With the 2020 Draft in the books, it falls to Don Sweeney to improve his team in that familiar way:
Free Agency, where we all pick up name talent that other teams can’t pay!
So while there are plenty of talents that could probably make at least some part of the organization very happy, and we’ve covered plenty of them so far, the biggest thing that the Bruins at this stage in the game need to start avoiding, is a very particular type of hockey player.
The Junk Food Hockey Player.
Sky, what the hell do you mean by “Junk Food Hockey Player?”
Here’s the idea: a hockey team can be described in a myriad of ways, but a very ugly American way to look at a team is that it is a meal. You have the unexciting but necessary vitamins and minerals (depth players), and the main course proteins that everything needs to survive (the stars and goaltenders). And then, after the meal is over, you get dessert. And 99.9% of all dessert is junk food.
An empty calorie dish full of sugar and carbohydrates that have next to no nutritional value...But are absolutely delicious.
A JFHP is just that: a player has relatively little offensive or defensive value, but whose intangibles, or their name, just make them a player you like watching, even if they don’t provide anything for your hockey team. You feel good watching them play hockey. They’re not good, and maybe nobody said they were good, but they’re so much fun! And let’s be clear, it is okay to have one or two on your team. Just like Junk Food!
Take a player like...say...Michael Del Zotto. Del Zotto is objectively...eh. He’s not that good, not terrible, but he plays a bang-and-crash style and gives the impression of a guy who’s always working hard and that gets GMs excited. Or take Wayne Simmonds, who has long since regressed into being an active detriment to his team offensively, but he plays with more heart than anybody in the league most nights! Jack Johnson has been ass for almost every year he’s been an NHL player, but he’s kept General Managers reaching for that candy bowl for almost a decade and a half!
Sure, the junk food will probably kill you in the long run, but a slice of cake every so often isn’t going to kill you tomorrow, and the idea of a junk food player is that since you have so little you can probably work it off at some point, you can deal with it! Hell, since everybody likes Junk Food, maybe you can trade it at lunch just before Recess ends!
But it’s when you’re having two or three slices after every meal, and the entrée gets smaller and smaller, and those side dishes get replaced with more and more junk food that it starts to become a problem.
Why should Boston be avoiding Junk Food Hockey Players?
Because a lot of their forward roster right now is at least Junk Food adjacent, if not outright Junk Food.
While the Bruins are far from desperate straits yet, they’re still top 5 in the league in the fancy stats that count over the past three-four years, it’s become abundantly clear that over Don Sweeney and Bruce Cassidy’s tenure as GM and Coach respectively, the players available to them vary sharply in quality throughout the lineup: the top line is obviously a bunch of world beaters that make anybody miserable whenever they’re on the ice, but after that?...generally speaking, it’s been a mixed bag. Multiple young guns, as well as established veterans, have cycled through, and very few have managed to stick around consistently, and even fewer have been able to truly reach that next level and become even acceptable level middle six producers. One of whom they had to trade for.
Furthermore, while occasional hiccups and personal hang-ups aside, it’s pretty clear Boston’s been getting by so far on their defense, playing a strong system backed up by quality goaltenders, and at least some scoring punch that has kept them comfortably middle of the pack in the on-ice results category, but only just. I think the biggest illustrator of the kind of movers and shakers this team has and their have/have not qualities are best described when looking at xGoals Above Replacement, where you can see the contrast in full.
In fairness, guys like Danton Heinen and David Backes are no longer on this team, and Ritchie and Kase have not have a full season of NHL play in a Bruins uniform, so we cannot say that this is a completely accurate list, but the drop off is considerable after Charlie Coyle. Plenty of players are skating by on their contributions on defense or on some other aspect of their game rather than their ability to produce.
Is it any wonder then that the Bruins struggled once their momentum was broken in the bubble? Almost all of their play driving comes from a max of four or five forwards. Three of whom are on the same line.
So while the issue is easy to recognize, and very specific (the same 100+ minute stretch of no even strength scoring showing up in the playoffs has killed their cup hopes in consecutive years), the way to solve that problem can very easily be complicated by grabbing a big ol’ candy bar of a player to solve that problem through a Junk Food Hockey Player.
Admittedly, none of this is news exactly, but because the problem is as specific as it is, it can be responded to in a myriad of different ways. And some of those ways involve another candy bar the Bruins just don’t need.
Alright, so who should the Bruins be looking for?:
Not just a salad, the whole salad bowl.
Now, thanks to a number of teams suddenly not being especially cash-solvent, there are plenty of half-decent players who would probably need a better home that can pay them. Naturally they could make themselves infinitely better by going after the big guys like Taylor Hall and Tyler Toffoli, and even deep cuts like Evgeny Dadonov are all available, and should be first priority if they can get them. But, so are guys like Mikael Granlund, Conor Sheary, Josh Leivo, or Trevor Lewis. While there’s a lot of good players in this UFA period, there’s also plenty of perfectly “okay” players that the Boston Bruins need right now to make the bottom 6 better than it currently. They are deeply unsexy choices, probably won’t command a whole hell of a lot of a dollar amount, and definitely won’t make anybody especially excited, but they will make the depth unquestionably better, at least in the short term. And for your own health and sanity, they should probably stay short term, so that this “win-now” thing can actually have a shot at working.
With Free Agency less than 24 hours away, Don has a hell of a task in front of him, and the best we can do now is hope that the B’s put their best foot forward and make good on the promise of aggressive change that they’ve been touting.
Just, y’know, without the Mallomars as a side dish.