This afternoon I had a discussion with a hockey fan who believes the Boston Bruins are tanking. Not just for this year, but for next year as well. I’m not saying I believe this idea, but with all the evidence it is certainly possible.

The Evidence:

  1. No one in the NHL, CHL, USHL, SPHL, AHL or anywhere else in first world hockey thinks that Bruce Cassidy is a better coach than Claude Julien.
  2. The resigning of John-Michael Liles and allowing him to play so much.
  3. The signing of David Backes who five years ago would have been the perfect pickup, but who now is only questionable without being outright wrong.
  4. Absolutely no upgrades at defense which many thought was their biggest need coming into the season.
  5. No additional scoring forwards
  6. Riley Nash was “added” to a team trying to get into the playoffs, when he couldn’t even stay in the NHL in an organization that wanted to be seen on the same page of the standings as the playoff teams.
  7. Allowing Jack Adams winning, Stanley Cup winning, World Cup winning Claude Julien, who knows any of the home grown players, and most of the rest of the roster better than anyone else in the league from having coached them for so long, go to the other half of the greatest rivalry in North American sports.
  8. Sliding a rookie defensemen onto the ice with Zdeno Chara to play against the best players on the other team.
  9. Failure to bury Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes in the minors or otherwise remove them from the roster to allow more talented forwards to fill the roster.
  10. Signing Anton Khudobin, who when healthy is a solid netminder to a two year deal, and who also hasn’t been healthy more than two months since the end of his first tenure in Boston.
  11. The entire fourth line. Seriously, Tim Schaller? Did marketing pick him because ratings were down in NH? Dominic Moore is, possibly, an accidental exception given that he’s having an above average goal scoring season. Or maybe he’s just in Boston because he’s a Harvard guy? Colton Hargrove, Noel Acciari, Austin Czarnik, and others could have done the job as well, and with more cap space left over to address very real needs in the theoretical top nine
  12. The fact that nobody is talking about this years draft, but that name for next year are coming up.

So here’s how this theoretical Rick-Rolling works: The Bruins were bafflingly in a playoff spot 50 plus games into the season, and that needs to change. Not just so the team has better draft position this year, but so there are lower expectations for next year when among other things the no movement clause on Rask’s contract becomes an NTC. Remember, this is Rask’s fourth straight year of sv% decline, and according to Hockey-Reference.com is a below average goalie already according to GSAA.

Also, for this theory to work you probably have to believe what 29 (going on 30) other NHL teams have thought of Bruce Cassidy for more than a decade; That he’s not a good NHL coach, assuming he’s one at all. He has never won at any level, when he was given the bums rush from Washington he belly flopped into the OHL. In his last 10 seasons as a head coach in the AHL, OHL, and NHL he as won just three rounds of playoff hockey. For comparison Ted Nolan who is not employed as an NHL coach right now won championships in both the OHL and QMJHL, and won a Jack Adams award for best NHL coach. That’s a stark comparison, and one would think if you’re trying to win, you take (or keep) a guy who has won, and who given the trends in the NHL, has done so with young players versus not at all.

So given that the Bruins are lacking top draft picks this season. What happens if they trade out of this years draft? What happens if they trade this years pieces for picks in the seemingly stronger 2018 draft class? They get high picks, and underdog status in the following season. Boston, all of New England loves an underdog. And in sports nothing, not even winning is sexier than hope. We know Sweeney loves draft picks. We saw him take three first round picks in a row in the low teens instead of trading even one of them to improve the team now. That’s unprecedented in the modern era. Think of trading one or more of those picks and bringing in Trouba or Dumba, but no, not the Sweeney way.

If you truly believe the Boston Bruins front office covets young men like Rasmus Dahlin or David Levin, or Joe Veleno and they might make people forget a couple bad seasons if they laced up and lit up in Black and Gold, I think it’s safe to say this idea might not be pure vapor. When you remember that there are articles and posts from people in the know pegging players at the top of the 2018 draft going back to more than 18 months before the draft, and look at other drafts where that happened like say in the 2009 draft one begins to wonder why the fan I spoke to had Rick Astley on the brain.

Today on the Two Man ForeCheck we talked a whole bunch about goalies. We didn’t get to the two in tonight’s game very much, but I’m going to continue a look at two stats the folks at Hockey-Reference.com use: Quality Starts, and RBS (Really Bad Starts), and what they look like in terms of goalies performance as a whole. Tonight’s most likely matchup is Martin Jones versus Tukka Rask. For a very brief period the two were teammates before Jones was passed on to the Bay area for the pick that became U.  of Wisconsin’s 2nd leading scorer Trent Frederic and Sean Kuraly.

Rask has a career low sv% at .912 in 46 starts coming into tonight.

 

 

Jones has 49 games played, a sv% of .913

 

What do the numbers mean? Other than the two being fairly similar goalies this year? If you take a look at the quality start number, which Hockey-Reference.com defines as starts with a save percentage above league average as indicative of the goalie that is giving their team the best changes to win, Jones is the clear leader in that category. The inverse of that is the RBS or Really Bad Start, that being games with a sv% under .850, then you have a strong indication as to who is a more consistent goaltender this year as well. About the only argument you can make for Rask being the better goaltender of the two is that he is playing in a tougher conference this year. But even that is a very, very fuzzy bit of conjecture when you consider that he is playing on a team that allows many fewer shot per game than the Sharks.

 

For Bruins fans, don’t give up hope they have been better on the road this year than at home, and are still within the honeymoon period with their new coach.

I’ll open the dance by stating the obvious; unless Krejci or Bergeron is being moved out, Duchene is entirely the wrong guy for the Boston Bruins. Not for anything that he is, but for what he isn’t; and that’s better (when healthy) than Krejci or Bergeron. He probably will put up more points on a playoff quality team, but he’s not the topic of discussion.

I like Gabriel Landeskog. He’s a very solid player. He’s physical, he’s willing, he plays in all three zones at at least a passable level. He’s been pretty healthy over the course of his NHL. He’s put together three straight seasons with more than 20 goals. He’s even the captain, named so at a ludicrously young age.

Why is he probably not the best available winger? That’s easy, I can name one who has very similar physical attributes, is faster, meaner, and has something to prove.

Here’s the tale of the tape:

Career goals per game: Landeskog: 0.278 vs Winger X: 0.312

Hits per game (2011-present): Landeskog: 2.2 Winger X: 2.6

Goals by strength: Landeskog: 80 ES, 27PP 4SH 16 1stG 4OTG 16GWG Winger X: 94ES 16PPG 4SHG 22 1stG 3 OTG 19 GWG

Shot attempt %: Landeskog 49.71% vs Winger X 50.64%

Goals per 60: Landeskog 0.89 Winger X 1.05

Minor penalties drawn per 60: Landeskog 0.94 vs Winger X 1.21

SHTOI/G: Landeskog and Winger X 1:04

TOI/GP: Landeskog 18:47 vs Winger X 19:31

Cap hit next year: Winger X is $321,429 less expensive.

Why did I pick the stats I did? Partly because the biggest need from a winger would be goals, followed by physicality. And because any player that is going to survive in Boston will need to be able to contribute in all three zones.  In some people’s minds Winger X has a few marks against him. On his first team, in a city not very friendly to the melanin blessed, he had a reputation for trouble making which may have spilled over to his current team. On balance, none of the accusations in either city have ever been proved in court. And of course of the two, Winger X is the one who put together a 30 goal season at all, much less while under 21.

Evander Kane

I finally return to my favorite feature column.

If I told you in September that

Teams:

  • on 2/12 there would be three teams in playoff spots, including the Canadiens, Senators, and Leafs with the Calgary Flames knocking on the door
  • the best penalty kill in the NHL would belong to the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • the Montreal Canadiens would be 2nd in times shorthanded, with 197 times through 57 games
  • the Dallas Stars would not only have a worse powerplay than the Boston Bruins but be in the bottom third of the league
  • the Columbus Blue Jackets would be the only team in February with zero shorthanded goals allowed.
  • three of the top five NHL teams in five on five goals for would be outside the the playoffs
  • nearly one quarter of the teams holding a playoff spot including the Saint Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Ottawa Senators would have an even or negative goal differential.

Players

  • Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators would be tied for second in blocked shots per game.
  • Brayden Schenn would lead the NHL in powerplay goals
  • that Sidney Crosby would tied for 86th in powerplay assists
  • Jeff Carter would lead his team and the NHL in game winning goals, including one third of the tallies for the Kings
  • three of the top five rookies in the NHL in scoring would all play on one team: Mitchell Marner, Auston Matthews, and William Nylander
  • Peter Budaj would have his best career save percentage, the Kings in a playoff position, 26 wins, and the lead in shutouts.
  • two goalies would hold 30 win seasons, Devan Dubnyk and Sergei Bobrovsky, in less than 45 games played and also both be in the top 5 in total saves.

 

If I told you any of this in September would you have believed me?

Look for the next episode of Two Man Forecheck soon!

We’ll talk: Mike Illitch and his legacy, Claude Julien, expansion, the New York Islanders and more. Give my co-host @TheOffWing a follow and catch up on what he’s writing at TheOffWing.com .

Earlier today Matt Kalman tweeted a quote of Don Sweeney from his press conference after having fired the all time winningest coach in the history of one of the oldest franchisees in the NHL.

There’s numerous possible translations of this nearly coherent, almost cogent sting of words.

Option A:

Claude Julien wasn’t my guy. I decided to put someone I’m more likely to sit down and have a beer with in place.

Option B:

I went to Harvard. What’s happening now is irrelevant because I’m smart enough to see the path forward and because I went to Harvard, I’m completely capable of dragging this franchise in the direction I want it to go regardless of what everyone else who didn’t go to Harvard thinks.

Option C:

Julien refused to give into my wanting to help him make every decision from what color socks to where in the morning to who gets played each night and each shift, and the food on the plane. Cassidy on the other hand proved he’s a good lapdog when he was in Providence and I promised him then if he kept licking my hand just right I’d get him back to the NHL even though his previous stint in the big times was about Steve Kasper worthy.

Option D:

If Julien was half as good as he thinks he is, he’d be able to turn any collection of players into an NHL playoff appearance. Clearly his reputation is over blow, and since I played far more time in the NHL than he ever did, I know the game better than him and he’s not using the high quality assets I’ve assigned him to their fullest.

Negotiations have been announced between the Brad Marchand camp and the Boston Bruins. This is great, Marchand is a big part of the team and the first major piece to come up for contract at a time where the puck was undoubtedly on Sweeney’s stick the whole time. The Loui Eriksson situation could arguably have been resolved prior to Sweeney taking the helm, but even that wasn’t as big a deal as Marchand.

Brad Marchand love him or hate him is a home grown talent taken in the third round who bootstrapped his way into the NHL and made himself a better player with the help of the coaches and training staff. More than that he’s effective at everything they ask of him, he scores, he defends well enough if he didn’t play with Bergeron he’d get Selke buzz, he has both speed and agility, he’s very strong for a player his size. He’s been remarkably durable, and it shows in the playoffs when he performs on the biggest stage in the hockey world.

I’m not sure how he gets overlooked so much, but heknow  was an integral part of that Stanley Cup win. Despite playing a shut down roll against several of the top ten offenses of the year in that post season, he outscored every other winger on the roster. 11 goals is something even Patrick Kane hasn’t topped in the playoffs. That’s heady company to keep.

As importantly, the Marchand and Bergeron pairing has not only been a foundation of the team’s stability for half a decade, it has been highly productive. Claude Julien (or a successor) can point at those two and say; that’s the way good linemates work together, anticipating, covering each other, and never getting stale. Possibly even more important to a coach like Julien is their ability to carry seemingly any winger to at least an appearance of average competence. Best of all from his perspective is the knowledge he can put the two of them on the ice in any situation and know he’s made a smart choice.

Marchand will enter the season at 28 years old. The math on an eight year deal says he’d start the final season of the deal at 36 years old. He’s unlikely to be scoring 30+ goals that year, and even  25 is a bit difficult to credit. On the other hand a deal that long makes him less attractive to being grabbed in the expansion draft should he be unprotected. I can’t see him failing to hit 30 goals at least three times in the next five years, and will be surprised if one of the next two years isn’t a forty goal season.

For all he does on the ice, his lack of trouble making off the ice is nearly as important. He takes part in his share of community work, he is by all counts I’ve seen polite to fans. He’s given no real reason not to be resigned expeditiously. Another notable factor on Marchand is that he hasn’t had a contract dispute with the team before. That means by nearly any count the failure to get to a contract quickly falls into the lap of Don Sweeney and the rest of the Boston Bruins management team.

If Sweeney doesn’t get Marchand locked up quickly, and to at least a four year deal, he will likely be the first domino in chain of failure. Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak are due contracts next year, and Spooner is arbitration and offer sheet eligible, and let’s not forget that Alex Khoklachev has chosen to vacate the organization for what he deems management issues. When you add in a high percentage of college players who if they see the organization as unstable or hostile to players might choose “The Vesey Route” and hockey fans could be on the verge of witnessing a very messy meltdown.

Don Sweeney does not have the name recognition of his Tampa Bay counterpart, nor is Marchand quite as highly regarded. But his opposite number also doesn’t work in an environment quite as charged as the Boston market. Sweeney has more pressure from ownership, aging players, his former teammate and direct superior, fans, media, and probably his mom to win now two straight years of failure to make the playoffs even for the undoubtedly noble cause of building the team right, are considered too much. A third or fourth year would likely drop ticket and merchandise sales into the toilet. A Marchand-less roster is a lesser roster, and a resume generating event.

The Jimmy Vesey sweepstakes has been the most interesting off ice story in hockey for almost a year. His choice not to sign with the rising Nashville Predators his irked some, and left others salivating in the hopes that he would play in their favorite franchise. The rumor and fantasy mills have focused on three seeming front runners, The Toronto Maple Leafs where he has a brother in the system and a father on the staff, the Buffalo Sabres who have his rights currently, and of course his home town Boston Bruins.

New Jersey shouldn’t be overlooked when evaluating where he might want to end up. One of the things that is most striking about his choice not to go to Nashville is that the narrative all along has been that he wanted to choose his own destiny, and forge his own career. While some might see this as a fit of pique, I think it shows an understanding of the NHL and what it takes to succeed; skill fit, wit, and chemistry.

If he goes to Toronto, he gets to play in a hockey mad city that lives half an atom outside the skin of its resident avatars of the state religion. It’s a pressure cooker, its intrusive, and it has no history of success in his life time. The current leadership aside, the head coach isn’t used to building teams, the current general manager is used to being the whole show, and the team President is best known in his post playing days as the Dean of Discipline to the NHL. One might very successfully make the case that’s a potentially if not inherently volatile mix at the top of the organization. Should he sign there he will be making it harder for his own brother to get a shot at the NHL. Yes, it is quite unlikely they would both be aimed at the same position, but there are only so many slots on the roster. There is also the specter of nepotism that will hang over him if he does land there, no matter how good he is.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are pretty much a non starter not because he wouldn’t want to play with Phil Kessel, Malkin, Crosby and Letang, but because from a cap perspective its comes pretty close to attempting to scale Everest in flip flops and a loin cloth. In order for him to get into the top six, they likely need to move a well known, expensive player. Chris Kunitz is well known, well respected and thirty six years old with only this season under contract. Pascal Dupuis’s contract is potentially trade able, but they would likely have to give up a good piece to go with it. After that is the question of moving either Carl Hagelin or Conor Sheary, financially Hagelin being moved makes the most sense, talent wise, and long term cap implications are debatable.

While many would list the Boston Bruins as the default choice, there are issues there too. Playing in your hometown is an enormous amount of pressure with zero down time, summer isn’t safe to be home, after a bad game everyone is upset, after a win everyone wants to buy you a drink, and everyone knows someone who knows you. Add to that the Bruins have coach with (an overblown) reputation for being tough on young players, one of the top ten left wings in the game in Brad Marchand, and the fact that the team desperately needs defense good enough to be paid well, and Vesey is probably not a priority to the Bruins. Another factor might be how many current local boys are in the system. I’m sure he’s friends with some, rivalries or worse, that started in early childhood can be hard to leave behind.

And then there is Buffalo. The Sabres have quite a bit of impressive young talent. Including Evander Kane, a left wing who has scored 30 goals in the NHL at a young age, plays physically, and is locked into a top six position, unless a coach is feeling like moving on to warmer pastures. They also have veteran Matt Moulson, another left wing, a three time 30 goal scorer who has had a down couple of years but can almost certainly be expected to be a big part of the leadership group both on and off the ice. The scrappy utility forward Tyler Ennis will hold onto a top 9 position one way or another as well. It is unlikely Vesey considers his chances of being more of an impact player in season one than Evander Kane, and a healthy, motivated Matt Moulson is nothing to sneeze at, which exclusive of Ennis, and other prospects makes his chances at significant minutes slim.

What does New Jersey offer?

  • They are close enough to home to be a short flight,  and manageable train or car ride for himself, friends, and family.
  • A big enough city to have night life and amenities.
  • Far enough down the media frenzy food chain to have breathing space.
  • High end team mates like Taylor Hall and Adam Henrique.
  • A team that is without him better than the Leafs and Sabres
  • Highly respected veteran leaders like Cammelleri, Zajac, and Fiddler
  • Less competition for dollars against the cap in the mid term future.

In short, for a lot of reasons the New Jersey Devils might just be team he lands with. They aren’t the sexy pick, the easy pick, or the one what might just let him ride coattails to an early career Stanley Cup, but they have a lot of things none of the other teams have. Realistically, the Devils could have won a half dozen of the games they lost in regulation last year. With 96 points, and just three of the wins coming in regulation, they would have beaten out the Philadelphia Flyers for the second wild card spot last spring.

Based on only the players currently signed to the Bruins, what we know about the coaches, players, and management. Here’s a quick look at what it may look like.

  1. Marchand – Bergeron – Hayes
  2. Beleskey – Krejci – Backes
  3. Vatrano – Spooner – Pastrnak
  4. Hargrove – Acciari – Nash

Bergeron and Marchand staying together is about as close to a sure thing as you’re going to get in Boston right now. For balance, something Julien is in love with, that’s why Hayes and Beleskey both start out in the top six. I can’t see Julien loving the idea of the current third line, but unless he’s going to flip Backes and Pastrnak for more defensive responsibility on the third line, and more speed on the first, it could well happen. The fourth line is going to come down to who has the best camp and what the biggest needs are.

Currently I have the penalty kill units looking like this:

  • Bergeron, Chara, Marchand, McQuaid
  • Krejci, Acciari, Miller, Liles

With the lines above I can see Hargrove and Backes both taking shorthanded time up front, which is part of why I projected Hargrove over Randell, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see a platoon of players go through the fourth line and bottom of the defense this year even if/when more players are added.

Defensive pairs have everyone’s attention right now, and here’s a possible look at the future.

  • Chara – K. Miller
  • Krug – McQuaid
  • Liles – Grant

During Miller’s best play last season he played with Chara and looked respectable doing it. Krug proved last year he’s worth every bit of the money he’ll be getting this year, not just with his offensive numbers but by picking up more even strength play, and even some limited penalty killing. Alex Grant is a right shot defenseman and that is something rare in the Bruins system at the moment.

The extras are Seth Griffith who I could easily see displacing Hayes, especially given his past chemistry with Bergeron and Marchand, and Rob O’Gara who’s known to be a level-headed, strong skating, all purpose defenseman.

I won’t be a bit surprised when one or two of the currently unsigned RFA guys are brought back in, particularly Joe Morrow who I would slot in ahead of more than one player in the current six.

Goalies are almost certain to be: Rask and Khudobin. Partly because of experience, partly to make McIntyre and Subban less attractive in the expansion draft.

The Power Plays:

  • Krejci, Pastrnak, Hayes, Bergeron, Krug
  • Marchand, Spooner, Backes, Chara, Vatrano

Both units maintain several pieces from last year and allow Chara to be saved for more five on five play while still having at least one thirty goal scorer on each unit. With Backes on the second unit you also get a strong faceoff man who is the opposite hand from Spooner opening more options for set plays from faceoffs.  Again, Griffith, or one of the other prospects could displace Hayes, Vatrano, or Pastrnak fairly easily.

For those interested in the cap implications click here.

Other players on the bubble between AHL and NHL this year: Colin Miller and Joe Morrow who both played in Boston last year but are unsigned, Tyler Randell, Tommy Cross (who’s new contract surprised me), Danton Heinen who is highly regarded but still cutting his professional teeth, and Zach Senyshyn who had 45 goals in the OHL last year.

It’s early in Free Agency, just a couple days in, but all of the top players are signed so it is time to grade the teams.

Boston Bruins: C-

Their biggest need was on defense. Not just a high end player that eat twenty two to twenty five minutes a night, but someone who can pick up the defensive slack as Chara ages and with Seidenberg a thing of the past. They failed to do that. Their second biggest need was to fill out the right side, and they did that with a hand in glove signing of David Backes. Style wise, experience wise, attitude wise it would be harder to find a better right wing for the team even if there is a decent amount of risk. Third on the list was filling the bottom six and getting depth at forward that can be called up from Providence and provide veteran leadership there. They first didn’t make the mistake of resigning Chris Kelly long term (or at all, so far), and brought back Tyler Randell, and added Riley Nash which are solid signings. They also signed an injury prone backup goaltender who will at least fit into the room comfortably being a retread.

Buffalo Sabres: B+

The Sabres did what they needed to continue a rebuild that is going along solidly but they took on some risk to do so. Kyle Okposo brings size, skill, physicality, playoff experience and undeniable injury history to the Sabres. They added some minor league depth, but honestly there wasn’t a lot for them to do. They have some RFA’s to resign who play a big part in the Sabres machine, and are targeting Jimmy Vesey, but they have enough depth at all the skating positions they should with only reasonable health at worst still be in the playoff conversation in late November assuming they get Rasmus Ristolainen, and Marcus Foligno signed without alienating anyone. The biggest failure would be in letting Chad Johnson go and picking up Anders Nilsson who has largely been a 3rd goalie as the seeming replacement.

Detroit Red Wings: C-

Generally peaking when your two most notable UFA acquisitions are a former all star known for scoring who barely does any more, and a former agitator who barely does that anymore you’ve already admitted you’re rebuilding. Except the Red Wings haven’t done that, and yet they went and grabbed Tomas Vanek who has seen his stats plummet in the last few years, and Steve Ott who has had exactly one twenty goal season in his career. Ott will be thirty-four when the puck drops in October. It is quite hard to be optimistic when a team that 23rd in the leagues last season in Goals For does nothing noticeable to help themselves in that category. What about Frans Neilsen you say? Good question. He’s undeniably talented, but he is also 32, the least well known of the three (outside Long Island), and has never cracked 60 points. Did Zetterberg and Kronwall lobby that hard for players who listen to the same music as they do?

Florida Panthers:  B+

On paper the Florida Panthers have spent the last several days sweeping up all the talent they need to maybe, just maybe become the front runner for Atlantic Division Title. They inked Jason Demers long term, and they also made two sneaky smart pickups signing Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault both playoff tested guys still at the height of their athleticism. If there is a concern in the moves made over the off season as a whole, it is that the team may have gotten worse defensively. That’s a bit concerning given that their number one goaltender is within a season or so of playing in his 1000th NHL game.

The Montreal Canadiens: C-

While there is nothing wrong with the talent the Canadiens have brought in, one wonders what is wrong with the decision making process in the front office. The mantra according to both deed and word is to have a locker room without personality problems, at least that was the official reason for moving Norris trophy winner P.K. Subban. But when you bring in Alex Radulov and Andrew Shaw to the mix any observer can be forgiven for wondering if there wasn’t perhaps if that official reason wasn’t even close to the skin of the matter. Al Montoya as a backup is nearly as confusing as the other moves as their were several backups available with better career numbers.

Ottawa Senators: No Grade

While they didn’t throw too much term or too much money at any big name free agents and certainly there are occasions when the signing you don’t make is the best deal of the off season, they failed to improve. That said, they did a lot of major movement towards the middle of last season, and didn’t have a lot of roster spots to fill.

Tampa Bay Lightning: No Grade

The Bolts didn’t have a lot of needs from the UFA market, if any at all. And they made no moves there. They did lock up most of their core and have a good deal of room to sign up the RFAs they have at loose ends.

Toronto Maple Leafs: C-

The Leafs added two UFAs worth naming since free agency opened, and the same thing can be said about both of them. They are tough, physical, blue collar players who can be nice contributors.  What Matt Martin and Roman Polak aren’t are cornerstones or top of the roster players. Neither is really even a middle of the roster player. Toughness, and even headedness are great but this team’s needle hasn’t been pushed closer to playoff participant yet.