Blues’ Stanley Cup blueprint: Don’t expect league to follow suit
Legions of grim faces streamed out onto Causeway Street late Wednesday night, the hometown crowd understandably disconsolate after watching the Bruins boot away their chance of clinching the Stanley Cup for what would have been only the second time on home ice in the past 80 years.
Little did we realize on May 10, 1970, when Bobby Orr took flight in the dusty old Garden, how long the wait would be for the West End’s next Black and Gold waltz. A half-century later, No. 4 remains suspended in air in perpetuity, stick raised, building shaking.
It will take Bruins fans a while to shake the latest hangover. It always does. The Bruins have played in 20 Cup Finals, only to fail far more than succeed (six titles), and that frame of standing there to watch another team dance the Cup around the Garden — something that now has happened seven times — is always a two-hander to the spirit of even the hardest-to-die diehard.
The Bruins, much like the Jets, Stars, and Sharks, found the Blues too much, too strong, to handle. The biggest difference for the Bruins in Game 7, aside from their own dumbfounding lack of pushback over the final two periods, was netminder Jordan Binnington.
Nothing new there, right? Goalies too often, and some will argue too consistently, dictate failure and success. Exhibit A: If not for Tuukka Rask’s work both in 2013 and again this spring, the Bruins are still hunting for their first Cup Final since 2011. Binnington was impossible to beat in the first 20 minutes in the clincher, and he grew all the bigger when handed a 2-0 lead by the first intermission.
Overall, the Blues banked their first Cup in franchise history on determination, muscle, and grit, factors that have been diluted across the league, frankly, over the years since the Bruins won with their heavy lineup in 2011. In a game now dominated by skill and speed — the latter sometimes working against some of the skill — the Blues this spring separated themselves with a menacing and grinding forechecking game, stout and sometimes intimidating work along the wall, and requisite sandpaper and scoring touch around the net.
Is that energy and grind model something the other 30 Original NHL teams will follow? Sure, to a degree, because there is no magic mojo in determination and grit. If the coach preaches it, and the players buy in to the level the Blues bought in with Craig Berube, the Cup is right there for the hoisting.
The Blues mixed all that, too, with some impressive scoring touch from the likes of Jaden Schwartz (12 goals), Vladimir Tarasenko (11), Ryan O’Reilly (8), and David Perron (7).That’s 38 goals from their top four strikers. The Bruins got nearly the same punch from their top four: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, and Charlie Cole, with nine apiece.
In and of itself, there is no secret sauce in playing hard. Remember, other than Berube giving Binnington a fling in net ostensibly as a last resort in midseason, the same St. Louis lineup stood dead last in the standings as of Jan. 3, some six weeks after coach Mike Yeo was canned. The roster-wide buy-in came only after Binnington proved competent in net. All of a sudden, the pain of playing hard delivered rewards, the way a house warms up once someone decides to shut the window and close the door.
But if you’re thinking St Louis has an easy model to replicate, think again.
Playing hard and heavy, while simple in theory, just isn’t how the talent pool is being cultivated in 2019. It has never been the game taught in Europe, which delivers so many speed-and-skill players to the NHL. It’s no longer taught in the United States, either, be it on the National Team Development Program or throughout NCAA Division 1.
The three top Canadian junior leagues have their pockets of that old school tradition (some would say charm), but overall, from Quebec to Ontario to The Dub (WHL), the mantra has switched to speed and skill, layered on top of more speed and more skill.
So even if NHL general managers thought of going more with a grind approach, it’s hard to imagine them being able to find players to fit the model. The likes of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Dennis Seidenberg, and Johnny Boychuk, all critical members of Boston’s 2011 Cup title, aren’t walking through that door. If they are, everyone else will skate around them like traffic cones.
In fact, it would not be a surprise to see the Blues next year, especially during the regular season, struggle to recapture the type of discipline and energy that delivered the Cup, even if Binnington is solid in net. The 82-game regular season is a long haul and the 8-9-week Cup run totally exhausting. Playing that game over the course of nine months is too much to ask, even for a Blues team that will return to work in October still basking in the reaffirming glory that all the hard work delivered.
Speed and skill will continue to rule the NHL day, inform and guide general managers in their roster-building. They’ll continue to value skating, puck moving, stick skills, and players who can process the game at pace. All the other grind factors, though not to be dismissed, for the most part now are accompanying curiosities in the puppy mill know as the amateur-entry pool.
It was largely a throwback effort, with Berube, a throwback coach who logged 3,149 penalty minutes during his NHL career, that delivered the 2019 Cup. Admirable, for sure, and while not impossible to replicate, just not where the game is headed.
Critical two weeks for front offices
Outside of the playoff season, these next couple of weeks include perhaps the most critical dates on the NHL calendar. The two-week buyout period began Saturday, to be followed by this week’s draft in Vancouver (Friday-Saturday) and then the annual free agent flea market, which swings wide its doors on Monday, July 1.
July 1, which again will see some ridiculous overpayments lavished on unrestricted free agents, technically is the same day restricted free agents also can be tendered offer sheets. We say technically because restricted free agent sheets come around now with less frequency than UFO sightings in Area 51 or Exeter, N.H. (see: Barney and Betty Hill). Maybe if we look to the sky enough, something will happen?
In the salary-cap era, which began after the “lost” season of 2004-05, there have been but eight RFA offer sheets, and only one that led to a player departure.
In 2007, Anaheim declined to match Edmonton’s offer (five years/$21.5 million) to strapping winger Dustin Penner. The good news, when Edmonton finally unloaded the unproductive Penner on Los Angeles three-plus years later, the package included a first-round Kings pick that brought the Oilers top blue liner Oscar Klefbom.
It was that same July, remember, the Oilers made an even more aggressive play with an RFA offer sheet to then-Sabre Thomas Vanek. But the Sabres matched, retaining Vanek at the then-whopping price of seven years/$50 million. After only two NHL seasons, he went from making $942,000 to an average of just over $7 million, with a first-year payout of $10 million.
This year, four names, including Maple Leafs forwards Mitch Marner and Kasperi Kapanen, lead the rumor mill as possible targets for RFA sheets. The same for forwards Brayden Point (Tampa Bay) and William Karlsson (Vegas).
All are coming off expiring entry-level deals except for Karlsson, who opted for a one-year, $5.25 million bridge deal a year ago after failing to come to terms on a long-term pact with the Golden Knights. His overall production slipped by some 30 percent to 24-32—56 in 2018-19, so he may not cash in that whopping payday that he envisioned just a year ago.
Again, given the history of RFA sheets, it’s likely all will remain with their current clubs, but it will be interesting to see how the Leafs deal with the Marner-Kapanen tandem, particularly after the five-year, $58.2 million deal they shoveled into Auston Matthews’s wallet in February.
Marner, 22, led the Leafs in scoring the past two years. Have to think he’ll want one of those Matthews-like $11.6-million-a-year deals, right? Kapanen, acquired from Pittsburgh in the Phil Kessel deal, was the club’s second highest-producing winger (20-24—44). Give that man $5 million, at least.
In Tampa, Point just keeps getting better, with point totals the last three seasons of 40, 66, and 92. The two Bolts ahead of him on the scoring list this past season, Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos, average $9 million a year. At minimum, Point has to be hunting for the six-year/$40 million pact that David Pastrnak signed with the Bruins in September 2017.
If anyone receives an offer sheet, it will be the first one in six years. Calgary in 2013 tried to filch holdout Ryan O’Reilly away from the Avalanche with a two-year deal totaling $10 million. Lucky for the Flames, the Avalanche matched.
Due to a CBA technicality, the Flames, had they acquired O’Reilly, would have been forced to place him on waivers prior to adding him to their roster. O’Reilly surely would have been claimed, even at the $5 million-a-year sticker, and the Flames would have been out the two draft picks, Rounds 1 and 3, due the Avalanche as compensation.
Ex-Bruins could be back in play
Back in the June 2017 expansion draft that stocked Vegas, the Bruins were chagrined when the Knights opted not to take Adam McQuaid and instead claimed Colin Miller, whom they acquired in the deal two years earlier that shipped Milan Lucic to the Kings.
Just over three months later, the Bruins again were chagrined to lose No. 1 goalie prospect Malcolm Subban to the Knights via waivers on the eve of a new season. The Bruins had invested heavily in the athletic Subban, the club’s top pick (No. 24) in the 2012 draft, and he had shown some promising flashes in his four seasons at AHL Providence.
Less than two years later, it appears the Bruins could get another crack at both players.
The Knights, with the priciest payroll in the league (everything happens fast in today’s NHL), at the very least will have to clear some money in order to get William Karlsson under contract.
Subban, only 25, will be a restricted free agent come July 1, so technically his payroll number (league-minimum $650,000) doesn’t factor in the already-bloated Knights ledger.
However, Miller, 26, is on the books for three more years at $3.875 million. A righthanded shot, he has averaged 35 points in his two seasons in the desert, and while that’s hardly Torey Krug territory (average 56 points the past two seasons), Miller’s pay rate also is substantially less than the $5.25 million Krug has remaining on the final year of his deal.
Miller is not nearly as nimble or as quick-thinking as Krug, but he does possess a booming, heavy slapper. If the Bruins were to move Krug, with the idea of making Charlie McAvoy their power-play quarterback at the right point, Miller could be slotted there as the No. 2 point man, or provide McAvoy some relief, if necessary.
To land Subban, the Bruins likely would have to give up a late draft pick, unless the Knights opted to cut him free. With Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak locked into the varsity jobs, it would mean a return to AHL Providence for Subban. Not ideal, but also not the worst place to settle in and grow his game.
Not to be lost in the Bruins’ disappointing finish: Krug was second only to Rask for his overall postseason performance. The 5-foot-9-inch dynamo finished 2-16—18, third in team scoring, and earned a place in Black and Gold lore with his clean, pulverizing hit on the Blues’ Robert Thomas in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Over the last three playoff seasons, Krug has totaled 30 points, second only to unrestricted free agent Erik Karlsson (34 points) and a tick ahead of the Capitals’ John Carlson (29) . . . Trade winds persist that ex-Bruins Lucic and Loui Eriksson will switch sweaters, with Lucic landing back in hometown Vancouver and Eriksson joining the goal-challenged Oilers. Both would have to waive their no-trades, considered likely, given how both have been equal busts since signing their pricey UFA deals. Eriksson has three more years coming at a $6 million cap hit, while Lucic has four more at $6 million. The Canucks could use Lucic’s thump on the wing, if he is still willing to thump, and the Oilers need scoring help on the wing. Of course, so did the Canucks when they signed Eriksson, only to see him deliver 32 goals over his three seasons in British Columbia . . . The Blue Jackets on July 1 are likely to lose their three high-end free agents — Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. With ex-Blue Jackets boss John Davidson now president of the Rangers, it’s possible Panarin and Bobrovsky follow him to Broadway. That can’t happen unless King Henrik Lundqvist, with two years left at $8.5 million per, agrees to surrender his no-trade . . . Phil Kessel remains in Pittsburgh (but for how long?) after reportedly nixing a deal to Minnesota that would have brought left winger Jason Zucker to the Penguins. Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford is believed to remain keenly interested in moving Kessel as a means of helping coach Mike Sullivan reshape and revitalize the offense. A move to the Wild would have brought Kessel back to his home state, but he reportedly kiboshed the swap because he didn’t feel the Wild are ready to compete for a Cup. Seems a fair calculus, but he also might have said the same about St. Louis a year ago . . . Patrice Bergeron will be at the NHL Awards show Wednesday night in Vegas, where he again is up for the Selke Trophy as the league’s top defensive forward. He lost out last June to Los Angeles’s Anze Kopitar. A win would bring Patrice The Thief a record fifth Selke . . . Caught in a cap squeeze, the Predators might have to move left winger Viktor Arvidsson, who is locked in at a comfortable cap figure ($4.25 million) for the next five seasons. He averages around 55 points a season and would seem a perfect second-line fit with David Krejci as his distributor . . . The Bruins on Friday announced that their development camp will run June 26-28 at Warrior Rink in Brighton. Finally, at long last, hockey is back in the Hub. The telltale chill is in the air.