Upgrading Bruins defense ‘at the top of list’ for improvements

Upgrading Bruins defense ‘at the top of list’ for improvements

BOSTON – Even the glossiest of outlooks within the Bruins reveal serious defensive issues: the Bruins finished 19th in goals against while allowing 2.8 goals per game, and had continued, consistent defensive breakdowns at awful times while struggling all season to break the puck out of their defensive zone. It was the single biggest reason behind the Bruins missing the playoffs this past season, and Cam Neely admitted on Wednesday it was “probably at the top of the list” of upgrades this summer.

Both Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are well on the back nine of their careers, and Adam McQuaid, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller among others were forced into top-4 duty with the roster down a couple of high caliber NHL D-men.

It comes to the forefront of the discussion amid plenty of talk about Don Sweeney’s plan for this season, and his lack of execution when it comes to upgrading on the back end. Sweeney failed to move up in the first round of the last summer’s draft to land coveted Boston College D-man Noah Hanifin, and then couldn’t land the young top-4 defenseman during the season either before settling for rental D-man John-Michael Liles.

Needless to say, the Bruins must find one or two young top-4 D-men this summer after getting rid of Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton in successive seasons.

“I can tell you [Sweeney] worked extremely hard to try to move up. The scouting staff did a good job of identifying, and obviously you look back at the draft where you kind of had to be to get one of those D that were highly coveted, he just couldn’t do it last offseason,” said Neely. “[He] tried throughout the year to make something happen and he’s maybe laid some groundwork leading up to the deadline and hopefully be able to get something done in the offseason. But like I said earlier, we know it’s an area that we need to improve upon.”

One would expect the B’s will pick up the efforts to potentially snag young, potentially available D-men like Jacob Trouba, Mathew Dumba, and Sami Vatanen among others this summer. Neely listed the upgrading at defense, getting heavier along the right wing position and shoring up the backup goaltending situation when asked about the three biggest priorities this offseason.

“Everything is on the table to be honest with you. We need to improve our club, so everything is on the table to try and do that,” said Neely, when asked if the Bruins will be open to trading their draft picks this summer. “Improving our defense is No. 1, and I’d like us to get a little heavier on the right side. I think we need that element in the forward group, and obviously somebody that can play. That’s an important piece, but I think we need to get a little heavier up front.

“We have some skill. We just need to add a little more of the gritty piece. We have to take a look at the backup goaltending situation. With [Malcolm] Subban’s injury that threw a little bit of a wrinkle in maybe that development there. So we have to take a look at that.”

The Bruins may go the trade route for the right wing, but there is a very talented group of forwards set to hit free agency on July 1. A candidate like New York Islanders free agent Kyle Okposo would look really good in a Bruins uniform as a heavy, skilled free agent upgrade on right wing, and others like Troy Brouwer, David Jones, and Shane Doan (somewhat wishful thinking with this one for the Bruins) are potential unrestricted free agents as well.

Injuries opening up path for Donato to show what he can do

Injuries opening up path for Donato to show what he can do

In an ideal world the Bruins could have signed highly regarded prospect Ryan Donato to a two-year entry level contract, watched him develop his game deliberately at the AHL level and received two full years of service before the forward hit restricted free agency. 

But that doesn’t take into account the current injury situation for the Boston Bruins with a few weeks to go in the regular season, and it didn’t factor in Donato’s leverage as an NCAA player that could have chosen free agency, or going back to Harvard for his senior year, if he didn’t get what he was looking for in negotiations with the Black and Gold. Clearly it never got to anything approaching a hard ball level between the Bruins and a young player with plenty of B’s background in Donato, and now he’ll get to suit up for Boston and most likely make his NHL debut on Monday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. 

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Once he plays for the Bruins that will burn the first year on his two-year entry level contract, and it will also prohibit him from heading to Providence and playing for the P-Bruins through the rest of the hockey season. It’s the exact same situation Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson found himself in last spring when it was pretty clear after one game in Boston that he wasn’t quite ready for the NHL level. 

After Donato makes his debut it will be up to him and how NHL-ready he looks when he jumps into the Boston lineup, but it’s pretty clear they need some more dynamic top-6 bodies with Patrice Bergeron, David Backes, Jake DeBrusk all out of the lineup, and Anders Bjork done for the season as well as what could have been a good reserve option at the AHL level. 

None of those players are expected to return in the next couple of games or even in the next week most likely, so there may be an opening for Donato to dazzle if he's prepared to seize the opportunity. 

“Once [Harvard’s season] was over with I had an opportunity to speak with his family advisor and with the family and with Ryan himself. We just worked through what looked like the opportunity he was looking for and we were happy to provide that,” said Bruins general manager Don Sweeney. “We have some injuries and we’re at the point in the season where every game has a lot on the line. I think his being able to go over and have success at the Olympics this year really started to jumpstart his thought process that he was ready for the next challenge.

“I think Ryan might have looked at [the injuries on the NHL roster] as an even bigger opportunity for him to go in and possibly play as early as [Monday night]. From our standpoint, we had always been committed to providing the opportunity to Ryan if and when he decided to leave school. I think the two things just kind of lined up accordingly. We definitely are cognizant that the injuries are there, and they’ve mounted a little bit here coming down the stretch. It’s a testament to the group of players that we have [that led to the Tampa] win after losing [David] Backes early in the game and guys really playing well.”

Clearly Donato was ready for the next level after dominating college hockey to the tune of 26 goals in 29 games for the Crimson this season, and serving as one of Team USA’s best players in last month’s Olympic hockey tournament. Donato has a high hockey IQ that usually comes along with being the son of an NHL player, has a nose for the net for a young player that isn’t the biggest or strongest guy on the ice and has become a dangerous sniper with his NHL-level shot and release. The question now is whether all of those skills are “plug and play” at the NHL level, or if he’s more in the mold of similar NCAA players like Anders Bjork or Danton Heinen that needed some development time at the minor league level. 

“He’s a kid that’s got a confidence about himself, a talent level, and he’s got some details that he’s going to have to work on. All young players do, more importantly the inexperience part of it, but he’s a kid that has hard skill,” said Sweeney. “So we’re looking forward to having him join our team, get immersed, and get a taste, and then it’s up to him. He’ll take it with however far he can run with it, but he is welcomed to the opportunity.

“We’re not going to put any pressure on him to say ‘You have to produce.’ It’s like every player; he’s going to be another player that the coach will have an opportunity to play in situations, and the player himself will dictate how much time and circumstances they play in. We feel that, if we get healthy, we’re going to have a deep group. He’s going to add to that group. Then it’s up to him.”

It would be unfair to expect Donato to have an impact on this Bruins team like Craig Janney did coming out of college thirty years ago, but that’s what many are going to equate it to based on the circumstances. Instead it should be looked at as another talented young player that the Bruins are going to add to their embarrassment of young hockey talent riches, and a player that could possibly help them get through a current tough stretch of injuries and attrition. If Donato does anything more than that then it’s another great story in a Boston Bruins season that’s been chock full of them from beginning to end.


Backes 'will be out for a couple of games' with right leg laceration

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Backes 'will be out for a couple of games' with right leg laceration

The late season attrition continues for the Boston Bruins as David Backes will miss some time with the laceration on his right leg caused by an errant skate blade in Saturday night’s win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. 

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It took roughly 18 stitches to close a wound that was gushing blood as Backes quickly exited the ice in the first period, and now it looks like it’s going to force him to miss a handful of games here late in the season. Bruins GM Don Sweeney confirmed that Backes isn’t “day-to-day” as they wait for nature to take its and heal a significant gash that could have been much worse for the 33-year-old power forward. 

“David Backes returned late [Saturday] night with the team. He did meet with our doctors, and they reevaluated the cut. They did some work on it. Obviously, you’ve got great medical care down in Tampa; we’re thankful for that, but our guys wanted their own hands and eyes on it,” said Sweeney. “A timetable hasn’t been set for him. 

“You can imagine it was a pretty significant cut, and now that it’s been, sort of, re-cleaned and addressed accordingly, we’ll just let nature take its course, let it heal. I don’t have a definitive timetable on that one, certainly not day to day. I would suspect he’ll be out for a couple games, and then we’ll reevaluate.”

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The biggest concern for the Bruins with a cut of that nature is the chance of infection, so that’s something the Bruins medical staff will be monitoring closely as Backes heals over the next week or two. It’s too bad for both the B’s and Backes as the Bruins forward was knocked out in the first period against both Florida and Tampa after serving a three-game suspension, and has had his share of freak injuries and illness this season with first diverticulitis that ended with colon surgery, and now the skate blade incident. 

The good news is that it doesn’t sound like Backes is in any danger of being ready for the playoffs, and that’s truly matters as the Bruins continue to win games with so many good players injured and removed from the lineup. Sweeney also gave updates on Patrice Bergeron, who may join the Bruins on their next extended road trip following Monday night’s game vs. Columbus, and Jake DeBrusk, who it doesn’t sound like is all that close to returning to the lineup with his upper body injury.