As much as any other pro sports league, the NHL is essentially a copy-cat league.
The other 28 teams study the final two combatants in the Stanley Cup Final, make their assessments on what got those teams to the mountaintop and go about making changes to follow the leader. Clearly, both the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks were about (no pun intended) lightning-quick skating speed and breathtaking skill and both were on display throughout the postseason.
Steven Stamkos and Patrick Kane are two of the most electrifying goal scorers in the NHL, and there was more than enough offensive firepower to go around on both rosters.
Still, the six-game Cup Final series didn’t turn into an offensive shootout. The two explosive teams combined for only 23 goals, with Chicago barely averaging two goals per game (13 goals in six games) and the Lightning averaging a paltry 1.67 goals per game. The first five games of the Final were all decided by just one goal, and amazingly the Blackhawks and Lightning were tied or separated by one goal for all but the final 5:14 of the series (354:46 of 360:00).
It marked the first Stanley Cup Final in which neither team held a multi-goal lead at any point in the opening five games. It was incredibly close, with the first five games truly decided by key mistakes, turnovers or sterling individual offensive plays.
So in the end, the Tampa Bay/Chicago series was about defense and managing the puck and it featured two dominant No. 1 defensemen in Duncan Keith and Victor Hedman. The Keith, 31, joined a rarified group of D-Men (Niedermayer, Lidstrom, Stevens, Leetch, MacInnis, Robinson, Orr and Savard) by winning the Conn Smythe Trophy after a workhorse playoff run for the Blackhawks, and averaged more than 31 minutes of ice time per game while logging the fourth-biggest minute workload in NHL playoff history.
Hedman, 24, used this playoff run as his own personal coming out party for Tampa Bay.
The 6-foot-6, 229-pounder is finally living up to the tremendous hype after getting drafted second overall behind John Tavares back in 2009. He is now the unquestioned No. 1 defenseman on the Lightning, a franchise D-man capable of moving the puck while simultaneously shutting down the other team’s best players.
It’s no coincidence the Lightning and Blackhawks were in the Cup Final with a dominant, in-their-prime No. 1 defenseman who powered their teams throughout the postseason. Think about it: a true, elite, No. 1 D-man has been a requirement for a Stanley Cup winner in each of the past six seasons.
Who was the last team to do it without a No. 1 D-man in the middle of his individual greatness?
That’s probably the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had a decent defensemen corps with Sergei Gonchar, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi. But that team was powered by the offensive derring-do of both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and didn’t have a Norris Trophy-caliber like the Blackhawks (Keith), Los Angeles Kings (Drew Doughty) and Bruins (Zdeno Chara) did when each of them hoisted the Cup.
The Penguins would seem to be the outlier, however, as both the Red Wings (Nik Lidstrom in 2008) and Anaheim Ducks (Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger in 2007) also boasted dominant top D-men on their rosters when they lifted the Cup.
So, while many will insist that the current Bruins need to closely model themselves after the speed and skill of the Blackhawks and the Lightning, it might not be that simple. Certainly, the Black and Gold need to focus on getting faster and more dangerous offensively, and that’s mandatory after finishing 22nd in the NHL in goals scored last season.
The simple NHL truth these days is a team needs a dominant, in-their-prime, No. 1 defenseman if they’re going to win a Cup.
That is something the Bruins don’t have after trading Johnny Boychuk and watching him turn into a No. 1 defenseman for a playoff team on Long Island.
Instead they have Chara, 38, and Dennis Seidenberg, 33, who are both too deep into their careers to shoulder the kind of workload Keith carried this spring. They also have restricted free agent Dougie Hamilton, 22, who has garnered a great deal of offseason conversation as a defenseman who hasn’t completely shown he’s ready to be that No. 1 guy either.
If they want to seriously be Cup contenders over the next couple of years, the Bruins would need to trade for a guy such as Brent Seabrook as their in-his-prime workhorse.
This column isn’t about whether Hamilton should get paid $7 million per season like Doughty, who was a Norris Trophy finalist in his second year in the NHL and far ahead of the B’s youngster’s development curve after his third NHL season. The short answer is he shouldn’t be paid like Doughty and a two-year bridge deal in the neighborhood of $8-10 million is what’s best for both team and the player.
There’s no doubting Hamilton is a top-pairing defenseman already after enjoying a breakout season as Chara’s main D-partner. But the former ninth overall pick still endures rough patches where turnovers and defensive miscues muddy up his game and lead to goals-against. Hamilton isn’t a true No. 1 defenseman at the NHL level yet, and it’s probably a few years before he can truly approach that exalted height.
So that means the Bruins are probably a few years away from being true Stanley Cup contender and it also leaves Bruins GM Don Sweeney and the organization with a tough decision: do they take a risk signing Hamilton now to an Alex Pietrangelo-like deal of seven years, $45.5 million for a cap hit of $6.5 million per season? Sure, it might save them a million or two per year on Hamilton’s cap hit down the line, but they will be overpaying immediately with no guarantee the 6-foot-5, 212-pounder will ever get to the level of Pietrangelo and Doughty.
That’s a giant, probably unnecessary, risk on a big bundle of money.
Both of those defensemen (Doughty and Pietrangelo) were All-Stars and finished top five in Norris Trophy voting before they got paid.
Hamilton isn’t quite there yet even if the fancy-stats zealots are wheeling out bar graphs and plotted dot charts like it’s a Trigonometry party. Those are the facts. There are areas where Hamilton hasn’t shown enough dominance to be just yet ranked near the top among his peers across the league. That might start to change next year after he posted 10 goals and 42 points in his third season with the Bruins, and there’s no doubt his organization values the talented youngster highly.
“I’m not going to comment on contract negotiations — you guys are doing a good enough job of filling in the color there,” said Sweeney on a Friday conference call with reporters. “But from Dougie [Hamilton]’s growth...Tremendous player. Had a real good year, a real breakout year offensively, and continues to round out his game both on and off the ice as a foundational-type player. We’re excited to have Dougie as part of our group.”
It’s plainly obvious the Bruins are excited about the future for Hamilton and they don’t plan on losing the restricted free agent to an offer sheet.
But is he still on track to be a No. 1 defenseman?
We asked the opinions of a couple of NHL scouts that have watched Hamilton on a regular basis over the last few years and here’s what they said. First the Western Conference scout:
"No doubt in my mind that Hamilton has the ability to become an elite #1 D. Victor Hedman is a great comparison in that both are big, strong and effortless skaters. What is fascinating to me is how Hedman's progression was slow. He played as an 18 year old and experienced a number of growing pains. When Dougie's career is over, people will see how much he benefited from two things: 1) returning to junior and 2) the 2012 lockout. Both provided him the opportunity to grow and develop at a steady pace. He showed this year that he still had warts, but the willingness to learn is there and his skill set is so rare....size, elite skating and power. These D don't develop overnight. Having also been able to work first hand with Rick Bowness, I can tell you there is no doubt in mind that Hedman's growth was directly related to Bones' coaching...the guy is as good as it gets IMO. Hopefully Dougie continues to get that type of structure and more as he develops."
Now, an Eastern Conference scout:
"I think he’s got some outstanding physical attributes as a big kid that can skate, and is mobile. Some of the things he’ll improve on with experience are his decision-making, which is still a little raw, and maybe becoming a little more aggressive in the defensive zone. The things that will make him a No. 1 defenseman are things he can learn, and improve upon with experience. But to have his size, his mobility and his offensive skill set, it’s a desirable package that every team around the league is looking for. I don’t know his personality very well, but what you really want to see from a kid that size is to get more aggressive when he gets to be 22, 23 and 24 years old. His upside is still huge and he can play in that top pair. But to be a true No. 1 like Duncan Keith, Nik Lidstrom, Pietrangelo, Doughty and the like you’ve got to show the aggressiveness in the D-zone. You’ve got to say to yourself, ‘hey I’m [expletive] 6-foot-5 and 210 pounds’ and if I’m going into the corner with Brendan Gallagher, I’m not the meanest guy in the world but I can show [the aggressiveness] a little more than he has. I think it’s a maturity thing. You don’t have to be a Zdeno Chara or Dion Phaneuf lining up to take somebody’s head off, but he needs to be a guy that leans on guys a little bit more. He can eliminate guys using his wing span and his reach, and more putting a shoulder into a guy rather than hip-checking him or stick-checking him."
So a couple of things are readily apparent here.
It’s pretty clear both outside observers think Hamilton is eventually going to be a No. 1 defenseman in the NHL and perhaps he could even be the big, mobile top defenseman that someday leads the Bruins back to Stanley Cup glory. Still, it’s also just as clear he has some things he needs to prove and needs to mature within his game before he even approaches that point and the Bruins show him the same big wheelbarrow of money Pietrangelo and Doughty eventually received.
BU/BC SUMMER GAME TO RAISE MONEY FOR ALS CHARITY
For any hockey fans that need a puck fix this summer, the first Commonwealth Avenue Classic is set for July 10. It's a charity event to benefit Compassionate Care ALS on behalf of Peter Frates, Dick Kelley and all those affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Hockey playing alums from both Boston College and Boston University will take the Walter Brown Arena ice at 7 p.m. for a benefit exhibition game.
Both rosters will be impressive: For Boston College Brian Leetch, Mike Mottau, Johnny Gaudreau, Chris Kreider, Jimmy and Kevin Hayes, Cory Schneider, Johnny Muse, Joe Whitney, Brian Gibbons, Stephen Gionta, Paul Carey, Brian Dumolin and Bill Arnold are all expected to play. For Boston University, Scott Young, Tom Poti, Shawn MacEachern, Adam Clendening, Charlie Coyle, Jay Pandolfo, Freddy Meyer, Chris Bourque, Wade Megan and Chris Kelleher are all expected to play.
So the game will absolutely not lack for star power and should be a fun way to support an excellent, worthwhile cause.
For all those don’t know them, the Frates, 30, is a Beverly, Mass., native battling ALS and is the creator of the wildly popular Ice Bucket Challenge. He's currently director of baseball operations at BC. Kelley was the longtime sports information maestro at Boston College, who worked at both BU and BC before passing away at 48 after a nearly three-year battle with ALS.
*While Sweeney and the Bruins war room is readying for the NHL Draft next weekend in Florida, they also still feel very good about the collection of prospects within Boston’s system. With the draft a week away, Sweeney talked a bit about Boston’s next crop of prospects now developing within the Black and Gold system.
“I think we feel good about obviously [David] Pastrnak, Ryan Donato had a fabulous year and went out to the USHL, obviously Danton Heinen did well, [Anders] Bjork stepped in too. I can run down every guy, [Linus] Arnesson came over this year and played in Providence toward the end of the year, Anton Blidh is now coming over and playing. Malcolm [Subban]’s development, Matt Grzelcyk’s development, Seth Griffith - you know I think we’ve got a pretty wide birth,” said Sweeney. “Our goaltending situation we feel very good about with Malcolm and Zane [McIntyre] and Tuukka [Rask]. We can allow those guys to develop at the right course, and give them the opportunity they deserve.
“We feel very good about really our players in general and the depth and we’ve seen progress. We just signed Tommy Cross and Tyler Randell, guys that are important to our organization. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop. The merry-go-round certainly doesn’t stop. You enter the draft thinking, ‘well lets continue this’, but we entered college free agency and added some players that we felt like these guys have a chance to be National Hockey League players to come and compete. That’s what we want. We want guys that have that will, combined with the skill sets that they bring to the table.”
*The NHL Awards will take place next week in Las Vegas prior to the NHL Draft and the league announced the “celebrity” presenters on Friday. The names on the list outside of host Rob Riggle and musical performer Daughtry are: Kix Brooks, Colin Hanks, Matthew Modine, Russell Peters, Amy Purdy, Retta, Kevin Smith & Tiësto. These names (about half of which I recognize) beg one big question: Where is my guy Cuba Gooding Jr. after last year’s animated award presentation?
*Remember, keep shooting pucks at the net and good things are bound to happen.