When you think of the Bruins, you think of Milan Lucic. When fans and media outside of Boston think of the Bruins, they think of Milan Lucic. Broken panes of glass, epic playoff comebacks, handshakes gone awry, sticks to the pelvic region. Lucic, Lucic, Lucic, and Lucic. One of the most polarizing players for the Bruins over the last decade also happens to be one of their best skaters in the 26-year-old Vancouver native. But with the season now over, and Milan going into the final year of his three-year, $18-million-dollar extension, the team needs to take a long, hard look at the top-line power forward. Do they give him a second extension? Do they go into the season without a deal set in place? Or do they cut ties with the seven-year veteran during the offseason and ship him out for assets?
With the firing of former Bruins' GM Peter Chiarelli, this actually gets a lot more interesting. Chiarelli's MO over the last few years has primarily been to sign extensions on core players going into the final year of their contract. It was done with Bergeron twice. It was done for Seidenberg, Krejci, Chara, Boychuk, Ference. It was done for Marchand. And it was done for Lucic already, three years ago. Very few players got deep into their final year, or made it through without a contract extension inked and returned the following year--and even then, it was mostly a crew of rotating 4th line players in Shawn Thornton, Greg Campbell, Dan Paille and Jordan Caron. But now with Chiarelli gone, Lucic's future with the team becomes even more vague.
The Iceman Cometh
The idea of trading Lucic is invariably a tough pill to swallow. Joining the team in 2007-08, Lucic grew with this recent regime of Bruins players. He outlasted a decent stockpile of players who are likely better than him--Phil Kessel, Blake Wheeler, Tyler Seguin just to name a few--not because of his hands, his shot, his skill. He brought an energy to the team that they'd largely missed since the lost season. Immediately (and incorrectly), the comparisons to Cam Neely came pouring in. He was never going to score 50 goals, or even sniff at 40 for that matter. But Milan brought a never back down, take no prisoners, [insert Tough Guy cliche here] attitude along with him that brought along a nostalgic connotation: the Big Bad Bruins were back.
In his first full season with the team, they made the Playoffs and pushed a much better Montreal team to seven games. In year two, they were the best team in the East, and Lucic was skating alongside playmakers like David Krejci and Marc Savard. In year three, despite a season hampered by injuries he was a key piece on a team that was an overtime goal away from making the Conference Finals. By the time the Bruins won the Cup, Lucic--who had just turned 23 years old during the series--was no longer a fan-favorite bruiser, but an elite power forward who other teams desperately wanted.
After the Cup, however, something strange happened. Lucic stopped being known as "the next Cam Neely", and was largely regarded as inconsistent, a coaster, a player who took games off that would disappear for long stretches. In many ways, one of the worst things Lucic could've done for his reputation and confidence was score 30 goals in 2010-11. People loved the 50-point, 120-PIM Lucic. But they criticized the 60-point, 95-PIM Lucic. They wanted the Big Bad Lucic, not the Big, Pretty-Good Lucic.
The Plateau of a Bruiser
Can you criticize someone for not meeting such odd expectations? Lucic was never going to be the 40-goal, 120 PIM power forward people hoped for in his first couple of seasons. But the truth is he's been one of their best goal-scorers over the last few years. In spite of his wild inconsistencies--which, not sure if everyone has noticed, happens to every hockey player on the planet--Lucic is still 3rd in total goals in all sitiuations since the start of the 2011-12 season. He rarely gets big powerplay minutes, and doesn't play on the penalty kill unit, which the two guys ahead of him, Marchand & Bergeron, do. Over that same span, he's 4th on the team in Goals60 behind the aforementioned Bergeron & Marchand, as well as newcomer David Pastrnak.
But this season was the third straight year he's failed to reach 25 goals (he was on pace for ~12 during the shortened season) after scoring 30 and 26 in back-to-back years. And his overall Points60 was at its lowest since the injury-laden 2009-10 season in which he only appeared in 50 games.
I've previously heard the argument that Lucic is a beneficiary of his line--that despite being a staple on the top line for the last four years, he's always been the third-best 1st liner, even with the revolving door of right wings that came along for the ride. But his WOWY from 2010 to 2013, the three years with Horton, actually shows a different story. While numbers dipped across the board when the trio was broken up, Lucic actually had the best numbers of the bunch when on his own. His GF% shot down from 62.4% to 53.2%, but for Krejci and Horton? It was below 50% for both. He also retained the best Sh% of the trio, albeit at 8.68%. And Lucic was 2nd among the group in CF% when apart, and even that was mostly a result of Horton having the highest CF60 on the team over that timespan.
However, where this passenger criticism is warranted is last year, despite Lucic having a great all-around year. Looking at the trio of Krejci & Lucic with Jarome Iginla, Lucic was the outlier when skating on his own. He had 24 goals, and tied a career-high in assists. He also added 240 hits, his most since the 2008-09 season. And had the highest CF% of the group when apart. But he had a rough go of it away from the pack with his Sh%, and therefore had easily the worst GF%, finishing 50.0% even.
This year, David Krejci's nagging injury split up the "top line" that had been so consistent for Milan over the last six years. So while Lucic had a down year in comparison, the amount of production he provided given the adjustments he made was still pretty respectable. Floating on lines with Carl Soderberg, Seth Griffith, David Krejci, David Pastrnak, and Ryan Spooner, he was fairly consistent on the ice, regardless of the bodies around him.
His GF% with Krejci this year: 57.1. Without? 57.1. His His CF% with Ryan Spooner: 51.0. Without? 51.3. His CF% with Seth Griffith, 50.6. Without? 51.4. He had to deal with a wrist injury that had him starting slow, skating next to unfamiliar centers, and playing three different styles depending on the line. And with the eye test, Lucic skated harder this year than in years past. That's why we saw glimpes of greatness, like his game-winning goal against the Florida Panthers. Or even better, his one-man-wrecking-crew of a play-make to Torey Krug.
So with all the above boiled down to great expectations and great results, why is his name being mentioned in trade rumors going into the offseason? Well, it's simple. Because they should.
The Bruins' best asset going into the offseason is a 27-year-old power forward with little injury history, above-average hands, and a tank of a frame. Teams in the NHL salivate at the idea of a bruising body, let alone one that actually puts the puck in the net. Dave Bolland last year got $5.5M from Florida. Dustin Brown is two years into an eight-year, $46M extension that the Kings forked over when he was 28. Zach Kassian was taken 13th overall by Buffalo, then upgraded by trading him to Vancouver for Cody Hodgson.
Ultimately, the Bruins need help in a few different areas, and Lucic doesn't fill their most gaping of wounds. Whether a first-round pick, or some help on defense, shipping Lucic out of Boston may fix some of the Bruins' biggest problems. Compound that with the fact that Dougie Hamilton is up on his RFA deal, and clearing cap space makes all the more sense. With just one year left on his deal, this is a move that you make before the season starts to improve your team for now, and the future. Making $6 million for one more season likely wouldn't break the bank on the Bruins' payroll. They just aren't assumed to pay Lucic any more than he's making already, and free agency will undoubtedly pay him close to $7M. With the Bruins being out of his price range, the best move would be to gain assets in his loss.
Such a move for the season wouldn't be as detrimental to the team as the Boychuk trade early last season, since Boston is in better shape to remove forward depth than they are on defense. With the likes of Griffith, Khokhlachev, Brett Connolly and David Pastrnak better fit to make an impact for a full season, Lucic could in effect be replaced by committee. If the team wanted to roll with a top line of Loui Eriksson, David Krejci, and David Pastrnak next season, other up-and-comers could fill in roles next to Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Spooner further down the roster. Coming back could potentially be some much needed defensive help, or a high draft pick or prospect.
When looking at where the team is now, and what they want to be in the near future, Lucic doesn't fit the mold. Not in their proposed offensive style, and not for what they'd have to shell out in salary. It's a fact that many fans likely don't want to admit, but for the health of the team, it's the right one.