Becoming Pastrnak

smells-like-victory

It’s official…we can stop speaking about potential because David Pastrnak has arrived on hockey’s biggest stage and he isn’t going away.

13 goals into the 2016-17 NHL campaign, we had every indication that the 20-year-old’s rapid ascension from late first-round pick (23 teams and Vancouver two times passed on him before he got to Boston at 25th overall in 2014) to NHL rookie to a regression in his sophomore campaign to the straw stirring Boston’s scoring drink in just his third big league season was no fluke.

Last night, the native of Havirov in the Czech Republic, practically willed his Bruins to an important victory at home against the flailing Florida Panthers, an Atlantic Division opponent they could ill afford to surrender points to.

The B’s blew three leads, giving up the tying goal late before Pastrnak put on an electric laser show of his own during the 3-on-3 overtime period, taking a David Krejci Harlem Globetrotter-esque behind-the-back pass just inside the Panthers blue line. After that, it was pure magic as Pastrnak took the puck and rushed at former Boston College Eagle defender Michael Matheson who was caught standing still and only helplessly able to wave his stick at Boston’s young star as he went one way, then the other, skating around the blue paint to pull Roberto Luongo practically out of his own gear before firing the puck into the open net on the far side for his second tally of the night and 15th of the season.

We’re only six days into December and Pastrnak has already tied his career-best for goals in a single campaign, doing it in just 21 games where it took him 30 more to hit that total last year. He’s overcome nagging injuries and a ridiculous two-game suspension to keep pumping home the rubber in a year when Boston’s bigger stars- Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand– have had trouble finding the back of the net compared to their own normal lofty standards.

After Tuukka Rask, there is little doubt that the most important player to the B’s having been able to keep their heads above water in the early going this season is Pastrnak.

To put it more simply, the kid, who is still some six months away from being legally able to consume alcohol in the city in which he’s found a home, is a player.

Even with the subpar 2015-16 performance, exacerbated by a fractured foot and other ailments that cost him 31 games out of the schedule, we all had an idea that this was coming. Pastrnak made an immediate NHL splash in January 2015 after being a point-per-game player with Providence of the AHL, and has never really looked back.

Now healthy and benefiting from an aggressive and diligent offseason weight training regimen that has allowed him to win far more puck battles and drive the net with greater effectiveness than he could at ages 18-19, we’re seeing the pure skill and joy with which he plays the game paying off.

It’s not going to change, either.

So, how did we get here? There are a few important factors in Pastrnak’s breakout third NHL season, and we’ll try to break them down. This isn’t by any means an all-encompassing list of what drives the young right wing and explains the enormous success he’s having, but it gets to the heart of how he’s become the Pastrnak that has enthralled the city of Boston and Bruins fans all over the globe.

It’s the talent, stupid…

With apologies to former President William Jefferson Clinton, Pastrnak was a top-10 skill forward who fell to the final five selections of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft not because teams didn’t think he could play, but over injuries that took him out of action with Sodertalje in Sweden during the 2013-14 hockey season’s most important stretch drive…January thru March.

Hockey scouts typically confirm the players they are keen on (or not so keen on) during this 90-day (give or take) period, and if you’re not playing, then you could fall out of sight/out of mind.

Pastrnak is not the biggest guy, so a back injury that cost him just about that entire range of pro games probably scared some teams off in terms of durability concerns. To be fair, his struggles to stay healthy last year in Boston don’t alleviate the risk that will likely follow Pastrnak throughout his career. Because he plays the game with such abandon, he tends to put himself into compromising positions to take big hits. However, for Pastrnak to slide out of being a top-15 pick at worst all the way down to 25 was Boston’s great fortune.

Here’s the Red Line Report draft guide scouting report on him from June 2014 (he was ranked 14th and would have been higher if not for so much missed time), and you be the judge as to whether this sounds like a late 1st-round player to you or someone who should have been off the board inside the first 10 selections or so:

Shifty with excellent east-west moves and lateral agility- tough to contain. Needs very little time or space to get shots away from the slot or even off balance or on passes in his skates. Kicks passes from his skates up to stick blade in one motion without slowing or breaking stride. Very active running the PP from both the half-boards and down low- makes great cross-crease set ups. Edges well and is smooth out of his breaks with quick, slashing changes of direction. Great on the rush, utilizing dynamic puck skill and change of pace. At his best driving aggressively into lanes- not big, but fearlessly bulls his way through checkers to storm the net. Absolutely loves the game; great desire and plays every shift as if it were his last. Determined battler in traffic. Dangerous in open ice and impossible to corral 1-on-1. Terrific stickhandler buys time for linemates to get open and shows deft passing skills.

In the end, we can’t definitively explain why Pastrnak slipped so far, but we can say that the Bruins themselves valued him significantly more than where they were picking. According to one team source, they tried to trade up about 10 spots to take him at or around 15 but were unable to pull off the deal. Imagine their unmitigated thrill when they stood pat (and likely resigned themselves to not getting the player they really wanted) and he was still there at 25.

Humble beginnings in Havirov

Believe it or not, Pastrnak himself says he wasn’t always passionate about hockey.

We know…that’s hard to fathom in 2016, but despite his late father, Milan, having been a pro player in Europe’s lower-end league, cresting in Germany’s second division in the late 90’s, the younger Pastrnak was not an instant fanatic of the game.

During his second (and permanent) recall to Boston in January of 2015, TSP’s founder had a chance to sit down with the young rookie and interview him after a Bruins practice and Pastrnak told a story about how supportive his parents were when he was in his first years of organized hockey.

To paraphrase: There were days I just didn’t feel like going to practice, and they never pressured me or forced me to go. When I got older and all I wanted to do was live at the rink and play hockey, they allowed me to do it and were there for me. I think that’s important for kids- that their parents just let them take to hockey on their own schedule. It might explain why some kids burn out or lose their passion for it…it isn’t fun for them anymore. Hockey has always been fun for me, because my mom and dad let me develop my own love for the sport without any extra pressure.

Pastrnak said that there was one rink in his hometown and that he would dress up into full equipment (carrying his skates of course) at the family’s humble apartment and then ride the bus to the end of the line to practice and play. He maintains that the humble beginnings for him have been instrumental in his appreciation for the different places he’s gone since…Sodertalje in Sweden, then Providence, Rhode Island…and of course- Boston, where his pure ability and love of hockey has made him an instant fan favorite. He’s a blue collar kid who plays a decidedly more finesse style, but let’s face it- the love affair started right away because he has embraced Boston with as much force as B’s fans have taken to him.

Drive north on I-95 and never look back

The plan was for Pastrnak to spend a full year in the AHL with the Providence Bruins and if Boston was lucky, he might be ready to get a full-time NHL look for the 2015-16 season.

From the get-go, he emerged as one of the Baby B’s top players, impressing current assistant coach Bruce Cassidy with his maturity, work ethic and humility to go along with the obvious high-end offensive skills that translated immediately to a point-per-game seamless transition to North American hockey.

“He wants to be a player and it shows in everything he does,” Cassidy told us in early 2015 after a Providence game played without the rookie, summoned to Boston days before. “I think we’ve lost him (to Boston)…I’d be surprised if he comes back, and that speaks a great deal to not only his ability to play in the NHL, but the way he came in an absorbed everything we threw at him and not only was able to make an adjustment that not every European kid can, but performed as one of our top forwards. He’s a mature, driven guy- you don’t always see that because he has that easy smile and seems like a typical teenager, but he came in hungry and determined and it’s nice to see him rewarded for it.”

Another story from Pastrnak’s Providence days comes from respected Providence Journal hockey scribe Mark Divver, who talked of the rookie going down to the farm team after spending all of the preseason with Boston. Most of the “good” jersey numbers had been claimed at that point, according to Divver, and Pastrnak was offered No. 32- hardly a distinguished set of digits for a forward, let alone the parent club’s top pick and prospect.

“He said, ‘Yeah- I’ll take that number,’” Divver said (paraphrased). “’My father wore 32 and I’m happy to wear it, too.’ That’s the kind of kid he is- some might have sulked at not getting something more exciting, but he took 32 without complaint and then did some pretty good things with it while he was here.”

Seems like a trite and trivial anecdote, but it’s really not- Pastrnak showed up without an ounce of pretentiousness or entitlement. He just wanted to fit in and be treated like anyone else. Even when he was producing to the tune of 11 goals and 28 points in 25 AHL games before he went up to Boston permanently (Pastrnak did play three games in Providence last season going 1-3-4 in a conditioning stint after returning from his foot injury), he kept it grounded and humble, which is one of the things that the Bruins loved about him to begin with.

He took the lessons and experiences he had in the AHL, hopped in a car and drove up I-95 to Boston in January 2015, applying them effectively and not looking back.

 

Roll up the sleeves and get to work

In that Boston practice early in Pastrnak’s Bruins tenure, TSP was talking to B’s defenseman Torey Krug and asking him about the exciting newcomer. Krug’s immediate answer was pretty telling:

“Look around,” he said waving his arm around the cramped confines of the Ristuccia Arena dressing room. “Pasta’s not in here- I think he’s still out on the ice right now.”

Krug went on: “He’s always the last one off the ice, and I think that’s what makes the young players that stick. That’s what makes them special.”

Now a grizzled veteran, Krug couldn’t be more different from Pastrnak in terms of pedigree and path taken to the Bruins, but the two are kindred spirits when it comes to passion for hockey and the desire to achieve above and beyond what was expected of them.

Pastrnak indeed was the last player off the ice and into the room that day…we even had to ask for permission to stay in the room after it closed so we could talk to him. Permission granted, it was an enjoyable look into the mind of a young man who at 18 already understood the importance of hard work, and he pulled no punches in pointing out that he was motivated by those teams that skipped over him in the draft and made his wait at the Wells Fargo Center longer than it should have been.

“I love Boston and the Bruins,” he said after talking about proving “all the other teams” wrong. “What (do) they say…things happen for (a) reason?”

That attitude and the willingness to work on the ice and off- his conditioning has been a critical difference-maker in his rise near the top of the NHL’s goal scoring leaders this season- is what defines Pastrnak well beyond his impressive ability to play hockey and score goals.

As the old saying goes- “Talent will get you in the door, but character will keep you in the room.”

But don’t take our word for it- here’s what Patrice Bergeron, who back in 2003 knew exactly what Pastrnak was going through as another 18-year-old who beat the odds to make the big club right away, had to say:

“He’s one of those kids who wants to learn, wants to get better,” Bergeron said in 2015. “He’s excited and happy to be here and I think we’re seeing a shell of what he can be and that’s something very special.”

As usual, Boston’s Mr. Everything is on point.

One day, there’s a very good chance that Bergeron will hand the torch and mantle of being the face of the Bruins franchise to Pastrnak.

For now, Pastrnak has become what the team has needed most, and he shows no signs of slowing.

(Editor’s note- For additional reading, here is a link to the original article written by TSP founder Kirk Luedeke on David Pastrnak’s NHL coming out party from the February 2015 issue of New England Hockey Journal- this story and associated quotes and research formed the basis for this blog post.

http://digital.hockeyjournal.com/nxtbooks/seamans/nehj_201502/index.php#/10)

 

 

The Tuukka Rask mea culpa

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

One of the nice things about having a blog is the platform it provides to put out opinions and in the process, be praised by those who agree with you and taken to task by those who don’t.

Last April, I/we wrote a post here at the Scouting Post called “Requiem for the 2016 Bruins” in which we attempted to break down what went wrong in a season that looked like a success with just one month left in the regular campaign before the wheels fell off over a disastrous 30-day window that saw the Philadelphia Flyers come surging from behind to knock the well-positioned (as of mid-March 2016) Bruins out of the playoffs on the regular season’s last day.

One of the major culprits in my/our mind was goaltender Tuukka Rask, who took ill and couldn’t make the start for Boston in their do-or-die game against the Ottawa Senators at home to close out the season. Before we continue- let us just say that nothing on this blog is personal. TSP tries to provide a balanced perspective on hockey (on mostly Bruins or Bruins-related topics) and goes to great lengths not to be seen as “clickbait” or a pot-stirrer that tries to generate controversy with outlandish views designed to provoke and inflame the emotions of those readers and Bruins fans who frequent this page. We have always had the utmost respect for Rask’s ability as an NHL goaltender- he was a 1st-round pick for a reason and a top prospect long before he broke into the NHL with the Bruins on a full-time basis during the 2009-10 hockey season. Having said that, Rask the person is a bit more complex- he can be aloof and prickly when things aren’t going well. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not exactly an ideal teammate at times either. This, coupled with his up-and-down play going back several seasons and the $7 million per year price tag he carries makes him a lightning rod of criticism at times.

Just as there is a segment of people who simply have never been on the “Tuukka Train” for whatever reason, there is a large cadre of Rask loyalists who have always seemed to take it personally whenever anyone questioned him, fair or not.

In the end, though, it is time to admit that TSP went too far last April in the position that the Bruins would be well served by looking into trading him. Here are a few “gems” from that post:

The Bruins were rumored to be discussing moving Rask on draft day last summer, and with hindsight being 20/20, they probably should have and given the reins to the then still (but not now) unproven Martin Jones. The Hamilton trade furor and fan backlash is likely what stopped Sweeney in his tracks on moving Rask (assuming the rumor is true), but after this season of up-and-down play and a less-than-team first attitude to boot, while the goaltender doesn’t deserve the lion’s share of the blame, he nevertheless played a key part in the collapse.

Hindsight being 20/20, it was far too easy to leverage Jones’ success in San Jose and wield it as a cudgel to brain Rask with. He didn’t get much defensive support last season, and while he had his own cross to bear at times, TSP took the lazy way out by pointing to the woulda-coulda-shoulda course of action by sticking with the untested Jones. Given the state of Boston’s defense, that could have been a catastrophe for the B’s, and while Rask didn’t play the best hockey of his career in 2015-16, he also stole some games for the B’s and did play a key role in putting them into a solid position going into the season’s final month. True- when the team imploded, Rask did so right along with everyone else, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you throw the baby out with the bath water.

Here’s more from last April:

For me, it’s simple- while I admire the hell out of Rask’s natural talent, I’m not sure I’d want him in a foxhole next to me. Right, wrong, indifferent- he’s the one core piece the Bruins could move to try and get out from under the situation they’re in. He’s not yet 30, will no doubt appeal to a multitude of teams that could see him as a critical piece to get them over the hump, and hey- he’s a talented player. Boston’s problem is that the teams with the most to gain from Rask and the most to offer (young, up-and-coming D) are all pretty well set between the pipes. Nobody ever said the life of a GM was easy…

Trading him certainly means there’s a good chance the B’s will take an even bigger step backwards next season if Rask is dealt, but maybe not. And what’s the real upside to keeping him for what looks to be another bridge/re-tool year even if the B’s can land one higher-end defender and maybe another capable player via free agency? We’ve already seen in two seasons that Rask was unable to elevate his play enough to negate the dearth of skill at other positions. So, depending on the return and how much cap space is allocated to other talent at other positions, it just might get Boston on the right track to sustained success sooner than many might think.

Wow, I even used the foxhole reference…as the old song goes: “nowhere to run to, baby- nowhere to hide…” The rationale was sound enough, but it looks nothing short of foolish after 1 month of the new season.

A funny thing happened on the way to burying the Boston defense for 2016-17 and Rask’s chances to do something important along with it- Brandon Carlo came along and has helped to reinvigorate Zdeno Chara’s play. The current defense is no threat to Stanley Cup blue line corps of yore, and they’ve certainly put Rask and the three other goalies who have suited up for Boston in the season’s first month in some pickles at times, but they appear to be an improved group from last year. When you consider that other than re-signing John-Michael Liles, there wasn’t one significant addition from outside the organization over the summer, that’s saying something.

The reality is- Rask has been able to elevate his play, reeling off 10 wins in his first 11 games for the first time in Bruins history since some guy named Gerry Cheevers did it 40 years ago. Cheevers, by the way, is a Hall of Fame goaltender and two-time Stanley Cup champion for the B’s, arguably the most identifiable goalie for the franchise given his iconic “stitches” mask and clutch play in the postseason (he is Boston’s all-time playoff wins leader ahead of other Cup winners such as Cecil “Tiny” Thompson, Frank “Mr. Zero” Brimsek and Tim Thomas). The skeptic will say- “Yeah, but it’s only been one month!” as a counter to Rask’s stellar play, but this blog doesn’t deal in “yeah, buts”- we call it like we see it and thus far, the 29-year-old Finn is the hands-down MVP and only one who’s posted a ‘W’ (repeat 10 times) to keep the Bruins above water. We’re not worried about what will happen if Rask slumps, because frankly- he’s playing some of the best hockey we’ve seen, and it’s giving both he and his teammates a major lift. If you want to know what elite NHL goaltending looks like, check out film on Rask’s starts this season.

Here’s where we probably should have just quit while we were ahead, but no- we/I just kept digging the hole deeper. To whit:

In the end, I just don’t feel that Rask is the right player for this team. His body language and at times perceived indifference doesn’t seem suited for the clear growing pains such a porous defense and inconsistent forward group is going to bring to the ice on any given night in Boston. It doesn’t make Rask a bad person, and he’s done some good things for the B’s in his tenure. Before the legion of Rask fans descend on this space to blast me for saying it- I truly believe a change of scenery would be best for him too. I have little doubt that with the right destination, he’d waive his own NMC to do so. Unfortunately, it also means Sweeney and Co. are selling low, but sometimes you have to swallow hard, cut your losses and do what you think is right for the club over the long haul.

Well, when you get it wrong, sometimes you just need to come out and take your lumps. No equivocating or attempts to rationalize or justify needed. Obviously Don Sweeney doesn’t need or want our help and he held the line, believing that Rask was capable of giving the team more than he did last year and even the season before.

Rask has been stellar, and how he goes, so will the Boston Bruins season. He’s talented enough to carry the team and he’s done it so far with the rest of the scoring balance on the lines starting to be restored and Torey Krug appearing to be getting closer to full health after a rough first 30 days. There are sure to be ups and downs, but as someone who floated the idea of trading Rask, here’s a mea culpa. Even if and when he inevitably comes down to earth a bit, Rask has shown what he’s capable of, and that has to instill Boston leadership with the belief that he can be a part of the solution going forward, even if the franchise might have to take a step or two backwards first.

Patience certainly can be a virtue and right now, the B’s are reaping the benefits of sticking by their man. At TSP, we’re big enough to admit that and offer our thanks that we weren’t in a position to sell low on Rask, which would have been a horrendous thing to do, especially if he was enjoying this renaissance in another team’s colors while the B’s took cents on the dollar for another high-profile trade.

So, there it is- we return you to your regularly scheduled Boston Bruins hockey season.

Big trouble

Two games, two goals for and 10 goals against.

Malcolm Subban was chased Tuesday against Minnesota in a 5-0 home drubbing, and Zane McIntyre’s first career NHL start began with promise Wednesday at Madison Square Garden where the B’s took a 2-0 lead on goals from David Pastrnak and Austin Czarnik (his first in the NHL), but were undone by another putrid second period and allowed five unanswered to drop to 3-4 overall.

We knew the Bruins were going to have ups and downs, but to have lost both of Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin…they’re in it deep because neither one of Subban nor McIntyre appears to be prepared to carry the B’s through their current injury woes. Khudobin is on the shelf for several weeks, but the B’s have been completely silent on Rask’s status…that could mean he’s close or it might be the worst kind of news- any long-term injury to the veteran netminder and former Vezina Trophy winner and the Bruins are screwed. Let’s be clear- last night’s loss was not McIntyre’s fault. Sure- he gave up a soft goal to Kevin Hayes (both Boston guys the Bruins courted- Hayes and Jimmy Vesey tallied for the Rangers- file it under “rub salt in the wounds” category) to tie it at two, but he was outstanding at other times in making saves that should have been goals. Unfortunately, the NHL is an unforgiving business and the final score, even though the offense went dormant and the defense left McIntyre in a vulnerable position time after time…that 5-2 end result is what we’re left with.

The defense is struggling, but not in the ways we anticipated. Torey Krug is still not himself since his offseason shoulder surgery. He’s a step behind the play and trying too hard from the looks of it. He’s too good a player to stay in a prolonged slump for much longer, but he’d be the first to tell you he’s played poorly from the beginning. Last night, he was a key contributor to New York’s first goal on the power play by Rick Nash, failing to clear the puck when it was on his stick and then being so far out of position so as to allow Nash two shots to get it in uncontested off to McIntyre’s left. Adam McQuaid, who missed the first five games to injury, is now back and to say he’s not been good is the understatement of the century right now. His lack of mobility has a spotlight on it right now and last night, he was exposed multiple times by long lead passes in the neutral zone. For all the praise we saw Brandon Carlo getting on Twitter last night- he simply wasn’t very good either. He at least battled hard and competed, but he wasn’t effective in several 1-on-1 situations and was burned several times when he pinched up and then found himself behind the play. Note- constructive criticism of a player’s performance is not “hate” but it’s typical of fans to scapegoat certain players while conveniently ignoring the mistakes of the ones they’re solidly behind. Carlo’s a heck of a young defender, but he doesn’t get a pass on his mistakes. Last night, he was part of the problem and not the solution, but to be absolutely truthful- Carlo had a lot of help on the blame line.

We could go on and on…David Backes is out with an elbow injury and his absence could be weeks vs. days…Matt Beleskey is a game hitter but is completely MIA offensively. Ryan Spooner can’t seem to get in gear- the wing thing isn’t working. David Krejci assisted on the Czarnik goal, but like Krug, he hasn’t been himself either after hip surgery. Jimmy Hayes…enough said.  And the beat goes on.

We don’t have the answers you seek. Dan Vladar, he of 35 saves for Providence last night vs. the Toronto Marlies in an OT loss, isn’t one. He’s simply not ready, even if there are promising signs to his development. To those who want the Bruins to go out and trade for a goalie- it’s not that simple. Guys like Ondrej Pavelec (Jets) and Mike Condon (Penguins) can be had, but with their GMs knowing teams like the Bruins and the several others with goalie issues like the L.A. Kings, are over the barrel, the cost is probably not worth it. The type of player that could be had via trade or waivers isn’t going to make enough of a difference to justify the cost. Had a fan on Twitter say yesterday that a guy like Pavelec could be had “for a song,” and perhaps that person is right, but we would submit that unless that song is future considerations or unless Rask is gone for the foreseeable future, what is the point of giving up a pick or prospect just to be stuck with three NHL goalies and a mediocre one in Pavelec when Boston’s 1-2 goalies return to health?

The goaltending position is not the issue here. Yes, Subban and McIntyre aren’t likely to be the answer in the short term, but with the defense and offense misfiring badly, that need not be the focus for change. GM Don Sweeney knew coming in that his D wasn’t very good and was hoping they would surprise and overachieve. That hasn’t happened, and the struggles are now magnified without the top net minding talents, so here we are.

With the schedule getting tougher, it sure looks like things are going to get worse before they get better, but for now- we’ll have to wait for the other shoe to drop on Rask. We’re seven games in, and you’d think the team is 0-7 as opposed to 3-4 but the woes are exacerbated by the knowledge that the defense was a problem area going in. The team was counting on Krug to be a key cog, and right now, he’s not delivered- that puts pressure on everyone else. Colin Miller looks great…at not accomplishing much. We just don’t think he has the vision and head to be anything more than a role player who can chip in with offense but who doesn’t process the game quickly enough to be an effective player in his own end. John-Michael Liles has not been good and looks like he’s 36 after giving the B’s a shot in the arm when he first arrived at the trade deadline last year. Zdeno Chara and Carlo have been the bright spots, but let’s be honest- it’s a mediocre group. We all know it…counting on Kevan Miller to stabilize the blue line play is a pipe dream, too- he’s just not that player. That means some kind of change has got to happen at some point, and the change must be meaningful, otherwise we’re just papering over what is holding the Bruins back.

That’s on management to figure out.

On Brandon Carlo and other random thoughts on the 2-1 Boston Bruins

The Boston Bruins got a big win in Winnipeg Monday night and took four out of six points in their season-opening roadie, sandwiching a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs with victories over the Columbus Blue Jackets and Jets.

Rookie defenseman Brandon Carlo netted his first NHL goal in the triumph last night, unleashing a handheld Howitzer from the slot up under the crossbar that former UMass-Lowell superstar and Mike Richter Award-winning goalie Connor Hellebuyck was powerless to stop. Here’s the goal and it’s a beauty for a 1st NHL tally: watch the way he slides up from the point to make himself available, as Andy Brickley would say and then drives the puck up high where mama hides the cookies.

Carlo has been a nom du jour in Boston circles since the B’s picked him 37th overall in the 2015 draft’s second round. It was a selection acquired from the NY Islanders in the trade for Johnny Boychuk (Minnesota defenseman Ryan Lindgren was the other second-rounder taken 49th overall last June) but the choice originally belonged to the Philadelphia Flyers, who forked it over at the 2014 trade deadline in exchange for Andy MacDonald.

The Bruins certainly look to be getting the better end of the deal these days.

Not only is Carlo a 6-foot-5-inch defender but he’s just 19 years old and has looked far more poised and refined than we gave him credit for. There are sure to be ups and downs for any rookie defender, especially one who’s skating on the top pairing with Zdeno Chara north of 20 minutes per night, but given Carlo’s physical attributes and accomplished defensive/shutdown play coming into his first full pro hockey season, it’s a solid bet that the peaks will outnumber the valleys with this kid.

As for Chara- he’ll turn 40 this season but there’s no need to throw dirt on his playing career’s grave just yet. He’s been effective in the early going and seems to be thriving with his young partner, as both have the size and skill to keep opponents away from the prime scoring areas, while also having the talent and ability to provide offense. The Boston captain had a goal negated on replay last night, but then fired a puck into the Winnipeg empty net after Carlo’s third period tally gave the B’s the insurance they needed for David Pastrnak’s team-leading fourth goal to stand up as the winner.

Chara has been a popular scapegoat over the last two seasons because he’s an aging veteran who by virtue of his outstanding play for so many years, was expected to perform better than he has (especially after a right knee injury suffered early in the 2014-15 season- he’s not been the same mobility-wise and it’s the new normal with Chara). There’s truth in that, but when you improve the supporting cast around future Hall of Famers in the twilight of their career as Chara is, it can make all the difference. It’s only been three games, but Chara and Carlo make an excellent pairing because they complement one another nicely. Unless their play falls off a cliff, the young buck is in a spot to learn a great deal from the legend. It reminds me a lot of what Kyle McLaren was exposed to when he made the Bruins as an 18-year-old in 1995-96 and skated with Ray Bourque. B’s fans will hope that Carlo ends up bringing a great deal more than McLaren did, but the latter was a top-10 pick in 1995, so more was expected of him. Carlo’s contributions, impressive as they are, fall into a pleasant surprise and bonus category, simply because he was the 11th defenseman drafted in 2015. The reality with Carlo is- he wasn’t supposed to be in Boston at 19 and playing 23 minutes-plus while contributing at both ends (he’s a +7 on top of it all with a positive Corsi rating), but we’ll take it. Free chicken never tasted so good.

It’s time to own up to the fact that TSP was far too conservative in our projections of Carlo. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the pick, and hype isn’t always a good thing, but to the former Tri-City American’s credit, he took advantage of injuries to Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid to establish himself as being worthy of sticking in the NHL. Sometimes, that’s what it takes, because veterans, by virtue of their one-way contracts and experience, will keep positions on a roster over the younger guys because of the economics and options. In this case, Carlo likely would have gone down to Providence, or very well could have begun the season as the seventh defender and a healthy scratch if not for the loss of two right-shot defenders before the start of the new season.

Sometimes, a key factor to solving a larger problem is right in front of you. Sometimes, it takes unforeseen events like injuries to open that window of opportunity to see it, but to Carlo’s credit- he’s shown a lot of poise and maturity. Again- it’s very early in the season, but his play has given the GM options, even if and when Miller and McQuaid return to the lineup. What’s more, you have other impressive young talents in the system: Rob O’Gara is getting big league games under his belt, and looks like he belongs- even if he might not be making the tangible impact on Boston’s fortunes right now that Carlo has. Matt Grzelcyk is playing with speed and confidence down in Providence. Jakub Zboril is playing more like a top-15 pick should in Saint John, and there is a lot of excitement surrounding BU defender Charlie McAvoy now that his NCAA season is underway. He’s been relatively quiet thus far, but a breakout performance is coming- just you watch. Jeremy Lauzon is on the shelf due to a concussion suffered in recent action, and according to his team- there is no timetable for his return. That’s a downer.

There’s reason for excitement down the road, but as impressive as some of those names might be, they are still unknowns. Carlo, on the other hand, is making himself into more of a known quantity each night. And, given the way things are going, it looks like he’s earning more and more trust and a prominent role from the Boston coaching staff.

It was tough to see Boychuk go, but even the most ardent critics of the trade (and granted- it was far more about the timing of it all and the expectations for that 2014-15 Bruins club than anything else), have to be encouraged that Carlo is giving Boston some tangible returns so soon.

The book on Carlo is far from written, but as the old cliché goes: so far, so good.

***

The top line of Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and David Backes has been carrying the offense in the early going, and somethings got to change if the Bruins expect to keep adding W’s to the ledger.

Dominic Moore tallied his first goal as a Bruin off a nice feed from Tim Schaller, making his Boston debut. Fellow Providence College product Noel Acciari started the play by outworking the Winnipeg defender behind the net to chip it to Schaller who found Moore alone and off to Hellebuyck’s right for a quick snipe.

Unfortunately, the B’s have gotten bupkus from the David Krejci-Ryan Spooner connection, and that needs to change. Austin Czarnik excited watchers with his speed and hands in the first two games, but neither Matt Beleskey nor Jimmy Hayes could get anything going in terms of goal production, so right now- Claude Julien and his braintrust need to figure out how to shake things up and generate some secondary scoring.

Patrice Bergeron’s expected return will move Backes down to Krejci’s right wing and that will help. Danton Heinen hasn’t been bad- he’s made some neat plays, but as said on this space many times- his game is not flashy. We had someone on Twitter say “Heinen hasn’t caught my attention,” and that is precisely the point. He’s a cerebral, playmaking winger who has made several impressive passes and plays in the face of a big hit or effective forecheck, but because he’s not dynamic, few are noticing. Unfortunately for Heinen, in a results-oriented business, he’s expected to produce, so he’ll likely be moved down the roster (or perhaps down to Providence) to try and work out the kinks. There’s a lot of potential here, and at TSP we recognize it…but if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to see it, does it make a sound?

***

Third year forward David Pastrnak is getting. After. It.

He tallied his first career four-point game (2g, 2a) against Columbus and has scored in every game thus far.

On National Pasta Day, “Pasta” threw the puck to the net and it went in off of Winnipeg defenseman Toby Enstrom. It was a shot that was “al dente” if you please, but Pastrnak is breaking out as multiple analysts thought he might. He’s got to stay healthy, but he’s playing with top talent and he’s shown progress in his physical maturity to go with a work ethic that was already outstanding when he arrived.

At some point, he’ll hit some dry spells, but for now- Pastrnak is delivering the offense that this team so desperately needs, especially with the gaping void where the second and third lines are in the early going.

Of course, the downside to all of this success is the second contract and money that Pastrnak’s agent will be looking for, but all in due time.

***

Tuukka Rask was superb against Winnipeg after allowing the breakaway goal to Blake Wheeler. The former Bruin came out of the penalty box and got behind the Boston defense before twisting Rask around and burying the puck. Moore came back with the equalizer just 19 seconds later, but Rask got the job done after that, denying and frustrating the Jets attack. This is precisely what the Bruins need from their $7 million goaltender, so he’s 2-0 this season with room for improvement, but credit where due- he’s getting it done. Oh, and he became the first Bruins goalie in franchise history to post two assists in a game, so there’s that. Not bad. He only needs 13 more assists to break the single-season mark jointly held by Grant Fuhr and Tom Barrasso.

***

Krejci and Torey Krug are taking heat for their early season struggles. Fans know they had significant offseason surgery and their original timetables to return to the lineup were not decisive in pointing to them being ready to go on opening night, yet they made it.

Now, a great deal is expected of the duo and that’s a fair point to bring up, but the game is not played by robots who magically come back at 100 percent. If they weren’t ready, it would have meant even more untested guys in the lineup and there would have been critics coming out of the woodwork.

We’re allowing a grace period to take into account that neither player was able to do their standard offseason conditioning and training, coupled with a natural confidence test as they work through the surgically repaired hip and shoulder and get a more solid footing.

Neither is performing at their normal level, but now is not the time to pile on. We’ll give it more time and call it like we see it going forward. The good news for the team is that the record is 2-1 and not 0-3…it doesn’t alter the fact that the B’s aren’t getting the high level of play that fans are accustomed to, but that can all change. We tend to make perfection the enemy of good enough. That’s life and the Internet age with pro sports, but no one should be pressing the panic button yet.

Time to go- Bruins raise curtains on 93rd season with new faces, youth movement

New Englanders tend to be realistic (pessimistic?) by nature, so while the focus has been on the defense and the potential for gaping lanes that skill teams will find available to them, as the 2016-17 NHL season begins for the Boston Bruins tonight in Columbus, Ohio, there’s some excitement swirling around the big league debuts of four players in the lineup.

Injuries to Patrice Bergeron, Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller have opened the door for a pair of forwards in Austin Czarnik and Danton Heinen, and a defense duo of Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara to get their first taste of NHL action against the Blue Jackets. Bergeron is expected back in the lineup for the weekend action versus Toronto and rookie sensation Auston Matthews, who last night became the only player ever to score four goals in his first NHL game. McQuaid and Miller will be out a little (in the former’s case, a lot for the latter) longer, so we temper the eagerness with which we greet the young rookies with the belief that perhaps half of them have a realistic chance of staying on Boston’s roster for the duration of the season.

In Czarnik, the B’s have a fast and skilled little (emphasis needed) center who was snubbed in the NHL draft, but looks like a pretty savvy pickup after four years at Miami University, the last two of which he wore the captain’s ‘C’. He took a high hit from behind that targeted the head in the final preseason game by Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas (he got a six-game layoff from the NHL’s department of player safety) but cleared the concussion protocol in time to play in his first big league game. Czarnik is a classic little engine that could as a player who always had to overcome size bias to work harder than just about everyone else to hone his skills and three zone game. After a 61-point first year in the AHL, he’s made the initial cut to stick in Boston, and that’s the stuff NHL dreams are truly made of. Czarnik is an exciting buzzsaw of a forward- he zips in and out of lanes and can put the shake n’ bake on less-agile defenders. When the puck is on his stick, he brings a similar kind of playing style to that of Brad Marchand. Note- we’re not saying he is the next Marchand, but you can see it in the way he uses his speed, vision and hands to create and give opponents fits. He’s not the abrasive agitator Marchand is, but Czarnik is a big man trapped in a little man’s body who plays the game with heart and energy. Fans love an underdog, and when coupled with Czarnik’s electrifying offensive element, it’s not hard to understand why so many are jumping on the AC Train.

More was expected of Heinen and he entered training camp as a prohibitive favorite to win a spot with the big club, but he is also a feel-good story. Passed over in his first year of NHL draft eligibility in 2013, the British Columbia native hit a significant growth spurt and then opened eyes as captain of the BCHL’s Surrey Eagles. The Bruins liked Heinen enough to snatch him in the 2014 draft’s fourth round despite his being an almost complete unknown in NHL draft pubs. The rumor at the time was that several other teams were hoping to steal Heinen later on, not the least of which was none other than the Montreal Canadiens. That story isn’t verified, but damn- it feels good to B’s fans to hear it. Heinen is a thinking fan’s hockey player- he’s not especially fast or dazzling in the way he handles the puck, but he goes to the right spots, moves it to the correct spaces and plays a quietly effective and productive three-zone game. He’s the quintessential Claude Julien-style forward because he’s both intelligent and efficient. If you’re expecting to be entertained by Heinen, you’ll probably wonder what the hype is about, but if you watch the wall work, the way he slices through layers of defenses and puts himself in position to make plays at both ends of the ice, you’ll gain an appreciation for him.

On the defensive side of things, Carlo is a favorite of those B’s fans who religiously follow the NHL draft and Boston’s prospect development system. Picked 37th overall in 2015, he looks like a brilliant pick in hindsight as his natural 6-foot-5-inch size, mobility and reach instantly jump out at you. Back in 1997, a young Hal Gill caught the eye of fans because he was 6-7, and was the biggest cat in the NHL before some guy named Zdeno Chara showed up on Long Island about a year later. The thing about Carlo is that while he’s not quite as tall as Gill, he’s a better skater and has long arms, therefore brings a similar reach. Fans are excited about Carlo because he’s big and fluid and does a real good job of keeping opposing forwards from walking straight to the net…a turnstile he is not. The jury is out on how much offensive hockey sense/creativity Carlo has, but he’s certainly not limited in terms of being able to handle the puck and join the rush. Having said all that, there will be natural growing pains as is with the case with any 19-year-old defenseman, but to the Coloradan’s credit, he impressed a year ago in his first NHL training camp and exhibition season and then carried that forward to make the Boston Bruins before age 20. He’s not a snarly, intimidating beast on the physical side, but he will rub guys out and is sure to be well-liked in the dressing room because he’s got an even-keeled personality.

Last but not least is O’Gara- a TSP personal favorite going back to 2010-11 when he left the Long Island Royals AAA midget program to win a prep championship with the Milton Academy Mustangs. The B’s drafted him with the final selection of the fifth round, and he was described by then-assistant GM Don Sweeney as a “big piece of clay” that required a great deal of molding and shaping. Five years later, the 23-year-old Yale grad might not be a finished product, but he’s close enough and tonight will earn a status no one can take away from him- NHL player. O’Gara is a good skater- it’s less about speed and stride with him than it is fluid and agile footwork, which allows him to pivot and change direction quickly and efficiently. He’s got size and reach…and he can make an effective outlet pass to aid in the transition game. Like Carlo, there are sure to be mistakes and mishaps, but O’Gara is smart and motivated- he’s a quick study and character guy who has been around long enough that he understands the system and is ready to prove himself. It might mean more of an apprenticeship in Providence when other players return, but for now, O’Gara has earned the opportunity and will begin on the second pairing with Torey Krug on the right side (ROG shoots left, so it speaks volumes about the level of trust he’s earned that the Boston coaching staff is fine with him playing his “off” side).

David Backes will skate on a line tonight with Marchand and David Pastrnak if nothing changes between now and puck drop, and with Bergeron out (albeit temporarily), maybe bringing in an experienced veteran center wasn’t such a bad idea after all. David Krejci has a great deal to prove, and with Heinen and Ryan Spooner flanking him, there’s no shortage of offensive creativity on that unit. Spooner’s speed is a welcome addition to the lessened pace of Krejci and Heinen, but the trio provide quite an intriguing matchup on paper. All three of them are or have been centers before, so that’s a line that gives Julien a lot of flexibility and versatility.

Czarnik will likely test his NHL mettle with Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes. Beleskey doesn’t have the high-end skill to put up big numbers (and he’d be on the top two lines in any event if that were the case) but he’s gritty and should develop some chemistry with Czarnik. Hayes is the wild card- the B’s desperately need a revival from him this season much like Reilly Smith had with Florida a year ago. It would be foolish to think that Hayes doesn’t want to make it work in Boston, but he’ll have to shrug off the external pressures and get down to the basics by just doing what he does best. He doesn’t have either of his linemates’ wheels, so it will be interesting to see if they have some set plays to leverage Hayes as a trailer into the zone with his soft hands and big shot.

Tim Schaller is back up with Boston with Bergeron out and may get a chance to skate with Noel Acciari and Dominic Moore, but the guess here is that Riley Nash will round out the fourth line. It’s not a nasty unit in terms of abundant physicality, but they’ll all grind it out and bring some veteran smarts to go with Acciari’s exuberance.

Defensively, the Bruins need their veterans- Chara, Krug and John-Michael Liles– to provide some glue for the younger guys- Carlo (Chara), O’Gara (Krug) and Colin Miller (Liles) as they shake out the butterflies and deal with the immense difference in speed, skill and pace from what they are used to. Chiller got enough action in last year, and Joe Morrow is also around to step in should anyone get hurt or falter, but this is an untested bunch and the biggest source of consternation with the 2016-17 Bruins.

Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin were the tandem in Boston’s net the last time the B’s went to the Stanley Cup final series in 2013, so there are no concerns with the talent or experience. They can’t carry a team on their backs, though- so everyone will have to row hard in the same direction. If the talent gap becomes too great, then Sweeney will have to act at some point.

That’s all going to have to wait for the time being, because this is what the B’s are going with to begin the new season.

As the Dropkick Murphys so aptly like to belt out- drop the puck…it’s time to go. (Thanks BruinsBabe176)

Becoming the Bull: Torey Krug

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 23:  Torey Krug #47 of the Boston Bruins looks on against the New York Rangers in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on May 23, 2013 in New York City. The Rangers won 4-3 in overtime. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head.
In the most unsettling of times.
Today I’ll become the bull.  Become the bull!- Atreyu, Becoming the Bull

Nothing has come easy for Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug, but as the 2016-17 NHL season dawns,  he enters his fourth full campaign as an NHL defenseman and the first year of an offseason extension that has finally begun to give him his just due.

Much has been made of Krug’s size, but the reality is- when you’re as talented, intelligent and driven like he is, size doesn’t really matter. That won’t prevent the critics, who focus on his physical challenges to contain some of the NHL’s premier power forwards without taking his positioning, active stick and gap control into account, from blathering on and on about how he’s “overpaid” at an AAV of $5.25 million. That’s their opinion, and they’re welcome to it, but Krug’s success is fueled by such snubs. He’s heard it before and he will again, but after shoulder surgery and an opportunity to come back healthy for the first time since early in the 2015-16 season, the 25-year-old is ready to take his play to the next level.

Krug is, in fact, becoming the bull…the bull of the Boston blue line as the team’s highest-scoring defender from last season (and that accomplished with one effective arm) while continuing to evolve as a player who can compensate for his lack of height and weight with the guile and natural smarts to shut down opposition chances.

Atreyu put out the song “Becoming the Bull” in 2008 and it resonates personally with me, as I had just returned from a 15-month combat tour in Baghdad, Iraq during the infamous troop surge of 2007. It was a tough slog, and to this day, I am honored to have served with so many great Americans (not to mention coalition partners and the Iraqi troops we fought shoulder-to-shoulder with against al Qaeda and Jaysh al Mahdi militia) in Task Force Dragon- the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division (Big Red One) at Forward Operating Base Falcon. We had responsibility for some of the meanest, most dangerous neighborhoods in Iraq’s capital city and 100 Americans in our unit made the ultimate sacrifice, along with another 800 more who were wounded in action. I was fortunate- got to come home with health and psyche intact, and can remember hearing Becoming the Bull for the first time on Sirius radio’s Octane (nu metal) channel and being taken with it immediately. It has remained a personal favorite mp3 on my workout playlist ever since, and this morning, as I was doing my shoulder and biceps resistance training, along with a 70-minute interval workout, it came on and listening to the lyrics, it struck me as a perfect song to describe Krug’s evolution.

It begins thusly:

Grab the bull by the horns the old adage goes.
Nobody tells you where to go from there.
It seems like fate’s pulling you.
Decisions have to be made.
The the best path is the hardest earned.

Think about those lyrics for a second. In 2012, Krug finished his junior season at Michigan State, and his second as the team captain. He had decided to turn pro and sign as an unrestricted free agent- he was grabbing the proverbial bull by the horns and after going undrafted from 2009-11 (to his continued disappointment) he had the opportunity to choose his NHL destination, coming off a 12-goal, 34-point year (38 games) with the Spartans. Nobody could tell him where to go from there, so he had to make a decision in a field of numerous suitors. It seems like fate was pulling him, too.

The Bruins had expressed interest in drafting him, but for a variety of reasons- it didn’t come together. He could have snubbed the team in turn as they did him in 2011, and gone with someone like Carolina, or Philly or perhaps even his hometown Detroit Red Wings. Ultimately, though, he chose a harder path with Boston, a team less than one year removed from winning the Stanley Cup and one of the NHL’s top tier clubs (though they would get upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Braden Holtby-led upstart Washington Capitals later that spring). Krug knew he could have signed with another team and had an easier, probably faster route to the NHL, but he instead embraced the challenge of signing with the B’s, a team that was the only club that made any kind of effort to talk to him when he was still draft eligible. Not forgetting the first team he “danced” with speaks to his personal character in the decision process. The best path, indeed, is the hardest earned.

Of course, it would be intellectually dishonest not to mention that the Bruins had to pay a lot to secure him as a free agent, including burning a year off of his 3-year ELC for just a couple of regular season games to finish out the 2011-12 NHL season, but them’s the breaks. Had they drafted him in the first place, it would have been much less costly- they knew that going in, but to Boston’s credit, they went the extra mile to get their man.

There is so much to stake.
I’ll stumble I’ll loose my place.
Pride and arrogance surrounded by sin.
Destiny takes its hold.
Fight it or let it go.
But I choose how the day will end.

Again, these lyrics emulate Krug. Think back to the contracts he signed before the one in June 2016. He became an RFA after the 2014 season and inked a team-friendly deal in September 2014 to the tune of $1.4M.  Then, he took another budget one-year pact at $3.4M in March 2015 rather than put the team over the barrel and force a longer extension. That was a risk for Krug- had anything serious occurred to him in terms of a major injury, he might have jeopardized his future earnings, but he worked it out with the Bruins to be taken care of later. This becomes especially interesting with the shoulder injury and how it hindered his ability to shoot the puck- is anyone really surprised that he only scored four goals last season? At the same time, had he tallied his normal 12-15 goals in a season, the B’s would’ve been on the hook for more on his four-year extension. Despite the frustration of cratering down the stretch and missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season thanks in large part to a mediocre supporting cast (surrounded by sin?), Krug demonstrated that loyalty is a two-way street.

Destiny took its hold- he’s been rewarded with term and security, with an opportunity to raise the bar even higher in a four-year period as he could very well emerge as Boston’s signature player and a major leader on this Bruins blue line. Sure, he’ll always be limited to a degree by the lack of ideal NHL size, but if you’re going to point to that as a guaranteed limiting factor to his ultimate success, then you’ve probably not been paying enough attention to him at every level of his young hockey career. Krug understands where you’re coming from, and truth be told- folks like you are what have helped to keep that inner fire burning inside him over the years. If he could respond, he’d likely invite you to keep doubting, to keep tweeting about how he “can’t” play defense. As the poet Cliff Poncier once said- whatever tears us down only makes us stronger (or words to that effect. If you don’t know who Cliff Poncier is, then I invite you to check out the 1992 Cameron Crowe film “Singles” and all your questions will be answered. You’re welcome and also- Touch me, I’m Dick.)

And once more- the chorus:

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head.
In the most unsettling of times.
Today I’ll become the bull…become the bull!

The most unsettling of times: not a great deal is expected of the Boston Bruins with the defense as currently constructed. Help is on the way with some of their impressive young prospects, led by BU sophomore Charlie McAvoy, but this year is what matters, and Krug is going to be key. Sure- we might see Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk or Rob O’Gara make the jump and get some playing time. Perhaps Colin “Chiller” Miller will step up and become a far more impactful defender on both sides of the ice than he was a season ago. We’ll see. However, if this defense is going to perform beyond expectations, it likely starts and ends with Krug.

Forget becoming…he’s now the bull. And if you know anything about Krug and his family- he’s embracing that with the typical “bring it on” mantra that has seen him overcome the odds to not only reach the NHL but become one of Boston’s most respected and dependable players.

Here’s the video with lyrics posted to YouTube by “MH Spirit”:

 

 

 

3 Amigos Podcast with special guest Torey Krug

Torey Krug game show

Torey Krug (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

The 3 Amigos ride again…TSP founder Kirk Luedeke, and Ontario pals Dominic Tiano (OHL Writers) and Reed Duthie (Hamilton Bulldogs play-by-play) have teamed up for a pre-season podcast after a long summer and we brought some big guns to the podcast- Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug.

My initial reaction after seeing some of the criticism of the Bruins signing Krug to a four-year extension in late June- shortly before the start of free agency- was to do this…

lyanna2

Lady Lyanna Mormont reacts to those who took issue with the Torey Krug extension.

Enough with the teaser, though- Krug joins us at the front of the podcast to talk about the extension, being a smaller defenseman in the NHL, his outlook on leadership, and many other topics including an outlook on the B’s defense.

Once he departs, Dom Reed and yours truly talk a little Zach Senyshyn, OHL 2017 NHL draft hopefuls and of course- the World Cup of Hockey.

Apologies for the quality of the audio- this is a low-budget, low-tech operation, but at least we’re not charging you to listen.

Enjoy the podcast and thanks as always for the support!

-Dom, Kirk & Reed

 

What D? The elephant in the room for the Bruins

Zdeno Chara returns for his eleventh season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

Zdeno Chara returns for his eleventh season as the captain of the Boston Bruins (photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

It’s been a slow August, but I had an exchange on Twitter today that inspired a new post- the first since the Jimmy Vesey recap last weekend. There will be more content in store as we get closer to the new season and of course the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

With Vesey now officially with the Rangers, Bruins Nation turns its lonely eyes to Don Sweeney, looking at the proverbial elephant in the room- the lack of a clear and meaningful upgrade on the Boston blue line since the end of last season. Re-signing John-Michael Liles was fine on its face, but remember- he was a part of the April implosion that saw the B’s crater after sitting as high as second place in the conference a week and change after the trade that brought Liles to Boston. Also extended- Kevan “Killer” Miller, Colin “Chiller” Miller and Joe (Don’t call me “Blow”) Morrow...what do they all have in common? That’s right- they were all a part of the epic spring collapse for the second year in a row, but 2016 was worse because the B’s seemed to be well-positioned for playoffs at least before coming completely undone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the coda- an embarrassingly bad home loss against the nothing-to-play-for except to be spoiler to a division rival Ottawa Senators was a final humiliating kick in the crotch to a season that had far more peaks than valleys, but will ultimately be remembered for the inglorious ending.

So, here we are- a few days before September and unless we missed something- the only new blood the Bruins brought into the organization over the summer via free agency at the defense position is AHL journeyman Alex Grant. Nothing agains the former 1st overall midget pick in the 2005 QMJHL draft- he’s had a cup of coffee in the NHL and even scored some goals- but doesn’t this look a lot like Matt Irwin from a year ago?

We’re still waiting for a serious move to address a defense that was overmatched at best when skating against the top NHL offenses a season ago. This is not a slam on the current Boston defensive core- we think the world of Torey Krug, for example- he deserves to be surrounded by better talent. Zdeno Chara is at the end of a Hall of Fame career, but he’s still a serviceable defender…so long as no one expects his old near-30 minutes in any situation. Gone is Dennis Seidenberg, who, despite his huge heart, just couldn’t be effective on his surgically-reconstructed bottom trunk. Ability-wise, Seids is addition by subtraction, but his experience and veteran leadership will be missed, so you can make the case that this defense is actually worse than it was a year ago. This group needs help and one top-three NHL defenseman acquired via trade would do wonder to take some of that pressure off.

Help is coming in the form of a youth movement that shows a ton of promise. Brandon Carlo and Rob O’Gara could be skating for the NHL club at some point this season (they’re both slated for the AHL at a minimum, maybe more depending on how camp/preseason goes for them) and with their size and mobility, there’s a lot to like about their NHL potential. However, no one should be expecting either player to come in as a rookie and stabilize the Boston blue line. Charlie McAvoy is the cat’s meow after being picked 14th overall and having a sharp B’s development camp in July and even better showing at USA World Junior camp in Plymouth, Mich. earlier this month. But, he’s an NCAA player, so unless he bolts from BU, he won’t help the B’s this season until spring at a minimum when his sophomore year at Boston University is in the books. Jakub Zboril, the team’s top pick from a year ago, is in better shape and rehabbing an image that took a hit from a lackluster start last season- he’s talented enough to be a top-three one day, but how badly does he want it? And don’t forget Matt Grzelcyk, Jeremy Lauzon and Ryan Lindgren– all impressive defenders who bring a little something different to the table. Let’s face it, though- even with the optimism, these players aren’t going to give the 2016-17 Boston Bruins what they really need. Hey- if someone within the organization steps up and delivers, more power to ’em, but this is why folks are getting antsy.

It’s legit.

So, based on some things I was told by sources in the Bruins organization and around the NHL, here’s a quick look at some options, or, irons in the fire, that the second year Boston GM and his management group might be looking at. On paper, this defense is simply not much to write home about given how things went a year ago, and while Sweeney has talked about the challenge of finding the right players at the right price, we’re a few days from September and while you don’t want to use words like alarming to describe the situation, what else are we left with. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. You could apply that to the Boston defense and someone would have a hard time arguing against it.

Preamble over, let’s look at some options- by no means all of them, but something to get the juices flowing, at least:

Kevin Shattenkirk, Blues: The Bruins thought they had a deal for the former BU standout back in February in a deal that would have netted a return for Loui Eriksson, but according to a source close to St. Louis, those talks fell apart over the Blues’ desire to move another bad contract to Boston. Sweeney balked and no deal. Now, same source tells TSP that trade talks are heating up for Shattenkirk again, but not necessarily between Blues GM Doug Armstrong and the Bruins. It sure sounds like the NY Rangers would be a club sniffing around Shattenkirk, especially given his Empire State roots.

Armstrong’s in a tough spot and he knows it- the Blues came close to reaching the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since Bobby Orr took the pass from Derek Sanderson, beat Glenn Hall and hurtled through the air, frozen forever in time (46 years ago), but the San Jose Sharks ruined their (and Boston’s 2016 late 1st-round draft) party. Shattenkirk will be a free agent next summer and he’ll command big bucks even though his value as a two-way defender and power play contributor seems all but assured of declining. Assuming the Blues don’t try to re-sign him, trading Shattenkirk now means Armstrong gets more of a return, but he weakens his talented veteran team. The longer they hold onto him, the more he becomes a “rental” and the acquisition price becomes less than what it could be. Decisions, decisions.

The good: Shattenkirk would instantly upgrade the Boston defense and a top-3 of Chara, Shattenkirk and Krug isn’t a top NHL group, but it’s respectable. He’s very good in transition and paired with an effective shutdown guy (Adam McQuaid?), the shortcomings exposed by San Jose in the Western Conference final series last spring wouldn’t be as profound.

The bad: Let’s be honest- Shattenkirk is a fine player, but he’s on a cap-friendly deal right now, and he won’t be 12 months from now. If you acquire this guy, you either do so for one year and accept that he’ll be gone next July 1 or you have to commit upwards of $7 million a season (ballpark) to extend him. Is he worth it? Remember- you’re going to pay a handsome price to get him from St. Louis, and then you have to commit the cap allocation (and real dollars) to keep him in Boston.

The skinny: Last February, this made sense for the Bruins. Now? Not so much. If Sweeney is going to pay a premium, look for someone younger and more cost controlled. Recommendation: Pass on Shattenkirk and let someone else overpay for him not only in terms of assets surrendered, but in his next deal, which will be a doozy. The B’s already signed David Backes to a controversial big-ticket contract- remember Einstein.

Jacob Trouba, Jets: We’re hearing from several sources around the league that tension and friction is growing more intense between the 2012 NHL draft darling and Winnipeg management. Where he once looked like a franchise player-in-waiting, he’s taken steps backwards after a very promising rookie year, but wants big bucks and more playing time. The Jets committed to Dustin Byfuglien on that, so it sure looks like Trouba’s days are numbered in the ‘Peg, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is under no timetable to resolve the issue…if there even is one. On the positive side- Trouba has all the tools of a top-2 NHL rearguard, even if he hasn’t shown it. The risky aspect is that he’s really in no position to be dictating terms, and yet here he is, apparently. That will make NHL suitors wary for third and fourth contract-type maneuvers, assuming he gets there.

The good: Trouba would give the Bruins a young D they could sign to a “show-me” contract (if he just wanted out of Winnipeg) with a delayed payday, much like they did with Krug. He’d instantly move into the top of the rotation and be given every opportunity to prove he can be a bell cow D and earn that massive deal he seeks. The B’s would benefit from his skill and young legs to take some pressure off of Chara and Krug.

The bad: Trouba is risky right now and pro scouts might be a tad squeamish about laying it on the line for him. Is he just human and his play affected by the environment with the Jets? Or is he more of a dud than a stud? Any trade for him is going to cost a lot- he’s only 22 and was a top-10 pick, so Cheveldayoff can drive up the bidding and come away with a nice package/return- you’ll have to overpay for Trouba to get him, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the player you’re praying he will. If he doesn’t, that’s what costs people their jobs.

The skinny: Go East, young man! Forget the rumors about an offer sheet for Trouba, but if Sweeney could wrangle a deal, Trouba just might be the droid the B’s are looking for. This risk is worthwhile, and when you stack Trouba up against the Bruins defenders player-for-player, he’s better than most, and with the promising defense prospects coming up (at least one or two not named McAvoy would have to go back to Winnipeg, no doubt) within the organization, he’ll get help at some point. But the Bruins need a defenseman now…what good is putting Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Backes, Chara and company through another season like the last two if you don’t find a way to improve your team and give them a chance to build on two very frustrating finishes.

Cam Fowler, Ducks: I talked about him being an option via trade for the B’s in early July here, so I don’t have a great deal to add other than to say, it’s more of the same with Shattenkirk- Fowler improves the Boston defense and makes them more competitive. Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins via trade is probably a pipe dream- if Bob Murray is going to move a blue liner, we can’t see it being him- Fowler is a more obvious choice. But hey- if that happens- that’d be huge (but again- pipe dream).

Just in case you’re disinclined (too lazy?) to click on the link I provided above, here are some nuggets from that Fowler post from July 2:

Fowler’s your “bridge”- he makes $4M and has 2 years left to UFA status, meaning he gives the Bruins two seasons before they have to make a decision and brings them two years closer to seeing one of their recent top-60 D selections evolve further to see where they might be as NHL players. The issue with Fowler is that he shoots left, whereas the B’s need to shore up their right-shooting talent. So, in essence- if the B’s are able to go out and get Fowler, they then probably need to add another right-shot D for depth and hope that Colin Miller takes a big step next season for them.

The good: Fowler makes the Bruins better. How much? That’s up to you, dear reader, to decide.

The bad: If you pay attention to advanced stats and analytics, Fowler’s valuable on the power play but more of a 3rd-pairing guy at even strength, and the B’s have plenty of those. He’s also going to cost a lot to acquire at age 24. Teams with good D-men are in a seller’s market, which the B’s are unfortunately (for them and their fans) on the wrong side of.

The skinny: Fowler is worth pursuing- there’s real ability there, and he might prove to be a good fit to help stabilize the defense until one (and) more of the young guns are able to develop into NHL regulars on the Boston blue line.

Kris Russell, Unrestricted: In the free agent game of musical chairs, the music has stopped and Russell is looking for a seat. It’s surprising really, even with the concerns about how the analytics translated to his overall game and potential going forward. He’s 29 and has nearly 600 NHL games under his belt. The former Medicine Hat Tigers standout and Columbus 3rd-rounder can really move the puck and pass, but his turnovers and decisions (not to mention the fact he’s undersized) get him into trouble. Granted- how is it that we’re almost to September and he still hasn’t found a landing spot? In a word- money. His agents shot far too high, so he’ll have to take a lot less and the lower the cap hit, the more reasonable a guy like Russell will be.

The good: Russell can move and aid in the transition game. He’s a veteran and he’d represent an improvement on paper to the Boston roster, but that assumes his play doesn’t fall off a cliff- a major factor perhaps in why no team was eager to sign on for the big bucks he was looking for on July 1.

The bad: The analytics are not kind…and we need to be honest with ourselves- the Bruins and their fans aren’t either. A player like Russell will be so heavily scrutinized that he’s more likely to wilt in a bigger role with Boston than he would in more of a complementary spot with a better, even contending club.

The skinny: Signing Russell to a prime market deal on July 1 was the major red flag, but now that we’re reaching the end of the offseason, there are worse things the Bruins could do than sign him to a 1- or 2-year team-friendly deal. Having said that- he’s not a great fit as a left-shot D with similar attributes to Krug- do the B’s need two similar players? Probably not- balance is the key and Krug is the much better overall player- it’s not close. Pass- let some other club roll the dice.

Okay- there it is. Not all the bases covered, but if we get to the start of training camp after the World Cup of Hockey and nothing has been addressed with the Boston defense, then you’re going to see and hear the criticisms ramp up. This 16-17 Bruins roster is a game bunch, but they don’t have the talent on the whole to compensate for the lack of skill on the back end, and throwing up the hands and claiming an upgrade is too hard to pull off won’t cut it with the natives.

Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)

Help coming in the form of Brandon Carlo? Might be too much, too soon (Kirk Luedeke photo)

 

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)

The undrafted free agents: Kevan Miller

Next in the undrafted free agents series covering the Boston Bruins is California-bred, Massachusetts and Vermont-developed defensive defenseman Kevan Miller. He caught Boston’s eye during a late-season ATO with the Providence Bruins in 2011, and then got an invite to the team’s rookie camp and main training camp that fall. I still remember traveling to Nassau Coliseum and seeing him get involved in a major donnybrook to start the second of the two-game series between the B’s and Islanders rooks. Miller earned an NHL contract a few weeks later, and by the midway point of 2013-14, was playing in the NHL full-time.

He’s a classic American story of hard work and overcoming hurdles, and yet Miller may be one of the more criticized players on the Boston roster, despite an impressive body of work in the realm of analytics that we’ll attempt to shine some light on later on.

This is his story.

Hard as a Rock: Kevan Miller

When it comes to Kevan Miller, few players are more polarizing to a respective fanbase than he is to supporters of the Boston Bruins.  Here’s a video courtesy of friend “Dafoomie”:

The soon-to-be 29-year-old defenseman should be one of those feel good stories in hockey- a California born-and-raised defenseman who went East in high school, rose to the University of Vermont captaincy, and after being ignored in the NHL draft, willed his way into the Boston lineup less than three years after turning pro. Instead, he’s become a convenient scapegoat- a player who is an easy target for frustrations because he was asked to play a bigger role than the one to which he is best suited.

Miller was a few months away from his first birthday when the Los Angeles Kings made “the trade” to bring Wayne Gretzky to Tinseltown in August, 1988. Raised in Santa Clarita, Miller represents the first generation of players who were born when Gretzky arrived and went on to reach the highest levels of professional hockey thanks in large part to the hockey boom the Great One inspired in Southern California. Miller wasn’t the first Golden Stater to make the big time, nor is he the most successful, but all things considered, the guy who the Bruins took a chance on back in 2011, and who recently earned a four-year NHL extension is much better than he gets credit for.

I realize this won’t be a popular opinion to some, who will rightly cite some of Miller’s bungled plays leading directly to goals as proof positive that he should be exiled forever to the lower rungs of the professional hockey ladder, never to take another shift for the Bruins. Of course, the flip side of that is- show me any NHL defenseman who plays enough minutes at this level, and you’ll see some poor plays that lead to bad goals. Like the dead people in the Sixth Sense, once folks lock onto a favorite target- they’ll see what they want to see, so if Miller is a bum, it’s easy to single him out for abuse.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that Miller is a potential All-Star, nor is it to feed into the idea that he’s a drag on the rest of his team and was not worthy of the $2.5M AAV and four-year investment the B’s made in him.

As is usually the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Miller is a fairly vanilla defender: he’s an average skater without much in the way of quick acceleration, but who is rugged and plays with an edge. His offensive numbers are better than one would expect for a shutdown style ‘D’ without high-end skills. He’s a natural leader and former prep (Berkshire School) and college captain who is a respected teammate and put in tremendous work to reach the NHL.

Here’s an interesting study on the top defenders from last season, posted on Reddit by ChrisCFTB97

It’s a thoughtful, analytics-driven look at the most effective defensemen in the NHL from last season, and while advanced stats don’t tell the whole story, Miller’s numbers when compared to those of Zdeno Chara and Colin Miller, the other two teammates the author used for the study (boy, I sure would’ve liked to see him use Torey Krug here), are pretty favorable. If anything- it directly contradicts the idea propagated around the Internet that Miller is “horrible” or “can’t defend.”

Here’s the HERO (Horizontal Evaluative Rankings Optic) chart comparing Miller to that of trade deadline darling Kris Russell, done courtesy of the most excellent hockey analytics source and blog Own The Puck by MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com:

Kevan Miller's HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

Kevan Miller’s HERO chart courtesy of Own the Puck/@MimicoHero http://ownthepuck.blogspot.com

The numbers don’t lie. When it comes to things that matter on defense such as shot suppression and possession, Miller clearly has the advantage over Russell and it isn’t close. Again- advanced stats aren’t the be-all, end-all when it comes to debating the merits of an NHL player, but Miller is nothing if a serviceable defender who actually looks like a solid bargain at $10M/2.5M per through age 32.

Now, some of the friction points working against Miller could lie in the following observations:

  1. Both of Miller and Adam McQuaid on the 2016-17 Bruins roster is problematic. They’re both right shots and bring similar attributes in terms of style and substance. McQuaid is bigger and not as adept offensively, but both are nasty and because of the physical toll their rugged style takes on their bodies, they’ve missed significant time to injuries in each of the past several NHL campaigns. Neither guy is a classic top-4 player (though if you look at the advanced metrics Miller is closer to that between the two), and when you add up their cap numbers, it’s far too much green to invest in a pair of guys like that. To say that Miller is incapable of making a positive impact is wrong. To argue that having both of Miller and McQuaid on the Boston roster puts the team at a disadvantage is a far more effective way of looking at it. One or the other…Miller or McQuaid. Something should give before the season starts because the pair effectively blocks a younger player from establishing himself at the NHL level, and if either one is on Claude Julien’s top pairing (and even middle pair is an issue), then this is not a playoff-caliber defense.
  2. The tail end of observation No. 1 leads to a second significant challenge with Miller and that is simply- the B’s put him in a position to fail last season. At times, he was expected to carry the mail in a top-three role with expanded minutes and special teams, and naturally- his limitations were exposed. Miller is effective closer to the bottom of an NHL rotation, and he’s capable of being a solid matchup play and at even strength, when he doesn’t have his hands full as much with opponents who can make good use of added time and space. He’s not as big as Hal Gill was, but Miller is a better all-around player and defender. Unfortunately, like Gill later on in his Boston career- Miller has become an easy target with fans who just want to blame someone when a goal is scored against, never mind that the opposition’s top scorer was able to exploit a 1-on-1 matchup with the game but limited Miller.
  3. Let’s face it- sometimes, it’s all about draft pedigree. Fans want to get behind sexy draft picks and big names- they tend to be much more skeptical of and harder on guys like Miller who come in as unknowns and outplay the “big guns.” Go back to the Reddit link I posted and look at some of Dougie Hamilton’s numbers in those categories. He’s better than Miller in a couple, egregiously worse in others. In the end, Kevan Miller’s 84.5 average (lower is better) across the various evaluated categories is better than Hamilton’s 98.2. One guy was drafted 9th overall in 2011, the other one had to make it on an invitation, fight his way onto the team and has managed to stick. Again- you can’t just hang your hat on the analytics, and no one in their right mind would trade Miller for Hamilton even-steven (no, not even Don Sweeney, guys- but nice try). The difference is- one player is making half of what the other guy makes, and maybe that $2.5AAV isn’t so terrible after all. (One more time- *not* saying Miller is better than Hamilton- put the straw man down) It’s all in how you use him, folks. That’s a legitimate debate to have, but you can’t do it in a vacuum- context matters.
Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay- we had some fun with the image, but it’s tongue-in-cheek from this blog space. The reality is- TSP has time for Miller. He’s an honest, hard-nosed player who will give you every ounce of what he has. Unfortunately, in a results-oriented business, that alone isn’t going to lead his Bruins team to success, so the onus is on the GM to upgrade the talent around Miller so that he can be a capable and serviceable piece.

And therein lies the rub- I don’t think fans inherently dislike Miller at all. In fact, he was pretty popular when he first showed up and was hitting, fighting and playing solid D at a near veteran minimum cap hit. Alas- he lacks the high-end talent to be a firm top-4 NHL D, even if the analytics indicate he has a chance at it. Realistically- the more he plays, the more people will see him get burned, but by the same token, he suppresses a lot of chances he simply doesn’t get credit for because human nature means that those with an axe to grind will dwell on the mistakes.

Ultimately- Miller has been a nice find by the Boston scouting staff. He’s scrapped for every opportunity, but he’s a smart, driven guy- derailed a bit by shoulder injuries and the ruggedness of his style of play. On the downside- Miller and McQuaid are two fine soldiers, but the team can’t really afford to keep both. It’s the tough part of the business, but you figure the B’s signed the former before he could hit unrestricted free agency for a reason.

We’ll have to see what Sweeney and Co’s vision is for the defense and where Miller fits in, but he deserves a more even shake than the one he’s gotten. In the right role, he’s a lot like what these guys are singing:

Take it away, Millsy.