Thoughts on “the Trade”- 30 years ago today Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles helped to transform hockey in the USA

 

https://www.tsn.ca/the-trade-30-years-later-1.1155314

(Video posted to YouTube by CBC)

August 9, 1988…

I was 16 and in Florida visiting my grandparents with about a month left before my junior year in high school. I walked into the house that afternoon after a visit down to New Smyrna Beach, and my grandfather, a big baseball and football fan but who didn’t know (or give) a whit about hockey, greeted me with the last news I ever expected to hear.

“Hey, Kirk- did you hear that Wayne Gadsby just got traded?”

I must’ve stared at him blankly, because he followed up with: “You know? That hockey player from Canada?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the largest percentage of hockey players in the NHL were from Canada, but my brain was beginning to process what he’d just said.

“Wayne Gretzky got traded?” I said.

“Yes! Gretzky…that’s the one! They’ve been talking about it a lot on the TV and radio…”

He started to tell me what he knew about the deal…Los Angeles Kings…cash and young players…but his words were like the teacher in Charlie Brown (Wah-WAH-Wah-Wah-Wah.) My mind was racing: Gretzky, the Edmonton Oilers’ four-time Stanley Cup captain and face of hockey, the only player in the history of the game to score more than 200 points in a season not once, not twice, not three times but FOUR times…had been dealt in the prime of his life at 27 years old. My goodness, I thought as the realization hit me- if my grandfather Merlin in Florida is talking about this trade- how enormous of an impact is Gretzky to Tinseltown going to have on the NHL and hockey?

The truth is…in my teenage mind, I couldn’t even begin to comprehend it.

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On Rick Middleton’s No. 16 going to the rafters

81-82 Rick Middleton Home Sandow Mesh 004

The Boston Bruins announced Tuesday that Richard D. Middleton aka Rick Middleton aka ‘Nifty’ the right wing who starred for the team from 1976-88, will have his number 16 retired in a game later this November (29th- vs the NY Islanders). The longtime New Hampshire resident and Bruins Alumni fixture is deeply touched by the gesture, which comes three decades after he skated off into the sunset (more on that later).

The former Oshawa Generals star broke into the NHL with the NY Rangers, who selected him in the 1st round, 14th overall, in the 1973 NHL Amateur Draft. Middleton was also picked by the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the rival WHA that same year, going in the second round, 21st overall.

The trade is right up there with Cam Neely as one of former Bruins GM Harry Sinden’s best heists, sending the over-the-hill Ken Hodge to Broadway for the 22-year-old, who put up 90 points in two seasons with the Rangers. The catalyst for the deal was believed to be Phil Esposito, who was dealt to the Rangers the season before in a blockbuster, which sent Brad Park and Jean Ratelle to the B’s. Espo wanted his old (no pun intended) reliable right wing back, and Middleton was rumored to be a bit of a wild card off the ice…his -38 in 1975-76 certainly didn’t help.

So, Middleton headed off the Boston and after a couple of solid, if unspectacular years (by the standards of the 1970’s), he took off, posting 38, 40, 44, and 51-goal seasons from 1978-82. He peaked in 1984 with a 47-goal, 105-point year (finishing second to Barry Pederson’s 116 points) but the Boston offensive juggernaut was silenced in the opening round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens and Steve Penney, who sent them out with a whimper in 3 games (no points for Nifty). The year before, Middleton had posted a playoff season for the ages (33 points in 17 games), leading the Bruins past two rounds of the playoffs including the memorable 7-game affair against Buffalo where he registered a team-record (for one series) 19 points. Unfortunately, the B’s ran into the NY Islanders dynasty in the spring of 1983. Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Billy Smith & Company dispatched them from the Wales Conference final in a series that never seemed that close, en route to a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup, leaving so many B’s fans to wonder…what if?

Middleton’s production steadily declined after that career 105-point campaign, due in part to age and injury, but he did preside over the historic defeat of the Montreal Canadiens in 1988, a first for any Bruins team since 1943. Middleton’s breakaway game-winner in Game 3 (2-0), to put the B’s up 2-1 in the series after splitting the games in Montreal was a fitting coda for a man who had been a part of so many heart-breaking losses to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge during his entire Bruins tenure. He split the captaincy with Ray Bourque that year, wearing the ‘C’ for home games, until his retirement after the B’s were swept by Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers (their 4th NHL title since 1984) giving way to Bourque’s sole leadership from 1988 until his trade to Colorado in the spring of 2000.

As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, Nifty was an ubiquitous presence in my budding love of hockey and the Bruins. Although not a pure burner, his golden locks (later shiny pate as his hair thinned and ultimately gave way to a Jofa helmet late in his career) looked like they were on fire as he would bob and weave through the neutral and offensive zones, often putting on a display of stickhandling prowess at impossible angles and contortions, ending with pucks in the back of the net or sublime back-door feeds for gift-wrapped tap-ins for his lucky linemates. The Mike Krushelnyski-Pederson-Middleton line racked up 111 goals in 1983-84…a number that seems awe-inspiring some 35 years later.

Although Middleton’s scoring numbers paled in comparison to Gretzky’s (The Great One scored 100 more points than Middleton’s 105 in 83-84 just for perspective), or Mario Lemieux or Bossy to name a few, he was a veritable King Midas for the B’s, creating magic from the mundane and turning pucks into goals. But don’t take my word for it- Channel 38 once paid tribute to him with a highlight reel video now on YouTube to America’s “You Can Do Magic” and I had it recorded on VHS and must’ve watched it 1000 times…

Ignored by the Hockey Hall of Fame, 30 years after he retired, taking his number out of circulation is a welcome move for those who watched him (and maybe a good percentage of fans who didn’t, but who appreciate history). Sure- there are some who may be opposed to the honor (it is the 11th so number retired by the B’s) but that’s just a curmudgeonly nature of New Englanders at work- deep down, even the grumblers get it. After all- we’ve seen Peter Douris, Jozef Stumpel, Randy Robitaille, Ken Belanger, Marco Sturm and most recently, Kaspars Daugavins (in 2012-13), wear the digits in the intervening years. None hold the distinction and cachet Middleton did, and in the end- it’s just a number. It’s time to admit that he wore it well…better than anyone in the Black and Gold. As his 402 goals as a Bruin can attest, he could finish plays off just as easily as he set the table, and was the heir to Espo as the next pure scoring forward to put on the spoked B.

If the Bruins can take the time to honor for a player who grew up and matured in Boston as a model of consistency and was the face of the franchise at least up front for the better part of a decade, then why not?

It’s about time.

 

Deconstructing the Claude Julien firing

About 24 hours ago, the Boston Bruins and GM Don Sweeney officially swung the Sword of Damocles that had been hanging over the organization and coach Claude Julien’s head for weeks (some would even say years), dismissing the franchise’s all-time wins leader and Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, setting off a firestorm of criticism online and in the media for the timing and way it was handled.

This post will attempt to analyze the move and the subsequent naming of assistant coach Bruce Cassidy as the B’s interim bench boss. It is by no means the first and last word on the matter, nor will it hit every bucket that the firing impacts. Whether you were someone who felt it was time to go and are angered that the team elected to do it on the morning of the New England Patriots’ victory parade, are someone who felt he was not the problem and are even more irate at the timing, or are someone who feels like the move had to be made and have no issue with it (and everyone in between), this piece will try to raise multiple perspectives and shed light on some of the other factors that led to where we are on Wednesday, February 8, 2017- nearly a decade after Julien was brought in on the heels of the failed Dave Lewis experiment.

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Dominic Tiano: The best goal scorer in NHL history is…

Is Alex Ovechkin the most prolific goal scorer in NHL history?

The undrafted free agents: Kevan Miller

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

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

This is his story.

Hard as a Rock: Kevan Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Greg Ezell/PezDOY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

Take it away, Millsy.