As a Bruins fan living in Montreal, I do tend to get into heated debates with Habs fans. However, so far this offseason has been tame as both teams’ management show signs of incompetence. Most Habs fans look at the continued employment of the team’s coach and the Subban trade to [rightfully] be ruining the team. On the other hand, Bruins management feels rudderless. I’m not exactly pining for Chiarelli’s tenure as GM of the Bruins. He doesn’t seem to prize superstar talent as much as he should. He’s traded both top 2 picks from the 2010 draft for mediocre returns. In fact, the Bruins only have Joe Morrow, a number 6 or 7 defenseman, remaining with the team from the Seguin trade.
GM Jekyll and President Hyde
The ousting of Chiarelli seems in part due to a power struggle between himself and team president Cam Neely. Growing up, Neely was my 2nd favourite Bruin behind Ray Bourque. His blend of physicality and goal scoring was exciting to watch. When fans look at Lucic, they see many of the same qualities on the ice. Many felt Don Sweeney’s promotion from assistant GM to team general manager was to allow Neely to control the GM office with his former team mate as a puppet. Whatever the case, the team’s vision seems to be at odds.
Ownership wants to make the playoffs. That much is clear. Playoff revenue for a big market team is a major source of profit. From a business point of view, it is a good short term strategy to maximize your return on investment. On the flip side, you want to build a dynasty or at least a contender to grab the Cup. Upon his promotion, Sweeney spoke to needing to go with a youth movement; mirroring the sentiment of many other teams. Yet these moves are counter to each other. A youth movement usually implies a stripping down of the franchise while a “make playoffs at any cost” strategy usually involves sacrificing your future for the now. Instead, we are getting a mix of both to predictably middling results with a 9th place finish. Hence the 28th rank in the Hockey news poll of the team’s vision.
I already wrote about the Hamilton trade but I’d like to add an addendum to it. Hamilton did not excel last season with the Flames which seems to validate the opinion of those who drank the “we have to return to the [big bad] Bruins’ identity” kool-aid. Yes, he did have a bad year but part of it could be adapting to new teammates and different coaching. He picked up as the season went along though. Claude Julien, for his faults (and he has a few), is a better coach than Bob Hartley. Advanced statistics bear that in mind:
Flames 2015-2016 season
Bruins 2014-2015 season
The Flames were a very opportunistic team two seasons ago and were fortunate in facing a mediocre Canucks team in the first round of the postseason. On paper, they improved the team but the underlying problems remained. When goaltending didn’t pick up the slack, the team fell hard. Now they have a new coach. I describe Bruins management as the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde of the NHL because for every good decision they make, it is almost immediately followed up with a bad one or vice versa. Let’s review Sweeney’s first offseason with the benefit of hindsight.
It started off poorly with the extension of injury prone #6 defenseman Adam McQuaid to a lucrative 2.25/year for 4 year contract. Pundits were quick to parrot Sweeney’s defense this was the “market price” for such a player. When you have to defend your decisions, it implies it wasn’t a great one. Further, it goes against the whole youth movement. If you aren’t going to trust rookies to play your least important spot on D speaks to how weak the team’s drafting and depth pool are, or the talk of youth movement was a bunch of hot air.
It was then followed by a good return on Lucic deal to LA. In hindsight, it was a great deal because of his recent signing with Edmonton but also a later trade. Colin Miller looks to be a future #4 offensive defenseman if Julien actually gives him a true opportunity to shine. It also freed up cap space which was a major factor behind the Seguin and Boychuck trades which severely hampered the team at the end of Chiarelli’s tenure.
Then we got the poor return on the Hamilton trade (at the time), followed by a few reaches on some of the draft picks in the 14-16 range the Bruins had acquired in the first round of the 2015 draft. I lump the two together because they will be linked going forward on whether we truly got good value from the trade of our #2 d-man (and likely future #1). As of right now, it looks to me the team panicked under the threat of an offer sheet; an extremely rare occurrence.
We were then treated to a good return on the Jones trade to San Jose. Some have called it a bad decision. Perhaps in hindsight that might be true seeing as the Sharks went to the Finals. However, I’d contend Jones was solid but not spectacular in their playoff run. It was the top stars of the Sharks who carried the team to success and ultimately failure in winning the cup to a faster Penguins team. With Rask in goal for the foreseeable future due to his past performances and hefty contract, Jones was not going to get a legitimate shot to grab the #1 spot on the team. Thus, the return on what would have been a backup is excellent. Doug Wilson, GM of the Sharks, did go out and trade for James Reimer as insurance for the playoffs just in case. This was a move that belies some lack of confidence in Jones at the time.
Sweeney then balked on Reilly Smith’s contract extension the previous year and shipped him out (along with Marc Savard’s LTIR contract) to the Florida Panthers for the big bodied Jimmy Hayes after Smith had a lackluster sophomore season. In a case of giving up on a young player too early, Smith had a fantastic season in Sunrise and earned himself an even bigger extension after briefly leading the playoffs in scoring. Meanwhile, Jimmy Hayes oscillated between the bottom lines and the press box with the Bruins.
The team opted to keep Julien on as coach. While he is extremely hard on young players, he is a fundamentally and defensively sound coach. The team’s PK improved over the season which is in part to his work, but you can only do so much with what he had.
Sweeney then signed Matt Belesky to what can be described as a good and bad free agent signing. First, the bad was in many ways Belesky benefited from a career season at just the right time and a weak free agent class to have pundits project a vast overpay for his services. In a rare moment of sanity, NHL GMs recognized this and Sweeney was the one who came out with the player signed at what was perceived as below the market value at the expense of an extra year. I’d give this a mild thumbs up since the team lacked a left winger following the departure of Lucic earlier in the offseason. That said, again the team’s talent pool is legitimately weak on the left side and no youngsters appeared ready to make the jump. Belesky played much of the year as a checking forward with various stints on the 2nd line with Krejci or Spooner when #46 was injured. I’ll give it a slight thumbs up in context.
The offseason finished off with the decision not to sign Lee Stempniak following a PTO (which I’ll come back to later) and going with what they team had.
2016 so far
I’ll begin by not faulting Sweeney for the failure to trade Ericsson at the deadline. The team was in a playoff position at the time. While I have a hard time believing the team’s statements no one was willing to send two 2nd round picks in exchange for a 30 goal scorer, it is what it is. Failure to sign him to an extension or trading him during the offseason for negotiation rights is a failure though with the assets spent on the deadline acquisitions.
The team traded a mix of 2nd to 5th round picks for Lee Stempniak (didn’t have to wait long) and John-Micheal Liles. While both played decently in Boston, the team inevitably failed to make it into the post-season. The damning part is the Bruins had the opportunity for Stempniak to be on the roster on the cheap and without giving up assets all season had they picked him up off the PTO. On the bright side, the team did re-sign Liles for 1 year so he turned out to be more than just a rental.
With another early playoff miss, the Bruins began to disappoint me early with signing Kevin Miller to a 4 year 10 mil contract. Miller is a shorter version of Mcquaid. So the team is now paying 4.75 mil for two copies of the same player. There is nothing inherently wrong with that statement… if the two were better than #6 defensemen.
The team finally parted ways with Dennis Seidenberg. The “German hammer” dropped off significantly following knee injuries and couldn’t keep up with the ever speedier NHL crop of forwards. Julien’s reliance on his former workhorse only made things worse for the guy but at the same time I think it expedited the process of the buyout.
The Bruins then chose to not qualify Brett Connolly nor Zach Trotman during the RFA period. I have to admit, nether were setting the world on fire, I do feel they gave up too early on the pair. Trotman had a promising stint at the end of the 2014-2015 season but perhaps part of that was due to Chara still being a dominant d-man. With the aging Slovakian’s drop off, Trotman failed to progress to pick up the slack which led to his ousting. Had he been eased into a less intensive role (i.e. McQuaid or Miller), I think he would have made strides. Instead, the sink or swim on the top pair led to the team parting ways. I question keeping Morrow while dropping Trotman. Could they have not tried at least getting at least a “future considerations” from a team willing to give the guy a tryout? I know a 7th round pick is likely meaningless, but after losing the picks at the previous deadline, anything you can get back has some value if only as a sweetener in a trade. Connolly is a head scratcher. While he shows occasional flashes of good play, he never found chemistry in his first full year in Boston. Still, I think he should have had one more year to give it a go on the bottom lines. His contract was not onerous and he would have [hopefully] busted his ass to prove himself a legitimate NHL player. As of now, he signed early in FA to the Caps. With that team’s success, I expect him to do alright in the US capital.
Signing C/RW David Backes is a curious move. He had a poor season (by his standards) but is paid good money. The bruins are already deep at the pivot position. Spooner proved himself to be good scoring threat at center in the NHL. He turned out to be a great power play specialist and improved his 200 feet play. He’s no Patrice Bergeron, but he can be an average 2nd line center with the right wingers. With Krejci and Bergeron on the top 2 lines, it leads to a few options:
- Backes at RW can work depending where they wish to slot Pastrnak. The kid has crazy speed for this team and continues to improve. An injury kept him out of the lineup for a good stretch and Julien doesn’t give him enough minutes for someone of his talent level to fully exploit his offensive prowess. Bergeron and Marchand are so good together, their other winger is often a spare part. I like the already established chemistry between Krejci and Pastrnak. Training camp will likely decide. Either Pastrnak moves up to Bergeron’s line or Backes takes that spot. While Julien favours rolling four lines, I can’t imagine the team justifying Backes’ 6 mil/year contract on the 3rd line.
- Spooner at wing: Again, a hefty sum for a 3rd liner, making Backes 3rd line center pushes Spooner to become a winger. However, the kid is a bit small for that role and previous attempts at that position did not yield great results. The other option is an undeserved demotion of Spoons to the 4th line.
- Trade Krejci for help on D. Now, following the Hall for Larsson trade, the market for D-man has gone totally out of whack. While Krejci is a great player, his injury history, age and contract make it unlikely the team gets the return they truly hope for. The trade took place the eve of free agency opening probably threw a wrench in the team’s plans; particularly if the Bruins had already reached a verbal agreement with the Backes camp. Now, the Bruins likely have to throw in a sweetener (or more) to get any good return.
I’m not a fan of the move myself because of Backes declining numbers, the cap space required, the uncertainty of the roster, and also preventing a rookie from rising up to the big team but I’ll reserve judgement to see how it pans out.
The return of Anton Khudobin is more or less a sign of lack of confidence in the goaltender prospects the team has amassed. Despite good pedigrees and numbers, the team has legitimate reasons to not pull the trigger on Subban (injury), or the others. How long will they keep guys like Zane McIntyre or Jeremy Smith? Something has got to give or these guys will turn out to be failed prospects or make their careers elsewhere. I have to think a trade is looming or this is protection for next year’s expansion draft.
The final move so far was the signing of Krug’s extension. The guy takes a lot of crap for his size, but he was our 2nd best defenseman. Now, that is faint praise seeing how the rest of the defense corps played. He proved himself capable in a top 4 role though. The increasing value in the eyes of coaches and GMs on defense makes his signing a no brainer at the money given. So as things stand, we have a #2 dman in Chara, a #4 in Krug, Liles as a #4 although I doubt he’ll be paired with the offensive minded Krug, and #6 x2 in McQuaid and Miller with Morrow the replacement for the injured Ms. That leaves a whole 1 spot for Colin Miller (or anyone else) to crack the lineup. Way to go for the youth movement.
So the Bruins opening day lineup projects to be:
Merchand – Bergeron – Backes
Vatrano – Krejci – Pastrnak
Belesky – Spooner – Hayes?
Nash – Acciari – Randall
Krug – McQuaid
Liles – K.Miller
The top line looks incredibly solid to shutdown and outplay the opposing top lines. The 2nd line looks woefully inexperienced on the wings and will require Krejci to stay healthy and carry the heavy load on the defensive side. I like Belesky and Spooner combination but unless Hayes improves and becomes a more physical presence the line will struggle on both the defensive and offensive ends. The 4th line is woefully inexperienced and will not get much playtime exacerbating that problem.
If Chara slows down further, this is going to be a woefully inept defense. Rask and Khudobin are going to have to stand on their heads many nights to will this team into the playoffs.
One thing is certain, I suspect I will not be renewing my NHL centre ice package.