If handed an iPad during a game, some of Phil Kessel’s previous coaches would have used it to thwack the back of the ex-Bruin’s head.
During the 2017 playoffs, the first in which NHL teams used the iBench system, then-Pittsburgh assistant Rick Tocchet regularly used one of the team’s tablets in games to show Kessel what he, his teammates, and opposing penalty kills were doing on the power play. Coach Mike Sullivan does not believe it was a coincidence the Penguins scored on 20.5 percent of their power plays, or that Kessel led all playoff performers with 11 man-up points.
“The main areas where we probably gained the most use out of it was special teams, because you get immediate feedback,” the two-time Stanley Cup-winning coach said of the technology. “You can make subtle adjustments on the fly. In the playoffs, you might only get two power plays a game. So if you have the ability to make an adjustment that might lead to an opportunity to score or generate a scoring chance, that could be the difference between winning and losing.”
Just before the puck dropped on the playoffs, the NHL gave teams the green light to use iBench. It is a system powered by XOS Digital, the Wilmington-based company that provides video solutions to 25 NHL teams, including the Bruins. Based on the teams’ needs, iBench gave coaches like Tocchet and Sullivan any degree of video replay to show their players during TV timeouts or even while play was ongoing.
For example, if Tocchet wanted his players to see how Nashville’s penalty killers defended Pittsburgh’s entry on a power-play rush, he could ask video coach Andy Saucier via headset to tag the relevant clip. During a TV timeout, Tocchet could stick the iPad in front of Kessel, tap a button, and show Kessel what took place. On his next power-play shift, Kessel could adjust his entry to give himself more space with the puck.
Until this year, teams would have to wait until intermission to pore over clips and make video-guided adjustments. Not anymore.
“I’ve always felt strongly that this is such a robust program, but my experience of being around the game is that most coaching staffs use the tip of the iceberg,” Sullivan said of Thunder Hockey, XOS’s hockey product. “So my feeling has always been that, ‘Hey, if we can get better at this stuff than the other guys, then this could be a real competitive advantage for us.’ On our staff in Pittsburgh we spend a lot of time learning this stuff.”
Sullivan was not peeking at his iPad after every shift. He is responsible for changing lines and monitoring the opposing bench. Assistant coach Jacques Martin, who was in charge of the defense, didn’t have time for the tablet, either. But Tocchet, now the head coach in Arizona, was a rover. Tocchet could reach for an iPad during game flow.
To Sullivan, in-game video use was a no-brainer. His players have grown up with iPhones and Xboxes. It is a video generation.
In the playoffs, Sullivan’s biggest challenge was to marry the sport’s past and future. The 49-year-old is big on forward thinking. He believes in advanced statistics, biometrics, and psychology.
But the Marshfield native is also a traditionalist. In the battle, Sullivan wants players who are competitive, tough, instinctive, and smart enough — all the hard-to-quantify characteristics that grizzled scouts try to identify — to get the best of their competitors. Sullivan points to Sidney Crosby as the perfect example of a player who can will himself to make better plays when his coach needs them the most.
“It wasn’t like everybody had an iPad on their lap after every shift. If that was the case, I probably would have thrown them off the bench,” Sullivan said. “There’s always going to be that fine line between analysis and emotion and instinct. That’s our game. For me, the game is rooted in emotion and instinct. As a coaching staff, we don’t want to get in the way of that. My antennas are always up, because I want to make sure that doesn’t happen. Having said that, the feedback and the ability to make adjustments on the fly is really important.”
The system is under construction. In future seasons, the eye-in-the-sky assistant will be able to access the iBench network. The press box has neither the craze nor clutter of the bench. It is a more sterile environment (writers not withstanding) for an assistant to watch a play live, ask the video coach to flag a clip, and have it available on the bench.
Sullivan would also like to see the incorporation of biometrics. It is one thing for a coach to look in the eyes of a minutes-eating defenseman, see how hard he’s breathing, and ask if he’s ready for a critical penalty kill. The answer will always be yes. It is another for in-game workloads to be available for a coach to assess.
NHL teams, including the Penguins, use wearables in practice. But they are currently not allowed to be used in regular-season or playoff games. In this way, the NHL is behind. NFL players use wearables in games, giving the league and its teams critical performance data.
But if the NHL and NHLPA approve their use in the next collective bargaining agreement, a coach could check his iPad to see a player’s exertion rate.
It would provide cleaner data for a coach to make decisions on playing time.
“Let’s say Kris Letang, he’s on an extended shift, 1:20, we take a penalty, and there’s a commercial break,” Sullivan said. “He’s our best defenseman. We’d like him to kill the penalty. There’s a 60-second commercial break, and now we’ve got to kill a penalty and the faceoff’s in our end. I can ask Kris Letang, ‘Hey, how do you feel? You good to go?’ He’s always going to say yes. His heart rate could be 250, and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m good, Coach.’ That’s the type of guy he is. But it would be nice if you had some sort of understanding of the physiology of the player and where they’re at.”
Sullivan considers the interpretation of workload in predicting future performance hockey’s next frontier. It would help coaches to make more accurate decisions on deployment — whether Letang at 40 percent, for example, would be a better PK option than Brian Dumoulin at 90 percent.
The Penguins use player tracking in every practice. The next step could be in games. If so, technology could offer even more answers.
Goucher left his dream job
Dave Goucher beat out more than 200 competitors to be the Golden Knights’ first play-by-play TV announcer. He would be earning a raise over his salary as the radio voice of the Bruins. Goucher would be tasked, alongside ex-Bruin Shane Hnidy, to teach NHL hockey to a new fanbase. He would enter an industry that could open more doors down the road. TV announcing gigs do not turn over frequently.
For all that, the native of Pawtucket, R.I., termed his decision to turn off his radio microphone after 17 years of Black and Gold work one of the hardest of his life.
“I grew up listening to Bob Wilson and Fred Cusick on the radio and television forever,” said the 48-year-old Goucher. “The Bruins radio job? That job means more to me than anybody. Because I know the history of it and I have such an appreciation of the history of it. But I also felt that if the right situation presented itself in the move to television, that opportunity might never come my way again.”
Goucher’s work speaks for itself. He and analyst Bob Beers are the best at their respective jobs. Collaboration amplified their individual excellence.
It did not hurt Goucher’s case, however, that Eric Tosi, formerly the Bruins’ director of communications and content, was hired as Vegas’s vice president of communications and content. In July, Tosi contacted Goucher to gauge his interest. Goucher, who had called college hockey games for NBCSN, raised his hand.
“As much as I love radio, and I always will, there’s an opportunity here to expand what I do,” said Goucher. “I felt it would be extremely shortsighted not to take advantage of that.”
The Golden Knights selected Goucher, who did not have to audition. Part of their pitch was that the position would require the announcers to be explanatory as well as descriptive. Listeners of Goucher and Beers, for example, are likely to be more savvy about hockey than Las Vegas natives seeking TV entertainment. The notion appealed to Goucher.
On radio, a play-by-play announcer is responsible for painting the entire picture. On TV, the announcer can be more selective and point out which parts of the picture the viewer should be studying. Goucher will take cues from his director and producer. He will have to find a rhythm with Hnidy. Goucher will not be talking as much on TV compared with radio, where he had to describe game flow in detail.
The Boston University graduate has some mid-career learning to do. He is fine with that.
“I’m going to continue to try and develop into a better announcer and try some new things,” Goucher said. “TV affords me the opportunity.”
Bruins may need to build a bridge
Bruins GM Don Sweeney and J.P. Barry, David Pastrnak’s agent, have been committed to a long-term extension. The Bruins’ have offered six years at $36 million. They have a little less than a month to continue talking in this manner to sign Pastrnak in time for training camp.
But if the difference of opinion persists and the sides agree that having Pastrnak in camp is the priority, a bridge deal may be the solution. It could be the answer to two issues: Leon Draisaitl’s eight-year, $68 million extension and Brad Marchand’s eight-year, $49 million contract.
The former deal gave Barry more artillery to his argument of a market shift. An example of the earlier template was the six-year, $36 million contract — the comparable the Bruins were using — that Filip Forsberg signed with Nashville on June 27, 2016.
But teams have handed out more cash and security this summer. Evgeny Kuznetsov, using the KHL as leverage, signed for eight years and $62.4 million on July 2. Twenty-six days later, Ryan Johansen scored an eight-year, $64 million payday. Draisaitl was the latest and most relevant comparable to Pastrnak (they have identical 0.72 point-per-game rates over three seasons), indicating that teams are comfortable with eight-year term when six was the previous going rate. Accordingly, when two more years of potential unrestricted free agency are locked up, the salary rises.
According to chatter around the league, one reason Edmonton gave Draisaitl $8.5 million annually was to place him closer to Connor McDavid’s $12.5 million annual paycheck, which becomes effective in 2018-19. Even if all agree that McDavid is a prodigy, it would not have served GM Peter Chiarelli well if he classified Draisaitl, under the previous six-times-six format, as someone who is $6.5 million less of a player than No. 97.
Pastrnak, an offense-first right wing taken 22 picks after Draisaitl, may not have his peer’s all-around game. But numbers are numbers, and they say the two are not that far apart.
Draisaitl represents Pastrnak’s upper limit. Marchand is also another comparable, albeit in a different way.
The Bruins are wary of signing Pastrnak to more than Marchand. In some ways, it’s understandable. Marchand is the better player. He was the best all-around left wing in the league last year. His $6.125 million AAV represents below-market value. That’s only so because of give and take. Marchand gave the Bruins a break on his annual cap hit. He took term in return.
But Barry can point to David Krejci’s six-year, $43.5 million contract to dismiss the Bruins’ argument on salary structure. If the 31-year-old Krejci is worth $7.25 million annually, then a 21-year-old sharpshooter like Pastrnak could ask for more.
Marchand will be 36 in the final season of his contract. If his on-ice metabolism is still revving as high then as it is now, the league should check him for a spare battery. For the Bruins to lock in Marchand at a team-friendly AAV, they had to give him years beyond his window of expected peak performance.
The more accurate way to measure Marchand’s contract is over its first five years, when he’ll collect $35 million in salary and is granted a full no-movement clause. Marchand will be 33 at the conclusion of the five-year segment, still within expectations of high-end performance. Even if his legs slow slightly, Marchand’s strength, competitiveness, shot, and hockey sense should keep him in top-six duty.
Over the final three years, Marchand will earn $14 million total and will have modified no-trade protection. The dropoff ($4,166,667 average annually) reflects the projected decline of any 28-year-old wing over the course of eight-year term.
No such dip should be built into Pastrnak’s extension. Even if the right wing scores max term of eight years, Pastrnak will be 28 upon its conclusion, still very much within his window of goal-scoring prowess. This is the time when players are most productive and should be paid accordingly. The Bruins are already paying nearly $10 million annually for David Backes (33) and Matt Beleskey (29), whose best years are behind them.
If the Bruins insist on using Marchand’s AAV as Pastrnak’s upper limit, $7 million, not $6.125 million, should be the adjusted ceiling. If Barry considers that threshold too low in light of Draisaitl’s extension, then a bridge deal may be the only way to address the disagreement.
It’s not what either side wants. But unless compromise takes place, it may be the only fix to the problem.
Backup market was bypassed
The Bruins preferred to sign Pastrnak to his extension before July 1. That way, they could have had a clearer picture of how much cash they could have applied toward a backup goalie. For the last three seasons, the No. 2 position has been a problem. They believed some of the options were better than Anton Khudobin. But with Pastrnak’s number unresolved, the Bruins sat back as goalies such as Brian Elliott ($2.75 million annually), Jonathan Bernier ($2.75 million), Chad Johnson ($2.5 million), and Ryan Miller ($2 million) signed elsewhere. If Khudobin struggles and Zane McIntyre remains NHL-unready, the Bruins will be entering their fourth straight season of weakness at the position.
Thumbs down on new icing rule
USA Hockey will not allow players 14 and younger to ice the puck on the penalty kill in 2017-18. Not all are in agreement. In June, the Tier 1 Junior Hockey League submitted a letter to USA Hockey explaining its position counter to the proposal. The league, ranging from U-18 teams to squirts, includes players from Boston Advantage and the New Hampshire Junior Monarchs. “With regard to fair play and competitive integrity, it is presumably neutral, although it could be argued that players will still ice the puck, which could change the way coaches distribute ice time,” read the statement, signed by commissioner Larry Johnson. “Second, there is a potential impact on player safety in that tired players are vulnerable players if they don’t ice the puck. Third, the potential impact on skill development may be to minimize any opportunities for any other than ‘top-of-the-roster’ players to get special teams experience. Inexperienced or less-trained coaches may be tempted to leave players on the ice for the entirety of the penalty if there are added whistles, thus having an unintended consequence of actually decreasing the overall skill development of the entire team.”
On July 20, Marek Mazanec signed a one-year, $650,000 extension with Nashville. Less than a month later, the sides agreed to tear up the contract, freeing Mazanec to sign with HC Slovan Bratislava of the KHL. Had Mazanec remained stateside, the 26-year-old goalie was likely to play in the AHL. Juuse Saros has locked up the backup job behind Pekka Rinne. Saros is entering the final season of his three-year, entry-level contract . . . Ex-Nobles defenseman Mark Fayne has one season remaining on his four-year, $14.5 million deal with Edmonton. Whether Fayne can stick with the varsity, however, remains to be seen. Fayne dressed for four games with the Oilers last year while appearing in 39 for Bakersfield, their AHL team. The right-shot defenseman will enter camp contending with Adam Larsson, Matt Benning, and Eric Gryba. . . From his post-World Cup of Hockey tweet to his Instagram picture of hot dogs in the Stanley Cup, Phil Kessel seems like he’s pretty good at getting the last laugh.
Just sitting around the house tonight w my dog. Felt like I should be doing something important, but couldn't put my finger on it.— Phil Kessel (@PKessel81) September 21, 2016
The free agent market has run dry but there are several quality unrestricted skaters still available. The biggest name of which is 45-year-old Jaromir Jagr — not the most productive, but certainly the most high-profile. The second-leading scorer in NHL history could land a deal with a contender, or return to the KHL, where he starred from 2008-11. Here are five alternatives to Jagr when it comes to beefing up an offense.
Thomas Vanek| Left wing | Age: 33 | 12 seasons
He’s far from the 40-goal scorer he once was, but he still averaged 0.71 points per game last season with Detroit and Florida in just 14:24 average ice time. And his 0.46 assists per game in 2016-17 exceeded his career average of 0.41. Little risk on a short-term deal.
Jarome Iginla | Right wing | Age: 40 | 20 seasons
The future Hall of Famer is still chasing his first Cup; his deadline trade to the Kings last season didn’t work out. He’s one of just 13 players to have double-digit goals in 20 seasons, and he remains a tough customer (his 70 PIM last season were his fifth-most ever).
Drew Stafford | Right wing | Age: 31 | 11 seasons
The Bruins saw enough in Stafford to acquire him at last season’s trade deadline, and he responded by providing four goals, four assists, and a plus-8 rating in 18 games, plus two goals in a six-game playoff ouster. He’s also steady at the faceoff dot (47.6% career).
Daniel Winnik | Left wing | Age: 32 | 10 seasons
The former UNH star is coming off a career-high 12-goal season in the Capitals’ prolific offense. So why no contract? He’s a bottom-six contributor who’s been dealt three times at the annual trade deadline, so might as well let someone else absorb most of the cost.
Cody Franson | Defenseman | Age: 30 | 7 seasons
Franson is the top blue liner on the UFA market. The 6-foot-5-inch, right-shot defenseman spent the last two seasons in obscurity in Buffalo, but he’s a solid depth addition who averaged 18:29 ice time last season and can serve on the power play.