Why it's probably silly to stress over Bruins draft 'reaches'

Why it's probably silly to stress over Bruins draft 'reaches'

In the NHL draft on Friday, the Bruins used the 18th overall pick on Urho Vaakanainen, a Finnish defenseman who was not a consensus first-round prospect. What idiots. 

Oh, not the Bruins. Well, maybe. Who knows? But the for-sure idiots are people who are inclined to lament the pick. 

This isn’t because I’m necessarily a big fan of Vaakanainen. Like you, I’ve not watched full games of him. It’s because if you blindly criticize an NHL draft pick past the middle of the first round, you are an absolute maniac.

The NHL draft might be the most difficult draft in professional sports. There are sleepers in every draft, but no draft lends itself to going off the board more than hockey. Maybe baseball. Maaaaybe. 

Why? Because players are so hard to project that the best talent evaluators in the world are often incorrect in the long-run. There’s so much projection involved that the 18th-best player at the time of the draft could very well be a nobody at the next level. We cling to the pre-draft rankings for dear life, but Craig Button’s final list is far different from Todd McShay’s big board. This isn’t because McShay is any smarter than Button; it’s because projecting teenagers who haven’t grown into their bodies for a job when they’re 22 is a heck of a lot harder than projecting a 22-year-old for a job when they’re 22. 

Scouts and a lot of media know to a tee what these players are now. There's no questioning their knowledge. Yet what makes the draft so fascinating is that, unlike a draft like the NFL and, to an extent, the NBA, it's more of a question of what they may be. 

Case in point: As part of a piece I wrote for back in 2015, I attempted to quantify what a “hit” and a “miss” was in the first round of the NHL draft. The explanation is in the story, but for our purposes “hit” means NHL regular or close to it. I looked at a seven-year sample and these were the findings: 

Picks 1-10: 62 hits, eight misses
Picks 11-20: 29 hits, 41 misses
Picks 21-30: 20 hits, 50 misses

This isn’t to suggest that teams should throw darts at a board. That would sell short the importance of having good players on entry level contracts, which is critical in today’s NHL. It would also foolishly suggest the work done by scouts isn’t equally critical. 

Yet where the Bruins picked on Friday, they were in the range where they’ve got less than a 50-50 chance of the guy panning out. Taking a risk on a guy they like rather than a bigger name (like there is a “bigger” name than Vaakanainen; just a little name humor) with whom they're not enamored is a totally respectable approach. 

Under Don Sweeney, the Bruins go off the board regularly. Jake DeBrusk was considered a minor reach at 14th overall in 2015; Zach Senyshyn was considered a major reach with the very next pick. Those picks were easier to question considering a presumed top-10 pick was still on the board in Kyle Connor. If they end up being wrong on that, they'll deserve criticism just like anyone who took someone who proved to be a lesser player before the 17th pick. 

A year later, the B’s took Trent Frederic in the first round when there hadn’t been a peep about that kid being a first-round pick. The jury is still out on all of these guys, but they’ve developed well since their selections. 

But going by the book isn't a clear-cut recipe for success, and the B's know it. The 2012 draft wasn’t great. Go look at the late first round of that draft; Tanner Pearson is the exception, not the rule, given that he became an NHL regular. Picking in that range, the B’s took a player ranked in that neighborhood: Malcolm Subban, who has yet to become a starting NHL goalie and may never do so. 

The Bruins would have received a whole lot of what-the-hell-are-they-doings had they taken a lower-ranked goalie in that spot. Yet Matt Murray was in that draft and he ended up becoming a starting goalie as a third-round pick. They’d also have been panned if they took Shayne Gostisbehere, who went in the third. 

Like any draft, guys drafted in later rounds can become great players. Yet the NHL draft usually isn’t going to give you a star in the first round the way the NFL draft does, so you might as well take the guy you like where you want. That’s what the Bruins do, and it’s really not as silly as it sounds. 

Heinen beginning to look like a keeper for Bruins


Heinen beginning to look like a keeper for Bruins

BRIGHTON, Mass – While it’s still early in the careers of all the young Bruins rookies making their way this season, it sure looks like 22-year-old Danton Heinen is among the B’s youngsters that are here to stay. The former University of Denver standout didn’t make the cut at the end of training camp this season and he failed early last year when it was clear he wasn’t ready during an eight-game audition with the big club.

But Heinen continued to look ready while scoring a pair of goals and three points in the three games on a pivotal road trip through California last week, and is now tied for fifth on the Bruins in points despite missing four games in the AHL. In all, Heinen has four goals and 10 points along with a plus-4 rating in 15 games this season, and is on pace for a really strong 21 goals and 52 points in his first full year.

This has been a really nice step forward for Heinen after being a point-per-game player for Providence during their playoff run last spring.


“Last year’s playoff did a lot for him. When I saw him playing there, he was a different player than when he’d left [Boston],” said Bruce Cassidy. “There was a willingness to stay in the battle and his growth when it comes to winning pucks…you’ve seen it here. A lot of the things he’s down well are his second and third efforts on the puck where last year I thought he was pushed off the puck pretty easily [at the NHL level].”

There could be a period when his offense slows down or some other part of his game drags his minutes down, but right now he looks like he’s well on his way to establishing himself in a key role with the Black and Gold. The difference has been Heinen increasing his speed and also adding a little more tenacity to the skill and offense package that he was always bringing to the table.  

“I don’t want to say that because when we get our guys healthy then we’ll see where we’re at,” said Bruce Cassidy, when asked if Heinen was a keeper at the NHL level at this point. “But I think he’s certainly shown he’s a much more consistent player than he was last year. He’s probably a bit ahead of the other younger guys because he has gone through a bit of it [at the pro level]. The fact that he’s been able to play in a lot of different situations, play left or right wing, and moved up in the lineup while being very effective with [Sean] Kuraly and [Tim] Schaller down in the lineup, as a coach it’s to have a guy like that who can move around and fit in a lot of different places.

“So he’s certainly helped himself [to stay in the NHL]. I think it’s too early to say if he’s here for good, but I don’t envision him leaving [Boston] anytime soon with the way that he’s played.”

Only time and consistently good play will allow the playmaking Heinen to truly lock up his spot on the NHL roster, but it’s increasingly difficult to envision any scenario where the fifth-round pick isn’t playing an increasingly important role for the Bruins. 


Bruins' Backes returns to ice after surgery for diverticulitis


Bruins' Backes returns to ice after surgery for diverticulitis

BRIGHTON -- In a development that was certainly much sooner than originally anticipated, David Backes has returned to the ice just a matter of weeks after having 10 inches of colon removed during surgery for diverticulitis. It remains to be seen how gradual a process it will be for the 33-year-old to actually return to game action given his original timetable for recovery was eight weeks following the early November procedure, but it seems like it might end up being ahead of the two months Backes was initially expected to be sidelined. 

For his part, Backes was happy to be back skating with his teammates and pushing his recovering body after feeling pretty sluggish for the first few days following surgery. He confirmed he’d been skating for a couple of days while the team was on the West Coast, but Monday was his first team doing anything post-surgery with the rest of the team. 

“It’s good to be back with the guys and to be around the room, and to have seen the kind of resiliency that these guys showed on the road trip. The back half of the road trip was impressive,” said Backes, who has an assist in five games with the Bruins before succumbing to the surgery. “To be on the ice and moving around after sitting around doing nothing for too long where you don’t think you’re going to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it feels good. 

“The doc’s advice is that if it doesn’t hurt then I can keep moving forward and add more of a workload on, so that’s the update for today. It’s still non-contact, but we’ll keep moving along and hopefully I’ll be back doing what I love to do on a regular basis. I haven’t been notified that the timeline has changed at all, so I’m just going to keep putting in the work. The more I seem to do the work the better it is, and I seem to be able to do a little more each day. So those are all positive signs.”

For the Bruins it’s clearly a morale booster to see the big power forward back doing regular hockey activities, and serving notice that he’ll be bringing his size, strength, leadership and physicality back to a B’s team that definitely needs him. Clearly the return of another high-end forward would also immensely help a Bruins team that’s still very undermanned up front, but it would appear there will be some other B’s forwards getting back prior to Backes. 

Brad Marchand and Ryan Spooner appear poised to return to full practice on Tuesday with a possible return to the lineup not too far beyond that after all three injured forwards took part in Monday’s optional skate at Warrior Ice Arena.