There is nothing wrong with being a defensive defenseman.
Since becoming Bruins property on May 16, 2007, Adam McQuaid has played nearly 500 regular-season and playoff games for the same organization. McQuaid is in the third season of a four-year, $11 million contract. The 31-year-old has made a good living and enjoyed one-team stability by defending at even strength, killing opposing power plays, and being miserable to play against in the danger areas. McQuaid has the kind of job security that most of his league counterparts would like.
In that way, Brandon Carlo has a long and bright future with the team that drafted him 37th overall in 2015. Noah Hanifin, Jack Eichel, Connor McDavid, Ivan Provorov, and Mikko Rantanen are the only members of Carlo’s draft class that have appeared in more NHL games.
Through 55 games, Carlo has no goals and five assists. Producing points, however, is not why the Bruins are high on the 6-foot-5-inch, 208-pound defenseman. They like that he can log 19:25 of defense-first ice time per appearance, fourth-highest among team defensemen after Zd eno Chara, Charlie McAvoy, and Torey Krug.
Carlo owes the Bruins one more season at his base salary of $832,500. Few teams, especially one in contention for the Stanley Cup, move such inexpensive core assets at the trade deadline. They are adding complementary pieces they consider difference-makers. In the last two seasons, the Penguins acquired Ron Hainsey, Mark Streit, and Justin Schultz prior to the deadline, although they moved Eric Fehr last year to Toronto.
What could make Carlo an exception, however, is what everybody sees on a nightly basis: a big right-shot defenseman who can move like a figure skater.
The Bruins are legit contenders. They have six of their seven 2018 picks, save for the fifth-rounder they ceded by acquiring Drew Stafford at last year’s deadline. They have prospects developing in Providence, Europe, the CHL, and the NCAA. They are in good position to be selective about which futures they send out for their specific needs: a three-zone right wing to complement and express more of David Krejci’s game, and a left-shot defenseman for even-strength and penalty-killing duties.
General manager Don Sweeney is understandably reluctant about dealing any of his high picks or top prospects. The most precious selection Sweeney sent out the door since replacing Peter Chiarelli was his 2017 second-rounder as part of a package to acquire Lee Stempniak on Feb. 29, 2016. Within that time, Sweeney accumulated three first-rounders (Zach Senyshyn, Jakub Zboril, Trent Frederic) and two second-round picks (Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Jeremy Lauzon) as part of his most important mission: replenishing a system that had gone bare. Time will tell whether Sweeney and his scouts made the right calls with the picks they hoarded.
The point is that Sweeney’s preference is to keep his brightest futures instead of sending them out for expensive rentals. His template will not undergo alteration prior to the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Sweeney does not intend to feel the same buyer’s remorse experienced by Minnesota’s Chuck Fletcher or Washington’s Brian McLellan. Last February, the Wild traded their 2017 first-rounder, 2018 second-rounder, and 2019 fourth-rounder in a package for Martin Hanzal. The Capitals sent out Zach Sanford, a 2017 first-round pick, and a 2019 second-rounder for Kevin Shattenkirk. The deals did little to advance their Cup pursuits.
While buyers like Sweeney are holding their noses at high prices this season, sellers like Jeff Gorton believe they can refer to last year’s market to net similar returns. The Rangers have unrestricted free agents-to-be such as Rick Nash and Michael Grabner who fit the profile the Bruins are seeking: wings who can put pucks in nets and accelerate in close quarters. The price will be high for both players. It will be even higher for Ryan McDonagh, the left-side defenseman signed through 2019 at a reasonable $4.7 million per season. Vancouver GM Jim Benning also will be hunting generous returns for Thomas Vanek, his most valuable trade chip.
What could make Carlo an unexpected part of trade chatter is his projection. There is no argument about what McAvoy already is and will become: a do-it-all No. 1 defenseman. Same goes for Matt Grzelcyk: a bottom-pair blue liner who can apply his skating, smarts, and stick skills in even-strength and power-play situations. At ages 20 and 24, the futures of McAvoy and Grzelcyk are already written in Sharpie.
A pencil would be a better instrument with which to sketch out Carlo’s future. The same level of agreement does not extend to Carlo. An informal poll of three player personnel executives around the league produced three different projections: bottom-pairing defensive defenseman, No. 4 or 5, and top-four shutdown presence.
One comparable was Marc Staal, a solid left-side defense-first defenseman prior to his eye injury. Staal is halfway through a six-year, $34.2 million deal. The Rangers, who drafted Staal 12th overall in 2005, signed the defenseman to a five-year, $19.875 million second contract, according to CapFriendly.
To these eyes, Carlo looks like a long-term No. 5 defenseman. His high-energy wheels and long stick make him a good first option to start every kill alongside Chara. He can skate the puck out of trouble. The 21-year-old is mature beyond his age. He is professional and dedicated.
But I also see a defenseman who, at times, becomes frantic when the temperature rises. The best shutdown defensemen put an end to helter-skelter play with solid positioning, a stiff check, or an efficient retrieval and clear. Carlo has yet to develop consistency in those areas in snuffing out dangerous cycles.
McQuaid and Kevan Miller, Carlo’s right-side mates, are dark-alley dangermen because of their orneriness. Carlo does not play with the same bite. Offensively, his skating and puck skills may not ever translate to making him an offensive threat.
None of this qualifies Carlo as less than a long-term dependable defenseman. The variances in opinions, however, illustrate that Carlo’s NHL projection has yet to be written. It only takes one decision-maker who sees Carlo as more Colton Parayko than Cody Ceci to lobby his GM to stake a claim. That’s when Carlo’s trade value rises to the point where Sweeney has to listen instead of hanging up his phone. If Staal is among the comparables in a limited collection of opinions, it’s possible that another scout thinks even more highly of Carlo.
Contenders usually don’t deal good 21-year-old right-shot defensemen. His age, job description, and future make Carlo all but off limits. While the Bruins have left-side prospect depth with Zboril, Lauzon, Ryan Lindgren, and Urho Vaakanainen, they have little on the right side.
But if another team believes there is more to Carlo than what he’s shown so far, he could be the Bruins’ best chance at landing something big.
Blue liners in high gear for Bruins
Even from 30,000 feet, where most arenas station their press boxes, it’s close enough to hear what has become a standard on-ice chorus: “Wheel, wheel, wheel!”
It is the instruction, usually barked by a defenseman, to his partner. It signals that the coast is clear to wheel around the net with the puck and begin the breakout. Even for relatively young defensemen like Torey Krug, wheeling has come with an adjustment.
“The way that we practice, it translates right to a game where now, it’s just instinctive,” said the 26-year-old defenseman. “Every time we get the puck, the first thing we think about is moving our feet three hard strides, then making the play from there.”
Skating the puck swiftly out of the defensive zone has always been one of Krug’s strengths. It was one reason the Bruins pursued Krug as a free agent out of Michigan State. Ex-coach Claude Julien always gave Krug the green light to push the puck from one end to the other.
But Julien, like many coaches just four years ago, liked structure to his breakouts. The D-to-D pass was usually the No. 1 option. For Krug, it usually meant looking to his side for his partner. Or, vice versa, Krug would have to skate wide laterally to stretch out the forecheckers, receive the D-to-D pass, and hit either the strong-side wing or the center curling underneath as the next step. The fallback was the hard rim to the weak-side wing, usually with one of the defensemen serving as a bypass along the wall.
“Coming in, we played Claude’s system, where everything was D-to-D over or rim,” Krug said. “It kind of limited you on where you could go. You just go straight back to the corner and wait there for your partner to get it over to you.”
Last year, before Julien’s dismissal, the Bruins were shifting away from D-to-D with the wheel breakout gaining preference. But even then, when a defenseman was wheeling, his partner was usually asked to stay at home in front of the net in case of a breakdown.
Under Bruce Cassidy, both defensemen are often in full flight. Sometimes the defensemen criss-cross behind the net and streak up the ice at the same pace. In other cases, the blue liner without the puck is hot on the heels of his puck-carrying partner. The underlying mandate: Everything is going north.
“I think it’s really changed the pace of our breakouts,” Krug said. “We’re spending less time in our zone, because we’re able to scrape an opposing player around the net. All of a sudden, you’re looking up ice instead of facing your own end trying to make a breakout. Any time you can grab the puck and you’re able to look down the other way, it’s good for our team.”
Phaneuf still costs Senators money
On Feb. 9, 2016, the Maple Leafs acquired Jared Cowen, Colin Greening, Tobias Lindberg, and Milan Michalek from Ottawa in a package for Dion Phaneuf. Just over two years later, all four players are out of the league. Toronto is just fine with that.
The perk of trading Phaneuf, who has since been dealt to Los Angeles, wasn’t the inclusion of a 2017 second-round pick, which the Leafs used to draft defenseman Eemeli Rasanen. It was that Toronto didn’t have to assume a cent of Phaneuf’s $7 million average annual value, nor take back a bad contract in return.
Ottawa wasn’t so lucky.
On Feb. 13, by trading Phaneuf and ex-Bruin Nate Thompson to the Kings for Marian Gaborik and Drew Shore, the rebuilding Senators had to retain 25 percent of the defenseman’s remaining salary. Through 2021, owner Eugene Melnyk will pay Phaneuf $1.25 million annually not to play for his team.
On top of that, Melnyk will be responsible for the $10,825,000, according to CapFriendly, due to Gaborik for the next three seasons. It’s a lot of dough to pay for a 36-year-old wing whose explosive acceleration has been dampened by knee and groin injuries. But one of Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion’s responsibilities is to save money however he can, even if it means retaining salary and picking up an inflated deal.
The Senators are not a cap team. They’re desperate for a downtown rink to make their franchise more of a money-making venture. Part of that pitch depends on how the team proceeds with star defenseman Erik Karlsson, free to walk for nothing after next year. Perhaps Dorion will apply some of his savings on Phaneuf toward Karlsson’s next payday. Or maybe Karlsson will be next to be moved.
Czarnik’s options will change
The Bruins returned Austin Czarnik to Providence on Feb. 11 when Noel Acciari was cleared to play. Czarnik has 59 games of NHL experience. Once the skilled forward appears in 60 games, he will need to clear waivers to report back to the AHL. A team with lesser depth up front than the Bruins would be likely to show interest via waivers if Czarnik crosses the 60-game threshold. While Czarnik remains on the bubble, he projects to be able to seek his NHL fortune elsewhere after this season. A player 25 or older with three pro seasons and fewer than 80 NHL games on his resume is eligible for Group 6 free agency. The 25-year-old Czarnik is in his third pro season and on an expiring contract. Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli, still in Boston when Czarnik was signed as a free agent out of Miami University, could be interested.
Lucic aiming for slimming
Milan Lucic would like to shed some pounds. The ex-Bruin, according to Sportsnet, weighs 238 pounds. His target weight is 225. Things are lost for the Oilers this season, both for Lucic’s resolution and his team’s postseason chances. But dropping 13 pounds may be Lucic’s first step in becoming more of a presence in 2018-19. Given his age and playing style, Lucic was a reach from the start when the Oilers signed him to a seven-year, $42 million blockbuster on July 1, 2016. But not even one-third into his deal, Lucic, who will be 30 in June, is playing like a relic: nine goals through 56 games. In 2012-13, when the lockout led Lucic’s fitness routine astray, the left wing had only an 8.9 percent shooting percentage, well off the 17.4 percent he drained the year before. This season, Lucic is shooting at 8.7 percent. Neither Lucic nor his employer can afford five more years at this pace and pay.
Versatility pays off for Burns
On Feb. 15, the reigning Norris Trophy winner played out of position. While Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun lined up on defense, Brent Burns skated up front alongside Timo Meier and Joe Pavelski. The one-of-a-kind defenseman was needed as a forward because of injuries to Joe Thornton, Tomas Hertl, and Joel Ward. Through one period, Burns, the league’s leader in shots, didn’t have a single attempt in 8:47 of play. In the second period, when Dylan DeMelo needed a visit to the room, the Sharks moved Burns back to the blue line. Burns promptly scored the deciding goal as a defenseman in San Jose’s 4-1 win over Vancouver by pounding a long-distance one-timer from the left-side wall through Jacob Markstrom. “The experiment didn’t last very long,” coach Pete DeBoer told San Jose reporters. “He proved what I already knew — that he’s a better defenseman. He’s such a weapon back there. It felt like the right thing to do, and looking back at the game, it was the right thing to do.”
Charlie Lindgren has provided Montreal with 11 games of NHL data, which was good enough for the Canadiens to sign the undrafted goalie to a three-year, one-way extension. Lindgren will make $750,000 per season, according to TSN, but that dough is guaranteed even if the Canadiens assign him to the AHL. As such, Lindgren is the favorite to be Carey Price’s No. 2 next year in place of Antti Niemi . . . Roster flexibility was one of Toronto’s objectives in trading Nikita Soshnikov to St. Louis for a 2019 fourth-rounder. The Maple Leafs now have 49 players under contract, one under the league maximum . . . The season turned dark with the death of the Boston Herald’s Steve Harris, a press box companion and friend. Steve was very proud of his family, to whom we offer the deepest condolences.