Bruins

Bruins

Don Sweeney spoke of many things to many people in his opening press conference as general manager of the Boston Bruins.

It was an impressive display of the energy, ideas and intelligence Sweeney holds in abundance, and it included plenty of messages that should have B’s fans enthused about the course of the team should he apply those attributes to fixing the Bruins. Every indication from his 16-year NHL career is that Sweeney will do just that, and one of the things he spoke of often last week was the “flexibility” he hopes to bring to the Black and Gold.

“I referenced flexibility as an issue that we need to get back out in front of. There’s a difference between cap compliance and cap management, and I think we need to make sure that we’re very cognizant of the latter rather than the former,” said Sweeney at his opening press conference. “Everybody in the league has to deal with cap compliance, but the teams that are in position to have some flexibility to make some changes, being at the deadline — the opportunity to make trades exist when you have a trading partner. [We want] to explore every personnel option that’s available to us in that regard to find the right people. A lot of those changes, I can promise — I can sit and do an interview process and promise all these changes are going to occur -- that’s not necessarily the reality. You have to go through the process and talk to other teams, and see whether or not there’s an alignment there.

“Sometimes we’ve made trades that have been on other teams’ timeline instead of our own, and it’s put us in a difficult situation. I’d like to reverse that and be in a situation where you have plenty of teams calling you because you know your assets are there. You’re in a better position to make the best deal for you as opposed to forcing a deal somewhere else.”

Every prospective GM candidate referenced the B’s salary cap challenges when speaking with Charlie Jacobs, Cam Neely and Harry Sinden during interviews for the job, and it was the biggest issue that ultimately shackled the B’s to mediocrity last season. Last week NHL commissioner Gary Bettman predicted a $71 million cap hit for next season based on the fluctuation of the Canadian dollar, and that’s good news in that it should be a solid five-percent bump from last season’s total.

The bad news is that it would be the smallest salary cap increase in over five years, and it’s going to do little to ease the sharp cap pains being endured in Boston.

The Bruins have roughly $60.5 million in contracts committed to 15 players for next season, and there’s still a good chance the cap will fall somewhere under $71 based on the NHLPA’s vote on higher escrow and the cap escalator. Last season the players voted against the escalator that chopped $1 million off the salary cap’s upper ceiling, and that same thing could very well happen again this season.

So Sweeney will make phone calls, trade text messages furiously with other GMs and start working toward moving some players around the NHL Draft and opening of free agency on July 1.

A decision on Milan Lucic is at the top of the list for a number of reasons: he can bring the most dynamic assets in return, he carries a $6 million cap hit for this upcoming season before UFA status and much of their offseason strategy would be tailored on whether or not they’ll have No. 17’s intermittently dominant physical presence on the roster.

But other players like Loui Eriksson, Chris Kelly, Dennis Seidenberg and Reilly Smith could, and should, very well be in play for trade talks, and the Bruins would be wise to at least see what’s out there for a 38-year-old Chara. He’s one year removed from being a Norris Trophy finalist and is still a top-pairing defensive stopper, and those players hold value around the NHL as potential game-changing forces . . . even if it’s only for a couple more seasons.

In their current salary cap situation they have about $10 million to re-sign Dougie Hamilton, Brett Connolly and Ryan Spooner, get a backup goaltender and potentially make contract overtures to Carl Soderberg and Adam McQuaid. That’s enough cap space to re-sign Hamilton, Connolly and Spooner even if Hamilton ends up cracking a $5 million AAV (average annual value) as a 21-year-old approaching a second contract, and signs a richer deal than young D-men peers Jonas Brodin and John Klingberg did in Minnesota and Dallas respectively.

But it’s not enough cap flexibility to improve the team this summer through trades or free agency, and that’s something the Bruins should be highly motivated to make happen. There will be some quality, Bruins-style players available this summer around the NHL, and some of those players fit exactly what the Bruins need moving forward.

A couple of names the Bruins should put maximum effort in to acquire are still out there playing for all to watch in the Western Conference Finals, in fact.  

The word around the NHL is 30-year-old Brent Seabrook will be available on the trade market this summer as the Blackhawks feel the cap squeeze with the skyrocketing cap hits of Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews. Seabrook is a big (6-foot-3, 221-pounds), heavy right-handed shot defenseman capable of playing big minutes, and throwing his weight around when the opportunity demands it. He’s got five goals and 9 points along with a plus-6 in 15 playoff games while averaging 26:36 of ice time, and Seabrook would provide many of the vital attributes that walked away when Johnny Boychuk was dealt to the New York Islanders.

At this point it should be obvious the Bruins need a top-four defenseman in the prime of his career rather than at the tail end (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg) or at the very beginning (Dougie Hamilton, Zach Trotman, Torey Krug). Boychuk was that key player at that key juncture of his NHL career, and GM Peter Chiarelli made a mistake in not recognizing how much weight No. 55 was really pulling on the defensemen staff in his B’s career.

Seabrook won’t come cheap and he’s only got one more year remaining on his contract at a $5.8 million cap hit. He’s also expected to be at the top of Peter Chiarelli’s wish list in Edmonton as the Oilers search for their own top pairing defenseman solution, and there will be a line of suitors for a player practically carrying the Blackhawks’ blue line right now along with Duncan Keith.

It would clearly be a bold move for the Bruins to make, and it’s not the kind of thing that has been their modus operandi over the last eight or nine years. But it’s going to require some swift, bold moves by Sweeney to clean up some of the missteps over the last couple of seasons, and reeling in a top-4 defenseman like Seabrook is exactly the kind of maneuver Boston needs to help get their back end back on track.

The price would be heavy in terms of draft picks and perhaps even a top shelf prospect not named Pastrnak, but it’s a price worth paying to bridge the gap. Like Seabrook, any free agency targets might be more wishful thinking than reality until Sweeney can pull off some cap-cutting moves to get Boston into a better place.

But Matt Beleskey was a name linked to the Bruins during last spring’s trade deadline, and he’s exactly the kind of winger that could fit in snugly with the B’s hard to play against style. If Boston wants to reintroduce grittiness and create anxiety in their opponents, he’s a clear candidate. He has an excellent wrist shot to finish off plays, he’s excelled in big games for Anaheim and he plays the kind of heavy, physical game the Bruins need to expect from their wingers.

That was one of last season’s biggest issues with the Black and Gold: there was way too much Charmin soft play from their wings when size, strength and fierce battles along the boards had been a staple in the past. That needs to change, and it’s no state secret on Causeway Street.

The 26-year-old Beleskey scored 22 goals this season, but finished with only 32 points in 65 games while averaging a career-best 14:29 of ice time. He slammed home the OT game-winning rebound in Game 5 against the Blackhawks after being a force in Anaheim’s double overtime loss in Game 4. So Beleskey is showing he can get it done in the playoffs, and that he can play in just about any situation from fourth line to top line duty.

The fact this is his first NHL season in offensive double digits means the price shouldn’t be through the roof for Beleskey in free agency, but that a team like the Bruins might be catching him on an upward path as he approaches his hockey-playing prime. If he could be had for three of four years at around $3 million per season (a la Mason Raymond, Chris Higgins, Andrew Cogliano and Josh Bailey) then he’d be worth taking a run at.

Beleskey would be an attractive target if the Bruins clear out some left-shot wingers like Lucic or Eriksson, and that would be part of the draw. But as it is right now, the Bruins have way too many left-shot, potential left-wingers in Lucic, Smith, Eriksson, Brad Marchand and Chris Kelly.

The only right shot, right wings on the roster are David Pastrnak and Connolly, and Sweeney will also need to add at least one, perhaps two, right-shot, right-wingers to bring balance back to Boston’s group of forwards. That’s something they’ve been searching for ever since Jarome Iginla signed with the Colorado Avalanche prior to this season, and that won’t be changing this summer.

There will be other potential free agents to fit the B’s profile, of course. Curtis Glencross, Andrej Sekera and Jeff Petry could all fit in nicely with the Black and Gold after they had also been prospective trade targets for the Black and Gold over the last couple of years.

But it all starts with Sweeney getting a right quick start on that salary cap flexibility for the Bruins, and getting the franchise back in the business of addition to the mix rather than subtraction. That won’t be easy, but it’s completely necessary for the Black and Gold.


DRAFT PICK COMPENSATION A DONE DEAL?

Bruins President Cam Neely made news last week when he informed the media the Bruins would be getting draft pick compensation from the Oilers for Peter Chiarelli, and would receive a pick of Edmonton’s choosing over the next three years. That would mean a second round pick in either the 2015, 2016 or 2017 NHL Draft, and a potentially meaningful prospect coming to Boston in exchange for their fired general manager.

It will also see the Oilers play the waiting game with the Bruins before surrendering the pick for a number of reasons.

There are several NHL GM’s at odds with the current league interpretation of this rule allowing teams to recover draft pick compensation for fired employees (coaches and high end executives), and it really doesn’t pass the logic test when holding it up to the NBA, NFL or MLB.

There are those in the hockey world wondering whether the draft pick compensation rule will be reviewed again by the GMs this summer, and some greater clarification will be made to free up fired employees. Would an amended draft pick compensation rule mean teams like the Oilers ultimately won’t have to surrender draft pick compensation to the Bruins if things are further clarified this summer?

Some people believe that is the case, but we shall see.  


One Timers

*The longer these Stanley Cup playoffs have rolled out, the more certain my conviction become that the Bruins would have been trampled easily had they backed into the postseason. For a number of reasons that hockey club didn’t have it last season, and they proved it time and time again while fumbling away countless chances. I finally decided the Bruins weren’t going to cut it when Ottawa stormed them at home in the last few weeks of the season.
 

*Congrats to my nine year old friend Liam Fitzgerald for being named the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society “Many of the Year” after raising $150,000 for LLS blood cancer research. Fitzgerald and his family created the #bumpoutcancer on social media from March through May to garner donations, and his status as the Boston Bruins’ top fan made it only a matter of time before the goodhearted fan base helped push the nine year old cancer survivor to the head of the class. I can safely say meeting Liam on Bruins Fan Appreciation Night in April was my personal highlight of the season.

 

Remember, keep shooting pucks at the net and good things are bound to happen.