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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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.

Sharks and Penguins for Lord Stanley plus other notes

Well, it isn’t exactly how we drew it up after the San Jose Sharks failed to make the playoffs a year ago, but here they are- for the first time in the careers of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau– the players taken 1st and 2nd overall in 1997- the West Coast apex predators have a chance at winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

For some Bruins fans, it’s shades of Ray Bourque in 2001 all over again. Former Bruins star and captain leaves town and has a chance at winning their only championship, with the Boston NHL club mired in mediocrity. Of course- there’s no real comparison between the sentiment fans had for Bourque and what folks are expressing for Thornton- but it’s kinda similar.

Thornton was a good guy, a heck of a player, but a lousy captain. He wasn’t ready for the responsibility when he was given the ‘C’ in 2002 at age 23. I think he liked the idea of being the team captain, but when it came time to handle the essence of leadership and the sacrifices that come with being a team’s identified leader and the one who has to face the music in good times and bad, Thornton wasn’t mature enough to handle it.

In hindsight, being traded out of Boston was the best thing for him. Playing in California suits Thornton perfectly and it’s interesting to note that he eventually lost the captaincy in San Jose as well. California cool only gets you so far, apparently. GM Doug Wilson obviously made the right choice, as Joe Pavelski has been everything you want from a captain and more. He’s scored the big goals and if the Sharks are going to overcome their 0-1 series deficit, Pavelski will be the guy who leads the charge. He’s a winner. And Thornton is on the verge of earning that moniker for the first real time in his career- it won’t be easy but now is the time for Jumbo Joe to demonstrate the best kind of leadership- setting the example and stepping up.

Being a great captain is different from how someone is measured as a player. That he’s not a top leader is not an indictment of Thornton, because his NHL body of work is Hall of Fame-worthy. However, when it came to anointing him with the mantle of leadership in Boston, it was too much, too soon. And his tenure in San Jose proved that some guys are simply better followers than leaders.

On the flip side, the Pittsburgh Penguins are vying for a fourth Stanley Cup in franchise history, and what would be a second for Sidney Crosby (2009), tying him with franchise icons Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr (1991 and 1992).

After underachieving for much of the year, the Pens pulled an impressive Lazarus act, surging at the most important time possible, and riding the wave of outstanding play from Crosby, Kris Letang, Phil Kessel...(wait, did you say PHIL Kessel?) and rookie goalie Matt Murray.

Big things were expected of the Penguins this year going into the season, so if you had pulled a Rip Van Winkle on the eve of opening night and woke up today, you wouldn’t be all that surprised that Pittsburgh is in the SCF for the first time since they won it all seven years ago. It’s how the Penguins got here that has been so interesting, and it took them a while and a coaching change (hello, Mike Sullivan) to get going, but with a relative unknown in net who’s posting quite a Cinderella story in Murray, they’ve knocked off some good teams to get here.

Flip a coin. A lot of Boston fans are cheering for Thornton, and that’s all fine. Remember- if his team wins it, he will have earned it. He doesn’t deserve to win…no one does.

And as for the pick…draftniks sigh…it’s 29 or 30. What does it matter at this point- where once people thought it might be a lottery selection, Martin Jones dashed those dreams but even choosing at 18 might have netted the team a nice power forward in Max Jones (no relation) or perhaps a later flyer on Julien Gauthier or developmental D in Logan Stanley. No matter…the Sharks have busted those dreams and so you have to figure the pick acquired from San Jose for Jones will be in play come draft weekend. I would be surprised if the Bruins hold onto it if they can flip it for an extra 2nd and perhaps a 3rd (Don Sweeney would likely have to package a pick or prospect) or 4th rounder (typical value for moving out of the end of the 1st). Or, the team might use it as a part of a trade deal to bring back the much-needed NHL help on D. Either way, the Sharks have continued to rub a little salt in the wounds of a lost Boston season.

The 2015-16 hockey season and rollercoaster is just days from being over, but the endless offseason is only getting started.

***

Here’s a guy to keep an eye on, btw: Tri-City Storm forward and USHL Clark Cup champion and playoff MVP Wade Allison. He’s a big, heavy-on-the-puck right wing with size and skill.

He’s shot up the various draft boards and rankings after an outstanding second half of the season, and the Western Michigan University recruit’s stock is surging at the right time.

I’d say his first couple of steps are a little clunky, but he’s a powerful skater in the straight line who does effective work in the high danger areas and along the walls. His tremendous playoff scoring run keyed the Storm all the way to a sweep of Dubuque in the Clark Cup final.

Don’t sleep on this kid (and forget about getting him in the 3rd round if you’re thinking he’s going to fall), who seems to have it all including an impressive personality to boot.

Rask rolls as B’s whitewash moribund Penguins

Spooner3

Ryan Spooner is coming into his own as a solid middle-tier contributor in Boston with room for growth into more.  (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The Boston Bruins got to .500 at home with a 3-0 victory over the sinking Pittsburgh Penguins at the TD Garden Wednesday in the first of a home-and-home series with the Steel City’s team.

The match featured several interesting subplots: new Penguins coach Mike Sullivan was behind the bench against the B’s for the first time since former Portland Winterhawks bench boss Mike Johnston was fired last week. Starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury is out of the lineup for a week or more with an upper body (concussion) injury, and the team is also without Kris Letang for a couple of weeks as well, prompting them to trade with Chicago for Trevor Daley, who was in the lineup last night. And of course, with Phil Kessel making his first return to Boston of the season after his offseason change of address, ‘the Thrill’ is always a topic of conversation, especially given that he’s not given his new team much bang for the buck as anticipated.

In short, even with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, this is simply not a very good Penguins team right now, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that they were blanked and never really mounted much of a serious challenge with Tuukka Rask dialed in and continuing his best stretch of the season.

The B’s got goals from Max Talbot (his first as a Bruin dating back to last season when he was acquired from Colorado at the deadline), Jimmy Hayes (his fifth of the season) and a late empty-netter from Ryan Spooner to seal it (his pass to Hayes gave him another multi-point effort).

Sullivan is an interesting hire for Pittsburgh. A Marshfield guy and BU star, he played one year for the Bruins in the late Pat Burns’ first (and Jack Adams Trophy-winning) season before finishing his playing career with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2002. Sullivan jumped straight to an AHL head coaching gig, landing the Providence Bruins job in 2002-03, and when the B’s fired Robbie Ftorek during the same season, Sullivan moved up to be an assistant under Mike O’Connell who then made him Boston’s head coach for the 2003-04 campaign.

Sullivan is most known for giving a relatively unknown 18-year-old kid a shot at the NHL right out of his first training camp. That kid’s name? Patrice Bergeron. Sullivan first year behind his home team’s bench was a Cinderella story, as the B’s compiled a 42-19-15 record, and was primed to do damage in the postseason after trading for a pair of skilled veterans in Sergei Gonchar and Michael Nylander to bolster a core group that included Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, Sergei Samsonov and rookie of the year Andrew Raycroft. Alas, the B’s crashed and burned in the first round, losing in seven games to the hated Montreal Canadiens (including a 2-0 home loss to close it out after the B’s blew a 3-1 series lead). The Habs just so happened to be coached that year by some guy named Claude Julien. Go figure.

A disastrous post-lockout 2005-06 season saw Sullivan scapegoated for a putrid (and that’s being charitable) lineup and 29-37-16 record. He was out and although spent time as an NHL assistant with the Lightning, Rangers and Canucks between 2007 and 2014, he did not darken the doorstep to an NHL bench until Pens GM Jim Rutherford (himself on the hotseat for the hot mess of a Pittsburgh lineup) brought him in to try and reverse the team’s skid. Sully’s a good guy- at one time believed to be one of the NHL’s young up-and-comers as a coach, much like Peter Laviolette was when Boston and O’Connell made a fatal mistake of choosing Ftorek over Laviolette and letting him take the NY Islanders head job in 2001. It hasn’t worked out for Sully the way it did with Lavy, but it’s nice to see him get another shot as a big league coach.

***

Ryan Spooner has been playing pretty well of late. He’s got as many points right now as Kessel does at the 30-game mark. That probably speaks more to the lousy year Kessel is having given expectations than it does Spooner’s success, but he’s on the same pace he had a year ago when he posted 8 goals and 18 points in 29 games. That’s a little skewed because those 29 goals included an early five-game stretch where he didn’t put up points and hardly played. Even so- Spooner has been criticized for his 5-on-5 play this year, but while there’s some validity to that, it glosses over the fact that he’s continuing to find ways to produce offense and make plays, which is what the Bruins have him on the roster for. Sometimes, there is a “death by overanalysis” where observers make the mistake of trying to force players to be like Bergeron, Jonathan Toews or insert any top two-way recognizable star here. Spooner isn’t Bergeron or Toews for that matter, but what he brings is valuable to the team. He’s a good kid- often misunderstood as someone who doesn’t try. Not true, but let’s face it- he’s not going to be a defensive stalwart or top minute-munching forward who is out in all key situations because there are better options. However, he has proven he belongs in the NHL, and for a team like Boston, a roster that doesn’t have an abundance of breakaway speed at the center position, he’s doing just fine on the third line, thank you.

Kessel continues to be an enigma. Five 30+ goal seasons (one of those in Boston) with the Maple Leafs seemed to be fait accompli that he would tear it up with the likes of Crosby and Malkin. Hasn’t happened. May not happen. But the Bruins did the right thing in trading Kessel, even if after the fact they don’t have a lot to show for it. That’s a legitimate gripe.

Tuukka Rask is on a roll, and it could not have come at a better time. For the Bruins to have a shot at the playoffs, he’s got to be in Vezina-caliber form, and since late November, he’s been right there. What’s impressive to me is the economy of motion in Rask’s game right now. He’s tracking pucks and not overexerting himself, but keeping his movements crisp and composed. What’s more- he’s back to having fun out there. Whatever seemed to be bothering him earlier in the season seems to have dissipated for now. I chalk it up to what Zac Rinaldo alluded to in the first episode of the Road to the Winter Classic last night when he said that players are just now “showing their true colors” and comfortable with each other. That chemistry that Rinaldo was talking about isn’t something that just happens, and when you take several significant players away from the mix and add new faces, especially younger ones who won’t be as confident or gregarious as veterans like Mark Recchi or Nathan Horton were when they arrived to the room, it takes longer. I’d like to think that Rask has gotten to know his new teammates and realizes that these guys are willing to work and scrap and play hard in front of him. I’d like to think that even though he knows deep down that this defense isn’t good enough to put the Bruins in real contention for the big prize, they’re a plucky bunch that won’t mail it in and will do their level best.

It might not be enough, but Rask is the big-ticket contract and player who is probably the biggest cog in a machine that can and should at least make the playoffs. As he goes, so go Boston’s postseason hopes. That might not be welcome news for some fans out there, but nobody plays in the NHL to lose, and as we saw in 2008, that bunch was the start of something special that culminated with a Stanley Cup three years later. With Rask getting his swagger back, his team will work their tails off in front of him and pay the price to set him up for success. That’s how this stuff works- everyone rowing hard in the same direction. The NHL is still about who has more talent and can put it together the most consistently, but Rask being in top form is a very good start. On the flip side, his excellence disguises flaws elsewhere on the roster, but GM Don Sweeney’s job is to assess and manage that. He’s going to have some tough decisions with asset management that he would not have faced if the B’s just imploded as they did at the beginning of the season. To Rask’s credit, he’s picked it up and is playing like an All-Star.

That’s all the Bruins can ask for right now.

***

Hey, hey, hey- how about that Jimmy Hayes? It’s just one game and one goal, but Hayes went hard to the net with his stick on the ice and was able to deflect an on-target Spooner pass in behind Jeff Zatkoff. That’s exactly what he needs to do, and it was nice to see him make that play as the scrutiny he’s faced of late ratcheted up.

Give credit to Max Talbot, too. That was a beauty of a short side snipe to get his first goal as a Bruin. I’ve always admired him from afar as I covered him with the Penguins and Flyers in the past and enjoyed his easy manner and clear leadership qualities. He would have been a fan favorite in Boston five years ago, so he came to the team too late, but he’s an underrated presence in the room.

Alex Khokhlachev played last night after being recalled and while it wasn’t a poor performance, it’s more of the same from him. Sure- he wasn’t playing with top liners, but he doesn’t have Landon Ferraro or Frank Vatrano’s speed to grab your eye, so given that he was drafted to provide much more in the way of offense, it’s hard to see where he fits in Boston right now. The team would have to sit someone else who has earned their spot on the top lines just to get Koko in there. That’s not how it looks, so giving a shake of the ol’ Magic 8-Ball, it looks like we’ll have to ask again later.

That’s about it- we’ll see how the Pens perform in front of their home crowd tomorrow night, but for now- the B’s are in a good spot and you can see the confidence growing with the younger guys with each shift.