2015-16 Boston Bruins in Red Line over the years

I have every Red Line Report draft guide going back to 1999, the first year that the service issued the guide in its known format.

Periodically, I go back and look at what the draft year scouting reports and rankings looked like, so I thought that to help get the juices flowing in anticipation for the 2016 draft (as if the B’s draft strategy post from last night wasn’t enough, right?) I’d do the exercise for all of you here on the blog and take a trip in the wayback machine (or in the case of David Pastrnak– not so wayback) and see what you all think.

I’ll do it in numerical order on the Boston roster, so here we go:

11- Jimmy Hayes, RW Drafted: 2008 (2nd round- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 146

Key comment: “Huge kid with good hands has wasted a lot of talent.”

2016 verdict: At the time, 146 was excessively low for where the Leafs drafted Hayes, but he hasn’t exactly proven RLR wrong, either. Few players did more to frustrate observers this season than Hayes. He’s huge but doesn’t play to his size, but the biggest issue was with how his offense cratered at crunch time. It’s tough to play with heightened expectations and pressures that come with coming home to be on the team you dreamed of skating for, but Hayes has the raw material to at least become a more consistent contributor going forward without the profound peaks and valleys he went through.

14- Brett Connolly, RW Drafted: 2010 (1st round- Tampa Bay)

Red Line ranking: 13

Key comment: “Great talent; only injury keeps him out of top-5.”

2016 verdict: Connolly has been anything but a “great” talent as a pro. It’s hard to fathom where the sixth overall selection six years ago went wrong, but he might be out of time in Boston, even though he only recently turned 24. If the B’s could figure out a way to get him going, it would be huge for them. He’s been a huge disappointment thus far, if not an outright bust given how highly regarded he was by just about everyone in 2010.

20- Lee Stempniak, RW Drafted: 2003 (5th round- St. Louis)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: Oversight! Stempniak has been a serviceable NHL winger since breaking in with the Blues in 2005-06 after Dartmouth. He’s played almost 800 career NHL games for 9 teams- the modern-era Brent Ashton.

21- Loui Eriksson, RW/LW Drafted: 2003 (2nd round- Dallas)

Red Line ranking: 59

Key comment: “Came on like gangbusters down the stretch.”

2016 verdict: Eriksson was one of Boston’s top players last season, and despite not being traded at the deadline, was a good Bruin after being the central piece in the disastrous Tyler Seguin return from 2013. At 31, he’s set to cash in on a free agent payday, which means it won’t happen in Boston, but he’s performed well ahead of the 59th overall projection from 13 years ago.

23- Chris Kelly, C/W  Drafted: 1999 (3rd round- Ottawa)

Red Line ranking: 78

Key comment: “Tenacious and relentless in puck pursuit.”

2016 verdict: Although a broken femur cost Kelly all but 11 games of the 2015-16 season, he has gone on to have a successful NHL career as a checking center who was a key contributor to Boston’s Stanley Cup championship in 2011. The veteran has been a Boston scapegoat because of the 4-year contract extension he got in 2012 coming off a career-best 20 goals, but he’s been pretty much exactly what RLR said he would be and has always brought character and leadership to any team he’s been on.

26- John-Michael Liles, D Drafted: 2000 (5th round- Colorado)

Red Line ranking: 159

Key comment: “Another small offensively-skilled d-man.”

2016 verdict: After being drafted 159th overall, the Avalanche took Liles exactly where RLR had him in their 2000 draft guide. 800 NHL games later, Liles has shown that the size bias that clearly existed 16 years ago had little impact on his ability to play at the highest level. He’s been a successful puck-moving, offensive defenseman over the life of his career, albeit one who is a complementary piece and more of a power play performer than a true difference-maker at present.

29- Landon Ferraro, LW Drafted: 2009 (2nd round- Detroit)

Red Line ranking: 38

Key comment: “Everybody like’s Ray’s kid more than we do.”

2016 verdict: Looks like RLR was onto something…Originally projected as a top-six scorer at the NHL level, Ferraro finally established himself at in the big show after Boston plucked him from the Red Wings off of waivers. However, seven years after being one of the first picks of the second round, he looks like a capable grinder, but has demonstrated none of the impressive upside he had in his draft year with Red Deer. Speedy and smart, Ferraro doesn’t have the high-end skills to be a top scorer, but looks like a solid role player who will likely bounce around.

30- Jeremy Smith, G Drafted:  2007 (2nd round- Nashville)

Red Line ranking: 29

Key comment: “Long, lean flexible netminder is the best of a mediocre crop.”

2016 verdict: Yikes! First-round billing even with that caveat for a player who has yet to play an NHL game. Although, for what it’s worth- Scott Darling is the only goalie of note to come out of the 1989-born class. Smith, who came to Boston as a free agent two years ago, has yet to suit up for an NHL game, although he’s been very good in the AHL.

33- Zdeno Chara, D Drafted: 1996 (3rd round- NY Islanders)

Red Line ranking: not available

2016 verdict: Future HHOFer and Stanley Cup champion has been Boston’s captain since the 6-9 d-man signed a decade ago, but Father Time has caught up to him. The great draft value pick (77th overall) by Mike Milbury 20 years ago turns 40 this season and Boston’s priority must be to surround him with a better supporting cast. Given how low he was out of the radar in Slovakia, it is doubtful he would have been high on anyone’s list back then.

37- Patrice Bergeron, C Drafted: 2003 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 71

Key comment: “Not big or fast but smart and productive.”

2016 verdict: Missed opportunity! When I was scouting the U18s with my Red Line boss Kyle Woodlief, the subject of Bergeron came up and he ruefully admitted that he missed on him rankings-wise. Woodlief really liked him (as evidenced by the comment above) but said Bergeron had two things working against him at the time: 1- he had only played the 1 season in the QMJHL in his draft year after spending his 16-YO year in midget AAA; and 2- Acadie-Bathurst is an out-of-the-way hockey backwater. No excuses- RLR got it wrong, but the Bruins and Scott Bradley didn’t, at the time “reaching” for Patrice when other sexier names were available (the team used the compensation pick they got from the NHL when Bill Guerin bolted for Dallas to take Bergeron, btw). He wanted Bergeron in the 1st round that year, but the team knew they could roll the dice and get him at 45 whereas Mark Stuart would not have been there for them in the 2nd. If they had known how important Bergeron would be to this franchise, they never would have risked it, but that’s the draft for you. Bergeron’s #37 will one day hang from the TD Garden rafters, and he’s got a shot at the Hockey Hall of Fame when all is said and done. As Chris Kelly likes to say, Bergeron is Boston’s “Mr Everything”- a modern-day Milt Schmidt if you will.

39- Matt Beleskey, LW Drafted: 2006 (4th round- Anaheim)

Red Line ranking: 122

Key comment: “Playing against him is like nails on a chalkboard.”

2016 verdict: Correctly projected for the draft, but a little low given what he provides as a solid third-liner. After signing as a free agent last July, the former Belleville Bull was arguably Boston’s most consistent player wire-to-wire last season, he delivered what the team was looking for. Obviously, you’d like to see more goals after he topped the 20-goal mark the previous year with the Ducks, but he set a new high in assists and points, provided a large amount of hits and was that gritty leader by example type the Bruins need.

40- Tuukka Rask, G Drafted: 2005 (1st round- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 14

Key comment: “Wins our annual Mr. Gumby flexibility award.”

2016 verdict: The former Vezina Trophy winner had an up and down season but Carey Price and Rask were RLR’s top goalies in the 2005 draft and that’s how it’s played out in their careers as both have been recognized as the top player at their position (with Price earning a league MVP nod as well). When on top of his game, Rask is an elite puck stopper, but he’s also shown that like most, with a porous defense in front of him, he can’t carry the team on his back. It will be interesting to see what the Bruins do with him in the long term, as he turns 30 next March and will be in the fourth of the seven-year extension he signed in 2013 that is a $7-million annual chunk of change on Boston’s cap.

 

44- Dennis Seidenberg, D Drafted: 2001 (6th round- Philadelphia)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: It was a tough season for the game but rapidly declining German. He signed a four-year, $16M extension in the 2013-14 season, only to suffer a catastrophic knee injury shortly thereafter, costing him the rest of the campaign. He hasn’t been the same player since, losing mobility (he wasn’t ever a plus skater to begin with) and effectiveness as an aging defender who struggles to be the effective shutdown presence he was from 2010-14. The B’s could be looking at trading him or buying him out (he has two years remaining on his contract at $4M per), but he’s been counted on to log a lot of minutes on the second pairing without much effectiveness over the last two seasons.

 

45- Joe Morrow, D Drafted: 2011 (1st round- Pittsburgh)

Red Line ranking: 30

Key comment: “Few made bigger strides than this fine puck mover.”

2016 verdict: It looks like RLR had it right, as Morrow has made the NHL and shows flashes, but has not yet established himself as a regular. The Penguins made Morrow their top choice in 2011 (23rd overall) after he impressed with his skating, passing and shot as a member of the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. He was dealt to Dallas for veteran Brenden Morrow (no relation) in 2013. He was then moved to Boston as part of the Seguin trade a few months later on July 4. The skating and the passing are clearly evident, but Morrow has not asserted himself all that much in the Boston lineup, playing a relatively conservative brand of game. The more you watch him, the more you start to come to the conclusion that he’s essentially a complementary 4/5 defender who could thrive on a deeper blue line corps, but isn’t going to emerge as a top performer and one who can carry the mail.

 

46- David Krejci, C Drafted: 2004 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 130

Key comment: “Tiny but great hockey sense.”

2016 verdict: Like Bergeron, the B’s got outstanding value from a player who was ranked far too low by Red Line in his draft year. In fact, Krejci wasn’t really regarded by anyone- Central Scouting rated him just 21st overall on their Euro ranking behind such luminaries Rostislav Olesz, Lauri Tukonen, Kirill Lyamin and Sergei Ogorodnikov to name a few. Because Boston had traded their first- and second-round picks that year to Washington for Sergei Gonchar, Krejci’s selection at the end of the second round (from Los Angeles via Detroit for Jozef Stumpel in a deal made a year earlier at the 2003 draft) was met with a collective shrug, but 12 years later, he’s broken into Boston’s all-time top-20 scorers list and has been one of the team’s best offensive players during his tenure. Unfortunately for Krejci, his hot start cooled off considerably, aided by a hip injury that required offseason surgery. Because he’s got a small frame, the physical toll on him is starting to catch up, making his $7.25M annual cap hit and lengthy extension done by Peter Chiarelli in the 2014-15 season something to watch. On sheer achievement alone, however- Krejci’s career numbers (even better in the playoffs when Boston has gotten in) have made his draft rankings look silly. After Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, who went 1-2 overall that year, Krejci is the third most productive player of the 2004 class.

 

47- Torey Krug, D Undrafted: 2012 (Free Agent- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: The undersized former Michigan State captain posted career highs for assists and points, but his goal totals fell off a cliff, finishing with just four tallies. Despite being a productive defenseman not only in the USHL, where he helped the Indiana Ice win a Clark Cup championship, but in three seasons at Michigan State where he was named captain in just his second year in East Lansing, Krug got nary a sniff on anyone’s rankings. In hindsight, he was dinged for size bias, but has become a go-to player for the Bruins since they signed him in the spring of 2012 and he burst onto the NHL scene against the Rangers in the second round of the 2013 playoffs. He’s due a new contract, but as currently constructed, no one else on the Boston defense can do what Krug can. With the right partner, he could be even more effective and productive than he’s been so far. The low goal totals were an aberration, but consider this- if he had scored his usual 12-15 markers this past season, he’d be in line to get a lot more on his next deal. The down season in goals might be a blessing in disguise for Boston when it comes to negotiations, but anyone who doesn’t think he’ll get $5M at least is fooling themselves. The B’s will pay the market rate and if Minnesota’s Jared Spurgeon got it, so will Krug- he’s a better player.

 

48- Colin Miller, D Drafted:2012 (5th round- Los Angeles)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: Swing and a miss for RLR on a player who was first eligible in 2011 and played very little for the Soo Greyhounds but caught the eye of the Kings after attending their development camp and was drafted a year later. Acquired in the Milan Lucic trade, Miller made the big club out of camp but had trouble staying in the lineup. He has some of the most impressive skills of any Boston defenseman but his defensive instincts and decision-making are a work in progress. Many fans wanted “Chiller” in the lineup over Kevan “Killer” Miller, but the Boston coaches saw things differently. The younger Miller has the ever-desired upside, but he’s also got a lot to learn about playing the position, as he was a healthy scratch down in Providence during the season after being sent down. This is the kind of thing that fans sometimes don’t pick up on- it’s one thing for the Boston coaches to pull a player from the lineup, but when the AHL coaches do as well, then there’s obviously something there that the player isn’t doing. Miller still has impressive potential as a late-born 1992, but he benefited from shiny new toy syndrome last year. Now, he needs to work to demonstrate his value and worth as a two-way D, not just someone who can bring the offense.

 

50- Jonas Gustavsson, G Undrafted: 2009 (Free Agent- Toronto)

Red Line ranking: 1*- on RLR draft guide’s top-10 European free agents list

Key comment: “Extremely flexible and smooth side-to-side.”

2016 verdict: “The Monster” was the top free agent target in 2009 and got a big ticket deal with the Leafs, but never really had the kind of anticipated impact given his tremendous performance in Sweden before coming over. Injuries have contributed to him never really establishing himself as a top-flight No. 1 in the NHL, but after being a training camp invite last year, he played well for the Bruins as a backup. It is unfortunate that in the last game of the season against Ottawa, when Rask couldn’t go due to illness and the B’s took a 1-0 lead, that Gustavsson ended up playing a pretty mediocre game. The team collapsed in front of him, but he didn’t do them many favors, either. Don’t expect a reprise for the 31-year-old in Boston this year.

 

51- Ryan Spooner, C Drafted: 2010 (2nd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 29

Key comment: “Creative playmaker was derailed by injury.”

2016 verdict: A power play weapon, Spooner had his peaks and valleys at even strength but completed his first full NHL season by establishing career highs in all categories. He was drafted 45th overall in 2010, and in retrospect, he should have been picked 32nd overall by Boston with Jared Knight going at 45 (well, if the team had a do-over Knight wouldn’t have been picked at all in the round, but spilt milk). Spooner has outperformed some ranked before him and many after, but it has taken him a while to establish himself in Claude Julien’s system. Truth be told- Bruins fans are fortunate that he’s still in the organization given the way things appeared to be headed in early 2015. He’s got the NHL talent to be a top-two center, but in Boston, he’s got to figure out how to be consistent and impactful as their third-line guy. T’s worth noting that when Krejci was injured in late December and Spooner moved to the second line for several weeks, he played the best NHL hockey of his career.

 

54- Adam McQuaid, D Drafted: 2005 (2nd round- Columbus)

Red Line ranking: 68

Key comment: “Nobody talks about him but he has good raw tools.”

2016 verdict: When it comes to toughness and rugged play on the back end, they don’t come much more game than “Quaider.” He was a surprise late second-round pick by Columbus but his skating was an even bigger issue then than it is now. Facing the prospect of not signing him and losing him to free agency, the Blue Jackets traded McQuaid to Boston in late May, 2007 for a fifth-round pick. That draft choice, subsequently flipped to Dallas, ended up being none other than Jamie Benn. Go figure. McQuaid is a great guy- one of the best I have covered on the Bruins in my 16 years with NEHJ, but he’s limited and has never played a complete, injury-free season. Oh, and he turns 30 in October, too. There have been whispers that at least one NHL team has expressed interest in him, so don’t be surprised to see a trade at some point this offseason. It would at least begin to explain why the Bruins locked up Kevan Miller.

 

62- Zach Trotman, D Drafted: 2010 (7th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Not ranked

2016 verdict: The final player selected in the 2010 NHL draft has appeared in games with Boston for each of the past three seasons, but this could be it for the Indiana native and Lake Superior State product. He has NHL size and skating, but found himself often the odd-man out on a crowded blue line with similar mid-to-lower tier defenders who all bring something similar to the table. Trotman worked hard to reach the NHL and is a solid citizen who could hook on in a different organization that has need for his ability as a serviceable role player.

 

63- Brad Marchand, LW Drafted: 2006 (3rd round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 115

Key comment: “Super skilled little waterbug with some jam.”

2016 verdict: Marchand was the team’s best success stories in a tough season after setting personal bests in goals and points. Red Line had him ranked lower than he went (early third round) and Marchand has been the most productive of any player selected in the same round that year. He’s a top performer and goal threat, despite his lack of height and stature. Some of what might have contributed to his lower draft ranking was off-ice/maturity concerns, but to Marchand’s credit, he’s established himself as a Boston regular and fan favorite, albeit one who still lets his emotions get the best of him on occasion, but who has become one of the team’s top performers in the clutch. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2017…cha-ching! Boston can begin negotiating with him this year on an extension to prevent that from happening, but it’s going to cost a lot.

 

64- Tyler Randell, RW Drafted: 2009 (6th round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 164

Key comment: “He will go higher than this but frustrates us greatly.”

2016 verdict: Actually, he went right about where RLR said he should, which is interesting. The late-rounder out of Belleville and Kitchener of the OHL. Randell made his NHL debut for Boston and provided more value for scoring vs. minutes played than anyone in the lineup. Although often a healthy scratch and relegated to bottom line duty, Randell made the most of his gifts: slick hands and toughness. He’s got heavy feet, but hits like a truck and is a good fighter. The knock on him in junior was motivation and consistency, but he put in the work and Boston stuck with him, finally seeing their late-round investment pay some dividends.

86- Kevan Miller, D Undrafted: 2011 (Free agent- Boston)

Red Line ranking: Unranked

2016 verdict: The former Berkshire School and University of Vermont captain (from California) is as tough as nails and willed himself into the NHL after showing little big league potential at the lower levels. When used in the right role, Miller is capable. The challenge for Boston is that injuries and declining play elsewhere in the lineup caused Julien to use Miller in significant situations, and some of his limitations were exposed. For an undrafted free agent, he’s been a pleasant surprise, but without a top skill set, he’s more of a depth player thrust into a bigger role than suits him. That’s an issue.

88- David Pastrnak, RW Drafted: 2014 (1st round- Boston)

Red Line ranking: 14

Key comment: “Smallish, but fiery and passionate. Lives to score.”

2016 verdict: RLR was ahead of the curve here, as Pastrnak slid down to 25th overall mostly because of a concussion that forced him out of the lineup during the key months of Jan-Mar. He made the NHL at age 18 and was a breath of fresh air for the Bruins and their fans in 2015. Last season was a bit of a step back for Pastrnak largely due to a fractured foot suffered on a shot off the skate in late October, but the foundation is in place for the future face of the franchise. He’s got a good attitude and is willing to work- the Bruins just desperately need Pastrnak to continue his upward developmental trajectory and blossom into the 30+ goal man he’s capable of becoming.

Observations:

  1. The glaring thing that sticks out is a lack of production in the Bruins drafts to account for the current roster. Of all the B’s regulars, only one- Pastrnak (14)- carries a top-15 draft ranking by Red Line. Connolly was ranked 13th, but would have carried a higher grade if not for a hip injury that caused him to miss most of the 2009-10 season. Rask was ranked 14th overall in 2005, but he was drafted by Toronto at 21st overall- just one spot ahead of Boston (Matt Lashoff) and acquired in a 2006 trade for Andrew Raycroft. Of all the other players drafted by the B’s- only Spooner (29) was a projected first-rounder (Morrow at 30, but he was drafted by PIT). There are no top-10 draft-projected (by RLR) players anywhere on Boston’s active roster.
  2. Phil Kessel (2), Tyler Seguin (2) and Dougie Hamilton (5) are the highest-rated Red Line guys Boston drafted going back 10 years, but they’re helping other teams. Ironically, Seguin and Hamilton were both had for Kessel…all the B’s have left to show for moving Seguin to Dallas is Morrow and possibly Eriksson if he re-signs in Boston. As for Hamilton, the jury is out- Zach Senyshyn, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Jeremy Lauzon might all be a part of the future equation in Boston as the three players selected with draft choices acquired from Calgary for the 2011 first-rounder.
  3. Boston’s top players Bergeron (71), Marchand (115) and Krejci (130) weren’t even ranked in the top-50 of their draft seasons. The Bruins selected all three and cultivated them as homegrown stars- where would the team be without them?
  4. Only one player- Chara- had no record to consult with Red Line, but six roster regulars in 2015-16 were not even ranked by RLR: Stempniak, Seidenberg, Krug, C. Miller, K. Miller and Trotman.

Conclusion: The Bruins simply must get more production from their drafts. They’ve managed to make some value picks over the years, but management frittered away most of the high-end talent and it shows in the club’s current trajectory. No team escapes failure in the draft process to a certain degree, but when you look at how many undrafted players or guys who were not projected as impact contributors are on the roster and being employed in big roles, the importance of Boston improving their drafting and development efforts is even more critical.

I will continue the exercise with the Boston prospects to see if we have some similar trends, keeping in mind that there is no guarantee of success for them at the NHL, even if they appear to be on a solid developmental track. Watch for that post to hit in the next 24 hours.

Requiem for the Bruins: the Podcast

Oops- I did it again.

I wrote extensively on the demise of the Boston Bruins yesterday on this space and there was a lot (even after that near 3,000-word opus) I did’t say.

So, here’s the audio companion to that post. I know, I know, I have not yet put these podcasts on iTunes. I’m a bad blogger. But, you can click on the “Podcasts” category to catch up on anything you missed.

Expounded on each of the 4 points about the B’s talent (mainly on defense), Claude Julien, management (to include ownership and thoughts on el Presidente- Cam Neely) and the B’s core, including a bit of a rant on Tuukka Rask. I’m sure that some folks won’t be happy about that, but I just call it like I see it. When Rask has played well, I’ve been sure to single him out to provide balance. But, enough is enough with the extremes.

Finally, I closed out with what needs to come next for the Bruins (in my view).  Talked a little about the defense and who they might go after in the coming weeks, including local (Milton, Mass.) product Keith Yandle, one of the top unrestricted free agents hitting the market on July 1.

1 podcast. 50 minutes. If you get through it all, more power to you, but as always- appreciate the support.

It’s going to be a long offseason, but here’s to change and doing something different.

Requiem for the 2016 Boston Bruins

It’s less than 24 hours after the TD Garden debacle against the Senators, and many of us are still wondering what went wrong. Actually, it’s not that hard to figure it out. 8 months ago, TSP concluded the season preview for the team’s defense with this:

“…the Boston defense is not going to be much of a threat offensively, so they’ll have to take care of things in their own end. Without the requisite speed and ability to contain speed to the outside, that’s going to be a challenge.

It’s a game and gritty group- but there are a lot of if’s heading into the new season. That means the goaltending and the forwards are going to have to pick up the slack.”

As mentioned previously, defensive issues aside, it is still hard to square what happened in the last month, given the optimism that followed the several weeks after the trade deadline. The B’s seemed primed to cruise to a playoff spot with one of the Atlantic Division’s second or third-place seeds, only to suffer a complete and utter collapse that left them hoping for a miracle  in the form of a Philadelphia Flyers flameout, and this after Detroit handed them the path to victory with their regulation loss to an undermanned NY Rangers squad yesterday.

It isn’t that the Bruins missed the playoffs- many of us expected that to happen after they removed Milan Lucic, Reilly Smith and Dougie Hamilton from last year’s lineup and replaced them with Matt Beleskey, Jimmy Hayes up front and Matt Irwin and Colin Miller on the back end.

It’s how it happened.

As of St. Patrick’s Day, the B’s looked all but assured in silencing critics that predicted a major step backwards this season, but over the past 30 days, they crashed to earth and validated the doubts and questions. It isn’t just a matter of blown opportunities this hockey campaign, either- we saw nearly the same thing a year ago, and going back to the 2013 playoffs when they blew a series lead to the Montreal Canadiens. Heck, go back to 2012 and the monumental collapse in 2010 to the Flyers after building a 3-0 lead. One common denominator has consistently reared its ugly head: when playing at home, and needing a big win, the Boston Bruins not only come up empty,  but lose in spectacularly poor fashion. Yesterday was no exception, and if nothing else- that simply has to change.

Boston is a notoriously passionate and tough sports town, so the context is everything when it comes to the Bruins’ second consecutive non-playoffs finish. The cynics are having a field day with this one and rightfully so- Cam Neely and Don Sweeney entered the 2015-16 season with gaping holes that weren’t adequately filled last summer. The vultures will be feasting on the carcass of this fiasco of a season for a good long time. It’s April 10- we’ve got about six months of it coming. If you don’t like being a Boston sports fan in the down times, then you might want to stay off the internet and talk radio, television, avoid the water cooler and anyplace else where the postmortem is sure to be one giant pig-pile.

The thing is- I’m not so sure that the Boston Bruins- from ownership all the way down to the on-ice product and everyone in between- doesn’t deserve the spotlight right now. I mean, how many times do you have to witness the same thing not working before you dispense with the peripheral changes and make sweeping ones?

In order to answer that, we must look at the 2015-16 hockey season and ask ourselves- where did it all go wrong?

1. Talent matters in any sport- hockey is no different

When I was growing up, I wanted to play in the NHL. At 43, I’m writing about it instead and no, I never played the game at any meaningful level. In the end, it all comes down to this in hockey as it is in just about all walks of life: wanting to be a skilled player and actually being talented enough to make the plays consistently to win enough games at the highest level of hockey in the world are two different things. The Bruins have gone out and assembled a roster of gritty, character types that play an effective 200-foot game with the exception of just a couple of skaters.

Unfortunately, they’ve also traded away some of their most talented players for various reasons. Phil Kessel, Tyler Seguin, Hamilton, Lucic, Smith…those are the productive, skilled and tempo-altering players who are no longer on the team. Two of them were acquired for Kessel in 2009, and in 2016 the Bruins have little to show for it. Loui Eriksson will almost assuredly be playing in a new zip code next season unless he has a change of heart and decides to accept Boston’s most recent four-year extension offer.

So while Patrice Bergeron and Beleskey led Boston’s character brigade, and Brad Marchand certainly stepped up his play and leadership with a career-best 37-goal campaign, it simply wasn’t enough.They’re an industrious bunch, but the 2016 B’s had known talent gaps when facing the class of the NHL.

The B’s did not have a talented enough roster- top to bottom- and especially on defense- to close the deal and get into the postseason. I can hammer the defense as a group, but you all saw it unfold throughout the course of the year, so at this point- what purpose does that serve? We knew the defense was the elephant in the room coming in, and yet, Boston’s best hope was that the forwards and goaltending, plus the character and experience on the roster would see the B’s through to the postseason.

Those intangibles weren’t sufficient. The gritty, hard-working types are important, but the top-tier NHL clubs all have them plus the even more critical multiple high-end players on the roster, some at each position. The St. Louis Blues immediately come to mind here.

Ironically- the B’s smashed the Blues in their last outing, which fueled the hope that Boston would hold on and get in. After inconceivable losses to New Jersey and Carolina (two teams looking up at them in the Eastern Conference standings) the B’s teased with a decisive win against Detroit only to crash and burn against the Senators. Those same Senators, by the way, who were also looking up at them in the standings and now get to pick ahead of the B’s, too. As Dennis Miller once said- “Talk about not having a date to the prom…”

When it all comes down to it, the 2015-16 Boston Bruins simply weren’t talented enough to be one of the league’s teams in the NHL’s spring 16, so they’re out. Sometimes, it is as simple as that. On many nights, the better team won, and the better squad wasn’t wearing the spoked B.

2. The coach is accountable but also needs an awfully long stick to score or break up offensive rushes from the bench

I understand and respect the criticisms of Claude Julien as the Bruins bench boss. I just don’t think the problems with Julien’s coaching are as simple as him not playing the ‘yutes (or the infamous- “he didn’t develop them!” canard) from start to finish. Experienced players are more trustworthy than inexperienced ones…that may upset some folks, but it’s a fact of life. There isn’t some vast conspiracy- there’s just so many things that happen behind the scenes that we in the media and fans aren’t privy to.

But there’s no denying it- if the players loved playing for him, they didn’t show it.  When the rubber met the road, the NHL Bruins simply didn’t perform for him with the season on the line.

Julien (barely) passed Art Ross for the top spot on Boston’s career coaching victories list, but the run to 400 wins stalled out badly at the end. And this much is true: you can’t point to the coach’s effectiveness at getting the guys to play hard for him without acknowledging that even with the lack of aforementioned talent, the 2015-16 Bruins (and 2014-15 squad too) didn’t play hard enough when it mattered most.

Julien is a class act and if the B’s opt to fire him over this, then so be it. He’ll get hired about 5 minutes later and continue to be a coach in this league- if not in Ottawa or Montreal, then somewhere. But Boston’s larger issue is- who will they bring in to replace him and will that person have much more to work with than Julien did? We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it.

I won’t lie- I’ve gotten to know Julien a bit in the nine years he’s been with the team, so it is understandable why players like Patrice Bergeron love him so much. But, hockey is a business- a results-oriented one- and Julien’s teams have imploded down the stretch in consecutive years and even before that. If not for a fateful deflection that went wide and a tip that didn’t in Boston’s Game 7 win over Montreal in 2011, or the roaring comeback over the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2013, we likely would have witnessed Julien’s departure long ago.

The critics who say he doesn’t adjust well enough to what other teams do and can stubbornly adhere to what he believes in even when not working have a point. But so do those who say that you can’t give him a set of Crayola crayons and expect him to craft the Mona Lisa. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and in pro sports, being in the middle won’t get you very far.

Getting the Bruins into the playoffs would have validated his excellence as coach given what he had to work with. But his team didn’t get in, and bad things happen to good people all the time. It won’t be surprising if management pulls the plug and makes a change.

3. Decisions in the past and present limited Sweeney’s options

The life of an NHL GM is often fraught with peril.

When Don Sweeney was named to the post after Peter Chiarelli’s dismissal, he had a Herculean task ahead to create cap flexibility and keep the Bruins on track to get back into contention. He tried to do both and it didn’t work.

He ultimately stuck with Claude Julien, and then made two big draft-day moves- each alternately blasted and praised as myriad analysts dissected each. Hamilton to Calgary for three picks- not one NHL roster player in return- was a shocker and the court of public opinion came down swiftly against the fledgling GM, even if it was later revealed that Hamilton and his representation didn’t exactly give Sweeney much to go on in negotiating a second contract with Boston. Lucic to the Kings was, conversely, almost universally praised for its return- a 1st (Jakub Zboril) a capable, on-the-verge-of-being-a-starter in Martin Jones and an on-the-verge-of-being-an-NHL-defenseman in  Colin Miller.

Sweeney and the Bruins were widely mocked (What is Boston doing?! were the breathless headlines Friday night and Saturday) for drafting Zboril, Jake DeBrusk and Zach Senyshyn after the first round given some other bigger names on the board, and so- given the seasons Kyle Connor, Mathew Barzal, Colin White and even Thomas Chabot had, those knives are going to come out again. Ultimately, the Bruins didn’t do what the pundits said they should have, but in fairness- the aforementioned players made a case that they should have been chosen over at least two if not all three players Boston took ahead of them. We’re still waiting on the jury and might be for quite some time. (Disclaimer- I have no issue with any of the three Boston took when they did. It’s possible that everyone is right in taking who they did where, at least as things stand right now.)

Ultimately, though- last summer was about freeing up cap dollars, so Reilly Smith was sent packing for a reduced cap hit in Jimmy Hayes. Unfortunately for Boston, Hayes not only failed to take the anticipated next step, but his lack of foot speed and physicality, made him the target of fan angst and derision pretty early on. If he wasn’t getting the goals and points, it looked like he was “coasting” and therefore became an easy scapegoat, especially when Smith returned to scoring form in Florida. Hayes doesn’t deserve a lot of the pure disdain he’s gotten, but the results weren’t where they needed to be.

Sweeney committed a blunder in acquiring Zac Rinaldo for a 2017 third-round pick but at least Sweeney recognized it by cutting bait in February rather than riding it out with a spare part for an entire season. In the end, it’s not the pick that hurts (though it is a wasted asset)- it’s the questionable judgment that Rinaldo could have been an impact player in Boston enough to give up a third in the first place. We could see this coming, and how the B’s pro scouts couldn’t or didn’t is what stokes the fires of discontent in April.

Aside from Matt Irwin, Sweeney did little to address his defense and that was the biggest criticism, as once the season began, it was increasingly tougher to make a deal for a capable, stabilizing force with so much parity in the NHL and teams not interested in giving up valuable young and promising blue line talent for what Boston had to offer. John-Michael Liles was too little, too late; Lee Stempniak made an impact, but Sweeney decided to stick with Eriksson to help get the Bruins into the postseason and now that the  team couldn’t even do that, not moving the impending UFA at the deadline will be a major talking point from now until they either surrender his rights for a middling pick or he goes elsewhere on July 1.

If anything- Sweeney’s actions last June proved he’s capable of bold action, but some of Chiarelli’s past mistakes and some poor decisions in the offseason drew up the blueprint that we’re left with today.

4. The B’s core is not hardcore enough

The Bruins have roughly $28 million invested in four players: Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci and Tuukka Rask. Notice who is missing- Brad Marchand. He’s entering his last year of a bargain $4.5M cap hit and the B’s are going to have to open the vault to keep him. If Krejci is making $7.25M for the next five years, what is Marchand worth? David Pastrnak will also be due a new contract entering the 2017-18 season, and depending on how he plays next year, what are his reps going to be asking for? Torey Krug’s future with the Bruins will be decided in the here and now.

But all of this gets back to one central question: how good is Boston’s core? After what we’ve witnessed the past two regular seasons and going back to the 2013 playoffs, not good enough.

Chara is 39 and can no longer carry the defense. He’s been the captain for a decade and has become an easy target in a “what have you done for me lately?” world. Chara needed help this season and simply didn’t get it. It was painful to watch most nights, and I remain convinced that his right knee is a major culprit in the falloff of his play. He’ll never be the player he once was, but in the right role, he can still be effective for the remaining two years of his deal when expected retirement follows. The B’s weren’t able to put him in position to succeed, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t finish out his career in Boston if he so desires- just as long as it isn’t expected that he gave them what he did in his prime.

Bergeron will be 31 in May…he’s the team’s heart, soul and most productive player. But he’s not above criticism either- where was he yesterday? Nobody (least of all TSP) is blaming Bergeron for what happened, but if we want to have an honest discussion about what went wrong in Boston, we can’t completely fence off certain players while pointing the finger at others who are more convenient targets. Bergeron could have led by example and even in a loss, created some signature moments. He, like the rest of his mates, did not, so nobody is off-limits in the discussion of the team’s issues.

Having said that Bergeron isn’t going anywhere, and he’s the absolute least of the team’s worries. But, shouldn’t management be figuring out how to surround St. Patrice and Marchand with better talent? He’s on the wrong side of 30 now- the window is closing. Bergeron is proof that when playing around the margins  and half-measures to address the roster, he’s not powerful enough to carry the team on his shoulders to victory. Even though, for the most part, he’s tried to do just that. He had a remarkable year, but when it all came down to the wire, Bergeron wasn’t able to will his team to a win.

That leads us to Krejci and Rask.

Krejci had a tremendous start and looked like that $7.25M player early on, but as has been the case in recent seasons, he got hit with injuries and as the grind of the season went on, was less and less effective. What good is having the franchise’s highest active scorer in the playoffs if you can’t make it into the dance?

It’s a bad contract, period- the biggest albatross Chiarelli saddled the Bruins with in his final year as GM. He makes more than Bergeron and delivers less. He’s a good player but doesn’t have the elite skill to be a great one. He turns 30 next month, and the B’s are in real danger of being stuck with a center who is capable enough when fully healthy, but isn’t capable of making it through an entire season in peak condition. You can’t put that kind of guy on the third line, so where does that leave the ability to build versatile and productive scoring units across the board?

The simple fact is- the Bruins needed more than they got from Krejci this season and the final game of the regular season was a microcosm of all that is of concern with him in the present and future. Like Bergeron yesterday, he was unable to be a difference-maker, so we witnessed three goals from pluggers like Chris Neil and Zack Smith instead. They alone gave the Sens a 2-1 win even if you throw out Smith’s late-game empty-netter and the tallies by Mika Zibanejad, Matt Puempel and P.G. Pageau to make it a complete embarrassment of a 6-1 final score.

There is no denying that Krejci is a high-end passer and driven guy who truly cares about his team and winning. On paper, Krejci makes complete sense where he resides in the team’s salary structure, but he isn’t doing enough in the real world to validate what he does best. The questions about return on investment will only loom larger and larger if he maintains his current trajectory.

Trading Krejci is no easy fix, either. His contract is even more problematic- he has a full no-move clause until 2019 followed by a no-trade in 2019-20. Assuming Sweeney could find a taker (and make no mistake- the B’s would be getting a low return and likely retaining money in the process), Krejci would have to bless off on it. Not impossible, but not easily done. There are teams out there capable of adding his term and cap hit, but not very many. For the time being, Krejci is worth more to the Bruins than he is to some other team, but if this is the “new normal” for him, then the B’s can’t afford to keep the status quo as is. They’ll have to look elsewhere on the roster for cap relief.

There aren’t seven million reasons for trading a particular player, but it was a major disappointment that Tuukka Rask got sick and wasn’t there when his team needed him. Sure, with the way the Bruins played it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Rask was in net or it was the ghost of Tiny Thompson- Boston wasn’t winning that game. He certainly didn’t mean to get sick and life happens- especially when you have a toddler (read: germ factory) at home, but is this what $7M buys you these days? The do-or-die game of the season after other mediocre showings sprinkled throughout the year in the worst statistical performance of his career, and Rask wasn’t even there to attempt to be the difference maker. He still has his hardcore believers, but that number is shrinking.

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.

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.

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.

The core needs a makeover. Whether it’s Rask or someone else, we’ll have to see what comes next. But we’ve seen that that playing along the margins (trading Ryan Spooner for example) or half measures won’t cut it. The core isn’t the identity of the Boston Bruins anymore- they were at one time, but in the 2016 season’s final moments, not one of them was able (or even available) to make a difference. That’s a fact that wasn’t lost on management.

So- there it is.

I intended this to be a shorter post, but you got a book instead. I will follow up with a podcast and spend more time on that medium identifying what steps the B’s might take to right the ship.

I will say this- no single offseason is going to get it done. While the farm has some nice players, there aren’t a lot of the high-end types who are not only projected to be eventual stars NHL but who are ready to make the jump to the big time starting in 2016-17. That doesn’t mean that more won’t emerge in the coming months and years the way Frank Vatrano did this year and David Pastrnak the season before, but it’s not going to be a simple matter of plugging in prospects and young players and expecting better results than the ones we got this time around.

It’s going to be a rocky offseason, with every move and non-move sure to be dissected and flayed with relish on both sides. But this is why we love and follow the game.

I want to thank everyone who has read the blog since it began last July. The first NHL regular season is now in the books and while the disappointment won’t subside for a while, I am grateful for the candor, the feedback and the support.

Attending the World Under-18 Championship next week will allow me to turn the focus of the blog to what comes next and begin preparing for the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.

I hope you’ll keep reading…

– Kirk Luedeke

“The End”- the Doors from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now 

 

 

Bruins come up large against Red Wings but…

…did it really have to come down to one last game against the Ottawa Senators and even in the event of a win, a fate that still rests in hands of Detroit and Philadelphia?

Apparently so.

On the plus side, the Bruins came out firing Thursday night and David Pastrnak’s goal less than three minutes in withstood Jeff Blashill’s coach’s challenge to give the home team a 1-0 lead that they never relinquished.

On the Wings bench, Blashill watched his former junior player with the Indiana Ice deal his club a setback in the quest to clinch 25 straight seasons in the playoffs, a mark that is still four years behind the Boston Bruins, who established a run of 29 years in the postseason before bottoming out in 1997. Torey Krug scored his fourth goal of the season and first since December 5 (55 games) with a power drive with the man advantage that beat starter Jimmy Howard to the blocker side and stood up as the winning tally. Krug’s two assists gave him three points and the game’s 1st star, adding to his career-best offensive output (his goal totals are way down, but his assists are 13 more than his previous high of 27). I’ve seen all I need to from Krug…he’s a winner and much more important part of this Bruins team than some give him credit for. I can assure you that if he was 6-1 or 6-2, he wouldn’t get anywhere near the grief or negative scrutiny he does from some people, but that’s life. He’s heard it all before, and ultimately, he’ll continue to grow as a player or person. Those who don’t think he’s worth the $5M or more it’s going to take to re-sign Krug- here are two words: Tough. Cookies. It’s going to happen and when it does, it will be money well spent. More on that later in a future podcast, but I don’t expect to win the critics over. Some folks are simply never going to come around on Krug, and that’s fine. Complete consensus is always difficult, and I’ll do my level best to present the case and then move on.

But first, back to the home win…

While it was a statement victory for the Bruins, who also got goals from Brad Marchand (37), Loui Eriksson (30) and Lee Stempniak (his third in 18 games with Boston since the trade deadline, 19th overall), real good goaltending from Tuukka Rask (31 wins) in making saves at critical moments of the contest to keep the Wings from ever mounting a serious push, it does make you wonder where this team has been for the past thee weeks.

The fourth line of Frank Vatrano-Noel Acciari-Landon Ferraro– aka “La Cosa Goalstra” and I’ve also seen them referred to as the Little Italy line (not sure who came up with that one) which is also genius because all three are at or under 6-foot in height, provided some impressive energy and ruggedness all night. They’re not making the kind of offensive demonstration that made the Merlot line the best fourth unit in the NHL during the 2011-13 hey day of two Stanley Cup appearances in three years, but the current Boston fourth line is grinding it out and making plays. Their ability to possess the puck and generate scoring chances while to go with solid physical play and defensive awareness means that they aren’t a liability. The production hasn’t happened yet, but the Bruins could do far worse.

Now, Boston gets to face the Ottawa Senators at home in the season finale. Optimistic fans would do well not to look past their division rival to focus on the other scenarios involving Detroit and Philly before the Bruins take care of business first. The pessimists and cynics of course- will say it doesn’t matter even if the Bruins get in because they are toast in the playoffs. Even if true, no organization should ever subscribe to losing on purpose and just the experience of playoff games for those who have yet to taste that, is of some benefit.

In any case, here are some various scenarios upon which Boston’s playoff lives depend (compliments of FOB (friend of blog) Dominic Tiano (thanks Dom!):

Scenarios

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once more, we’re reminded of so many opportunities the Bruins had previously to take the drama out of it by simply taking care of business when they were in position to do so.

It’s a team effort and no one factor, player, coach or manager is responsible for the Bruins potentially being where they were a season ago with little to show for all that has occurred since the 2015 campaign ended.

What is certain is that the Bruins must win their final game to give them the best shot at getting back to the postseason in Don Sweeney’s first year as GM. Even then, two other teams get a vote. If they lose to the Sens, then let’s face it- they can still get in, but they probably don’t deserve it.

Buckle up!

Random observations:

Loui Eriksson tallied his 30th goal of the year last night for just the second time in his NHL career (he scored a season high 36 in 2008-09 with the Dallas Stars). With it, the Boston Bruins have three 30-goal guys in Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and Eriksson for the first time since 2002-03 when Glen Murray (44), Joe Thornton (36) and Mike Knuble (30) did the deed. (My soon-to-be in high school daughter turned 1 the year they did for some perspective)

A year later, Knuble-Thornton-Murray were christened the “700-lb line” by none other than then-Montreal head coach Claude Julien in the 2004 playoffs. In case you forgot, the B’s blew a 3-1 series lead to lose to Julien’s Habs in 7 at the Garden.

Torey Krug’s 44 points leads all Boston Bruins defensemen and his 40 assists are second only to David Krejci– he has four more helpers than Patrice Bergeron. Throw out the aberration of a low (1.5 percent) shooting percentage, and he’s about as productive as they come from the blue line.

Tuukka Rask’s .915 save percentage is the lowest of his career to date. The last time he was under .920 was in 2010-11, when he posted a .918 after playing in just 29 games as Tim Thomas’ backup. That’s a reflection of both the fall-off in talent of this Boston Bruins team, but there are other factors in play. When it comes down to it- Rask has been hot and cold all year, as one Twitter follower sent me this stat today: Rask is 5th in the NHL for most games: 19 with a save % of .950, but also 4th with 10 games of a sv% of .850 or less. Sure- there’s a lot to be said for the quality of the defense and team in front of him, but he has some accountability in this, too. There were nights when he could have and should have played better. The Bruins can and should get more from their 7-million dollar man in net.

Class move by Greg “Puck Daddy” Wyshynski to tweet out his gratitude to Dom Tiano for breaking down all of the possible playoff scenarios. Give Dom a follow if you don’t already and if you do, then you know how passionate about hockey and the Bruins he is. He’s also one of the smartest people out there on the nuts and bolts of the CBA and how things work behind the scenes. This is tedious work for those of us who have to research the myriad documents and complex language of the NHL’s by-laws and regulations, but having Dom as a friend and resource has helped me and countless others to get the reporting right. Take a bow.

 

 

Exposed: the Boston defense stands between a last-minute playoff surge or a repeat of 2015

It’s no secret.

We knew coming into the 2015-16 NHL season that the Boston Bruins’ defense was the team’s Achilles heel- the one area of contention that could sink the club’s hopes for an improved season after barely missing the playoffs a year ago.

They’re a game but ultimately mediocre bunch who have been exposed at the campaign’s most crucial juncture and even the fighting spirit that the 2015-16 Bruins have exhibited for much of the year isn’t enough to hide the warts with this group. It didn’t happen overnight, but the inexorable slide of the once-vaunted Boston D Party that won a championship in 2011 and got the Bruins close again in 2013 began in earnest with Dennis Seidenberg’s catastrophic knee injury shortly after he inked a 4-year, $16 million extension during the 2013-14 season.

It continued with a cap-constrained team that was forced to make fateful decisions that ultimately put the defense in the situation it is in now.

In 2014-15, a disastrous campaign that saw a team with significantly higher expectations begin the dismantling of a serviceable if not spectacular defense corps on the eve of the season when GM Peter Chiarelli traded fan favorite and dependable, versatile and heavy D Johnny Boychuk. It doesn’t matter as much to the fans that the move was to help get the team cap compliant, because in hindsight, there were other players who could have been cut loose to make the dollars work and not have the detrimental impact Boychuk’s change of address to the NY Islanders created for the B’s. It was a move that ultimately helped lead to the end of Chiarelli’s tenure in Boston at the conclusion of Boston’s first missed playoff season since 2007. Even so, you could make the case last season that the defense was less responsible for the Bruins’ inability to make it into the postseason (the offense went cold during a six-game losing streak (three of those losses came in OT so they got 3 points of 12) in March and then mustered just four goals in the final three regular season games, going 0-3), the blue line is the major culprit for the deja vu that the team finds itself in one year later.

In 2016, it isn’t as difficult to diagnose what ails this team most. Yet, it seems inconceivable that after a year of ups and downs, but few extended lows because of a spirit the current Bruins possess, that it’s all on the verge of unraveling altogether.

Three weeks ago, the B’s were sitting second overall in the Eastern Conference as they embarked on a California road trip that would begin a similar disastrous five-game swoon, all happening in regulation, a losing streak that might have cost them the playoffs for the second season in a row.

The B’s now face another do-or-die three-game stretch to close out the year: they died a year ago, dropping the trio of games when the offense deserted them.

This time, the team will attempt to stop the bleeding on the back end and even though the situation is hardly all Tuukka Rask’s fault, neither is it taboo to point out that he could elevate his play during this crucial stretch of games. It is not a zero-sum option here- it’s OK to say that Rask could be better than he has shown in recent contests without bringing out a legion of sycophants that doesn’t ever seem to want to hold Boston’s 7 million dollar goalie accountable for anything. It’s almost as if no goal allowed is ever on the one player who in many instances has the power to make a stop, even when the team in front of him “hangs him out to dry.” It’s a curious development- I’ve honestly never in my life seen such a willing group who will defend a player to the death while pointing the finger at everyone else but their guy.

The fact is- the entire team is to blame for the situation. The goalies. The forwards. The coaches. Management. Most certainly the defensemen. Everyone.

But blame is such an ethereal thing. Once you’ve pointed out the obvious or vented your impotent rage against your television or computer screen (or both) where are you? Blame is a part of life especially when it comes to fandom and sports, but simply blaming the Bruins for the current state of affairs falls short of the mark for what should be a substantive debate over what can and should be done going forward.

It’s too easy to simply point to the current state of affairs on the blue line and expect that Don Sweeney should have built Rome in a day last summer by fixing all of the myriad issues surrounding the team. Of course, trading Reilly Smith for a young, potential solution to the ills of this defense might have been preferable to the return the team has gotten from Jimmy Hayes, the reality is that at the time, the Hayes acquisition was well-received. Coming off a career- best 19 goals, it was a reasonable expectation that he might get 25 this season playing for his hometown team. Didn’t happen, and now Sweeney must figure out what to do with Hayes. The easy answer is to move him, but the tougher challenge is that Boston is selling low on the former 2008 second-round pick.

Regardless of what happens in the next three games, all paths lead to a significant shakeup on defense this coming offseason. Sweeney now has a year under his belt calling the shots and he showed last June he wasn’t afraid to make some bold decisions. Criticizing him for not going out and getting more help on defense is the lazy, hindsight being 20/20 argument, even if it might be true. What we don’t know is what options he had beyond a mediocre free agent group (does anyone think Buffalo got their money’s worth with Cody Franson?) and what he tried to accomplish after making the tough call to move Dougie Hamilton for three assets but not one of whom had a prayer of helping the Bruins *this* season?

Now, some contracts coming off the books and other extensions to (likely) be signed, Sweeney does have a little room to maneuver for an NHL roster defenseman. Whether it’s Kevin Shattenkirk or one of the myriad other names that have been floated out there, something’s gotta give. He’s got some organizational assets in the form of roster players, prospects and draft picks to use as currency to get a defenseman or two, but that has to be the focus. You just hope that whatever the GM is able to do, he won’t rob Peter to pay Paul.

What we do know and have for sometime now is that despite a gritty, gutsy effort to climb near the top of the Eastern Conference standings (at least as close to the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals as realistically possible), the defense came back to haunt the team as a whole, and to be completely honest- the offense and goaltending had their part to play in Boston’s current situation, which has them out of the playoff architecture after getting shellacked for 6 goals in nearly two periods in Chicago before scoring four unanswered goals in the game’s final 21 minute to make it less of a fiasco than it actually was.

Again- no one is blaming Rask for all of Boston failures, but the team needs him to play his best hockey of the season over this next trio of games or it is over…o-v-a-h. Literally. The cynics, many of whom wasted no time sharpening their knives in recent weeks and especially after the Sunday loss to the Blackhawks, will say it already is fait accompli that Boston misses the playoffs. Maybe, maybe not. I do know that not making the dance and getting the 14th overall pick in a top-10 group for the second consecutive year is worse than kissing your sister.

At least we have new lottery rules that give the 14th and final non-playoff chances at least some odds (no matter how miniscule) at land the 1st, 2nd or 3rd overall pick. Absent that, selecting 14th is little consolation for another so close, but so far away finish. Picking 14th year after year makes it even tougher to get those critical difference-making players that earlier selections will net rebuilding teams. Success is not a given,  just ask the Edmonton Oilers. Middle-of-the-pack drafting makes it that much harder to build a champion from the ground up, though.

As for the defense, it’s not all their fault either. Zdeno Chara is aging rapidly and I’m still convinced that his right knee injury from a year ago is still and will continue to hamper his play going forward. Torey Krug is a top-4 NHL defenseman, but is he closer to four than two and more impactful on special teams? He deserves a raise and should be kept and a part of an improved group going forward even if his goal numbers have suffered this season. Adam McQuaid’s a good guy but he doesn’t carry a great cap hit for what he brings, especially when he’s asked to play a larger role than the one to which he’s best suited. John-Michael Liles provided a nice late-season boost, but he’s not the kind of true difference-maker and two-way stalwart for the long haul the B’s need.

The losses of Seidenberg and Kevan Miller to injury have exposed the B’s who are affected without their experience and heavy game. Joe Morrow demonstrated that with a desperate and ill-advised cross blue line pass that Patrick Kane picked off and broke the game open with in the first of his Sunday hat trick. Nobody’s saying that Seidenberg and Miller are the core of a championship-caliber group, but perhaps those pining away for skilled but neophyte defenders with questionable defensive acumen like Morrow and Colin Miller (recalled today, btw) were reminded of why rolling the younger D out for big minutes this season didn’t happen.

The Bruins have a shot. They play three winnable games this week at home. At home! What could be better than a three-game TD Garden stand to close it all out? Amirite? Oh, wait a second…

To close it out, Sweeney knows what kinds of steps he needs to take, but it’s much easier said than done.

He made his mark with some bold moves in his first days as Bruins GM. He’ll have to tap the well of audacity once more. But, it’s more than just making roster changes that will likely be dissected every which way from Sunday when they occur. Along with a willingness to make major sea changes, the former NHL defenseman who played more than 1,000 NHL and most of them in the spoked B of the team he now presides over, will have to prove himself all over again.  If he can identify some key pieces at that very position and if he not only succeeds in acquiring them, but gets the kind of production out of them that can help get the Bruins back into contention, he’ll buy some measure of reprieve.

But the margin of error is shrinking. The nature of Titletown USA- that is- nine professional sports championships in Boston since 2002 between the Patriots (4), Red Sox (3), Celtics and Bruins, means that the natives have come to expect success.

Patience is not a virtue.

 

 

 

 

 

Blowing it

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”– Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

The Boston Bruins may have dodged a bullet last night in the standings when the Detroit Red Wings lost in regulation to the non-playoff Montreal Canadiens.

After the B’s outshot the New Jersey Devils and peppered backup goalie Keith Kinkaid with 40 shots to New Jersey’s 15, but lost by a 2-1 score on a pair of power play goals, the Wings missed out on a chance to leapfrog Boston for third place in the Atlantic Division, burning their game-in-hand. Just one point separates the two.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: The effort was certainly there for Boston last night, but there was simply no finish. Effort is good, but in the world of professional sports, results are ultimately king. Boston, with the exception of Saturday’s white-knuckle win over the bottom-feeding Toronto Maple Leafs, have lost six of their last seven games.

Just two weeks ago, the Bruins had a share of first place and had won some critical games they were expected to lose. Optimism was creeping back into it as the team was bringing the effort and results…until they went out to California, that is. A string of five consecutive losses, buttressed by the one road win up north has now added another ‘L’ to the ledger and the next two games could push the B’s into major non-playoff jeopardy: they travel to the Midwest to face Western Conference powers the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks.

But, Kirk- they beat the ‘Hawks earlier this month, you say. That they did. But that was a different time. In the last six games, the Bruins have mustered just 10 goals for. Those two opponents could easily hang 10 or more on Boston in just the pair of games, so the B’s must not only dig deep into the effort well, but they’ve got to execute to have any chance of getting points out of the next two critical matches.

On the plus side, Brad Marchand netted his 35th goal last night and it was a beautiful, parting-of-the-Red Sea kind of goal where he split the defense, zoomed in alone on Kinkaid and shifted from his forehand to his backhand before lifting the puck into the yawning cage. Marchand owned the space in front of the net, and you just got this sense that after Kinkaid was beaten so effortlessly, that the floodgates might open. Didn’t happen.

Now, the B’s get to face either one of Brian Elliott or Jake Allen– life certainly isn’t going to get any easier. The Blues recently posted a four-game consecutive shutout string and they’re getting healthier.

As we said before, the effort is good thing to see. This team has heart and it’s been like that for much of the season. The Bruins have been in the playoff standings since December and that’s saying something when you look at the roster from top to bottom. This is a club that was expected to struggle and likely miss the playoffs. This plucky bunch deserves credit for making such a good run of things. Claude Julien and his coaches- Doug Jarvis, Joe Sacco and Doug Houda– have managed to keep their charges motivated and playing hard, which has narrowed the talent gap the team faces on many a night.

Sometimes, it has worked out for them- take the night they went into Dallas to face the vaunted Stars at home and fell behind early but came roaring back and crushed Tyler Seguin’s crew at home.  Other nights, it’s simply not enough.

Most fans understand this and realize that this team was probably playing over its head for some key stretches of the season. That the playoff race has become so tight should not be a surprise, but it’s probably a fool’s errand to rage at the team (or your television and/or computer screen) when they fall short as they did against the Devils. Frustrating as it was, losses like the one in Newark last night are probably more the rule than the exception. It isn’t like the Bruins have a high-end, championship-caliber roster: they compete hard, but the Matt Beleskeys of the world work hard, make big hits and get themselves in position to score- they just have a harder time finishing off the play than others around the NHL. It does’t make him any less of a Bruin, but it does remind us that Don Sweeney and the Boston front office has a lot of work to do.

The hard part of all of this is that we’re witnessing the Bruins sagging down the stretch, much like they did a year ago. Games against the Devils must be won, because contests with the Blues and Blackhawks aren’t expected to deliver the needed points. Now, the B’s must overachieve in order to stay ahead in the standings. Had Boston endured this slump in the middle of the season and were surging back at the end, the sentiment amongst the fans might be a little different than it is now. In the grand scheme, it’s of little consequence, but timing is everything, and as the late Yogi Berra once said- “It’s deja vu all over again.”

What we are learning is that Boston’s core players aren’t getting it done to a high enough degree. Zdeno Chara did net the game-winner against Toronto Saturday, but he also took the boarding call that resulted in Reid Boucher’s game-winner last night. Whether it was  a weak call made by referee Steve Kozari, who one might have to strain to recall when he’s actually called a penalty against a Boston opponent in recent games, it doesn’t matter. Chara needs to be better.

David Krejci, he of the $7.2 million per year contract and no-movement clause, has to be hurt. Has to. Because if he isn’t, Peter Chiarelli’s final gift to the Bruins- the extension with five more years remaining- could be an albatross around the neck of the team going forward. Krejci turns 30 soon and his slight frame has taken a good amount of physical punishment over the years. He’s an outstanding competitor and one of the smartest offensive players in the league, but he carries a huge cap hit and a no-movement clause, both of which conspire to make him virtually impossible to move in any kind of meaningful deal unless it meant the Bruins were taking back a similar bad contract in return. That NMC remains in effect through 2019- when he’ll be 33- and then a no-trade goes for one more season- through 2020. The B’s could buy him out, but that’s not a feasible option with so much money invested in him and the crippling payout structure associated with such a move (the league did this to prevent teams from throwing money at big-ticket mistakes to make them go away).

If you think I’m picking on Krejci, then here’s an example of what’s bothered me of late: near the end the game last night, with his goaltender out of the net and Krejci going back for the puck deep in his own end, a Devils forward zipped by him and stole possession. The play didn’t lead to an empty-netter, but it did bleed valuable seconds off the clock- time the Bruins could have used to start the breakout the other way and try to get the equalizer. Speed has never been Krejci’s forte but I’ll come out and say it- he just looks slow out there. And, he seems unable to win footraces to loose pucks at critical moments- footraces Krejci used to win.  If you’re not concerned about this, I don’t know what else to say.

In net, Tuukka Rask has been up and down for most of the year. There is no question that when on his game, he is one of the NHL’s elite netminders. Unfortunately, he can also be significantly mediocre at times as well. The defense in front of him is a major issue, but the B’s could have used a stop from him on the Travis Zajac goal last night and didn’t get it.  If you read this and translate it as blaming Rask, that’s not what I’m saying, but at some point- Rask has more than 7 million reasons to play better than he has at points this season. He’s under .920 for a season-long save percentage, and on a team like this one, it’s simply not good enough.

Finally- Patrice Bergeron may be a saint, but he’s not all-powerful. He had the tying goal on his stick in close but fired the puck wide after it appeared a Devils defender got just enough of him to hamper him from getting the shot off cleanly. His 29 goals are a real testament to just how important the 30-year-old has been to Boston’s fortunes this year. Everything the Bruins stand for is symbolized in the play of Bergeron. But, he can’t do it alone. Julien shook the lines up last night to no avail- Boston could not find a way to salvage at least a point out of it to buy them some breathing room.

Brad Marchand has done his part as well. You can almost hear the cha-ching! as his next contract negotiations will begin next season with one year remaining on his current deal that pays him a bargain rate of $5 million with a $4.5M AAV. If the Bruins are going to make the playoffs, Marchand is going to be a key focal point to get them there, but he can’t carry the team. Others must find a way to take the pressure off of the team’s heavy lifters.

But by others- the pickings might be a tad slim.

Brett Connolly left the game with an injury, so now we’ll wait to see what lies ahead for him. Ryan Spooner didn’t make the trip but sources tell me his injury is not that serious- it’s just something that can be made worse if he doesn’t rest it properly. We’ll see him back soon. Jimmy Hayes is the easy target and whipping boy, but he hasn’t had much of an impact all season, so the fact that he’s done next to nothing for the past month doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Noel Acciari has been a revelation, but he’s not going to do much offensively. Landon Ferraro is another speedy but limited contributor scoring-wise. Frank Vatrano has the speed and hands to get something done, and he’d be a nice Cinderella story if he could pot some big ones to help his team net some critical points.

What the Bruins need is more production from their core and others like Loui Eriksson and Lee Stempniak, who had a hat trick denied him a week ago on one offside and one replay call that could have gone his way, only it didn’t. He’s cooled off considerably since Boston’s 6-0-1 run after the trade deadline, and Eriksson has been hot and cold for the most part since the team opted not to trade him- Bruins need more from both of them.

The defense is trying, but as the wise sage Yoda once said (paraphrased)- trying hard isn’t good enough. Or is it- good enough trying hard is not?

I respect the effort this team has made this season. A lot of that, regardless of whether you agree with his personnel decisions or not, falls on Julien. He’s managed to take a mediocre roster and put it in the thick of the playoff rest. Contrast that to some of the other teams out there from whom much, much more was expected given how they looked on paper, but have fallen flat.

Ultimately, though, results are what matters in the NHL and in most walks of life. The Bruins weren’t seen as potential champions this year and their performance has validated that. However, many (present company included) didn’t even see them as a playoff club coming in, and they’ve demonstrated what hard work can get you.

Hard work isn’t enough to win it all in this league, but the Bruins deserve credit for coming this far.

Now, they need to dig deep and find a way to be one of the final eight teams standing in the Eastern Conference. Just missing the playoffs means they’re in the same boat they were in a year ago- the draft won’t help them all that much. At least, not in the immediate sense.

They’ve squandered the cushion they built up just a few short weeks ago, so they’ll have to make it in the hard way. If they can deny Detroit, that team’s long playoff streak of 25 years will come to an end. If not, then we’ll know that sometimes, try as one might, effort is not enough to guarantee success.

I want to believe the Bruins will get in, but this finish is too close to call.

***

On another note- I will be joining radio host Allan Mitchell aka “Lowetide” on Edmonton’s TSN 1260 today to talk about Jimmy Vesey. His recent decision not to sign with Nashville and become a free agent as of August 15 has polarized a lot of people in the hockey world, so I thought I would weigh in with my own perspectives on Vesey, whom I’ve known for a long time and the NHL’s system, which allows for a team like the Predators to get nothing after they invested time and resources into developing him over the past four years. If you forgot that hockey is a business, then the Vesey situation reminds us all that it is.

I will be going on Mr. Mitchell’s show live at approximately 12:40 EST time today but if you can’t tune in (they stream their content online), his producer is very good about posting the SoundCloud file and I will put that up on the blog later and also tweet the link if you don’t want to wait.

 

B’s losing skid hits 4 games

The heat is on.

The Boston Bruins went into Madison Square Garden after losing all three games on their California road trip last week and promptly got behind the 8-ball in a 2-0 hole (thanks to goals by Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan) before ultimately falling by a 5-2 score.

The game’s complexion changed when Lee Stempniak had a 1st period goal wiped off the board on a coach’s challenge when Brad Marchand was ruled offside on the initial zone entry. Although the play developed much later and Marchand preceding the puck did’t have much of anything to do with Stempniak’s eventual tally, the rule is the rule and replay clearly showed Marchand did not have control of the puck when he crossed the blue line before the puck did. Instead of 2-1, the game remained 2-0 after one period of play.

Milton, Massachusetts native and former Cushing Academy star Keith Yandle assisted on both Rangers goals to stake his team to the early lead, including a superb feed to Stepan on the second strike, looking one way then putting the puck on the forward’s tape for the two-goal lead. It didn’t help that the Rangers seemed to get the benefit of some early ticky-tack calls that always seem to go against the Bruins, but complaining about the inconsistencies in officiating is tired and worn out- death, taxes and the other guys getting more power plays than Boston has become so much background noise and the team has to find ways to overcome that. There’s no grand conspiracy by the men in stripes against the Bruins when it comes to penalties, but we’re not likely to get much in the way of consistent applications of the rules, either. For whatever reason- it is what it is.

Tuukka Rask started the game, though he had been battling flu-like symptoms. He took himself out of it after 20 minutes, leaving Jonas Gustavsson to try and keep the Bruins in it.

Gustavsson was in a tough spot when the Rangers made it 3-0 on a blistering shot by Derick Brassard (his 26th) before the B’s could answer with a goal of their own when Stempniak scored his second tally as a Bruin.

Patrice Bergeron started the play when he took the puck away from Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, who made an ill-advised attempt to try to chip the puck past the NHL’s top defensive forward. Bergeron forced the turnover then passed it over to Marchand on the left side. He then deftly put the puck to the far post where Stempniak was positioned for the easy tap-in.

That set the stage for another decision that would not go Boston’s way after it appeared initially that a sprawling Henrik Lundqvist had denied Stempniak with his glove on a brilliant goal line save. However, replay convincingly showed that Lundqvist’s glove was behind the goal line and in the net when the puck looked like it crossed the line and ended up inside the glove before he pulled it back on the right side of the line. The review went to Toronto and league replay officials ruled that there was no “conclusive evidence” to overturn the initial call on the ice of no goal. So, instead of a 3-3 game and Stempniak hat trick, the score remained 3-1.

Rangers forward J.T. Miller scored in the third period to make it 4-1, but Frank Vatrano responded with his 7th goal of the season and first since being called up this week from Providence. Unfortunately, the B’s had no more comeback magic and Rick Nash closed out the scoring with an empty-netter. He blew by David Krejci after the B’s won a faceoff in the Rangers’ end, but puck skipped by the veteran center near the offensive blue line and it turned into a footrace that Krejci lost.

The Bruins now find themselves squarely on the horns of a dilemma: they’ve lost four games in a row for the first time all season. It isn’t like they played poorly last night- they outshot the Rangers 41-24 but Rask was not 100 percent and if he wasn’t he should not have been in net- that’s on him and Claude Julien for making that decision. It might or might not have made a difference, but Rask left the game with his club in an 0-2 deficit after playing a strong opening period.

As for the wiped out goals, the B’s continue to come out on the short end of the byzantine replay processes that the NHL presides over. I’ve watched various games all season and I still can’t figure out how the decisions are made to uphold or remove goals from contest to contest. The entire process seems pretty subjective, but the Bruins are bound by the system the NHL has, not the one we’d like the league to employ. The negated goal is understandable and the Bruins have themselves to blame for allowing for a coach’s challenge which has served to bring games to a screeching halt and kill momentum. By rule, it was the right call to wipe out the first Stempniak goal because Marchand was clearly offside. However, his being offside had nothing to do with the actual play that resulted in the goal. Bottom line- since the zone entry was improper in the first place, the goal has to come off the board, but sometimes, linesmen miss calls like that and goals stand- the coach’s challenge, as constructed, does more harm than good. Law of unintended consequences- the self-imposed delays while referees review the various angles and replays aren’t good for the game. And, we’ve seen instances where, despite clear evidence to uphold or reverse the call, that they’ve made the opposite ruling. The challenge is flawed- the NHL should tweak and fix the gaps in the process or scrap it altogether.

The third Stempniak goal gets back to inconsistency. I think even the most ardent Rangers fans would look at the replays and concede that was a goal, even if by definition, the NHL was able to invoke the “inconclusive” clause to uphold the call on the ice. The commentators (Pierre McGuire perhaps?) had it right when they talked about common sense showing that the puck was in the net before Lundqvist snatched his glove back over the line, and it’s completely understandable that the on-ice official would give him the benefit of that call- it was a tremendous play typical of King Henrik’s Hall of Fame-caliber career. However, that’s no consolation to the Bruins, who can make an equally compelling case that the replay showed that puck was in the Ranger goalie’s glove when his glove was on the wrong side of the goal line. If we have the technology and we aren’t going to use it, then what is the point of having replay at all?  Just give all the power to the referees in a game and don’t give false credence to a farce that the NHL is dedicated to making the right call when it’s right in front of them. Either rewrite the rule to allow for common sense to prevail in a situation like that or don’t have replay…it’s that simple.

Ultimately, though- the B’s now have to play the rested Florida Panthers at home tonight. The TD Garden environs have not been kind to them this season and this could get ugly if the B’s don’t put in a top effort. The way things have gone, an effort won’t be enough for the ever-growing-surly fans, who want to be rewarded with a winning performance. The B’s have had the effort of late, but don’t have anything to show for it. The offense, once clicking along at an impressive rate (third in the league before the road trip) has now gone south. The defense continues to be an adventure- they limited New York’s shots last night, but the Rangers capitalized on the quality chances Boston gave them, burying several goals from in close when B’s players didn’t cover the eventual goal scorers.

On one final note- Boston will recognize Claude Julien in a pre-game ceremony for becoming the team’s all-time winningest coach, passing Art Ross to sit alone atop the B’s coaching victories list as he closes in on 400 (but won’t get there this year). It’s a nice sentiment and one he deserves given the job he’s done with this roster and its limitations. The team needs to dig down deep to earn him a win and buy some breathing room as folks are getting antsy and looking back to last year.

I personally believe the Bruins will hold on and make the playoffs. They’re too hard-working to not eke out the points they need to get in. But as has been said all year, at some point, talent and depth will trump hard work and desire. Boston is on the right track and making the playoffs will be a good experience for the players, but Don Sweeney and the team understand the club’s shortcomings.

The sad thing about the loss in New York City last night is that the Bruins played well enough to win. They had plenty of chances to score and two goals that weren’t would have made all the difference. Vatrano, whom I thought would have been fine staying in Providence to soak up top minutes in all situations looks like he belongs in Boston. His snipe was vintage Vatrano- he slipped into a seam in the Rangers defense  and with no one on him, buried a laser beam just inside the short side post before Lundqvist could react. Kid’s a keeper.

The B’s left two points on the table in a game they most certainly could have had. It’s hard enough to beat the Rangers, but when you’re having to work agains the refs and the off-ice officials as well, you’re left with last night’s result.

That kind of a game can be a morale crusher, so it will be crucial for them to not come home tonight and lay an egg in a critical division game. If that happens, then we won’t only bear witness to a five-game losing streak but a snowball effect in Boston that will create an oppressive climate from now until the club’s next game in Toronto on Saturday.

The Bruins must find a way to get some wins.

Are You Not Entertained? Bruins recover to grab critical 2 points in South Florida

The Boston Bruins blew a pair of three-goal leads- 3-0 and 4-1 to the Florida Panthers, but got a tremendous top-shelf snipe from Lee Stempniak to get out of the BB&T Center with a critical two points in a 5-4 sudden death victory Monday night. It marked the 388th coaching victory of Claude Julien’s Boston career, moving him past Art Ross for sole possession of first place in Bruins franchise history.

Stempniak’s 17th goal of the season was his first as a Bruin- he broke into the zone during 3-on-3 overtime play with Ryan Spooner, took a cross-ice dish from Boston’s third-line pivot and then wired the puck over Al Montoya to escape Southern Florida after the Panthers tied it late on Jiri Hudler’s second marker of the night.

Things started well enough for Boston- Patrice Bergeron, No. 37 in your programs, No. 1 in your hearts one-handed a feed from Brad Marchand into the Florida net behind starter Roberto Luongo to give the road team a 1-0 lead just 37 seconds into the game. On 3.7.2016. Coolness.

David Pastrnak went five-hole on Luongo after slipping past the Florida defense for his 10th strike of the year (equaling last season’s total in 46 games) to make it 2-0 and then Brett Connolly rushed into the zone after getting the puck from Noel Acciari (his 1st NHL point) and firing a shot past Luongo to make it 3-0 at 12:22, his ninth goal.

Third-year center Aleksandr Barkov ( he’s Finnish, btw) cut the Florida lead to a pair of goals when he jumped on the rebound of a Jaromir Jagr shot and ripped home his 20th. The Jagr apple moved him past Gordie Howe for sole possession of third place all-time on the NHL’s scoring list (he trails No. 2 Mark Messier by 37 points).

Bergeron restored the three-goal lead with his 28th goal of the season and second at 17:25 of the opening frame when he took a Stempniak pass and buried it on a rush.

It looked like the B’s would cruise, as Luongo gave way to Montoya to start the second period. The Panthers had other ideas and jumped on the B’s when they came out for the middle frame stuck in neutral. The game seemed to turn when Shawn Thornton fought Adam McQuaid after a heavy hit in the corner, and fired up his team and the fans. Of course, the Bruins skating like they were in quicksand might have had something to do with goals by Hudler and Jussi Jokinen to cut the lead to 4-3, while allowing the Bruins to get just four shots on Montoya in the entire period.

That set up a back-and-forth third, which started to click down to the wire when the B’s lethargy in the neutral zone caught up with them and Hudler pounced on a rebound of an Alex Petrovic shot to make it a 4-4 game with under five minutes left in regulation.

Tuukka Rask gave up a couple he’d like to have back, but faced 51 Florida shots (he’s 7-0-1 when the B’s surrender 36 shots or more) and turned aside 47 (for a .922 save percentage). It was Rask’s 27th win of the season and put Boston in position to jump past both the Panthers and Lightning if they can beat Tampa on Tuesday.

Every point counts- the B’s can’t afford to leave anything on the table and tonight nearly got away from them if not for Stempniak, who now has one goal and six points in four games since coming over for a fourth-round pick this year and a second in 2017.

Although it was an ugly win, the scoreboard don’t say how, just how many. And it also allowed the Bruins to take on a little swagger (just a little- they did blow a couple of three-goal advantages, after all) and head out of South Florida saying this:

Gladiator

 

 

Big Boy Win

The Boston Bruins just beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2. At home, even.

The B’s got goals from Patrice Bergeron (25), Brad Marchand (33), Ryan Spooner (12) and Loui Eriksson (24) to earn a crucial 2 points and move to 2-0 in March- their toughest month of the season.

Claude Julien was behind the bench for his team’s 36th win of the season which gives him 387 with Boston, good for a tie for the club’s top spot all-time with Art Ross. What a way to get there in style, coach!

More important- they move into a (temporary) tie with Tampa Bay at 78 points, who are currently leading the Ottawa Senators and within two points of division-leading Florida, down 2-1 early to Colorado. Every game, every point is important, as we all learned last year. The victory gives them a tiny bit of breathing room against idle Detroit, building a three-point cushion for third place.

The Blackhawks played last night and started backup Scott Darling, and he at times looked like the No. 2 in Chi-Town, but that should not take away from Boston’s effort- they were gritty, tenacious and overcame a bad goal to Tomas Fleischmann late in the second which cut the 4-1 Boston lead in half.

However, as he did most of the night, Tuukka Rask shut Chicago’s attack down.

Those who want to look for negative things will no doubt find plenty, but I have to say- John-Michael Liles has impressed in his first two games. He skates like his legs are 25 not 35, and he’s always got his head up, looking to advance the puck. He had two helpers tonight but none prettier than the aerial sauce pass he fed to Eriksson, who was chugging right up the middle of the slot to the net. Loui deftly redirected a shot through the wickets to put an exclamation point on the contest. He went from a team that was selling off parts at the deadline after making an admirable push, to a club that is firmly in the thick of things. Even if the Bruins aren’t realistically a contender this year, Liles is playing with the energy and passion of someone who thinks they are.

The B’s get to face the nemesis Washington Capitals next on Saturday, and they’ll have a tough row to hoe. At least backup Philipp Grubauer will be in net and not the “Holtbeast”- Braden Holtby, who truly has Boston’s number and has pretty much owned them since earning his first career NHL win against the Black and Gold.

All you want from a team is pluck…a willingness to get after it and not fold in the face of pressure. The B’s passed their first major test of many this month and the first half of April. They’ll get to take one again agains Chicago on the road before the regular season ends, but at least we know the team has a split.

Now, the Bruins need to bear down and steal some games against playoff-bound opponents and not play down to those looking up at them in the standings.

Like we said- every point is important. This is why they opted to hold onto Eriksson rather than take a less than optimal return. He showed everyone why tonight, but there is much more work ahead.

 

 

Bruins hold on to beat Flames as new faces debut at home

The Boston Bruins got a late power play goal from (who else?) Patrice Bergeron to break a 1-1 deadlock and held on for a 2-1 victory at the TD Garden in a game that featured three new faces in the B’s lineup.

Veterans John-Michael Liles (wearing No. 26) and Lee Stempniak (No. 20) got plenty of time on the ice last night after the team acquired them at Monday’s trade deadline. Former Providence College captain Noel Acciari (No. 55) made his NHL debut last night less than a year after the B’s signed him as an undrafted free agent on the heels of the Friars’ first national championship.

All three earned favorable grades, even if neither team was able to generate much in the way of sustained offensive pressure throughout the night. Tuukka Rask earned his 25th victory of the season, stopping 26 of 27 Flames shots while allowing just one tally to rookie defenseman Jakub Nakladal, his first NHL goal, on a point shot after a sequence where Rask lost his stick and play broke down in front of the Boston net.

The B’s opened scoring in the first period when fourth-line winger Landon Ferraro charged through the middle of the ice and took a brilliant pass from Torey Krug, who slid the puck through a defender’s legs right to Ferraro, who snapped a laser into the top of the net past Flames netminder Joni Ortio for his fifth goal of the season. It was the second goal in the last four games for the waiver claim and former second-round pick of the Red Wings in 2009 after a long scoring drought. Acciari did not register a point on the play, but got his first NHL-plus rating by going to the net and attempting to set up a screen in front of Ortio. The Calgary defender boxed him out and kept him away from Ortio’s sightlines, but it was a good indicator of the rookie forward’s sharp instincts.

With time clicking down in a 1-1 game, the Flames got nailed for a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty in the final five minutes. That allowed the Bruins power play, which had performed pretty well during the game with nothing to show for it on the scoreboard, one last opportunity to get to work. Bergeron, who was set up in his customary “bumper” position high in the slot in the center of the offensive zone, took a pass from Ryan Spooner and drilled it through a screen for his 24th goal of the season (second to Brad Marchand’s 32 markers on the team).

This was an important two points for the B’s, as their March schedule is the toughest month by far in the regular season with nine games on the docket against playoff teams. The real test for the Boston roster is coming in the next 30 days, but even with the modest upgrades this week, they are at least better prepared to weather the storm and hold up agains the collapse that happened a year ago this month. The team is in a good spot- currently third in the Atlantic Division just four points out of first behind Sunshine State rivals Florida and Tampa Bay. However, with Detroit just one point behind Boston (with a game in hand) and the race for the two wildcard spots as tight as any since the league went to the new playoff seeding format, the team and its fans can take nothing for granted.

This where we will learn about the team’s true mettle and character.

With NHL Alpha Dogs Chicago and Washington (we saw perhaps a harbinger of the Stanley Cup final over the weekend in the Blackhawks win over the Capitals- a vigorously paced affair that served notice to the rest of the NHL’s also-rans) up in consecutive matches, followed by critical Atlantic Division games against Florida and Tampa on the road next week, the B’s might want to crank some Ozzy Osbourne (No Rest for the Wicked).

Random notes and observations

Congrats, Coach

Claude Julien posted his 386th career victory behind the Boston bench last night- he’s just one win behind Hall of Famer (as a player) Art Ross, who is tops on the B’s list and has been for more than six decades. A lot of good coaches have come and gone in this organization, but Julien has been a model of consistency whose hallmark is his ability to keep his players motivated and willing to play hard for him. In pro hockey, that’s often the most important ingredient to any successful team.

We can criticize his personnel decisions and bemoan the fact that certain veterans get opportunities that some of the younger players don’t, but in the end- especially this season- when you look at the job Julien has done during his time in Boston, he’s built a remarkable record of success. He’s the best Bruins coach of my lifetime at least, and I consider it a privilege to have gotten to know him a bit off the ice as well.

All of the players I know speak in near-reverent tones about the respect they have. On the record, you would expect that, but off the record, players aren’t shy about sharing their true feelings if they trust you. I have yet to encounter a Bruins player either on the current roster or no longer that doesn’t respect Julien and what he stands for. That’s not to say he doesn’t have his critics- by virtue of his job alone- deciding who plays more and who doesn’t get as much of an opportunity, there will be players who are more partial to other coaches they’ve played under. But not a one has ever blasted him. I can’t say the same for other Boston coaches who preceded him.

To those who would want Julien out- I keep going back to one simple question- who is out there and available as a coach who you would replace Julien with? I keep asking, I rarely get much of an answer. I’ll chalk that up to the irrationality that sometimes comes with being a sports fan.

The B’s are all set with Julien, thank you.

Welcome to the new blood

Okay, I’ll say it- I didn’t have high hopes for John-Michael Liles last night, but he was a breath of fresh air on the Boston blue line. Even at 35, he’s still a fine skater who moves the puck with confidence and authority. He reads and reacts to the play well, activating at the right times and supporting the play offensively and defensively as well. He’s not the higher-end two-way threat he was in his prime, but he’s still a serviceable player and has brought a better balance (with Krug) to Boston’s top six.

Lee Stempniak showed some flashes of his veteran experience and savvy skating on the B’s top line with Bergeron and Marchand. He didn’t make much pay off in a 2-1 game, but he’s the kind of player that should stabilize that unit and contribute. He goes to the net and knows how to make plays in traffic. The B’s are going to need him to keep the mojo he had in New Jersey going, especially as they hit the heart of their schedule this month.

I have to admit- I was a little surprised that the B’s brought Noel Acciari up this season. Not just because he’s a rookie pro and undrafted free agent (the second such NCAA signing to make his NHL debut with Boston this season with Frank Vatrano being the 1st) but because by sending Zac Rinaldo down, Sweeney and his staff are admitting failure sooner than I would guess most out there thought they would. Surrendering a third-round pick was bad enough, but it usually takes a season for a club to tacitly admit that. Acciai’s recall is proof that the B’s braintrust realizes that Rinaldo is what we thought he was, and that ultimately- they can get better bang for their buck with someone like Acciari. Now, that doesn’t mean the Johnston, R.I. native is here to stay- he could go back to Providence. But this is Boston’s way of reinforcing the job he has done and letting him know that his opportunity to possibly become a regular in Boston and fourth-line fixture is coming sooner rather than later.  My friend and colleague, Mark Divver, who does a tremendous job covering hockey and sports for the Providence Journal, said that if not for getting hit with a shot and fracturing his jaw, Acciai’s summons to Boston would have come sooner. I wouldn’t doubt that for a second.

Acciari is a good skater and heavy player who finishes his checks, plays a throwback north-south game, but doesn’t hurt his team with undisciplined penalties and cheap antics. He’s never going to be a high-end player or scorer at the NHL level, but with his hustle, smarts and leadership, he’s proof that you can play the game of hockey hard and with physicality, but do it cleanly.

Nobody should be expecting big point totals from Acciari, but he’s been one of those players at every level who manages to save his best for crunch time, so don’t be surprised if he pops in some big goals or makes some key passes for scores when the game is on the line. He’s exactly the right kind of the player the Bruins should have on the bottom line and here’s hoping he can parlay his first big league game into a solid career for the team he grew up cheering for. Like Vatrano, Acciari is living the dream and we should not discount what that kind of motivation does for people.

Fans just need to understand what Acciari is and isn’t going to do for the Bruins- so long as expectations are kept in line with who he is, people should embrace his crash-bang, but respectful game.  He’s not going to run around like an idiot and take head shots at people. In short- Acciari is the kind of player who will quickly earn the trust and respect of his teammates and coaches, even if his NHL time is not quite now.