Blake Wheeler

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.

Stanley Cup Final Preview: Who has the better forwards?

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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.

One of the best lines in hockey against a team that has made it a mission to shut down the opposition’s best. It makes for quite the chess match over the coming couple of weeks.

So, which of these two teams has a better group of forwards? Let’s take a look.

CENTERS

The votes for the Selke Trophy have already come in, but we’re about to watch two candidates for this year’s award go head-to-head in what should be a colossal battle between the top two-way centers in the game.

Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O'Reilly is the type of mouthwatering matchup you don’t always get to see in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Both have been instrumental to their team’s success so far, and both are coming off big games to close out their respective series.

Bergeron makes up one-third of the best line in hockey at the moment. He, along with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, has steered the Bruins to where they are, offensively. Bergeron has eight goals and 13 points, including a two-goal, one-assist effort in Game 4 against the Carolina Hurricanes to earn the series sweep in the Eastern Conference Final. Bergeron is 59.3 percent in faceoffs this postseason. Bergeron is third among centers with a 56.24 CF% — an elite number.

Having an old faithful in David Krejci certainly helps in the second-line spot. Krejci’s experience will play a big role for Boston, and the 33-year-old is producing, coming into Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on a six-game point streak and 14 points in 17 games so far.

Then comes Boston’s depth centers in Charlie Coyle (12 points) and Sean Kuraly (five points). Coyle’s addition to the Bruins didn’t pan out right away in Boston but he’s been exactly what the Bruins needed down the middle in the playoffs. Kuraly’s just been a pleasant surprise, with the fourth-liner chipping in nearly 16 minutes a night.

O’Reilly’s coming off a three-assist outing in Game 6 to finish off the San Jose Sharks and is average 21:26 per game, which is tops among Blues forwards. He trails Bergeron significantly in the faceoff circle (48.7 percent) and possession (48.45 CF%).

Brayden Schenn scored his first goal since Game 5 of Round 1 against Winnipeg in their final game of the series against San Jose. He’s been a hard-nosed player in these playoffs but his production could use a bump. Tyler Bozak has two game-winning goals and 10 points and Oskar Sundqvist, like Kuraly, has been deployed often in his fourth-line role.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins. It’s hard to bet against a spine of a team that includes Bergeron and Krejci in the playoffs. The experience factor is massive, and so too is the play. Coyle has been solid in his third-line role and Kuraly has been one of the surprises of the playoffs. St. Louis is closer than some might give them credit for, but Boston has perhaps the best center in the game.

WINGERS

Is the Vladimir Tarasenko production we saw in the Western Conference Final the real deal?

It matters when comparing each team’s two top-line wingers.

Both Marchand and Pastrnak have put up some incredible numbers in this postseason. When they’re producing, Boston is winning. Marchand has 18 points in 17 games and Pastrnak 15 in the same span. Both have combined for four game-winning goals. For the most part, we know what we’re getting from those two.

Jaden Schwartz has been one of the best goal scorers in these playoffs with 12 (that’s one more than he scored in 69 regular-season games), including a hat trick in a 5-0 shutout in Game 5 against the Sharks. Schwartz has come up big throughout the postseason. Schwartz, Schenn and Tarasenko terrorized the Sharks in the WCF, with Tarasenko’s six-game point streak helping lead the charge. As long as the latter doesn’t pull off a disappearing act, they could throw quite the wrench into this series.

St. Louis’ depth in these playoffs has been one of its glowing attributes. Sammy Blais has carved out a top-six role opposite David Perron. Patrick Maroon has been the hometown hero and has played well, as too has Robert Thomas. And Alex Steen has embraced his place on the fourth line with great results.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The same can be said about the Bruins, of course. Marcus Johansson has quietly had a solid postseason and with teams focusing much time and effort stopping the top line, he’s been able to provide several key moments for the Bruins, including the series-clinching goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs and a goal in their Game 6 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets. David Backes won’t be short of motivation against his old team. The Bruins have turned to him when the chips were stacking against them and he’s been a game-changer at times.

ADVANTAGE: Blues. The depth down the wings in St. Louis is very good. That’s not to say Boston’s isn’t, but there’s a bit bigger of a drop off once you get past their dominating top line. The Blues are where they are because of contributions up and down the lineup.

OVERALL

At this stage, both teams have made it here on merit. There’s no luck involved with reaching the Stanley Cup Final. Both teams have their set of strengths up front. Both top lines are playing at a high level at the moment. Both teams have considerable depth they can lean on.

ADVANTAGE: Bruins (by a hair). No team in the East has been able to contain Boston’s top line, which will win games on its own. If the Blues become the first, they will hoist their first Stanley Cup. If not, like teams before them, it may not matter what the other nine guys on the bench can do.

That said, the Blues were able to contain Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. They were able to contain Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. And they were able to be effective against Logan Couture and Co.

It’s tough to bet against Boston. Then again, it’s tough to think the Blues can’t handle it. Boston gets the edge based on experience, but the Blues are right there.

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

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Pietrangelo remains under-the-radar star for Blues

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The playoffs set the stage for unlikely heroes, and also for superstars to be superstars. Sometimes, there are also those moments when someone more under-the-radar draws more mainstream attention.

Strangely enough, St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo‘s postseason work seems to fit in his larger story of an All-Star-level player whose strong play deserves more attention.

Through 15 games, Pietrangelo has two goals and 10 assists for 12 points. Jaden Schwartz (13 points) is the only player on the Blues who’s generated more, and Ryan O'Reilly (11) ranks as the only other St. Louis player in double digits.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Pietrangelo doesn’t overpower opponents like Brent Burns, but he’ll be a key part of the Blues’ efforts to win Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; stream here) in a Round 3 series that’s currently tied 1-1. Pietrangelo’s bringing potent offense and a capable possession game to the table, and Pietrangelo’s been a workhorse, comfortably leading the Blues in ice time with 25:35 minutes per contest.

And, hey, he’s bringing a fire to the ice, as you can see when he broke his stick following Logan Couture‘s shorthanded goal from the Blues’ eventual Game 2 win:

Circling back to Pietrangelo’s ice time for a minute, it seems like the rise of another defenseman is also helping him find another gear, as Pietrangelo’s rising with big blueliner Colton Parayko.

Earlier during Pietrangelo’s playoff career, he was probably called upon to do too much. Pietrangelo averaged more than 28 minutes per game during the Blues’ last two playoff runs, and Pietrangelo peaked at 30:15 minutes per night during the Blues loss in a six-game series against Chicago back in 2013-14.

As another strong right-handed defenseman, Parayko’s allowed the Blues to relax Pietrangelo’s minutes, and also his matchups. Checking Natural Stat Trick’s 5-on-5 numbers, Parayko was the one drawing Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin more often in the Stars series, and Blake Wheeler‘s line more often against Winnipeg. Those matchups have been a little more unpredictable so far against the Sharks, but it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if Craig Berube tries to deploy Parayko more in defensive situations and Pietrangelo more when there’s a scoring opportunity.

(Although the Sharks’ depth makes hard matching less lucrative – Tomas Hertl or Logan Couture is a pick your poison proposition – and Parayko can bring some offense to the table, too.)

Overall, the Blues have some issues. Their power play needs fixing. Jay Bouwmeester logging 22:37 per night in 2019 isn’t … ideal. And, even if everything is clicking, the Sharks are the type of opponent who can make strengths look like weaknesses.

Pietrangelo remains a difference-maker, whether people notice or not, especially when you can rotate him with Parayko, another defenseman worthy of greater recognition.

Game 3 of Blues – Sharks takes place on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET (NBCSN; stream here).

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.

Jets hoping home ice is finally an advantage in Game 5 vs. Blues

Home ice, much like games in-hand, is only good unless you take advantage of it.

For the St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets, neither team has benefited from the “advantage” part of “home-ice advantage.” Through four games, with the series knotted a two, the road team has been the victor as we shift back to Winnipeg for Game 5 Thursday night (8:30 p.m. ET; USA Network; Live stream). According to the NHL, only three best-of-seven series in Stanley Cup Playoffs history have the featured the road team winning each of the first five games.

Home ice hasn’t helped either team, but one team’s top line as completely dominated offensively.

The Blues need to get more from their No. 1 line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn. The trio have combined for only three goals in the series, compared to Winnipeg’s threesome of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler, who have six goals and 15 points combined.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“We’re a good line of good players and we’ll figure it out. It gets back to one shift at a time and making an impact,” said Blues forward Ryan O'Reilly. “If it’s something defensively or offensively… we know how to play the game, we know what our success looks like. It’s working for it.”

The Jets stars all hooked up for Connor’s overtime goal in Game 4.

“They drive for our team — all three of those guys and Mark in particular took his game to another level,” said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey after Game 4 via the Winnipeg Sun. “Looking at last year’s playoffs, that’s what we see. We definitely like to see that out of him.”

The Blues and Jets each had similar road records during the regular season, with St. Louis picking up 21 away victories ands Winnipeg earning 22. But the Jets’ issues away from MTS Place date back to March when they dropped their final three home games before the Stanley Cup Playoffs began.

“I think it just goes to show that each game is a new challenge for both teams,” said Morrissey. “Coming here down 2-0 we had to be playing desperate hockey. We did a lot of good things in those first two games, but I thought we elevated our game in the last couple and that’s playoff hockey. I think for us, we love playing at home. Our fans really give us a lot of energy.”

The winner of Game 5 in a best-of-seven playoff series tied 2-2 is 205-55 all-time. The Jets will need the desperation they had in Games 3 and 4 to continue into Thursday night.

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Playoff Buzzer: Stone, Stastny combine for perfect 10; Connor helps inspire Jets rout

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  • Islanders neuter Crosby again, seize 3-0 series lead against struggling Penguins
  • Columbus has Tampa Bay by the throat after another convincing win to take 3-0 series lead
  • Winnipeg turns on the jets, scores six in statement win to claw back into series vs. St. Louis
  • Vegas dominates Martin Jones once again to take 2-1 series lead

New York Islanders 4, Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (NYI leads series 3-0)

The Penguins have no answers and the Islanders know it, and they now have a foot in the second round because of that knowledge. New York allowed the Penguins to lead the game for 28 seconds before Jordan Eberle tied the game. From there, the Islanders led 62 seconds later and never looked back. Sidney Crosby doesn’t have a point in the series, which is all you need to know about how Barry Trotz has enabled his players to neutralize one of the best in the game.

Columbus Blue Jackets 3, Tampa Bay Lightning 1 (CBJ leads series 3-0)

There would be no overtime posts this time around. No overtime losses, either. Instead, the Blue Jackets put their foot on the throats of the Tampa Bay Lightning and one game away from pulling off what might be the greatest upset in the Stanley Cup Playoffs history. Cam Atkinson scored and added and assist while Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 30 in the win. The Lightning didn’t have Nikita Kucherov due to suspension and Victor Hedman was a late scratch because of an injury. It probably wouldn’t have mattered.

Winnipeg Jets 6, St. Louis Blues 3 (STL leads series 2-1)

Winnipeg came into St. Louis reeling after two losses at home but knowing they were right there with the Blues, despite the losses. And when the Jets finally solved Binnington in the second period, the Red Sea parted and the unbeatable rookie sensation appeared as a mere mortal for Jets shooters who took advantage. The Jets still have a big hill to climb here, but if they’ve entered Binnington’s head, they might reverse their fortunes.

Vegas Golden Knights 6, San Jose Sharks 3 (VGK leads series 2-1)

They chased Martin Jones in Game 2 and then followed that up with dropping six more goals behind him in Game 3. Vegas’s line of Mark Stone, Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty combined for 12 points, with Stone and Stastny each producing five-point nights. Will San Jose make a change in net for Game 4? And what lies ahead for Joe Thornton after a terrible head shot on Tomas Nosek?

Three Stars

1. Mark Stone and Paul Stastny, Vegas Golden Knights

Too tough to separate the two. Stone had the hat trick along with two assists for a five-point night. Stastny had two goals and a trio of assists.

The Sharks just had no answer for the madness, and Martin Jones was back to playing his regular-season-style of hockey, which is to say he allows a lot of goals. Unless San Jose can stop this line and find a save, they’re done for.

2. Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets

The Jets needed a few of their players to start producing, and none more so, perhaps, than Connor. The 30-plus goal man hadn’t contributed much through the first two games of the series against St. Louis but erupted for two markers after getting a bump to the top line with Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. The line took off, combining for four points. Patrik Laine kept scoring, and Kevin Hayes also found a big goal for the Jets.

3. Matt Duchene, Columbus Blue Jackets

Coming off a four-point night in Game 2, Duchene kept up the good work, scoring 1:44 into the second period to help the Blue Jackets take the lead. Duchene was a force in the faceoff circle, too, going 9-for-11. That’s two goals and five points for Duchene, acquired at the trade deadline by the Jackets, in three games now. Columbus owns a 3-0 series lead on Tampa Bay.

Highlight of the night

Mark Stone, hat trick hero.

Lowlight of the night

This bone-headed play from Joe Thornton:

Factoids of the night

  • Vegas keeps making history, this time for scoring quickly. (NHL PR)
  • Patrik Laine is the first player in Jets/Atlanta Thrashers history to score in the first three games of a playoff year. (NHL PR)
  • What Columbus is doing is to keep the Lightning from scoring is unreal. (NHL PR)
  • Lightning are just the fifth team with the best regular-season record to lose first three in the playoffs. (Sportsnet Stats)

Monday’s schedule

Game 3: Toronto Maple Leafs at Boston Bruins (Series tied 1-1), 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
Game 3: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals (WSH leads 2-0), 7 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)
Game 3: Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators (Series tied 1-1), 9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Live Stream)
Game 3: Colorado Avalanche at Calgary Flames (Series tied 1-1), 10 p.m. ET, CNBC (Live Stream)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck