Countdown to camp: John-Michael Liles
Countdown to camp: John-Michael Liles
From now until the beginning of training camp, Bruins Insider Joe Haggerty is profiling players who will be on, or have a chance to be on, the 2016-17 Bruins. Today: John-Michael Liles.
It's a little surprising that John-Michael Liles was the only defenseman the Bruins acquired or re-signed this offseason, but the veteran puck-mover has the experience, skating ability and puck-moving panache that Boston is perpetually searching for on the back end. So at least he’ll bring that to the table after showing it in fits and starts late last season after arriving in Boston in a deadline-day deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. It was a smart move to bring Liles back as veteran insurance in case trade options dried up with other defensemen, and now he might be in line for a lot more playing time than originally planned.
What Happened Last Year
Liles was exactly as advertised after coming to the Bruins from Carolina: An older D-man capable of moving the puck and pushing the offense, but also a player who could be exposed when playing bigger minutes under heavy pressure in his own zone. In all, Liles finished with 6 goals and 21 points in 81 games for the Bruins and Hurricanes, and was good enough over the last couple of seasons in Carolina to demand multiple drafts picks for his services at last spring’s trade deadline. The 35-year-old totaled six assists during his brief time with the Bruins, but also finished with an unsightly minus-7 rating in those 17 games playing in Claude Julien’s system. Liles was a minus-10 overall for the combined season with Carolina and Boston, and definitely looked a bit overmatched when the play bogged down in the defensive zone. It was certainly unfair for Liles to be painted as any kind of a difference-maker after his arrival at the end of February, but that’s what happens when you’re the only player brought in at midseason to address a team’s major weakness.
Questions To Be Answered This Season
It’s perfectly legitimate to ask just how much Liles, who turns 36 in November, will be able to help the Bruins when he’s well past his prime years in the NHL. Clearly he can still move the puck with some level of skill, and he remains an aggressive D-man in the transition game willing to attack with his passing and skating. But he isn’t nearly as explosive as he was during his best years with the Colorado Avalanche, and he’s much more prone to be exploited defensively given his size-and-strength challenges. Liles brings something to the table the Bruins are clearly lacking, but they aren’t going to be much better than last season unless they can find some better options breaking the puck out of their own end. Liles would be perfect as a transitional defenseman on the bottom pairing while being spotted in advantageous positions, and not playing enough minutes to fully show his weaknesses. But the Bruins may not have a choice but to play him more if things go awry with their blue-line group this season.
What they’re saying
“John-Michael Liles is a player that we acquired last year that really added a lot to the mobility and the transition game, and we’re excited about bringing him back. The overall philosophy going into the free-agent period was to address some needs and we did that. But we’ve created what I think is a real internal competition for our younger players to step up and emerge around what I think we’ve added to the core group of our players. They should be excited about this opportunity.”
– Bruins general manager Don Sweeney on bringing Liles back into the B’s fold after spending the last few months in Boston last season.
Liles was signed to a one year deal for $2 million, so it’s clear that he’s expected to serve a limited role. His mobility, aggressiveness moving the puck and still potent offensive skills will undoubtedly help the Bruins, whose defense group overall is too slow, plodding and methodical. But it might be a stretch to even expect Liles to match the 6 goals and 21 points he posted last season between Carolina and Boston, or that he will see time as the top pairing D-man with Zdeno Chara again this season. Liles would be perfectly served in a bottom-pairing partnership with a stay-at-home type like Adam McQuaid or Kevan Miller. The trick for the Bruins will be upgrading the top-4 defenseman situation over the next month, so you don’t see Liles being forced into an expanded role too much this season. If he’s playing 20 minutes a night, then the defensively light Bruins might be in bad shape again this season. And that goes doubly so for Liles.