Ondrej Kase

Why it's the Bruins' Eastern Conference to win (or lose) now

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Why it's the Bruins' Eastern Conference to win (or lose) now

The Bruins have ripped off 12 wins in 15 games since coming back from the NHL All-Star break, and capped off a brilliant February with Saturday’s 4-0 shutout win over the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum.

So many things that have gone right for the Black and Gold over the last month were once again in full effect on Saturday.

Charlie McAvoy finished with a season-high three points in the win, and finished February with four goals and 13 points in 14 games with a plus-13 rating. McAvoy is playing like a Norris Trophy candidate for the first time all season, and is looking like the kind of No. 1 defenseman that could take the B’s a long way once the postseason gets underway.  

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New guys Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase have looked promising on either side of David Krejci on a new-look second line for the Bruins. In net, Tuukka Rask collected his fourth shutout of the season Saturday. Rask and backup Jaroslav Halak have been mostly brilliant during this stretch, behind a defensive corps that’s gelling with the forwards. 

Then there was David Pastrnak, with his NHL-leading 47th goal as he closes in on a ridiculous 50-goal season at the beginning of March. He’s setting records with the amount of times he hands the first goal of the game (15) over to the Bruins this year. His final numbers will go down as the best offensive season for a B’s player in at least 20 years — and ultimately more like 40 years.

Now, this Bruins team is trending to win the President’s Trophy, after getting pushed hard the last few weeks by a red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning squad. The most encouraging piece of news didn’t even come out of the Bruins' win Saturday, which kept them at a seven-point lead in the Atlantic Division over the Lightning.

The fortuitous news that could hold a major impact on the B’s? The Lightning announced Saturday that Steven Stamkos will be out for the next 6-8 weeks with an abdominal surgery. It's similar to the one that knocked Sidney Crosby out of commission for two months in the middle of the year.

Talking Points from B's 4-0 shutout of Isles: McAvoy shines, Marchand sets tone

That means the Tampa Bay captain will be out for next week’s two showdowns with the Bruins that carry huge Atlantic Division implications. He’ll also most likely be out for the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s a massive blow to a Lightning team that fortified their depth at the trade deadline by dealing first-round picks for forwards Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow.

It looked like Tampa Bay was going to be Boston’s most formidable competition in the East. Now, without Stamkos, Tampa Bay may not even get out of the first round. Once again, the pathway might be opening up for Boston. It would at least be a preferred path until a possible conference final showdown with Washington or Pittsburgh — and that’s really all they could ask for at this point.

It’s all just looking into a crystal ball right now, of course, and obviously anything can still happen with over a month to go in the regular season.

But, as this humble hockey writer declared back in December, the Atlantic Division has been wrapped up for the Black and Gold based on a key player in Stamkos going down for a Tampa Bay team suddenly treading water again. The top spot in the Eastern Conference is Boston’s to lose. Suddenly there's optimism that the Bruins can ride a combination of fortune and skill to great heights again this postseason.

They’ve got to go out and win the games, yes. But that got a bit easier to do that after Saturday’s favorable turn of events for the NHL’s best team.

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Hagg Bag: Assessing the Bruins after the NHL trade deadline

Hagg Bag: Assessing the Bruins after the NHL trade deadline

The Bruins now have their team together following the trade deadline and they hold a comfortable lead over the rest of the NHL as favorites for the President’s Trophy. It’s really all coming together for the Black and Gold in fine fashion after getting through the difficulty of five sets of back-to-back games in February and pushing toward that final regular-season sprint.

The trade rumors are done with and Bruins fans’ roster improvement plans will have to resume over the summer. For now, it’s about answering questions facing the current roster down the stretch and gearing up for a playoff run with some high expectations given last season’s run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

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The Bruins have played all season like they’ve got some unfinished business based on what happened last year in the Cup Final and pretty soon they’ll be able to see if they can get back there for the second year in a row. For now, here’s the Hagg Bag mailbag and as always these are real questions from real fans on Twitter using the #HaggBag hashtag, messages to my NBCS Facebook fan page and emails to my @jhaggerty@nbcuni.com email address.

Now on to the bag:

Haggs,

Tyler Toffoli got traded for a 2nd round pick, Tim Schaller (who they waived), conditional 4th round pick. Vincent Trocheck got traded for four guys who are really nothing players. Where the heck was Sweeney? How did he not get either of these players?

Marc

Malden, MA

JH: Toffoli got traded for a second-round pick, Schaller, a fourth-round pick and a blue-chip prospect at Northeastern named Tyler Madden. That’s a lot for a rental right wing that the Bruins would potentially lose beyond this season. If it was just a draft pick for Toffoli, then I would have done it if I were the Bruins, but I think that was too high of a price. I also don’t think they’d have been able to unload the David Backes contract if they hadn’t done the Ondrej Kase deal. I’m not mad about that one if I was a Bruins fan.

As far as Trocheck goes, I’d take it as a big warning sign that the Panthers were willing to trade him to a Carolina team they are battling with for a playoff spot. Florida wasn’t in sell mode at the deadline. They just wanted to get rid of a player in Trocheck who hasn’t been the same guy since injuring his ankle a couple of years ago. I also heard rumblings that Joel Quenneville and Trocheck might not have got along in Florida for what it’s worth, so put it together and I think that was a pretty good player to stay away from if you’re the Bruins

Here’s the best way to look at the trade deadline, in my opinion. Chris Kreider signed with the Rangers, so he wasn’t available. Kyle Palmieri wasn’t moving from the New Jersey Devils. Those were the two big targets for the Bruins if they became available. With those two off the board, I think the Bruins did as well as they could have given that they A) had Ilya Kovalchuk pick the Capitals over them and B) weren’t going to give up a first-round pick for Blake Coleman when he went to the Lightning.

Haggs, will John Grzelcyk be the Bruins emergency back-up goalie?

--Steve Napolitano (via NBCS Facebook message)

JH: I love Gryz. He’s the best and I’ve heard great things about him as a coach working with the kids at Belmont Hill back in the day, too. But I think the days of Bruins goalie coach Bob Essensa or Gryz serving as an EBUG are over. The emergency backup goalie for the Bruins most nights is former Salem State College netminder and current Mass State Trooper Keith Segee, and some other nights its former Stonehill goaltender Chris Tasiopoulos among others. 

Those guys are in their 20’s and 30’s and that’s actually part of what the NHL may be looking to regulate moving forward after 42-year-old David Ayres became a folk hero for the Carolina Hurricanes. It may be that they require the EBUGs to all be under 40 years old, which may not be the worst thing in the world given that injuries become more of a factor for the practice goalies as they go up in age.

Is it too late to go after [Jean-Gabriel] Pageau or Toffoli, like they should have? Maybe next year, because it's not like this core is getting old. Also, does Jake DeBrusk know he's in a contract year? He's even more streaky than Krejci

--Joseph Isodoro (via NBCS Facebook message)

JH: Given what the Isles gave up for Pageau and what it cost to sign him (six years, $30 million) it’s a hard pass on a guy that’s a very good third line center. The Canucks gave up quite a bit for Toffoli, so it’s okay that they didn’t go that route either.

As far as DeBrusk goes, he’s on a pace for 23 goals and 44 points and that would be a career-high in points for the left winger. The goals would be down a little bit from last season, but he’s right in line with what he’s done in his other two NHL seasons. At this point, he kind of is what he is. He’s a streaky scorer with pretty good skating speed and a good shot who isn’t going to consistently bring much of anything else to the table. He’s not really physical, he’s really not much of a playmaker and he’s certainly not going to dig in defensively in a way that’s going to make anybody stand up and take notice.

He gets better in the physicality and defense department when he’s going well offensively, but that’s not a great thing when he’s in the middle of a slows stretch as he is now with zero goals, zero points and a minus-6 rating in his past nine games. He’s been all-around terrible for almost a month and that’s not good.

But he’s also got three consecutive seasons of 20 goals and 40 plus points on his resume provided he finishes this season decently, and that’s going to get him paid either way. DeBrusk isn’t going to get the three-year, $17 million-plus contract that Brock Boeser – a fellow winger from his draft class – ended up signing in Vancouver, but a three-year, $15 million isn’t out of the question. 

His numbers aren’t that far off from what Boeser and fellow young wingers Kyle Connor and Alex DeBrincat have done in the NHL. The real comparable for DeBrusk, though, is 22-year-old fellow 2015 draft product Travis Konecny, who signed a six-year, $33 million contract paying him $5.5 million per season with the Flyers in December. 

The numbers are going to be very comparable between DeBrusk and Konecny when he heads to the negotiating table this summer, so he’s looking at potentially getting something in that range.

Are you ready for the playoffs?

--Stewart-Allen Clark (@StewartAllenC1)

JH: Yes. Do we have to wait another month? You know what’s really going to get people amped for the Stanley Cup playoffs? The Bruins have two regular-season showdowns left with the Tampa Bay Lightning over the next six weeks and those are going to be absolute grudge matches and statement games ahead of the postseason. That will be playoff hockey before we get playoff hockey, baby.

Isn’t the real issue here, why the Leafs, with all that fire power, couldn’t get more shots on a 42-year-old EBUG?

--Edmonton Wild (@edmonton_wild)

JH: Yes, the real issue here is that something doesn’t become a problem until it impacts the Toronto Maple Leafs, and then the media machine gets going up there. The truth is there is no issue with the EBUGs. At this point. the only thing that should be done is that they should be paid to serve as emergency backups instead of simply getting free tickets to the game, and they should be guaranteed medical coverage if they get hurt doing the job at practice, or in the unlikely event they are called into a game.

People think these are plumbers and IT specialists getting called into the game from the stands like somebody calling for a doctor in a crowd. Nope. Most of these EBUGs already practice with these teams on occasion and are uniquely equipped to handle the shots and situations they’re going to see in the NHL just like Scott Foster in Chicago and David Ayres with Carolina. There is nothing wrong or broken with the system.

#Haggbag Do you think Kase is Sweeney’s 2nd line RW answer or is it possible the cap space clearance will mean he will sign a legitimate top 6 forward on July 1?

--Tyler (@TylerBrewsBeer)

JH: I think Kase is going to get every opportunity to win the second-line right wing job and be that guy headed into next season. Who knows? If he stays healthy, he may be able to do it. He showed good skating speed and an ability to create his own shot in his debut on Thursday night, but we’re going to have to see a more from the 24-year-old before the team can make a determination on him moving forward. 

With Torey Krug and DeBrusk up this summer, they aren’t going to have the extra cap space to go out and get a big name this summer. They just won’t. So, Kase will get every chance to be a top-six guy and I’m sure Nick Ritchie will get some looks there as well.

What does Coach Cassidy have to do to prove he’s one of, if not, the best coaches right now? Cuz he has been pure money for the B’s since taking over for Claude. Jack ADAMS chances high or low for him? #HaggBag

--Thomas Deon (@tdeon26)

JH: No argument here. There may be times that the Bruins tip a little too much toward the speed and skill game rather than good, old-fashioned Bruins hockey, but that’s a reflection of the way the game is changing as much as it's about any kind of tone set down from the coach. 

Cassidy has the good sense to lean quite a bit on Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron to address things that pop up in the dressing room and that’s a great situation to be in for a coach. The 256 wins and .680 winning percentage in three-plus seasons really say it all with the Bruins, and the trip to the Stanley Cup Final last season was another piece for Cassidy.

Now, he just needs to win it all with the Bruins and continue to fully develop some of the younger players that still aren’t quite at their highest level of potential right now. As for the Jack Adams Trophy, we all know this is given to teams that make turnarounds from the previous season and that’s an impossible task for a team that was in the Stanley Cup Final last season.

My guess on Jack Adams: I’d give Mike Sullivan consideration based on all the injuries that Pittsburgh has had, and Travis Green is doing a nice job with the Canucks. I think Rick Bowness is doing great with the Dallas Stars as well.

Why is Hollywood obsessed with casting tall handsome guys as wolverine?

--Bill Mac (@drmayonaisse)

JH: Because it’s Hollywood? As much as it's difficult to see a 6-foot-3 acting hunk playing Wolverine, I think the idea that Danny DeVito should have played Wolverine is downright laughable too. Nobody wants to see that. I’d rather see Henry Cavill play Superman again for a director that actually appreciates the character, but I don’t hate the idea of him playing Wolverine. He could certainly handle the action part of it and Hugh Jackman proved that it can be done. I’m just excited at the prospect of the X-Men coming to the MCU while knowing that it’s on the horizon.
 

New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

BOSTON — Both newly traded players got into the Bruins lineup on Thursday night against the Dallas Stars, and it looked pretty darn encouraging for the Black and Gold with the new pieces fitting nicely with the rest of the lineup.

Hulking left winger Nick Ritchie scored his first goal in a Bruins uniform amidst a two-point effort and Ondrej Kase showed speed and skill along with a decent two-way game while finishing with two shots on net in 15:16 of ice time.

Both wingers showed instant chemistry with David Krejci on the second line in the 4-3 win at TD Garden, and Ritchie showed smooth hands for a big man playing the give-and-go game with David Pastrnak on the game-winner in the third period.

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There were some that believed the Bruins' moves at the trade deadline were as much about opening salary cap space as they were about actually improving the team, but Ritchie particularly showed he’s got some game in a win that pushed the B’s to a seven-point lead in the division over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think Nick [Ritchie] was much better than the other night, a little more into the game,” said Bruce Cassidy on Ritchie, who was okay in his B’s debut on Tuesday after flying cross-country from California to hop into the lineup. “[The] puck was finding him. We knew that would happen. I just thought it was unfair the other night.

“You fly in, it’s a lot of newness going on. He’s had a couple of days to acclimate a little bit. Listen, I’m not going to say he’s going to get two points every night, but he’ll probably be somewhere in between there and that’s what we expect out of him. [He’s] a bigger body, especially in this type of game I thought. They’re a heavy team, they finish checks and you’ve got to work to get to the net. I thought he did a real good job with that.”

The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder showed exactly what he’ll bring to the table and, perhaps more importantly, displayed the skill to hang in a top-6 role after teaming up with Pastrnak on the scoring play in the third period. There will be more opportunities for the big winger to throw his weight around and really set a physical tone once he begins getting comfortable in Boston, but there’s every reason to think he’s exactly the kind of player Boston needed going into the trade deadline.

Certainly, Ritchie was more noticeable in one win on Thursday night than Danton Heinen had been in the last few months of a season where his subtle qualities didn’t exactly amount to anything significant on the ice.

“It was good. It was nice to score. It was nice to win,” said Ritchie. “My energy levels were higher and I definitely felt better with my legs. I definitely played a better game and the team played better as well. It was just a simple shot, but whenever it goes in, it obviously feels really good.

“Early on [as a line] we played a lot together and we had some good shifts, and we really got in on the fore-check. It was good.”

As for Kase, he showed on his very first shift of the game that he’s got speed to burn on the second line and flashed some slick offensive instincts as things went along. It didn’t add to any offensive production with Krejci in his first game back from injury, but it’s also the first time Kase has played at all since early February with a suspected concussion.

So now it’s about the Bruins keeping the right winger healthy and letting him build up his game in Boston.

“[Nick] Ritchie with [David] Krejci, I think could go somewhere as long as they have some chemistry, as long as there’s some pace on the other side. That could be Ondrej [Kase], if we drop Pasta [David Pastrnak] down at times,” said Cassidy. “But as long as there’s some pace [from the right wing]. I’ll look at pairs. [Jake] DeBrusk, [Charlie] Coyle, I think, like I said, I like the way they’ve played together [on the third line]. Even Anders [Bjork] when he’s over there. I thought our fourth line was contributing again tonight. Unfortunately, Wags [Chris Wagner] got hurt there in that scuffle, but I thought they did a good job as well.”

Clearly the forward combinations are in flux as a passive Anders Bjork spent most of the second period nailed to the Bruins bench, and the fourth line may be switched around now that Wagner is banged up with an upper body injury.

But Ritchie showed he’s got the talent to fill the Bruins' need for a big, physical winger with some skill and Kase gave indications he’ll be a player who can create some 5-on-5 offense for a B’s team that doesn’t do enough of that in crunch time.

For those with questions about how much improvement the Bruins made with their deadline moves, the win over the Stars showed strong indications that Ritchie and Kase are both going to play roles in making the Bruins a tougher group to defend in the postseason.