Bruins built Stanley Cup contender by doing everything well

Leading up to Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final (Monday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC), Pro Hockey Talk will be looking at every aspect of the matchup between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues.

If there’s a central theme to how both the Bruins and Blues build themselves into 2019 Stanley Cup Finalists, it’s that you don’t need to tank to build a great team. That’s the comforting part for the NHL’s other 29 teams, not to mention the one soon to sprout up in Seattle.

The less-comforting news is that the process can be best labeled “Easier said than done.”

Both the Bruins and Blues have made shrewd free agent decisions, found stars outside of the “no-brainer” picks in drafts, and swindled other teams with fantastic trades. Neither team has been perfect, but they’ve piled up enough smart decisions to build regular contenders … and now here they are.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

This two-part series looks at the key moves for both teams, from lopsided trades to finding gems in the draft, not to mention making crucial decisions in free agency.

Drafting

The Bruins have been a competitive team for a long time, which means they’re not often getting lottery picks in the draft, and they’re often trading away first-rounders or high-round picks to improve at the trade deadline. They didn’t have their first-rounder in 2018 or 2013, as the two latest examples.

With their most recent high picks traded away over the years (Dougie Hamilton [9th in 2011], Tyler Seguin [2nd in 2010], and Phil Kessel [5th in 2006]), it’s remarkable how much of their core comes from the mid-first round and later.

  • Patrice Bergeron was a second-rounder (45th overall) in 2003.
  • David Krejci was a second-rounder one year later (63rd in 2004).
  • The Bruins selected Brad Marchand in the third round (71st overall) during the same 2006 draft where they also snared Kessel and Milan Lucic.
  • The 2014 NHL Draft ended the Chiarelli era in style, most notably with Boston landing star David Pastrnak all the way at the 25th pick. Sorry Robby Fabbri, but the Blues would love a do-over at pick 21. That draft also included Ryan Donato, Danton Heinen, and Anders Bjork.
  • The 2015 NHL Draft is infamous in that new GM Don Sweeney didn’t just pass on Mathew Barzal; he passed on Barzal three times from picks 13-15. While Jake DeBrusk has become a gem worthy of the 14th pick, Bruins fans can drive themselves up the wall imagining this already-strong Bruins core with one or more of Barzal (16th), Kyle Connor (17th), Thomas Chabot (18th), and Brock Boeser (23rd). That said, the Bruins did find solid defenseman Brandon Carlo in the second round (37th overall) so that 2015 crop still harvested talent.
  • And Sweeney’s group really redeemed themselves a year later, snatching fantastic blueliner Charlie McAvoy with the 14th pick.

It’s honestly pretty mind-blowing to consider all of the talent the Bruins found over the years, particularly in the non-obvious spots, and particularly since they traded away the few non-obvious stars they did land on.

Boston also landed Torey Krug as an undrafted player, so they’ve found ways to add serious pieces with apt scouting.

(Hockey db’s draft history listing is a great resource if you want even more, but be warned: you might fall down a rabbit hole or two.)

Trades

Yes, Peter Chiarelli deserves some ridicule for trading away Tyler Seguin in what ended up being a huge boon for the Dallas Stars. Blake Wheeler‘s one of the Bruins other “What if?” players, as he put up solid numbers from 2008-09 to 2010-11 before becoming a star for the Thrashers-Jets.

Overall, the Bruins’ best work hasn’t necessarily come in trades, but there have been some wins.

The biggest one came long ago, as the Bruins landed Tuukka Rask in a trade for … Andrew Raycroft back in 2006. (That groan you heard came from Toronto.)

Via the Bruins website, enjoy this amusing explanation from interim Bruins GM (and current Rangers GM) Jeff Gorton.

“We had an opportunity, with three good, solid goaltenders who are all number one goalies in the NHL, and they couldn’t all play for us,” Gorton said. “Andrew had some value and we were able to move him for a player we really like, who is along the lines of Hannu Toivonen.”

Heh.

More recently, the Bruins traded for Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, two deadline acquisitions who’ve scored some big goals during this playoff run after beginning their Boston run a little cold (and/or injured).

Mostly paying the right price in free agency

No doubt about it, landing Zdeno Chara as a free agent in 2006 was absolutely pivotal, and soothed some of the wounds from the Joe Thornton trade from 2005. Signing Chara ranks right up there with the most important moves of the last decade-plus.

As far as Sweeney’s run goes, things started off a lot like they did with the draft: a little bumpy.

The David Backes signing didn’t seem ideal when it happened in 2016, and that $6M price tag becomes a bigger drag with each passing season. That was an example of the Blues pulling off addition by subtraction.

Luckily, the Bruins have mostly avoided such setbacks. They wisely parted ways with Milan Lucic rather than signing him to a deal that’s become a nightmare for the Oilers. The addition of Jaroslav Halak was also very helpful when Tuukka Rask was struggling a bit earlier in 2018-19.

Really, the Bruins have done their best free agent work in locking up core players to team-friendly deals.

The biggest bargains come with the big three. Bergeron’s cap hit of $6.875M is almost insulting to the two-way star, and while he’s 33, the aging curve doesn’t seem too threatening with the deal running out after 2021-22. (Even if he hits a wall, the Bruins have been making out like bandits for long enough for it to be beyond worth it.)

Brad Marchand must regret licking the envelope* when he signed the deal that locked him to a ridiculous $6.125M cap hit through 2024-25. At 31, Marchand might eventually decline enough for that to be a problem, but he’s delivering at such a rate that most of the NHL should really envy the Bruins’ bargain.

* – Sorry.

The best deal might actually be for David Pastrnak, whose satanic $6.66M cap hit sure feels like a deal with the non-New Jersey devil. Pastrnak’s more or less a $10M forward making that discount rate, and the 23-year-old won’t need a new deal until after the 2022-23 season.

Getting the best line in hockey for less than $20M per year is honestly kind of absurd, and other contracts (beyond Backes) don’t really drag the team down, either. Trade rumors have swirled around Krejci and Rask for years, yet both are fairly paid, and their deals don’t really look like problems at all.

There’s probably a mixture of luck and timing to explain some of these bargains, but the bottom line is that the Bruins have been able to keep their core pieces together without breaking that bank. Doing so allows them to supplement those top players with the Charlie Coyle and Jaroslav Halak-type electrons who really boost this impressive nucleus.

If there’s any lesson to other teams, it’s to try to be proactive whenever possible when it comes to locking down your best players. Again, “Easier said than done.”

(As always, Cap Friendly served as a key resource for salary structure and contract information.)

Coach Cassidy

There was at least a slight fear that, when Claude Julien left the Bruins, it felt like an end of an era. Would the Bruins take a step back?

Nope. Instead, Bruce Cassidy’s been a breath of fresh of air for Boston. The Bruins remain a stout defensive team, and have been able to integrate young players into their system in fairly seamless ways. That’s a testament to Cassidy, who seems willing to innovate, as you can see from this piece from The Athletic’s Fluto Shinzawa (sub required).

As bright as Julien can be, it sure seems like Cassidy’s taken the Bruins to another level, or maybe a crucially different level. Either way, he’s been a stunning success so far.

***

To circle back, it hasn’t been one move, or even one type of moves that’s powered the Bruins’ success.

Instead, it’s about getting a lot of things right, from crucial decisions to smaller tweaks. It’s also important not to attribute the success to Don Sweeney alone, or even his staff, as key pieces were also put in place by Chiarelli and even Gorton.

It’s all easier said than done, but the Bruins have been doing a lot right, and for a long time. We’ll see if that hard work pays off in a second Stanley Cup for the core they’ve built during the past decade-and-a-half.

STANLEY CUP FINAL PREVIEW
Who has the better special teams?
Who has the better forwards?
Who has the better defensemen?
X-factors
PHT Power Rankings: Conn Smythe favorites
Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning add size with dirt-cheap Maroon deal

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After the Tampa Bay Lightning suffered a humiliating playoff sweep following a historically great regular season, some argued that they were pushed around. That narrative about size only, well, grew when the St. Louis Blues won their first-ever Stanley Cup during the same postseason.

A lot of those size-related arguments were worthy of an eyeroll, but the Lightning beefed up for such a cheap price that it really seems like a no-brainer.

How else would you describe signing Patrick Maroon for one year at the measly cost of $900K?

For Maroon, the decision must come with some mixed feelings.

On one hand, the 31-year-old now has a strong chance to win championships in back-to-back seasons. Even after that sweep at the hands of the Blue Jackets, the Lightning rank as one of the favorites going into 2019-20.

Yet, it has to be frustrating for Maroon. He accepted a cheap one-year, $1.75M contract with the Blues after experiencing a tepid market during the 2018 summer, only to see this happen again.

With just 10 goals and 28 points in 74 regular-season games and a modest seven points in 26 games during the Blues’ Stanley Cup run, it’s clear that Maroon didn’t set the world on fire. Perhaps the Micheal Ferlands of the world were enough for those seeking size?

Maroon is a fine player, mind you, but his struggles to find much free agent interest during the last two years show the limits of any size obsession. It seems like that’s a nice luxury to have, and now the Lightning added a bit of that element.

By landing Maroon for a dirt-cheap price and also bolstering their defense with Kevin Shattenkirk after his Rangers buyout, the Lightning have replaced some of what they’ve lost in saying goodbye to the likes of J.T. Miller and Anton Stralman. This also leaves a reasonable amount of space to work with to re-sign Brayden Point, although the star RFA might not appreciate how much he gets squeezed.

It’s tough not to feel a little bit bad for Maroon, although he’ll probably be happy enough if he’s spending another day with the Stanley Cup next summer — preferably with a little more term and/or money on his next contract.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Three fuzzy questions for the Sharks

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Let’s bat around three questions for the Sharks in 2019-20.

1. What’s going on with Joe Thornton?

Every indication is that Thornton is coming back for next season, and that he’ll do so for the Sharks.

But … you know, it’s getting close to September, and he hasn’t signed yet. And Thornton is 40. So it’s fair to wonder until he actually signs on the dotted line for whatever total. Maybe that’s part of the holdup; Cap Friendly estimates the Sharks’ space at about $4.6M with 21 roster spots covered, while Thornton made $5M last season.

With the other Joe (Pavelski) now in Dallas, the Sharks have to hope that Thornton is indeed coming back.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

Thornton was impressive last season, managing 51 points in 73 games despite being limited (wisely) to an average ice time of 15:33 per game. His possession stats were outstanding for any age. It’s not only interesting to see if Thornton comes back (and for how much), but also how the Sharks use him. Do they need more from him, or do they keep him at a modified role to preserve the well-traveled veteran?

Actually, that transitions to our second question …

2. Will the veterans avoid the aging curve?

Thornton is the most extreme example of a veteran being asked to play at an advanced age, but with 30 being a point of no return for other players (see: Lucic, Milan), it’s worth wondering if other Sharks can maintain their high levels of play.

Erik Karlsson isn’t quite at that age, but close at 29, and carrying a lot of mileage and pressure. Brent Burns is 34, which is kind of staggering. Logan Couture is also older than some might expect at 30. Martin Jones is 29, Marc-Edouard Vlasic isn’t quite an Olympian any longer at 32, and even Evander Kane is 28.

The Sharks were wise enough to let Joe Pavelski go this summer, which was for the best with their cap constraints, and also he’s in the “somehow” group at 35. Even so, there are quite a few prominent Sharks who could start to decline (or, in some cases, see their abilities plummet … again, see: Milan Lucic). If enough do, this team may be scratching and clawing just to make the playoffs, or worse.

Unless …

3. Can the young guns step up?

Whether Thornton returns or not, Sharks will need more from younger players in a few positions. Pavelski’s gone, as are defensemen Justin Braun and Joakim Ryan.

In some cases, it’s actually easy to see the Sharks making seamless transitions. Timo Meier is a rising star, and he’s done most of his damage without power play time, so expect bigger things with more chances. Tomas Hertl took another step forward as a presence in his own right, while Kevin Labanc seems like a gem, and will have every bit of motivation to cash in after accepting a baffling one-year, $1M contract.

The Sharks will probably need more than just budding stars to confirm their star statuses. They may also need one or more of Dylan Gambrell, Alex True, and Antti Suomela to replace what’s been lost.

They’ll also need head coach Peter DeBoer to tie it all together. Can he integrate younger players, get veterans the right mix between reps and rest, and make it all work enough for the Sharks to remain at a high level, if not climb a bit more? On paper, this looks like a contending team once again, but things can change quickly in the NHL.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Erik Karlsson faces big pressure to live up to new contract

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

In some ways, the pressure is off Erik Karlsson.

Certainly, he can breathe a sigh of relief after the roller coaster that was last season.

Karlsson had to slug through most of the 2018 offseason surveying the wreckage of the Ottawa Senators, only being traded to the San Jose Sharks in September before the 2018-19 training camp. From there, he had to get used to new teammates and new surroundings, settling into a culture that’s already been established.

Oh yeah, he also had to hope that his body would hold up during a crucial contract year, which was a pretty significant gamble.

Now Karlsson is settled in. His contract is mammoth: eight years, $92 million, which means his AAV is $11.5M. To start, Karlsson receives $11M in a signing bonus, plus another $3.5M in base salary. That money, combined with previous career earnings, means that his children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on should be taken care of. Karlsson even has a no-movement clause through the full extent of that contract, which runs through 2026-27.

So, from an existential standpoint, the heat is off.

But for a player whose critics have piled up along with his individual trophies, this contract also brings with it an exceptional portion of pressure.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Three questions | X-factor]

Karlsson, 29, is at an unclear fork in the road. Was 2018-19 a physical blip on the radar – did he just merely put off surgery, and he’ll be good as new? – or is his body breaking down after all of those years of carrying the Senators, not to mention after suffering injuries freakish enough that Eugene Melnyk wanted to order crime scene investigations? Will Karlsson be hobbled for the rest of his career, or will we at least be treated to a few more runs of Karlsson at his best, which ranks as some of the best work we’ve seen from a modern defenseman?

The Sharks are certainly paying him to play that role.

Karlsson carries the highest cap hit of any defenseman, easily outranking fellow Sharks star defenseman Brent Burns‘ $8M, which isn’t exactly cheap either. The closest comparable is Drew Doughty‘s, who received the same basic deal, only his kicked in a year earlier, at slightly lower rate of $11M.

The Doughty – Karlsson comparisons can be thorny, especially if you play into Doughty’s side, noting the two Stanley Cup rings and low-mistake peak, arguments Doughty hasn’t been shy to lean into himself. Conversely, you could use Doughty’s immense struggles in 2018-19, merely the first year of his current deal, and note that big defenseman contracts can become regrettable almost from day one.

As forward-thinking as the Sharks have been in letting an aging Joe Pavelski walk (and Patrick Marleau before him), San Jose still seems to be in something of a “win-now,” or at least soon, mode.

Burns is, somehow, 34 already. Marc-Edouard Vlasic‘s lost many steps at 32. Logan Couture is 30, and Erik Karlsson himself is 29. As fantastic and in-their-primes as Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are, the majority of the Sharks’ core players are guys who could hit their aging curves, hard. And maybe soon.

A possibly closing window, and all that money, puts the pressure on Karlsson. If the Sharks fall short, people will probably blame Karlsson much like they blamed Marleau and Joe Thornton back during their peak years with San Jose. Even if it’s really about goaltending.

Karlsson isn’t a stranger to pressure. He was the top guy in Ottawa, and someone whose mistakes were amplified for those who wanted to elevate a Doughty-type Norris usurper. Yet, even during those times, expectations weren’t often all that high for Senators teams — how often were they labeled underdogs? — and Karlsson was a relative bargain at his previous $6.5M cap hit.

Now he’s the most expensive defenseman in the NHL, and only $1M cheaper than Connor McDavid, the highest-paid player in the entire league.

Combine all of those factors, and you’ll see that Karlsson is under serious pressure in 2019-20.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks will sink or swim based on goaltending

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the San Jose Sharks.

Sometimes, when you get a little time and separation from a narrative, you realize that maybe the thing people were obsessed about wasn’t really a big deal.

Well, Martin Jones‘ 2018-19 season doesn’t exactly age like fine wine. The output is far more vinegar.

With Aaron Dell not faring well either, and the Sharks losing a key piece like Joe Pavelski during the offseason, the Sharks’ goaltending is an X-factor for 2019-20. Simply put, as talented as this team is, they might not be able to lug a dismal duo of goalies in the same way once again.

Because, all things considered, it’s surprising that the Sharks got as far as the 2019 Western Conference Final with that goalie duo.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Jones suffered through his first season below a 90 save percentage, managing a terrible .896 mark through 64 regular-season games. The 29-year-old had his moments during the playoffs; unfortunately, most of those moments were bad, as his save percentage barely climbed (.898) over 20 turbulent postseason contests.

The Sharks didn’t get much relief when they brought in their relief pitcher, either. Dell managed worse numbers during the regular season (.886) and playoffs (.861), making you wonder how barren the Sharks’ goalie prospect pipeline could be. After all, it must have been frightening to imagine it getting much worse than those two.

And, as much as people seem to strain to blame Erik Karlsson for any goalies’ woes, it’s pretty tough to pin this on the Sharks’ defense.

About the most generous thing you could say is that the Sharks were close to the middle of the pack when it came to giving up high-danger scoring chances. Otherwise, the Sharks were dominant by virtually all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength defensive metrics, allowing the fewest shots against and the fourth lowest scoring chances against, among other impressive numbers.

The Sharks managing to be so stingy while also being a dominant force on offense is a testament to the talent GM Doug Wilson assembled, but again, Pavelski’s departure stands as a reminder that there could be some growing pains, particularly at the start of 2019-20.

With that in mind, the Sharks would sure love to get a few more stops after dealing with the worst team save percentage of last season.

The bad news is that, frankly, Jones hasn’t really stood out (in a good way, at least) as a starting goalie for much of his career. Having $5.75 million per year through 2023-24 invested in Jones is downright alarming when you consider his unimpressive career .912 save percentage, even if you give him some kudos for strong playoff work before 2018-19.

It was easy to forget in the chaos of San Jose’s Game 7 rally against the Golden Knights, but Jones allowing soft goals like these often sank the Sharks as much as any opponent:

The better news is that last season was unusual for Jones.

Consider that, during his three previous seasons as the Sharks’ workhorse from 2015-16 through 2017-18, Jones went 102-68-16 with a far more palatable .915 save percentage. That merely tied Jones for 22nd place among goalies who played at least 50 games during that span, but it tied Jones with the likes of Carey Price and Henrik Lundqvist.

The Sharks had often been accustomed to better play from Dell, too, including a strong rookie year where Dell managed a .931 save percentage during 20 games in 2016-17.

It’s up to Jones and Dell to perform at a higher level in 2019-20, and for head coach Peter DeBoer to determine if there are any structural issues that need fixing.

As powerful as last year’s Sharks could be, next season’s version could have an even higher ceiling if they even get league-average goaltending, making Jones (and their goalies) a big X-factor.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.