As NHL rinks stand poised to shake out their buckets of pucks for the start of the 2022-23 season this coming week, fans of the downtrodden Blackhawks ponder a future without franchise centerpieces Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.
Where do the rebuilding Blackhawks, their proud centerpieces, and their fans go from here? That’s just one of the key story lines to consider on the dawn of a season — and one that, with some imagination, could prove especially intriguing for the Bruins.
What if general manager Don Sweeney could swing a deal, ideally now, for the 33-year-old Kane and his $10.5 million cap hit?
Too old? Not really. The prolific Kane is actually a few months younger than Brad Marchand.
Not enough offense? Uh … Kane, whose 1,180-point output since his rookie 2007-08 season has been exceeded only by Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, rolled up 92 points last season. That was tied for No. 14 on the league list. The top-scoring Bruin, Marchand, delivered 80 points.
Too close to the end of his career? No way. The compact Kane, 5 feet 10 inches and 180 pounds, rarely misses a shift, never mind a game. He looks worthy of a four-year extension, at which point he would be 38 and perhaps ready for one of those year-to-year deals such as Patrice Bergeron, 37, and David Krejci, 36, recently signed with the Bruins.
Adding Kane as an elite right wing with David Pastrnak, to ride with Bergeron or Krejci, would make for two of the NHL’s most dynamic lines. Left-side candidates would include Pavel Zacha, Taylor Hall, maybe Jake DeBrusk, and then Marchand, who is due back around the start of December.
Now, what would entice the Blackhawks? That’s why we’ve denoted DeBrusk as a “maybe.” To make the swap work, the Bruins would have to ship back roughly $10.5 million in combined cap space. And in that dollar-for-dollar exchange, the Blackhawks would need to net useful, roster-ready assets to help them carry through the rebuild. DeBrusk ($4 million) and defenseman Brandon Carlo ($4.1 million) would be top-of-the-list Chicago asks.
The Blackhawks would be surrendering Kane, his deal set to expire, for two bona fide NHL players who are under contract for a combined six seasons. The Bruins still would have to include one more body, on the books for at least upward of $2 million, to make the math work.
Craig Smith’s $3 million would be ideal from Sweeney’s perspective, but a younger body would better suit the Blackhawks’ need to grow the product. Best to figure their hand would be up for Jack Studnicka or Jakub Zboril, each with short salaries and long potential.
Based on their roster composition, the Blackhawks appear to be planning on an 82-game freefall to the bottom of the standings, in hopes the lottery Ping-Pong balls next summer will deliver potential generational center Connor Bedard (WHL Regina) as the No. 1 pick. Risky business.
The 2014-15 Sabres employed that tank strategy, aiming to land Connor McDavid as the crown jewel of their rebuild. Sure enough, they finished last in the standings. They had the right player in mind, but Lady Fortune turned out to be a femme fatale for the Sabres. The Ping-Pong ball popped up in Edmonton’s favor and Buffalo dropped into the No. 2 slot, taking home Jack Eichel as the consolation prize. He’s now in Las Vegas, a city built on gambling strategies gone bust.
If tanking truly is their strategy, the Blackhawks could be fixed on keeping Kane and Toews aboard, provide them little roster support, and join, say, Arizona or Montreal or even San Jose in that footrace to the bottom. If so, they’ll then be looking to move Kane and Toews in the hours leading to the March 3 trade deadline.
The standard deadline package is a roster player, a promising prospect, and ideally a first-round draft pick. With a DeBrusk-Carlo package, enhanced by the inclusion of Zboril or Studnicka, the Bruins would be offering far better in ready assets.
As for adding the Round 1 pick, that would be a deal killer, unless it’s made conditional on Kane signing an extension in Boston of at least a couple of years beyond 2022-23. At this stage of his career, he reasonably could expect about $6 million per on a three- or four-year extension.
Kane is unique, fast, clever, and prolific, the likes of a winger we haven’t seen in Boston since Rick Middleton packed up his magic set. Who knows, if Kane is wearing a Spoked-B sweater, taking those feeds from Bergeron and Krejci, maybe both those pivots stay around longer than just this season?
It would be a bold, risky swap for the Bruins and Blackhawks, though less so for the latter. In fact, if Kane arrived in Boston without inking a contract extension, the hell to pay for the Bruins could be his return next summer as a UFA to the Blackhawks, their roster dotted with young ex-Bruins.
Big deals are never easy to execute, and not without shared pain. Long ago, in November 1975, the Bruins dealt Phil Esposito, their prolific 33-year-old offensive centerpiece, to the Rangers for Jean Ratelle, 35, and Brad Park, 27.
The Bruins got the better of it, with Ratelle and Park combining to play in Boston for another 12 seasons, and Esposito lasting an additional five seasons with the Blueshirts. Carol Vadnais, who also went to the Rangers, played another half-dozen seasons on Broadway. For franchise impact, Ratelle and Park packed far more punch.
Would we still be talking here nearly a half-century later about the day Patrick Kane came to Boston? No telling. But he’d be worth the gamble.
DROPPING THE PUCK
Key story lines for new season
▪ Will the Avalanche repeat as Stanley Cup champions?
The puck takes too many crazy hops to make anyone a certainty, but sure, Colorado has a solid chance to double down. The pick here is for Calgary to make it out of the West, but again, crazy hops.
The Avalanche won the title without a dominating force in net. Now with Darcy Kuemper gone to the Capitals, the job is up to Pavel Francouz and Alexandar Georgiev. Which is to say, if the Avalanche do it again, they’ll do it without a dominating force in net.
They’ll miss Nazem Kadri, now in Calgary, more than they’d like to believe.
▪ Who breaks through in the East?
All eight playoff qualifiers, including the Bruins, cracked the 100-point plateau last season. We could look up in April and see the same eight, all with 100 points again.
But the competition from underneath should be considerably stiffer from at least four of last season’s DNQs, because …
1. The Red Wings, with new coach Derek Lalonde, added significant roster upgrades with Ville Husso, David Perron, and Andrew Copp. Old bench boss Jeff Blashill should have been so fortunate.
2. The Blue Jackets, maybe even to the surprise of Johnny Gaudreau, added Johnny Gaudreau. Someone neglected to tell the ex-Boston College standout that Columbus is the city that high-end UFAs only fly over on their way to anywhere else.
3. The Devils added some playoff savvy with the acquisition of ex-Lightning champ Ondrej Palat and GM Tom Fitzgerald is counting on former Capital Vitek Vanecek. “Give me goaltending,” said Fitzgerald, the ex-Bruins forward. “Just give me a chance to see what we really have. We know we can win games, 8-7 and 6-5, but that’s no way to live in the NHL.”
4. Some of the Senators key kids, including Brady Tkachuk, have some real experience on their résumés. Now they also have Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat to shore up the front line, and Cam Talbot for the net.
▪ The Rookie of the Year will be?
The Canadiens have high hopes for Juraj Slafkovsky, the towering Slovak left wing they picked No. 1 in the June draft. He has the size (6-3, 235 pounds) to step right into a man’s game, while most 18-year-olds need at least a year or two.
The bet here: Matty Beniers. The Seattle center, drafted No. 2 in 2021, signed off the Michigan campus last spring and delivered 3-6–9 in 10 games. The favorite son of Hingham has the size, skill set, and demeanor to step right in and be an effective NHLer.
If so, Beniers would be the first Bay State kid to win the Calder since Tom Barrasso, fresh from Acton-Boxborough High School, won it with the Sabres in 1984. Barrasso, 26-12-3 his rookie season, was 18½ years old when the season began.
▪ New coaches, new approaches
The new season will have nearly one-third of the league, 10 teams, operating with new coaches, including ex-Bruins bench bosses Bruce Cassidy (Vegas) and Rick Bowness (Winnipeg).
The 10 include (with new team/last gig):
Peter DeBoer (Dallas/Vegas)
Lalonde (Detroit/Tampa Bay assistant)
Lane Lambert (NY Islanders/staff promotion)
Paul Maurice (Florida/Winnipeg)
Jim Montgomery (Boston/St. Louis assistant)
David Quinn (San Jose/NY Rangers)
Luke Richardson (Chicago/Montreal assistant
John Tortorella (Philadelphia/Columbus)
Penguins stick with old reliables
Entering the offseason, the Penguins looked like they would be breaking up that old gang of theirs, with cap space squeezed and mainstays Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin terming out of rich deals.
Well, hold those farewell sheet cakes and gift bags for the proud member of the Fenway Sports Group’s favorite hockey team. None of the key flightless birds waddled out PPG Arena exit doors.
In a span of five days, GM Ron Hextall inked the franchise stalwarts to long-term extensions, each at $6.1 million per annum, keeping both from entering the UFA market. Letang, 35, hitched on for six more seasons, while Malkin, 36, signed up for another four.
“We gave out more term [a total of 10 seasons] than we initially wanted,” explained team president Brian Burke. “That lowered the number, and it was of paramount importance to us to keep that group together. Sure, we gave out more term, but we’re happy to keep the band together.”
The inherent risk, of course, is that the high mileage will begin to show on Malkin and Letang as they advance toward the realities of age 40. Each in 2022-23 is scheduled to log his 1,000th regular-season game.
Franchise centerpiece Sidney Crosby, 35, still has three years left on his deal. His sunset years on Pittsburgh’s frozen golden pond should be easier with Malkin still aboard to support/share those No. 1 center minutes and continuing to fortify the power play pivoted by Crosby (1,409 points and counting).
The Penguins had no one close to the skill set the crafty Letang adds to the back line, particularly his puck moving. In large part that explains why he squeezed out 50 percent more term than Malkin.
“Tanger was one of the top 10 defensemen in the league last year,” opined Burke. “He’s a gym rat. He’s a freak. And Malkin has been hurt each of the last two years [playing total 74 games], but other than being hurt he’s still an effective player, still a point-a-game guy. You’d prefer they were 31 and not 35-36, but it’s a risk we think we can accept.”
Hextall also inked Bryan Rust, 30, and ex-Duck Rickard Rakell, 29, to six-year extensions, at $5.125 million and $5 million per, respectively. Headed into the weekend, the Penguins were parked roughly $1.6 million over the $82.5 million cap, but Hextall will massage that under the number easily before opening night.
The Penguins enter the season tops in the league with a run of 16 consecutive playoff appearances, the last seven with ex-Bruins coach Mike Sullivan, 54, as bench boss. Nashville and Washington, each with runs of eight playoff seasons, are tied for second on the list of current streaks.
Prior to the weekend, 14 clubs, including the Bruins, were north of the cap figure, which could make some unexpected names made available on waivers leading to opening night.
“What’s odd is, we’re close to the cap because we’ve had success,” said Burke. “We’ve been in the playoffs 16 straight years. There are a lot of teams close to the cap that have had no success, that’s the anomaly. You’d think that a team that’s had success is bumping the cap, or had no success and should be well below the cap. That’s the baffling part. There are 20 teams close to the cap [or over it], but not 20 successful teams.”
Entering the weekend, 20 teams were carrying payrolls north of $80 million. Nine of those clubs finished out of the playoffs last season.
Tindall did it all for the Bruins
Over the course of some 30 years with the Bruins, about the only hat Bob Tindall didn’t wear was a helmet.
The beloved Tindall, who began as a scouting bird dog in the 1970s and eventually ascended to chief scout, died in his hometown of Toronto on Tuesday. He was 86.
“You think about it, Bob was really ahead of his time in how we run our development camps today,” noted Sweeney. “He really got to know players and took real pleasure in knowing them.”
Ever-gregarious and approachable and with a near-encyclopedic memory for the game, especially for Bruins history, Tindall had a legion of friends throughout the industry, including scouts, players, coaches, front office personnel, trainers, and particularly the media.
He delighted in learning and sharing information at all levels of the game and was a stickler for details, quick to correct a reporter’s misspelling of a name or the like. Good luck to that new NHL reporter from Boston who wrote that Prince Albert was in British Columbia and not Saskatchewan!
Tindall forever lived by the “hockey guy” ethos, taking on any chore necessary without regard for title or job description.
“One night, he picked me up in Sherbrooke and drove through a snowstorm so I could play in a game in Montreal,” recounted Sweeney, thinking back more than 30 years ago, to his days with the AHL Maine Mariners. “He would do anything, anything really, that you wanted him to do for the organization.”
In fact, it was Tindall, with input from area scouts Ratelle and Joe Lyons, who helped steer the decision that saw the Bruins select Sweeney in the June 1984 draft. Sweeney had just finished his one season playing at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H.
“Jean and Joe were the guys who had seen me the most,” recalled Sweeney. “But at the end of the day, Bob had a lot of say in how that draft was going to go and leaned on the guys to help him make decisions.”
Tindall, Ratelle, and Lyons all retired from the scouting staff in 2001.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.