Feature photo courtesy of Lisa Gansky.
New Boston Bruins General Manager Don Sweeney made some surprising moves leading up to Friday’s NHL Draft, shipping off power forward Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings and defenseman Dougie Hamilton to the Calgary Flames. The trades netted the Bruins two extra picks, giving them three consecutive selections in the middle of the first round. Sweeney used all three picks on players estimated to still be available at the end of the first round and even the late stages of the second by many scouts and analysts.
But this is not a column meant to criticize or defend Sweeney for his inaugural actions as GM, even if trading a young defenseman on the rise in Hamilton practically begs for some sort of evaluation of Sweeney’s managerial duties. Likewise, we’ll skip the angle about the Bruins’ pattern of trading potential stars, including Tyler Seguin and Phil Kessel.
No, this space is dedicated to the most simple yet most important element of the trade from Hamilton’s perspective: which team environment is or would be better for Hamilton’s future in the league, Boston or Calgary?
The Bruins, evidently, are looking for something different, and right now it’s hard to determine if they’re undergoing a rebuild or just a retooling. Sweeney insisted the expectations are that the Bruins will still make the playoffs next season. That statement requires confidence since, after all, this year’s squad underwhelmed, folded down the stretch and lost their grip on the eighth seed. Even still, Sweeney may have a point.
Sweeney pointed out that many Bruins players underachieved in 2014-15 in terms of point production, including Lucic, Reilly Smith, Brad Marchand and most noticeably, Zdeno Chara. Chara’s been so good for such a long time it’s hard to truly believe that, even at age 37, this is the beginning of the end for his career. Smith looks to have been a victim of the classic “sophomore slump,” so he could rebound.
The Bruins also spent 35 games without David Krejci. Krejci is a crucial cog in Boston’s lineup, someone who helps establish the team’s reputation for great two-way play from the center position, along with Patrice Bergeron. Bergeron claimed another Selke Trophy, recognizing his prowess on the defensive end, but the team clearly needed Krejci to help out when Bergeron wasn’t on the ice. Having a healthy Krejci would make a huge difference next year.
When all was said and done, the Bruins dropped from third in goal scoring in 2013-14 to 23rd this season, and from second in goals against to 11th. Not coincidentally, they also dropped from fourth in team shooting percentage to 25th. That drop is nearly inexplicable, and with Boston’s success in the many years leading up to the 2014-15 campaign, it’s hard to imagine they remain in the basement of scoring and shooting in the near future, not with the pedigree of the players on the roster.
Plus, Hamilton and Torrey Krug were scheduled to continue their development on the blue line, and the nucleus of Bergeron, Krejci and goalie Tuukka Rask was still intact. Replace the Ottawa Senators with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and next year’s playoff picture looks mostly the same, with the Bruins still having the talent to at least be a fringe postseason candidate.
Maybe the future after that won’t t be as friendly, as the Bruins’ championship window is still open but starting to close, but Hamilton only had one year left on his contract anyway, and rumor has it he didn’t want to be in Boston long-term, at least according to Sweeney. Contract negotiations reportedly weren’t going smoothly, as Hamilton wanted more money than the Bruins were willing to offer. But a Cup run can change minds, and having Hamilton in the fold would have at least given Boston a reasonable chance next year.
Instead, Hamilton is moving on to a team with characteristics that better fit his own description: namely youth, potential and a strong defense. The Flames have been rebuilding for a while, and now the professional team is starting to harvest the fruits of the farm system that’s long been tended to. Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Sam Bennett are all 21 or under, and highly touted. Gaudreau was nominated for this year’s Calder Trophy, and Monahan and Bennett were top six draft picks.
The Flames are even more important on defense. Mark Giordano has broken out over the last two years and was likely headed to a Norris Trophy nomination before his season ended due to injury. T.J. Brodie and Kris Russell also had the best seasons of their careers, and at ages 24 and 27, they will likely get even better. Dennis Wideman rounds out a great top four.
Even with those players on defense, the Flames were not a strong possession team, and that reflects the team’s lack of forward depth. The Flames were routinely outshot, averaging 27.5 shots for and 29.2 shots against per night. They overcame this and posted a .591 winning percentage in games they were outshot, making them the sixth best team in this department, even though they were the only one of those six to have a negative shot differential. The other teams only had to win every once in a while when they were outshot, Calgary practically had to do it on a nightly basis.
It’s amazing to think that luck can last the course of an 82 game professional season, but it can, and often does. Along with their winning ways in games where they were outshot and their success when trailing after two periods, the Flames’ shooting percentage jumped by 1.33 percentage points from last year, taking them from 12th in the league to second best. The Flames’ winning against the odds calls to mind last year’s Colorado Avalanche, who jumped from 27th in shooting percentage in 2012-13 to second en route to a highly unlikely division crown. Colorado fell back to 14th this year, and returned to last place in the Central division.
The Avalanche waved red flags all over the place with their poor possession numbers in 2013-14, but they didn’t have the strong defensive core in place that Calgary does, and they certainly didn’t have the strong analytics of Hamilton coming on board. Hamilton was seventh best among defensemen who played at least half the season in shot attempt differential relative to his team per 60 minutes. He stood out as the best even on a Bruins team with strong possession metrics. He was also 12th among defensemen in total shot attempt differential, meaning his team controlled the ice when he was on it.
Sure, the Flames can regress in a tough Western Conference, but having Hamilton is a good way of combatting that. Playoffs or not, this season the Flames will definitely show flashes of the potential that could lead them to a Stanley Cup down the road. Calgary will be tasked with the same challenge Boston had in re-signing Hamilton to a long-term contract, but the context will be completely different from the negotiations with the Bruins.
In terms of the upcoming season, Boston and Calgary are in similar places: if either had Hamilton in the fold, they would be fringe playoff teams aiming for a low seed. The Bruins might hold a slight edge in terms of how deep they hypothetically could advance in the postseason. But the most important part of assessing the best situation for Hamilton: the glass is half empty in Boston, while it’s half full in Calgary.
Should Hamilton develop into the star he’s expected to, he’d likely be one of the lone bright spots on what could be a talent-thin team in Boston, while he could become a centerpiece of a Flames core that makes extended postseason runs. Teams on the rise are a better long-term investment than those seemingly on the decline. Hamilton landed in a perfect spot, where he can be another prominent face of the Flames’ youth movement that is taking the league by storm. It might not pay off immediately, but patience should reward Hamilton handsomely, in ways more valuable than lucrative contracts.