Less than a week after the Bruins closed up shop for 2019-20, all we know for sure is that free agent Zdeno Chara, their 43-year-old captain, would like another kick at the can.
“I want to be a Boston Bruin,” Big Z proclaimed to one and all on Thursday, placing the negotiating puck squarely on GM Don Sweeney’s desk.
What we don’t know is whether Sweeney cares to extend Chara that opportunity, particularly if he wants to make a bold play and offer, say, St. Louis free agent Alex Pietrangelo huge dough to be the next franchise defenseman hitched to the Bobby Orr-Brad Park-Ray Bourque-Chara legacy train.
We get lost in a lot of discussions around here, but that has been one incredible, unparalleled string of backline dominance. Orr, Park, and Bourque all have been inducted in the Hall of Fame. Chara’s plaque is at the Yonge Street pickup window. The continuum, dating to Orr’s arrival in Boston in 1966, was interrupted only by the six years between Bourque leaving in the spring of 2000 until Chara was hired on in the summer of ’06.
For those just now emerging from concussion protocol during that era: The Bruins failed to qualify for the postseason in three of the six springs between Bourque bolting and Chara arriving. Otherwise, they were KO’d three times in Round 1, and were an aggregate 6-12 in postseason play. Oh, and the futility spanned yet one more season when they DNQ’d again in 2006-07 with Chara aboard and Dave Lewis behind the bench.
All in all, the Bruins appeared in only 18 playoff games across eight seasons (2000-07). Fast-forward to 2020, the fan base reaches for tiki torches if the season ends without at least an appearance in the Cup Final. Welcome to the Hub of Hockey.
Pietrangelo, 13 years Z’s junior, is headed to the October open market with an expired deal that carried a $6.5 million cap hit. Even in a post-COVID, cap-impinged world, the 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound Pietrangelo realistically can expect a long-term deal at upward of $9 million a year.
Chara ($3.75 million) and free agent-to-be Torey Krug ($5.25 million) combined for a $9 million cap hit. So if Pietrangelo is in — and, granted, it’s a big if — then the math becomes pretty obvious, doesn’t it? Chara and Krug would be gone, unless Chara wanted to stay for very short money, perhaps one-third of last season’s take.
One potential complication would be that Pietrangelo is a righthander, the same as emerging No. 1 Charlie McAvoy. Riding together could be an awkward, if not futile, fit. Bruce Cassidy would have to find them both ice time and role fitting of their talent and paycheck. Every coach should be so challenged.
Gritty decisions will be necessary
Some other lingering thoughts on a season just concluded and what may or may not be ahead:
▪ Bruce Cassidy during his Wednesday Zoomer made clear his desire for the backline to bring more to the offense (see above: Alex Pietrangelo). True, more pop needed and always welcomed.
Equally important, net presence among all the forwards must improve. The requisite grit factor wasn’t there. More dirty noses and dislodged teeth needed to succeed in playoff hockey.
Fourth-liners Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner were scratched in Game 5 vs. the Lightning and they supply good amounts of grit. Otherwise, especially on the second and third lines, the jam wasn’t there. Very little heavy play from David Krejci’s regular wingers — Jake DeBrusk and Ondrej Kase. Charlie Coyle was pivoting the likes of Anders Bjork, Jack Studnicka, Karson Kuhlman, and Nick Ritchie. Kuhlman showed flashes. Ritchie made attempts, and his first-round hit on Joel Edmundson helped crack that series. Just not nearly enough from any of the lot. The Bruins were outscored, 15-5, at even strength.
Jam has to be a group effort, but a little of Noel Acciari might have helped the cause.
▪ Charlie McAvoy now has four playoff seasons (54 games total) on his résumé at age 22. It took the aforementioned Ray Bourque his first eight playoff seasons (1980-87), and until age 26, to log equal postseason experience.
McAvoy delivered a meager 1-3—4 line in the two rounds, but his attack and skating game became more robust. He looked especially bold in Game 5 against Tampa Bay after coming back following a trip to concussion protocol/assessment.
“I kind of felt like I had that all game,” he said when asked about his added moxie. “Just trying to do everything in my power, you know … it’s not like you play that game harder than Game 1 or anything. But our backs are against the wall and I felt really compelled to try to make a difference in a positive way. For me, that’s when I get my feet moving.”
More “feet moving” needs to emerge from the start next season, and no doubt Cassidy has McAvoy in mind specifically when he talks about more back-end punch. McAvoy jumping up more, and shooting more, needs to be a featured component rather than a sporadic dalliance. Time for him to bring it shift to shift. He’ll get burned at times, but that’s part of being asked to bring the fire.
▪ One year left on Tuukka Rask’s deal ($7 million cap hit), and the incessant rumors of him hitting the links in the immediate wake of bolting the bubble will not play in his favor for being brought back.
That said, Rask remains the best they have for the position, unless rising pro Jeremy Swayman shows up in camp and proves capable of at least a job share with Jaroslav Halak. Not impossible, but also far from reasonable expectation. Consider, in the 57-year history of the draft, the Bruins have not developed and kept a single franchise or No. 1 goaltender. They came close in 1985 with Bill Ranford, only to wheel him out after only 45 games to acquire Andy Moog. Ranford returned for a short stay in the mid-‘90s.
Of all the goalies they’ve drafted, a total of 42 from 1963 through 2019, Ranford ranks No. 1 for most regular-season games (122) in a Boston sweater. The only others to come close: Andrew Raycroft (108), John Grahame (76), and Marco Baron (64). Total: 370 games, 166 games fewer than Rask.
Swayman and Dan Vladar, who made his NHL debut in relief of Halak in the 7-1 Game 3 loss to the Lightning, are the only two goalies chosen by the Bruins in the last seven drafts. In the 20 drafts from 2000-19, they selected only 10 goalies, including first-round stabs at Hannu Toivonen and Malcolm Subban. They combined for 40 games here.
It’s a tricky biz, spotting bona fide NHL goalies when they’re 18 years old, but the Bruins through the decades have turned tricky into unfettered failure.
Now the trick is what to do with Rask. He has the most wins in franchise history. He twice has come within a few stops of clinching a Cup. He is by far the best they have, with no proven successor in the pipeline. But after his bolt from the bubble, will Don Sweeney et al trust the single most important position to him for another year?
The view here: CIS Rask — Change In Scenery.
Demko steps up with Canucks
OK, Thatcher Demko. Much of the North American Cup-viewing audience just learned his name this past week after his stellar performances in the Vancouver net helped the Canucks rally from a 3-1 series deficit and force a Game 7 before losing to the Golden Knights.
But Demko is not a new name around here. After his three seasons at The Heights, where he went 62-26-10 for Jerry York’s Boston College Eagles, Demko was a Hobey Baker finalist with Jimmy Vesey (Harvard) and Kyle Connor (Michigan) in April 2016. Vesey was the winner. Connor, thus far, has been the pick of the litter, now averaging $7.14 million a year in Winnipeg.
Demko was drafted No. 36 overall by the Canucks following his freshman season at BC. He is big (6-4), agile, and he finally caught on this season as Jacob Markstrom’s backup.
With Markstrom headed to free agency, Demko, 24, could inherit the No. 1 gig. He certainly looked capable in wins in Game 5 (2-1) and Game 6 (4-0), turning back 90 of 91 shots, creeping his way into the heads of Vegas shooters in Ken Dryden-like style (revisit: Bruins playoffs, 1971).
“I didn’t see him a lot, obviously,” said Bruins defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, who was firing off the Boston University blue line during the three seasons Demko was at BC. “I just remember him being a big, athletic goalie, and would never quit on a play — could make spectacular saves out of nowhere. It’s awesome to see from him.”
Demko was one of three San Diego kids playing at local Division 1 colleges at the same time, including Tyler Moy at Harvard and Nikolas Olsson at BU. Demko and Moy were childhood pals.
“I think we had nap time together,” once recalled Moy, thinking back to their days as 4-year-olds in the same pre-K school.
Olsson, no longer in hockey, had a brief twirl with ECHL Adirondack once out of BU.
Moy, originally a Predators draft pick, just started his third season in Switzerland, and is now playing for Geneva after two years with Lausanne. His father, Randy, who grew up in Michigan, for years coached scores of kids in the San Diego area. He died in July after a bout with cancer.
Keely Moy, also a forward, in the spring wrapped up her junior season at Harvard and might take a shot at playing for the Swiss Olympic team.
“If so,” said her mom, Susanna Moy, who grew up in Switzerland, “she will be ‘forced’ to live there a certain amount of time prior to trying out. So, we will see.”
Zito in a good spot
The Panthers look to be in capable hands for a turnaround after this past week’s hiring of ex-agent Bill Zito, a Yale forward in the 1980s, as their general manager.
“Honor, humbled … really, I don’t have the words,” said Zito, 55, when introduced to the south Florida media Wednesday. He replaces the recently fired Dale Tallon.
The new gig, a five-year contract, comes after Zito’s seven-year stint in Columbus, where he was GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s top assistant. Zito was among the hottest candidates out there, and was considered for a GM spot in recent years by the Sabres and Hurricanes.
Peter Chiarelli, ex-GM in Boston and Edmonton, also was believed to be in the mix for the job in Sunrise. Chiarelli remains a favorite of commissioner Gary Bettman, whose endorsement helped tip the scales in Chiarelli’s favor in Boston when the Jacobs family was choosing between Chiarelli and Ray Shero to succeed Mike O’Connell.
Unlike a lot of turnaround scenarios, Zito inherits an enviable talent base, not only on the roster, but behind the bench with Joel Quenneville. The Panthers have a bona fide No. 1 goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky (ex- of the Blue Jackets), a pair of primo forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, and an elite blue liner in Aaron Ekblad. And no significant expiring contract issues.
Now we see what critical nips, tucks and stitches Zito makes to tailor some proven talent into a proven winner.
“It’s all going to depend … it’s difficult to answer that question in specificity,” said Zito, when your faithful puck chronicler asked what roster spots he believed most needed to be fortified. “Because of the, if A then B, nature of whatever that first move might be. So if you decide, ‘Well, you might want to shore up position A, well what asset do you have to give up or what pick?’ Or … what might become available. For example, I don’t know specifically what could be available from another team … so I have some ideas, but I can’t answer it point-blank.”
Yep, there’s a little bit of Lou Lamoriello, one of his longtime pals, in that answer. And a little bit of lawyer (JD from the University of Wisconsin). The guess here: He already knows the needs are secondary scoring and some spunk and character lower in the order among the forwards and blue liners.
The Canadiens acquired Jake Allen from the Blues as a backup to Carey Price and will enter the new season with a $14.85 million cap hit in goal. Yeow. The figures are considerably higher, but the reasoning tracks with what the Bruins have done with Tuukka Rask, pairing him with a reliable backup in order not to burn him out during the regular season. Price, 33, has six years left at a whopping $10.5 million cap hit. Ideally, the Habs can keep him to 50-55 games over the regular season and then hand him the full postseason load. Just as the Bruins planned with Rask-Jaroslav Halak. Meanwhile, Allen has only one year on his deal. In a perfect world, he is the backup bridge for a year and maybe the Habs can move in ex-Northeastern standout Cayden Primeau to be Price’s footpath toward the sunset … Mike Milbury surrendered his microphone at NBC for the duration of the playoffs after his on-air back-and-forth with coworker Brian Boucher became instantly and widely labeled as misogynistic. “Not even any women here,” said Milbury, adding to Boucher’s comments about the dedication of NHL players toiling in the bubble, “to disrupt your concentration.” Look, I’ll buy that Milbury stereotyped male behavior and in turn equally stereotyped temptations in the workplace. If anyone, man or woman, felt offended by his words, then far be it from me to tell anyone they are not entitled to how they feel. I’m equally entitled to believe Milbury’s words fell short of dislike, contempt, or abuse of women. If there is a misogyny standard, “to disrupt your concentration” is what shatters it? I think the league went way overboard in a media release, saying it “condemns the insensitive and insulting comment that Mike Milbury made.” We live in a hypersensitive age, and many things, particularly pertaining to gender and race, need review and correction. But if we’re going to call people out, condemn them, and force them out of work, then let’s make sure the accusation fits the definition, and the punishment is measured and appropriate and fair … Hand up here among the legion of broken-hearted that The Fours closed its Canal Street doors for good on Monday morning after 44 years of doing business across the street from the Garden. It is a passing not unlike a quarter-century earlier, when the old barn on Causeway finally gave way to the new Garden and we all had to pack up our memories and bid adieu to an old friend. The Fours excelled at what so many places either fail or never realize: making customers feel good coming through the door and better for the experience upon leaving. There will be many good places to eat or drink. No doubt. But with the loss of The Fours, we’ve seen the last of the .400 hitters. Godspeed, Peter, Franny, Gino, et al.