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What’s Next? (Part 3)

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e’ve covered organizational philosophy and free agency and the salary cap previously.  This time, we look at everyone’s favorite aspect of the offseason: trades.

The great thing about being a Stanley Cup champion (among others) is that you can usually make trades in the offseason from a bona fide position of strength.  Last season’s cap-strapped Blackhawks were an anomaly in this respect.  The Bruins, in fact, will be dealing from a position of strength even more than the normal champion; save Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara, the entire core of the team is 30 or less.  I am not counting Andrew Ference, Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle as core players, but it should be noted that they are over 30.  Regardless of your definition of "core" player, the fact is that the Bruins are a young team.

Ultimately, the Bruins can resign their free agents, call up a couple kids from the minors, and get ready to defend Lord Stanley’s beer mug.  Truth be told, there’s an excellent chance that they’ll do just that.  And that’s a perfectly reasonable offseason plan; while there would be some regression to the mean by some players, natural improvement by younger players would probably offset that. 

So Peter Chiarelli doesn’t have to be in a hurry to take anyone’s phone call.  He doesn’t have to make a deal.  And other GMs will know this.  They know that if they want to deal with Chiarelli, they are going to have to bring a good offer right away; there won’t be any discounts borne of desperation.  (Paul Holmgren, I’m looking in your direction.)

Now, all that said, not all is perfect in Boston.  The Bruins have two weaknesses that Chiarelli would be wise to try and address.

1.       Defense

The dirty little secret of the Bruins’ success in 2010-11 was that the defense stunk; only Carolina gave up more shots on goal.  The Bruins gave up 32.7 shots on goal per game last year, and while I am willing to entertain the argument that they were surrendering a high volume of low quality shots, that’s still an unacceptably high number.  It’s worth noting that they gave up 29.8 shots per game (14th) in 2009-10 with a relatively similar defense, so there may be an argument that the defense will improve on its own.  I, however, am not prepared to make that argument. 

Chara is the rock of the defense.  He should have won his second Norris Trophy this year, but the voters were mysteriously drawn to a power play specialist with a minus rating.  Whatever.  In any case, he makes everyone better.  Anyone who was paired with Chara last year magically turned into a really good defenseman; in this respect, the Bruins were well built for the playoffs.  They were able to trot out Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, their two best blueliners, for about 30 minutes a night, and trust that the other four guys wouldn’t get burned too badly in the other half of the game.  That can work in the playoffs, with an off night between each game, and lengthy off time between series.  It cannot work in the regular season, however. 

The Bruins have to improve the defense somewhere.   Adam McQuaid is young and should improve, and in any case, is cheap enough that replacing him is unlikely to be cost effective.  Chara and Seidenberg are part of the solution, not part of the problem, and while I think Seidenberg is a bit overrated based on his strong playoff performance (i.e. when he was paired with Chara), he’s still a perfectly good top four guy.  That leaves three candidates for upgrade: Tomas Kaberle, Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk.

I’ve defended Kaberle enough already, and would prefer he stays, but if his price tag is too high, it wouldn’t be crazy for the Bruins to let him go, give his job to Steven Kampfer and use the money saved to upgrade another spot.  There’s nothing wrong with starting the season with McQuaid and Kampfer on the third pair.  Ference and Boychuk were, statistically, Boston’s worst defensemen in the playoffs.  Ference emerged as a great locker room guy and leader, but the fact remains that he’s expendable.  Boychuk stabilized a bit in the Vancouver series, but did his level best to submarine the Bruins’ title run against Tampa Bay. 

Between those two, I would seek to move Boychuk.  Boychuk is a player who should have some real value.  His salary for next season is a reasonable $1.875 million, he’s got the size and skill that teams covet, and he’s got that all important Stanley Cup ring.  What he lacks is a halfway decent hockey IQ.  No matter; a defenseman with great physical skills but no hockey sense will generally fetch more than the reverse.

2.       Power play

Well, you knew this one was coming.  The Bruins power play was an ongoing Greek tragedy for much of last season, and the playoffs.  The attempt to fix it with Kaberle failed completely.  What do they do?

Peter Chiarelli did a lot right last year, but at the trade deadline, he addressed the wrong power play issue.  The Bruins had a problem on the back end, and got Kaberle who was, and is, their best power play defenseman.   This is, as I have said before, damning by faint praise, but Kaberle led Boston defensemen in points per 60 minutes on the power play.  And his points per 60 minutes weren’t far off what we’d expected from him over the last few years.  Kaberle was not, and is not, the problem on the power play. 

The problem is that the power play has not been the same without Marc Savard.  Savard was by far Boston’s best power play forward.  In 2009-10, per 60 minutes, Savard was nearly three goals per 60 minutes better than the next best Bruin forward.  He was also the best the previous two years.  Savard’s skill set lends itself extremely well to the role of power play specialist.  There’s a reason Jack Edwards repeatedly called him (with justification) the NHL’s best passer from the half wall.  Alas.

The Bruins have to assume that Savard isn’t coming back.  For whatever reason, David Krejci, who is also an excellent passer, just has not had the same success as the #1 line center on the power play.  I do not particularly understand this, but Krejci has never averaged above 4 points per 60 minutes on the power play, and last year was a putrid 2.16.  Patrice Bergeron is not a great choice for the #1 line center, either.  Bergeron is an excellent faceoff man, which has real value on the power play, but he just does not possess the offensive skill set to put the power play into overdrive.  He is a good passer, not a great one, and most of his goals come from guts and grit.  Those are admirable traits, but they do not translate as well to the power play.  Indeed, he’s been below 3 points per 60 minutes the last two seasons.

It’s going to be hard to repair the power play from the outside.  Krejci and Bergeron bring too much to the team to be moved.  A third line center with serious power play chops might be hard to find.  Or…will it?  The answer to this one, actually, may be in-house.  Tyler Seguin’s problems at the NHL level are on the defensive end, not the offensive.  With a full season under his belt, Seguin should show some serious improvement in 2011-12, and figures to see regular time on either the second or third line.  He projects as a center long term, so why not put him there now?  With a regular power play shift, Seguin has a great chance to produce. 

Proposed solutions:

Please keep in mind that I have absolutely no insight into what the Bruin front office plans to do this offseason.  That said, I’ve got a couple ideas.

Trade Tuukka Rask, Johnny Boychuk and Jared Knight to Phoenix for Keith Yandle.

I’ve said previously that the Bruins can’t afford the Rask/Thomas tandem much longer.  Rask is signed for a very modest $1.25 million next year, and is restricted after that.  He’s a top 10 goaltender, and that would surely appeal to a Phoenix team that just lost their goaltender.  (I won’t even say "to trade"; Ilya Bryzgalov had a figurative gun to their head.)  The Coyotes are all about cost certainty right now, and Yandle’s salary demands may be an issue.  Getting a cheap year of Rask and Boychuk would appeal mightily to them.  I’m not specifically targeting Jared Knight as the guy who would go back, but I am assuming there would have to be a top 5 Bruins prospect thrown in to sweeten the deal. 

The benefit from Boston’s point of view is obvious: Yandle immediately becomes their second best defenseman, and their best before long.  He could pair with Chara and form a dominant shutdown pair, or carry a second pair.  He would probably help the power play and give them the ability to wave goodbye to Kaberle.  It’s going to take a big time offer to pry Yandle from Phoenix, but if the Bruins put Rask on the table, I believe they could do it. 

Sign Tim Connolly.

This one obviously comes with the caveat of "if he’s healthy".  Connolly has plenty of issues, to be sure (a friend of mine played with him in juniors and says he’s the laziest player he’s ever seen), but offensive talent is not among them.  Connolly is an excellent power play producer (5.74 points per 60 minutes on the power play last year), and limiting his ice time in a third line/power play specialist role might be a good thing for him.  He could probably be signed to a low-risk, high-reward type deal (think 2 years, $5 million) in light of his injury issues.  If he doesn’t work out, they lose little.  If he does, he fixes the power play on the cheap.  Speaking of Buffalo, I would have loved the Bruins to make a run at Drew Stafford, but the Sabres locked him up.  Too bad, that’s a guy who could have helped the power play a great deal.  And as much as Thomas Vanek would help, his contract would create more problems than his skill would solve.  (See also: Briere, Daniel.) 

Trade Boychuk and Matt Bartkowski  to Calgary for Robyn Regehr. 

Regehr may be headed to Buffalo, so this may be moot.   But if that falls through, it’s obvious that he’s on the market.  The Flames are in a tough spot: they’re capped out, they have a crappy farm system, and they suck.   Apart from that, things are just dandy.  They save money with this deal, they get younger, and they add some help to the farm system.  Regehr has little to no offensive skill, but he is absolutely a guy who can tighten up the Bruins at the back end.  I don’t have a good idea of what the Flames are looking for the obviously-available Regehr, but I can’t imagine it would be a lot more than this.  I’d throw in a draft pick to sweeten the deal, if need be. 

(And I’m aware that I’ve proposed trading Boychuk twice.  If they’ve already done deal #1, then sub Andrew Ference in and add a draft pick.)

Trade a draft pick for Milan Hejduk.

The Avalanche are in rebuilding mode, and so it shouldn’t take a ton to pry away a 35 year old who’s signed for 1 more year at $3 million.  Maybe a third rounder?  A B prospect?  A conditional pick?  Whatever it may be, Hejduk can help Boston.  He had a sick 6.27 points per 60 minutes on the power play.  Amazingly, that number has gone UP three straight years.  If that seems like an anomaly, remember that playing 5 on 4 allows older players to take better advantage of their skill and smarts, without having their loss of physical ability be exploited as much.  He’s becoming a power play specialist at this point in his career (10 of his 22 goals on the PP), but that’s okay.  The Bruins are so good 5 on 5 that they can afford to play a guy like that.  Put him on a third line with some combo of Seguin, Peverley and Kelly and he’ll be fine. 

Again, I would not expect Boston to make any significant moves this offseason, but it sounds like Peter Chiarelli is looking.  They were close to getting Ryan Ellis for their first round pick, but must have backed out when Dougie Hamilton fell to them unexpectedly.  So, it will be interesting to see what happens, but we can at least take comfort in that the front office doesn’t actually have to do anything.