Charlie McAvoy

Bruins built Stanley Cup contender by doing everything well

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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.

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.

Bruins’ Chara cements towering legacy with Stanley Cup Final run

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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.

While Boston sports fans have been spoiled by a wave of championships across several leagues, you could make a similar argument for Boston Bruins fans when it comes to watching great defensemen.

Most obviously, they had Bobby Orr in all of his statue-worthy glory. People who were lucky enough to be alive to see his too-brief prime still often rank him as the greatest player – not just defenseman – to ever lace up the skates, and it’s not outrageous to have that debate.

Plenty of other names come to mind, with Ray Bourque enjoying a transcendent, high-scoring career in his own right.

It’s time to place Zdeno Chara‘s name in that select group.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

For such a tall player, it makes sense to consider the highest heights of his career, of which there have been many:

  • Chara has served as captain of the Bruins since 2006-07, becoming one of just three European-born captains to win a Stanley Cup when Boston won it all in 2010-11.
  • This marks the Bruins’ third trip to a Stanley Cup Final during Chara’s time, as they also came within two wins (and suffered through 17 wild seconds) of another championship when they fell to Chicago in 2012-13.
  • Chara won the 2008-09 Norris Trophy, and was a finalist on five other occasions. Personally, I believe that Chara should have won at least one other Norris during his splendid career.
  • Overall, Chara’s played in 1,485 regular season games, and an impressive 175 playoff contests.
  • While Chara probably would’ve won another Norris or two if he was a more prolific scorer, he’s a guy who’s been able to contribute offensively, too, collecting 10 seasons of 10+ goals, including 19 in 2008-09.

The numbers can get pretty mind-boggling with Chara, yet the story becomes even bigger (almost larger than life?) when you zoom out.

Sustained greatness

As tough as it’s always been to miss a 6-foot-9 fitness freak, there have been moments in his career where his brilliance was overlooked, or at least misjudged. Infamously, the New York Islanders traded away Chara before they really knew what they had, but the Ottawa Senators also let him walk in free agency, possibly choosing Wade Redden over Chara.

Betting against Chara was clearly a bad idea, but then again, it’s easy to forget just how much of an anomaly he truly is.

Alongside Jaromir Jagr and Joe Thornton, Chara’s managed astounding longevity, as he remains a key part of the Bruins even at age 42.

Sure, Chara isn’t playing almost half of every Bruins playoff game like he did during his gaudy peak, but he’s still important. It’s almost unthinkable that Chara is basically breaking even at five-on-five (via Natural Stat Trick), especially since he’s still called upon in tough situations, as he saw plenty of John Tavares and Mitch Marner during the Maple Leafs series, for example.

Tall tales

Chara isn’t just an impossibly huge defenseman who can still, somehow, keep up enough with young skaters that he remains a useful player for Boston to this day. He’s also someone who probably set expectations too high for plenty of players who’d come after him.

Would players like Tyler Myers, Rasmus Ristolainen, or even Colton Parayko have gotten the same looks in today’s NHL if Chara didn’t show teams that a huge defensemen could find ways to keep up, whether that meant leveraging an outrageous reach or the natural intimidation factor that comes with such size? In breaking the mold, Chara also set a high bar: just about any skyscraper-type prospect could be compared to Chara, especially since “The Big Z” is considered a late bloomer.

While others show that bigger guys can still play (Parayko, Dustin Byfuglien, and so on), there’s really only one Zdeno Chara.

When you think about it, in a less media-saturated age, Chara would probably inspire Paul Bunyan-like stories.

After all, this isn’t just a large dude, it’s also the player whose 108.8 mph slapshot may not be matched for years. He’s scaled mountains. Chara seems to project the typical “Aw, shucks” hockey attitude, yet it’s clear that his ambition separates himself from the rest, and elevates him to a special place among Bruins legends.

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While Chara can be a punishing presence, and maybe blurs the line from time to time, he doesn’t have the mean streak of another elite, gigantic defenseman like Chris Pronger. “Gentle giant” might be too much, but Chara rarely resembles the bully he easily could be. To an extent, his towering presence does the bullying for him.

***

The Bruins have enjoyed a strong run of goalies as Tim Thomas passed the torch to Tuukka Rask, but who knows how successful those goalies would have been without the combination of Chara and Patrice Bergeron?

Adding young players like Charlie McAvoy and David Pastrnak breathed new life into this Bruins’ core, but remarkably enough, Chara remains a huge part of that foundation, and not just literally.

This run cements a thought that probably already should have been present: Chara belongs on the short list of Bruins legends. Winning another Stanley Cup would only make it tougher to deny — and it would also tie Chara with a certain No. 4.

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 defense?

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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.

Part of the reason the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues are the last two teams standing is because they’re deep at every single position. Both squads are dealing with key injuries on defense, but they also have quality difference-makers on the back end that can help lead their team to victory.

So let’s see who has the advantage on the blue line:

Boston Bruins:

The Bruins have been without one of their regulars, Kevan Miller. The 31-year-old is a solid penalty killer and he brings a level of physicality to Boston’s defense. But without him, the Bruins haven’t missed a beat.

Their top pairing is made up of 42-year-old Zdeno Chara and the best defenseman on their roster, Charlie McAvoy. Chara missed Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final against Carolina with an undisclosed injury, but he’s expected to be ready for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The Bruins captain has clearly slowed down as he’s gotten older, but he’s also capable of turning in strong shifts in his own end and on the penalty kill. He’s also averaged almost 23 minutes of ice time per game in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As for McAvoy, he missed Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final due to a suspension but he’s arguably been the most important defender on the team. The 21-year-old averages over 24 minutes per game and he’s picked up seven points in 16 games this postseason.

The second pairing has also been solid for Boston this spring as Torey Krug and Brandon Carlo have meshed well together. Krug is smaller and he’s the puck-mover that accumulates points and contributes on the power play, while Carlo is a bigger body that plays a sound defensive game.

These two have played together for just over 219 minutes during the playoffs. When skating on the same pairing, they have a CF% of 53.72 percent. When Carlo isn’t on the ice with Krug, his CF% drops to 45.93 percent. They’ve shown an ability to work well together and they’ll be an important part of shutting the Blues down in this series.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Matt Grzelcyk has been the one constant on the third pairing, and he’s played relatively well. He has seven points in 17 games including a two-goal effort in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final. Connor Clifton, John Moore and Steven Kampfer have also contributed this postseason. Not many teams can say that they have a player like Moore sitting in the press box on most nights, so the Bruins clearly have some depth at the position.

St. Louis Blues: 

The Blues have been without Vince Dunn over the last three games. The 22-year-old had accumulated two goals and five assists in 16 games before being hit in the jaw with a puck. It’s unclear if he’ll be available for Game 1 on Monday night, but getting him back would be a boost.

Captain Alex Pietrangelo has been skating with Joel Edmundson, who’s been a solid partner for him. With Edmundson, Pietrangelo’s CF% is 52.61 percent. Without him, his CF% drops to 47.25 while Edmundson’s increases to 57.63 percent. That’s not to say that Pietrangelo’s been bad this postseason. He’s accumulated two goals and 13 points in 19 postseason contests this spring. The 29-year-old is also averaging 25:34 of ice time in the playoffs this year.

The second pairing is made up of Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester, who have played over 316 minutes together during the playoffs. Together, they have a CF% of 48 percent. In their 83 minutes apart (small sample size), Parayko’s CF% leaps to 60 percent while Bouwmeester’s falls to 36.97 percent.

Bouwmeester, 35, is like the Blues’ version of Chara. He’s older and not as effective as he once was but he’s still trusted to play significant minutes for his team.

If Dunn can’t play, St. Louis will roll with Robert Bortuzzo, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 2 of the Western Conference Final, and Carl Gunnarsson, who is a pretty good depth player to have on the roster.

Advantage: St. Louis Blues

As good and as deep as the Bruins are on defense, I still think the Blues have a slight edge in this category. Pietrangelo and Parayko are both valuable parts while Edmundson, Bouwmeester, Bortuzzo and Gunnarsson are nice complementary pieces of the puzzle. We also can’t forget a young puck-mover like Dunn, who can easily push one of these players out of the lineup whenever he returns from injury. The Blues have an advantage, but it’s not by much.

Who do you think has the better group of defensemen?

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

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Bruins’ Chara says he’s on track for Stanley Cup Final

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BOSTON (AP) — Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara returned to practice and worked out with the full squad Monday, his first such workout since sitting out Boston’s Eastern Conference-clinching victory over Carolina with an undisclosed injury.

Chara had skated prior to practices over the weekend but didn’t participate in any full sessions. He said he felt good after the Bruins’ 45-minute workout on Monday and is on track to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on May 27.

Chara was the first player on the ice Monday. Forward David Krejci also returned to practice. Coach Bruce Cassidy said Krejci was given a ”maintenance day” on Sunday.

Being a spectator for a series-clinching victory was difficult for the 42-year-old Chara. He was a member of the Bruins, who defeated Vancouver to win the Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost to Chicago in the Cup Final in 2013.

”It was, I’m not gonna lie,” Chara said. ”Watching games are not fun. You want to play them, you want to be involved in them. It was that feeling of an anxiousness to play. But the guys did a great job.”

But Chara was easy to spot following the Game 4 win over the Hurricanes, when he suited up to shake hands with Carolina and celebrate on the ice with his teammates.

He has one goal and two assists in 16 games this postseason.

Patrice Bergeron said having Chara paired back up with Charlie McAvoy provides a major boost to the blue line.

”I think they complement each other really well,” Bergeron said. ”Obviously the experience that ‘Z’ has is something that he shares. And Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything that ‘Z’ has to share.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Five reasons why Bruins are in Stanley Cup Final

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The Boston Bruins became the first team to punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final when they eliminated the Carolina Hurricanes on Thursday night. Unlike most other teams that go all the way, the Bruins’ journey seemed to get easier and easier as the playoffs wore on. But why have they had so much success this postseason?

The Bruins managed to eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the first round, it took them six games to send the Columbus Blue Jackets packing in the second round, and they took care of business against Carolina fairly easily.

“Obviously still a long way [to go], a lot of work left in front of us, but I thought we’ve been focused, and that’s what you need,” Patrice Bergeron said after eliminating the Hurricanes, per NHL.com. “Everyone is contributing, everyone is a leader in this locker room, and at this time of the year, that’s what makes you advance.”

Bergeron, of course, is right. This team is focused and they’ve battled their way through three very different opponents. But let’s break down specific elements of their game that led to them being the first team in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
Tuukka Rask: The Bruins netminder has been terrific throughout this postseason. If the playoffs ended today, there’s no doubt that he’d be the favorite to land the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. He owns a 12-5 record with a 1.84 goals-against-average and a .942 save percentage during these playoffs. Since dropping back-to-back games to the Blue Jackets early in the second round, Rask and the Bruins have rattled off seven consecutive wins.
“It means a lot. It’s so difficult to advance in the playoffs, let alone make it to the Final,” Rask said. “We need to really enjoy this but realize that we have lots of work to do. I mean, every year is a new year, different groups, you always think you have a chance, and I think the past few years we’ve really built something special here with a great group of guys. Really, just happy to be part of it.”
Rask is in a zone right now. No matter who their next opponent is, St. Louis or San Jose, rattling the Bruins netminder’s cage early on might be the key to winning it all.
Depth: How many different players have scored a goal for the Bruins this postseason? 19. Yes, 19! I’m not going to list them all, but you get the point. When you can get that kind of contribution from your entire lineup, you’re setting yourself up for success. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has an incredible first line that he can throw out there in any situation, but the lines that follow are also reliable. Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, who were both acquired via trade, have fit in perfectly. No team can rival the Bruins in that department.
Special Teams: Cassidy’s team has won the special teams battle against each of their three opponents in the postseason. Their penalty kill is ranked fourth at 86.3 percent and it’s the best one among the three teams remaining in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As for their power play, it’s been lethal. It’s currently clicking at 34 percent, which is impressive considering they’re the only team to be over 30 percent. By comparison, the Sharks are at 18 percent while the Blues are at 16.7 percent. Special teams will be key, again, in the Stanley Cup Final.
First Line: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak haven’t played together throughout this entire postseason, but they’ve been a critical part of Boston’s success. Heading into the Stanley Cup Final, they’ve accounted for 22 of their team’s 57 goals this postseason (38.6 percent). These three will continue to be a handful for their next opponent.
Top four defensemen: Charlie McAvoy is the Bruins’ best defender, but they found a way to win without him in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. Still, He’s averaged over 24 minutes of ice time in the postseason and he’s picked up 7 points in 16 games along the way. Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 4 with an undisclosed injury, has also logged some important minutes on the penalty kill. The pairing of Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug has also come up big repeatedly for Boston during their run.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.