As Don Sweeney canvassed the league for trade partners prior to last Monday’s deadline, not all options were available to the Bruins general manager.
Some of his counterparts had yet to decide whether they were sellers or buyers based on their teams’ spots in the standings. Some were playoff competitors in the Eastern Conference who, naturally, had no interest in helping Sweeney (and vice versa). Some wanted NHL players to reinforce their varsity rosters, not the futures Sweeney preferred to send out.
The result was a reduced list of dance partners.
Trade deadline day used to be a big thing in the NHL. On March 3, 2010, 31 deals took place involving 55 players, including Dennis Seidenberg. The Canadian networks loved it. They ran all-day coverage and needed every minute to break and analyze player movement.
But those numbers dropped to 19 trades and 37 players last Monday. Technical directors involved with the Canadian coverage were busy instructing their on-air talent to stretch instead of cut. The activity is not expected to pick up in 2016-17. The NHL has become a June league. If a GM hasn’t assembled the bulk of his roster to his liking by the time the market opens for shopping on July 1, it’s probably too late.
“I think the planning probably takes place after the deadline and between June, more so than leading up to it, to significantly improve your club post-deadline,” Sweeney said. “Especially for teams that aren’t currently in the playoffs.”
The salary cap, its stagnancy, and possible drop in 2016-17 were the primary drivers behind this year’s quiet deadline day. Teams hunting for upgrades didn’t have enough free cash to spend on big-ticket reinforcements. They could request help with salary, as Chicago did with Andrew Ladd (the Jets retained 36 percent of their former captain’s remaining pay). The Blackhawks might have loaded up even more, but they were handcuffed by the $3.05 million of Bryan Bickell’s salary they have to carry on their books, even though the left wing is in the AHL.
But there are other factors that have reduced the trade deadline’s relevance. The deadline used to be one of the league’s standard signposts. Some organizations, however, are hiring younger and nontraditional thinkers as their decision-makers. They aren’t as married to the tradition of applying the deadline toward improving their needs. They’re considering other times of the year as less expensive team-building segments.
The thinking now is that June is the most efficient window. Teams have yet to set rosters or budgets for the upcoming season. All 30 clubs, more or less, are on equal footing. Most important, draft picks are still in play.
Consider how Sweeney acted last June with picks as his primary return. He traded Carl Soderberg’s negotiating rights to Colorado on June 25 for a sixth-round selection. One day later, Sweeney moved Dougie Hamilton to Calgary for three picks, then acquired Martin Jones, Colin Miller, and a first-round pick from Los Angeles for Milan Lucic.
Three days after drafting 10 players, including three first-rounders, Sweeney flipped Jones to San Jose for a first-round pick and Sean Kuraly. On July 1, another previously traditional team-building opportunity, Sweeney made two complementary transactions by signing Matt Beleskey and trading for Jimmy Hayes. With that, Sweeney had done his heavy lifting, which he reinforced last Monday by acquiring Lee Stempniak and John-Michael Liles.
Stempniak and Liles were supplementary pieces. Even so, they were two of the bigger names to move last Monday in relation to the relative hush around the league.
Behind the scenes, however, there was a lot of work taking place to set things up for pre-draft fireworks. It’s a good bet that Sweeney was doing his own table-setting to address the Bruins’ most significant deficiency: long-term help on defense, a shortcoming that was impossible to shore up before the deadline.
The Bruins would love to talk shop with Anaheim and Minnesota, two of the clubs best stocked on the back end. The Ducks have to re-up Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, both restricted free agents-to-be. Shea Theodore, their 2013 first-rounder, is pushing for NHL work. The Wild have to re-sign upcoming RFA Matt Dumba. GM Chuck Fletcher has been listening to offers on Jonas Brodin.
Neither of those teams was willing to do anything at the deadline. The Ducks are in contention for the Stanley Cup. The Wild, out of a playoff spot, were not interested in pursuing a rental such as Loui Eriksson in a package for one of their young defensemen.
Circumstances will be different in June. The chase that wouldn’t have been worth Sweeney’s time at the deadline may be more successful three months later.
Sweeney won’t be the only busy GM. Peter Chiarelli, his old boss, will be in full wheel mode. By then, the Oilers might be ready to pick Auston Matthews with yet another first overall pick. This would put Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, along with Nail Yakupov and Jordan Eberle, on trade watch as Chiarelli looks to build his blue line. Philadelphia GM Ron Hextall is sure to be busy trying to clear the decks for upcoming raises due to Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. Buffalo’s Tim Murray, who has traded for Ryan O’Reilly, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and Robin Lehner, will have picks and free cash as chips to use in more deals. Tampa Bay’s Steve Yzerman will have more parties interested in Jonathan Drouin than he did last week.
The days leading up to the draft have become the new deadline.
BUCKING THE SYSTEM
Liles was forced to change on fly
On Tuesday, in his Bruins debut following his arrival from Carolina, John-Michael Liles found himself thinking as much as playing instinctively. It was only natural. Not only had Liles changed organizations, he had moved from man-to-man defense to zone. Even veterans such as Liles can find it hard to transition from one system to the other.
“You’re more thinking about things positionally and trying to read off different players,” Liles said two days after his first game in Boston. “You play in one place for quite a while, you know how to read off guys and the system. Now, it’s just more trying to think about exactly where I’m supposed to be and read off new guys. Overall, as the game went on, I felt better.”
Coaches and players often say that man-to-man in your own end is easier than zone defense. You identify your man and stay with him until the threat is over. In reality, it’s not that simple.
In Carolina, Hurricanes coach Bill Peters and his assistants instructed their defensemen to make their reads far in advance. For Liles, he would identify the situation even before puck-carrying opponents reached the red line. Liles and his fellow defensemen would have to make the read that early so they could do two things: gap up to shut down the advance, but also spot forwards who’d be covering back for them in case of breakdowns. Carolina GM Ron Francis built a smart and mobile defense to execute Peters’s plan. Liles, Ron Hainsey, and Justin Faulk set the example for Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin, and Jaccob Slavin.
“Once you can identify your man, you gap up on them, and it’s not necessarily running at them and trying to get a big hit,” Liles said. “It’s more about taking away time and space and getting in front of them. [The coaches] were able to really challenge our forwards to be back supporting the defensemen, which allows us to be gapped up. A lot of times, it’d cause a chip-in that somebody else can retrieve.”
In comparison, Bruins coach Claude Julien and his assistants want their defensemen to sit back, hold their ground, and let the forwards steer the puck their way. It’s not necessarily an instinctive way for defensemen to play.
“The system dictates for you to be a little more patient and maybe hold your ice instead of taking away time and space a little bit,” Liles said. “That’s the big difference between the systems.”
Both have their advantages. In Carolina, Liles could deny entry at his blue line by gapping up, marking a man, and sealing off the opponent’s progress. The Hurricanes were good at suppressing shots because of their emphasis on defending the blue line. But the circumstances had to be right for Liles to be aggressive.
“It does put a lot of responsibility on you to make sure that the forward is there,” Liles said. “If that forward’s not coming back for you, you go to the slam the door, and it somehow gets by you, then it can turn ugly real quick.”
The Bruins prefer zone defense, even if, in theory, other teams can gain the zone more consistently. Zone allows them to build layers of fortification in front of goalie Tuukka Rask. Defensemen such as Liles can protect the net-front real estate and the down-low areas without having to vacate their position to cover a forward, for example, who rotates high to cover for a roving blue liner.
But it can be a hard system to grasp. Andrej Meszaros, Wade Redden, Greg Zanon, Mike Mottau, Tomas Kaberle, and Steve Montador, some of the Bruins’ previous late-season defensive acquisitions, struggled to become comfortable. It will be up to Liles to be the exception.
Lidstrom set the standard
Answer: Erik Karlsson, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Niklas Kronwall. Question: What is one of Nicklas Lidstrom’s legacies?
The former Red Wing set the standard for blue-line excellence. Lidstrom won four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies, one Conn Smythe Trophy, and one Olympic gold medal. He is arguably the second-best defenseman in NHL history. As such, Lidstrom set the standard for Swedish youngsters who could not help but dream about following in their hero’s skate blades.
The proof is on Sweden’s World Cup roster. Karlsson, one of the NHL’s two best players alongside Patrick Kane, leads a back end that paces the world in talent. It is so deep that John Klingberg could not crack the 16-player roster released on Wednesday. The Swedes have Lidstrom to thank.
Generational players don’t just excel. They inspire their successors to pursue the standard they set. Lidstrom didn’t simply encourage his country’s best hockey players to try defense. His play convinced Sweden’s best athletes to either give hockey a shot or stay in the sport.
Patrick Roy was another example. Roy was so good and so cool that French-Canadian boys wanted to play goal. Roberto Luongo, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Mathieu Garon, Jose Theodore, and Dan Cloutier may have opted for other positions or sports had Roy not emerged as his era’s premier puck-stopper.
It’s why idols are important. They change the game long after they’ve tucked away their skates.
In Denver, Heinen in peak form
Danton Heinen, the Bruins’ fourth-round pick in 2014, closed February with a flourish. The University of Denver sophomore tallied five goals and 10 assists in six games, the 15 points the most of any player in college hockey. The Pioneers won all six games. Through 32 games, the speedy left-shot wing from British Columbia had 15 goals and 20 assists while skating on Denver’s Pacific Rim line, which includes Dylan Gambrell (Bonney Lake, Wash.) and Trevor Moore (Thousand Oaks, Calif.). The Bruins would not be disappointed if Heinen opts to turn pro after this season, especially if Loui Eriksson goes elsewhere. Frank Vatrano would be a candidate to replace Eriksson on the left side. Heinen would be a top-six left wing in Providence.
Homecoming not Lucic’s best move
Milan Lucic has always wondered what it would be like to play in his hometown. The East Vancouver native may have that chance on July 1. Lucic will be unrestricted. Canucks GM Jim Benning was Lucic’s assistant GM in Boston. For Lucic, who turns 28 on June 7, this will be his final big-ticket payday. But the ex-Bruin would not be entering a good situation in Vancouver. The Canucks are caught in a bad spot — not strong enough to make the playoffs, and not weak enough to finish with a bottom-three record. Benning couldn’t get any picks for Radim Vrbata, Dan Hamhuis, Matt Bartkowski, or Yannick Weber. Henrik and Daniel Sedin need help, which Vancouver’s young players (Bo Horvat, Jake Virtanen, Jared McCann, Brendan Gaunce) cannot deliver just yet. While Lucic would have to take far less money with the Kings, he’s in a far better position in Los Angeles. The Kings are set up for multiple seasons. Lucic likes living in Manhattan Beach, Calif. There aren’t many places where the grass is greener than in LA, in figurative and literal translations.
Position of need in Carolina
It was no surprise that Carolina could not find anyone interested in Cam Ward, the overpaid and underperforming UFA-to-be goalie. It might be hard for Ward to find work on July 1. He is 32 years old and five seasons removed from anything resembling No. 1 performance. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, will be on the hunt for a goalie to complement Eddie Lack, who could not grab the starting job since arriving from Vancouver. The Hurricanes will be competing with the Flames, the other team in need of a reliable puck-stopper. James Reimer will be the hot UFA target. If either club prefers a trade, the Red Wings would be interested in parting with Jimmy Howard. The former Maine goalie, who lost his job to the younger and cheaper Petr Mrazek, is under contract through 2019.
Two of Brown University’s recent alums are pushing for regular NHL employment. Bobby Farnham is fighting for ice time with the Devils. Farnham was a healthy scratch for three straight games last month, but had two shots on net in 6:56 of ice time against Tampa Bay on Feb. 26. Garnet Hathaway, Farnham’s former college teammate, dressed for his second career NHL game on Tuesday for the Flames against the Bruins. The bruising Hathaway, riding shotgun with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, was credited with six hits in 15:01. Like Farnham, Hathaway isn’t afraid of the rough stuff . . . It made sense for LA and Chicago to swap Christian Ehrhoff and Rob Scuderi, two aging defensemen who were placed on waivers earlier this season. Ehrhoff’s skating and offensive instincts are a better fit with Chicago’s fluid system. Scuderi, meanwhile, is a stay-at-homer who is familiar with LA’s system . . . Team North America will be the World Cup’s toughest out. Either John Gibson or Connor Hellebuyck can get hot. Aaron Ekblad, Seth Jones, and Ryan Murray move the puck efficiently. Up front, few teams can rival the speed of Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Gaudreau, Dylan Larkin, and Jack Eichel. It’s more proof that the NHL is a young man’s league . . . Last Monday against the Lightning, Zach Hyman (23 years old), Kasperi Kapanen (19), William Nylander (19), and Nikita Soshnikov (22) made their NHL debuts in Toronto’s 2-1 loss. As a reward, Mike Babcock gave them postgame milk and cookies before tucking each of them into bed.
It’s how you finish
The Capitals are a lock to become the first team to reach 100 points this season — an honor they’ve held just once in franchise history — and they’re on pace to get there faster than they ever have. The problem is, none of their previous 100-point seasons resulted in a playoff run that extended past the second round.
|Season||Points||Pace to 100||Finish among 100-point teams||Postseason|
|2009-10||121||69 games||1st of 11 teams||No. 1 seed, first-round loss|
|2008-09||108||77 games||4th of 7 teams||No. 2 seed, second-round loss|
|2010-11||107||78 games||3rd of 8 teams||No. 1 seed, second-round loss|
|1985-86||107||74 games||3rd of 3 teams||No. 2 seed, second-round loss|
|1999-2000||102||81 games||6th of 7 teams||No. 2 seed, first-round loss|
|2014-15||101||81 games||8th of 12 teams||No. 5 seed, second-round loss|
|1984-85||101||80 games||3rd of 3 teams||No. 2 seed, first-round loss|
|1983-84||101||80 games||5th of 5 teams||No. 4 seed, second-rond loss|
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.