On Thursday, it took Danton Heinen three shifts to do what Matt Beleskey has failed to do in 93: score his first goal of 2017-18.
At 9:41 of the first period, while killing a Sean Kuraly penalty, Heinen tapped in the rebound of a David Backes shot. It was Heinen’s first NHL goal.
At 13:27 of the second, Heinen doubled his output. The rookie, recalled from Providence on Thursday morning, started the play with a strong forecheck on Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Heinen finished it with a net-front tuck after collecting the rebound of Brandon Carlo’s blast off the end boards.
Heinen was replacing Beleskey, who was a healthy scratch. Beleskey had given his boss little choice but to consider alternatives.
Heinen has been assigned to Providence twice this season. He does not want another commute on 95 South.
“Every shift, you want to do everything you can,” Heinen said after Thursday’s 2-1 win. “You don’t know how long you’ve got up here. You’ve got to take it day by day. Try and put your best foot forward every day and work as hard as you can. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Heinen was in because, for the second straight season, zeroes have been Beleskey’s regular companions. He has gone six straight games without a point.
Normally, players with 464 games (75 goals, 82 assists) of NHL experience would have longer to turn around a slow start.
The trouble is that Beleskey’s short-term history indicates his current sputter might be the norm.
It was just one year ago that Beleskey rode a 0-0—0 line for the first 10 games. He did not put a puck in a net until Nov. 10. It was the first of his three shots, out of 79 total, that an NHL goalie failed to stop.
Six games is a limited window, especially for a player averaging just 10:59 of ice time per game. But Beleskey, who was also a healthy scratch against Vancouver Oct. 19, is seeing sparse shifts because he has not proven he is deserving of more.
“If a young guy deserves to play over a guy that might be a little more established, then you try and put your best lineup together,” coach Bruce Cassidy said before the game in general terms, not specifically to Heinen replacing Beleskey. “You’re still trying to work with the framework of the guys that are here to get to where you need to be. Where we’re going as an organization is we’re incorporating youth. We’re not afraid of it. We’re not alone in the National Hockey League. Teams are not as afraid of youth as they were in the past.”
Cassidy cannot be questioned for sitting Beleskey in favor of Heinen. He would be foolish not to do the same on Saturday against Los Angeles.
Beleskey has scoreless company. Frank Vatrano is parked on zeroes after seven games.
Vatrano, however, has gotten the message that his job was not safe. The East Longmeadow native played urgently against the Sharks, landing a game-high four shots on net in 8:58 of ice time.
“He’s another guy that’s had to accept a different role,” Cassidy said, noting how Vatrano played well against the Sharks. “Now he’s learning how to create his own offense through forecheck, turnovers, and getting to the net, getting some second chances that way.”
Vatrano would be easy to move if his game flickers again. Beleskey is far more troublesome. Vegas wasn’t interested when it could have nabbed him for nothing in the expansion draft. He is due $3.8 million annually for two more seasons after this one. It is a bundle of money for a player who literally cannot score. No GM would assume that kind of money or term without the involvement of a honeypot (early pick, prospect, or dumping a bad contract in return).
What makes Beleskey’s case so startling is how abruptly he has appeared to smack into the wall. On July 1, 2016, the Bruins signed Beleskey to a five-year, $19 million contract to deliver some of what they lost in Milan Lucic: north-south skating on the left side, jam around the net, fearsome forechecking presence, willingness to fight, and playoff performance elevation.
Beleskey’s eight playoff goals for the Ducks in 2015-16, second-most on the roster behind Corey Perry (10), went a long ways in selling the Bruins. But Beleskey was a healthy scratch for three of the Bruins’ six playoff games last year.
Now it appears they’re left holding the bag. The 29-year-old is fulfilling a dubious hat trick: not producing, eating up cap space, and blocking prospects’ progress. Nobody will claim Beleskey if he goes on waivers. But the Bruins would still have to carry $2.775 million of the left wing’s $3.8 million annual cap hit if they assign him to the AHL.
Providence has wings in the wings. Not only are Heinen, Peter Cehlarik, Anton Blidh, and Jesse Gabrielle younger, they’re cheaper and could be more productive than Beleskey.
GM Don Sweeney is trying to dress good, young, and inexpensive players to complement Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak, and David Backes, their high-end moneymakers.
Because of his price and 0-0—0 play, Beleskey is a tricky problem for Sweeney to solve. Cap space is precious. Beleskey is occupying too much of it while doing too little.
Injuries have staggered the Bruins. The league’s pace of play guarantees more will come. Beleskey will be needed then. He’ll be required to play better than he has so far.