You can’t escape it this time of year, the trade rumors, the free agent day dreamers and everyone’s favorite, the Twitter fantasy land trade packages. It’s everywhere, and this off season the focus is largely on the Bruins 2nd line and what can be done with it. The biggest names available are largely being linked to the Bruins by the local and occasionally national media. I’m here to say forget about Rick Nash, forget about Ilya Kovalchuk, the Bruins don’t need aging wingers who didn’t fit well or are an unknown commodity at this point in their careers.
Simply put, the Bruins need to stop paying for players who are riding their name recognition to continued paydays, years after their primes are over. We have seen this story before, remember Jarome Iginla and his bonus laden contract hurting the Bruins after failing to advance past the second round in 2013-14? Remember giving up a haul for Rick Nash only to watch him revert to his career playoff shooting percentage of 6%, less than half his career regular season percentage of 12.7%? How about signing a then 32-year-old David Backes to an ill-advised 5-year deal that is starting to handcuff the team’s flexibility? It seems many have forgotten the Bruins rough track record of signing or acquiring aging top six forwards, when they should be taking lessons from each mistake.
In the case of Iginla, the lesson was not over-extend yourself on a rental and to be cap conscious as cap flexibility is crucial in this league. With Nash, the lesson should have been that trade deadline deals rarely work, especially when you pay for former success instead of likely future output. Name recognition is a hell of a drug folks. Worst of all? That would be the David Backes deal many (myself included) predicted would end in a buyout before it was over, a deal currently causing cap and roster inflexibility with 3 full seasons left before it is mercifully over. The glaringly obvious lesson? Don’t sign 30+ players to long term deals, especially ones outside of your system who have concussion and longevity concerns due to their style of play. You can boil the strict rules to the following: Don’t overpay for past success, don’t sign aging forwards to long term deals, and don’t make a move for the sake of making a move. Guess how many of those rules signing 35-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk breaks? You guessed it, every one of them!
Listen, we all know how good Kovalchuk was during his NHL career, he’s a borderline Hall of Famer if he stayed in North America, but he hasn’t played here in half a decade and will likely command more than he is worth both in terms of salary and term. Name recognition and marketing impacts player’s salaries more than most are willing to recognize, even if it’s less fun to admit it. If the Bruins could land him on a high dollar, 1-year deal by appealing to his desire to win a Stanley Cup then I’d be all in, because the risk/reward ratio is tipped heavily in favor of reward and how cool would Kovy look in Black and Gold? Anything more than 1 year though and you quickly pivot into a risk dominant deal, especially factoring the Bruins 2019-20 free agent class (McAvoy, Carlo, Chara, Heinen, & Donato). The bottom line is neither Nash or Kovalchuk are singing a one year deal with the Bruins, it just doesn’t make sense for them to.
If you can convince him to sign a 2 or 3-year deal, you have to hope that A. He can still be effective in the NHL, not just in year 1, but years 2 &3, B. hope he defies the well-known age curve and C. believe you can move a contract or finagle the cap situation to keep the players listed above. That’s a lot to risk for the reward of what would be, at his peak a 50-point player, maybe 60 points? This is without factoring in that for the last half decade he has played in a league that plays far less games per season than the NHL (56 to the NHL’s 82) in a lesser league. There’s two arguments, the first is that it may have kept him fresh, but it could also mean his 35 year old legs may not be effective by the time the NHL playoffs start, and that’s just in year one.
Okay, so you get it, Colin doesn’t want to sign Kovalchuk and he didn’t like the Nash deal either, so he must just hate everything, right? Not at all, in fact I agree with the Bruins need to take advantage of their so called “Cup Window” while they still have Bergeron, Rask and Chara playing at a high level. The difference is in how to go about making the most of said window, without repeating obvious mistakes or taking on too much risk. That’s why a 1-year deal is something I’m on board with, unfortunately that just isn’t going to happen, as Kovalchuk is reportedly looking for a deal similar to Patrick Marleau’s with the Leafs. Frankly, often times the best moves are the ones not made, more teams need a “No Man”, which I will gladly do for a fee! The Bruins are going to make a risky move, and while I wish they wouldn’t, they will, so let’s talk about what they SHOULD do, instead of what they likely will do, as they have already set a meeting with Kovalchuk’s agent.
That leaves two options, play the kids and hope they are enough (Hey there, Cehlarik!) or acquire a different forward in place of Nash or Kovalchuk. If you go the youth route, you save money and limit risk, but you also likely lessen your chance at a Cup run significantly by relying on kids to progress (and frankly not regress) from last season. On the other side, the market for free agent wings to play alongside David Krejci is pretty, very, seriously barren below the big-name players like John Tavares and James Van Riemsdyk. For example, local favorite Riley Nash sits 8th in 2017-18 points and is the 3rd youngest of those players at a not quite youthful 29 years old, leaving the Bruins two options, sign an older player or overpay for the few decent options available. They could go after a Thomas Vanek or Michael Grabner and hope they can provide an upgraded scoring option on Krejci’s right wing. Both would likely be cheap and available on 1 or 2-year deals, but both have glaring weaknesses in their respective game’s that make them unattractive. It’s an insurance option and one that has minimal risk to go along with a relatively low reward, but there is actually another name that may make sense once you get past the initial feeling of shock and disgust.
That name? James Neal, folks. Easy to root against, generally despised across the league and not so quietly one of the most consistent goal scorers in the league, having scored 20 or more goals in each of the last 10 seasons, one of only a handful of players to have done so. He has scored regardless of his team, venue or age, has good possession numbers and would seemingly be a good fit next to David Krejci. Perhaps most importantly he plays well in the playoffs, having recently scored 6 goals and 5 assists in 20 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup Final this past season. Frankly, he’s arguably the best of the three players, especially if you assume Kovalchuk has regressed in the past 5 years, which is statistically very likely.
Okay, so he makes some sense from an on-ice standpoint, but what’s the cost? Matt Cane’s contract model has Neal at 25% probability for a 1-year deal ($4.3m), 21% for 2 years ($4.5m) and 14% for a 3-year deal ($5m). He checks all the boxes for what the Bruins reportedly want on their 2nd line, he’s significantly younger than Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk and he will likely cost the same, if not less than either of them. He has high upside, clearly, but there’s also some pretty obvious downside to signing Neal, not least of which is having one James Neal on your team. There’s the issue of him re-signing with the Vegas Golden Knights which he has expressed an interest in, although players say that routinely before signing elsewhere so take that with a rather large grain of salt. More importantly however is the issue of term, in that while Cane’s model has a one-year deal as the most likely, context and history tell us he will likely command a 2 year or likely even a 3-year deal.
Broken down to a synopsis, he is a medium risk, medium to high reward player and if the Bruins brass feels they MUST upgrade the 2nd line, the Bruins should limit their risk by going after Neal instead of a sexier name like Kovalchuk, who carries significantly more risk due to age and his long-term absence from the NHL. After year one, every sane person should want the younger Neal on their roster over a 36 or 37 year old Kovalchuk.
Frankly, at the end of the day, I’m of the opinion the Bruins shouldn’t sign any of the three for more than one year for the reasons mentioned in the opening paragraphs, but if they are going to take on more risk, they should at least try to limit it as much as possible, even if it means rooting for James Neal. Besides, if Bruins fans can cheer for Brad Marchand, they can cheer for James Neal, especially if he helps you win.