The Bruins open training camp Sept. 12 with nearly all of a roster that made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. For the decision-makers on Causeway Street, that was not a difficult call.
Though Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo have yet to sign — the NHL community, as per late-summer custom, largely opting to hammer golf balls rather than each other over restricted free agent deals — the Bruins’ salary-cap outlook looks friendly, if not favorable. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak would make up the first line of the All-Underpaid team. It’s hard to call Tuukka Rask too expensive after that playoff performance. The Bruins have enough young complementary pieces to compete, notably Jake DeBrusk entering the final year of his entry-level deal.
Repeating as East champions will be difficult, for a number of reasons. Three of them play in the Atlantic Division: Tampa Bay, Toronto, and Florida, the latter of which boosted their lineups while Bruins general manager Don Sweeney was hoping for a breakthrough with his RFAs. Though seemingly not Cup threats, Montreal and Buffalo could steal their share of points.
In the last half-century, only five teams have repeated as their conference Cup representative. Only the 2009 Penguins and 1984 Oilers flushed the bitterness by winning it all. The Lunchpail A.C. Bruins of 1978 were one of three other teams to make it back to the Final. The other two were the 1969 and ’70 Blues, about whom you’ve probably heard enough. More recently, the Bruins’ Cup Final loss in 2013 begat a second-round exit to the Canadiens in 2014, then two years of playoff DNQs. That lull is partly why remaining Bruins from that year’s team — Bergeron, Marchand, Rask, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, and Torey Krug — last spring recalled that loss as pure devastation.
To dispel the despair that began at 10:41 p.m. on June 12, those in Black and Gold country need the fresh air of the preseason. Boston’s rookies get on the ice in Brighton on Thursday, and fly to Buffalo post-practice for a four-day tournament that begins Friday, with games against the Penguins (Friday), Sabres (Saturday), and Devils (Monday). The finale could be the Bruins’ first live look at Jack Hughes, the skinny and skilled center who trained with Marchand and Co. in Halifax, Nova Scotia, this summer. He is one of two No. 1 overall picks the Devils can roll out down the middle.
The Bruins’ top two centers are no Hughes-Nico Hischier combo, in that they are proven, and no longer pups.
Bergeron and Krejci, coming off that grueling playoff run, have played a combined 1,878 games (Hughes and Hischier: 151). If the Bruins are to avoid visiting lottery land as their over-30 core ages out, they’ll need the ongoing star turns by Pastrnak (23), Krug (28), and McAvoy (21). They’ll need DeBrusk, Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, and Danton Heinen to become more than complementary pieces. They’ll likely need another wave of goaltending beyond the Rask-Jaroslav Halak tandem.
While the club is in need of a top-six finisher, young or old, and Chara’s age (43 in March) puts left-shot blue liners such as Urho Vaakanainen in focus, the spotlight shines brightly on the centers. Contending teams often have matchup-busters in the middle of lines 1 and 2, and the Bruins could enjoy that from Bergeron and Krejci for a few years yet. They are greatly in need of replacement candidates.
The organization is high on Jack Studnicka, arguably its top prospect. There’s a chance Weymouth’s Charlie Coyle, a superbly fit third-line center, finds a ferocious streak (paging Dr. Marchand). Or maybe Trent Frederic translates his moose-on-skates game and offensive touch at the NHL level. Maybe Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson eventually returns from Sweden with the intensity of another No. 45 overall pick, Bergeron.
Studnicka could be a contender on the wing, where Karson Kuhlman, Zach Senyshyn, Anders Bjork, and newcomer Oskar Steen will be fighting for ice time. The Bruins will watch their 19-23-year-olds in Buffalo and rely on them early this season, when they’re intent on giving the veterans a breather. Come playoff time, these players could be more important than you’d think.
The Bruins have so far avoided the fates of the Blackhawks, Red Wings, Kings, and Penguins, once Cup-worthy and now turning over. If they are to stay in contention, hoping to pull a second on-the-fly retooling, trades are a risky proposition. Free agent signings are riskier still. In the NHL’s marketplace, the best solutions come from within.
The nucleus is shifting here. What will the next generation bring? We’re about to find out.
Challenges faced by women’s game
If there’s a benevolent billionaire out there, women’s hockey could really use their help. Any hockey fans with an extra $15 million or so to fund the player salaries of the best female pros on the planet? Please alert the proper channels.
Women’s hockey is facing some stark economic challenges, a major reason why approximately 160 former Canadian Women’s Hockey League and National Women’s Hockey League players, a great many Olympians among them, announced this past week they would sit out a year from pro leagues and play a series of showcase tournaments, calling it the Dream Gap Tour.
Their statement was worded carefully, saying they wanted a fresh start for the good of the game. It could also be seen as a strike against the NWHL, which plans to continue with fewer of its most established players.
Those involved say there is significant disagreement on the dollar value of women’s hockey as a whole, and little consensus on what’s happening next.
No longer satisfied with just playing for their country, the pros are publicly pushing a living wage to train and play the game. That could mean between $50,000 and $100,000 per player.
“Of course we’re proud and happy, but is that where it ends with these players?” said Jayna Hefford, head adviser for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association, which is leading the boycott. Hefford, who won four Olympic golds with Canada and last year became the sixth woman to go into the Hockey Hall of Fame, was interim commissioner of the CWHL when it folded in May. Its main competitor for players, and influence, was the NWHL, helmed by former Northeastern captain Dani Rylan.
A sizable faction of the game’s best players say they don’t trust the business plan of the NWHL. Rylan has declined interview requests since the players pulled out, a league spokesman saying the NWHL wants the showcases to succeed for the good of the game.
The NWHL — which became the first women’s league to pay its players when it opened in 2015 — paid players between $3,000 and $10,000 last season. Teams averaged between 1,200 (Minnesota) and 423 (Connecticut) fans per game. Boston pulled in an average of 706. By comparison, two NCAA women’s teams, Wisconsin and Minnesota, averaged more than 2,000 fans last season. Among Boston-area clubs, Harvard (717) and Boston College (522) led the way.
The NHL has studied the viability of the women’s game throughout commissioner Gary Bettman’s 26-year tenure. Though it has contributed money — recently giving each 2018 Olympian $25,000 — the NHL has not put its financial might behind a WNHL.
It’s compelling to imagine a future in North America — which contains 80 percent of the world’s 206,000 hockey-playing women, according to the IIHF — when girls could grow up to have long pro hockey careers.
Public demand may not support it.
”You dream of the Olympics, and that’s kind of it. Maybe when you’re young, you have the illusion you can make NHL,” said Team USA defenseman Alyssa Gagliardi, who worked at a wireless headphone startup in downtown Boston while playing for the NWHL Pride. “Our dreams just stopped after college, if you weren’t one of the 20-25 players on the national team.
“We’re not talking millions. We just want to live and train full time as pros. Not practicing at 8 p.m. two nights a week, then going to a job at 9 a.m. the next morning. We want the pregame skate, a full-time coaching staff, girls that can train year-round. It’s exciting to think about where the game can go from there.”
The Pride’s first home games are Oct. 12 and 13 against Buffalo, at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton. The PWHPA barnstorming tour debuts in Boston on Sept. 21, with a mix of college and pros with local ties playing Boston College, and visiting Hudson, N.H. on Oct. 4-6. The tour also stops in Toronto (Sept. 20-22), San Jose (Sept. 22 against Sharks alumni), and Chicago (Oct. 18-20), with more dates to be announced later.
Not-so-exciting times for Oilers
Connor McDavid made headlines in Canada this past week when he gave a series of less-than-enthusiastic responses to media queries at the BioSteel Camp in Toronto.
If he’s glum, can you blame him?
McDavid, 22 and entering his fourth season as Edmonton’s captain, has played in 13 career playoff games. He slid into the post April 6, spent the summer rehabbing a PCL injury, and, in his chat with reporters, said he expects to start the season on time.
Wayne Gretzky didn’t have to carry this kind of burden through Oil Country. McDavid, who visits TD Garden on Jan. 4, has speed on the level of Gretzky’s playmaking, and a Jari Kurri-caliber wing in Leon Draisaitl. The Oilers enter 2019-20 with Zack Kassian and James Neal as their top wing options. Another right sider, former No. 4 overall pick Jesse Puljujarvi, signed a contract with Finnish club Karpat Oulu amid an RFA contract squabble.
Kassian produced 15-11—26 last season, approaching his high-water marks. Calgary signing Neal to a five-year, $25 million deal was viewed as a middle-of-the-fairway connection, considering he pumped in 26.3 goals a year the previous 10 seasons. He flatlined in his Flames debut (7-12—19), causing the Oilers to make a one-for-one deal to offload Milan Lucic.
In 2011-12, Neal popped for 40 goals riding with Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. Soon to be 32, Neal should get his share of chances with McDavid or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
Taking sides with the CBA
It seems the NHL and NHLPA are making progress toward avoiding a third lockout of the last three decades.
The NHL, after what TSN reported were “progressive discussions with the NHLPA,” on Friday declined its option to re-open the collective bargaining agreement for 2020.
The league could have reopened the CBA on Sunday. The players can do the same Sept. 15, which would void the current CBA. If left untouched, the agreement would expire after the 2021-22 season. Sportsnet reported the sides could agree to extend the players’ opt-out deadline if an agreement isn’t reached by Sept. 15.
Labor peace is a wonderful thing, and so far the tone has remained civil — commissioner Gary Bettman, last season, said the NHL wasn’t “looking for a fight” — as the sides hash out issues such as escrow, revenue splits, and participation in Olympic and World Cup of Hockey-style events.
One RFA signing of note this past week: the Islanders and winger Anthony Beauvillier, who signed a two-year bridge deal worth $2.1 million per season. Beauvillier has 48 goals and 88 points in his first 218 NHL games. The Bruins’ Jake DeBrusk, taken 14 spots higher in the first round of the 2015 draft (14th overall), has nearly the same production (43 goals and 85 points) in 138. Too early to tell what his second contract will look like, but it’ll outweigh that one . . . Former Montreal defenseman Andrei Markov, hoping for another NHL shot at 40, put out a highlight video of his training through new agent Allan Walsh. Markov, an elite offensive producer in his prime, posted a 7-40—47 line in 104 games with Ak Bars Kazan (KHL) the last two years. Would be fun to see what he’s got left. First Bruins-Canadiens game: Nov. 5 in Montreal . . . Happy 55th birthday to Brian Bellows, who was a way more durable player than Kevin Stevens and Brian Trottier were willing to believe (1,188 games, in which he scored 1,022 points) . . . Colorado superstar Nathan MacKinnon, one of Brad Marchand’s Maritime buddies, turned 24 on Sunday . . . Marchand, by the way, needs 93 points to pass former 700-Pound Line triggerman Glen Murray (651 points) as the fourth-highest Nova Scotian in NHL history. Al MacInnis (1,274) is first . . . Ex-Bruin and current Oiler Colby Cave, who played on a Foxboro Pro League squad with Dorchester’s Kevin Hayes, doesn’t think Philadelphia overpaid for the big man (seven years, $50 million). “He’s a point-producing, two-way centerman who’s 6-5 and wins faceoffs,” Cave said. “How are you not worth $7 million?” Tires: pumped . . . Former Bruins blue liner Matt Hunwick is expected to miss his 13th NHL season with an ongoing neck ailment. The 34-year-old suited up 14 times for Buffalo last season. A seventh-round pick in 2004, Hunwick played his first 164 games in Boston and was flipped to Colorado in November 2010 for Boston University product Colby Cohen . . . Cam Ward retired, and I’d rank him as the fourth-best goalie of his era, behind Henrik Lundqvist (the best), Tim Thomas (shame his Dominik Hasek-like dominance didn’t last longer), and Roberto Luongo . . . Defenseman Ben Lovejoy, 35, retired after 544 games in the NHL. He is quite likely the best player to come out of Concord, N.H., though his cousin, Stars rookie blue liner Gavin Bayreuther, is just getting going in the league . . . Heard a few good ECHL stories while reporting last Sunday’s piece on Bruce Cassidy’s memories. A gem from ex-Merrimack blue liner Karl Infanger: During his pair of years with the Wheeling Nailers (1997-99) under coach Peter Laviolette, their Greyhound pulled into the long-gone Toledo Sports Arena after a 16-hour roadie — but no player, coach or trainer left the bus. The reason? Call it a standoff. “We were watching ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,’ ” Infanger recalled. “Half the bus hadn’t seen it. We had to see the ending. We committed to it!” After idling for 20 minutes, the team rushed inside, changed, and hit the ice, nearly late for warm-ups but gifted a timeless piece of advice: When you have to shoot . . . shoot. Don’t talk.