Happy 2019- Winter Classic thoughts

2019 is here and the Boston Bruins helped ring in the new year in style with a 4-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL’s annual (since 2008) Winter Classic outdoor game.

Boston’s third trip outside on New Year’s Day was played at the iconic University of Notre Dame football stadium in South Bend, Indiana, the first time a non-football event was played in the home of the Fighting Irish. The B’s were 1-1 in the NHL’s signature event, beating the Philadelphia Flyers at (Frozen) Fenway Park eight years ago on a Marco Sturm OT goal, but getting pumped by the Montreal Canadiens at the home of the New England Patriots, Gillette Stadium, in 2016 by a 5-1 score.

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

For goaltender Tuukka Rask, the 2019 game was a chance for redemption, and he found it, playing well with 36 saves including multiple breakaways and grade A scoring chances. It was also a milestone event for the veteran netminder who has only known Boston as his NHL home since the 2007-08 season. He passed Hall of Fame goalie Cecil “Tiny” Thompson as the goalie with the most career appearances in franchise history. Rask will soon own the most regular season victories for the team as well.

The soon-to-be-32-year-old may be the most polarizing figure we have seen and covered in the 40+ years of following the team as fan and correspondent. A top talent and former 1st-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs before he was dealt to the B’s for Andrew Raycroft even-steven nearly 13 years ago, Rask is often a study in extremes. Ardent fans and supporters often pointing fingers at everyone else on the roster but the man in net when the team doesn’t win with him in the net, while there is an equally obnoxious segment of Boston fans who seem to revel in affixing blame to Rask at every opportunity and making him a convenient scapegoat for their frustrations with the club. There seems to be very little middle ground in the increasingly toxic social media environment when it comes to Rask, but at least in this space, we’ve always tried to be fair-minded in our treatment of the embattled veteran. On this day, he did his job well, and looked every bit the player the Bruins need him to be if they are going to secure a spot in the NHL playoffs for the third consecutive season this spring. The combat math is pretty simple: Rask and Jaroslav Halak give the Bruins the best 1-2 goalie punch in the league. When both of them are on top of their games, the team can beat anyone.

Which brings us to the next point- Patrice Bergeron. It never gets old watching the de facto captain play a textbook complete game of hockey. NHL Network analyst Mike Rupp talked yesterday after the game about how if you polled most NHL players about which player they would want on their team in a one-game, winner-take-all match for the Stanley Cup, you would probably see a large percentage of them vote for Boston’s consummate pro.

Yesterday, we all saw his greatness for what it is- a furious back check to deny a scoring chance at one end that would have opened up a 3-1 advantage for the ‘Hawks, and moments later, an effortless backhand shot that tied the game and opened the door for the B’s to win it on Sean “Clutch” Kuraly’s third period rebound marker (another backhand shot).

At this point of Bergeron’s career, we’re out of superlatives to describe him. He’s the hockey student of the game’s idol- a player who simply does everything right, all day, every day. Some folks are drawn to the sizzle that so many super talents of hockey provide with their speed, pace and skill- you absolutely need those guys. And, the players who rack up oodles of points are always going to get more positive attention than those with middle-of-the-pack numbers. Here’s the rub, though-  those who have careers with skin in the game- whose job security depends on being on the right side of the win-loss column- Bergeron is an inspiration. The Bruins may not have multiple Stanley Cup championships to show for it, but since Bergeron joined the club as a precocious 18-year-old rookie in 2003, it has been a prosperous era for the team despite setbacks and disappointments along the way.

It’s hard to believe because there were other players who popped offensively earlier in their careers, but Bergeron has quietly and steadily climbed to be the third-highest scorer in the storied 2003 NHL Entry Draft class, behind only Eric Staal and Ryan Getzlaf with his 769 career points in 989 games. He’s tied with Thomas Vanek (who will play his 1,000th NHL game on Jan. 4), but Vanek’s days of high production are over- Bergeron will blow by him and establish himself solidly in 3rd behind Staal and Getzlaf. What’s important about this is that offense has never really been the thing that has defined Bergeron’s Hall of Fame career, but he’s proven that the consistent approach of 50-60 points year after year, has helped to propel him to the top of one of the greatest collective draft groups in NHL history. He should have gone over 1,000 NHL games played about 2-3 years ago and would be closing in on 1,000 career points and might be the No. 1 scorer of the 2003 draftees had it not been for 1.5 years of  lockouts and almost 2 full seasons lost to injuries of various types. But even with all the missed time, Bergeron’s impact on the Bruins and the game of hockey cannot be undersold. He is the greatest defensive forward in NHL history. No disrespect to Canadiens great Bob Gainey, who inspired the very Frank J. Selke Trophy which rewards two-way excellence up front, but Bergeron hasn’t benefited from a dynastic machine that the Habs were in the 1970’s, and the offensive production isn’t close.

Simply put- No. 37 is the best there ever was, and he’s inspired a generation of players who want to do things the right way and focus on the habits and details that are lost on so many who can only really focus on the flashy stuff that makes the game so great. There’s room for it all of course, but if I’m in a 1-game knife fight for my hockey life, there’s one guy I’d sell my soul for to have in my lineup: Patrice Bergeron.

Brad Marchand is heating up at the right time. We of course love what David Pastrnak is doing, but the driving engine of Boston’s offense is the Lil’ Ball of Hate, and when he’s finding the back of the net, the wins are plentiful. He generated multiple scoring chances and in the waning seconds, hit the empty net- notching his 42nd point of the season to quietly move closer to Pastrnak’s team-leading 50 points.

Just like Bergeron, both of these forwards embody the luck of the NHL draft- had anyone known what kind of an impact they would have, you’d have seen them go off the board with the 1st or 2nd overall selections in their respective years, and yet, they both essentially fell into Boston’s lap. In a time where fans spend more time kvetching about who the team missed on, it’s sometimes nice to be reminded that the B’s scouting staff, long under the guiding hand of veteran talent chief Scott Bradley and Ryan Nadeau’s vision and leadership, has had some tremendous bargain finds over the years. And we haven’t even gotten into Charlie McAvoy, Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka and Jakub Lauko yet.

And like Bergeron, Marchand is ascending to the top of the 2006 draft’s scoring list. Of all the players from that class, only Niklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, Claude Giroux and Jonathan Toews have more than Marchand’s 503 points and counting.

Finally, it was great to see Zdeno Chara out there after returning from injury. Like Tim Wakefield near the end of his MLB career, Chara is a lifetime Bruin, though he played elsewhere before making the Hub his home. He has quietly racked up nearly 1,000 games in the Black and Gold, and like Bergeron, is headed for a place in Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s not the horse he was in his prime, but the steady play, experience and value he provides cannot be understated. Once he retires, whenever that is, the B’s will have a challenge to replace what he means to the club on and off the ice. Instead of rushing to anoint the next wave of youth (and there are some worthy heirs coming down the pipeline), we should all embrace the legend and enjoy him for as long as we can. Once he’s gone, we may not ever see another player quite like him.

Okay- that about does it. Here’s hoping you all have a great and prosperous 2019. Thanks as always for reading the sporadic posts on the blog- didn’t cover all the ground I wanted to on this one, but be on the lookout for more content as the season goes on.

Boston Bruins v Calgary Flames

Recapping the Bruins’ draft & free agent signings

Okay, so we’re a little behind here, but wanted to do a blog post on the Boston Bruins most recent transactions, which includes the 2018 NHL Entry Draft in Dallas  and free agency, which opened with a boom on Sunday for the Toronto Maple Leafs, landing a true crown jewel in John Tavares, who leaves the NY Islanders in his prime (not yet 28) for his childhood team. The Bruins were in it as a possible Tavares destination, but in hindsight, it was probably the Isles or the Leafs and everyone else didn’t really have a shot. That’s life, but more on that later.

And, if the Isles need some comforting, they had what looks to be a successful draft, leveraging multiple first-round picks and value throughout the subsequent rounds into an impressive haul for them.

First up, the B’s draft recap:

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Dominic Tiano: What’s Next For the Bruins (Pt. 12)- Front Office & Coaching

We all know Boston Bruins President Cam Neely and General Manager Don Sweeney have decisions to make, some of them tough ones, when it comes to players. But what decisions are there to be made in the front office or behind the bench, if any?

Let’s begin with the position of Director of Amateur Scouting, a position that has been vacant since Keith Gretzky departed to join former Bruins’ General Manager Peter Chiarelli with the Edmonton Oilers as an Assistant General Manager. Assistant General Manager Scott Bradley has been filling the role and will run the 2017 NHL Draft for the Bruins.

A decision must be made whether to keep Bradly in the duo role or focus more on one position or the other. If the Bruins brass decides to keep the two positions separate, they could look outside the organization to fill the role, much like Chiarelli did when he brought Gretzky to Boston.

They could also promote someone from within, and there are a couple of very good possibilities currently scouting for the Bruins.

Dean Malkoc has been through ten drafts with the Bruins and has scouted Western Canada, but has done more cross-over scouting recently. Ryan Nadeau is about to enter his 15th season with the Bruins. He has served as Director of Hockey Operations/Analytics for the past three seasons while also scouring the NCAA as a scout. The Bruins have done well drafting from the NCAA the past few seasons and Nadeau deserves some credit.

With the interim tag being removed from coach Bruce “Butch” Cassidy, the head coaching job is filled. As an assistant under Claude Julien when he was dismissed by Sweeney during the season, could/should the Bruins be looking for another assistant now to serve under Cassidy?

Joe Sacco and Jay Pandolfo serve as assistants. Bob Essensa is the goaltending coach, but spent a lot of time watching from upstairs once the coaching change was made. It’s not known yet who may become available that has a professional resume under his belt, or if one will even become available.

The Bruins could also look at the minor-league level, juniors or the NCAA for coaching talent.

Allow me to throw a name into the circle if I may, he’s a long shot, but a very capable coach. Rocky Thompson, head coach of the Windsor Spitfires, who are currently competing for the Memorial Cup.

Thompson began his coaching career with the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League. He would become an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League and in 2014, spend a season as an assistant coach with the Edmonton Oilers. Last season, he returned to junior hockey and was named head coach of the Spitfires.

If you know me, then you know one area of concern I’ve had for the Bruins for some time now is the professional scouting department. The group is made up of Matt Lindblad, Adam Creighton, Tom McVie and Dennis Bonvie.

Creighton and McVie are the elders of the group, having been with the Bruins for 16 and 23 years respectively. There really isn’t enough of a sample size to judge Lindblad, added a year ago, and Bonvie, added two years ago. But this is one area I feel Neely and Sweeney must address this off season.

 

Austin Czarnik will make the final roster

Austin Czarnik's 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Austin Czarnik’s 2013-14 Miami University Redhawks captain sweater (Kirk Luedeke photo)

It’s the classic hockey saw: Small guys must prove they can play, while big players need only prove they can’t.

NHL teams were scared off by Austin Czarnik’s size, so they didn’t draft him.

The Michigan native was a scoring whiz at every level, displaying speed, creativity, puck skills and a willingness to battle and make a difference. But in the end, when it came to the NHL draft, no joy.

So, he went to Miami University, ended up being the captain and was even a Hobey Baker finalist. He dazzled with some serious scoring mojo while he was at Oxford and the Bruins managed to beat out other suitors to get him on April 1, 2015.

It was no fool’s joke- the kid can just flat-out play. He showed it a year ago as he provided consistent offense and nearly scored at a point-per-game clip for Providence as a rookie pro in the AHL. That after impressing with the Bruins during the exhibition season, where he showed some instant chemistry with Frank Vatrano.

Czarnik played so well that he was a late-season emergency callup to go into the Boston lineup if a banged-up David Krejci was waved off. That didn’t happen, but if not for that, Czarnik would have made his NHL debut already.

He’s generously listed at 5-foot-9, but has pure speed in open ice that makes him so fun to watch. Witness tonight, as he burned past Andrei Markov in the Habs’ zone to get to a loose puck and rifle it over Al Montoya’s shoulder.

TSP has seen all we need to- the guy is skilled enough to play in the NHL…right now. He’s a winner. He’s worked hard to improve in the offseason and he’s putting that effort into practice with consistent offense during exhibition play. Of course, offense alone isn’t a guarantee that Czarnik will make the big club out of camp, but it certainly helps. Working against him is his natural center position and the depth the Bruins currently have there. We suspect he’s versatile enough to play out of position and still make things happen, and he’d probably do manual labor if the team asked him to- he’s that kind of guy.

In other words- Czarnik is earning a job with the Boston Bruins the right way. He’s not a big-time draft pedigree guy, but he’s showing that Ryan Nadeau and the rest of the staff that scouted him and helped to close the deal in 2015 deserve a lot of credit for seeing this kind of potential in him.

Let’s not ruin the party by talking about projections and ceilings just yet- all in good time. For now, let’s enjoy the excellent play and results Czarnik is getting. He’s proving he might be small, but he has big talent and a bigger heart.

That’s a fact we suspect is not lost on Don Sweeney, Claude Julien and the Boston coaches.

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

 

Report: Keith Gretzky to Oilers as assistant GM

Multiple reports on Twitter to include the esteemed Bob McKenzie have Bruins amateur scouting chief Keith Gretzky heading west to join former B’s GM Peter Chiarelli as part of the Edmonton Oilers braintrust. I chatted with a Boston team source who didn’t confirm it, but indicated it was a done deal, so all we do now is wait for the official announcement.

Gretzky, who joined the B’s scouting staff during the 2011-12 season after being let go from his previous post as chief scout for the Arizona Coyotes. Gretzky was promoted to the head scout position in Boston in August 2013, replacing Wayne Smith.

The move is not all that surprising, as Chiarelli brought the younger brother of Wayne Gretzky to Boston as a scout and then elevated him to head up the team’s drafting efforts after two seasons in a crossover capacity.

In the three drafts since, more optimism accompanied Boston’s efforts. Gretzky and Co. hit immediately on David Pastrnak, who slipped to 25th overall. However, every other player from that 2014 draft class looks promising as well: Ryan Donato enters his sophomore season at Harvard and is primed for bigger things in Cambridge. Danton Heinen has done nothing but impress after being an unknown plucked out of the BCHL in his second year of NHL draft eligibility, posting two prolific scoring years as Denver University. Heinen could win a job in Boston right away given his skill level and versatility. Anders Bjork was a fifth-round find and gem, who led the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in scoring as a sophomore, and even seventh-rounder Emil Johansson shows promise for being a late pick.

Gretzky’s 2015 draft could pay big dividends for Boston as well, even if some of the choices in the first round were not popular ones at the time. With 10 picks thanks to the Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic trades, the B’s have a bevy of prospects with a trio of second-rounders who have generated buzz in their own right. Time will tell whether not picking one or two of forwards Kyle Connor, Colin White and Mathew Barzal will hurt Boston in the long term, but Boston’s first six choices all seem to be developing, with 37th overall pick Brandon Carlo having the best chance to play in the NHL this season. Zach Senyshyn and Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson show real promise at key forward positions (RW, C) and the B’s appear to have some potential in huge but lithe goalie Daniel Vladar (3rd round) and agitating winger Jesse Gabrielle. The B’s can’t employ all 10 of their draft picks from 2015, but they’re going to hit on a few at least.

This past June, Gretzky and his scouts went with Charlie McAvoy over Dante Fabbro– both will play at BU this season, but don’t be surprised to see McAvoy headed to the pro ranks sooner rather than later. Early returns on his Team USA development camp in Plymouth, MI this week are good and Ryan Lindgren (taken 49th) overall has really stood out. “He nearly killed a kid,” with a hard but clean open-ice hit, according to a text I got from an NHL scout on Saturday. The same individual also singled McAvoy out as the “best player on the ice.”

Gretzky caught some heat for the Trent Frederic pick and some of his subsequent comments where he admitted that the B’s don’t see the 29th overall selection as a top-six forward. He probably didn’t articulate that as well as he could have, but if we learned nothing from the Senyshyn pick the year before, it’s probably best to see how Frederic does going forward before casting judgment.

If Gretzky’s work with Boston was promising, then his track record in Arizona is more of a mixed bag. The Coyotes didn’t hit on a great deal of picks the team made on his watch, but the point I would offer up is that not every scouting staff in the league is the same. Just like the teams themselves- some clubs are more talented than others, and there’s always a multitude of factors that go into drafting. Even so, some in the business point to Gretzky’s tenure in Arizona, and with the jury still out on his Boston body of work, you just have to take it from there.

Boston could promote from within- Scott Fitzgerald is the club’s assistant director of amateur scouting and has recovered from a serious car accident in 2013 that nearly cost him his life. Dean Malkoc has also impressed as one of the club’s workhorse scouts who goes all over from his Western Canada base of operations to look for talent. Ryan Nadeau has done tremendous work in the NCAA ranks and elsewhere. B’s GM Don Sweeney could also bring in an experienced chief scout from the outside. It will be interesting to see.

All that is left to do is congratulate Gretzky for the promotion and move up. It hurts Boston, as he appears to have done fine work for the club in his five seasons here. He’ll join an Edmonton organization flush with major talent after winning the Connor McDavid sweeps a year ago and then falling into Jesse Puljujarvi at fourth overall in Buffalo. Old friend Lucic is in town, and we’ll see what Gretzky can do to help develop the talent in the system and identify new players down the road.

In the meantime, changes in Boston continue to shape the front office and Sweeney has another key hire ahead.

 

Bruins roundup: Czarnik, Griffith up; Tanev to Jets

I’ve been focused on the Jimmy Vesey situation but some key events happened yesterday directly and indirectly related to the Bruins.

The news broke Wednesday morning that Providence College senior forward Brandon Tanev came to terms with the Winnipeg Jets on an entry-level contract that would pay him max money, and take him through the end of the season. Say what?  Great news for the player- he plays fewer than 10 NHL games for a non-playoff club and immediately becomes a restricted free agent (RFA) up for a second contract that will bump him up but put him that much closer to unrestricted status. Good for Tanev, who took the long road but scored the NCAA championship-winning goal a year ago and brings pure speed, grit and a mature two-way game to Winnipeg.

The Bruins wanted Tanev and were reportedly talking to him as late as Tuesday night, but with their playoff race so tight, they couldn’t afford to give him what Winnipeg could. Consider it turnabout from a year ago, when the Bruins successfully wooed Seattle Thunderbirds captain Justin Hickman away from Winnipeg. Like Tanev, Hickman was an undrafted player who had been to Jets development camp and because he was a major junior player, even went to their main camp in 2014. However, in January 2015, when he had to shut it down for season-ending shoulder surgery, the Bruins came calling and he turned down Winnipeg’s offer to sign with Boston. In Tanev, the Jets returned the favor- not that this was a driving force behind the decision, he was a prime target for them and a lot of credit goes to Winnipeg’s Mark White, former Brown University coach and now employed by them as a scout and someone to help that team develop more of a foothold in New England.

Tanev is a good player and would have been a nice add for Boston, but for that kind of a deal, I can understand why the B’s weren’t the ones he went with. The team is right to focus on the players whose rights it already controls- Matt Grzelcyk and Danton Heinen– and they can also turn their eyes to a much bigger prize in Vesey later this summer. DU winger (and Heinen’s Pacific Rim linemate) Trevor Moore could be a target, but I’ve heard major interest in him on the part of the Toronto Maple Leafs and they have more contract room to sign him plus the opportunity to slot in sooner to boot. Regardless of where Moore ends up, he’d be a good get for Boston, but he’s not in Vesey’s class, and it’s likely a situation similar to that of Tanev where they try but won’t be able to win what could be a bidding war for the small but skilled Californian’s services. We’ll see.

The Bruins made emergency recalls yesterday to Seth Griffith and Austin Czarnik.

As mentioned previously on TSP, David Krejci is obviously banged up, but Ryan Spooner did not make the trip to New Jersey. Spooner’s injury is not major, but the team is being cautious with him, so Czarnik appears to be the center fill-in and may become the third NCAA undrafted free agent to play for the Bruins this season (Frank Vatrano and Noel Acciari being the others). Talk about getting bang for your buck! Czarnik was Miami’s captain (interestingly enough- his RedHawks successor Sean Kuraly just signed his ELC with the Bruins this week- let’s hear it for the Brotherhood)

UPDATE: Czarnik returned to Providence as of Thursday afternoon, so it looks like his NHL debut is turned off. For now.

You really have to hand it to the Bruins scouting staff- namely Scott Fitzgerald and Ryan Nadeau– for being so instrumental in finding these gems a year ago. Vatrano (did you know that he’s another player the Jets had interest in- they invited him to a development camp in summer 2014 but he was injured and did not attend) has had a jaw-dropping rookie pro season to say the least. Acciari came in at the beginning of the month and stabilized the bottom line with his speed, savvy and ability to play a clean physical game even if there’s not much in the way of offense. Czarnik, who showed off tremendous chemistry with Vatrano in the rookie tournament and NHL exhibition before continuing the magic in Providence, is a small but ultra-skilled and fast center with high-end hockey sense. He’s a forward version of Torey Krug in terms of his character and dedication to the sport, so it will be interesting to see how he looks with the big club- if not for his size, he would have been drafted and a known commodity coming out of the NCAA.

More to the point- he’s earned this chance to come up and see his first taste of the NHL by traveling and practicing with the big club. We’ll have to see if he makes it into the lineup against St. Louis on Friday, but it’s no doubt an exciting time for Czarnik and his family, and validates his decision to sign with the B’s last year when other teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs were reportedly wooing him as well. It is also telling that Boston did not bring Alex Khokhlachev up in lieu of Czarnik. That should pretty much signal the end of Koko’s tenure with the Bruins- right, wrong or indifferent- he just never quite did enough to stick. We’ve gone over it and whether you feel like he wasn’t given enough of a chance is really moot at this point. One can only hope that the organization can get some kind of asset back in return, but if he bolts for Russia that might prove problematic. In the meantime, Czarnik deserves the audition and he’ll infuse speed, skill and energy into the Boston lineup assuming he plays.

You can question Boston’s draft record in spots, but when the team can plumb the undrafted free agent ranks for players like this trio, it elevates the organization and underscores that it is a team effort and the foundational building blocks and resources are being spent wisely. We’ll see what lies ahead for these youngsters, but the early returns are encouraging.

Griffith is back for the second time this season and it would be good for the former London Knight to give the flagging Boston offense a jolt.

The 2012 fifth-rounder is still looking to carve a niche for himself and there’s no doubting his natural knack for scoring and impressive stick. If ever there was a time for a player vying for a role in the NHL and opportunity was there for the taking, it is now for Griffith.

The Blues are on a major roll and Boston’s chances on paper aren’t good. However, with some new blood and a great game from Tuukka Rask, anything is possible.