Bruins Big Losers at Signing Deadline

By Vincent Fusaro

June 1st, 2001 may go down as one of the darkest days in Bruins’ history. The Bruins failed to come to terms with all four of their prospects eligible to either reenter the draft or leave for unrestricted free agency. When next season rolls around, chances are good that none of Seamus Kotyk, Kyle Wanvig, Donald Choukalos, or Martin Grenier will be wearing black and gold. Goaltender Kotyk and behemoth defenseman Grenier will become unrestricted free agents by virtue of age (both are 21, buck the 20-year-old age cutoff for North American draft-eligible players). Right wing Wanvig and goaltender Choukalos will re-enter the draft.

Of the four, Choukalos is the easiest loss to justify. While at times looking solid, the WHL Regina Pat’s netminder was far from a standout. With John Grahame, Andrew Raycroft, and Seamus Kotyk appearing to be solid prospects, the need for depth in goal wasn’t quite as urgent as at other positions.

What makes Donald’s loss painful, however, is the subsequent failure of Bruins’ management to sign Kotyk. The smallish Ottawa 67’s netminder (5 feet, 11 inches, 185 lbs.) wasn’t considered anything special coming into this season, but steadily improving play and a fantastic Memorial Cup tournament saw his value increase significantly. Many Bruins’ fans were excited over the prospect of a Kotyk-Raycroft tandem in Providence of the AHL. Alas, it will never be. While there is still an outside chance Kotyk will sign with Boston as a free agent, odds are good that another team will offer significantly more money than the Bruins are willing to pay. For the time being, the Bruins have put all of their eggs in Andrew Raycroft’s basket, taking a depth hit at the same time.

Hulking Martin Grenier was expected to leave for unrestricted free agency. Though reports vary, it has been speculated that Grenier’s demands were somewhat extravagant for a player projected to be little more than a sixth defenseman. Two factors, however, serve as a punch in the gut for the Bruins’ faithful. First, Grenier is exactly the type of player the B’s system sorely lacks- a hulking, hard-nosed player with enough skill to justify a regular shift. Second, Martin was one of the prospects the Bruins received in the Ray Bourque trade. After getting little more than a glimpse of Samuel Pahlsson in black ‘n gold and Martin Samuelsson’s potential as a scoring forward coming into question, the loss of Grenier further darkens the departure of Boston’s long-time captain. Salary issues aside, this chain of events makes one wonder why the Bruins acquired Grenier in the first place; surely the Colorado Avalanche knew of Grenier’s demands.

The toughest loss to stomach is that of Kyle Wanvig. Boston’s third-round pick in 1999, the right wing was a first-round projection that fell from grace with a less-than-stellar season that year. Steady improvement, a fantastic 2000 training camp, and a 55-goal WHL season pointed to a successful gamble on the part of Bruins’ management. Finally, thought B’s fans, the system was beginning to work. The pieces were coming together. Apparently, however, Wanvig’s performance caused not only his stock to rise, but his contract demands as well. The buzz seems to indicate that the Bruins’ offer was too little, too late. Management had almost two years to ink Wanvig; instead, they waited until a few days before the signing deadline to begin talks. Though we may never know the whole story, rumors and speculation seem to indicate Wanvig cut off talks with the Bruins on the day of the deadline. Should this scenario be fact, the B’s policy of last-minute signings to get the “most bang for the buck” backfired. The Bruins have lost one of the brightest power forward prospects in the game.

Further clouding the day was a botched trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Once it became clear that Wanvig was a lost cause, the Bruins’ traded his rights to the Leafs for Jonas Hoglund and a sixth-round pick. The trade was then announced on the official Bruins’ website. The Sporting News also ran the story on their site. It quickly became obvious, however, something was awry. The Bruins and the Sporting News both pulled the press release, replacing it with a piece about failing to come to terms with the four players. Further, the Toronto organization gave no indication a trade had occurred.

As the dust has settled, it appears that several factors came together to prevent the trade from gaining league approval. As with many facts surrounding the day’s events, little concrete information is currently available. It is painfully obvious, however, that Boston management erred on a number of levels.

The disaster that was June 1st, 2001 displays several disturbing trends in Bruins’ hockey. First, management set up a media “smokescreen” earlier in the day via a story on their website. The organization gave the appearance of pursuing, at the very least, the signings of Wanvig and Kotyk. In reality, however, the brass was busy making other plans. Such lies and misinformation, given the dedication of Bruins’ fans, is unjust and unprofessional. The ensuing Hoglund/Wanvig saga and its premature announcement further indicates poor form on the part of Boston management.

Second, and perhaps even more disconcerting, is the Bruins’ negotiating style. As a rule, Boston waits until the last possible minute to sign prospects. The logic behind the policy appears to be that, by holding off, the organization will be in a position to determine which prospects are worth the investment and which are not. While this reasoning is sound, the potential exists for a situation like that of Wanvig. After his solid training camp performance, Kyle was ready to sign with the Bruins for a third-round price. The B’s, however, held off. When Wanvig performed like a first rounder in his WHL season, his stock and price both rose significantly. It appears that the Bruins were unwilling to increase their offer significantly, hoping the Wanvig camp would cave in the way Andrew Raycroft did last year. The policies of waiting to see what a prospect becomes before signing him and basing contracts on draft position appear, when viewed individually, to be sound. They do not work in concert, however, because a player’s value can increase with a solid season or two. Boston will not be able to sustain a development system using this logic.

Finally, much to the frustration of fans of the “Big Bad Bruins” of yore, the B’s have shown a preference for soft, moderately talented players. General Manager Michael O’Connell has, in recent days, indicated a liking for veteran Europeans in the vein of Jarno Kultanen and Mikko Eloranta, suggesting more such players will be drafted this year. While a quick, cheap solution to the depth problem, these players are usually of limited upside. This method is not one that builds a winning team but instead ensures sustained mediocrity. Should the Bruins continue to depend on overage Europeans, look for many more finishes in eighth, ninth, and tenth place. The illusion will be one of unfulfilled potential, but reality will be an uninspired team unable to compete with the NHL’s brighter lights.

The attempted acquisition of Jonas Hoglund illustrates the latter point perfectly. Should he wear the Spoke B, Hoglund will no doubt be able to chip in twenty or more goals, leading the media and the front office to brag about the Bruins’ scoring potential. What will be ignored by these sources, however, is that many of Hoglund’s goals will be the “meaningless” variety Harry Sinden hates with a passion. Jonas Hoglund, like current Bruin Andrei Kovalenko, brings nothing to the game other than an inconsistent scoring touch. The number of twenty-goal scorers may make great press, but this type of player is not one that a winning team builds around.

The patience of diehard Bruins’ fans is quickly waning. One can only hope that Mike O’Connell has learned his lesson, realizing that his contradictory policies are putting the Bruins in a precarious position. The team will not be able to sustain the success it has begun to experience should the current system remain in place, as promising prospects are lost and moderately talented depth players are brought in to fill the ensuing holes.

June 1st, 2001 is just another day to the average Bruins’ fan. To those scrutinizing the moves of Boston management, however, that date sums up so much that is wrong with the current regime. The band-aid acquisitions and overly frugal fiscal policies are ensuring that there is little chance for a winning future in Boston regardless of their talented core of Sergei Samsonov, Jason Allison, Joe Thornton, Bill Guerin, Brian Rolston, and Kyle McLaren. The signing deadline showed Boston management to be inept, bungling and short-sighted. It could be a long year, Bruins’ fans.