The Boston Bruins missed the playoffs for a second straight year after going 8-8-2 following the Trade Deadline and 3-8-1 in the team’s final 12 games. During that final stretch, the team was ranked 5th in score-adjusted shot percent (54.5%), but last in total points accumulated (7). The Bruins HockeyViz diagram shows an accurate picture of the team’s struggles to end the season. While the Bruins largely dominated shot attempt percentages towards the end of the season and were very effective in limiting their opponent’s shot attempts (shown via the smoothed 5v5 shots*/60 chart), they struggled heavily to prevent goals during that same stretch (shown via the smoothed goals/shot-on-goal (%) chart). An obvious roster flaw was exposed by opponents and cost them a playoff appearance.
There is a big difference between a team making the playoffs and a team competing for the Stanley Cup. Had the Bruins rallied in the final week to make the playoffs, they would have struggled mightily against either Tampa Bay or Washington, who were the Bruin’s most likely first round opponents in the final weeks of the regular season. More importantly, the team would still have to address serious roster flaws. The defensive core was patched together this season and depth in the right wing and goaltender positions was a concern. The Bruins management cannot fixate on patching up the roster, but overhauling the system and bringing in pieces that can make contributions. Staying on the same path will prevent them from being a Stanley Cup contender both in the foreseeable future and further down the line.
In his first year as an NHL General Manager, Don Sweeney struggled. He seemed to get bullied around by more experienced general managers. Many moves cost the Bruins future draft picks, prospects, and the cap flexibility to make impactful moves at the trade deadline. In addition, he made wrong decisions on player personnel regarding who was important to the team’s success and who could be expendable. In comparison, the Chicago Blackhawks uncanny ability to identify the key players to their success has allowed them to contend for the Stanley Cup for almost the past decade.
There are a number of questionable decisions that have transformed the team into its current state and in hindsight, have made the media and fans waiver in their trust in the management team. Going forward, realizing how they fell into these holes will help avoid making further mistakes and will take steps in righting the ship.
2015 NHL Entry Draft (6/26-6/27/15)
Sweeney made big moves at the 2015 Draft shipping Dougie Hamilton and fan favorite Milan Lucic out of town. Hamilton, who wanted out of Boston, fetched a return of a 2015 1st round pick (15th overall) and two 2015 2nd round picks (picks 45 and 52 overall). While the combination of the three draft picks almost guarantees at least one NHL player, Boston got somewhat of an underwhelming return on the up and coming defenseman in Hamilton.
For Lucic, Boston received a 2015 1st round draft pick (13th overall), goaltender Martin Jones, and defenseman Colin Miller. Shortly after the draft, Boston then flipped Jones to San Jose for a 2016 1st round pick (lowest possible is 29th overall with the Sharks advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals) and forward prospect Sean Kuraly. This was a solid return for Boston with Lucic having one year left on his contract before heading to free agency.
With their own 14th overall pick, Boston then possessed three straight picks from #13 to #15. It was highly rumored that the Bruins were trying to package their 2015 first round draft picks along with other draft picks and prospects to move up to snag one of the top three ranked defensemen in the year’s draft. The top defensemen were Noah Hanifin (taken 5th overall by Carolina), Ivan Provorov (taken 7th overall by Philadelphia), and Zach Werenski (taken 8th overall by Columbus). The Bruins were unable to move up, either because Sweeney felt the price was unreasonable or the team’s above Boston weren’t interested in moving their picks.
With their picks, they selected defenseman Jakub Zboril, forward Jake DeBrusk, and forward Zach Senyshyn. Zboril, a 6’2 defenseman, was a solid pick as he’s labeled as a shutdown defenseman with a lot of upside that fits the organization’s number one need. DeBrusk, a talented two-way scorer, was projected to go in the late first round and Senyshyn, a talented forward who succeeded in a limited role on his junior team, was projected to go in the middle to late of the second round. The Bruins were highly criticized of reaching for these two forwards when there were better players still available.
It is important to recognize that the public doesn’t know how other team’s valued DeBrusk and Senyshyn but it was very possible that Boston could’ve selected another player in the first round and used one of their three second round selections to snag either DeBrusk or Senyshyn. If the organization was sold on these individual players, they could’ve taken a calculated risk in trading down the draft board to acquire another prospect or draft pick then making their draft selection.
The reason this was very plausible is because of the forwards still available. Matthew Barzal, Kyle Connor, and Colin White were all ranked much higher and are all around more talented players. After the Bruins passed on Barzal, the New York Islanders capitalized on him being still available by acquiring the Edmonton Oilers’ 16th overall pick in addition to the 33rd overall pick in exchange for defenseman Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart has split time between the NHL and the minors but is projected to be an everyday defenseman within the next few years. He may not have been the perfect fit with Boston but this transaction gives a good idea of the type of player that the Bruins could have gotten if they decided to move down in the draft.
To sum up the draft, the Bruins traded away two key roster players and didn’t add anyone who would be able to make an immediate impact to the club. All three of their first round selections are a minimum two to three years away from making their NHL debuts. After the third straight selection, Sweeney spoke with Kathryn Tappen and said he had tried to move up higher but when that didn’t work out, they were comfortable with the players they wanted to select. While I’m sure talks must have occurred, he didn’t specifically mention the possibility of moving down in the draft. Even though Sweeney drafted the players he wanted to, he poorly managed the draft. In this day and age, you can’t leave talented players on the board to draft players you could have gotten twenty picks later and expect to be successful. Boston should have looked harder to move down the draft board to acquire other assets and still been able to draft the players they wanted.
Trade: F Zac Rinaldo for 2017 3rd round pick (6/29/15)
The Bruins followed up the draft by making one of the most puzzling trades in recent memory. They acquired forward Zac Rinaldo from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for a 2017 3rd round draft pick. Rinaldo, who is more known across the league for his goon-antics than his actual ability to play hockey, was likely brought in to help reestablish the aggressiveness lost in dealing away Lucic and not resigning Shawn Thornton the year prior. While Rinaldo plays an aggressive game, he often crosses the line getting penalties or even suspended. This past season proved right for Rinaldo critics as in 52 NHL games, he only recorded one goal and three total points and became the first player to get suspended from the NHL and AHL at the same time, racking up 13 total games suspended.
There is no way to sugarcoat Rinaldo’s performance; he doesn’t positively impact his team in any way. Most of his performance tiers shown on his HERO Chart are off the chart in a negative way meaning he doesn’t even qualify as a 4th line NHL player. In addition, his teammates benefit without him on the ice and he has a projected relative goal differential per 60 minutes of ice time of –0.60. Every time he steps on the ice, he is a liability to his team.
It is very confusing why the Bruins acquired such a negative impact player let alone gave up a 3rd round draft pick for him. Historically speaking, there is about a 30% chance that a 3rd-round draft pick will result in an NHL player (“NHL Player” defined as playing 50+ career NHL games). In the past calendar year, a number of players have been traded in a one for one trade for a 3rd round draft pick. This group includes forwards Shane Prince and Teddy Purcell and defensemen Eric Gelinas, Justin Schultz, and Mike Weber. While none of these players are considered top-end talent, the return for a 3rd round pick is much higher than what the Bruins received and would benefit the Bruins much more than Rinaldo is able to.
What may have hurt the Bruins the most is the fact that Rinaldo took up a roster spot. I’ll get to why this came to hurt the Bruins down the line.
Trade: F Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s Contract for F Jimmy Hayes (7/1/15)
On the first day of free agency, the Bruins traded forward Reilly Smith and Marc Savard’s contract (concussions forced Savard to retire but his contract is still on the books) to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Boston native Jimmy Hayes. This was another awful trade for the Bruins as Hayes struggled in his hometown while Smith flourished in Florida (while Florida got eliminated in 6 games by the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs, Smith posted seven points at even strength and still leads the league in P/60. In the regular season, Smith was ranked 46th of 125 forwards with a 1.90 P/60 (minimum 1000 TOI)).
Smith experienced a decrease in production in 2014-2015 after scoring 20 goals and recording 50 points the prior year for Boston. Bruins management must not have felt he would be able to rebound so they looked to move their asset. Another thought process could have been that had Smith rebounded back to score 20+ goals again, he would be expensive to resign when his contract is up in 2017 (RFA status). With the average salary for a player who scores 20 goals in a given season around $4.5M, the Bruins would likely have an increased cap hit on Smith’s next contract (his current cap hit is at $3.425). Similarly, Lucic was dealt with the team’s long-term future in mind as the Bruins likely wouldn’t be able to afford to resign him after the 2015-2016 season.
In addition, there was no necessity for the Bruins to get rid of Savard’s contract ($4M cap hit for two seasons at time of the trade) as he could be placed on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) to free up cap space for which the contract was valued at. The contract was heavily front-loaded so the team only owed him a total of $1.15M in the final two years of the contract. As the Bruins are one of the wealthiest teams in the league, there is no reason why they couldn’t have afforded to keep Savard on the books for the final two seasons of his contract (assuming ownership didn’t step in and say the contract had to go).
Trading Smith was another example of the Bruins organization struggling to determine who was crucial to the team’s success and who they could move on from without faltering. Replacing Smith with Hayes on the depth chart heavily hurt the Bruins this past season. This is nothing new to this management team, as in the past, the team has dealt away Tyler Seguin and Johnny Boychuk without being able to effectively replace their production in the lineup.
D Matt Irwin Signed as Free Agent (7/10/15)
On the second week of free agency, the Bruins signed former University of Massachusetts – Amherst defenseman Matt Irwin to a 1 year, $800,000 contract. Irwin made the team out of training camp with the help of injuries to captain Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. Irwin struggled in the first two games of the season recording zero points and posting a –5 +/- before getting sent down to the minor league for the rest of the season.
This was a low risk signing with the Bruins as it was only for one season and worth less than one million dollars, but there were better and even cheaper depth options available for the Bruins. David Schlemko, who I wrote about last summer, didn’t sign a contract with New Jersey until the middle of September. Schelmko didn’t play great (40% GF%, –7% GF%Rel) in a depth role that sheltered him from the opposition’s top players but he led the team in possession (49.0% CF%, +3.6% CF%Rel) and chipped in 19 points (12 on power play). Statistically, there were better options available than paying Irwin $800,000 to play in the American Hockey League.
With Irwin down in the minors, this poor signing left the Bruins with little depth on the blue line. To patch this up, Boston would have to pay a price to acquire an adequate defenseman to fill in the spot. I’ll come back to this in a minute.
Trade: 2016 4th round pick and 2017 2nd round pick for F Lee Stempniak (2/29/16)
As trades begin to trickle in following the 2016 NHL Trade Deadline, the Bruins finalized a deal acquiring forward Lee Stempniak from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a 2016 4th round pick and a 2017 2nd round pick (the combination of a 2nd and a 4th round picks results in a 57% chance of converting the picks into at least one NHL player and a 10% chance of converting both picks into NHL players). While Stempniak was the impact player the Bruins needed to add to help make a playoff run, the backstory made the trade frustrating.
Stempniak became an unrestricted free agent last summer and hadn’t signed a deal in early July like many of his free agent peers do. As he lives in Boston during the offseason, Stempniak spent the summer and fall practicing informally with many current Bruins. Eventually, both the Bruins and the Devils offered Stempniak a tryout. As we all know now, Stempniak chose New Jersey’s tryout as he felt he had a better chance to make their team. His gamble paid off as he earned a spot on the team’s opening day roster. He signed a 1-year, $850,000 contract with New Jersey and led the team in scoring before getting dealt at the Trade Deadline.
The main reason why the Bruins didn’t and couldn’t offer Stempniak a contract is because they had no open slot for him on the roster. In particular, Rinaldo took up the final roster spot. Had the Bruins not traded for Rinaldo, they could’ve brought Stempniak in on a tryout contract then signed him for a cheap deal at the start of the season. Not trading for Rinaldo and signing Stempniak as a free agent in September would have saved the Bruins three draft picks (a 2016 4th round pick, a 2017 2nd round pick and a 2017 3rd round pick) and would’ve provided the Bruins with a much more impactful player who could help either the second or third lines.
These three draft picks were wasted and could have easily been retained had management made smarter hockey decisions. With the Bruins’ current status of being on the outside of the playoff picture looking in and having a plethora of organizational needs, possessing draft picks is very crucial. More importantly, using the draft picks wisely is the difference between a team rebuilding within a few seasons or continuing to struggle to stay afloat. Whether the Bruins used the picks themselves to draft prospects to help them down the line or they packaged them for a roster player that could help them in the near future, every move has to positively impact the team.
Trade: 2016 3rd round pick, 2017 5th round pick, and prospect Anthony Camara for D John-Michael Liles (2/29/16)
The Bruins made a second move at the Trade Deadline acquiring defenseman John-Michael Liles from the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for a 2016 3rd round pick, a 2017 5th round pick, and prospect Anthony Camara. The combination of a 3rd and a 5th round draft pick results in a 45% chance of at least one draft pick resulting in an NHL player and an 8% chance of both draft picks resulting in an NHL player.
This move backfired for the Bruins as he wasn’t able to be effective in a depth role (42% GF%, –9% GF%Rel) and was even scratched in multiple must-win games for the Bruins to qualify for the playoffs.
Acquiring Liles at the Trade deadline was a panic move to patch up the defensive core. Liles was acquired as a rental player as he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer with no guarantee that he’ll be back in Boston. Anyways, he never fit in the Bruins long-term plans as he turns 36 in November and the defense needs to get younger and more mobile.
The package the Bruins gave up for Liles was an expensive price to pay for a third pairing defenseman that couldn’t be relied upon in the season’s final stretch. Had the Bruins properly addressed their shallow defensive core in the past summer, they wouldn’t have had to make this rash move to keep their team in the hunt for a playoff spot.
In conclusion, moves made by Bruins management in the past year have resulted in a weaker team on the ice and the loss of numerous draft picks which should have been used to help rebuild the team. Going into this summer’s draft, the Bruins possess seven draft picks but only three in the first four rounds. They have traded away three of their own draft picks for this upcoming draft and have already traded away three draft picks for the 2017 draft (highest in the league). To right the ship, the Bruins will need to start making smarter and more calculated decisions for both their roster and draft preparation.
Follow Steve Ness on Twitter: @QuickkNess