Sure is strange, but here we are, crowding around the hockey hot stove in November.
A year ago Sunday, the Bruins fell to 11-3-2 with a surprising loss at Detroit, a team that was quite obviously headed for a dismal season. Aside from the coverage of what happened, and what was said, there was much to consider.
We were appreciating how Patrice Bergeron (goal, seven shots), despite aches and pains that require more attention as the years go by, kept on playing an elite two-way game. We were believing that as long as he and David Krejci (1-1—2 that night) remained a productive 1-2 duo up the middle, the Bruins wouldn’t be in bad shape. Still true today, mind you.
We were watching Torey Krug (assist) whip up another batch of sweet plays, while speculating that Detroit could be among his landing spots if, for some ungodly reason, he and the Bruins couldn’t come together on a deal. He didn’t seem too worried at the time that he and management hadn’t chatted recently about a contract. Brad Marchand fought a guy (Filip Hronek). David Pastrnak was playing out of his mind.
A few days later, we were hashing out the reasons for the Bruins' wobbly defense (21 goals allowed in a five-game stretch) after they blew a four-goal lead in a shootout loss to the Panthers.
If only we were talking about shootout losses, or a trip to Toronto for a big game against the Maple Leafs, or whether this is the call-up where Peter Cehlarik sticks (hey, he looked OK with Krejci in that Detroit game, and seemingly every time he played Philadelphia). When it comes to the Bruins now, and the NHL at large, there’s much to discuss, but everyone’s in wait-and-see mode.
Like Zdeno Chara, for example. Will he return for a 23rd season, a few months before he turns 44? Still unknown. Agent Matt Keator said this past week the 14-year captain wants to know the lay of the land — i.e., is it a 48-game or 60-game season? How much time away from home? — before committing to another season. Not much has changed there.
Bruins general manager Don Sweeney, still yet to reach a deal with restricted free agent winger Jake DeBrusk, said last month that he and Chara have constant discussions. Of course. There is no mystery as to what either side expects. But Chara hasn’t signed on, leaving this an open question: Could another team with young players in need of guidance — Detroit? Ottawa? Los Angeles? — lure him away for a last go-round?
Another question: In a shortened season where so many teams will have uncertainty, financial constraints, and injuries, would it behoove the Bruins to hand Chara’s minutes to their three left-side prospects, Jakub Zboril, Urho Vaakanainen, and Jeremy Lauzon, and see if they’ve got the goods? Better find out at some point. Why not now?
That’s not to kick Chara out the door, either. It stands to reason Sweeney could bring back both DeBrusk and Chara (on a bonus-laden deal) with his estimated $6.6 million in cap space. That’s probably the best move, given the available free agent upgrades.
Matt Grzelcyk, Chara, and hungriest youngster on the left side doesn’t seem like half of a Cup-contending defense, but some other teams have more vexing questions (Lightning RFAs Anthony Cirelli, Mikhail Sergachev, and Erik Cernak remain unsigned). And who knows what a likely shortened season of bubble hockey will do for leaguewide rosters? Players aren’t yet ramping up their offseason training, since they don’t have an end date in mind. Things are weird. No reason this Bruins roster, with a fairly deep and talented group of forwards and a Vezina Trophy finalist (Tuukka Rask, of course) in net, can’t survive until the defense sorts itself out.
Other hot stove topics:
▪ Multiple reports indicated the league’s power brokers are kicking around the ideas of four hubs, including a Canadian division. That’d be fun, particularly if the playoffs brought together Toronto and Vancouver, or Edmonton and Calgary. For the Bruins, it might mean a lot of games against the Rangers, Islanders, Flyers, Devils, and Sabres. No juggernauts there.
Where the hubs would be is another matter. Vegas and Vancouver were at one time seen as slam-dunk favorites for last season’s experiment, until they weren’t.
▪ Here in Massachusetts, a two-week pause on all rink activity ended early Saturday morning. The new guidelines involve face coverings at all times, including during play, but the return of body-checking (previously eliminated). Facilities can now, at their discretion, allow two adult chaperones and siblings per player, provided the building remains at half-capacity. The governing body of Massachusetts hockey also promised “fines and/or shutdowns” for those who do not comply with contact-tracing efforts. Locker rooms are closed. Masks must be worn during carpooling to games (and carpooling is discouraged). And Massachusetts teams and players are expected to play in Massachusetts only.
▪ White House top doc Anthony Fauci predicted that sports events will remain at reduced fan capacity into the latter months of 2021.
"Even with a really good vaccine,” Fauci said in a National Institute of Health video interview on YouTube, “mask-wearing will continue well into the third or fourth quarter of 2021 … Sports events will then have spectators, very likely in graded amounts with regard to capacity.” That means indoor sports, like the NHL and NBA, could remain impacted into 2022.
BUSY TO-DO LIST
Many decisions left for Islanders
The Islanders still had plenty of work to do after re-signing top defenseman Ryan Pulock to a two-year, $10 million extension this past week. They had a projected $3.9 million in cap space, which is less than half of what restricted free agent center Mathew Barzal was set to command on his yet-to-be-determined second deal.
Barzal has every right to ask for the moon. The primary offensive threat on a defensive-minded club. Three years in the league, leading scorer on the team three times. One of the world’s fastest skaters. He makes them watchable, frankly.
And look at the salaries of the forwards on the roster: six of them (Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, Andrew Ladd, Josh Bailey, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau) are making between $5 million and $7 million against the cap. Barzal should be making more than $8 million a year.
Jettisoning Bailey ($5 million), the only one of those without no-trade protection, would hurt. Ideally, the pressure would be released lower in the order. The Islanders have nearly $10 million tied up in Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Leo Komarov. Capable fourth-liners who play the grinding style they like on the Island, but that’s a lot of scratch for a combined 17 goals and 35 points. Other teams wouldn’t value Komarov (age 33, two years left at $3 million) as highly as coach Barry Trotz and Co. do, and he has a seven-team no-trade list, according to CapFriendly. Cizikas ($3.35 million cap hit) has one year left on his deal, and at 29 could be a deadline trade chip for a rebuilding team.
In a non-coronavirus NHL economy, it would be hard to find takers for Ladd, age 34 and three years left at $5.5 million per. Burying him in the minors, as they did last season, provides a bit of relief, about $1 million.
The ideal fix could come on the back end, if Lou Lamoriello could find a cap fit with Johnny Boychuk and one of the eight acceptable teams on his trade list. Johnny Rocket, 36, has been banged up of late, and has two years left at $6 million per. Fellow right-shot defender Noah Dobson, the Islanders’ first-rounder (12th overall) in 2018, is knocking on the door. Buying out Boychuk would reduce his cap hit by some $833,000 the next two years, then all but wipe it out by the start of 2022-23, when Dobson will be looking for his second deal.
Landing this plane won’t be easy for Lamoriello.
Ovechkin elects to keep going
Like some voted-out elected officials, Alex Ovechkin is not ready to leave Washington.
Ovi, who turned 35 in September, estimates he has between two and five years left with the Capitals. He then plans to finish his career where it started.
“I really want to come back and end my career at Dynamo Moscow,” he said this past week during a sit-down interview with a Russian TV outlet, as translated by Sportsnet in Canada. “After a certain number of years that I will spend, God willing, in Washington.”
No doubt the Capitals will make room for their captain, who is on the final year of the 13-year, $124 million deal he signed in 2008. On paper, he earned every cent of his $9.5 million-plus cap hit last season, tying David Pastrnak for the league lead in goals (48) and putting up 67 points in 68 games.
Of course, scoring goals is the most valuable skill in the game, and Ovechkin still has the cannon on the power play, and anywhere else in the offensive zone. He’s eighth in goals (706), and would need almost six seasons of 50-goal production to pass Wayne Gretzky’s once-seemingly-unreachable 894. How GM Brian MacLellan values Ovechkin’s decline will be fascinating.
He’s likely looking at a pile of rubles when he returns home.
“It is clear, in two, three, four years, maybe five, I will end my career in Washington,” Ovechkin said. “I want to end on a beautiful note — to play my last match for Dynamo Moscow.”
DeAngelo’s tweets draw criticism
Tony DeAngelo, fresh off signing a two-year, $9.6 million extension with the Rangers, got into hot water this past week with some tweets that seemed to call into question the existence of the coronavirus.
“What happened to 'COVID-19’ the last 48 hours?” he asked the day after Election Day, the scare quotes doing some heavy lifting.
As of Friday, more than 24,000 had died from COVID-19 in New York City alone. In DeAngelo’s home of Gloucester County, N.J., outside of Philadelphia, 249 had died. DeAngelo dishonored each and every member of those families with his shoddy take.
Looking to engage DeAngelo and chat about what was on his mind, I asked the Rangers for an interview. Not happening. DeAngelo’s Twitter account, @tonydee07, was deactivated Thursday, an NYR spokesperson telling me the matter was “handled internally.” The account was later resurrected.
This is not to knock DeAngelo for his politics. Telling athletes to “stick to sports” is irrational no matter what they believe. But there’s no defending COVID-19 denialism.
Clearly DeAngelo, who has obvious gifts as an offensive blue liner (15-38—53 in 68 games), is not shy about speaking his mind.
While playing for OHL Sarnia in February 2014, a few months before the Lightning drafted him 19th overall, the league suspended him for eight games for using a slur against his own teammate. Sarnia “handled it internally for the first day,” coach Trevor Letowski told Yahoo! Sports at the time, “and then we felt it was important that the league became involved.”
DeAngelo’s OHL career also included a one-game suspension for abuse of officials. During his rookie season in Arizona (2016-17), he was docked three games for getting physical with linesman David Brisebois.
Here’s hoping this is a learning experience.
Former Panthers GM Dale Tallon, his name cleared by the NHL after an independent investigator could not back up a complaint Tallon made racist comments around the time of the draft, doesn’t know what his next move is. “I’m enjoying my time off and recharging my batteries and looking at the future to see what I’m going to do and when I’m going to do it,” said Tallon, 70. “I’m kind of just, I don’t know if this is the word, de-stressing. Just kind of letting it come out of me, and seeing where that leads me. But things are good.” … The World Junior Championship often slips by unnoticed in the American hockey calendar, but expect hockey-starved Yanks to tune in this Christmas. Bruins first-rounder John Beecher looks like a lock to make the US team as a bottom-six center/wing. The view here: He’s a Sean Kuraly type: big, fast, rugged, and aggressive, and you’re always wondering if he has the skill to bat higher in the order … Some draftniks think another Bruins pick, Russian defenseman Roman Bychkov, needs to curb some of the recklessness from his game before he earns the trust of his international coaches … The Ducks signed their first-round pick (27th overall) from this year’s draft. Sarnia Sting winger Jacob Perrault (OHL-best 39 goals and 15 PPGs in 57 games) was selected with the pick the Bruins sent westward, along with 2018 draftee Axel Andersson and David Backes (more to the point, three-quarters of Backes’s cap hit), for Ondrej Kase. Not saying Kase won’t be a contributor in Boston, but it’s worth noting he and Backes are both hunting for their first goal with their new teams … The Bruins have gone three drafts without picking someone from Canadian major junior. They used their second pick in 2017 (53rd overall) on Jack Studnicka, who could be knocking at the door of a middle-six winger job if this season ever gets off the ground … Sign of the times: The AHL inked a partnership with Sani Sport, which pledges to offer “preferred pricing” for league teams on its sanitation equipment … Of the teams that make sense for still-unsigned UFA winger Mike Hoffman, the Blue Jackets shot to the top of the list after announcing Gustav Nyquist had left shoulder surgery. Expected recovery time: five to six months. Hoffman is a one-trick pony (PPGs and not much else), but he could help the Jackets … Five months is about how long the Stars expect Tyler Seguin (right hip) and Ben Bishop (right knee) will be out. Seguin, whose hips have been bothering him the last few seasons, played through a torn labrum in the playoffs (2-11—13 in 26 games). He didn’t score in the Cup Final despite a team-high 11 chances (per Natural Stat Trick) … Andrew Ladd and Backes were part of the doomed 2016 free agent class. The 12 UFA skaters who signed deals of four years or more that July 1 — Milan Lucic, Kyle Okposo, Mikkel Boedker, Matt Martin, Loui Eriksson, Backes, Frans Nielsen, Darren Helm, Dale Weise, David Schlemko, Troy Brouwer, and Ladd — combined for 102 points last season. All had seen their best days in the league when they signed the deals. Different times, these, but here are the skaters who signed for four years or more this offseason: Anthony Mantha, Devon Toews, Matt Grzelcyk, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyler Toffoli, Radek Faksa, Kevin Labanc, T.J. Brodie, Torey Krug, and Chris Tanev. Of those, only Tanev, Toffoli, Brodie, Krug, Pietrangelo, and Gallagher will be older than 31 when their deals expire, and only the latter three will be deep into their 30s. Pandemic or not, GMs seemed to have learned their lesson: Don’t give term to aging free agents … The loss of Travis Roy, friend of so many in hockey, and guidestar for those affected by spinal cord injuries, remains painful. When you’re dealt that kind of hand in life, and you spend every day grinding to make it better for others, what else could you ask of someone?