spoked B.

2. The coach is accountable but also needs an awfully long stick to score or break up offensive rushes from the bench

I understand and respect the criticisms of Claude Julien as the Bruins bench boss. I just don’t think the problems with Julien’s coaching are as simple as him not playing the ‘yutes (or the infamous- “he didn’t develop them!” canard) from start to finish. Experienced players are more trustworthy than inexperienced ones…that may upset some folks, but it’s a fact of life. There isn’t some vast conspiracy- there’s just so many things that happen behind the scenes that we in the media and fans aren’t privy to.

But there’s no denying it- if the players loved playing for him, they didn’t show it.  When the rubber met the road, the NHL Bruins simply didn’t perform for him with the season on the line.

Julien (barely) passed Art Ross for the top spot on Boston’s career coaching victories list, but the run to 400 wins stalled out badly at the end. And this much is true: you can’t point to the coach’s effectiveness at getting the guys to play hard for him without acknowledging that even with the lack of aforementioned talent, the 2015-16 Bruins (and 2014-15 squad too) didn’t play hard enough when it mattered most.

Julien is a class act and if the B’s opt to fire him over this, then so be it. He’ll get hired about 5 minutes later and continue to be a coach in this league- if not in Ottawa or Montreal, then somewhere. But Boston’s larger issue is- who will they bring in to replace him and will that person have much more to work with than Julien did? We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it.

I won’t lie- I’ve gotten to know Julien a bit in the nine years he’s been with the team, so it is understandable why players like Patrice Bergeron love him so much. But, hockey is a business- a results-oriented one- and Julien’s teams have imploded down the stretch in consecutive years and even before that. If not for a fateful deflection that went wide and a tip that didn’t in Boston’s Game 7 win over Montreal in 2011, or the roaring comeback over the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013, we likely would have witnessed Julien’s departure long ago.

The critics who say he doesn’t adjust well enough to what other teams do and can stubbornly adhere to what he believes in even when not working have a point. But so do those who say that you can’t give him a set of Crayola crayons and expect him to craft the Mona Lisa. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and in pro sports, being in the middle won’t get you very far.

Getting the Bruins into the playoffs would have validated his excellence as coach given what he had to work with. But his team didn’t get in, and bad things happen to good people all the time. It won’t be surprising if management pulls the plug and makes a change.

3. Decisions in the past and present limited Sweeney’s options

The life of an NHL GM is often fraught with peril.

When Don Sweeney was named to the post after Peter Chiarelli’s dismissal, he had a Herculean task ahead to create cap flexibility and keep the Bruins on track to get back into contention. He tried to do both and it didn’t work.

He ultimately stuck with Claude Julien, and then made two big draft-day moves- each alternately blasted and praised as myriad analysts dissected each. Hamilton to Calgary for three picks- not one NHL roster player in return- was a shocker and the court of public opinion came down swiftly against the fledgling GM, even if it was later revealed that Hamilton and his representation didn’t exactly give Sweeney much to go on in negotiating a second contract with Boston. Lucic to the Kings was, conversely, almost universally praised for its return- a 1st (Jakub Zboril) a capable, on-the-verge-of-being-a-starter in Martin Jones and an on-the-verge-of-being-an-NHL-defenseman in  Colin Miller.

Sweeney and the Bruins were widely mocked (What is Boston doing?! were the breathless headlines Friday night and Saturday) for drafting Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn after the first round given some other bigger names on the board, and so- given the seasons Kyle Connor, Mathew Barzal, Colin White and even Thomas Chabot had, those knives are going to come out again. Ultimately, the Bruins didn’t do what the pundits said they should have, but in fairness- the aforementioned players made a case that they should have been chosen over at least two if not all three players Boston took ahead of them. We’re still waiting on the jury and might be for quite some time. (Disclaimer- I have no issue with any of the three Boston took when they did. It’s possible that everyone is right in taking who they did where, at least as things stand right now.)

Ultimately, though- last summer was about freeing up cap dollars, so Reilly Smith was sent packing for a reduced cap hit in Jimmy Hayes. Unfortunately for Boston, Hayes not only failed to take the anticipated next step, but his lack of foot speed and physicality, made him the target of fan angst and derision pretty early on. If he wasn’t getting the goals and points, it looked like he was “coasting” and therefore became an easy scapegoat, especially when Smith returned to scoring form in Florida. Hayes doesn’t deserve a lot of the pure disdain he’s gotten, but the results weren’t where they needed to be.

Sweeney committed a blunder in acquiring Zac Rinaldo for a 2017 third-round pick but at least Sweeney recognized it by cutting bait in February rather than riding it out with a spare part for an entire season. In the end, it’s not the pick that hurts (though it is a wasted asset)- it’s the questionable judgment that Rinaldo could have been an impact player in Boston enough to give up a third in the first place. We could see this coming, and how the B’s pro scouts couldn’t or didn’t is what stokes the fires of discontent in April.

Aside from Matt Irwin, Sweeney did little to address his defense and that was the biggest criticism, as once the season began, it was increasingly tougher to make a deal for a capable, stabilizing force with so much parity in the NHL and teams not interested in giving up valuable young and promising blue line talent for what Boston had to offer. John-Michael Liles was too little, too late; Lee Stempniak made an impact, but Sweeney decided to stick with Eriksson to help get the Bruins into the postseason and now that the  team couldn’t even do that, not moving the impending UFA at the deadline will be a major talking point from now until they either surrender his rights for a middling pick or he goes elsewhere on July 1.

If anything- Sweeney’s actions last June proved he’s capable of bold action, but some of Chiarelli’s past mistakes and some poor decisions in the offseason drew up the blueprint that we’re left with today.

4. The B’s core is not hardcore enough

The Bruins have roughly $28 million invested in four players: Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask. Notice who is missing- Brad Marchand. He’s entering his last year of a bargain $4.5M cap hit and the B’s are going to have to open the vault to keep him. If Krejci is making $7.25M for the next five years, what is Marchand worth? David Pastrnak will also be due a new contract entering the 2017-18 season, and depending on how he plays next year, what are his reps going to be asking for? Torey Krug’s future with the Bruins will be decided in the here and now.

But all of this gets back to one central question: how good is Boston’s core? After what we’ve witnessed the past two regular seasons and going back to the 2013 playoffs, not good enough.

Chara is 39 and can no longer carry the defense. He’s been the captain for a decade and has become an easy target in a “what have you done for me lately?” world. Chara needed help this season and simply didn’t get it. It was painful to watch most nights, and I remain convinced that his right knee is a major culprit in the falloff of his play. He’ll never be the player he once was, but in the right role, he can still be effective for the remaining two years of his deal when expected retirement follows. The B’s weren’t able to put him in position to succeed, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t finish out his career in Boston if he so desires- just as long as it isn’t expected that he gave them what he did in his prime.

Bergeron will be 31 in May…he’s the team’s heart, soul and most productive player. But he’s not above criticism either- where was he yesterday? Nobody (least of all TSP) is blaming Bergeron for what happened, but if we want to have an honest discussion about what went wrong in Boston, we can’t completely fence off certain players while pointing the finger at others who are more convenient targets. Bergeron could have led by example and even in a loss, created some signature moments. He, like the rest of his mates, did not, so nobody is off-limits in the discussion of the team’s issues.

Having said that Bergeron isn’t going anywhere, and he’s the absolute least of the team’s worries. But, shouldn’t management be figuring out how to surround St. Patrice and Marchand with better talent? He’s on the wrong side of 30 now- the window is closing. Bergeron is proof that when playing around the margins  and half-measures to address the roster, he’s not powerful enough to carry the team on his shoulders to victory. Even though, for the most part, he’s tried to do just that. He had a remarkable year, but when it all came down to the wire, Bergeron wasn’t able to will his team to a win.

That leads us to Krejci and Rask.

Krejci had a tremendous start and looked like that $7.25M player early on, but as has been the case in recent seasons, he got hit with injuries and as the grind of the season went on, was less and less effective. What good is having the franchise’s highest active scorer in the playoffs if you can’t make it into the dance?

It’s a bad contract, period- the biggest albatross Chiarelli saddled the Bruins with in his final year as GM. He makes more than Bergeron and delivers less. He’s a good player but doesn’t have the elite skill to be a great one. He turns 30 next month, and the B’s are in real danger of being stuck with a center who is capable enough when fully healthy, but isn’t capable of making it through an entire season in peak condition. You can’t put that kind of guy on the third line, so where does that leave the ability to build versatile and productive scoring units across the board?

The simple fact is- the Bruins needed more than they got from Krejci this season and the final game of the regular season was a microcosm of all that is of concern with him in the present and future. Like Bergeron yesterday, he was unable to be a difference-maker, so we witnessed three goals from pluggers like Chris Neil and Zack Smith instead. They alone gave the Sens a 2-1 win even if you throw out Smith’s late-game empty-netter and the tallies by Mika Zibanejad, Matt Puempel and P.G. Pageau to make it a complete embarrassment of a 6-1 final score.

There is no denying that Krejci is a high-end passer and driven guy who truly cares about his team and winning. On paper, Krejci makes complete sense where he resides in the team’s salary structure, but he isn’t doing enough in the real world to validate what he does best. The questions about return on investment will only loom larger and larger if he maintains his current trajectory.

Trading Krejci is no easy fix, either. His contract is even more problematic- he has a full no-move clause until 2019 followed by a no-trade in 2019-20. Assuming Sweeney could find a taker (and make no mistake- the B’s would be getting a low return and likely retaining money in the process), Krejci would have to bless off on it. Not impossible, but not easily done. There are teams out there capable of adding his term and cap hit, but not very many. For the time being, Krejci is worth more to the Bruins than he is to some other team, but if this is the “new normal” for him, then the B’s can’t afford to keep the status quo as is. They’ll have to look elsewhere on the roster for cap relief.

There aren’t seven million reasons for trading a particular player, but it was a major disappointment that Tuukka Rask got sick and wasn’t there when his team needed him. Sure, with the way the Bruins played it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Rask was in net or it was the ghost of Tiny Thompson- Boston wasn’t winning that game. He certainly didn’t mean to get sick and life happens- especially when you have a toddler (read: germ factory) at home, but is this what $7M buys you these days? The do-or-die game of the season after other mediocre showings sprinkled throughout the year in the worst statistical performance of his career, and Rask wasn’t even there to attempt to be the difference maker. He still has his hardcore believers, but that number is shrinking.

The Bruins were rumored to be discussing moving Rask on draft day last summer, and with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have and given the reins to the then still (but not now) unproven Martin Jones. The Hamilton trade furor and fan backlash is likely what stopped Sweeney in his tracks on moving Rask (assuming the rumor is true), but after this season of up-and-down play and a less-than-team first attitude to boot, while the goaltender doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame, he nevertheless played a key part in the collapse.

For me, it’s simple- while I admire the hell out of Rask’s natural talent, I’m not sure I’d want him in a foxhole next to me. Right, wrong, indifferent- he’s the one core piece the Bruins could move to try and get out from under the situation they’re in. He’s not yet 30, will no doubt appeal to a multitude of teams that could see him as a critical piece to get them over the hump, and hey- he’s a talented player. Boston’s problem is that the teams with the most to gain from Rask and the most to offer (young, up-and-coming D) are all pretty well set between the pipes. Nobody ever said the life of a GM was easy…

Trading him certainly means there’s a good chance the B’s will take an even bigger step backwards next season if Rask is dealt, but maybe not. And what’s the real upside to keeping him for what looks to be another bridge/re-tool year even if the B’s can land one higher-end defender and maybe another capable player via free agency? We’ve already seen in two seasons that Rask was unable to elevate his play enough to negate the dearth of skill at other positions. So, depending on the return and how much cap space is allocated to other talent at other positions, it just might get Boston on the right track to sustained success sooner than many might think.

In the end, I just don’t feel that Rask is the right player for this team. His body language and at times perceived indifference doesn’t seem suited for the clear growing pains such a porous defense and inconsistent forward group is going to bring to the ice on any given night in Boston. It doesn’t make Rask a bad person, and he’s done some good things for the B’s in his tenure. Before the legion of Rask fans descend on this space to blast me for saying it- I truly believe a change of scenery would be best for him too. I have little doubt that with the right destination, he’d waive his own NMC to do so. Unfortunately, it also means Sweeney and Co. are selling low, but sometimes you have to swallow hard, cut your losses and do what you think is right for the club over the long haul.

The core needs a makeover. Whether it’s Rask or someone else, we’ll have to see what comes next. But we’ve seen that that playing along the margins (trading Ryan Spooner for example) or half measures won’t cut it. The core isn’t the identity of the Boston Bruins anymore- they were at one time, but in the 2016 season’s final moments, not one of them was able (or even available) to make a difference. That’s a fact that wasn’t lost on management.

So- there it is.

I intended this to be a shorter post, but you got a book instead. I will follow up with a podcast and spend more time on that medium identifying what steps the B’s might take to right the ship.

I will say this- no single offseason is going to get it done. While the farm has some nice players, there aren’t a lot of the high-end types who are not only projected to be eventual stars NHL but who are ready to make the jump to the big time starting in 2016-17. That doesn’t mean that more won’t emerge in the coming months and years the way Frank Vatrano did this year and David Pastrnak the season before, but it’s not going to be a simple matter of plugging in prospects and young players and expecting better results than the ones we got this time around.

It’s going to be a rocky offseason, with every move and non-move sure to be dissected and flayed with relish on both sides. But this is why we love and follow the game.

I want to thank everyone who has read the blog since it began last July. The first NHL regular season is now in the books and while the disappointment won’t subside for a while, I am grateful for the candor, the feedback and the support.

Attending the World Under-18 Championship next week will allow me to turn the focus of the blog to what comes next and begin preparing for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

I hope you’ll keep reading…

– Kirk Luedeke

“The End”- the Doors from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now 

 

 

Thud! (And ideas on what the B’s need to address going forward)

That’s the sound of the Boston Bruins coming out of an important game last night against the Anaheim Ducks.

The reality is- you can’t win in any league without scoring goals, so this one was over just a few minutes into it- as long as it took trade deadline pickup Jamie McGinn to put the puck past Jonas Gustavsson at 2:51.

The Bruins outshot and outhit the Ducks, and after a rough 1st period, pulled things together until giving up a Hampus Lindholm goal early in the third period.  However, on a night that the B’s couldn’t get any of their 38 shots past starting netminder Frederik Andersen, no one should be all that surprised- the Ducks are one of the league’s top teams after a brutal offensive start. The defense and goaltending has been there for them all season, and when the scoring picked up, you just knew that Bruce Boudreau’s club would be a force. The B’s have been outscored 10-2 in their pair of games against the Ducks this season. In a head-to-head matchup like this one, it was evident that the B’s is not as talented, not as deep, not as strong, not as fast.

I know fans are disappointed, and there’s no doubt more is expected of this B’s club that went on an impressive hot streak after keeping Loui Eriksson and picking up John-Michael Liles and Lee Stempniak on February 29th’s NHL trade deadline. At the same time, it’s unfortunate that there still seems to be this sense of entitlement by so many out there who flood the airwaves and internet with negativity in the wake of a loss. No team has ever posted a perfect record in any regular season in NHL history and no one ever will. The B’s are far from a powerhouse team, so nobody should really be surprised that they came up short against the Ducks last night. Not giving a pass to the Bruins here, but they were overmatched against Anaheim last night and it showed- they put up a solid effort and had their moments, but their opponent is that much better. McGinn and Ryan Kesler scored in the first 5 minutes and while the game seemed closer than the final score, the B’s were unable to solve the defense and goaltender at the other end.

The honeymoon with Stempniak and Liles is ending. They’re solid veterans, but not true difference makers. Boston’s showing against San Jose and Anaheim give you an indication that while the team improved at the deadline, how much of an upgrade the duo represent looks to be relatively minimal compared to the strength and core of the recognized top clubs in the league, especially out West. Liles played poorly last night…it happens, but his -3 against the Ducks is probably more reflective of what he is at age 35 than anything else, but after infusing the B’s with a shot of energy after arriving, he’s coming back down to earth a bit.

The team should be grateful that they didn’t lose sparkplug Matt Beleskey to a serious eye injury after he got caught with a Simon Despres high stick on the follow through of a puck battle. Once again, there were missed calls on some blatant stuff that should have gone Boston’s way, but it didn’t happen and who is to say that the B’s power play could have made a difference? The good news for the Bruins is that their penalty killing has been pretty dangerous this season with 9 shorthanded goals, so perhaps it pays them to be without the man advantage. In any case- the fan frustration that Boston continues to be at the bottom of the league in power play chances is palpable, but I’m not sure we can do anything about it.

Last night wasn’t about the missed calls as much as it was about missed opportunities- the second period was much better and a goal or two could have changed the game entirely, but sometimes we have to take a step back and understand that Ducks are a superior team. They made their chances count and Boston didn’t. That’s life and hockey.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Bruins as they face a rested L.A. Kings team in their home digs tonight, the same club that demolished Boston in the Hub, and that word probably doesn’t begin to describe the one-sided drubbing the Kings gave them on their home ice in Milan Lucic’s return to TD Garden. They’ll go home briefly and then head down to New York to face the Rangers on Wednesday, so there is a chance they can salvage a point or three in the final two games of their roadie, but it won’t be easy.

With that in mind, here are some (obvious) thoughts for Don Sweeney and the team to ponder going forward:

  1. The defense must be the offseason priority.

No disrespect intended to Dennis Seidenberg, but serious thought should be given to either trading him for an inconsequential return or, if no NHL team is willing to take him and his $4 million cap hit, buying him out and moving on. Kevan Miller is a good teammate and has had his moments in Boston, but the B’s need to look at using his roster spot on someone else. He’ll land on his feet with someone else, but the B’s already re-signed Adam McQuaid to a questionable extension (and I say questionable in terms of pure economics- will always respect McQuaid for what he brings to the team, but he’s yet to make it through an entire NHL unscathed and the wear and tear on him appears to be showing)- they don’t need to add another one with a game but limited Miller.

Zdeno Chara can’t carry the team- that much is certain- but he still carries value in the right role. Trading him is the popular talking point by folks who don’t seem to understand that he has a no movement clause. I get that trading him makes sense on multiple levels, but the contract he signed makes that highly problematic, even if the GM was willing to move in that direction. Bottom line- unless he does a Ray Bourque and asks out, Chara isn’t going anywhere. Having said that, Sweeney and his staff understand that he simply cannot be an effective workhorse anymore. Not only does the team need a legitimate No. 2 defender to balance the three pairings, but they also need to seek out an effective defense partner for Chara. They weren’t able to find one this season.

Maybe Colin Miller can be that guy, but the more I see of him, the more I believe he’s just a middle-tier player who has some nice offensive tools and will be an above average power play specialist with 40-point NHL upside but is not instinctive enough of a player to be a bell cow 2-way threat who will be a dependable defensive presence. He’s still young and will develop into an NHL regular, but I’m not sure he’s someone the Bruins and their fans should be placing an inordinate amount of faith in as a top-2 or even 3 solution for the team.

It’s been a disappointing season for Torey Krug as far as the goals go- he has just three. It isn’t for a lack of trying but he’s gotten no breaks this year. He’s still one of Boston’s best options on defense in terms of his skating, puck-moving, smarts and energy/tenacity. He’s posted a career-best in assists and is an important character guy for the team. In a perfect world he’d have a lot more goals, but it might be a blessing in disguise- if he was lighting it up, he’d be looking at a bigger payday. As it stands, the B’s should be able to lock him into a reasonable, fair-market extension at around $5 million AAV, perhaps a little less, and considering what Seidenberg is getting, that’s about right. Some folks won’t like it, but those people are nowhere near the team and can’t even comprehend what Krug means to the club on and off the ice. Unless he’s part of some major trade and massive plan to re-shape Boston’s defense by bringing in multiple players, Krug should be a part of the solution going forward. He might not have the ideal size, but his oversized heart and hockey IQ mean he can be highly effective- he just doesn’t have a lot of help at present.

The Bruins need to make something happen at the position. Kevin Shattenkirk is the biggest name out there (and Boston might/should have their sights on a few other options), and he won’t come cheaply from the St. Louis Blues if they were to trade him. But should Boston land him, they had better have the ability to retain him for the long-term. If it’s someone else, so be it- but whomever the B’s are looking to bring in, it needs to be a player who can be part of a winning present and future.

2. Boston needs to upgrade Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly.

There’s no way around it- both have been major disappointments.

In Hayes’ case, you would think the local guy would have shown more consistent energy and desire but it seems like the pressure got to him. Although huge, the former Nobles prep star and Boston College product has always been more of a gentle giant than a premier power forward, and his skating is what prevented him from being a first-round pick in 2008- he struggles to play a consistent uptempo style. Hayes gets his goals and points by going to the net and boxing out defenders with his massive frame, but we don’t see it enough. The Bruins acquired him in hopes that after a 19-goal campaign in Florida (including a dagger game at the end of the season that essentially knocked the Bruins out of the playoffs) he would take it to the next level. That hasn’t happened and I don’t know if it ever will…he’s such a curiously passive player given what he could be with that pure size and the soft hands around the net. I can only imagine the coaches are even more baffled. Bringing him home to Boston hasn’t worked and a lot of this is on Hayes- the team has tried a lot of different things to get him going (and we’ve seen what he’s capable of bringing) but he’s not responded in any meaningful, consistent fashion. That’s one of the reasons why he watched last night’s contest from the press box. He’s on the books for two more years, so the B’s either have to remain invested in him and hope he gets the funk out (Extreme reference!) of his game or they’ll have to take pennies on the dollar (and perhaps retain salary in the process) to get some other team to take him off their hands.

Connolly is even more maddening.

The sixth overall pick in 2010 flashes all of those tools that saw him selected before some pretty damn fine NHL players, but we see it only in fleeting fashion. The size and speed combo catches the eye for sure, but it’s what he doesn’t do with it that leaves you often shaking your head in disbelief. The scouting reports on Connolly coming out Prince George of the WHL near unanimously praised him for his hockey sense and killer instinct around the net, but the NHL version of Connolly flies in the face of those observations. If he’s not doing fly-bys in front of the opposition net or missing shots from prime position, Connolly can’t seem to do the little things that matter- battles for loose pucks, a net-front presence, won foot races- he often seems to be a step behind.

That’s not to say Connolly can’t be an effective fourth-line winger, but the Bruins didn’t give up not one but two second-round picks for a bottom line player. The Tampa Bay Lightning didn’t draft him where they did for a checking/energy guy. He’s not yet 24, so you don’t want to completely close the door on Connolly, but at the same time- like Hayes- the B’s have given him a lot of different looks and chances and he simply hasn’t done much with it. 9 goals in 69 games with some healthy scratches thrown in there simply doesn’t cut it for a player as talented as Connolly is. Where’s the beef?

Frank Vatrano is the obvious player to give a chance as the season comes to an end over the disappointing duo. He just turned 22 this week and has 31 goals in 31 AHL games, not to mention another six goals in 30 NHL games after an earlier stint with the big club this season. My personal feeling is that right now- Vatrano is better off playing top line, PP and PK minutes in Providence as opposed to being on a lower unit with limited ice time. Of course, the B’s are only allowed four recalls after the trade deadline, so it isn’t as simple as just brining him up.

Having said all that, the B’s could do worse than giving the Springfield Rifle a shot- he’s got speed and energy to burn and just might give the Boston offense a shot in the arm. He’s a left wing who could replace Eriksson in the top-six and then Eriksson could move over to the right allowing coaches to move out either one of Connolly and Hayes. The issue for Boston (other than burning the call up and concerns about the defense factor of a Vatrano-David KrejciDavid Pastrnak line) is that in order to bring Vatrano up, they would have to put someone else on waivers, so right now, it appears that the business of hockey and economics are playing a more prominent role. I can’t argue with those who say that exposing Connolly and/or Hayes to waivers is no big loss, but if Sweeney is convinced he can eventually move them for some kind of return, you begin to understand his reticence to put them on the waiver wire where any team can put in a claim.

Either way, I think we see Frankie “Vats” in Boston next season in some kind of full-time capacity. Natural goal scorers like him don’t grow on trees and the B’s will want to cultivate some returns, especially if the club sees a key roster departure up front, which leads me to my next point.

3. Loui Eriksson– caveat emptor!

Let me get this out of the way- I like Loui. Always have.

He’s been unfairly maligned in the wake of the trade that sent Tyler Seguin (btw- that achilles tendon injury he suffered was gruesome- luckily for him, he may have dodged a bullet by only being out a few weeks versus how serious it could have been) to Dallas. He’s not flashy, but is just smart and consistent- you always know what you’re going to get with Eriksson. But, he’ll be 31 soon, and with what he brings you, 5 or 6 years at close to $6 million per if not more is simply not money/term well spent, and the Bruins need to walk away.

For those who regularly read TSP  and listen to the podcasts (this blog for those who might not have had their coffee)- you know I was all in favor of moving Eriksson at the deadline and was surprised when the Bruins did’t. Of course- if you believe Cam Neely and the lackluster offers he claims were made for Eriksson, then it is understandable that the B’s would hold onto him and take their chances, and he’s continued to make timely contributions. Unfortunately, with two tough losses, it’s easy to revisit the wisdom in not moving Eriksson, especially when it stands to reason that he’ll either leave Boston in early July or the B’s will have to overpay significantly to keep him in the fold.

What to do?

The positives- even without the high-end foot speed, Eriksson is an ideal forward for Boston’s system. He’s smart, industrious, thinks the game at such a high level that he keeps the puck and makes the right decisions in every zone. Versatility is a plus- he’s proven he can play either wing. Eriksson is a smooth playmaker, goes to the net and finishes plays off in close, does good power play work, kills penalties and is a threat shorthanded (witness his shortie the other night against San Jose). He’s a quiet guy, but leads by example and has earned the trust and respect of his coaches and teammates alike.

On the downside- he’s a good player, not a great one. He’s going to get his money because teams out there with cap space to burn will give him what he and his agent are asking for. That means the B’s will either pony up or have to swallow hard and let him go, because unless Eriksson orders his agent JP Barry to stand down and decides to take a more team-friendly deal, they’ll get little in the way of a break. And honestly- why should Eriksson leave money and term on the table if he can get it elsewhere? I don’t begrudge him getting what he can, but that puts the Bruins in a tough spot.

Ultimately, I think that if the B’s are serious about getting a long-term but young enough defenseman to rebuild their blue line corps around, they need to trade Eriksson’s cap space to make sure they can invest that savings in a long-term deal. That means that if they aren’t willing to go beyond the four years they’ve already offered Loui (and that’s a risky proposition as it is with his concussion history), then they should offer him up to a team that wants the exclusive negotiating rights and is willing to give them a mid-round pick. It’s a far from ideal return, but if the Neely claims are true, getting a fifth-rounder for him isn’t that terrible. After all- Jamie Benn was a fifth-round pick once upon a time, right (it could happen again…yeah, right!)?

I guess we’ll find out, but at some point, the Bruins will need to see if the young crop of forwards in their system can play. Keeping a known (and relatively safe) commodity like Eriksson benefits them in the short term, but leaves them little wiggle room if he skates off a cliff at age 33 or 34 or something unforeseen happens to his health. Marc Savard and Seidenberg are recent reminders of just how rapidly a player and team’s outlook can change when devastating injuries happen.

But in getting back to Loui and why he wasn’t moved, I can only surmise it is because the team and coaches trust him to give his level best each and every night.  That trust factor is why keeping Loui made far more sense for Boston than dumping him for a mediocre futures return would have. It’s easy for fans to say- just take the second-round pick so he doesn’t walk for nothing on a team that has no chance to win! But fans don’t work, sweat, bleed for the team- they can make detached pronouncements on Twitter, internet message boards and over the radio airwaves and don’t have to be accountable for them. Dumping Eriksson would have sent a message to the team that in my mind would have been far more detrimental. If you’re a prospective free agent who might be considering whether to stay or go, or you’re thinking you might like to sign with the Bruins down the road, does your trust that the team is committed to winning go up or does it go down if management hurts a playoff-bound roster at the deadline? Players get the business of hockey, sure- but they also want to feel like the GM has their back. They are…after all…human.

TSP doesn’t have the definitive answers for what ails the Bruins and how to fix it.

Winning the Stanley Cup is hard- only 1 out of 30 teams can do it every year. This team deserves credit for fighting hard and exceeding expectations this season, but it’s hard to get past what we’ve seen in terms of how they match up against the better clubs around the league.

To expect the Bruins to win every night and then be angry when they don’t is a fool’s errand, but at the same time- management’s job is to make this team viable not just for this year but in the seasons to come. Last year, we heard about “passengers” and the B’s still seem to have a couple of those. The defense tries hard, but they don’t have the ability to seriously compete for a championship.

The Stanley Cup window is barely open for the B’s, but it isn’t shut. Whether they can force it open more to match up better with the NHL’s big dogs in the next 1-3 years is very much an unanswered question at this point.

This will be a pivotal couple of months for Sweeney and his legacy as GM in Boston.

 

 

 

 

Final buzzer: Bruins lay smackdown on Sens

Where to begin?

The modern NHL is different from the league I grew up with. In some ways it is better and others not so much. But tonight, when the Boston Bruins took on the Ottawa Senators in the second of a home-and-home series (Sens prevailed 3-1 on home ice Sunday), the home team set the tone for Friday’s Winter Classic against an even bigger rival.

The old NHL I grew up with- the one with the Prince of Wales and Campbell Conferences and the Adams, “Black and Blue” Norris Divisions and all the others- gave the league a character and toughness that simply doesn’t exist any more to a large extent. There were no Ottawa Senators in the old days of the Adams Division, but tonight’s Boston opponent might as well have been wearing the blue and white of the old Quebec Nordiques…or the green, white and (later) blue of the Hartford Whalers…because as the game wound down, the fireworks began in a manner reminiscent of some memorable fracas at the Boston Garden.

If you take nothing else with you tonight, remember this- these two teams don’t like each other. That’s how it should be. And that’s how it all went down in Boston’s decisive, grind-your-face-into-the-ice victory in a 7-3 final score punctuated by local kid Jimmy Hayes’ hat trick with just .02 ticks left on the clock.

The three-goal game for Hayes, done in front of the hometown fans, was undoubtedly a dream come true moment for the Dorchester native, who grew up skating in nearby rinks pretending to score goals for the Bruins. It’s been an at-times frustrating season undoubtedly for the former BC star, who came home in a late June trade. All at once, it had to be a thrill, but also brought enormous pressure to perform, too. It is therefore no small irony tonight that when skating on Boston’s bottom line, he brought the hats raining down at the TD Garden to put an exclamation point on a win the Bruins had to have.

Hayes got the first goal of the contest at 8:01 of the opening frame when a Kevan Miller drive into the end boards took a fortuitous bounce out in front of the net and the right winger punched it in. Longtime Boston nemesis (but oh how B’s fans would’ve loved this guy if he wore the Black and Gold) Chris Neil scored the equalizer at 12:31, converting a second rebound after the Bruins got caught running around in their own end. Patrice Bergeron restored the lead with the first of four Boston power play goals on the night when he took a Torey Krug pass and made a nifty little deke to put the puck past Craig Anderson, hero of the Sunday game for a 2-1 lead after 20 minutes.

The final score does not accurately reflect how close this one was, as the B’s clung to a 3-2 lead that looked anything but safe going into the final stanza. Fans no doubt recalled the collapse Saturday night against the Bruins and when Matt Beleskey tallied a power play goal to put Boston up 3-1 only to see Mika Zibanejad score a late second period goal (his second in as many games after getting the game-winner Sunday night against the B’s) to cut the lead to one, you’d forgive the good folks for not being as optimistic going into the third.

The rollercoaster game continued into the last 20 minutes, as Bergeron got his second power play goal of the night (Boston’s third of the game) at 2:38 when Krug faked a big windup for a shot then sent a slap past to Bergeron, who was occupying his customary “bumper” position between the two circles. He deftly redirected the puck into the net before Anderson could track and reset. Seth Griffith, recalled as David Krejci was officially put on IR today, registered the second assist on the play, his first NHL point of the season in his first big league game this year.

However, less than two minutes later, Mike Hoffman reduced the deficit to just one goal again when he threw the puck towards the middle of the ice from the left side. It hit Dennis Seidenberg’s skate and caromed into the net to make it 4-3 with about 15:30 remaining in the game.

That set the stage for a wild finish, as Boston scored three goals in the final 4:11, with two Hayes tallies sandwiched with one Beleskey strike to put the Sens away for good.

After the B’s made it 6-3 on Beleskey’s second of the night, a chippy night got even more spirited. In the final minutes, Ottawa coach Dave Cameron sent Neil, Max McCormick and Mark Borowiecki (who tangled earlier in the game with Zdeno Chara and was promptly rag-dolled for his efforts) on the ice perhaps to send a message to Boston for their next contest in a few weeks. McCormick and Landon Ferraro dropped the gloves in a spirited but nasty bout that began with McCormick firing some vicious punches into Ferraro before the Boston center scored a punch and take down.

Things blew up at 19:33 when action around theBoston net that began with a David Dziurzynski hit on Miller on the end boards flared into a near line brawl. Zac Rinaldo  squared off and pounded Dziurzynski, while a hesitant Adam McQuaid battled Neil (and appeared to get an eye gouge in the process). The referees- Frederick L’Ecuyer and Kyle Rehman, wanting no more shenanigans, then issued 10-minute misconduct penalties to Miller, Beleskey, and Zack Smith. But with Boston on the power play after Neil took an extra penalty in his donnybrook with McQuaid, Hayes finished off the hat trick with a bullet into the net on a feed from Max Talbot (who played his finest game since being acquired from Colorado at last year’s trade deadline.)

As we have seen in the past, games like this one brings teams together. The fans in Boston certainly loved it, and more important- it allowed the Bruins to enter the three-day buildup to the 2016 Winter Classic on a high note, without the negativity of a four-game losing streak. Better yet, Montreal lost to the upstart Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers tonight, spoiling the debut of goaltender Ben Scrivens.

For Boston to go from a nasty game and key moral victory to now facing their bitterest rival of all- this is the stuff that used to make the NHL what it was.

I’m not saying the new NHL is bad, but for one night at least, we were all reminded of the toughness, emotion…the pure electricity that a game like this one generates. Those nights- which once came with far more regularity- are a product of a by-gone era, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t give us something to get excited about.

UP

Patrice Bergeron- He scored two very important power play goals at critical times in this game and got the game-winnerr, once again providing the leadership by example he has been known for throughout his entire Boston career. At this point, his excellence has just come to be expected, but the humility and character with which he carries himself only adds to his body of work. With 14 goals in 36 games, he might just establish a career best in that category at age 30, and he’s certainly cruising for a fourth Selke Trophy and could garner Hart Trophy consideration as league MVP as well. Regardless of what happens, Bergeron is the heart and soul of this team and continues to raise the bar as he climbs the ladder of franchise historical feats.

Jimmy Hayes- It hasn’t been the easiest of years, but he hung in there and had the best night of his NHL career in front of a fired up crowd. The former prep star at Nobles isn’t ever going to be a bruising, in-your-face power winger the way B’s fans wish a 6-5, 215 pounder should be, but as long as he’s working hard and finding ways to contribute, he’ll be value added to a team that is counting on him to provide secondary scoring, especially with Krejci now out for an undetermined length of time. Hayes wants to be here, and this game will do wonders for his confidence. Perhaps he’ll quit gripping the stick tight and take the chances as they come…he’s probably finding out that playing for your hometown team comes with a whole different set of expectations and pressures, but on this night, he was the man of the hour.

Matt Beleskey- His first two-goal game as a Bruin came in what is a typical contest that plays to the former Belleville Bull’s strengths. He was a force on the forecheck all night and both of his goals showed off his excellent shot. Pucks hadn’t been going in for him over the first half of the year, but he was working hard and generating chances. Playing the law of averages, you knew things were bound to change at some point.

Ryan Spooner- This was a big boy game for the center who moved up to the second line with Beleskey and Loui Eriksson with Krejci out. He set the tone early with solid defensive play in his own end and an underrated blind pass to Beleskey that sprang a breakout and key scoring chance. He assisted on Bergeron’s goal, then later set up Beleskey’s second tally with some superb work along the wall to shake a defender and get the puck to his linemate. Spooner does not get enough credit for his genuine desire to improve and be a part of his team’s success. Tonight, he sent a key message to Claude Julien and the Boston coaching staff- he wants to be a top-two line center in this league and against his hometown team, he looked like one in his season-best 17:02 (in regulation games) of ice time.

Max Talbot- I have long enjoyed covering him when he was on other teams, and he was an easy whipping boy for fans as his best years are behind him. Tonight, Talbot played like he did when he was in his prime with the Penguins and a major piece to their 2009 Stanley Cup championship squad. He’s limited, but no one will ever question his heart or effort. Tonight, he was the yin to Hayes’ yang and made that fourth line one effective unit. Credit where it is due, folks.

Tuukka Rask- He was victimized on the Hoffman goal, but Rask came up big numerous times to keep his team ahead before they gave him the offensive support to make it a laugher.He’s in the zone- Rask deserved a better fate Sunday, but he got his 14th win of the season by maintaining his focus, tracking the puck well, and making some controlled saves at crunch time. With Rask playing like this, the B’s are in every game.

Torey Krug- You could see how much the B’s missed Krug in the final period of the Buffalo loss and the entire Sunday Ottawa game just by the way he was motoring up and down the ice and pushing the pace. You could also tell how fired up he was to be back in the lineup. This was vintage Krug- making things happen with a pair of assists to reach the 100-point milestone in his young NHL career, while also playing a strong all-around game to help stabilize the defense. The team desperately needs him to keep up the two-way contributions going forward.

Zdeno Chara- Even at 38, he’s still an effective defenseman and tonight he showed it, playing with some snarl and a heaviness to his game that made it tough for Ottawa to get much going in the Boston end. He’s still making some dangerous passes, especially when on the power play, but he played a smart, focused game tonight. He imposed his will physically on Borowiecki, who wanted no part of Chara once the captain started slinging him around like a sack of potatoes. Chara could have punched him in the face when he had him down but didn’t. That not only showed respect for an opponent who probably didn’t deserve a whole lot given how Borowiecki took advantage of Hayes the other night after steamrolling Frank Vatrano, but also demonstrated restraint by not taking an extra penalty in a close game.

DOWN

Brad Marchand- There aren’t many downs to this game, but his low-bridge on Borowiecki could draw supplemental discipline. If the NHL suspends him for the Winter Classic (and they could given his past transgressions), that will put the Bruins behind the eight-ball for sure. On a night he was wearing the ‘A’ for the first time in his big league career, he also took an undisciplined slashing (it was more like spearing) penalty on Kyle Turris in front of the Boston net when the game was still 4-3. He’s been such a good player this season, but Marchand has to know where the edge is and not skate over it.

It’s onto Foxboro and the Winter Classic against the Montreal Canadiens. You can bet these Bruins will be ready to go.

 

 

Brief thoughts on OT loss to Edmonton

I was in and out for this one, so not going to publish a complete game recap (and sorry for missing the win over Florida, so maybe I’ll do a twofer of limited observations in this post) of Edmonton’s 3-2 overtime victory in Peter Chiarelli’s return to the TD Garden (his club is 2-0 against Boston, taking the season sweep).

The Boston Bruins played well enough to win this one, battling back from an 0-2 deficit on goals from Matt Beleskey (a flukey play that happened because of his sheer work and hustle) and Brad Marchand, who wired a snipe top cheddar to tie it late in regulation for his team-leading 15th goal.

First period breakdowns led to goals by Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (that one happening when Zdeno Chara lost an edge in the corner by Boston’s net and gave the puck up to Eberle.) The Bruins actually caught a break when Eberle scored what should have been his second goal of the game but the refs had blown the whistle and assessed Marchand with a hooking call. It didn’t make sense, and should have given the Oil a 3-1 lead, but instead, gave Boston a chance to salvage a point. See? The officiating isn’t always out to get the Bruins…they lucked out on this one.

So, without further ado, here are some observations. I’ll post a prospects update in the morning. Sorry for the lack of posts, but my other life has intervened of late, so given that I’m not getting paid to do this blog, you can appreciate where the priorities lie.

Beleskey is a true Bruin. Yes, he only has 4 goals as the B’s approach the 30-game mark, but man- the guy is a gamer. Tonight, his goal was vintage  Beleskey as he took the puck to the net and from beside the left post chipped it in at  Cam Talbot, who had completely stymied the Bruins on some great scoring chances. The puck seemed to skip over Talbot’s left pad, then dropped in behind him and when he tried to close his right leg, he pushed the puck over the goal line. Ugly? You betcha. Will Boston take it? Absolutely! Sometimes, you just need to make your own luck and after a season in which Beleskey hasn’t had a whole lot of bounces go his way, that one was a gift from some sympathetic Hockey Gods, perhaps.

Curious decision by Claude Julien to go with the combo of Landon Ferraro-Ryan Spooner- Torey Krug in the 3-on-3 overtime. Edmonton won the faceoff and possessed the puck the entire time, as none of Boston’s players could make a play in the defensive zone. Andrej Sekera’s winning goal happened because Ferraro got stationary and when an initial shot from the veteran defenseman hit Krug, Sekera motored around Ferraro, who was puck watching (as NESN’s Andy Brickley  correctly observed) and fired it into the net behind Jonas Gustavsson.

Boston fans immediately took to Twitter to lambaste Julien for not having at least one (if not more) of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand or David Krejci out there to start the OT. They’re right. But, I can also live with the decision, as costly as it was and here’s why. Some of the same fans lighting the coach up are probably the same folks who have jumped on the coach in the past for playing favorites or sticking with veterans over some of the younger, more exciting players like Spooner. If he wins the draw and the Bruins take it the other way and score, Julien looks like a genius. It didn’t work out, and so we’re left with a good teaching point here- the next time Julien is rolling out some of the savvier veterans in OT and they are perhaps getting beaten by the other guys, you’ll remember that he wasn’t averse to giving the kiddos a shot in the past. Hey- the other guys wearing blue and orange get a vote, too- they made the plays and won the game. There’s no guarantee that Bergeron and/or Marchand, Krejci would have played it any differently. But of course- when you’re on the couch or sitting in front of the computer- it’s pretty easy to wag the finger and talk about what Julien should have done. I’m not saying you’re wrong for thinking that, but I guess I don’t have as big an issue with the roll of the dice he made as others do. Spooner and Ferraro have the speed/quickness and skill to excel in the extra space afforded them by the 3-on-3 format. Unfortunately, they got outplayed by Edmonton’s starting trio. It happens.

Speaking of Marchand…wow! That was just a wicked, wicked shot and goal on a guy in Cam Talbot who was having a career night. He almost stole the game in regulation, so B’s fans should be happy their team got a point out of it, and great setup pass by Ferraro to give Marchand the time and space to rip that one into the upper corner. He’s a snipah!

Frank Vatrano is finding ways to contribute, even if the pucks aren’t going in for him of late. He negated an icing call with a Charlie Hustle play in the first period and you can see the way he recognizes instant openings in the unfolding play and takes off up the ice. That’s a good sign, even if he might not quite be ready for primetime and could be sent back down to Providence at some point. So far, though, I have to think the coaches are fine with the lack of production because he’s doing the little things that are usually out of place for a rookie. Now, that’s not to say he’s got it figured out, but the kid from Western Mass. has been good. Better than good. Everything he does this season in the NHL should be gravy, but when David Pastrnak returns to action, I’m thinking that Vatrano might be headed back down I-95. We’ll see.

And on that note about the little things- Jimmy Hayes continues to struggle. He’s a lumbering skater who like most big men tends to glide and it often looks like he’s not trying even if not necessarily the case. Unfortunately for the Dorchester native, he’s also not getting many pucks to the net, so his issues are magnified. I think Hayes needs to simplify his approach…stop gripping the stick so tight. Just go to the net, get the stick down look for a simple play and not try to make it all back up on one single shift. Hayes is too talented not to be doing more for this club, but it looks like the pressure is getting to him.

Not a great night for Jonas Gustavsson…he wasn’t terrible, but when the other guy stands on his head, the guy seeing less action’s mistakes are magnified. He was giving up fat rebounds all night and the one to Nugent-Hopkins was particularly egregious. With Tuukka Rask playing his best hockey of the season, Gus might be taking a seat for a while. Cam Talbot was outstanding- if not for him, the B’s could have run the Oilers out of the building because they played well enough to do that if some of those quality shots he nullified had gone in. Sometimes, it’s okay to give the other goalie credit and admit that this just wasn’t your night.

The Oilers are for real. This was their sixth win in a row, the second over Boston this season and first in TD Garden since Mariusz Czerkawski scored a hat trick against his old club and Curtis Joseph blanked the B’s in a 6-0 shellacking on November 7, 1996. B’s were bound to lose one to the Oil on home ice eventually.

I’ve killed Kevan Miller on this blog quite a bit this season, but I’ve also tried to be fair. Sometimes, it’s easy to pile on him, because he’s getting more ice time than a player of his caliber should receive. I don’t say this to be condescending to Miller, but back in the day, the B’s were forced to play Hal Gill in a bigger (no pun intended) role than he was suited for and it put the spotlight on him for negativity. Miller had one particular memorable play tonight when Krug made a bad pinch up into the offensive zone with the game tied, allowing what looked like a potential odd-man rush for the Oilers the other way. Miller shut it down by taking a good angle on the Edmonton puck carrier and snuffing out the rush. It was one play, and I’m sure there were some mistakes out there too (and there will be many more of them over the course of the season, thank you) but in a game I didn’t admittedly see all of, the B’s had bigger issues than Miller tonight. Chara’s mistakes are proving pretty costly in their own right, for example. But that’s a story for another time- even with some of the gaffes from the captain, the B’s are screwed without him- warts and all.

And on that note, I’m signing off. Thanks for reading.

 

Thoughts on the Bruins and 4-0 win over Canucks

Brad_Marchand

Brad Marchand is on a career-best goal scoring pace and is none the worse for wear after a Brandon Prust spearing incident (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The Boston Bruins closed out their three-game Western Canada road swing with a decisive win over the fallen-on-hard-times Vancouver Canucks with a 4-0 win at the Rogers Arena Saturday night.

Brad Marchand continued his blistering scoring pace (8 goals in his last 9 games) by potting the game-winner just 2:54 into his 400th career NHL game. His 13th goal of the season has him on a 40+ goal pace, which would easily eclipse his personal best of 28 (in 76 games) which came during the 2011-12 season. To put it in perspective, Marchand’s best goals-per-game ratio happened during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season when he tallied 18 markers in 45 regular season games. With 13 in 23, he is en fuego, and it could not have come at a more important time for the team as the defense collectively continues to be an adventure from night to night.

Torey Krug ripped a one-timer slap shot past Canucks starter Jacob Markstrom and high into the net to make it 2-0, and for Krug, you had to figure that some of the many pucks (74 shots in 25 games) he’s been getting on opposing goaltenders would start to go through. It was Krug’s second goal in three games after going the first 15 contests of 2015-16 before finding the back of the net against Detroit on Nov. 14. Krug got off to a very good start as one of the most effective defenders in Boston, but hit a rough patch last month, when it appeared he was trying to do a little too much and started coughing up pucks and making ill-advised decisions with his passes. Of late, he’s settling back in (though his ice time has gone down on average from the highs of 24-26 minutes a game in late October to hovering around 20-22), and has focused more on the defensive side of his game. He had a season-high five shot blocks in the loss to Calgary Friday and has registered a total of 13 in his last four games. As an undersized player, Krug is never going to have it in him to take on the majority of the NHL forwards he goes up against in a sheer physical contest, but he can play it smart positionally and by giving up the body to deny scoring chances on his net minders, he’s doing the little things.

Landon Ferraro has been a revelation. He wired a shot past Markstrom in the second period after taking a long lead pass from Zdeno Chara and using his speed to create a shooting lane. His drive from the right side was  may have been deflected by a Canucks player on the way in, but his family including father Ray, and stepmother Cammi Granato (yes, that Cammi Granato and check out Landon’s younger stepbrothers all decked out in Bruins gear) were in the building to see him score his second goal as a member of the Bruins (he added an assist on Tyler Randell’s third period goal for his first career multi-point game in the NHL). Ferraro was an early second-round pick in 2009 who came out of the WHL with the reputation for speed and scoring, but not seen as all that accomplished in terms of playing a complete, 200-foot game. Well, the 24-year-old has addressed that, as he’s brought an energy, tenacity and diligence that Claude Julien and the coaches demand from the players. Ferraro was unable to carve out a niche for himself in the Motor City, but he looks like a real find for the Bruins to stabilize the bottom line for now, with a chance to develop and expand his role on the team going forward (two goals, four points in his six games with the B’s to date). When you consider that the team failed with their first rounder  Jordan Caron, the fact that Ferraro and Randell are giving them life from the 2009 draft, it takes some (but nowhere near all) of the sour taste away from Boston’s failures in that arena from 2007-09. The name of the game in the modern NHL is to have the complementary, lower-cost but effective and productive pieces in place to offset higher veteran salaries to manage the available cap space. With a cap hit of about $452k this season, Ferraro is doing precisely that for his new team. Having looked at film of him with Red Deer and Everett of the WHL and Grand Rapids (AHL) and Detroit, I have little doubt that Ferraro has a chance to develop into a high-end third line forward and special teams ace. He’s not likely to be a legitimate top-six forward option, but getting those types off the waiver wire is hard to do. On a team that needed an infusion of speed and puck skills, he’s brought that. But Ferraro has also played with more jam than I thought he would. Give Don Sweeney and his pro scouts (Adam Creighton chief among them) credit here- they may have found themselves a keeper.

Zach Trotman is playing on the top line and doing well given the circumstances. He’s got the natural size you want from a defender and as a right shot, he’s the best one suited to play on the other side with Chara. I said before the season that Trotman is a solid, if unspectacular option who isn’t likely to ever develop into a true No. 1 or 2 at the NHL level. Pointing to his mere presence on the top pairing and calling him a No. 2 is not how it works, guys. Having said that, I believe he is a serviceable player who just needs to keep playing in order to get the best out of him, and Julien has done that after benching him early in the year. Trotman is at an interesting nexus between statistical performance and trends and the long accepted “eye test” with his play. He’s more Allen Pedersen or Hal Gill (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that when employed properly) than he is a top two-way defender, but with his cannon and ability to make an effective first pass, he’s getting the job done with Chara. Trotman will still make poor decisions and giveaways in high danger areas in his own end- he’s got to cut down on that. But while I don’t agree with at least one supporter who sees him as a legitimate top defender at this level, I do not see him as a liability the way other critics do. He’s not as snarly as Kevan Miller is, but he’s a far more effective player in terms of his skating and the way he handles the puck and sees the ice. At the end of the day, both can play at this level, but if you’re counting on both of them in the top-six rotation at the same time, then the B’s are probably going to have issues being a real team in contention over the long haul.

Of course, with Adam McQuaid’s status up in the air after leaving last night’s game with what appeared to be a wrist injury, the team might end up doing just that. Here’s hoping we’ll see more of Dennis Seidenberg and Colin Miller, but you never quite know how the Boston coaches see things versus the rest of us.

Patrice Bergeron and Marchand are the best, most recognized center-wing combo in Boston since Adam Oates and Cam Neely– such a shame they only truly had just two seasons (one of them being the lockout year of 1994-95 at that) to make their magic together. I guess one could make the case for  Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov or Glen Murray and that’s a fair assertion to make. Either way, when it comes to what the fans crave and respect, it does not get much better than what Bergeron and Marchand are doing right now, and have done in the past. Bergeron is at just below a point-per-game pace with 24 in 25- but his previous season best for points was 73 in 81 games way back when he was 20 years old in the 2005-06 season. Not sure if his current production rate is sustainable, but given he led the club with 55 points a year ago, we’ll certainly take it. Bergeron does the little things that often go unnoticed and the fact that Marchand is finishing off the chances he’s getting from his center feeds into that production. As long as these two stay hot, the B’s have a chance at staying firmly in the playoff hunt.

Speaking of sustainable paces vs. unsustainable…Tyler Randell’s shooting percentage of 34 won’t stay up there, but there is a lot to be said for a guy who gets as little ice time as he does having four goals in just 14 of his team’s 25 games. His skating is better…the hands/shot were always there…he’s got to keep working hard and moving his feet. If you had told me before the season to guess a player with no previous NHL experience who would have the same or more goals than either of Jimmy Hayes and Matt Beleskey but in fewer games, Randell’s name would not have been on the tip of my tongue. He’s a tough bastard, too…he’s earned his limited ice time and should have an opportunity to get some more as the season goes on. His effort level is what will determine to a large degree how much of a role he can establish for himself, so that’s on Randell. He’s just got to keep grinding away, but so far, so good. And as for Hayes, he was a healthy scratch for the second time already this season- he’s on notice that when he doesn’t move his feet, he’s not accomplishing much. The team expects and ought to get more from him.

Speaking of the fourth line, even Zac Rinaldo got into the act of helping last night, coming up short in a quest for the Gordie Howe Hat Trick with an assist and his first fight as a Bruin against Derek Dorsett in one of the more spirited bouts I’ve seen this season. See for yourself if you like that sort of thing.

Tuukka Rask came in and gave his club a chance to win the Calgary game. Last night, en route to earning his third shutout of the season and 29th of his career (just two away from tying Timmy Thomas for third in franchise history) he wasn’t tested all that much (17 saves) by what is a pretty moribund Canucks team. Still, he’s trending upwards and has played much more of late like the former Vezina Trophy winner. I have always respected Rask’s talent, but his body language and attitude at times has been an area of contention for me. He’s certainly not alone in that regard when it comes to goalies over the years. Patrick Roy was infamous for this kind of thing when it wasn’t going his way, but he’s also a Hall of Fame player and four-time Stanley Cup champ. I was raised in a culture that the goalie is the last line of defense and even when the team in front of you screws up, you don’t show them up and jump on their case after a goal is scored against. Besides, most everyone watching who understands the game knew where the breakdown occurred, anyway. Rask has always been one of those guys where when he’s playing well, you hear him say “I…I…I…” a lot and “We…we…we…” when the club is losing or not playing well. Even the most ardent Rask supporters know that in their hearts he’s moody and tends to get surly when the good times aren’t rolling. On a team like Boston as currently constructed, where we all knew coming in that we were going to see peaks and valleys, that’s not necessarily a positive fit. So, I’ll just say that as long as he keeps playing like this, the Bruins have a chance. Good on him for shutting the Canucks down last night and allowing the B’s to maintain control throughout. That’s the type of play the Bruins need from their top goalie and proof that he doesn’t have to stand on his head every night to be effective.

Finally, Brandon Prust and his spear on Marchand’s “fun spot” (his words not mine) in the game’s final moments (he got a match penalty but the Bruins didn’t get a power play out of it) is a fitting coda last night and spotlight to the mess the Canucks are right now.

Their goaltending isn’t very good…their core players are aging…the young players, while skilled and impressive options for the future aren’t ready for primetime. Prust’s actions, while meet with jeers from Boston fans and cheers from everyone else who despises Marchand, demonstrate the hypocrisy that has become so ugly and prevalent in the modern age of the Internet. There is simply no excuse for that kind of lousy sportsmanship and blatant disrespect. As someone who did not ever once defend Milan Lucic when he did it himself while wearing a Boston uniform and has at times been critical of Marchand’s on- and off-ice antics that have distracted away from the professional pursuit of winning, I don’t want to ever see or hear any righteous finger wagging coming from Vancouver and their fans/analysts again. At some point, we have to get past the intellectually dishonest partisanship of justifying bad behavior and call things for what they are.

What happens to Prust is up to the NHL and its player safety department, but I’m disappointed in those who seem to think that spear was in any way justified or acceptable. You instantly lose any moral high ground you think you own when you resort to that kind of moral equivalence in your reasoning, and to be frank- it’s beneath contempt and shameful. Prust embarrassed himself, his team, the league and the sport. This from a guy who ranted at an opponent recently on Twitter for fighting one of his young teammates, too. The hypocrisy from Prust and his enablers over the entire course of his checkered hockey career going back to the cheapshot he delivered to former Bruin Matt Lashoff when the two were in the OHL, reeks.

I expect a lot more from a Willie Desjardins-coached team, and being around him during his time with the Texas Stars, I bet he wasn’t at all amused with Prust’s actions last night and the stain (however small) that put on Vancouver in what was a pretty putrid game for them overall. Enough with the moral outrage out of that lovely city (man, they’re such a riot sometimes)- that team and their fans have just given up the right to complain about anything for a while and maybe they should just shut up and worry about winning hockey games from now on? Just a thought. No Cups in 45 years. No Cups for that franchise, period. Let that sink in for a bit and one more thing: scoreboard, Vancouver- better luck next time.

Okay- off the soapbox. Bruins got four out of six points on the roadie. Maybe not enough to inspire another Meatloaf song, but good enough to get them back into the tight jockeying for playoffs in the East.

 

 

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, Rask blank resurgent Leafs

The Boston Bruins benefited from a superb goalie duel between Tuukka Rask and James Reimer, winning a second consecutive home game for the first time this season in sending the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs away in a 2-0 contest.

The game was scoreless going into the final five minutes, as both teams waged a see-saw battle that began with a good, uptempo pace from the opening puck drop and continued throughout, with just a couple of penalties to slow the momentum.

This was hockey the way it was meant to be played, even though there was just one goal scored with a netminder between the pipes- Brad Marchand’s empty-netter in the waning seconds made sure the Leafs didn’t send the TD Garden faithful into a panic with late-game heroics.

Reiner stopped Boston’s first 35 shots on him and has reinvented himself after buying into the head trajectory concept, which is gaining momentum with goalies around the NHL. In a word, it comes down to this: tracking. By tracking the puck by leading your save movement with the head and maintaining a visual at all times before the shot, at the time of save and through completion of its trajectory on the rebound, Reimer is on a hot streak, having entered the game with a .951 save percentage since pushing Jonathan Bernier out of the Toronto crease.

Alas, Reimer’s excellence in net was not enough for the Leafs, as Matt Beleskey won a puck battle down low late in the third period, dishing the puck out to Zach Trotman at the right point. Trotman faked a shot to freeze his man, then slid the puck over to his d-partner Zdeno Chara. Instead of shooting, Chara had a lane to the net and took it- skating about 15 feet in and uncorking a hard snapshot that beat Reimer through the wickets with traffic in front.

The Boston captain’s third goal of the season was all the Bruins needed.

In net, Rask was good when he had to be, making several key stops on Leafs forward Shawn Matthias, including a first period breakaway when Colin Miller lost an edge on a reverse crossover at his own blue line, allowing Matthias to walk in alone.

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Zdeno Chara had a great night in the Boston victory (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

UP-

Zdeno Chara- Big Zee gets a lot of flak on my Twitter feed as a diminishing star who is not the player he once was, but tonight, he reminded us all of why he’s a future Hall of Famer. He played a snarly game, doling out hits and cracking Toronto pest Leo Komarov in the back with his stick during one sequence. During a scrum between Marchand and James van Riemsdyk, Chara locked up with Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and dearly wanted to fight him, something Phaneuf seemed all too happy to let the officials keep from happening. Then with a little under five minutes left, Chara unleashed a bomb from the slot to win the game. Life means that certain sports fans will adopt a “what have you done for me lately?” attitude and there’s not much you can do about that. People are entitled to their opinions, and while Chara’s best years are behind him, it was nice to see him at the top of his game on this night.

Tuukka Rask- The Leafs have been kicking themselves ever since trading him to Boston nearly a decade ago, and Rask posted his 28th career shutout- good for fourth all-time in Boston franchise history behind Cecil “Tiny” Thompson, Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek and Tim “Timmy” Thomas. It’s been a tough year for Rask, but he came up big when his team needed him, and he was pretty quiet in the net, keeping things simple and making the saves look pretty routine. It was a nice change of pace from the off-kilter Rask we’ve seen more often than not this year, and goes to show that when he’s on, he’s one of the best in the game.

Brad Marchand- Marchand played a great game. He had a highlight reel sequence in the opening frame when he screwed Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly into the ice on an inside-out move, then decked Reimer, ultimately losing the puck off his stick before he could get a shot off. During a collision with Komarov that looked worse than it was, van Riemsdyk went to him and Marchand dropped the gloves, pulling the much-larger JVR to the ice and getting a roughing penalty in the process. He played with speed, energy and grit all night and didn’t get too out of control, which is usually the only issue with him. His ENG was icing on the cake of a solid night overall.

Zach Trotman- I tweeted that he’s my unsung hero for the past week-plus for steady, effective play since getting a chance to skate regularly in the lineup again. He’s never going to be a top defenseman or two-way threat, but Trotman has the size, mobility, smarts and character to be a serviceable defender at this level. He was unfairly banished to the press box after having to debut on opening night with Matt Irwin, who had a disastrous two-game performance that caused Trotman to pay a larger price, missing about a month of games as a healthy scratch. But, the former Lake Superior State standout didn’t sulk or complain- he just kept working at it and was ready to go when his chance came. NESN analyst and colleague Billy Jaffe takes it a step further, saying that Trotman has been among the team’s best defensemen since returning to the lineup. Not bad for the last overall selection in 2010…

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Zach Trotman has been an unsung hero for Boston since getting another chance to skate regular minutes (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Matt Belesekey- His point totals are nothing to write home about, but this guy is a quintessential Bruin in the way that he blasts around the ice doing the little things. I think the production will start to flow more in the coming games, but you certainly notice the guy and he made the right play on Chara’s winning goal. If he doesn’t win that battle for a loose puck, maybe this game gets to OT and we have a completely different outcome. Luckily for Boston, he didn’t lose and a few seconds later, Chara’s rocket was tickling the twine.

James Reimer- He’s a good guy off the ice and you have to give him credit for reinventing himself on a team that started horrendously. I don’t know that he’s for real- we saw a similar run back when he debuted and captured Toronto’s collective hearts in early 2011 when he was called up and stymied NHL shooters before coming back to earth and battling injuries in subsequent seasons. And of course- he was in net against Boston in the 2013 playoffs for that agonizing overtime defeat in Game 7. Tonight, he did everything in his power to give his team a chance to steal a couple of points.

No downers tonight. The Bruins got an important win for their psyche and are sitting in one of the two wild card spots as we speak. There’s still much hockey to be played, but given the way things started, I think most people will take that.

 

How Swede it is- Eriksson hatty, Gustavsson sharpness key in B’s win

The Boston Bruins beat the Minnesota Wild Thursday night by a 4-2 score thanks in large part to Loui Eriksson’s hat trick (he now has 9 goals on the season) and solid play between the pipes by backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson.

The win was significant also because it was only the third victory on home ice this season for Boston, which was an important two points for the team to get on the heels of Tuesday night’s loss to San Jose at the TD Garden. Additionally, that the B’s beat the Wild, the ranking modern expansion era nemesis for Boston, was an important moral win for a team that will take positives in any form these days. It was only the third time since Minnesota joined the league for the 1999-00 season that the B’s had beaten the Wild, which is a remarkable statistic when you consider the success the Bruins have had since 2008.

With defenseman Kevan Miller on the shelf after suffering an upper body injury in the third period against the Sharks, the B’s got a boost with the return of Colin Miller who had missed the previous couple of games to injury.

The story of the night was the play of Boston’s two Swedes- Eriksson and Gustavsson- who paced the home team to a solid win on home ice. For Eriksson, it was his third career three-goal game, and Gustavsson upped his record with Boston to 4-1, a 2.20 GAA and .915 save percentage. He’s making a case to see more ice, which could let Tuukka Rask get a little time to work through his struggles right now. Not surprisingly, I’m seeing some Twitter chatter mocking Rask and elevating ‘Gus’ but still believe Rask is not only a superior goaltender to Gustavsson but he’s capable of infinitely better play than he’s demonstrated to date. This is not a goaltender controversy per se and it would be absurd to argue for Gustavsson to push Rask aside at this juncture, but Gus has played well enough to perhaps get the next game or two and see what he does with the opportunity.

Loui’s first goal of the night happened when he threw the puck at the net from the near the left wing boards and it appeared to hit Brett Connolly and bounce in past Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk. In actuality, the puck hit Wild forward Jason Pominville’s skate who was locked up with Connolly and backing in towards his net, meaning the goal belonged to Eriksson, his seventh of the year.

The second goal happened on the power play, when Torey Krug took the puck in from the blue line and near the top of the left circle put a hard pass into the slot where Patrice Bergeron was set up. Bergeron then moved the puck over to Dubnyk’s left and Eriksson buried it for his second of the game.

Eriksson completed the natural hat trick when he finished off a nice give-and-go with David Krejci to close out the scoring. It all started with a good save by Gustavsson and a heads-up pass from Matt Beleskey to spring Krejci and Eriksson on a 2-on-1 in the neutral zone.

As for Eriksson, he’s continuing a fine season in which he currently sits third on the team in scoring with nine goals (team lead) and 17 points in 18 games.

Eriksson was never going to provide the superstar potential Tyler Seguin took with him to Dallas and that was a known risk Boston was taking when they dealt the 21–year-old in 2013. However, this version of Eriksson was the guy the Bruins felt like they were getting back as part of a larger package that to date has not turned out as hoped.

Eriksson’s play this season has made GM Don Sweeney’s job a tough one, as he will have to decide whether Loui is part of a solution going forward past 2016 or if the team should trade him at or near the deadline to get what could be a pretty significant return. We’re too early in the season to figure out whether Boston will be in a position to make a trade or will be better served sticking with him, but one thing is for sure: Eriksson is doing the things we had always seen from him in Dallas. You know what you have in the guy, so if you give that up for the uncertainty of future returns in the form of prospects and/or draft picks, you might just find yourself wishing the team had stuck with Eriksson instead.

It’s no doubt a debate that will continue to be had and heat up after the Winter Classic when playoff positions will start to solidify and we will better know if Eriksson can sustain his impressive scoring pace.

Beleskey and Krejci played superb games as that line carried the night- it’s another sign that while this Bruins team might lack the talent on paper to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, they’re going to show up and give a top effort most nights.