Welcome to the second installment of my and CarvinBass18’s three part series A Bruins Defense: A Three Part Series on How to Improve Next Season. This is Volume 2: Buying the Present to Save the Future, in which I play my best Jonathan Swift and make my modest proposal to make 2016-2017 less of a terrifying gong show than 2016-2017.
So, as we’ve explored in some detail, and as expounded in essentially every Bruins media presence out there, far and away the biggest (and arguably, sole) problem the Bruins have faced this season has been the defense- its too old, too slow, is weak on the right side, and ultimately hurts the areas of great strength on this team, the offense and the goaltending.
That is not to say that there aren’t good things to say about the defense as currently configured. Zdeno Chara, despite having a fairly severe case of being 39 years old, is still by almost any measure a top four, and even arguably a top pairing defenseman. However, his age and speed show whenever he is asked to play too many minutes, or to support a miscast defense partner, such as Adam McQuaid or Kevan Miller. Torey Krug is very good at what he does, and is gradually getting better at the things that he doesn’t do as well (namely, defend). That said, he is not a top-4 defenseman, he is an (excellent) offensive specialist with defensive upside (an upside that can and may continue to increase). The biggest problem the Bruins’ defense has is that after these pieces, the defense as currently constructed is not fit to compete in the NHL. The long term future for the blue line on this team is bright, as the big 6 defensive prospects in Colin Miller, Matt Grzelcyk, Rob O’Gara, Brandon Carlo, Jeremy Lauzon, and Jakub Zboril will, variably, be in positions to make an impact in the next few years. However, it is unlikely that this group, with the probable exception of Colin Miller, will be able to help the Bruins in 2016-2017. This is a big problem, as the Bruins face down Father Time, the Salary Cap, and the competitive window of many of the elite members of the current roster (contrary to what you may read in many other outlets, I do not believe that this team, with Bergeron, Marchand, Rask, and yes, Chara has seen its window close yet). The issue is that many roster decisions are in front of Don Sweeney in the coming years, some of which will almost certainly close the window of this team as currently configured (until such a time as the prospects can fill the gaps). Thus, it is my belief that it is imperative that significant measures to improve the defense in the short term whilst not compromising the long term vision are taken this off season.
First, to clear the elephant in the room, one of the biggest issues currently faced by this defense is the combined redundancy and collective ineffectiveness of Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid, and Kevan Miller. Of these three, and it pains me to say this, the most effective is Kevan Miller, but as a pending UFA, I do not see any gain in extending him a new contract, especially as the other two are both signed for two and three more seasons, respectively. While letting the most effective (if unambiguously the most frustrating and painful to watch due to the enormity of his mistakes) of these defensemen may seem to be an odd choice, keep in mind that letting K Miller go UFA is painless and easy. I appreciate the 3 seasons he has given Boston, especially as an undrafted college free agent out of UVM, but it is time to move on. Bonne chance, Kevlar Miller, may you breakdance on the blue line for other teams for years to come! As for the other two, Boston is faced with a conundrum. Given their respective pay and mediocre to poor performance this season, offloading either McQuaid or Seidenberg via trade this off-season may be impossible, barring giving up additional assets. Furthermore, although Sweeney has shown a willingness to own his mistakes (such as the Zac Rinaldo experiment), he was responsible for extending McQuaid his 4-year, $11 million contract ($2.75 million AAV) on draft day last season. Thus, we can reasonably consider McQuaid “Sweeney’s guy”, and as a result, I fully suspect he is here to stay for at least another season. Dennis Seidenberg is another matter altogether. His 4-year, $16 million contract was signed in November 2013, well before the Chiarelli administration unraveled (indeed, many would point to this signing being the one that was ultimately Chiarelli’s undoing, and I would agree). So, Seidenberg was Chiarelli’s- not Sweeney’s- guy, and Sweeney has already shown a willingness to part with long-time Bruins who were core parts of the 2011 cup team (see Lucic, Milan). Because of this, combined with the remarkably poor quality of his play this season, I feel the most sensible recourse is to buy of the remaining $7.5 million of his contract. If so, the buyout structure looks like this (courtesy of General Fanager):
|Year||Contract Salary Due||Buyout Cost||Buyout Savings||Buyout Cap Hit|
It stings, needing to carry some kind of cap hit for two additional seasons, but even where the buyout hit is worst, in 17-18, it is still nearly $2 million cheaper than having Seidenberg on the roster, and opens up a space to add younger, more effective defensemen. As with Miller, I appreciate everything you have given this franchise, Dennis, and will never forget how excellent you were paired with Chara in the 2011 playoffs, but this is the way of the world. I wish you and your ridiculously named dogs joy and success in all that you do.
So, where have I left us? After releasing Kevan Miller, buying out Dennis Seidenberg, I have left the Bruins with only Zdeno Chara and Adam McQuaid under contract for the 16-17 season, with Torey Krug, Colin Miller, Zach Trotman, and Joe Morrow all as RFA’s. I will assume that all 4 will be extended qualifying offers, and subsequently extended (I don’t see any gain in releasing either Trotman or Morrow, although both have ranged from underwhelming to competent at best this season). In the interest of the salary cap, I have assumed CB18’s proposed salaries for Krug and Chiller, as well as matching 1-year, $900,000 contracts for Trotman and Morrow. If nothing else, these two may serve as 7th D or as a throw-in piece in future trades. So, this makes for 6 defensemen under contract, with (in this configuration) a pairing structure of:
Assuming the traditional RD-LD pairing approach is followed. Right away, it is obvious that this defense is not going to cut it, and needs additions. Specifically, improvement is definitely needed on the right side, as this defense is even weaker on the right than the current lineup (via the subtraction of Kevan Miller), and although the left is probably an improved version through the subtraction of Dennis Seidenberg, it still lacks a 2nd pairing guy. So, in summation, the Bruin’s defensive needs going into the 2016-2017 off-season are, realistically, 1 each of a top-4 caliber right and left handed defenseman.
The most widely discussed avenue for fixing the Bruins defense has been acquiring a young, top-4 caliber defenseman via trade (and, I would note, ought to be a right shot, as of our top-6 defensive prospects, only Colin Miller and Brandon Carlo are right handed). This of course, feels like serious pie in the sky to many including myself, as not only are teams loathe to trade a top-4 caliber defenseman (let alone a young one), top-4 caliber right shot defenseman available via trade (let alone young ones) are essentially unicorns. Thus, to find such a defenseman, one needs to figure out A) Which teams can somehow spare a young, good RD, B) Do you really believe they can, and C) How horribly much is this unicorn going to cost (I think you can already guess what my conclusion here will ultimately be). Having looked, I think that there are, at most, 4 teams that could maybe make some sense. Maybe. These teams, in no particular order, are Anaheim, Winnipeg, Nashville, and St Louis.
Anaheim has a well-stocked defense of young defensemen under contract, as well as prospects chomping at the bit to move up. They also have two young RFA defensemen looking for new, likely expensive, contracts in Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen. Vatanen is a right shot, and may be pushed out by Anaheim’s internal budget. Josh Manson is another interesting name there, but I don’t think hes a solution (although, would probably be inexpensive in trade and has a value contract with 2 more years of term at $825,000). Also, will not speculate on the cost of Vatanen, as the bidding war will likely be intense.
Winnipeg is probably the only team in the league that somehow has too many right handed defensemen, a situation that probably shouldn’t be possible, but they currently have Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, and Paul Postma down the right side. Obviously, they just re-signed Byfuglien, so he is going nowhere, and Winnipeg seems to value Myers because reasons (and may they keep him). Postma is a offensively skilled bottom pairing guy and not really a solution for Boston, but all this makes Trouba an interesting name, but like Vatanen, if he is on the market, other teams will certainly be able to outbid Boston.
Nashville always comes up when discussing defensive targets, but following their trade of Seth Jones for Ryan Johanson, they have less need and less strength for this market, but if it’s a top-4 RHD you’re looking for, Ryan Ellis is always interesting. But, I don’t think Boston has what Nashville needs (and I’d rather Matthias Ekholm, but again, a LHD is not the main need).
Lastly, and like Nashville, I don’t see there being an actual trade here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Kevin Shattenkirk. He’s arguably been made redundant by Colton Parayko, and with one more season left on his bargain deal ($4.5 million AAV), is going to get PAID, which St Louis may make difficult for themselves depending on how they handle David Backes this summer.
I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I don’t think there is a trade to be made here, and any that could would involve giving up a real lot (Picks, forward prospects, etc). While that approach has merit, I do not think that is the path that Sweeney is inclined to pursue, as it appears to me his retool is prospect focused.
So, the remaining way to fix the defense is via free agency. This, of course, is usually looked down upon by the hockey community, as overpaying for mediocre free agents is typically what happens during the Free Agent Frenzy on July 1 every year. But it can be done. You’ve just got to be smart about it.
So the UFA RHD market is… not strong, as one would expect. The headlining names include Dan Boyle, Luke Schenn, Jason Demers, Tom Gilbert, Marek Zidlicky, and Roman Polak. The only one of these names that I would pursue in 2016 is Jason Demers, who despite playing predominantly bottom-pairing minutes over the last 3 seasons with the Sharks and Stars, has far outproduced his usage in all categories, and could almost certainly play top-4 minutes to the right of the appropriate defense partner.
(all HERO charts courtesy of Own The Puck)
He is fairly young (he will be 28 on June 9th this year), and is coming off a 2 year contract that carried a cap hit of $3.4 million dollars a year. If he could be persuaded to sign for an AAV of $4-4.5 over 3 years, he could serve as an excellent bridge to the future on the right side in Boston’s top 4. This would have the potential to be a sneaky-good signing that would provide excellent dividends.
Now, the pickings for the left side are much, much more impressive this summer, as they often are, and include Brian Campbell, Keith Yandle, Alex Goligoski, Dan Hamhuis, and Kyle Quincey at the top of the playbill. No, I’m not going to suggest Yandle, calm down, signing him would require a significant commitment in both term and cap dollars, a move that would ultimately be unnecessary (his biggest strength as a defenseman is his offense, which with Krug and Chiller is not a prime need), and probably clog up the development path for our rather large supply of left handed defensive prospects (Grzelcyk, O’Gara, Lauzon, Zboril) for a long time (assuming Krug is signed for 4 or 5 years, which is likely).
For similar reasons to Yandle, I am reluctant to suggest Alex Goligoski. He has demonstrated he is consistently effective as a top pairing defenseman, although with heavily offensively-oriented minutes
But like Yandle, would probably require a significant commitment in term, even if his AAV would ultimately be cheaper. Furthermore, Goligoski will be 31 in July, and committing more than a couple years to him would not be a good idea, for the same reasons as Yandle. If, and only if, he could be signed for 2 or 3 years, I would support Goligoski, but I do not think this is possible.
Despite his age, Brian Campbell (he will be 37 in May), remains a remarkably effective defenseman. He is a quick skater, and while he does not put up very many points, is a dominant possession player at both ends of the ice:
He has toiled, mostly anonymously, in Florida since he was traded there at the 2011 draft from the Blackhawks in exchange for a bag of pucks named Rostislav Olesz, as part of the multi-year deconstruction of the 2010 Stanley Cup team due to salary cap reasons (Campbell was, of course, at the time, 3 years into an 8-year $57,143,000 contract signed in the 2008 off-season). In any case, Campbell has quietly become an excellent defensive defenseman (his offensive numbers were better when he was younger), with strong puck moving skills and good skating. He is also credited with shepherding Aaron Ekblad through his strong, ultimately Calder-winning rookie season in 2014-2015, and thus has a reputation as a good leader and role model for younger players, an asset for a team with a defense that is transitioning towards a younger, less experienced group in the seasons to come. Campbell also presents a unique opportunity to be exactly what we need to fix the left side of the defense (steady, reliable, and capable of reducing Chara’s minutes without overplaying lesser players), and of an age (37) and having earned so much over his career ($61,602,800) so as to be possible to sign for both short term and modest money, perhaps 1-2 years at $2.5-3 million AAV. This would ultimately result in a defensive group in Boston that looks like this:
That would be a competitive defense, almost certainly, and one where the minutes could be reasonably spread around. Trotman would remain in Boston and in direct competition with McQuaid for that 6D spot (this is your last chance, Zach, so I suggest you do the thing- supplanting McQuaid should not be challenging), although it does essentially spell Morrow’s doom in black and gold due to the long term outlook on the left side (meh).
Bottom line, it is a defense that keeps the Bruins competitive for the remainder of Chara’s contract, and should allow the development and gradual introduction into Boston our very impressive defensive prospect group.
Stay tuned for Volume 3, wherein CarvinBass18 disagrees with me about trades!