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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The Tuukka Rask mea culpa

Tuukka_Rask

Tuukka Rask (Photo courtesy of Alison M. Foley)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s more from last April:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big trouble

Two games, two goals for and 10 goals against.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s on management to figure out.

Rookie report: Bruins-Blue Jackets 10/13/16

Here’s a quick look at how the newest Boston Bruins fared in their NHL debuts.

This is by no means an all-encompassing assessment, but more of some quick observations intended for those who couldn’t see the game or did and either saw some of the same things or might have caught some things I didn’t cover here. It’s also subjective analysis, so there are sure to be disagreements with how I broke the film down. That’s fine…ultimately, we’re in it for discussion or dialogue. This is not intended to be the final word on any of these players, especially after just one game that counts to draw from.

Enjoy.

Rob O’Gara, RD– He played the fewest minutes and didn’t make many costly mistakes. With O’Gara, less is more, so on the plus side, he showed some poise with the puck in terms of moving it to the right teammates to break the play out (for the most part) and played within his limitations. He snuck a wrist shot in on Sergei Bobrovsky in the third period that would have found the far corner of the net- the CBJ’s netminder was able to see the shot so perhaps with traffic in front of the net, O’Gara might have hit the back of the net in his first NHL contest.

On the down side, he tried to do too much at times, giving up position to chase the play and leaving Tuukka Rask without coverage. He forced a couple of passes and was guilty of contributing to a few turnovers, but nothing egregious that ended up with a Blue Jackets score. That’s all pretty minor stuff when you consider that he played within himself and didn’t try to be something he’s not. O’Gara is the Danton Heinen of the defensive youngsters- he’s not as flashy as some of the others, but he’s smart and effective. That’s what the Bruins needed more than anything, even if he had just 13 minutes in change and was protected in terms of the workload.

Brandon Carlo, RD- Like O’Gara, you have to take the good with the bad. He was a little jumpy out of the gate and just needed some time to settle in. He was slow at times to pick up coverage and react to the offensive flow in his own end, on the ice for a power play goal against and again when Seth Jones scored to give the home team a 3-1 lead. On that particular play, Carlo had two chances to get the puck out, but he put both weak clearing attempts (the first bounced back to him for a mulligan, but repeated his mistake) into players with blue uniforms. Instead of clearing the zone, the puck eventually got to Matt Beleskey, who was guilty of turning the play over to Jones for the tally, but it all started with Carlo, and Zdeno Chara as well…both of them had opportunities to make the right defensive plays that would’ve prevented the Jones goal but failed to do so.

On the plus side, he showed much promise with his mobility and play along the blue line. The first Backes goal happened in large part because Carlo knocked a clearing attempt out of the air and held the zone, allowing for the Bruins to keep the offensive pressure on Columbus. If he was a few inches shorter, he probably can’t make that play. He also notched his 1st NHL point by getting the puck in his own end and moving it to Brad Marchand as the Boston sniper was exiting the zone. It ended up being a lone helper on Marchand’s highlight reel, individual effort to score his second goal of the night. As said on this space and on the recent Dump N’ Chase podcast with ESPN New Hampshire’s Mike Grinnell, when you’re dealing with a 19-year-old defenseman in the NHL, there will be ups and downs, and while Carlo made some more obvious mistakes out there than O’Gara did, you can certainly see his potential going forward.

Austin Czarnik, C– With his speed and hands, the undrafted free agent was absolutely noticeable out there, but didn’t have much to show for it on the score sheet. He did not do well on faceoffs, and had trouble getting through traffic in the offensive zone to set up consistent scoring chances. He’s building chemistry with linemates Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes, so it’s too early to definitively assess whether that unit works or not, but with Patrice Bergeron potentially not going back into the lineup against Toronto, we should see another kick at the can. TSP thought the call against him, which led to the Columbus power play goal, was soft- it was a marginal, ticky-tack kind of infraction that NHL referees tend to assess against young players but don’t have the stones to call against veterans. Oh well.

Because of his skill set, Czarnik was noticeable and he deserves to be up with the big club, but there’s room for improvement. He needs to use his east-west lateral shiftiness a little more and find ways to get pucks to the net. Boston’s Little Czar of Hockey has the talent and intelligence to be a fine player in his own right.

Danton Heinen, RW- On the surface, he didn’t accomplish much and like Czarnik was hit with a nothingburger of a penalty, but showed off his impressive vision and soft hands/deft passing touch in several instances. It’s easy to watch the game and deduce that he didn’t accomplish anything, but where we saw flashes of promise going forward was in how he helped the possession game by handling backside pressure and moving the puck decisively and smartly throughout the game. As said before, Heinen is not like Czarnik, who is fun to watch because he can scoot and plays with that uptempo style that is noticeable…the rookie Boston winger will look one way and go the other and likes to slow things down and make a more deliberate play. Both styles work, but one player looks like he’s getting more done, even if he isn’t.

The B’s prevailed in their season opener mostly on the back of key veteran leaders and contributors. It’s a good reminder about why NHL teams don’t clear the decks of half their experienced lineups to make wholesale changes with untested and raw rookie/youngsters. While there was much to be encouraged about, we didn’t see the kind of performances that would lend themselves to thinking that all four will stay on the roster over the long haul going forward, but they proved they can play at this level. Even as veterans start to return and the coaches/management staff have to make decisions, the ability to see them in an audition setting is good news for the Bruins going forward.

Overall, it was a solid and encouraging showing that is sure to boost some confidence, especially presiding over a win in his first big league game. Had the B’s lost, you know that talk would have shifted to the number of young, inexperienced players in the lineup and the effect their mistakes had on the team’s performance, but the two points started it all out on the right foot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What D? The elephant in the room for the Bruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s legit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The undrafted free agents: 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.

 

In Backes aftermath, the Bruins still need a D

Your Scouting Post founder was on 98.5 today with Hardy and Chris Gasper (great guys who know how to ask the right questions, I would add- always love talking hockey with them) and the subject of the Boston Bruins’ elephant in the room- the clear and present need to upgrade the defense naturally came up.

To paraphrase- I talked about a “bridge” D- someone young and talented enough to help grow the team while recognizing that Don Sweeney is not going to be able to likely find a true heir apparent to Zdeno Chara via trade. We now know that Sweeney was trying hard last winter to wrangle Blues veteran and former BU star Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis in an aborted deal involving Loui Eriksson and the San Jose 1st-rounder that went from 18th to 29th (the B’s chose USA center Trent Frederic with it after finding no takers at the 2016 draft).

(Audio file courtesy of 98.5 the Sports Hub)

(EDIT- I mentioned Ryan Spooner as a possible “tradable commodity”- I am *not* advocating Spooner be moved at all. I responded to a direct question about the possibility of David Krejci being dealt and responded with my reasoning as to why that is less of a possibility. TSP has been and will continue to be a supporter of Spooner’s as a player who has the modern NHL skill set and has grown immeasurably since Boston drafted him in 2010. However, in order to get you must give and the Bruins’ cupboards aren’t overflowing whenever it comes to enticing assets to trade with. That’s reality.)

With Backes and Troy Brouwer now gone, Shattenkirk probably stays in St. Louis (and I suspect there are some hurt feelings that the B’s snaked Backes with a big-ticket offer the cap-strapped Blues had no chance to match), but Sweeney could strike gold via trade if he can figure out a way to get Jacob Trouba in the fold, for example- Trouba showed enormous promise but his play has fallen off, constituting risk. At the same time- you can do much worse than a physical, skilled specimen in his early 20’s like Trouba. It won’t be cheap, but with David Backes on board the Bruins freight train (it’s certainly not a bullet-speed train, is it?), Sweeney has more trade options available to him than he did yesterday, even if the leverage is debatable. Trouba is just one example- the B’s are undoubtedly looking at other options that might not only be that “bridge” but potentially a talent that could eventually evolve into a star. To say nothing of the impressive crop of recent Boston draft picks who are several years away yet, but could give the team the relief it seeks at the position. The problem with trading for such a promising talent is in the cost, and that’s a drum Sweeney has been beating for some time now. Or more succinctly- it takes two to tango.

“There’s not a level of disappointment,” Sweeney said about his quest for upgrading the defense in Friday’s media conference call to announce Backes and the other signings on day 1 of the NHL’s open hiring period. “If deals don’t materialize you guys both understand the types of players that were exchanged and the quality of players in the last few days. Things have to line up. People do not want to part with those types of players.”

There was talk of an offer sheet (James Murphy and Joe Haggerty doing the initial reporting) potentially being prepared for a defenseman in the days leading up to July 1. My good friend and hockey savant Dom Tiano, who is pretty well connected himself, confirmed hearing similar chatter and was tipped that the team was preparing a buyout in advance. That domino fell with Thursday’s Dennis Seidenberg announcement, which led to the Torey Krug four-year extension. But in our Thursday “3 Amigos” podcast with Dom and Reed Duthie of the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs (such a passionate, articulate and informed hockey mind!) Tiano brought up the key point that the buyout was not there (as offered up by former Bruins D turned hockey analyst Aaron Ward) to give flexibility to sign Krug- the B’s had plenty of space to do that all along.

What gets interesting is that the *assumption* (and what’s the old saying about what those do to ‘u’ and ‘me’?) was that Trouba would be an offer sheet target. Entirely plausible…but that was never firmly established.

Now, the thing about offer sheeting anyone is that it is a strategy that invites anger and delayed retaliation. In the gentleman’s NHL, signing to someone to an offer sheet isn’t just burning the bridge…it’s detonating a copious amount of C4 explosive to annihilate it…leaving no trace behind. At the same time- offer sheets have been done in the past with mixed results. The Bruins were reportedly trying to re-acquire the pick they dealt to New Jersey Devils (for the now Carolina Hurricane Lee Stempniak) or the third-rounder Sweeney foolishly peddled to Philly for Zac Rinaldo (can’t defend it, folks- sorry) to give the B’s the kind of flexibility on an offer sheet to avoid paying max cost and the four 1st-rounders (Dom covers this on the podcast, so if you haven’t listened yet, what are you waiting for?)

What does this all mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but there’s chatter that the B’s are looking at moving Adam McQuaid (he and Kevan Miller are redundant for what they provide, but that cap hit on both contracts is anything but redundant- something’s gotta give) and we can’t think Sweeney is finished with shaping his defense.

Let’s go back to Sweeney and more of his comments about the defense yesterday:

“We’ve set a course here to identify some areas that we needed to strengthen,” he said.  “And the last, you know, for the last year, we’re almost to a year on the job here for myself and the number of young players, in particular in defense and some of the center positions that we’ve added, will complement the young players of skill that we have on the wings. And you have to exercise some patience in this regard.

“These players don’t just grow up overnight and turn into NHL players. And we’re going to have to exercise patience, you know. Our group as it stands has a balance to it with hardness of [Zdeno] Chara and Kevan Miller and [Adam] McQuaid. [John-Michael] Liles brings a veteran savvyness that he can play with Colin Miller. Joe Morrow is an emerging player and Torey [Krug], we’re very happy to have him signed. You know that being said, we have other young players in the pipeline that are going to be welcoming an opportunity and we have to at some point in time continue to provide that and let them step up. Will it stop me from pursuing having conversations that I’ve maybe planted seeds or whatever? But again it’s going to take…you know there’s a high acquisition cost for these types of players and I think you’re better served to identify them, grow them and put them in the lineup when they’re ready to play.”

The cynics and skeptics will focus on the last sentence and say that Sweeney is hedging his bets and allowing for the possibility that he won’t be able to get anything done trade-wise. My gut says that as a former 1000+ game NHL defenseman, Sweeney knows his group is in the hurt box without at least one substantial add.

Offer sheet? Trade? I believe that the trade route is far preferable to blasting the bridge he will no doubt incur if Boston goes down that road. The threat of an offer sheet might be enough to get a GM to the table to take Sweeney’s offer more seriously. Hey- if nothing else- we can at least opine that the B’s GM speaks from experience. Whether true or not, that was the talk surrounding the hasty decision to move Dougie Hamilton at the 2015 NHL draft for futures.

I don’t have the answers, but there is certainly an element of fans and observers who are sharpening their knives because of a lack of movement on defense yesterday. Understandable. However, training camp doesn’t open until mid-September, so I would offer up the idea that a little more patience wouldn’t hurt. Ultimately, whether you are pessimistic because the B’s opted to bring in an experienced but aging forward in lieu of finding a way to get a key piece on D, or you are a little more optimistic because Backes gives him insurance and options, we can probably all agree that Sweeney isn’t finished.

Whether his next big move will be seen as an “a-ha!” moment after a series of transactions fell in place to set it up, or it will be more of a “I can’t believe they just (bleeping) did that!” remains to be seen.

What we do know is that right, wrong or indifferent- the Bruins are adding pieces that address what the club’s leadership said was the direction they wanted to go in. We’ll all have to see if they have it right or whether the B’s are headed for rougher oceans ahead.

“I think (our team) has the ability to play in all three zones,” Sweeney said.  “For our standpoint, Riley Nash, you look at possession, you look at versatility to play both center, wing, PK, go up and down the lineup. We’ve still got other young players that I mentioned that are going to be given opportunities in these roles. We need to do a better job. Once we get pucks into the offensive zone, being able to withstand that cycle game and possession, it’s not just going to be about off the rush.

“Albeit, we have skill coming that is going to complement this group and play a little faster pace, that we have balance on the back end that we’re building in depth there. I think that you have to be prepared to play, have an identity, which we will, play a 200-foot game.”

 

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 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