Like all of us on the outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney has his observations about the teams that made it to the end.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were, like the B's, on a course set for the mediocre middle until they made a bold coaching change, called up a number of fast, hungry players from the AHL and found a goalie in Matt Murray. They became the surprise team in the Eastern Conference. The San Jose Sharks, meanwhile, outlasted higher-profile foes like the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings in the West, and used the Martin Jones deal with the Bruins to help lift the rest of their talented roster to their first-ever appearance in the Cup Final.
One thing Sweeney saw from both clubs in the playoffs was skating speed and relentlessness at both ends of the ice. Those are things that mostly weren't there for the Bruins this past season, but needs to return as the NHL gains breakout velocity with each passing year.
“The pace of play is obvious," said Sweeney. "Pittsburgh has done a really good job of smothering things, both offensively and defensively. They’ve swarmed the puck, they’ve used their speed and they’ve been opportunistic. They’ve balanced their lines up and down, and had four lines going while spreading out their offense, and taking advantage of their mismatches.
“It’s obviously trending first and foremost toward the speed of the game, and being able to transition the puck. But defensively the speed, in terms of how teams close and not spending time in your own end, is important, and the goaltending has been outstanding.”
Sweeney -- who took the brunt of the blame for last season's failings -- makes no bones about the need for improvement. Last year at this time he was shedding salary and getting the Bruins positioned for the future. Now it's time to take steps forward.
"[We] fell short this year," he said of the team's late-season collapse. "With 13 games to go we were in good position to get done what we wanted to do and get into the [playoffs]. But we fell short, and we need to continue to improve our hockey club.
"That’s on me and I’ve said that all along. It’s not on the coaches. They did a really good job this past year."
Reading between the lines, Sweeney seems to knows he dropped the ball in not adequately replacing Dougie Hamilton after perhaps rashly trading him to the Calgary Flames at last year's NHL Draft weekend. From there, nothing seemed to work:
-- The Bruins failed to move up in the first round last June to get targeted young Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin
-- They didn't acquire a top-pairing guy prior to the season, opting instead for NHL flameout Matt Irwin
-- And they couldn't make a move at the trade deadline and had to settle for 35-year-old journeyman John-Michael Liles.
So beyond the difficult contract negotiations for a) looming free agent Loui Eriksson, b) restricted free agent Torey Krug and c) Brad Marchand, who's eligible for a contract extension starting on July 1, it’s clear Sweeney needs at to acquire at least one, if not two, top-4 defensemen this summer. That's no easy task for a GM coming off a tough rookie season managing in Boston.
"[Trade opportunities] have to present themselves," he said. "You can’t go out and force things. But I suspect with the chatter there will be movement up and down the draft board with some teams in the same position that we were (last year), cap-wise.
"I’ve made no bones about the fact we are willing to do anything to improve our hockey club.”
The Bruins will have to decide in the next couple of weeks if they want to buy out Dennis Seidenberg and accept a cap hit slightly north of $1 million for the next few years rather than the $4 million per season currently on the books. They'll also have to try and find a buyer for Adam McQuaid rather than pay McQuaid and Kevan Miller a combined $5.25 million over the next few years for a pair of No. 6 defensemen.
“We are going to look at all our options when it presents itself,” Sweeney said when asked specifically about the buyout windows, which open immediately after the end of the Cup Final and then again if any Bruins RFA’s file for salary arbitration.
Here’s how Sweeney might go about getting that elusive help on defense . . .
-- Free agency isn’t the preferred route, given the premium prices (and the fact that the class of defensemen available this summer isn’t overwhelming). But there are a couple of fallback options for the Bruins.
Local boy Keith Yandle would be at the top of the list of available players after finishing things out with the New York Rangers, and would be an easy fit given his puck-moving skills and his comfort level with Boston. Yandle has spent plenty of time with the current Bruins players during summer workouts over the last few years, and spent months skating with them at Boston University during the lockout that wiped out the first half of the 2012-13 regular season.
Yandle, who will turn 30 just prior to the start of the season, has averaged 0.60 points per game over the last seven seasons, and hasn’t missed even a single game with injury during that time. He’s a producer at the point on the power play and has been an All-Star performer as a top-4 puck-moving defenseman since breaking into the league for the Arizona Coyotes.
The one downside is that Yandle is a left-handed shot and probably wouldn’t be a top pairing partner for Zdeno Chara next season. Yandle is also a risk-taker by nature in order to create offensive plays, and that’s something that has always been a challenge for Claude Julien-coached teams during his time in Boston.
The other free-agent target is likely to be Alex Goligoski, who has been a top-4 defenseman since breaking into the league with Pittsburgh eight years ago. The 30-year-old has averaged five goals and 38 points over the last three seasons in Dallas, and has averaged 0.49 points per game over the course of his 562-game NHL career. He might be cheaper than Yandle in terms of price and term, and could give them what they sorely missed last season: A solid top-4 defenseman who can skillfully move the puck and play in all situations.
Sweeney said the Bruins wouldn’t shy away from free agency if it’s the right price for the right player, and that could end up being the case for either Yandle or Goligoski.
One of Sweeney’s best moves from last season was gauging the free-agent market on July 1 and getting a valuable player in Matt Beleskey at a good price tag. If he can turn the same trick for a defenseman, things will be looking up a bit on Causeway Street.
“It’s pretty rich in some areas,” Sweeney said of this year's free-agent class. “I think some guys are going to do pretty well . . .
“We’re in a position financially [to sign free agents], but you just want to make sure you’re target-specific so you don’t get boxed in. But we’re in a position to be aggressive if we find the right player that fits the bill.”
-- The trade options are a bit more dicey. Sweeney has a cupboard full of prospects, two first-round picks and some veteran assets he could move if the deal is the right one, and there were some interesting names whispered during last week’s NHL scouting combine. The word among scouts, execs and media types was that Colorado’s Tyson Barrie, Winnipeg’s Jacob Trouba and Anaheim’s Hampus Lindholm would be the headliners among a group of talented young D-men on the move. There was also major buzz in Buffalo this week that the Montreal Canadiens will be looking to move P.K. Subban in a blockbuster deal for the Habs, but it’s still difficult to envision Marc Bergevin pulling the trigger on that one.
Any of those first three players would fit the bill for the Bruins, and have been part of a cluster of young, productive restricted-free-agent D-men that Sweeney and his front office staff have targeted for over a year. The problem could very well end up being the price tag in trade assets, rather than contract. Hockey sources indicated to CSN that Colorado is dangling Matt Duchene with the hopes of ultimately landing Trouba, and that either Taylor Hall or Ryan Nugent Hopkins will be dealt by Edmonton GM Peter Chiarelli to get their own coveted young D-man. (The Oilers would then draft a young forward with the fourth overall pick to replace whatever they lose up front.)
That’s discouraging to the Bruins, who were perhaps hoping that a combination of Ryan Spooner/first-round pick/prospect -- or something like a David Krejci trade package -- would be enough to land a coveted young, top-pairing defenseman. But hearing names like Duchene and Hall as moveable pieces makes one realize the Bruins may be outgunned when it comes to executing a big deal for Chara's potential heir apparent.
The bottom line for the Bruins: It won’t be easy for Sweeney and the Bruins to really, truly -- and permanently -- fix the problem areas on their roster,. If they don’t, expect more of the same underwhelming stuff, or perhaps even worse, from the Black and Gold next year.