Whatever one might make of the Bruins’ three roster adds at the trade deadline, one sure upside in the acquisitions of Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar, and Mike Reilly was that the price did not include giving up a future first-round draft pick.
Keep in mind, if the Bruins remain roughly where they stood in the league standings on deadline day, they should be selecting in the 18-20 range in this year’s draft. That’s fertile territory for prospects. It could be all the richer if general manager Don Sweeney can shimmy higher into the order before Round 1 on July 23.
The Bruins’ last pick in the top 20 was Urho Vaakanainen (No. 18, 2017), and beyond their so-so trio of successive first-rounders (Nos. 13-15) in 2015 (Jakub Zboril, Jake DeBrusk, and Zack Senyshyn), they’ve made only two other top-20 choices across the last 10 drafts, resident franchise defenseman Charlie McAvoy (No. 14, 2016) and departed blue liner Dougie Hamilton (No. 9, 2011).
Hamilton, keep in mind, was not selected during Sweeney’s GM tenure. Still the franchise’s last top-10 pick, he was taken in the Peter Chiarelli era, drafted days after the Bruins clinched their first Stanley Cup title in 39 years. One of Sweeney’s first moves upon succeeding Chiarelli four years later was finding a new home for Hamilton, shipping the disgruntled defenseman to Calgary for the picks that became Jeremy Lauzon, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Senyshyn.
Sweeney on Monday downplayed the fact that he hadn’t relinquished a No. 1 — as he had in 2018 and 2020 deadline deals — but it’s a safe bet all the machinations conjured up on Causeway Street the last 2-3 weeks included holding serve on Round 1.
“It’s never an overriding rule for us that we wouldn’t do it,” said Sweeney. “Obviously, the market dictates a lot of times what you have to give up to get a player that you want. We explored several different opportunities. We’ll pull the trigger, right or wrong, that’s part of the job. You hope you’re pulling it for the right reasons more than the wrong and you live with it.”
In the half-dozen deadline days overseen by Sweeney, he has surrendered 15 draft picks, including a second (to Buffalo) and a third (to Ottawa) this year. The draft is a franchise’s lifeblood, and 15 is a whole lot of picks. For all that Sweeney gave up in those first five deadline deals, only third-line center Charlie Coyle was deemed a keeper. The same ultimately might be said of Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase, but that remains in question. Both ex-Ducks will be restricted free agents at the end of this season.
The slow-moving Ritchie is now being used in a third-line role, alongside Coyle, and Kase has played but 18:42 all season, exiting Game 2 in January with a suspected concussion. No telling if either will be extended, and the odds likely diminish for both if Hall earns a longer stay over his 2-3-month audition. For the immediate, the Bruins are planning like Kase won’t play again this season.
Of equal concern is that Sweeney, who dished Anders Bjork to Buffalo as part of the Hall-Lazar swap, now has shipped out four kids, including Ryan Spooner (2018), Ryan Donato (’19), and Danton Heinen (’20), who were previously heralded as the coming wave of the club’s offensive firepower.
For all four, the fire extinguished, as did the flame the front office held for each of them.
Coupled with the 15 picks yielded over the last six deadlines, that’s a total of 19 picks no longer in the pipeline, no longer fueling the future. One important side note: Frank Vatrano, originally a free agent signee out of UMass, was moved to Florida for a Round 3 pick days before the 2018 deadline. The Bruins used it to draft Jakub Lauko, currently a Providence WannaB hoping one day to be considered in that future firepower mix. Maybe.
This is not a good combination, dealing off pick after pick, hand in hand with highly touted prospects not bearing fruit. If Claude Julien were still the bench boss, the radio talk-show crazies for sure would be decrying how the ol’ coach doesn’t like kids, won’t play them, couldn’t pick Wayne Gretzky out of a bantam tournament, is too fearful to take ice time away from the likes of Shawn Thornton and Chris Kelly. Any of that sound familiar?
Truth is, Spooner, Donato, Heinen, and Bjork didn’t put up the goods as projected. That’s on them. It’s also on the scouting staff that identified them, and it’s also on the franchise’s player development methods. Which begs the obvious question: What if the same happens to Trent Frederic, Jack Studnicka, Karson Kuhlman, Anton Blidh, Johnny Beecher, Senyshyn, Vaakanainen, et al?
There have been a few impressive hits, most of all on the backline: McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Brandon Carlo. But beyond the grand prize of David Pastrnak (No. 25 in 2014) up front, the prizes in the Cracker Jack box have delivered a concerto of sad trombone music. Wah-wah.
Spooner is in career recovery overseas (see: Minsk Dynamo). Donato was swapped out of Minnesota and hasn’t delivered much in San Jose. Heinen stood an underwhelming 5-4—9 through 31 games with Anaheim as the weekend approached. The speedy Bjork will attempt to rise from the Sabres’ ashbin. That would be a tough task right now even for a new-age Gil Perreault.
If there is one trait that defines all four of those departed young Bruins forwards, it’s lack of puck battle — be it in the form of grit and grind, or the art of winning pucks and creating scoring chances off sheer speed and skill. For all their hype, they too often chose not to get their noses dirty, or didn’t understand how dirtying one’s nose is a skill unto itself.
While the emphasis on today’s game is, without question, speed and skill, it’s a collection of only maybe 30-40 forwards league-wide — the elite likes of Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane, and lately Auston Matthews — who survive and thrive mainly off skill and speed.
Brad Marchand, in fact, has plus speed, a plus shot, and has developed into a plus stickhandler, but the glue to his game is will and determination, his fight to win pucks and carry them to the pay window. In Marchand’s world, the puck is there to take, not inherit. In an interesting Zoom moment recently, he identified fear as a driving force, i.e. the fear of being knocked off the job by younger, faster forwards able to do it better, score more. How telling: a guy with his toolkit so worried, or smart enough, to think it could all go away.
Fear isn’t a chapter, or even a line, in “Hockey For Dummies.” Why bother? Heck, speed and skill will get it all done. Until it won’t. And then you’re just yesterday’s prospect full of promise, like that ’70s first-rounder Jethro Tull, living in the past.
DEAL WITH IT
Capitals go big with Mantha
Up until the Red Wings and Capitals stunned the trading floor on Monday, the best deadline deal belonged to the Islanders, who jumped out ahead by five days and added dependable ex-Devils Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to a strong group of forwards.
But then, just as the dealin’ was nearly done, the Capitals filched the single-best talent that few knew to be available, acquiring 6-foot-5-inch right winger Anthony Mantha from the Red Wings.
“Wow!” said one front office executive, praising Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman for the deal.
That’s not the read here, although it could be your faithful puck chronicler’s view is skewed by the fact Mantha, even in a bad Detroit lineup, has delivered like the Uber Driver of the Decade against the Bruins.
The Capitals, always enamored by size and skill (why not?), surrendered slick Czech forward Jakub Vrana and Slovak right winger Richard Panik, whom Yzerman drafted for the Lightning in his Tampa GM days. They sweetened the package even further with first-round (2021) and second-round (2022) picks. Sweet haul, no doubt.
But the best player in the deal is Mantha, who pitched in with 1-1—2 in his Capitals debut Tuesday night. Few in the league have the new age Big M’s size and skill, which the Red Wings no doubt viewed to be true in November when they extended his deal for four years at a $5.7 million cap hit. Five months later, what, he’s trade bait?
The asterisk on Mantha, age 26, is his erratic consistency and motivation. He can appear maddeningly disengaged, even now seven years into his pro career. In part, that label was why, even with his size, he lasted until No. 20 in the 2013 draft (three picks after the Senators grabbed Curtis Lazar, don’t ya know?).
Vrana, 25, will be a restricted free agent in the summer, and the Capitals were concerned he might earn Mantha kind of money via salary arbitration. Now that’s Yzerman’s worry. Stevie Y is hoping Vrana (career-high 25 goals, 52 points) might find Detroit a comfortable fit with fellow Czechs Filip Hronek (D) and Filip ZadinaRW). If he’s right, that might bring some added value to the deal. Detroit is a hard sell these days.
The deal is somewhat reminiscent of the Bruins abruptly dishing Joe Thornton to the Sharks 23 games into the 2005-06 season, when no one knew the former No. 1 pick (1997) was being shopped. Thornton likewise was 26, had been inconsistent, and was only three months removed from inking his then-gargantuan extension (three years, $20 million).
At that point, Thornton already had a 100-point season and was delivering far better, and more consistently, than Mantha. The return package (spoiler alert if you’re just joining us) proved, shall we say, spotty. GM Mike O’Connell let Jumbo go for Marco Sturm, Wayne Primeau, and Brad Stuart.
Thornton, as the weekend approached, had squeezed out a modest 254-813—1,067 line in his time with San Jose and Toronto since departing Causeway Street.
Meanwhile, in their combined 45 NHL seasons, Sturm, Primeau, and Stuart totaled 1,016 points.
Canucks shouldn’t be pushed to play
The Canucks, initially asked to return to play Friday after a three-week COVID-19 pause, objected to being hustled from sick bay to the rink and now won’t play their first game until Sunday night in Toronto.
For Vancouver, already in a soul-crushing situation, a 48-hour stay was not a good answer.
The Canucks last played on March 24. Come puck drop Sunday, they will be out of shape and, no doubt, emotionally beaten down flatter than the blue line.
Still with 19 games remaining, the Canucks now aren’t due to wrap up their 56-game slate until May 19 — nearly two weeks beyond the league’s original end-of-season target date of May 8.
What we have is an unmitigated mess edging toward a disaster, all in the name of math, the NHL doing everything it can to shoehorn Vancouver into completing its full slate in order to square the season’s standings. But basically, given the order of the North Division as the weekend approached, it all comes down to whether the Canadiens or Canucks will clinch the No. 4 spot and face the division’s No. 1 seed (likely Toronto or Winnipeg) for Round 1.
The smart thing here — not necessarily the right, tidy thing — would have been to wish the Canucks good health and full recovery prior to the start of September training camp. Keep in mind, the league and players’ union forever say player health and safety guide all decisions (the goal should read: Wink, with assists from Nudge and Eyeroll).
With the Canucks’ season rendered finished, only the Habs would have played the full 56 games because they’ve played all their scheduled matchups with Vancouver. Edmonton would have been left with 51, Toronto and Ottawa 52, and Winnipeg and Calgary 54.
You know what? Not perfect, but close enough. Rather than base the final standings on points, instead settle it on points percentage, and start the playoffs based on those rankings. It likely would mean doing the same at the start of Round 3 (i.e. Stanley Cup semifinals) when the North Division champ moves on to be seeded with winners of the East, Central, and West.
Truth is, the league and the union were overly, if not perniciously, ambitious from the start, trying to wedge a 56-game schedule into a 115-day window. Even a 48-game season might have been a reach. Ideal would have been 41 or 42, half a standard regular season, allowing enough elbow room for a team that, say, had to shut down for three weeks and ultimately call it a season.
Faced with only bad answers in Vancouver, the league and union chose the worst.
Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall forever will be linked by their association at the top of the 2010 draft, Hall going No. 1 to Edmonton and Seguin to the Bruins at No 2. By the way, all of the top 11 picks that year eventually were traded. No. 12, Cam Fowler, remains on the job with the Ducks. The analytics crowd may be surprised to find that Hall has delivered at a .875 points-per-game pace in the NHL, while Seguin stands at .857…. Seguin, by the way, remains in recovery from offseason hip surgery and finally could be back in the Stars’ lineup in 7-10 days, per GM Jim Nill … If the Maple Leafs win the Cup, they’ll point to Round 1 of that 2010 draft as their gift from the goalie gods. The Stars made Jack Campbell the No. 11 pick. Dished to Toronto by the Kings in February 2020, Campbell has emerged as the Leafs’ franchise stopper (11-1-0 in 12 appearances as of last week). The 6-2 Campbell played seven years pro before getting any kind NHL shot with the Kings … The Blue Jackets basically called it a season with the deadline deal that sent David Savard to the Lightning. Injuries to Boone Jenner (finger), Zach Werenski (hernia), and Gustav Nyquist (shoulder) hurt their chances. There also has been a talent drain via free agency in recent years. “Guys didn’t want to be here, for some reason,” noted coach John Tortorella, who often has been atop the list of reasons why players have bolted … Rough Tampa debut for Savard, by the way. The sturdy defenseman logged an ugly minus-4 in a 7-2 pasting by the Predators … Seattle GM Ron Francis made it clear this past week that his expansion Kraken want to wait to select a coach until he knows who among the current NHL bench bosses will be looking for work at season’s end. Gerard Gallant remains on the market. He was the coach for the start-up Golden Knights in the fall of 2017, and he directed them to the Cup Final (loss to Capitals) in their inaugural season. Interesting, but unlikely, that he would get the call for the Kraken, simply because they’ve had since his Vegas firing in January 2020 to make that happen … High on my can’t-wait-do-it-again sports list: to be at the United Center for a Blackhawks game, the joint packed, to hear Jim Cornelison make the place shake as he belts out “The Star-Spangled Banner.”