Dominic Tiano: What’s Next for the Bruins? (Part 3)

Editor’s note: We continue our series here at the Scouting Post on the end of the 2016-17 Boston Bruins season and 3 Amigo/guest columnist and fan favorite Dominic Tiano is here to provide his informed perspective once again. -KL

TSP founder Kirk Luedeke began this series once the Boston Bruins were eliminated by the Ottawa Senators Sunday from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When he asked 3 Amigos Podcast Partners Reed Duthie and myself for our contributions, I immediately jumped on the task of shining some light on a few of the boys in Black in Gold that have, for a large part of the season, been “whipping boys” among the Bruins faithful.

Take this as one person’s opinion. Constructive criticism is always welcome but it is what it is, an opinion.

Let me start with Ryan Spooner, who fans are split on. On the surface, it has looked like Spooner’s days with the Bruins have been numbered for quite some time. There were reports that former Bruins’ General Manager Peter Chiarelli almost dealt Spooner to the Sabres during the 2014-15 season. A year later, reports surface that current General Manager Don Sweeney was looking to trade the 25-year-old pivot. But, he survived the rumors and is still on the B’s roster.

The sometimes-rocky relationship between Spooner and former Coach Claude Julien is well publicized, so we won’t get too deep into that. Under (then-interim) Coach Bruce Cassidy, Spooner started out well, but reverted to some of the form that has made him the focus of criticism and rumors for some time now.

Spooner is tagged by many to be nothing but a power play specialist. There is some merit to that assertion. Having followed Spooner since his Ontario Hockey League days began with the Peterborough Petes, he has always been a threat with the man advantage and he’s produced at a high level. When Spooner has the space to create, he can be dangerous. But 5-on-5, that space just isn’t there in the NHL and Spooner lacks the size and physicality to gain an advantage and use the other assets he possesses to be that threat on a consistent enough basis to avoid the negative focus on his performance.

I’ve seen the argument made that Spooner’s abilities are being misused because he is playing with “lesser line mates” and I can agree with that to some extent. He had success playing with David Pastrnak and Milan Lucic. At the same time, I could argue that playing with Lucic gave Spooner the space he needed. While David Backes is no Lucic, Backes himself can create space with his physical play and Spooner had nowhere near the offensive success he had with Lucic.

So, what happens with Spooner going forward? There are many fans who have said they wouldn’t even give him a qualifying offer, but if you don’t, he becomes an unrestricted free agent and you lose the player for nothing. You just don’t do that with an asset like the former 45th overall pick in 2010, whether he fits into your plans or not. His current salary is just $1.1 million and his qualifying offer is the same. You must make that offer just to retain his rights.

But Spooner is a restricted free agent this summer who is arbitration eligible. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Spooner could receive as much as $3 million in arbitration, but the Bruins would have walk-away rights if they feel that doesn’t fit into their budget, but again, would lose him for nothing. Ditto with the expansion draft (we’ll cover that in a future piece).

Many feel the writing is on the wall with Spooner missing the last two games versus Ottawa in the playoffs. But as reported by Hockey Night in Canada, Spooner was not 100% and was trying to battle through an injury. Was he good enough to go? – most players will tell you they want to play. Did the Bruins staff think he wasn’t good to go? Most of us will never know, we’ll just leave it here.

If the Bruins are intent on trading him, then the time to do that is before the expansion draft. I’m sure they don’t want to go into arbitration with him and don’t want to “waste” a protected spot on the expansion draft list. But I’m also sure they don’t want to lose him for nothing, (Editor’s note- and let’s be honest- he’s probably better off with a change of scenery and fresh start- Spooner is a talented and accomplished enough player to merit some kind of return.- KL)

Next, we turn to 2015 unrestricted free agent acquisition Matt Beleskey. Chiarelli tried to acquire Beleskey back at the 2015 NHL trade deadline but was unable to consummate the deal. Sweeney was able to sign Beleskey to a five-year, $19 million deal that now has 3 seasons remaining.

After a first year in Boston in which he set a career high with 37 points, this season can be described as nothing short of “terrible” for Beleskey. He appeared in just 49 games for the Bruins, missing 23 games with a knee injury while being a healthy scratch for the others.

It’s his health that I want to focus on here. Players react and recover from injuries differently, both physically and mentally. I surmise the injury to Beleskey had a major impact on his season. For a player that isn’t a speedster to begin with, losing a step is a major concern. Hesitation in throwing the body can also come into play mentally with such an injury. Look no further than the hit department for Beleskey. This season he had his lowest total in hits per game of his past five seasons.

Beleskey is at his best when he keeps his feet moving and throwing his weight around creating space for his linemates. This observer believes that four and a half months off will give Beleskey the time to get himself back both physically and mentally.

What’s in the future?

It’s hard to imagine the Bruins protecting him in the expansion draft or that Vegas would even select him as he may not be the best option from the Bruins to select. A trade, without retaining much of his salary seems unlikely coming off the season he’s had and his contract. A buyout is also unlikely as it will cost the Bruins over $1 million dollars per season in cap hits over the next 6 years ($2 million in year 3), something they can’t afford to do. Giving up an asset for another team to take his cap hit is a possibility and the Bruins do have an abundance of assets to make that happen, but he does have a limited no-trade clause with 23 teams on his list of acceptable destinations.

Best case scenario: That I am right about next season, and a healthy and re-charged Beleskey returns to form and provides value on the third or fourth lines. (Editor’s note- He’s a better player than we saw this season, and we’ll bet that he’s itching to prove it when he’s had an offseason to heal and get his confidence back.- KL)

Moving forward, we turn to Riley Nash, who is signed for one more season at a cheap $900,000. Nash has taken some heat throughout the season from some fans, and I would suggest, some of it is unwarranted. Is he perfect? No. We did a 3 Amigos podcast last summer after the Bruins signed Nash, and while we didn’t suggest that Nash was more than the sum of his parts, we did suggest the small but important things he does on the ice would be recognized more by management and coaches than the fans would be.

So, what does Riley Nash exactly bring to the Bruins? Well, he is a key part of the best penalty killing unit in the NHL. He is almost always getting into lanes taking away shots and forcing a bad pass. He battles extremely hard at clearing the puck. He has a very active stick that forces play quickly – and not always the best.

During 5-on-5 play, his positioning is almost always exemplary. He causes unforced turnovers just because of his positioning. But he’s also very good at causing turnovers with his stick. But the most underrated part of Nash is his ability to keep possession and protect the puck. Whether he’s darting in like a bull in a China Shop, or using strength, body positioning, or stick and puck position, taking the rubber away from Nash is not an easy task. He also plays the cycle game extremely well. For the casual fan, those are things that don’t appear on the scoresheet, and sometimes don’t recognize the importance of those assets. As the season progressed, Nash got better in his decisions on what to do with the puck once he had it. A lot of the mid-season “whipping boy” status he had has subsided.

So, what’s next for Nash? I think he’ll be back, and should be, as the fourth line center who can move up in a pinch. I know there are those that think ice-time should be given to the prospects instead, but you might be hard pressed to find a prospect that can bring what Nash brings, at least for next season, value for what Nash costs on the cap. That is virtually equal, and maybe cheaper if you have to consider performance bonuses.

Do they protect Nash in the expansion draft? I don’t think so, like Beleskey, there may be better options for Vegas.

Finally, let’s look at defenceman Kevan Miller. There are many that believe you can’t have Miller and Adam McQuaid on the same roster. There’s some truth to that, but many believe it to be because of style. With Charlie McAvoy showing he belongs in the NHL, Brandon Carlo looking to improve on a fine rookie season and Colin Miller showing signs of improvement (although I’m still not completely sold), it’s more the number of bodies than it is style of play.

What I saw in K. Miller was a player that obviously worked on and improved his skating in the off-season. It became more obvious in the playoffs that he had gained the confidence to skate with the puck and not afraid to take it in deep. With that improved skating, he’s become very adept at pinching at the opposition blue line and taking the puck below the goal line where coach Cassidy seems to want to set up from.

Defensively, K. Miller is part of the penalty kill. He battles hard in front of his goal and tries to give his tender a clear view of incoming shots. He’s got enormous strength and can take opponents out on the wall. He will get in opponents faces and will stand up for his teammates.

So, what’s next for him? This is where Sweeney has a difficult choice to make. Zdeno Chara must be protected in the expansion draft because of his no movement clause. Torey Krug is a lock to be protected. That means two of K. Miller, McQuaid and C. Miller will be exposed for Vegas to select. I like K. Miller here because he can play his off side.

But this may just come down to contract and cap. Miller has 3 years remaining at $2.5 million whereas McQuaid has just 2 years at $2.75 million and C. Miller just one year at $1 million. A stagnant cap may make Sweeney’s decision for him and protecting C. Miller. I just feel it should be “Killer” Kevan back next season.

I was going to add Jimmy Hayes to this piece, but I just didn’t know where to go here, so I will just say what the options are.

1) Try hard to find a trading partner. At the deadline, Sweeney notified other teams that he was available, but there were no takers. It will probably take an asset going with him for a team to pick him up.

2) Buy him out. That would cost the Bruins $566, 667 next season and $867,667 in 2018-2019.

3) Keep him as the 13th forward and absorb the $2.3 million cap hit

4) Send him to Providence for the year and save $1.025 million on the cap – this would be advantageous to Hayes as he is on a one-way contract and there is no escrow on AHL salaries, meaning he wouldn’t lose the 16% – 18% of his salary.

5) Send Vegas an asset to select him in the expansion draft.

There is no polite way of saying this, but I would settle for any of the above. If I had to choose, I’d go with option 4. That gets him off the roster the quickest with the only cost to the Bruins being to Jeremy Jacobs’ wallet.

Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

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Jakub Zboril: the Good Cop-Bad Cop theory

good-cop-bad-cop-lego-movie

When the Boston Bruins drafted Czech defenseman Jakub Zboril 13th overall in 2015 out of the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, few raised any eyebrows.

After all- the pick made sense at the time for myriad reasons: talent-wise, he was right around where he could and should go. He had posted a 13-goal, 33-point season in just 44 games in his first North American stint. He had the size, skating, puck skills, shot and even some physical nasty to his game to validate being chosen there. Defense was also becoming a major issue for Boston- then-GM Peter Chiarelli had traded veteran two-way machine & fan favorite Johnny Boychuk on the eve of the 2014-15 campaign for futures (well, as we type this Brandon Carlo is certainly thriving in the present) and he subsequently went off, posting a career-best 9 goals and 35 points, while Boston’s defense contributed to the late-season swoon that cost the B’s a playoff appearance for the first time since 2007. In short- Zboril was a typical crowd-pleaser in that not only did he address an obvious organizational need, but no one could screech loudly on Twitter and Internet message boards about his being a “reach” for the team where he was picked.

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Oil change- Benning to Edmonton & other musings

Today’s news made official what had been rumored for a while now- that former Bruins prospect defender Matt Benning has signed an Entry-Level Contract with the Edmonton Oilers.

Benning inked a deal with the team his dad, Brian, played for (albeit very briefly) and with the GM who drafted him in 2012- Peter Chiarelli.

The younger Benning, nephew of former B’s assistant GM now Vancouver head manager Jim Benning, was a solid if unspectacular player who showed some promise as a lower-end defender with some untapped potential.

Matt Benning doesn’t have much in the way of size, but like Noel Acciari, he hits hard and clean, separating opponents from the puck but not taking himself out of plays or hurting his team with undisciplined, selfish antics. Benning is a good puck distributor; not blessed with a killer shot, it was nonetheless pretty heavy, and he showed progression in his offensive game. Where Benning really established his value was with his smart, effective positional play.

So, while he wasn’t a higher-end prospect who spent a lot of time at the top of Boston’s prospect depth chart for defense, he has a shot at developing into a solid role player at the NHL level given his smarts and bloodlines.

Now, how & why did this happen? To put it simply- Benning took the Blake Wheeler option.

The NHL’s CBA stipulates that a non-major junior player’s rights are held for four years after the team drafts him. That doesn’t include NCAA eligibility, so if a player is drafted in 2012, plays a year of junior hockey before going to school, he can either play all four years in college, which extends his team’s hold on him, or if he turns pro at anytime after that four-year mark, the team must sign him within 30 days of his formal relinquishment of any remaining college eligibility or he becomes a free agent.

So, like Wheeler, Benning came out of school after three years and left NCAA time on the table, but because he spent a full year in the USHL (winning a championship with the Dubuque Fighting Saints- a team Chiarelli had part ownership in at the time and still might to this day), was able to leverage free agency to go wherever he felt was the best fit for him. It’s not about loyalty- it’s about using the tools at one’s own disposal to choose a preferred destination, which is not something every player is able to benefit from.

According to veteran ProJo hockey writer Mark Divver, who had talks with a Bruins source, the B’s wanted Benning to return for his senior year and would have signed him next spring, but to the kid’s credit, he probably looked around, saw all the younger defensemen in the system, and realized that cracking the Boston roster would be a tough sell. Now, some will ask why the Bruins couldn’t just trade him for something, but this isn’t Jimmy Vesey we’re talking about here, so there’s little chance any team would offer so much as a seventh-round pick for a guy who may or may not sign there a month after he notifies the NHL that he’s leaving school (which is what Benning did), when they could just wait Boston out and make their pitch for Benning like anyone else. Given his history with Chiarelli, it isn’t all that surprising that he ended up in Edmonton, though.

TSP had time for Benning- he was lost in the sauce a bit here, but was a solid player for a sixth-round pick and it wouldn’t surprise to see him establish himself in the NHL as a role guy at some point. Or not. Even with expansion looming, breaking into the top hockey circuit is a tough racket- here’s to wishing Benning the best. He leveraged his options as the CBA allows and Boston has plenty of other players to focus on.

You can’t sign ’em all. Here’s to Benning finding his way out West- he’ll attract some attention at camp next month.

***

A veteran NHL scout texted yours truly the other day to lament the fact that his team didn’t draft Charlie McAvoy when they had the chance. “We (effed) up…” is how the note began and went downhill from there. In a nutshell- his team had McAvoy in their sights and passed him up for someone else. Now, there’s a little second-guessing going on. Happens all the time, especially once the post-draft euphoria wears off and the real scrutiny begins.

McAvoy is generating a lot of buzz and rightfully so- having a brilliant WJC evaluation camp will do that for you when so many NHL guys are watching. But- let’s pump the brakes here and remember that player stocks fluctuate. The 14th overall pick in last June’s draft has a mountain of expectations heading into his sophomore season at BU- he needs t build on his outstanding second half and take his play to the next level, while staying healthy. His presence at the 2017 WJC in Canada this winter will be a big test, too- the kid has broad shoulders, so the prediction here is that he’ll continue to build excitement among the fans who take the time to follow prospects much like Dougie Hamilton did after being drafted 9th overall in 2011.

But as for my NHL scout friend and his team’s buyer’s remorse- that stuff happens when your pick has an “ehhh” development camp, but the message was only half serious. It was more like- Boston landed a nice player at 14 than anything else. We can sit around and get excited about analysis and discussion, but the real rubber will meet the road in the coming season when McAvoy gets a chance to prove himself.

***

Being told by a solid (non-Bruins) source that he believes that Boston is quietly working on a trade for a defenseman, but no details are forthcoming. If you haven’t already, you can read my post about the Boston D- the elephant in the room for thoughts on possible targets.

Wouldn’t be surprised to see them bring in another veteran forward as well. Some will question that, and it’s the nature of the beast- especially since it could block a younger (yet unproven) player from a roster spot in October, but teams hedge their bets and look to build depth (to stave off the injury bug) and foster training camp competition.

Watch for the B’s to extend a training camp invite to an experienced, and as-of-yet signed player. Can’t tell you who that might be, but some name-recognition guys still out there (who might appeal to Boston-  by no means a comprehensive list and in no particular order) are: Tomas Fleischmann, Mike Santorelli, Shawn Horcoff, Alex Tanguay, David Jones, Tyler Kennedy, Patrik Elias (he’s already 40 but hard to imagine him playing for anyone else after spending all of his 1,240 NHL games and 1,025 points with the Devils), Dainius ZubrusMike Richards. Did I really type that name? Well, he is only 31, but yeah- slim pickings for sure.

I know, I know- there are some of you who will look at that list and immediately want to comment that none of them are needed. I get it- save yourself the trouble by not shooting the messenger, please- I’m just passing on what I’m being told. If we see another veteran forward brought in, don’t say you weren’t warned, and we’ll analyze who that someone is if/when it happens.

***

What Bruins player are you most intrigued with entering the season?

For me, it’s rookie Danton Heinen, who was a surprise fourth-round pick out of the BCHL in 2014, but went on to post two very good offensive seasons at Denver University before signing with Boston last April.

He’s a winger, but played center in junior, so he’s played all three forwards in the last three seasons going back to 2013-14. The Bruins and coach Claude Julien do love their versatile guys, don’t they?

But what stands out about Heinen is his smarts and offensive creativity. He’s not this explosive, dynamic presence who grabs the spotlight and demands your attention when he’s on the ice, but when you watch him closely, he’s always around the puck and tends to own the walls when a possession battle is up for grabs. Heinen has a deft passing touch and he’s no slouch with the puck on his stick when it’s time to pull the trigger, either.

Watch for him to make the big club out of camp, and he wouldn’t be a bad option to try out on that third line right out of the hopper.

 

 

 

Farewell, Seids

We have confirmed reports on Twitter and other sources that the Bruins placed veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg on unconditional waivers today for purpose of buyout. The team will save nearly $2.9M on the cap this year and another $1.8 and change in 2017-18.

Unfortunately, they’ll have to apply dead money to the cap as well, but the larger implication for the Bruins is that it opens up a roster spot for them.

Seids was acquired at the 2010 trade deadline in one of Peter Chiarelli’s more unheralded deals: he moved Byron Bitz and the 2nd-round pick (Alex Petrovic) previously acquired with Mark Recchi for Matt Lashoff and Martins Karsums to the Florida Panthers for Seidenberg and Matt Bartkowski. When it comes down to it- Recchi and Seidenberg were two major contributors to Boston’s 2011 Stanley Cup victory- they probably don’t win it without them. And all it cost the B’s was Lashoff, Karsums, Bitz and Petrovic (who has become a decent shutdown D in Florida). Those are the trades Chiarelli doesn’t get enough credit for, even though he does his level best make people lose their minds (at least temporarily) when he sent 2010 1st overall pick Taylor Hall to New Jersey for solid defensive rearguard Adam Larsson (the 2011 fourth overall selection) even-steven yesterday. Larsson is a better player than he is getting credit for, but once again- it’s the *return* people have an issue with, for the love of Pete! (We’ll talk the crazy day of June 29 on our 3 Amigos podcast tonight, so check back here on the blog for the audio to post) 

Seidenberg’s Boston career nearly ended before it began- against Toronto in a late-season contest, he took a skate to the forearm that severed tendons and cost him the 2010 playoffs. Had it not been for that, do the Bruins suffer the epic 3-0 series collapse against Philly in the second round that year? He came back strong in 2011 and was precisely the kind of second-pairing, all-around minute-muncher that every championship needs.

He continued to be one of Boston’s rocks on D- a steady-Eddy type who didn’t bring a lot of flash and dash to the lineup, nor did he have a lot of speed, but just knew how to play the position. He was smart, gritty and dependable- exactly the kind of player Bruins fans love and respect.

In 2013-14, Chiarelli made the decision to extend Seidenberg for another four years at four million a pop- a perfectly reasonable deal at the time. Just weeks later, he suffered a devastating knee injury that tore both ACL and MCLs plus other structural damage. It seems inconceivable that we would be talking about Seidenberg making a possible return in the 2014 playoffs, but that’s where we were when the hated Montreal Canadiens dumped the President’s Trophy-winning B’s in the second round in Game 7. In retrospect, he wouldn’t have made a difference had he been cleared to play, but we’ll always wonder if the B’s would have won that series had he not been injured in the first place and was his normal self.

The 2014-16 seasons saw him as a shadow of his former self- he simply was unable to play at his previously high level with damaged knees and a wonky back. Even though he was greatly diminished, Seidenberg never complained and went out to play his hardest.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. It’s a shame a segment of fans kill the Bruins for extending Seidenberg given that nobody had a crystal ball that could have foretold he would suffer a catastrophic injury. But, that’s the way life goes in the short-term memory, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? world of certain fans. Those folks always seem to have the answers, and for the rest of the fair-minded people out there- really aren’t worth the time or investment for the most part.

In the end, Seidenberg has a loyal following of B’s supporters who recognize and appreciate what he did. I admittedly was not keen on the move when it was made to bring him in (he was a pending UFA) but Chiarelli committed to him, re-signed him, and he became a key contributor to a championship team. Seidenberg is the classic example of not judging a trade (or draft pick) in the precise moment it happens, but to wait and see. We shouldn’t forget that and most of us who saw Seids do his thing for six full seasons and parts of a seventh won’t need any reminders.

The German machine, after years of grunt work in the trenches and selling out/sacrificing his body for his teams, is finally breaking down. It happens to the best of them, so rather than focus on the final two disappointing years in a Bruins uniform- we’ll choose to remember No. 44 in the better times.

You will  be missed, Seids- tanks, I mean- thanks for the memories.

Here are some memorable moments from his time in Boston:

Red line goal on a deflection/direction change

Catches Mike Smith cheating in 2010-11:

Colby Armstrong meets the “German Hammer”:

Seidenberg takes on a runaway freight train (Ovechkin):