Addressing Bruins' defense next on Sweeney's to-do list


Addressing Bruins' defense next on Sweeney's to-do list

BOSTON – Trader Donnie Sweeney had a very good day on Wednesday for the Bruins and both trade deadline day and free agent opening day hadn’t always been hallmark moments for the Black and Gold the past decade.

Still, the job clearly isn’t over yet for Sweeney at this point.

The Bruins added a big, strong left wing in Matt Beleskey, capable of scoring 20-plus goals to potentially step in for the departed Milan Lucic, and they upgraded big time from Reilly Smith to 6-foot-6, 221-pound Jimmy Hayes on the right wing. So, the forward group is looking a lot more Bruins-like and the B’s also appear to have their goaltending duo settled after they re-signed Jeremy Smith, the odds-on favorite to be Tuukka Rask’s backup, to a one-year, $600,000 deal.

The Bruins have roughly $8 million in cap space, but they still have to sign restricted free agents Brett Connolly and Hayes. That number also doesn’t count players such as Brian Ferlin and Colin Miller, who could very easily be on the Bruins' NHL roster when training cap breaks in October.

While the Bruins have answered some of the forward questions and replenished their stock of draft picks and prospects with sweeping, bold moves the past week, they also still need an established, puck-moving top four D-man added to the mix.

Sources confirmed to the Bruins were in the mix for Mike Green on Wednesday, but ultimately lost out on the 29-year-old PP quarterback when he signed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings. Now, they must move on to another group of D-men available in free agency or trade and will likely have to move around some salary in order to accommodate any bigger fish like Cody Franson.

Sweeney wasn’t tipping his hand, but also made it clear he isn’t ready to say his work is all done for the summer...nor should he be.

“I don’t know if anybody picks their team, per se, in July. I think you assemble a group of guys you feel confident with, and I think now we’re taking a position where any trade that we look to make, or any player movement we look to make is one that we absolutely want to, and not have to,” said Sweeney. “We have some flexibility now to look at things completely that way going forward. No promises; a lot of balls are still in the air, a lot of players still [need] to get back to their high side of their capabilities, and be excited about being a Boston Bruin.

“That, to me, now, is what the entire focus is about. It’s about wanting to be a Boston Bruin, and hitting your high side to win. Every one of our development guys are going to hear about it, and all the way going forward with all the discussions we have, it’s about being excited to play for us.”

So what do the Bruins do on the defensive side, where Zdeno Chara, 38, and Dennis Seidenberg, 33, are on the decline,where Torey Krug and Adam McQuaid currently rate as your favorites to be top-four defensemen and where Kevan Miller, Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman and Colin Miller round out a fairly inexperienced crew?

Sweeney said he’s comfortable with what he’s got, but it’s hard to tell whether or not that’s a man bluffing at the five-card stud table.

“I think it is lost a little bit, but we have five of six defensemen returning. Kevan Miller is part of that group of returning, and we missed Kevan last year when he went down with that shoulder injury. He played for an extended period of time with a sling on, and it was admirable of him and that is the type of character and warrior mentality that he obviously brings to the table,” said Sweeney. “I think we have a blend of younger players to go compliment that group to push for the competitiveness that it takes to stay in the National Hockey League at the natural course of development. I have talked about having some patience for players to develop, and then not being impatient in terms of their integration. I think we are at that point.

“The players always identify when they are ready to play in the National Hockey League. Our coaches have to be willing to put them in roles where they are going to be successful. They need to be encouraged when they go over the boards that they can go out and bring what they bring to the table, and when they come back, they aren't going to be ridiculed for making a mistake based on a lot times on inexperience. They need to be encouraged to see the things they do well as opposed to the things they can't do. Because we all go through that, there is not a perfect player. You are always going to make mistakes, just don't make repetitive ones. As a defenseman there is probably a little steeper learning curve when it is involved in that. You look at the progression of Zach [Trotman] and Joe [Morrow] and Colin [Miller] and they are going to fit amongst our group.”

Beyond Chara, Seidenberg, Krug and McQuaid, the remaining four D-man candidates have a combined 132 games of NHL experience with Miller supplying the bulk of that number. They also don’t have another defenseman in that group to pair with Krug as a power play quarterback and D-man capable of producing an offensive season in the 40-50 point range. Maybe Miller can be that guy after featuring a bomb from the point and superior skating speed for the Manchester Monarchs last season, but the AHL is a much different place from the NHL for a young defenseman.

Green was that kind of producer for the Capitals as a right-handed shot and that made him attractive as a candidate to the Bruins staff.

Franson could be that kind of player with Dougie Hamilton-like size to boot, and is also a right-handed shot looking for a big contract. Perhaps he will be a candidate now after not finding a suitor on Day One of free agency. There are other names still kicking around: Johnny Oduya is another interesting possibility from a veteran, toughness and leadership standpoint, but he doesn’t have the kind of offense that Boston needs.

One more intriguing name to keep an eye on: former Boston University defenseman and All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk in St. Louis. He has two more years on his deal with the Blues at a reasonable $4.25 million cap hit, is due for a big raise after that and would be the offensive D-man moved by St. Louis for a big return far ahead of Alex Pietrangelo. He’s also just 26, is familiar with Boston from his time with the Terriers and posted eight goals and 44 points last season while topping 22 minutes of ice time per night.

Per a league source, there have been discussions over the past few weeks between the Blues and both the Rangers and Flyers about Shattenkirk, and there’s a fair chance he could be on the move this summer. There is no indication that the Bruins are in on Shattenkirk, but they certainly should be if they aren’t already.

Interestingly enough, the Bruins have shown previous interest in Shattenkirk before, according to one source, and attempted to bring him to Boston as a rookie back in 2010 as part of an expanded deal when they shipped Matt Hunwick to the Colorado Avalanche. So they like the player and he’d be an appropriately good fit for the puck-moving defenseman void left by Hamilton’s departure to Calgary.

One thing is for certain either way: they need to do something with a defensemen group that’s currently being asked to do too much stretching of its abilities to expect its highest level of performance next season.

Defensive breakdowns catching up with B's in last few games

USA TODAY Sports Images

Defensive breakdowns catching up with B's in last few games

BOSTON – With the news that a return for injured Patrice Bergeron might be coming over the next week or so, it really can’t come fast enough at this point for the Bruins.

The Bruins lost their second game in a row when they dropped a 4-2 decision to the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden on Sunday night that featured a few too many defensive miscues at key times, average goaltending and nothing more than decent offense. The most noticeable pattern over the last two losses, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, is that the once-stingy Bruins are hurting themselves a little more often with mistakes in the D-zone. In both games the game-winners happened against the Black and Gold because D-men left their defensive posts in front of the net to chase a puck-carrier behind the net.

Against Pittsburgh it was John Moore getting too aggressive in the D-zone, and against Buffalo it was Charlie McAvoy chasing after Jack Eichel behind the net to leave Sabres sniper Jeff Skinner wide open in front for the game-winning goal. They are simple, costly mistakes in the defensive zone, and not something the Bruins had been doing too much while making due without injured players over the last six weeks.  

“In the last one, Charlie ran behind the net. It was unnecessary. Obviously, you’d like to have that decision over. We did that the other night in Pittsburgh, same type of thing, we ran below the goal line with Johnny Moore,” said Bruce Cassidy. “So we’re going to have to crack that in a hurry because we’ve been pretty solid at that all year so got a little impatient there. Still, it’s a puck that found its way in. It looked like kind of a harmless play we’d hope we’d be able to keep out of our net.”


It probably deserves to be mentioned that McAvoy was the other defensemen stuck below the goal line in that game against Pittsburgh as well. So perhaps the 20-year-old D-men is still sharpening his instincts in the defensive zone a bit.

But what’s the other big defensive takeaway from the Buffalo loss?

They could really use No. 37 and the big 6-foot-9 shutdown guy back in the Black and Gold lineup now that they’ve been out about a month. If those two elite shutdown defenders were healthy and playing on Sunday night, perhaps Jack Eichel wouldn’t have completely dominated the Bruins when it came to winning and losing time in the third period.

Instead it was Eichel roaming free for a sniper shot over Tuukka Rask’s glove hand on one rush, and then Eichel again driving the net and dishing to Jeff Skinner for the game-winner before clinching the empty net goal late in the third period. Perhaps Bergeron could have slowed down his momentum in the attack zone just a little bit, and Chara could have fended him off with his giant wingspan and active stick around the net.

Eichel is obviously an elite talent that’s enjoying a great season with greater talent all around him in Buffalo, but those are the exact kind of players that Chara and Bergeron are paid to stop.

“Turns out none of our match-ups were [good against Eichel]. His line clearly had their way, no matter who we put out there and it ended up being the difference in the game,” said Cassidy. “That was the gist behind it. At the end of the day their best players out played ours, from the goalies to the top line. Another tough one that we probably deserved points in, but we’re not getting them.”


But it’s a would have, could have and should have situation until Bergeron perhaps returns next week, and then maybe Chara comes back a little while after. Until the Bruins have to keep scrapping, tighten up their defense and do whatever they can to learn how to win some of these games where everything isn’t exactly going their way.

“I think to be honest maybe we’re giving up a little bit more [defensively]. But it’s just big momentum shifts in the game where we need a big play and all of the sudden it’s a big play for the other team,” said Torey Krug. “Maybe that’s just where experience kicks in and we’re a team that needs to continue to learn how to win, and come up in those big moments. We’ve done a great job up until this point, so we got to get back to it.”

What the Bruins really need to get back to is their regular style of play with their full lineup. It may happen in the next couple of weeks with healthy players beginning to file back into the Boston lineup, but that wasn’t the case where simple defensive mistakes sunk the B’s against both Pittsburgh and Buffalo in the last few days. 

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Talking Points: Bruins don't have any answers for Eichel

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Talking Points: Bruins don't have any answers for Eichel

The pride of Chelmsford, Mass., made his presence known from all angles Sunday evening on a sheet of ice he's all too familiar with. Here are my biggest talking points from another Bruins loss . . . 

GOLD STAR: It was Jack Eichel all the way as he created, distributed and ultimately scored all over the Bruins. Eichel finished with a pair of goals and four points along with a plus-3 rating in 19 minutes of ice time, and pushed up six shots on net and nine shot attempts overall He scored on a nasty wrist shot that beat Tuukka Rask high to the glove side and he set up the game-winner when he dished a puck through the legs of Colby Cave with his back to the net that ultimately found Jeff Skinner to finish off the play. For good measure it was Eichel with the empty netter in the third period that ultimately decided a pretty important Atlantic Division game in favor of the Sabres.

BLACK EYE: It wasn’t a very good night for the Matt Grzelcyk/Charlie McAvoy pairing as McAvoy chased a play behind the Boston net that ultimately led to the game-winner for the Sabres. Meanwhile Grzelcyk was on the ice for two goals against vs. the Sabres, and was the defenseman that was beaten wide by Eichel before he fired the laser beam past Tuukka Rask for a third period goal. They certainly have good offensive instincts and have the experience of playing with each other at Boston University, but it might be that they’re better off being paired with different players for the time being. The B’s have been poked a little bit defensively in the last few games and part of that has been this particular pairing.

TURNING POINT: The turning point was ultimately the third period where the Bruins didn’t have any answers for Jack Eichel and the Sabres. Eichel scored a pair of goals in the final 20 minutes including a laser shot over Tuukka Rask’s glove hand that gave them a lead to start the final period, and also set up the game-winner when he drove the net and dished to Jeff Skinner for his second goal of the game as well. Eichel wasn’t finished yet, however, as he also scored the empty netter in the final minutes that clinched the victory for the Sabres, and showed that the B’s had absolutely no answer for stopping the Chelmsford native throughout the game.

HONORABLE MENTION: Torey Krug is beginning to turn things on with his offense and goal-scoring and scored again for the Bruins in the loss. It could have been a big goal as it tied things up in the third period and might have at least earned the Bruins a point. But instead it was a lost moment in the third period due to Jack Eichel’s heroics. But Krug still had an excellent game with the goal, the even plus/minus rating and nine shot attempts and the blocked shot. Krug also took a puck off the face in the third period that appeared to hit him in the nose, but he quickly returned to the game where he was rewarded with the third period score.  

BY THE NUMBERS: 1 – the number of penalty shots for Ryan Donato, who had a chance to score on a breakaway when he was tripped up from behind. He wasn’t able to score on it despite throwing a couple of moves at Linus Ullmark.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “[Jack Eichel’s] line clearly had their way, no matter who we put out there and it ended up being the difference in the game. That was the gist behind it. At the end of the day their best players out played ours, from the goalies to the top line.” –Bruce Cassidy, telling it like it was after the B’s lost the game to Buffalo in the third period. 

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