The undrafted free agents: Tim Schaller

When the Boston Bruins announced the signing of Tim Schaller on July 1 as the dust was settling on the big grab of David Backes, the Providence College product by way of Merrimack, N.H. and the New England Jr. Huskies of the old EJHL was not exactly an afterthought. He scored his first NHL goal against his childhood favorite B’s, and while he doesn’t have a great deal of big league playing time, is one of the more intriguing under-the-radar free agency grabs by the team.

Although on the New England-area watch lists back in his 2009 primary NHL draft season (he was born in late ’90), Schaller was not selected and ended up signing with the Buffalo Sabres prior to the 2013-14 season after playing a full four years in the NCAA with PC.

At 6-foot-2 and nearly 220 pounds, Schaller has the ideal size to center a bottom NHL line, but probably has enough versatility to shift to the wing if he can’t beat out Noel Acciari (he spent two years with NA in college before going pro) at the pivot spot in Boston. Schaller is a capable skater in a straight line, and he plays a traditional north-south, take-the-puck-right-to-the-net style. He’s never been one who was seen as a top prospect option, but he’s an above average AHL forward who has shown flashes of serviceable effectiveness with the Sabres, even on two below average NHL rosters (35 games over the past two seasons).

The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa had a nice little deep dive on Schaller last weekend and as usual, he mined some interesting nuggets:

“We had probably about 10-12 teams calling on one day,” Schaller recalled of the opening of free agency. “About halfway through the phone calls, Don Sweeney of the Boston Bruins called. At that moment, I almost told my agent, ‘Why take another phone call? Why not just say yes to the Bruins right away?’ It’s a good opportunity to have to play in Boston. All the numbers worked out perfectly to where it was impossible to say no to them.”

That Schaller is a local guy will not win him any bonus points in his fight to make the roster. The 6-foot-2-inch, 219-pound center will have to beat out several players to earn his $600,000 NHL payday, including former college teammate Noel Acciari. Schaller agreed to a one-year, two-way contract, indicating an assignment to Providence is not out of the question.

Acciari, one of Schaller’s primary rivals, promptly turned into a coaching staff favorite upon his promotion last season. Acciari had just one assist in 19 games, but he did not take long to win the bosses’ trust on defensive-zone faceoffs, shorthanded shifts, and five-on-five situations where his willingness to run over opponents earned him a spot in the regular rotation.

Growing up in the Granite State less than an hour from Boston, Schaller was a Bruins fan, so he said in the Globe piece that when GM Don Sweeney called, he was pretty much sold. This is an example of leveraging the connection local talent has with playing for the hometown team, which although has fallen on harder times over the past two seasons, is still just five years removed from having won a Stanley Cup.

Cynics will probably insert a snide remark about “getting the Duckboats” ready when it comes to Schaller, so I’ll beat them to the punch by acknowledging that at $600k and on a one-year, two-way contract, it’s obvious the Bruins aren’t expecting a major contribution. The larger point is that he’s a smart signing as a player who can hedge against Acciari taking a step backwards or perhaps dealing with unexpected setbacks like injury.  We won’t make Schaller into more than he is currently- a bottom-six forward and center who could earn a fourth-line job right away with his old PC mate or provide the Bruins and Providence of the AHL with an effective heavy-on-the-puck veteran who will rack up close to a point-per-game’s worth of offense on the farm.

You can also connect the dots to Jimmy Vesey a bit with this one, as it is one more example of the lure that Boston has for guys who grew up in the area and have an attachment to home. Schiller’s decision and his accompanying comments reminds us all that the Bruins are still in a pretty good spot when it comes to attracting players and selling them on making Boston a pro hockey destination. There’s a significant difference between Schaller and Vesey in terms of how they project in the NHL, but there is still a good bit to be said about how a guy feels about staying home to play for the team he used to skate around on local rinks dreaming about. That’s not to say it’s the only reason Vesey might pass on another more lucrative (in terms of organization and winning) destination, but it would be foolish to dismiss the kind of influence that might have in the decision process. Guys don’t know what they don’t know, and in Vesey’s case for most of his 23 years, all he’s known is Boston. He’s said it himself- he’s a homebody, and like Schaller, his interest in fielding a lot of other offers might be diminished because he knows the B’s want him.

As we inch closer to August 15, we can’t predict if Vesey will ultimately decide that Boston represents the “best fit” for him, or if some other team like the Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, NY Rangers or perhaps New Jersey Devils do.  There’s a lot that can happen between now and when his rights (currently held by Buffalo) expire.

It says a lot that ‘Hawks VP/GM Stan Bowman has been in Foxboro twice in person to watch Vesey play in the summer league there, though.  That’s Chicago’s M.O.- trade away high draft picks, but replenish those by aggressively signing high-end free agents who bring similar upside to those 18-year-olds drafted early on in June. We saw it work to ideal effect last year with the Breadman- Artemi Panarin, winner of the NHL’s top rookie prize (he also cashed in on some sweet bonuses, which contributed to the need to move some veteran players out). This is why Chicago is an upper tier NHL team, so nobody should be surprised that Bowman and crew are in on Vesey. Whether they’ll go all-in and Vesey himself will opt to go there remains to be seen, but this is how great teams stay that way- by being bold and managing risk-reward transactions. Vesey is low-risk, high-reward if he meets expectations, but we shall see.

Back to Schaller- he’s no threat to the memory of Milan Lucic, but there’s goodness in the idea of adding a big-bodied forward who plays a physical but pretty clean game. He doesn’t take a lot of penalties and uses his big frame to good effect along the walls and down low. He’s not going to score much off the rush, but he’ll do the grunt work in front of the net and in the high danger areas. There’s not a lot of skill here, but that’s not why Boston signed him. If he doesn’t make the big club, he can go down to Providence and help to offset some of the forward losses and annual turnover so prevalent in the AHL and lower levels. Of note- he was named the Amerks’ MVP in a vote taken by his teammate despite playing just 38 games last season due to injuries and time in Buffalo. With NHL experience, he’ll be someone who is on the recall short list when inevitable injuries happen up front or players struggle to contribute. When you consider how much of a disappointment Brett Connolly was in Boston after being the sixth overall pick in 2010, Schaller is a solid investment to make for what could end up being a similar payoff. It’s also one more reminder that if you draft a player high and he ends up on your fourth line as Connolly did at the end of last season, then you’ve taken a wrong turn. The undrafted Schaller makes a great deal more sense for where Boston intends to use him.

Some feel that Schaller will make the NHL team right from Jump Street- and that’s all fine. With his low cap hit and versatility, he might not carry a draft pedigree, but has proven himself to be the kind of serviceable grinder who will use his big body and has killed penalties, even though he hasn’t had an abundance of ice time. He’s confident he can win a spot and he wants to be here- that’s most of the battle right there, so may the best player win. Here’s his end-of-year interview with Rochester (AHL):

This is the kind of low-risk, medium-reward signing that helps teams get out of the cellar. The B’s still have a gaping hole on defense that needs to be filled, but by building depth at other positions, it allows the GM to build the kind of war chest that might help him to land that elusive young NHL talent that not only represents an upgrade but will have some retainability as well.

Vesey could be the key piece keeping Sweeney from committing to a major deal, but come August 15 and the time it takes the Hobey Baker winner to reach a decision, bigger things could be afoot.

 

Trade deadline Blues- Boston edition

Don Sweeney is in a bind.

NHL general managers, especially ones in the thick of a playoff race in a season that many (including this columnist) would be a clear step backwards as the Boston Bruins are, don’t like to operate from a disadvantage. Yet, as we are less than 24 hours from the NHL’s annual trade deadline frenzy, that’s exactly where the B’s GM and key decision maker finds himself.

On the one hand, forward Loui Eriksson is precisely the kind of player you win with in the modern NHL. His 23 goals and counting only begin to the tell the story of an experienced winger who is an integral part of Boston’s puck possession game and brings leadership and respect to the room as a quiet professional.

On the other, his $4.3M AAV cap hit has been one of the league’s bargains for the past four years, and as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent at age 31, he’s positioned to cash in on one last contract that will bring him both term and value on the open market.  He knows it. Sweeney knows it. His agent, JP Barry, most certainly knows it. There will be very little in the way of hometown discounts on any extension he signs with Boston, because all parties know that if he rides it out, some sucker GM with cap space to burn will eagerly give him what he’s worth on the open market at or around July 1.

Why call the GM a sucker? Well, because that’s what many of them are. When a team has cap space, many of them burn through that wiggle room like a college student through their parents’ credit card limit. Spending upwards of $6M on a player who is on the wrong side of 30 and who is a very good complementary player, but not a core guy you do everything in your power to keep is a risky move that often times has more of a down side than a clear benefit. Eriksson could be an outlier- the rare player who gets better with age and manages to avoid any more concussions that could cost him the rest of his career.  More on that later.

But if you’re the Boston Bruins, given the state they’ve found themselves in since winning the President’s Trophy in 2014, can you really afford to take that chance?

There is no question that Eriksson on the 2015-16 B’s makes them a better team than they would be without him. But how much better, and how much more of a prayer do they have at winning the Stanley Cup now and in the next few years if they allocate those cap dollars to Eriksson instead of seriously shoring up the blue line is the six million dollar question.

The dominoes are falling- Stan Bowman, the three Stanley Cup ring-wearing GM of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, seems intent on adding a fourth. In the span of 72 hours, he’s gone out and added veteran forwards Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise,  and Tomas “Flash” Fleischmann along with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, surrendering picks and a couple of young players in Marko Dano (to Winnipeg for Ladd) and Phillip Danault and a cap hit/bad fit in veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who goes back to the L.A. Kings for Ehrhoff. The ‘Hawks also added former Bruin Matt Fraser in the Ladd deal, so when it comes to depth, the Windy City Winners are at a zombie apocalypse-level of protection up front. The scary thing is- Bowman might not be finished shoring up his club on the back end.

Elsewhere in the West, the other contending clubs will have to adapt or die in response to Chicago’s shots across the bow. Bob Murray and his Anaheim Ducks are back with a vengeance after they began the season with a dormant offense that has awakened with a roar and now has opponents fleeing in abject terror. Murray has a plethora of defensemen that he can dangle to get forward help back with. Could 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin be SoCal-bound for someone like Sami Vatanen? Tampa GM Steve Yzerman has said he wants immediate help back, mainly in the form of a talented right-shooting defenseman with some retainability (read: not a rental). Drouin has been a monumental disappointment to date, but you have to admit- the thought of plugging him in with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry must have Murray (and Bruce Boudreau) licking their chops. Those offensive issues early on? Might be a thing of the past if Drouin ends up on that roster and starts realizing his immense potential.

The Kings are…well…the Kings. They’re already a dangerously lethal group- all they have to do is get into the playoffs. You just know that Dean Lombardi will find a way to slide in and acquire some difference-making player under the wire like he did two years ago with Marian Gaborik. We’ll have fun waiting to see what he does. Scuderi’s a nice start, but more is coming.

This leaves the Doug Armstrong-led St. Louis Blues. They looked unstoppable early on, but have taken some hits with injuries and can’t match their nemesis Blackhawks on paper if the season ended today. Luckily, they got star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo back today in a much-needed win over the sinking Carolina Hurricanes (who dealt captain and franchise face Eric Staal to the Rangers today for a prospect and a pair of second-round picks and looked like a rudderless ship for it) and he provided a multi-point game with five blocked shots to go with, as Jake Allen shook off a couple of early goals. This took place just after the ‘Hawks gave all of us perhaps a glimpse of what will come in early June when Chicago defeated the Washington Capitals at the United Center.

Does anyone in St. Louis think the Blues have a prayer against those guys without some key adds? I’ll hang up and listen to your answer off the air.

But seriously, folks- it’s absurd to think that Armstrong and the Blues aren’t sweating right now. The clock is ticking…Alexander Steen is out for several weeks if not longer, and who’s to say how effective he’ll be when he gets back? A Brian Elliott injury forced them to trade for an experienced backup (I almost said capable- but even that might be a stretch) in Anders Nilsson from Edmonton. One guy the Blues could definitely benefit from adding is Eriksson. The question is- are the Blues serious about competing for Lord Stanley *this* year or are they willing to go through another early exit and disappointing spring and long offseason? (EDIT- The Blues are tight against the cap and that’s limiting Armstrong’s freedom of maneuver for sure, but the best in the biz find ways to get creative…see Bowman, Stan. I don’t think Blues fans will be in much of a forgiving mood if that’s the excuse trotted out after another postseason dud, but that’s just me.)

With that in mind, here are some current scenarios revolving around Eriksson. One thing is certain: by this time tomorrow, we’ll know that he’s still on the Boston roster. Or he won’t be. For everything in between, get ready for the final hours of the Loui watch.

Why Eriksson will be traded: Sweeney is smart enough to be playing long ball. As a former NHL defender with more than 1,000 career games at the highest level, he understands the importance of a strong defense and he undoubtedly knows that Boston’s current group on ‘D’ is nowhere near what is needed to contend.

Those who insist that Eriksson must be traded for immediate help or the move is not worth it are missing the larger picture, and that is- trades involving prime, No. 1 or 2 defensemen in season are pretty rare (note- I said “prime” so beware jumping in to remind me of the Dion Phaneuf deal- he’s essentially cooked and will make Ottawa rue the day they took on his albatross contract). Boston can set a longer game play into motion by dealing Eriksson now for the kinds of assets that can be packaged into a more realistic summer trade for a defenseman when cap and personnel issues will force other GMs to come to the table more readily. But right now, with so much parity in the league and teams looking to finish strong no matter the situation, it doesn’t make sense for a team to flip Boston a primetime defender for Eriksson, because the teams that want him desire to add his production and experience to their lineups while not weakening the roster elsewhere.

The B’s need too much help up and down the roster to roll the dice and risk keeping him only to recoup maybe a 5th or 6th pick for him before the draft if he stays. Even if they make the playoffs, the B’s will be hard-pressed to get out of the East with  the lineup they currently have. Sure- Claude Julien and the players deserve a lot of credit for fighting their way into the midst of the postseason derby when expectations coming in were so modest. But at this stage- is whatever Eriksson is going to contribute going to be worth it in the long run?

That’s the tough call Sweeney and his staff have to make.

Why Eriksson will not be traded: The coaches and players have a great deal of respect for Eriksson and what he brings to the table. It’s easy to say to just trade him by people without skin in the game, by fans who get to sit back and observe and make pointed critiques of the team’s chances and shortcomings, but none of whom really see behind the curtain or understand what he contributes to the effort.

Sweeney unfortunately has to bear the cross of a preceding GM who was known for his loyalty in overpaying veteran players who were already beginning the downward slides of their careers. That scar tissue is what creates a charged environment by the team’s supporters who don’t want to see Eriksson stay through the stretch run only to see the Bruins (assuming they don’t collapse in a tough March schedule) bow out of the playoffs and then get his big payday in July with just a latter-round pick to show for it if Sweeney can send him to a club that wants exclusive negotiation rights through 11:59 p.m. on June 30, 2016.

The thing is- the game isn’t played by robots. Real people often have a harder time making such clinical, dispassionate decisions. Eriksson’s 23 goals represent the second-best production on the team and what help Brad Marchand to the damage he’s done because opposing coaches have to respect Boston’s top two lines. Remove Loui from the equation and regardless of who you replace him with, you’re creating an easier matchup play for the other guys. Beyond that, Eriksson handles the puck smartly, goes to the net and plays about as good a 200-foot game as any of the top forwards in the league. The Bruins know that trading him means a step backwards for their roster. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially with all the scrapping and effort the team has put into getting them to this point.

Although the pragmatists don’t want to hear it, hasn’t this club earned the right to get a shot with their best foot forward? If other teams aren’t willing to pony up, then why should the B’s just make it fait accompli that Eriksson be dealt for whatever they can get?

And then of course, if Sweeney thinks that he can sign Eriksson to an extension that won’t cripple the team going forward and retain him for the next 4-5 years, then perhaps it’s not as bad a risk as so many perceive. After all- at 31, Eriksson is at the age that the NHL first allowed players to be unrestricted free agents before the 2004 lockout. It’s a mixed bag of results when you go back through the years and look at how big-name UFAs performed after 31, but there are worse moves the Bruins could make than investing in a player they know, trust, and respect.

Conclusion: Your guess is as good as mine. I’m not going to speculate on players or rumors beyond what I’ve written here. I don’t have any significant leads at this time, and those of you who know me understand that’s not really my shtick.

I will be here to break it down when the deadline comes and goes at 3 p.m. tomorrow. We can expect the Bruins will do  something, but what that something is…well, that’s all part of the excitement, isn’t it?

And on that note- let’s see how the team does against Tampa Bay, shall we?

Postscript: Well, we sure saw how the Bruins did against the ‘Bolts: a 4-1 loss after taking a 1-0 lead. Another decisive defeat at home to drop the B’s three games under .500. Good teams just don’t do that, folks. And that’s why, I can’t for the life of me, see the trade deadline coming and going tomorrow without Eriksson being moved for assets that will help get the Bruins on track for the long haul. It’s a balancing act to give the club a shot at playoffs and maybe winning a round or two and conceding that this group just doesn’t have it, but that’s what the team is paying the GM for. The prediction here? Eriksson is gone to the Western Conference for more of a futures return, Sweeney will make a separate trade or two to bring some veteran talent in, but the real shoring up of this team will happen in the offseason.