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My kingdom for a defenseman, part 1: Intro

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Why free agency is a bad way to build your team except when it isn't

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The Bruins' defense is...

The Bruins' defense... How do I say this...?

Well, let me put it this way. When you Google "bruins' defense", this is what shows up:

This isn't, like, as a joke someone made this the first result in Google images. This is just what shows up when you type "bruins' defense". Seriously. And the biggest surprise is that they used the word "trash" as opposed to maybe some sort of stronger expletive.

But while poking fun at a giant mess may be fun and may provide some small sense of satisfaction, it doesn't really help anything. We've reached the point where it's time to stop talking about what's bad about the Bruins defense and where the front office has gone wrong in recent years, and to start trying to fix the damn problem. And, make no mistake. The front office will make an attempt to fix it.

The alternative to fixing the defense is a rebuild. There's a large number of reasons as to why the front office would wish to do this. The Bruins currently have a smorgasbord of exciting prospects in the pipeline, and likely have 1-2 more on the way with this upcoming draft. Should they sell of some veteran players, the Bruins really could have an embarrassment of riches in their pipeline.

But, think of the veteran players who you'd be selling off. Patrice Bergeron. Brad Marchand. Tuukka Rask. David Krejci. Zdeno Chara. Think of this from the perspective of the Jacobs. Without those guys, it's really hard to sell the Bruins. The fact of the matter is, those guys sell jerseys. And, beyond that, the Jacobs know a dirty little secret about this city. Boston, while a large market, isn't really well equipped to handle a Bruins rebuild. Let's be honest here. This is a town where if one team sucks then frankly, we've got other stuff to watch. The vast majority of revenue the Jacobs see from fans doesn't come from die hard Bruins fans. I bet most of it comes from people who probably wouldn't even list the Bruins as their favorite team. I bet most would say the Sox or the Pats. This isn't Toronto, where everyone lives and breathes Leafs and oh yeah the Raptors/Jays are cool too I guess. In Boston, the Bruins ARE the team that's "cool too I guess".

And that's fine, because those people still love sports and Boston sports teams in general. But most don't want to watch the Bruins unless the Bruins are winning. That hasn't been a problem recently, in the past? Oh boy. The Bruins attendance numbers during their last "rebuild" were not pretty. After the Bruins traded Joe Thornton and began their last "rebuild", attendance numbers dropped like a rock tied to some ce-ment shoes thrown into a black hole. in 06-07, the year following the trade, and one of the most rebuildiest of rebuild years, the Bruins were 25th in the league in attendance. They were beneath the Trashers, Panthers, Coyotes, and Predators. Ouch. With the Bruins currently being one of the most profitable teams in the league, it's safe to say that the Jacobs family would like to avoid a return to those kinds of numbers.

They're not going to do that again. They're going to try to push what they've got into contention every damn year, even it means being stuck with a gross ball of sticky trash tape at the end. That's the simple truth. It's same as them buying Stempniak and Liles at the deadline as opposed to selling Loui. The Bruins were never going to be sellers. It's hard to imagine that Sweeney isn't under orders to compete no matter what, asset management be damned. As such, you've kind of got to judge moves, and predict moves, within that framework.

So, let's do that. The predicting thing. In this series, we're going to act as a match maker for Don Sweeney, and look at some ways the Bruins can get some D.

There's 3 ways to improve your team. The first is via free agency. Free agency is to a hockey team what McDonalds is to your health. It's quick and provides an instant satisfaction, but will probably hurt your health in the long run and definitely, definitely shouldn't be the backbone of your diet. Next is trades. Trades are more like getting black market surgery. Pretty risky, but hey! You could get a great deal! Building from within is more like healthy, reasonable diet and exercise. It's going to take a while, and it won't be that fun, but it's what's good for you in the long run.

We'll talk about all 3 solutions this offseason. We'll probably wait until the draft is over to talk about prospects. And we'll probably leave the trade stuff until after the playoffs are over. But first, we're going to talk about dat Mickey D's y'all. That's right, we're going to look at free agency targets.

To understand why free agency is sometimes a good idea, we first need to understand why free agency is usually a very bad idea. Trying to fix your team through free agency usually doesn't work, for one simple reason. You're giving someone the biggest contract of their career, despite the fact that they've ALREADY played the best hockey of their career for someone else. There are some rare exceptions to this, but for the most part, the guy you get won't have his best years on your team. But the Bruin's blueline situation is exceptionally bleak. And, if the Bruins are to not waste prime years of their core's careers, they need to fix it fast. The only way to get a player without giving anything up is by signing them as a UFA. It's the emergency fix, and if there's anything that needs an emergency fix, it's the Bruins D.

As Bruins fans especially should know, the "don't sign UFAs" rule isn't always the case when it comes to defense. The Boston Bruins made possibly one of the greatest UFA signings in the salary cap era in 2006-07 when they signed Zdeno Chara at age 29 to a 5 year contract. The Chara signing was made at a time where stupid UFA contracts were handed out by GMs like they were halloween candy.

On the surface level, at 7.5 million for 5 mostly post-30 years seems like it'd be one of those horrible contracts. So why did the Zdeno Chara contract work where so many other similar signings failed? Well, unlike many bad UFA deals, Chara wasn't all that old and the contract didn't have that much term. The contract's first year was in his age 29 season and it's last was in his age 33 season. He wasn't really given enough time to go to the shitter. Chara was also just a touch underrated coming into free agency. His former team, the Ottawa Senators, thought large, defensive defensemen were outdated (where have we heard that before?), and instead decided to resign Wade Redden. Don't get me wrong. Chara was definitely viewed as an elite defenseman, a former Norris finalist. But, no one thought he'd be arguably the best defenseman in the post-Lidstrom era (which is what he is).

There's one more, very important, hard-to-spot reason why Chara's contract worked. Remember the one reason why free agency doesn't work? Usually, you're paying someone who's already played their best hockey for someone else. In Chara's case, this just wasn't true. For the most part, defensemen peak around age 25. But in terms of his advanced stats, Chara's best period was from 2009 to 2014, from age 32 to 36. In his age 34 season, he had the 3rd best dCorsi and 2nd best dFenwick season by any defender on record. He wasn't that much of an anomaly either. It's very common for elite defensemen who's main strength is driving possession through a more cerebral play style, more dependent on position and picking passing lanes, to peak later than average. Those kinds of guys tend to age like fine wine, while D who rely more on physical strength and speed tend to age more like milk. That's not to say that Chara doesn't rely on his strength on his strength, but that really has never been his primary talent. He's also a 20 foot tall supermutant, so I'd assume aging may not work the same way for him.

So, those are our criteria for a good UFA signing, in order of importance:

1. We want a guy who's underrated, so his market value will likely be below his actual to-the-team value

2. We want a guy who's not that old on a relatively short contract

3. We want a guy who's playing style hopefully won't cause him to burn out quickly after starting his deal

A good UFA signing doesn't need to have all of these. These aren't requirements. These are more like helpful hints as to what a good deal usually includes. Some are more valuable than others. Obviously, number one is the most important. You want to buy low if you can. Number 2 is nice, and number 3 is really more of a guess about a guy's playstyle, not something that's concrete and easy to prove. So, while meeting these criteria is nice, not hitting one or two isn't a deal breaker.

And with that, the hunt begins!

Posts on specific targets will be coming up soon! I have my own personal shopping list of guys, but if you've got anyone specific you'd like to see talked about please feel free to leave it in the comments below.