Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bruins Prospect Preview (or, the legend of the one-eyed Swede)

If you have made it all the way to this corner of the interweb, chances are you are already familiar with Hockey's Future, the best online resource available for researching prospects. Considering I rely pretty heavily on them for scouting notes on young players, I thought I ought to go ahead and give them a shameless promo up front.

But we're not here to talk about the possibility of my getting reimbursed for that comment. We're here to talk about new talent in the Bruins organization.

One of the most positive developments that the B's have pulled off in the Pete Chiarelli Era is the shift away from using veterans as key roster pieces (compare to the veteran-laden rebuilding effort in Toronto, which might go on for another 10 years) and the quick development of young talent to replace them. This season we should see a major shift forward as several youngsters are on the verge of losing the "prospect" label and becoming full-time contributors in the big league. In particular, Milan Lucic and David Krejci will be expected to take some of the ice time freed up by Glen Murray's departure.

Looking deeper in the organization, this is what's coming down the pipeline:

G Tuukka Rask - The Bruins have done the right thing with Rask, signing veterans Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez to keep the ship stable while Rask develops in the AHL. All indicators suggest that Rask will be the next elite goaltender to break into the NHL, and frankly we can afford to wait as long as necessary to be sure that he's truly ready when the time arrives. But there is no question that Rask is the heir-apparent to the starting spot in Boston, so if either of the Bruins' goalies go down with injury or are otherwise unserviceable, don't be suprised to see Chiarelli "cheat" a little in hopes of finding instant success.

RW Blake Wheeler - A steal from the Coyotes organization, Wheeler has the size and skills to be a long-term contributor in the NHL. There are persistent questions about his character, though, and that might be the biggest obstacle to his development. He'll likely start the season in Providence, but I expect he'll be playing regular minutes in Boston by the end of the season. Certainly the best winger prospect in the Bruins system right now.

D Matt Lashoff - Having done pretty much everything expected of him in the AHL, Lashoff should be ready to break through this season. Like Wheeler he'll probably start the season in Providence, but as soon as a defenseman is injured in Boston he's the obvious choice for a callup. At this point he would seem like a good third-pairing prospect, and might get some PK time given his defensive skill.

C Vladimir Sobotka - The list of centermen in Boston is a bit crowded, and Sobotka may end up being the odd man out. He played 48 games with the Big B's last season and scored only once... not much of a recommendation for a smallish forward with average speed. Winning only 48.6% of his faceoffs doesn't help. He'll get another shot this year, but consider him trade bait if he doesn't improve quickly. At best he might develop into a second-rate agitator.

C Zach Hamill - Another center most likely to spend the majority of the season in Providence. Hamill seems to have a little more upside than Sobotka and I don't get the sense that he's as vulnerable to being traded. Someone to keep an eye on in a couple of years.

C Carl Soderberg - The white elephant of the Bruins organization. Folks on the other side of the pond say he's got the skill to be a contributor at the NHL level, perhaps even a potential All-Star, but an eye injury and general lack of interest in playing in North America put a damper on that enthusiasm. Apparently he has agreed to play in the Bruins system this season, but teams have been known to wrongfully hitch their wagons to a moody European scorer in the past.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Breaking down the Bruins' cap situation

Last week I referred to the Bruins' unenviable salary cap situation. Let's open the books and see just how the money will work out this season:

The NHL salary cap for 2008-09 is $56.7M
The Bruins currently have $53.4M locked up in actual payroll.
Add a $1.4M penalty for Glen Murray's buyout, plus some other jibber-jabber, and the "cap payroll" stands at $55.4M.
Therefore we have $1.23M of flexibility, should an opportunity come along to add a quality player, though probably not an impact player at that price (Andrew Alberts makes $1.25M this season).

The upside of this situation is that the Bruins have a very stable roster and there ought to be little temptation to go out and spend money on a "rental" player like Forsberg or Sundin. The downside is that there is very little flexibility to change the roster significantly.

Looking ahead to training camp, the biggest salary question mark for the Bruins is in goal. Tim Thomas ($1.1M) is coming off a career season, one in which he seemingly earned a lock on the starting position. But Manny Fernandez would make a pretty expensive backup ($4.3M), and hasn't really had the opportunity to fight for the starting role due to last year's early-season injury. Then there's phenom Tukka Rask, who appears ready to make a trial run in the NHL -- but Rask's $3.2M salary means that either Thomas or Fernandez would need to hit the road in order to keep the team cap-friendly. If one of the vets stumbles out of the gate, or Rask starts to get itchy feet in Providence, something will have to give. Such is life when your top defenseman is making nearly $8M a year.

Fortunately there is relief on the horizon -- the Bruins have only $43M locked up for the '09-'10 season, with most key players already signed on. That will provide some pretty significant elbow space to work out the situation in goal. It'll also likely mean that this is the last season we see the underachieving P.J. Axelsson, who at $1.8M is something of a burden. Phil Kessel should be playing with a fire under his ass this season as well, since he's up for a raise after the year is done.

Later this week: previewing the Bruins' young talent.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Peeking ahead

Two significant moves in the past two days -- re-signing flying defenseman Dennis Wideman and taking the first steps toward buying out the contract of old-school forward Glen Murray -- have given us, at least in broad strokes, an idea of what the Bruins' roster will look like this winter. Of course, there's still a lot of shuffling left to be done, but it doesn't appear there are any major surprises in store.

We can foresee this season's roster with clarity in part because the Bruins remain handcuffed by the salary cap. In fact, Wideman's contract renewal (a healthy 4-year, $15.5 million extension) put the team temporarily over the cap limit of $56.7 million. The obvious solution was to buy out Muzz's $4.15 million salary, even though the team will continue to carry a $1.4 million penalty. When the dust clears, the Bruins should enter the season with $55.469 million locked up -- leaving a paltry $1.3 million of "wiggle room" for a rainy day.

So, don't expect any major trades or free-agent signings this season (check us off the Mats Sundin destination list). Assuming the Bruins benefit from the recovery of Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez, the lineup for Opening Night should look something like this:

Sturm - Savard- Ryder
Lucic - Bergeron- Kessel
Axelsson - Krejci - Kobasew
Reich - Nokelainen - Wheeler

Chara - Wideman
Alberts - Ward
Stuart - Hnidy


Not too shabby! The top line should be explosive, with Michael Ryder adding much-needed scoring punch from the right wing. Granted, his production slumped off to a mere 14 goals last season. But taking passes from Marc Savard, and playing opposite the sneaky-dangerous Sturm, should give Ryder the quality opportunities he needs to reach the 30-goal level once again. 30 from Ryder, 30 from Sturm and 20 from Savard... that's the kind of line that can be a real bitch in the playoffs.

But it's the dynamic second line that could really have Bruins fans drooling. The pairing of Bergeron and Lucic is only natural -- a talented scorer and a grinding enforcer with good hands in the crease will usually work pretty well together. Add the enigmatic Phil Kessel, who is poised to take a step toward stardom now that he's got some playoff street cred, and you've got a personality cocktail that will either implode or blow the hinges off the Eastern playoff bracket.

Perhaps the biggest question mark going into the late summer will be the development of young talent in the Bruins organization. More on that topic later this week.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

This ain't your daddy's Lightning.

Just when you thought the Lightning had packed it in for the decade, they show why they're able to consistently rise to the top of the Southeast Division. With appealing new owners calling some pretty aggressive shots, no front office has been busier than Tampa's. Take a deep breath and look at all the movement so far as we approach the middle of July:

Oren Koules and Len Barrie, owners
Barry Melrose, Head Coach
Rick Tocchet, Wes Walz, and Cap Raeder, ass't coaches
Brian Lawton, VP of Hockey Operations (GM)
Tom Kurvers, ass't GM
Jim Hammet, dir of player personnel
Greg Malone, head pro scout
Mike Vernon, special ass't to GM/goalie mentor
C Steve Stamkos (#1 overall pick)
C Wyatt Smith (1 year)
C Zenon Konopka (2 years)
C/LW Vaclav Prospal (multi-year)
LW David Koci (1 year)
LW Gary Roberts (1 year)
RW Ryan Malone (7 years)
RW Radim Vrbata (3 years)
RW Adam Hall (3 years)
RW Mark Recchi (1 year)
RW Brandon Bochenski (2 years)
RW Matias Sointu (7th rd pick)
D Matt Carle
D Ty Wishart
D Andrew Hutchinson (2 years)
D Janne Niskala (1 year)
D Scott Jackson (3 years)
D Kevin Quick (multi-year)
D Mark Babiero (6th rd pick)
D Luke Witkowski (6th rd pick)
D David Carle (7th rd pick... yes, Matt's brother. What a coincidence!)
G Olie Kolzig (1 year)
G Dustin Tokarski (5th rd pick)
'08 4th Round pick (from SJ, turned out to be C James Wright)
'08 5th Round pick (from SJ, turned out to be RW Kyle DeCoste)
'09 1st Round pick (from SJ)
'09 3rd Round pick (from SJ)
'10 4th Round pick (from SJ)

C Vincent Lecavalier (11 years)
C Ryan Craig (2 years)
C Chris Gratton (1 year)
RW Evgeny Artyukhin (multi-year)
D Alexandre Picard (multi-year)
G Mike Smith (2 years)

Jay Feaster, GM
John Tortorella, head coach
Bill Barber, Dir of Player Personnel
D Dan Boyle
D Brad Lukowich
G Marc Denis
'08 3rd Round pick
'08 7th Round pick (from NAS, turned out to be G Joacim Eriksson)
'09 4th Round pick
'09 6th Round pick
'09 conditional pick
'09 or '10 conditional pick (MIN's choice)

Dizzying, isn't it? The overhaul is so thorough that we can safely discard the Lightning's '07-'08 season as any kind of indicator of their fortunes for the upcoming season. They'll be a fundamentally different team, and not a bad one at that.

The real genius in this plan, though, is that they're not sacrificing the future in order to sell tickets in the present. Of the list of draft picks they gave up, it doesn't appear the Lightning will lose a major future player. Losing Brad Boyle hurts a bit, but San Jose's first-round pick might ease the pain. And most importantly, the signing of castaways like Recchi and Roberts will only be significant for this year -- the Lightning did very well in signing surefire contributors like Lecavalier and Malone to longer contracts while limiting the tenure of declining players.

What does it all mean? It means the Lightning are now stable in goal, fairly deep at all forward positions, and loaded with grit... pretty much everything they weren't last season. This is a playoff-quality roster, which means more money in hand for the owners -- and more commitment by fans and sponsors to stick with a team which suddenly has a pretty rosy long-term outlook. There will be a bit of turnover as the short-term contracts expire and prospects rise through the ranks (though the Lightning are known for having a weak farm system). But by the time Stamkos arrives as a 22-year-old superstar and Mike Smith becomes an All-Star fixture, the Lightning will likely have maneuvered their way into "contender" status for the long-term. It's a page right out of the Detroit Red Wings Guide to Winning Every Year.

The biggest risk, of course, is that guy Melrose...

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Kings hire Terry Murray

Well, I wanted to open with a nice link to the LA Times' front-page coverage of Terry Murray's new gig with the Kings. So I went to and scanned the front page... nothing. Hm. Started at the top, scrolled slowly down looking at each section... nothing. Went to the "Find" option on my menu bar, typed in "Kings"... "Text Not Found" was the reply. Wow.

So I clicked on the Sports section. Did a quick scan... nothing but some meaningless Dodgers gibberish. Okey dokey. Scrolled slowly down the page... and there it was!!! Buried beneath categories such as Golf, Olympic Volleyball, Women's Soccer, Mixed Martial Arts, South American Soccer, and a couple notches above Boxing, was a small headline. Check it out... one short quote, and they even bothered to include a little picture.

Needless to say, Murray is going to have his hands full trying to get Hollywood excited about hockey again. He's not exactly going into the most functional organization in the league, and frankly it's hard to imagine he'll have this team in playoff contention anytime soon.

The Kings have great organizational depth due to years of bottom-feeding, but they're struggling to make good things happen on the ice. Despite blue-chip youngsters like Anze Kopitar and Patrick O'Sullivan, they're still pretty weak down the middle. Unfortunately, it seems that the Kings are stronger at producing average 3rd-line prospects than bonafide All-Star futures.

Murray's resume' is respectable but nothing to get excited about: other than a couple of decent seasons replacing his brother Bryan in both Washington and Florida, he's most widely remembered for being the architect of the Flyers' Legion of Doom line... and being fired for correctly suggesting that they were suffering from a "choking situation" in the '97 Finals.

A cynic would see this as another lateral step for the Kings, who forever seem to tread water in an increasingly difficult Pacific Divison. I would like to hope that Murray, who has always seemed like a decent if somewhat uninspiring coach, will be able to resurrect his career by bringing together the Kings' prospects and wringing something out of them in the next 2 or 3 years. In a sense, LA is a dream job for an off-the-radar coach because it carries so little expectation of success.

The bottom line: at least Marc Crawford is mercifully out of the league for the time being.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Isles ensure another 10th-place finish

In a move sure to delight their competition in the back-middle of the Eastern Conference, the Islanders have parted ways with head coach Ted Nolan. Garth "Milbury" Snow cited "philosophical differences" as an excuse to give Nolan the axe.

These "philosophical differences" must have been something along the lines of "wanting to win" vs. "not wanting to win". Snow's primary role in the Islanders organization is to keep Charles Wang and his checkbook nice and happy... and since Wang doesn't seem to know squat about hockey I suppose it was pretty shrewd of Snow to just fling another coach under the bus. Count 'em up -- the Islanders are averaging about 1 coach per season so far this decade. Nice.

Word on the street (or expressway or whatever they have in Long Island) is that Snow didn't like Nolan's handling of the Islanders' young prospects. Yes, they have prospects. Who knew? Apparently Snow wanted young stars like Kyle Okposo to get more ice time... perhaps so they could squeeze out an extra 5th-round draft pick when traded. Of course, this directly contradicts Snow's insistence that the Islanders aren't performing well enough right now because they should have made... hee hee... made the pla -- BWA HA HA HA HAHAHA!!! Sorry... hee hee... almost got through that one without cracking up...

Ahem... bottom line here is that it's another season, another pathetic failure by the Islanders. The third-best team in the greater New York area continues to ensure its permanent seat on the Contraction Possibilities List by quickly disposing of anything that might signal an ascent into contention. The best thing that could happen to the Isles, who are truthfully NOT even close to being a playoff-caliber squad, would be for them to simply ditch their collection of castaway vets and tank the next 5 seasons in a row. Attendance would stay flat and they might pick up the next Ovechkin who could bring about some real buzz.

Even as a Bruins fan, I have to wipe a tear at what has happened to the once-mighty Islanders. There but for the grace of God...

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Grand Opening!

Check back for thoughts and musings on NHL hockey, with a focus on the Boston Bruins.

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