In 2013-14, Reilly Smith helped to take some of the hurt out of the Tyler Seguin trade. As a first-year Bruin, Smith scored 20 goals and 31 assists for 51 points in 82 games. While Smith had his peaks and valleys, he looked like a trustworthy top-six forward who could ride alongside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron on the Bruins’ first line for multiple seasons.
Because of the Bruins’ overage in 2014-15, mostly due to bonuses for Jarome Iginla, the team could not afford to give Smith the raise he deserved the following season. After declining to sign for part of training camp, Smith settled on a one-year, $1.4 million extension, confident that a more fair-market contract would be in his future.
In 2014-15, Smith dipped to a 13-27—40 line in 81 games. Smith converted on just 9.1 percent of his 143 shots on net, a dropoff from the 13.7 percent he drained during his first season in Boston. Nevertheless, on March 6, 2015, Smith signed a two-year, $6.85 million extension. He would not draw any of it from the Bruins, who traded the right wing and Marc Savard to Florida for Jimmy Hayes less than four months later.
Smith is but a memory in Boston, but three of his numbers are relevant for the Ryan Spooner dilemma: 51 (points in 2013-14), 40 (points in 2014-15), and $3.425 million (the right wing’s average annual value in each of the last two seasons).
In 2015-16, Spooner scored 13 goals and 36 assists for 49 points. This season, through Game No. 82, Spooner recorded 11 goals and 28 assists for 39 points. The center’s output in each of the last two seasons is close to Smith’s production in his two-year Black-and-Gold window.
As such, an ask, via agent Murray Kuntz, of more than $3 million annually is well within Spooner’s rights, especially when he can go to arbitration to claim such a salary. Arbitration is based solely on numbers, a department in which Spooner looks better than he does in battles in the corners.
The question is whether Spooner will have to go elsewhere to land such a payday.
Spooner enters the playoffs as the Bruins’ fourth-line center and power-play specialist. The 25-year-old fills the latter job description well. As the right-side half-wall operator on the No. 1 unit, Spooner has totaled three goals and 15 assists. When Spooner controls the puck on the boards, he can pick apart penalty kills with multiple looks — in to Bergeron on the bumper, up to Torey Krug at the point, down to Marchand on the goal line, or cross-ice to David Pastrnak at the left circle if the killers give him that seam.
He’s even been granted occasional deployment on the penalty kill because of his speed. Spooner logged 1:19 of shorthanded ice time against Tampa Bay on Tuesday after Marchand was given a five-minute major for spearing Jake Dotchin.
But at even strength, Spooner has shown little presence down the stretch for a second straight year. He has not gotten much help from his wingmen, who have included Frank Vatrano, Matt Beleskey, Hayes, and Sean Kuraly.
Under Claude Julien, Spooner averaged 14:21 of ice time per game this year. Bruce Cassidy has trimmed Spooner’s workload to 13:16 of action per appearance. Julien gave Spooner shifts on the wings, but did not make him a fourth-line regular. It’s been the opposite with Cassidy, who’s kept Spooner in the middle but taken away more than a minute of his playing time per game.
Short term, the Bruins have acknowledged Spooner’s shortcomings by signing Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson to a three-year entry-level contract and bringing the ex-Boston University center onto the varsity roster. Even with no NHL experience, the right-shot center could provide some even-strength pop.
Long term, it remains to be seen how the Bruins proceed with Spooner. Challengers to his position include Forsbacka Karlsson and Austin Czarnik, a point-per-game AHL player. Other options include Riley Nash, Noel Acciari, or even David Backes as the third-line pivot. The Bruins do not, however, have an immediate solution on the power play, where they’d need a left-shot forward on the right side. Vatrano would be the leading candidate.
The first checkpoint is expansion. Even after his inconsistent season, Spooner would likely be one of the Bruins’ seven protected forwards. The Bruins and the 29 other teams must submit their protected lists by 5 p.m. on June 17. If Spooner is still a Bruin following the expansion draft, he would require a qualifying offer at 100 percent of his $1.1 million annual salary. He will be restricted on July 1.
What comes next is unknown. The sides could agree on an extension. They could proceed to arbitration. Or the Bruins could determine that Spooner is not a solution at the price he will command.
Spooner has submitted a 213-game portfolio highlighting sharp hands and vision, blazing straight-line speed, and slippery agility. But he’s also exhibited slack defensive-zone coverage and spotty even-strength presence.
It’s all made for a shrug of the shoulders when projecting how the Bruins will proceed with the next segment of his career. The same could be said about each of Spooner’s shifts.
PICKING ITS BATTLES
NBC decides not to flex muscles
In the NHL, as in every pro league, TV gets its way. The playoff schedule, for example, is based on what the league’s primary broadcast stakeholders (NBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports) prefer for their viewing windows. Had the Bruins faced off in the first round against the Blue Jackets, for example, NBC would have yawned, taken its pass, and ceded every game of the series to NESN. In contrast, had a Washington-Pittsburgh (meaning Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby, in TV-speak) taken place in the opening round, NBC would have tried to secure as many of the games as possible.
So in that way, NBC could have exercised some clout in convincing the NHL to participate in the 2018 Olympics. It would have done the league’s No. 1 network partner well to highlight the sport’s best players next year.
But the reality is that in the Olympic realm, hockey remains a bit player.
The Olympics draw viewers like few sporting events can. It hooks in Super Bowl-like audiences: the watchers who aren’t invested on a daily basis, but tune in for casual looks every four years.
The winter behemoth is figure skating. Had there been any possibility of the world’s top triple-axelers saying no to South Korea, NBC, the IOC, and every other invested body would have turned night into day trying to secure the skaters’ presence in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Figure skating draws eyeballs, which in turn draw advertisers. Outside of its core demographic, hockey simply doesn’t have this kind of power. It’s why during the 2014 Winter Games, some games landed on MSNBC and USA instead of the Big Peacock.
In the United States, the Olympics become one with nationalism. American viewers want to watch American athletes chase gold. When medals are out of the picture, viewers change the channel. The World Cup of Hockey did little to move the needle on ESPN, partly because the Americans fizzled and departed Toronto early.
In 2010 in Vancouver, with Ryan Miller playing some of his best hockey, the underdog Americans squared off against Canada for gold. Interest showed in the numbers: 27.6 million viewers. Four years later, without Team USA in the final, NBC drew 3.6 million viewers for Canada vs. Sweden. Perhaps in 2018, Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, Blake Wheeler, Joe Pavelski, and Dustin Byfuglien could have helped the Americans chase gold. But Team USA did not project to have the depth of Canada or Sweden, the two perpetual favorites.
Now, with amateurs and Europe-based players in the mix, the Americans might have a better shot of gold. If they do, it won’t matter to NBC whether they’re from the NHL or Switzerland’s National League A. American viewers like drama in the Olympics. Thirty-seven years ago, a bunch of amateurs created a whole lot of it.
“The Olympics have long been the world’s greatest international hockey tournament irrespective of whether professionals or amateurs are playing,” NBC said in a statement. “Although we’re disappointed that NHL players will not get the chance to experience and compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics next February, we’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country.”
Kris Letang has come back from a stroke, concussions, and a major knee injury to serve as Pittsburgh’s No. 1 defenseman and one of the livelier 200-foot blue liners in the league. It is a shame, then, that Letang will miss the rest of the season because of surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. It is a significant injury, one that is not guaranteed a complete fix following his operation.
Letang last played on Feb. 21 against Carolina. By then, in what coach Mike Sullivan termed an accumulation of events over time, discomfort had become an issue. An MRI at the time showed the issue. The team’s initial approach was for Letang to rest and be ready for the playoffs. But a follow-up MRI showed that Letang’s progress had stalled and that surgery was required.
“Our medical staff felt it made the most sense to take a conservative approach without surgery, and they were fairly confident that Kris could recover from this in time for the playoffs,” Sullivan told Pittsburgh reporters on Wednesday. “We were all very confident that was going to be the case. Within the last week, Kris went through some plateaus in his recovery process. That’s what spurred the next MRI. That’s when the course of action changed. It’s obviously disappointing. He’s an elite player and a great teammate. He’s a tough guy to replace. But this team has done it all year long.”
The team welcomed Trevor Daley (knee) back to the lineup on Thursday after more than a month off. Olli Maatta (hand), out since Feb. 17, is approaching a return. GM Jim Rutherford acquired Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit for depth. The Penguins have been happy about the play of Justin Schultz. None of the defensemen can replace Letang’s all-around skill. But if any team can make another Cup run while shorthanded, it’s Pittsburgh. Playing hurt is nothing new to the Penguins.
Giordano had to answer
Cam Fowler had let the puck fly. There was no reason for Mark Giordano to take out the Anaheim defenseman. But given the speed of how he was closing on his opponent, Giordano had nowhere to go but into Fowler. Giordano rammed into Fowler’s right knee, putting an end to the defenseman’s night and knocking him out for 2-6 weeks. It is an unfortunate diagnosis for the Ducks’ top-scoring defenseman (11-28—39) and leader in ice time (24:50 per game). Giordano, meanwhile, faced his own painful fate when ex-Northeastern defenseman Josh Manson came calling in the third period. The Calgary captain answered the bell. Manson delivered his team’s vengeance by feeding Giordano multiple uppercuts. The flare-ups continued later in the third, highlighted by old friend Matt Bartkowski taking on Korbinian Holzer after the Anaheim defenseman tried to wipe out Matthew Tkachuk with a hip check. Both the Flames and Ducks are not afraid to flex their muscles. That’s a good thing.
Donato likely to stay on campus
It’s a good bet that Ryan Donato, the Bruins’ second-round pick in 2014, will return to Harvard for his junior season. The left wing is in a good situation, playing for father Ted in a winning program while getting closer to a Harvard degree. As a sophomore, he scored 21 goals and 19 assists while helping the Crimson advance to the Frozen Four. Given the rate of his development, Donato could be a scoring wing in the NHL to complement Brad Marchand and future Bruin Jake DeBrusk on the left side. An added perk: Donato would be in the running to make the American roster for Pyeongchang next winter. The Scituate native, along with fellow American and Harvard teammate Adam Fox (Jericho, N.Y.), would be one of the better amateur candidates to qualify for the Winter Games. He would be following in his father’s footsteps. After playing at Harvard for four years, Ted Donato made the 1992 American team that finished in fourth place in Albertville, France.
If you were watching Ottawa-Detroit on Monday, there was no way you were changing the channel once overtime began. It was one of the most crackling, breathless, and inspiring five-minute stretches of play ever seen since the league introduced three-on-three overtime. Everything about it was great — rushes both ways, Grade-A saves, controlled exits from the offensive zone to change players, criss-crosses to shake man-to-man coverage. The teams combined for 12 shots, most of them of the kind that usually result in goals. But Craig Anderson and Petr Mrazek, leaky during regulation, were flawless and extended their mastery into the shootout, where Detroit’s Evgeny Svechnikov was the only scorer to find the back of the net. As constipated as five-on-five play can be, three-on-three can be such a breath of fresh air. More, please.
Karlsson proves his worth
Erik Karlsson isn’t a typical gritty defenseman. But the slick Swede does not shy away from blue-collar workloads. After a blocked shot knocked Karlsson out of the Ottawa lineup for two games, the captain brushed off his injury to return against the Red Wings on Monday, a crucial re-entry for a team that was without stay-at-homers Marc Methot and Cody Ceci. Not only did Karlsson dress, he logged 30:11 of ice time while attempting a game-high 13 shots. The Senators gutted out a 1-point result by losing in the shootout, which might not have happened without Karlsson doing his thing. While Connor McDavid may be the Hart Trophy favorite, Karlsson, in my opinion, is the best player in the league.
The Coyotes did a good thing by granting Oliver Ekman-Larsson a leave of absence for the final three games of the season following the death of his mother Annika. She had been sick with cancer . . . The NHL tagged Dalton Prout with a two-game suspension for his interference penalty on Radko Gudas on April 1. Prout forfeited $38,414.64 in salary. There’s a good bet that Prout will recoup some of his lost wages via free lunches from his New Jersey teammates. Prout targeted Gudas after the hard-rock Philadelphia defenseman leveled a head-down John Quenneville . . . Massachusetts players Anthony Flaherty (South Boston) and Paul Russell (Andover) scored to help Norwich University beat Trinity for the Division 3 championship last month, 4-1. William Pelletier, the tournament’s most outstanding player, has since signed with Rockford of the AHL, scoring two goals and two assists in three games . . . The Red Wings planned to have extra security in place on Sunday for the team’s final game at Joe Louis Arena. For the intrepid Wings faithful who somehow stuff octopi down their pants and through the turnstiles, it would be nothing to walk out of the rink with a chair tucked under a T-shirt.
The Capitals’ Braden Holtby, in the running for a second straight Vezina Trophy, recently became just the sixth goalie in league history to reach 40 wins in at least three seasons. And he’s now just the third netminder ever to get to 40 in three consecutive seasons.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.