2019 NHL Draft: Bruins take 4 on Day 2- On the long-range plan

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VANCOUVER-  The Boston Bruins wrapped up the 2019 NHL Entry Draft with four selections covering rounds 3 and 5-7 on the second day here Saturday, taking three forwards and a defenseman.

The team, which came up agonizingly short in its bid to win the Stanley Cup, found itself with the penultimate selections in every round save for the seventh, and appeared to adopt a draft strategy of taking players that they can afford to wait a longer time on to develop versus players in Canadian major junior leagues who would require being signed within two years. This ultimately led to some higher-touted players on public lists and rankings being passed over in favor of prospects whose rights can be held by the team for the next five years, allowing the team to slow-play the integration of prospects into their system. With just two selections in the top-95 and five total, this was one of those drafts where the B’s didn’t generate much buzz the way other clubs with more plentiful and earlier selections like New Jersey, the NY Rangers, the LA Kings, Vegas, Colorado and even the Minnesota Wild, who appear on paper to have done pretty well, were able to do at Rogers Arena.

Here’s a quick recap of Boston’s Day 2 picks, but admittedly, we didn’t know a great deal about the two European players taken.

3/92 Quinn Olson, C/L Okotoks (AJHL): The inbound University of Minnesota-Duluth forward can skate and has offensive skill plus high effort/compete and energy levels. He played much of the season with 2020 NHL 1st-round candidate Dylan Holloway, so it will be interesting to see how much of Olson’s impressive production in Tier 2 hockey last season was a product of playing with the league’s top forward in Holloway. Olson doesn’t possess ideal size, but he plays with a relentless style and is bigger than he looks on the ice because of his pace and willingness to initiate contact. He is heading to a top NCAA program with the 2-time defending champion Bulldogs, and will probably sign and turn pro in about 3 years. He’s like a higher-end Karson Kuhlman to draw a comparison to another former UMD player, and makes sense to the Bruins at the end of the third round, even if he was projected to be picked later on. Some of that has more to do with the lack of exposure the AJHL has to many of the draft publications out there, but Olson is a good player. It’s a sneaky kind of pick, but one that could produce a solid middle-six forward with some modest upside down the road.

Quotable: “Two-way center. Has a great pair of legs. He’s got deceptive speed. He has excellent vision, can make high-end plays. A little undersized at this time, we’re hoping for some development physically. We’re excited about this player as well. If he can develop and put some muscle on, he’s got some jam. He’s put up points in each and every year.”- Scott Bradley, Bruins Assistant GM

5/154 Roman Bychkov, D/L Lokomotiv Yaroslavl (MHL): The B’s drafted this smallish but dynamic-skating Russian, who has received some mixed reviews about his ultimate offensive ceiling. One thing scouts at the draft aren’t divided on however is his feet: he can wheel, able to accelerate to speed quickly and tremendous on his edges, often eluding forecheckers and opening up skating lanes for himself because he can change directions so effortlessly. Although not tall, he tends to use his lower center of gravity to good effect and has a decent stick/defensive game. Bychkov drew positive attention for his performance with the silver-medal winning Russian World Jr. A Challenge and World U18 squads. It marks the second year in  a row the B’s have drafted a Russian player after going 2012-17 without a single selection from that country. He’s an interesting flyer kind of project pick in that he compares in style and substance to current B’s prospects Victor Berglund (2017) and Axel Andersson (2018) as defenders who can really skate and move the puck, but who don’t have an established high NHL ceiling. Time will tell on this one, but some out there have time for him.

Quotable:Feet don’t get tied up in front of own goal’ smartly steps into open turns preventing himself from getting bottled up…smart positional player who adjusts routes at the last minute to surprise puck carriers with fast footwork on startup to jump up and stay with fast developing rushes.”- Mark Staudinger, Red Line Report

6/185 Matias Mantykivi F/L SaiPa (Finland- SM Liiga): This skilled offensive forward has average size and skating, but is crafty with the puck and has some impressive offensive hockey sense when talking to those who have scouted him. An 18-year-old who was able to play both junior and pro hockey this year in his native Finland, it speaks to his potential that one so young is already getting chances to play against men, and his skating may have looked a little rougher because of the transition to the faster-paced pro game. He’s probably not ever going to be a burner or even a plus-skater given his smaller stature, but his hands and offensive creativity are strong suits. Again- there were other North American major junior players ranked higher than MM, but the B’s felt that they could draft him on the longer-term plan and take their time here. Good strategy or ultimately a roll of the dice that will come up snake eyes? We shall see, but we are talking about a pick made that was in the seventh-round range before Vegas joined the league, so it isn’t like the expectations for this pick are out of line with the value it represents.

Quotable: “Very smart player- hockey sense is- we considered not elite but very special or he can be someday.”- Bradley

7/192 Jake Schmaltz F/L Chicago Steel (USHL): The cousin of NHLers Nick and Jordan Schmaltz, this was a surprise pick here just because the newest Bruin is a player we have seen a good bit of going back to the 2017-18 season when he was on the Team Wisconsin 16U midget AAA team that reached the T1 midget title game before falling to the Chicago Mission 16s. Schmaltz has always been a responsible 2-way forward, but he was a raw, physically underdeveloped player as a midget who got better and better as the year went on, ultimately leading to his being drafted as a 2001-born player by Chicago in the USHL draft a year ago and making the team as a 17-year-old. He didn’t play a great deal behind some other more highly-skilled and productive forwards on the Steel, who fell to the Sioux Falls Stampede in the Clark Cup championship last month. There’s not much of a dynamic element to his game- he skates well and is tall and lanky at this point- he’ll have a lot of room to fill out going forward. Headed to the University of North Dakota after another year in the USHL, don’t expect a major increase in points production, but Schmaltz is a smart, efficient forward who should be good for maybe 30-40 as the team’s 2nd-line center. His GM with the Steel is former Bruins scout Ryan Hardy.

Quotable: “He was a real core and anchor for (the Steel)- he anchored their third line this year. They went deep, they went to the finals and we thought he was a big part of their team in his role. He killed penalties and was great on draws. He’s a developing kid- he’s 6-1 and 180 right now and we project him to be closer to 200 pounds and 6-2 when it’s all said and done. He’s a 2-way player and his skating will pick up with some strength.”- Bradley

Final review: With John Beecher going late in the first round, the Bruins draft class isn’t a lot to write home about. Beecher is an impressive physical package with enough talent to play in the NHL, but he doesn’t quite have the offensive wow factor of other players who were on the board at 30. He’s likely going to play in the league for a long time, so to get a good fit like Beecher bodes well for the B’s 2019 draft, but the rest of the class is harder to project.

They didn’t land any top-end talent in any of the rounds but did pick up some interesting prospects who could develop into players who end up being more than the sum of their parts right now. It’s tough when you only have 2 picks in the first three rounds and are going at the end of every round save the last one, so we can certainly see what the Bruins were trying to do here, even if it is a pretty “middle of the fairway” kind of draft. Quinn Olson could end up becoming a solid middle tier prospect in the organization and one player who becomes more of a fan favorite after they watch him in development camp.

One of the mistakes fans and casual process observers sometimes make especially with respect to the NHL draft is viewing it in a linear fashion- it not always is, and the approach varies from team to team. Because the Bruins had a lot of picks in 2015-17 plus undrafted free agents put into the mix, they don’t have a great deal of room to draft a lot more OR take players who are going to be forced to sign and turn pro within the two-year pick and sign window mandated for major junior players. Bradley confirmed this after all the picks were in by saying that unless a CHL player was someone they were absolutely sure on this time around, they were looking more at college and European players who can develop on a longer timeline. This explains to a degree why the B’s passed on Arthur Kaliyev and his 51 goals- you don’t have to like it or agree but it there is anything the electric OHL scorer showed, it was despite the impressive scoring, he was not a sure bet- otherwise he wouldn’t have fallen out of the 1st round. Other teams who don’t have as many prospects vying for contracts and spots in the pipeline have to take a more CHL (major junior)-centric approach in their drafting. It’s a cycle and so the B’s are in a different place right now than other clubs- observers don’t have to like it, but it demonstrates the thinking behind some of these selections.

The draft is always tough because people are conditioned to have strong opinions on players the vast majority of fans have never even seen. Just reading this blog might condition you to be a big fan of Bobby Brink to the Bruins for example, but in the end-while they liked him, he wasn’t in the cards because the team felt Beecher was a better fit and player for them in the long run.

Outside of Olson, the rest of the B’s selections appear to be a lot of: hmmm…interesting…maybe…I don’t know kinds of players, but again- the Bruins have their process and stick to it. Drafts are lauded and/or criticized every year so in 2019, if there appear to be negatives than positives it goes with the territory. At some point, Boston’s draft strategy will shift back to some of the more traditional and immediate player pipelines, but for now, we see what they are doing and we have no choice but to wait and see how it all pans out in another 3-5 years or more.

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.

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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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2017 Bruins Draft Review: More Steak than Sizzle

CHICAGO- The Boston Bruins entered the 2017 NHL Entry Draft with six selections and just three in the first three 111 slots after making a total of nine picks in the first two rounds in the previous pair of years. The B’s held onto all of their picks, but didn’t come away with a lot of draft excitement and buzz, even if several of the players they chose appear to have the talent and potential to one day play for the parent club.

Assistant GM Scott Bradley returned to the helm of running the B’s draft with previous amateur scouting director Keith Gretzky leaving Boston last August to take the same position with the Edmonton Oilers, where he was reunited with former Bruins boss who hired him, Peter Chiarelli. This draft class reflects Bradley’s value-based philosophy and willingness to take less risk in favor of drafting players who embrace the team’s style and represent better potential roster fits.

Here’s a quick recap of all of Boston’s picks in the draft’s two days and what fans might expect from the new arrivals down the road:

Urho Vaakanainen (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Urho Vaakanainen, Rd 1.- pick 18

Left defense; 6-1/181; 01 Jan 99; JyP Jyvaskyla (Finland- SM Liiga)

Central Scouting rank: 8- Europe; Red Line Report: 50 ISS: 34 Hockey Prospect: 11

Talent analysis: Good height and long limbs; plus-skater who can move with speed, quickness and agility. Breaks out pucks efficiently with head up. Will join the rush and can handle the puck effectively from the blue line when the play is in the offensive zone. Smart defensive player who uses his length and reach to deny paths to the net. Not overly physical and prefers to use angles, gap work and  a quick stick to keep opponents from generating scoring chances. Six points for JyP in his second pro season in the SM-Liiga, but could be on the verge of breaking out offensively with SaiPa next season.

Pick analysis: Vaakanainen was the eighth-ranked European skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service and projected to go around where the B’s drafted him. Some public lists had him closer to 11-13 range, while others had him solidly in the second round. The Bruins were looking to add a quality left-shot defenseman and when countryman Juuso Valimaki went off the board to the Calgary Flames at 16, the team went with another of Finland’s quality young D who was a member of both of his country’s successful two most recent U18 squads (gold, silver in 2016-17) and the very disappointing 2017 U20 World Jr. Team. Vaakanainen is not all that flashy or dynamic a player, but he is mobile, skilled and represents a potential blossoming offensive upside that may not be reflected in his pedestrian stats. He’s probably not a high-end prospect, but a solid complementary kind of player who further strengthens the future left side and gives GM Don Sweeney more options to move some of the prospects out in potential packages for NHL-level trades.

On the board at 18: F- Kristian Vesalainen; F- Ryan Poehling; F- Kailer Yamamoto; F- Eeli Tolvanen; F- Klim Kostin; F- Robert Thomas; D- Nic Hague; F- Filip Chytil; D- Connor Timmins; F- Isaac Ratcliffe; D- Pierre-Olivier Joseph; G- Jake Oettinger

Jack Studnicka (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Jack Studnicka, Rd 2.- pick 53

Center; 6-1/172; 18 Feb 99; Oshawa Generals (OHL)

Central Scouting rank: 120- North America; Red Line Report: 68; ISS: 41; Hockey Prospect: 73

Talent analysis: Rangy center’s stock really came on after a disappointing regular season got a surge with strong OHL playoff and subsequent World Under-18 tournament performances. His thin, reedy build will require significant off-ice conditioning work to add some mass and strength to. Above average skater who has the quick-burst to get to pucks in short areas and can also beat defenders in open ice. Handles and shoots the puck well; has the offensive tool kit to put up bigger numbers in the OHL next year and beyond. A smart, hard-working two-way center who is good on faceoffs and understands the importance of three-zone hockey. Solid citizen and leader type- will have a letter on his jersey at some point.

Pick analysis: Doesn’t project as a top-line offensive threat but has the potential to develop into a solid third-line center with a second-line ceiling if he can take another step in his development. Rankings for Studnicka were all over the map, but the reality is- he was a late-rising player whose ability to step up in key moments with the Gennies and Team Canada (albeit in disappointing Hlinka and U18 finishes) speaks well to his pro potential. More Jack-of-all-Trades versus sleek, sexy scoring forward, but there is always value to having these kinds of players on your NHL roster if he can earn a spot one day. There weren’t many complete players of Studnicka’s ability on the board at 53, but there were some prospects with a bigger risk-reward factors, so time will tell if going the safer route was the right decision.

On the board at 53: G- Ukko-Pekka Lukkonen; G- Michael DiPietro; G- Keith Petruzzelli; F- Joni Ikonen; F- Matthew Strome; D- Josh Brook; F- Morgan Geekie; G- Matthew Villalta; D- Ben Mirageas; D- Reilly Walsh;

 

Jeremy Swayman, Rd 4.- pick 111

Goaltender; 6-2/190; 24 Nov 98; Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)

Central Scouting rank: 12- North America; Red Line Report: NR; Hockey Prospect: NR

Talent analysis: High-end athlete with good size who probably isn’t finished growing (his dad is 6-6) checks all the boxes for a developmental project goalie. Excellent quickness and great hands- glove and blocker are effective at catching pucks or directing them away from danger areas. Gets a good lateral push and tracks pucks well. Put up very good save percentage and GAA numbers (.914, 2.90) on a non-playoff USHL club, and was often lost in the spotlight of other bigger-name goalies playing in that league. Needs to be more patient at times- gets caught trying to do too much and will have to put in the work to refine his game and keep getting better. Says all the right things, but the proof will be in the continued progression and body of work.

Pick analysis: Textbook case of the perception of the “shallow” 2017 NHL draft, where many of the more conventional and established names on public lists were passed on by teams who scouted their own players and went with a lesser known commodity in Swayman, an Alaska native who played for a tougher-to-see USHL club. Originally thought to be spending another year in junior, TSP confirmed that Swayman will play at the University of Maine next season. That may or may not be the best for his development, but the B’s and fans will likely have to get used to what could be a bit of a rollercoaster for him in terms of strong vs. shaky outings and stretches of play. Swayman’s pure physical package means that he’s bound to have some quality starts that will generate buzz, but he’s also likely to have some rougher stretches that will underscore the time and patience needed to properly develop a goaltender in this day and age.

On the board at 111: F- Kyle Olson; D- Michael Karow; F- Noah Cates; G- Cayden Primeau; F- Nick Campoli

 

Cedric Pare, Rd. 6- pick 173

Center; 6-2/205; 24 Jan 99; Saint John Sea Dogs

Central Scouting Rank: 146- North America

Talent analysis: Big-bodied, toolsy center who didn’t see a lot of playing time on a stacked, veteran team that won the QMJHL championship and played for the 2017 Memorial Cup. Strong below the dots and in the corners, but skating needs to improve mainly in the first steps and lateral agility to boost an effective short-area game. Hard shot, but needs to get it off faster. Grinds for pucks and does well to shield them in possession but not overly skilled or creative. At his best when driving the net and using his size to box out defenders.

Pick analysis: This is a pure project selection that drew a mixed bag of reviews, as several NHL scouts informally polled either liked the pick or didn’t. Conventional thought is that Pare, who resembles a blend of Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Spooner in terms of his looks, has a chance to play a more prominent role in Saint John next season. He’s not flashy, but plays that heavy-on-pucks style the Bruins like. Time will tell if they were ahead of the curve in terms of a budding offensive game, or if he’s going to be another in a glut of bottom-line prospects.

On the board at 173: F- Morgan Barron, F- Sasha Chmelevski; F- Cole Guttman; G- Dylan Ferguson

Cedric Pare (Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

5. Victor Berglund, Rd. 7- pick 195

Right Defense; 6-0/165; 02 Aug 99; MoDo (Sweden)

Central Scouting Rank: 109- Europe

Talent analysis: Small, skilled defender was a total stealth/under the radar pick, as no one we were with at the draft knew who he was. We’ll let Bradley describe him thus: “Our Swedish guys were on top of him. They think he’s a mobile D. He’s skilled, ultra-skilled, and he skates well. Small. Six-footer, but [European scouts] P.J. [Axelsson] and Sven [Svensson] and Victor [Nybladh], they were pounding the table for him and we went along with it and I think we might have something there. Talking to his strength coach after the pick, he’s got him working on putting some muscle and weight on so we look forward to seeing him, too, at development camp.”

Pick analysis: It’s the seventh round. Why not?

On the board at 195: G- Cayden Primeau; F- Sammy Walker; F- Logan Cockerill; D- Croix Evingson; D- Phil Kemp

 

6. Daniel Bukac, Rd. 7- pick 204

Right Defense; 6-4/195; 29 Apr 99; Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)

Central Scouting Rank: 173; Red Line Report: 97

Talent analysis: Big, rangy Czech defender is raw and needs a lot of development, but could have a decent payoff down the road. Good skater for his size who will get better and more powerful in his stride as he adds lower leg strength. Long stick- terrific reach. Didn’t put up many points, but had a tough transition to North America with the Wheaties and came on strong at the end. More from Bradley: “He’s raw. He’s a project. Kid from the Czech Republic that played in the Western Hockey League. At the start of the year – he’s come leaps and bounds with his development. Talking to the people – the coaches, the management, and the GM in Brandon, they’re very excited about him coming back to Brandon. They’re expecting big things from him. We look forward to seeing him in camp.”

Pick analysis: When you’re picking this late, taking a project D with size and upside is a pretty good way to go.

On the board at 204: G- Dayton Rasmussen; F- Nick Swaney; D- Dylan Coghlan

 

 

 

 

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.

 

The undrafted free agents: the next ones?

Wrapping up the undrafted free agents series with a Boston Bruins focus, going with four players who were in the AHL last year with the Providence Bruins. We could see one or two of them get some NHL games in with Boston this season depending on how things go.

Before we get to the four prospects, though- a little housekeeping first:

As reported in the Boston Globe, Gretzky to the Oilers as assistant GM is done, with Don Sweeney wishing his former chief scout well, lamenting the timing of the hire as an issue. Not one to stand in the way of letting their employee advance in a key managerial position even with a rival club (rival for obvious reasons I don’t need to go into), the B’s did the right thing by letting Gretzky go. This is one of those “if you love someone set them free” kind of things; the team could have played hardball, but that usually comes back to bite you. At this stage, the B’s don’t get anything for releasing Gretzky except maybe some goodwill and the hopes that they can build bridges with their former GM now in Edmonton rather than burn them. I saw someone (I don’t remember where it was) mention the other day that a Dougie Hamilton to the Oilers for Taylor Hall might have been something worth doing if relations between the teams hadn’t been so strained. I don’t know if that was even realistic to consider a year ago, and the world will never know, but cordial relations across the league are better than adversarial ones.

Now, former director of amateur scouting Scott Bradley, who held the post with Boston for more than 10 years before Wayne Smith was named to the position in 2008, will wear two hats as assistant GM and chief scout until Sweeney can find a replacement. Bradley is a good man who has spent nearly three decades in the Bruins organization. His watershed draft as scouting director was 2006 when the team landed Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand with three of their first four picks. Bradley was the guy most responsible for Lucic and a decade later, it was a hell of a find. He’s a man of integrity and a cancer survivor whose decency and dedication to the profession has earned him a great deal of respect around the league.

The Bruins are in good hands until a longer-term solution is found.

Now, onto the main topic at hand…

 

This is the last in a series of articles on undrafted free agents who have made an impact with the B’s: Torey Krug, Frank Vatrano, Noel Acciari, Tim Schaller and Kevan Miller. It’s pretty rare to have four UDFAs on one roster, and the skeptics would probably tell you that it might begin to answer why the B’s have DNQ’d for the NHL playoffs in each of the past two years.

Having said that, Krug has become an integral member of the Boston defense, while Vatrano shows a great deal of promise as someone who could net 25-30 goals or more down the road with a natural scoring knack that can’t be taught. Miller is a trusted if at times miscast defensive defenseman, while Schaller and Acciari are Providence College products who look like above average bottom-six players at the NHL level if they can keep progressing. If nothing else, they’re key cogs at the AHL level.

Now, we look at four players who have yet to reach the NHL, but show enough promise to get there. It won’t be easy for any of them, as with the exception of Czarnik, none display any real higher-end potential. However, as we have learned over the years- sometimes all it takes is an opportunity. This group is likely ticketed for Providence, but stranger things have happened and injury woes or exceptional play could see one or more of these guys get a shot at the big time.

Austin Czarnik, C- Often overshadowed by Vatrano’s scoring eruption last season, Czarnik had an outstanding rookie pro season in the AHL, posting 61 points in 68 games and impressing everyone from the get-go with his speed, smarts and hustle.

The former captain of the Miami University RedHawks was snubbed in the NHL draft because of his lack of size, but he’s always had pro-caliber wheels and brings creativity and moxie to the mix as well. He was recalled to Boston late in the season on an emergency basis but didn’t get into the lineup. While not an ideal fit on the third or fourth lines given the B’s current personnel, if anything changes, the team won’t hesitate to put him in there.

One play in the preseason last year really stood out as typical of what the little Michigan buzzsaw has always been about: on what looked to be a routine dump-in to the offensive end, Czarnik could have made a line change, but he recognized his opponents were making a change and a sloppy one at that. In an instant, he turned on the jets, and blew past a defender who was on the way to the bench but couldn’t adjust his trajectory in time. Czarnik got to the puck first and then made an on-target pass for a Boston goal. Those are the kinds of plays that earn trust and respect from the coaches because of the skill and intelligence behind them. At the NHL level, nanoseconds can mean the difference between making a play and coming up short, so Czarnik seems to understand already what is at stake.

Now, exhibition play isn’t the regular season, but it spoke volumes that one so young and inexperienced at the pro level came in and clicked right away, performing at a near point-per-game pace in the minors. Watch for Czarnik to make his NHL debut this season. He’s probably not going to begin the year in Boston, but he’s a solid bet to get some games in because he’s got scoring chops but is also working on improving his all-around play and is not a defensive liability.

Here’s his first career pro hat trick from December:

Chris Casto, D- The B’s signed Casto out of the University of Minnesota-Duluth in 2013 and at one time, he was shaping up to be a top Minnesota high school draft prospect. With good size and skating, Casto won’t win on many style points, but he can really fire the puck and he put up the best offensive totals of his three-year professional career in 2016.

Casto is a smart and solid positional D. He plays a similar style to that of Tommy Cross, but without the second-round pedigree (and as-of-yet unfulfilled expectations) hanging over him. Casto keeps things simple: he doesn’t show off much in the way of flash, but is steady and moves the puck to the right areas. Like anyone who logs a lot of minutes, there are times when he’ll make a mistake that leads to a goal, but at the AHL level at least, he’s developed into a top-four presence who first-year Providence head coach Kevin Dean will likely lean on heavily in the new campaign.

Here’s a slow-mo video of a Casto goal from last season:

Colby Cave, C- It was a bit of a surprise that the B’s successfully signed Cave after they grabbed Czarnik and Vatrano in the spring of 2015 because Cave was viewed as one of the top undrafted free agents coming out of the WHL a year ago.

The former captain of the Swift Current Broncos saw time in 2014-15 with Boston first-rounder Jake DeBrusk, and had a solid if unspectacular first pro season in Providence last year.

Cave is a fine skater who is effective on the fore check and at forcing turnovers and plays a smart, capable two-way game. What you see is what you get with him- he’s going to take pucks to the net and make an honest 200-foot effort to compensate from a pretty average skill set. He plays the game bigger than his size, playing a rugged but clean style and his leadership no doubt appealed to Boston in their aggressive pursuit of him.

Watch for Cave to put up 20 or more goals in the AHL this year if he can stay healthy, and he could line up behind Czarnik in Providence’s top-two forward lines with the departure of Alexander Khokhlachev to the KHL. Players like Cave aren’t all that sexy or exciting, but they’ll get a shot sometimes ahead of the flashy but one-dimensional types who can only play on half of the ice surface.

Cave’s biggest problem is that he’s got Acciari and Schaller to contend with, and I don’t see him beating either guy out for a spot in Boston, so he’ll probably have to bide his time and try to elevate his play on the farm to make a case.

Cave’s first AHL goal is at about 1:02 of this highlight vid:

Justin Hickman, RW- Another WHL captain- the Bruins outbid several other NHL clubs for the Seattle Thunderbirds overager in January 2015 when he suffered a shoulder injury and had to shut it down for surgery.

He gets a pass for a mediocre rookie pro season because of the physical, rugged style of play Hickman brings and he looked a bit tentative at times as he adjusted to the pro pace after missing about 10 months of playing action by the time he started skating in the AHL.

He’s got good size and toughness- Hickman isn’t a heavyweight who can go toe-to-toe with the biggest, baddest fighters (admittedly- there aren’t many of those left), but he will actively drop the gloves to defend himself and teammates and loves to initiate contact and do the heavy lifting along the walls and in front of the net. Here you go:

Hickman doesn’t have an abundance of skill and best case for him would be to eventually land on an NHL third line somewhere as a middle-of-the-road option; he’s more likely a solid fourth-liner similar to Nate Thompson (who was coincidentally a Seattle product as well).

Stats don’t tell the whole story- Hickman was eased in and didn’t have much in the way of opportunity, but the B’s are quietly high on him and he’ll get a chance to elevate his stock as a sophomore. He’s not ready to make an NHL roster push, but a strong second pro season would go a long way for his confidence and give the team some options.

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)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

(Kirk Luedeke photo)

Special K: Why David Krejci’s resurgence matters

When the Boston Bruins drafted David Krejci at the end of the second round (Detroit’s pick acquired via Los Angeles a year earlier at the 2003 NHL draft) the Czech teenager had frosted highlights in his hair and used then-B’s scout and former draft choice Otto Hascak to translate for him. He didn’t have anything all that profound to say to reporters, but the team’s front office gushed in the usual way about how excited the B’s were to get Krejci where they did and were effusive in their praise of his hockey sense and potential as a No. 1 or 2 NHL center.

11 years later, Krejci is among the NHL scoring leaders (albeit real early) and dropping the kind of thoughtful quotes that he’s been delivering with an articulate though soft-spoken and thickly accented delivery since 2009 or thereabouts. That was when posted his best offensive season and emerged as the top two line center current assistant GM and former amateur scouting director Scott Bradley said he could be in Raleigh, where the ’04 draft was held.

Here’s what Steve Conroy wrote about Krejci in the Boston Herald:

When David Krejci was asked after the Bruins’ 5-3 victory over the Arizona Coyotes on Saturday if he was at all surprised how quickly the Bruins’ power play has come together this season, the center seemed a bit perplexed.

It wasn’t an off-the-wall question, considering how much trouble the B’s have had on the power play in the past, but why would Krejci be surprised?

“If you go out there and don’t expect to score,” said Krejci, “then you shouldn’t be out there.”

Mic drop, please.

Krejci didn’t get his generous contract extension, the one that pays him north of $7M and represents another significant bite of the B’s salary cap apple, based on his statistics. Even by modern NHL standards, where scoring is down compared to where it was in the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, Krejci’s regular season production is pretty pedestrian. Where the native of Sternberk in the Czech Republic has raised the bar and proven his worth is in the playoffs, when his points-per-game average rises from 0.75 to 0.83. Had not not been for his struggles in the 2014 postseason (he wasn’t alone, either) with a mere 4 assists in 12 games, that postseason average would be even higher.

But Krejci has also proven his worth as a leader and student of the game. He might be a quiet guy by nature, whose voice is so soft that you’re out of luck if caught in the very back of a postgame scrum without a recorder that can pick up a pin drop or canine-like hearing; but don’t be fooled. Krejci is one of the fiercest, most driven and uncomprising competitors in that room.

The players know it. The coaches know it. Management does too. And the fans, well…let’s just say that in the world of salary cap, flashy plays and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, even if some of them are aware of how good a teammate he is, it didn’t matter to many given the lack of scoring in the 2014 playoffs and the carryover to last season, much of it spent on the IR.

Right now, Krejci is in his prime at age 29, and he’s playing like one of Boston’s top paid players for a pretty simple reason: he knows that he must.

In an effort to get Boston’s salary cap situation better under control, more in the way of established talent left the team than came in last summer. Slow start in Los Angeles aside, Milan Lucic still represented a significant loss in production (not to mention one of Krejci’s established wingers), so it was critical for the veteran center to not only begin the new season healthy, but find away to translate his effort into production.

Krejci is not a dynamic skater, so to the untrained eye, he can look at times like he’s floating and not getting much accomplished. However, when you break down the goals he’s been scoring and the plays he’s made in the first five games, you see a player who is performing not only with confidence, but is emulating that critical element of any real NHL scorer: the ability to get to the right spaces in the offensive zone where he can either get the puck to the teammate best positioned to finish, or…screw it…score the goal himself.

Go back and look at his power play goal against Arizona. When he takes the pass from Torey Krug, he’s in that sweet spot by the left faceoff dot, coiled like a cobra ready to strike and he one-times a bullet that Coyotes goalie Mike Smith had no chance-none- of stopping. Unless Krejci hit him with it, which, he didn’t.

Krejci’s resurgence matters because the best way a player like him can lead is by example. When the younger skaters on the team watch how effective he is, see how he creates magic from the mundane but does it with a set of tools that has never earned him a great deal of respect outside of Boston, they realize that with a willingness to work and do the best with what you’ve been given, good things are possible indeed.

Like Patrice Bergeron, Krejci isn’t a rah-rah, in-your-face fiery leader who demands accountability and isn’t shy about calling people out. He speaks softly, carries a big stick and when he does have something to say, his mates listen. It isn’t an accident that Krejci wears an ‘A’ on his sweater. It’s not just because he’s scoring and winning faceoffs- the other players in the room look at him and say- “That’s the kind of veteran I want to be like,” and they embrace his example.

One day, when he hangs up the skates, Krejci is going to coach hockey at a high level. He won’t be a fiery bench boss, nor will he rub elbows and hold court with those who cover his teams. But, to those future charges he’ll mentor and train, he’ll teach them more about the game and how to be successful professionals than most.

That’s a long way off, though. For now- he’s making a difference and helping his team get back on track after an 0-3 start. If you ask him, he’ll say that winning is all that matters, and he’s telling the truth.

But deep down inside, like any driven competitor who has found himself on the receiving of biting criticism at times, he couldn’t be happier to be getting the points. And he’ll work even harder to make sure they keep coming.

A Farewell to Arms: Milan Lucic

Milan Lucic at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Milan Lucic at the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver (Kirk Luedeke photo)

I almost opted not to post this at all, because I do not want to this to turn into a debate about whether he should have been kept or traded, but in the end, I’m using this space to say goodbye to Milan Lucic, one of the more important (if misunderstood in recent years) players for the Boston Bruins over the near decade he skated up and down the left wing and (often) left a trail of tears in his wake.

For those who follow the NHL, Lucic’s body of work is well known, regardless of whether you are a fan of the Boston Bruins or not.

From the moment he arrived to the big league in his first real veteran main camp after the 2007-08 season (more on that later- yes, I know he was drafted in 2006), until draft day this past June when Chris Pronger of all people (it isn’t like I know him- he just happened to sit behind me on the bus headed to the BB&T Center from the hotel in Fort Lauderdale and happened to be checking his phone when I sat down.)  broke the news to me that Lucic had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings for their 2015 first, defenseman Colin Miller and goaltender Martin Jones (since dealt to San Jose for their first in 2016 and college forward Sean Kuraly), Lucic was one of the most visible faces of the Bruins franchise. As the league’s premier power forward in terms of his blend of physical prowess and ability to score, Lucic was far more appreciated outside of Boston by media and fans of other clubs who longed to have a similar presence on their respective teams, but could often only watch helplessly if Lucic was on his game and hurtled around the ice like a wrecking ball, daring anyone to stop him. Alas, in recent years, that version of Lucic, the one who had arrived like a meteor at age 19 on the heels of a Memorial Cup championship, and went supernova in terms of his popularity and impact by the time the B’s captured the 2011 Stanley Cup in his own hometown of Vancouver, had become at times an empty caricature- a player who wanted to intimidate and be that force of nature, but often got caught up in sophomoric displays on and off the ice that detracted from the immense player and person he was capable of being.

By the time the 2015 NHL season came to a merciful end for the B’s, a lot of fans were ready to see Lucic go. To a degree, I understand that. The salary cap has made the folks who cheer for the laundry much more clinical in their assessments, especially when players like Lucic see their salaries rise to the point of being cost prohibitive.

Lucic’s cap hit was too high for what he was bringing to the team, and with unrestricted free agency looming in the summer of 2016, he was due to receive offers seemed certain to go north of $6 million, perhaps as high as $7 million or more- a price that Boston simply could not afford. So, new GM Don Sweeney, recognizing that the timing was right rather than wait and risk an injury that might crater his value, moved him to the one team that has been reported should have been the club that had him all along- the Kings. I get it, I really do. But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

Rather than recap all of his years in Boston, I thought I would share a lesser-known tale about Lucic- how he almost was not a Bruin in the first place, and also provide some perspective on my own personal connection to him- one that in my mind- transcended the game he played and the job I did to cover the team for New England Hockey Journal.

How it all happened…also- hometown kid makes good

At age 15, no one in the WHL had time for Milan Lucic.

Completely snubbed in the WHL bantam draft, he almost gave up his dreams of playing pro hockey. That’s what quitters do, after all– they make excuses and justify their lack of success as something unattainable in the first place. Not the son of Serbian blue collar parents from Vancouver, though- he got over his disappointment, rolled up his sleeves and went to work in the BCHL, earning his way to the WHL the hard way…with his fists and on occasion- soft hands with the Coquitlam Express. He caught the eye of the Vancouver Giants- the WHL club nearby and by the end of that year, was brought in for one regular season game and a pair of playoff contests. Coach Don Hay saw all he needed to at that point, and Lucic came back for his NHL draft season, spending the entire year in the WHL, and scoring just 9 goals but showing flashes of the talent that would eventually make him one of the the NHL’s most recognizable if polarizing players.

As fate would have it, Boston’s then amateur scouting director was convalescing in his hometown of Vancouver after beating a sudden onset of cancer in his knee and having successful surgery to remove it before it was too late. Unfortunately (or fortunately as this tale will show) for Scott Bradley, he couldn’t travel, and so whereas he would normally be jetting all over North America and Europe at the beginning of the 2005-06 season to watch the top-rated late 1987/1988-born hockey talent, he was stuck at home. As a result, Bradley saw far more Giants games than he would have, and the burly No. 27 whose skating was rough beyond belief but was creating space for his teammates and establishing a reign of terror in the toughest league in the CHL started to grow on him after Bradley saw little early on with Lucic that resembled NHL material. By the time Bradley was cleared to do more work-related travel to scout other areas, Lucic was his guy, a player he believed was only scratching the surface of his potential.

Fast forward to the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Bradley was still sky-high on Lucic, but so were the Kings, whose guys Bradley had seen at Giants home and way games and guessed were also impressed with his upside. That year, the B’s had a pair of second-round picks- they had traded their own (35) to Washington as part of the 2004 trade for defenseman Sergei Gonchar, but picked up a compensatory selection (37) for not signing bust first-rounder Lars Jonsson from 2000 and then acquired Edmonton’s 50th overall choice as part of the deal that sent Sergei Samsonov to the Oil a few months earlier. Bradley, who had watched the Nashville Predators grab defenseman Cody Franson just a few spots before the B’s a year earlier in the third round, when the team had seriously talked about grabbing him early in the second round instead (they went with Petr Kalus), pushed for Lucic at 37th overall. Yes, he reasoned, it was early, but he was sure to be there, and given his potential payoff, was the best way to ensure the B’s landed him.

However, a disagreement at the table occurred, with several scouts lining up together to argue for talented Russian defenseman Yury Alexandrov there instead. Interim GM Jeff Gorton, in what most folks connected to the game would say was surprising given that his amateur scouting director wanted Lucic there at 37, sided with the area scouts and went with Alexandrov, leaving Bradley to sweat out the next 12 selections in hopes he could get his man at 50. You see, the Kings owned the 48th selection, and all the signs pointed to the fact that they were all set to take Lucic there.

Fate intervened once again, however. A report in the Montreal Gazette quoting former Kings scouting director Al Murray, said that at the time of the 2006 draft, recently hired Kings GM Dean Lombardi felt that the team needed a defenseman, so as their pick came up, he turned to his scouts, most of whom were on the same page and united in their desire to draft Lucic. Instead, the new boss wanted to know who the top defender on their board was, and the answer came back- Joey Ryan of Malden Mass. by way of the Quebec Remparts. The rest, as they say, is history- Ryan to the Kings and two picks later, the Bruins called Lucic’s name to a spontaneous (and loud) ovation of cheers at the old GM Place as many of the Canucks supporters in the place were well acquainted with Lucic from his Giants days.

Many saw the pick of Lucic as a reach at the time. After all, he’d managed a paltry nine goals that season, and even if he was tough- why would you take a player like that in the top-50? Some of those concerns were allayed when we first met Lucic in the bowels of the arena in his Bruins sweater for the first time. He was thrilled and genuinely earnest in his assessment of the situation- being a top-50 NHL pick after being passed over in the WHL lottery felt pretty damn special.

That fall, Lucic came to Boston, but was only allowed to participate in the rookie camp portion. Phil Kessel was dominating the buzz as the team’s top selection and after cratering the year before, the B’s had spent huge in free agency to bring in Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard. With other veterans up front like Shean Donovan, Mark Mowers, Petr Tenkrat (TENKRAT!- sorry inside joke there), Yan Stastny and Jeff Hoggan to name a few, the club sent Lucic and Brad Marchand (taste the irony, eh?) back to their junior clubs without giving them an opportunity to take the ice with the veterans.

I remember talking to Lucic about it after the last rookie camp scrimmage and he was genuinely ticked about it. I recall very clearly him telling me “I skated my bag off” all summer to prepare for main camp…it clearly did not sit well with him that he wasn’t welcome there with the vets. At the same time, he said he understood and would work that much harder to make an impression during the season and be ready to compete in 2007. Therefore, when I said earlier, that he made the Bruins out of his first training camp opportunity- that’s the truth. Like the WHL, he was snubbed his first time out.

We ended up talking a few times while he was still around the team, and he remembered me from the draft. I mentioned in passing that I might not be around to see him at camp in a year because there was a good chance my unit would be sent to Iraq. I recall him stopping what he was doing, getting very serious, and shaking my hand while putting his hand on my shoulder and wishing me luck and safety. He was genuine there, and while I didn’t want to make a big deal of my Army service, it was nice to see a young guy show his appreciation the way he did.

Indeed, my unit was soon after alerted for a deployment (my second) to Baghdad where we would spend 15 months as part of the troop surge in 2007-08. While I was over there, I followed Lucic as best I could- tracking his 30-goal WHL campaign followed by winning the 2007 Memorial Cup. He was named captain of the Giants for the 2007-08 season, but that would not come to pass as he made the Bruins the following fall and went on to post a memorable rookie season with modest scoring (8 goals, 27 points) totals but won the hearts and minds of the Boston faithful with his energy and physicality.

Milan Lucic's Vancouver Giants away sweater worn in the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Milan Lucic’s Vancouver Giants away sweater worn in the 2007 Memorial Cup tournament (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Lucic makes it big in Boston

By the time I returned from my deployment at the end of the 2008 season, I was transferred to the Washington D.C. area over the summer. The Bruins played their last preseason game at Verizon Center against the Washington Capitals (an overtime loss with Manny Fernandez in net). When I walked into the visitors’ dressing room, Lucic was seated over at the far end, still with most of his gear on, but we made eye contact and he immediately bounced up and came across the room to shake my hand and welcome me back. It was a small thing for sure…but for me it was a big thing. Though we did not stay in contact during my tour in Iraq, he remembered that I had been overseas, and seemed extremely glad to see me again. It’s not like I had covered him extensively before I left for the desert, but I guess I made enough of an impression and that simple recognition and act of making a small effort to simply say hello went a long way and tells me a lot about who he is as a person.

That interaction framed all further contact I had with Lucic while covering the team from late 2009 until this past June when he was dealt. Even if not interviewing him as part of the coverage, he would always make time for a friendly chat to catch up, as I am not around the team on a daily basis as the beat reporters are. In short, it was the Milan Lucic I got to know when the cameras and recorders were not turned on that I got to know the best, and will always be grateful for. He was honest, sincere, and even if some of his actions reflected poorly at times, I believe that he tried his best to do the right thing and the emotions of playing on the edge like he did sometimes pulled him over to the wrong side.

So, to make a long post short (and thank you for allowing me to indulge in my own personal accounting here), Lucic will be missed far more than most are letting on. Even if he didn’t fight as often near the end as he had done before…even if he didn’t move his feet with the consistency that a player of his status and cap hit demanded, there were times when he was in a class all his own as a force of nature. Those moments simply weren’t enough for a lot of fans…and the team decided to move on as well. But to me, Lucic symbolizes an important time in Bruins history- as the franchise has won just six total Stanley Cup championships since 1924, he and his 2011 mates established a legacy that will always be respected in Boston. He was the right player, at the right time. His 139 goals, 342 points and 772 penalty minutes in 566 career NHL games with the B’s won’t land him at the top of any of the team’s statistical categories, but they do tell part of the story of a player who wore his heart on his sleeve for eight seasons.

The Kings fans and media, if they haven’t figured it out already, are getting a heck of a player. One, if his career trajectory is to be believed, is probably going to bounce back with the best season of his career. 35 goals is not out of the question, and the Western Conference clubs that used to see Lucic only on occasion are going to quickly tire of him finishing his checks and wreaking havoc.

How do you wrap up a blog post about a player who had such a significant impact in Boston? I can think of no better way than to post this farewell/highlight video made this week by Twitter friend “dafoomie” (who does a lot of great work- you should check out his YouTube channel). The images will capture all I could not, but the shadows grow long and it is time to bring this to a close.

Good luck, Looch- thanks for the memories.

Another Heinen post

The Rink Blog over at the New England Hockey Journal website is gone, but here is an article I wrote for it on Danton Heinen last March after I had a chance to talk to him during the NCHC playoffs.

It’s some bonus reading for a guy who should be ranked solidly inside the top-10 of Bruins prospect lists in my view because he does so many things well.

Here’s the story:

***

When the Boston Bruins called forward Danton Heinen’s name late in the fourth round of last June’s NHL Entry Draft, fans and prognosticators were sent scrambling for their guides and cheat sheets, to little avail.

There wasn’t a whole lot of information available on the previously passed over forward when the B’s nabbed the 2014 NHL lottery’s mystery man 116th overall. However, in the months since, the former captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles has emerged as one of the best players in the NCAA with a productive and mature game that belies his relative inexperience in the NCHC.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Heinen said before the second-seeded Denver University’s sweep of University of Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the NCHC playoffs. “I don’t know that I expected to have this level of personal success coming into my first year (at DU) but being part of a winning team is what I’m most happy about.”

Currently second only to hockey prodigy Jack Eichel (North Chelmsford, Mass.) in scoring among first year NCAA players, Heinen adjusted immediately to the competition at Denver and never looked back, posting 16 goals and 44 points in 36 games as of March 15, pacing the Pioneers in scoring. Denver head coach (and former University of Maine scoring star and member of 1993 national championship squad) Jim Montgomery is on the record giving much of the credit for Heinen to assistant David Carle, who recognized the potential and acted quickly to bring him into the fold last year.

“It was Coach Carle who did the most to bring me here,” said Heinen. “He came out to see me play (at Surrey) last year and made the team’s interest in me known. They brought me to Denver for a visit and everything clicked right away; I loved it. For me, the decision to commit was a no-brainer, so I came out last summer to do course and conditioning work to get ready for the season and the opportunity to play here right away.”

Heinen’s arrival on the collegiate stage has been so sudden, yet so jarring for certain NHL teams that completely missed the boat on him that the 19-year-old’s season has made for some interesting backroom conversations.

“Our college guys are so impressed with him,” said one NHL scout who told New England Hockey Journal that Heinen has been a topic of conversation recently. “The recurring theme is that he’s played so well for Denver, and we’re trying to figure out how he got so good, so fast given that not many were on him a year ago when he was in junior.”

Some evaluators point to a sudden growth spurt after he turned 18 as one aspect of the 6-foot, 180-pound Langley, B.C. native’s impressive showing at this level. As a July, 1995-born prospect who had been eligible for the 2013 NHL draft, and despite other ’95 players being in a similar situation such as Buffalo fifth-round draft choice and Brown freshman Max Willman (Barnstable, Mass.), Heinen got nary a sniff from the various hockey draft publications.

Even if the public lists weren’t tracking him, Heinen says he interviewed with multiple teams including Boston, during the course of the 2013-14 hockey season. Even though he knew he had some NHL interest, he wasn’t altogether positive he would get a call. He was following the draft on his computer at home, but when the fourth round rolled around, he wasn’t tracking the selections all that closely. Heinen learned of his selection from his family advisor via a phone call.

Although not a blazing skater with game-breaking open ice speed, Heinen displays NHL-caliber quickness and smarts, tenacity around the puck. He is on track to develop into a well-rounded , three-zone player with top-six forward potential in Boston. At the very least, he looks like a future third-line fixture on the wing if he continues his upward trajectory and willingness to compete hard in the greasy areas of the ice.“I see myself as more of a playmaker,” Heinen said. “I can see the ice and set up guys for more scoring opportunities.”

Heinen’s rapid arrival in the NCAA and the potential that more and more around the NHL are acknowledging are why it is all the more baffling that so many seemed to completely miss on his potential a year ago. The Bruins, for their part, played it smart. Western Canada scout (and former B’s defender) Dean Malkoc watched him enough to get a solid perspective on the youngster’s potential, and then as is often the case with Boston, multiple scouts and members of the front office, including current assistant GM Scott Bradley (who makes his off-season home in British Columbia), went out West to see him.

“We had a couple of guys in the west that sat on Danton pretty hard,” Bruins assistant GM Don Sweeney said in December. “We were real glad to get him where we did. We’re excited that he made it to school this year after there was talk he might delay it one more season, and clearly- he can handle the college game.”

Unlike other teams who were perhaps on Heinen for a little longer than the B’s were, give GM Peter Chiarelli and his staff credit for taking him where they wanted to instead of playing the we can wait and get him later game that may have burned other suitors (Montreal rumored to be chief among them) and cost them a shot at one of college hockey’s hottest properties.

“He’s an ‘A’ prospect in my view,” said another NHL scout outside of the Boston organization. “Our guys are saying that if Heinen was an undrafted free agent, he’d have 30 offers lined up as soon as he was ready to turn pro because of how promising and complete a player he is. His hockey IQ and vision are outstanding. He just finds ways to make plays whenever he’s out there. He shows an intelligence and refined game that’s rare for someone in their first season of college hockey.”

It stands to reason, then, that at the recently concluded NHL trade deadline, the B’s reportedly had several teams asking them about the prized fourth-round pick. Given what he’s shown, don’t expect the team to give up on this prized asset unless any prospective team is willing to pay a significant return.

All of the high praise aside, Heinen knows that there is still much work to be done. As has been the case for the entire season, he put words to action by scoring goals in both of DU’s playoff wins over UMD, extending his team scoring lead.

The last player Montgomery coached who topped the charts as a rookie was none other than Calgary’s NHL Rookie of the Year candidate Johnny Gaudreau, who did it with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2010-11. While Heinen has a long way to go before he will generate the kind of buzz that followed “Johnny Hockey” during his electric Hobey Baker-winning career at Boston College, he’s far exceeded the modest expectations that preceded his arrival in the Rocky Mountains.

“He’s gained 10 pounds and is a cerebral kid on the ice, a hard-worker off the ice,” Sweeney said. “Not enough good things can be said about how much he’s grown under (Montgomery) and he’ll continue to put up points in that system. He’s still an open canvas in terms of how much bigger and stronger he’s going to get, but we’re pleased at the progress he’s making.”

Scouting Post Dispatches- Twitter mailbag #1

I want to thank everyone who submitted questions to me for the first edition of the electronic mailbag of questions. If you want to participate in this effort that we’ll do every two weeks or so, shoot your question to my Twitter account @kluedeke29 or use the comment feature on the blog itself to make your query.

1. Who is leading in the race for backup goalie and how short will their leash be?- Tyler @tylerbingham123

As a former beer league goalie, I’ll give this one a shot.

The current backup situation invites a lot of risk in my view. On paper, Jeremy Smith makes a lot of sense because of his low cap hit and the fact that the Bruins can afford to let him sit for long periods while Tuukka Rask makes a lot of starts. Smith was the most dependable option in net last year in the AHL, but that’s also the issue with him- he has no NHL experience, which essentially puts them right back to square 1 where they were a year ago when they gambled on a similarly inexperienced Niklas Svedberg to be the No. 2.

Some might point to the idea that Svedberg was a serviceable player who was poorly used, but the bottom line is that Claude Julien had very little confidence in him. There are compelling statistical arguments that Svedberg wasn’t utilized properly, but be that as it may- a good backup goaltender enjoys the trust of the coach and team to spell the starter in a lot of different situations. That Julien seemed almost perversely unwilling to use Svedberg when it appeared Rask needed a break the most is beside the point if you believe that going to the well with Rask repeatedly cost the Bruins a playoff spot in 2015. Part of what helped the Bruins earn the President’s Trophy the season before had to do with backup Chad Johnson and Julien’s willingness to give him starts and ease the starter’s burden. Johnson can’t be a starter in this league, but he was an effective backup in his one season with the B’s.

The question becomes- will Smith find himself in a similar predicament to Svedberg? Can the Bruins afford to have a repeat of last spring, when Rask went on a hockey-like death march of consecutive starts without rest because the head coach was not willing to put the backup in? This is the same kind of scenario the Bruins are inviting with Smith and Malcolm Subban or Zane McIntyre as well- all three are capable options on paper, but none are established NHL players- with Subban alone of the trio even having seen a minute of big league action.

On Subban- I just feel he’s better off playing his way into a more prominent role in the AHL with Providence while McIntyre apprentices behind him. Heck- McIntyre might even wrest more starts away from him like Smith did a year ago, but as fine a goalie as Zane looks like coming out of college as the NCAA’s top goalie last season, he’s still in his very first pro year. Expecting him to just go right to the NHL and then have to sit behind Rask most nights is not a realistic option in my view.

So- I think Smith makes the most sense as B’s backup as of July 31, but I still think the team will look to add someone with more of an NHL body of work, either as a bargain bin signing or training camp invite with the option to sign before the season if the coaches feel good about him. Who that is at this point is anyone’s guess- I thought Jason LaBarbera would be someone to fit the bill, but the best of the free agents are gone, so the team might just feel like going with Smith or one of the other kids depending on things go at camp and preseason is the best option. We’ll see, but I’m a believer that younger guys like Subban and McIntyre are best served by playing and not spending the bulk of their time opening and closing the door to the bench for their NHL teammates. We’ll see.

2. If Koko pushes Spooner out of 3C job, what happens with the two of them? Leave Spooner there and try Koko on wing? Jbench @jacobbench

The short answer to this question is that I don’t see Alexander Khokhlachev beating Ryan Spooner out of the 3C job anytime soon.

At this point, Spooner has done a lot to earn Claude Julien’s trust as someone who has grown up a lot over the years he’s been in the organization and finally started putting the offense together when the team needed it the most. Koko needs to prove he can do the basic things the team expects of him, so until that happens, it does no real good to fret over what to do. I will say that Koko is probably better suited to transition to wing and be effective there, and if he’s going to break camp and enter the 2015-16 on the NHL roster, that’s probably his best chance to do it unless Spooner gets hurt or plays so poorly against a lights-out showing from Koko.

That’s not impossible, but  it is a tall order. I think Koko fell victim to the hype machine that often occurs in the internet age- he simply wasn’t ready to compete for NHL time at 18, but that didn’t stop overzealous fans and analysts like myself from being dazzled by his offensive talent and overlooking the glaring defensive deficiencies in his game. He’s come a long way since 2011, but the team tried to trade him in the past and you can’t overlook that. If he is as valuable to the Bruins as he is on Twitter to a select group of folks- he would not have been in play. It’s the old adage that says if they traded you once- they’ll do it again. It would be great for Koko to establish himself as a Bruin, but as far as trade-worthy commodities go, he’s one of the few pieces that could fetch something of value right now.

3. Where do you see Mark Jankowski projecting to in an NHL lineup? Thoughts on John Gilmour as well please Nigel @red_monster

Jankowski still has top-six  NHL forward potential in my mind, and he was really starting to come on when Providence College needed him to. With an earlier-than-projected draft position comes high expectations, so I believe realistically, if he makes it in Calgary it will be more of a third-line center role. When you look at who is ahead of him on the depth chart, third line duty with the Flames would be a win for him and the team.  I do like that there is still room for growth and development with him, even if he’s fallen short of some of the lofty goals envisioned of him three years ago with his pure points and production, which has admittedly not been what everyone was hoping for. He’ll have to continue to get stronger and play heavier if he’s going to make it in Calgary, though.

Gilmour has the makings of a serviceable pro who is going to have to put in the work at the lower levels. He has good all around ability, but because he has less-than-ideal size for the position, he’ll have his work cut out for him. I personally think Gilmour is a journeyman big leaguer/solid AHL player at best, but I love it when players prove prognosticators wrong. He’s a winner, and if he uses that as a springboard to bigger things, more power to him.

What Bruins dman is most likely to slot alongside Chara? Greg Babbitt @babbitt_greg

Barring a change, I could see the team trying big Zach Trotman there to see if it can work. He lacks experience, but showed big league ability in flashes last season and if he keeps things simple, his mobility and long reach would make for a solid defensive partner. He’s a right shot and while not a physical, snarly kind of player, with more experience and the benefit of skating next to one of the game’s all-time greats much like young Kyle McLaren did with Ray Bourque two decades ago, Trotman might be a quiet but effective internal solution to that which has vexed the Bruins since Johnny Boychuk was sent to Long Island…kind of like what happened in 2009 when Johnny Rocket came to town and established himself as an NHL defenseman when some had all but written him off.

If the Bruins want to infuse more offense with Chara, then Colin Miller also makes sense there. He doesn’t have a lick of NHL experience, but he skates extremely well, would add another right-shot, howitzer cannon from the point, and seems to be a player who would thrive next to Boston’s captain, especially on the power play. He’s not as big as Trotman, and his hockey sense is a bit of a question mark right now, but Miller could be the one who takes that top pairing job if not on opening night, but perhaps as the season progresses.

Assuming Miller plays for the Bruins this season (I believe he will) the Barry Pederson for Cam Neely trade will continue for Boston into a third decade as the Glen Wesley-Sergei Samsonov-Milan Lucic branch continues to bear fruit.

4. I’d like to see Hamilton/Saad stick with their teams for longer. But do scouts think the current model is bad for development?- brimcq @mcqbri

It’s not something I’ve discussed with scouts or management types to be honest, but it makes for an intriguing topic.

Ever since the league instituted cost certainty- the salary cap- in 2005, we’ve seen the game’s economic landscape evolve over several trend lines. For a while, it was long-term frontloaded deals that allowed for teams to bury or move them at short money later on. Now, it’s the dissipation of second or bridge contracts for key performers coming out of entry-level contracts or ELCs in favor of significant dollars- those used to be reserved for top tier talents, but I think we’re seeing a paradigm shift with players like Dougie Hamilton and Brandon Saad whose cap-crunched teams are either forced to move them or the player is able to leverage the lack of cap flexibility for a change of address. This drives the talk of the NHL’s middle class getting squeezed, which is becoming more and more prevalent as clubs will have bigger ticket contracts and then have to rely on cheaper ELCs or bargain basement deals with little room for the middle ground/solid veteran types who typically clock in at around $3-4M a the current (and rising) market rate.

Hockey is a business- it always has been. But the days where owners and teams held the cards are long gone, so I think that teams and players/their representatives will continue to evolve with each emerging economic trend. I don’t blame Hamilton for seeking a situation he thought would be better for him, and in Saad’s case, they made a decision that they could not afford him at the going rate- that was a tough business decision that more and more teams will have to make if things continue. But, both situations have jolted teams and fans alike into the realization that you can’t simply assume restricted free agents will remain all that restricted for long depending on a team’s salary structure and how much they have invested in the veterans.

At some point- you wonder if the ever-rising salaries and the kabuki dances teams go through to stay cap compliant will kill the golden goose and force a seismic sea change, but it hasn’t happened yet.

5. With the Bruins prospect pool now overflowing who would be consider the 5 untouchables in the organization.- Mike O’Connor @mike77ca

The Bruins have quantity in their system for sure. The quality of the prospects is very much up for debate, however so it will be interesting to see how the 10 picks from 2015 plus the others from previous years perform and develop in the new season.

I don’t know that when it comes to prospects there is ever truly an “untouchable” because if another team is willing to pay a king’s ransom for an unproven player, I believe a savvy GM will often times make that deal. Of course- that position is becoming tougher to defend for the precise reasons I explained above as economics and the importance of landing impact players on 3-year (max) ELCs becomes ever more critical for teams who want to win the Stanley Cup. It’s hard to imagine the Edmonton Oilers or Buffalo Sabres parting with either one of Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel for any offer given that reasoning, but I do believe that GMs have to at least listen and think hard about a team that comes in with high-end NHL players to offer, not the proverbial two dimes and a nickel for a shiny quarter kind of trade. In the end, the money and cap play much bigger roles than ever before.

The Bruins don’t have a McDavid or Eichel so to speak, so their situation is different. I’ll take a stab at it and offer these three players up in an effort to answer your question:

1. Danton Heinen, LW Denver U.- I have it from several sources that the one name teams asked about repeatedly at last winter’s deadline was the 2014 fourth-rounder who finished as the NCAA’s third leading freshman scorer. He may not have ideal size or speed, but his hands and hockey sense are top-shelf. As a late bloomer, Heinen has the look and feel of a classic diamond-in-the-rough who is going to one day play very well for the Bruins, so unless a team wants to give up the moon and stars for him, don’t expect him to go anywhere. His upside will also likely drive the team to court him to come out of school earlier because ELC term and CBA loopholes will force them to act.

2. Zane McIntyre, G Providence- The B’s are all-in on this kid, and he showed loyalty to them by not exploiting free agency to get the biggest money or a better opportunity to start elsewhere. Now, folks will say there is no room for sentiment in pro sports and they’re right, but I just feel like that Bruins are sold on the soon-to-be 23-year-old’s potential, character and all-around ability. They want him to be a part of the organization, so unless a team comes in to blow their doors off with an offer, he’s as close to untouchable as you will get. Besides, unproven non-NHL goalies don’t tend to fetch enough of a return from teams to make dealing him at this point worth the effort.

3. Jakub Zboril, D Saint John- He’s the top pick, he’s signed and the Bruins think he is going to be a future top-2 defender for them. Both Don Sweeney and Scott Bradley used the word “elite” to describe his ability, so you can be sure the B’s had him higher on their list than the 13th spot where they took him. They’re not going to turn around and flip him without seeing if all that potential they’re banking on starts to pay off for them. You can almost throw Zach Senyshyn into this same category as well- they have a lot riding on him and want to prove that he was worth the risk they took by grabbing him in the top-15. It’s hard to imagine a team coming in to offer the Bruins a top-6 NHL forward for a raw prospect like Senyshyn, so they’ll sit back and see if their gut instincts about him are proven correct.

That does it for this first edition- thanks to everyone that submitted questions and I hope we can do this again in a couple of weeks. You can follow me on Twitter at @kluedeke29