By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
When reports first broke that the Bruins had a potential suitor for David Backes, I didn’t even need or want to know the additional assets required. Or even the return. “Good, great, wonderful, now finalize it before the team backs out.” That’s how important it was for the Bruins to get out from under the final year and change of David Backes’ $6 million cap hit (it dropped down to just over $4.9 million when Backes was waived last month).
The Bruins accomplished that by sending the 35-year-old Backes, who has not skated in a game since Jan. 9 or with a team of any sort since the B’s waived him on Jan. 17, to the Ducks on Friday.
But the B’s did more than ‘dump’ Backes off to the Ducks though, as they were able to use that long-awaited Backes deal to also snag Anaheim forward (and Deadline Big Board top-sixer) Ondrej Kase.
Don Sweeney, you dog, you.
First of all, don’t look at this like the Bruins got Kase for a first-round pick. I think that’s oversimplifying the trade to a borderline dishonest degree. What the Bruins actually did was attach a first-round pick to a Backes dump — which seemed like the going rate given the price the Leafs paid to ditch Patrick Marleau as well as the general lack of interest in a full-cost Backes based on his waiver wire adventure last month — for the Ducks to absorb 75 percent of that $6 million cap hit. By stapling that first-round pick to this deal, the Bruins gained crucial cap space they were only to get by doing exactly that.
So instead of Backes accounting for a $4.9 million dead cap as a buried contract, $4 million in dead cap if bought out this summer, or $3 million had the Bruins retained half of his contract a la Matt Beleskey, Backes will count against their books for the remainder of this season and in 2020-21 at a relatively modest $1.5 million. Instead of taking the fattest of losses, the Bruins truly maximized their potential savings, freeing up at least $2.5 million more than they would have in any of their non-trade options. For a team looking to upgrade their roster both now and likely in the summer as well, potentially re-sign pending free agent Torey Krug, and with a few noteworthy restricted free agents (Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk, and Matt Grzelcyk), that goes from saving pennies to saving real paper money. That was absolutely massive, to say the least.
As for the rest of the package? If the Bruins have their say this spring, that first-round pick will be No. 31 overall, and defensive prospect Axel Andersson certainly had his share of NHL roadblocks in his way with Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Connor Clifton rounding out the long-term projections as right-side defensemen. Jeremy Lauzon, meanwhile, has played a ton of right-side defense in the B’s organization this year, and is likely to be viewed as a ‘RHD’ for the foreseeable future.
But what this trade really saw was Sweeney make sure that he turned that loss of a first-round (and more) into something that can help his team now (and later) in Kase.
Now, if you haven’t made the 2019-20 Ducks appointment viewing (I can’t blame you), Kase seems like an unknown. But in addition to being a player under control beyond just this season (and at $2.8 million) and a pending restricted free agent at the end of his contract, let me assure you that the Bruins absolutely got an on-ice keeper in the 24-year-old Czech.
Trapped on a poorly constructed Duck squad that’s scored the second-fewest goals in hockey this season, Kase’s raw totals seem underwhelming (he’s totaled seven goals and 23 points on the year), but it’s his underlying metrics that stand out.
In action for 49 games this season, Kase generated a Ducks-best 112 shots at five-on-five, and also ranked fourth on the Ducks in individual scoring chances (90) and sixth in individual high-danger scoring chances (34). Kase was also Anaheim’s strongest possession player (54.66 percent) and had the second-best shots-for percentage on the team (52.84 percent) this season. Those possession metrics are certainly important when you look at the Ducks’ bottom 11 ranks in both stats as a team.
“[Kase] has shown versatility to be able to adapt his game and complement different lines,” Sweeney said during a Friday conference call. “Shot volume has increased over his years. For us, I think it addresses a need.”
The shot volume is the big one here, too.
Among the 556 NHL players to log at least 400 minutes of five-on-five ice time this season, Kase ranks 15th in shots per 60 minutes, at 10.38. Leading goal scorer David Pastrnak (10.8) is the only Boston skater landing more on net in this metric, and it puts Kase ahead of names such as Auston Matthews, Tyler Seguin, and Taylor Hall. This isn’t to say that Kase is as good as these players, of course, but that he gives Boston another true shoot-first option to plug into their top nine. Kase, for what it’s worth, also ranks 23rd in individual expected goals for per 60 minutes since the start of the 2017-18 season, at 0.85. That’s among a group of 330 NHL forwards with at least 1,500 minutes of five-on-five play over that stretch, too, so it’s legitimate.
Injuries are an obvious concern, of course, as Kase has suited up in just 79 of a possible 142 games (56 percent) since the start of the 2018-19 season. He went through a concussion and then a season-ending shoulder injury last year, a jaw injury this year, and left the Ducks organization as a multi-game did-not-play due to what the team called an illness.
Luck has also been a problem this year, with Kase shooting just 5.2 percent during all-situation play. That’s easily the worst mark of his career, and a massive drop from the 12.9 his shot over the previous two years. But it clearly hasn’t killed his confidence to shoot, which is half the battle when it comes to shooting your way out of trouble.
The odds would suggest that Kase’s luck will turn in his favor, however, and the Bruins want to be the ones to reap the rewards of that eventual turn that could 100 percent solve the problem of their six-year rotation on the right side of their top six.
“We wondered if there’s some puck luck that’s gone against [Kase] this year,” Sweeney acknowledged. “But he’s a volume shooter. You look at his shot metrics in that he’s increased his shooting volume over the years, it’s continued to go up. It depends on the role that players are put in.”
But what do the eyes tell you?
Taking a closer look at Kase, you see a player who frequently seems to be in the right place at the right time, and generates plays with his speed and smarts. (On that front, Kase has actually drawn 18 penalties this season, which was tops among all Anaheim skaters, and ranks him 37th among all NHL forwards.) The Ducks weren’t afraid to move him all over their lineup, too, pairing him with Ryan Getzlaf, Adam Henrique, and Sam Steel. Sweeney noted that his style of play changed with those lines, too, from shooter with Getzlaf to stabilizer with the younger Steel. Given Bruce Cassidy’s love for line-blending, that’s a great quality. (And not for nothing, but I actually think his passing may be a rather underrated quality of his game.)
There’s also the comfort in knowing that Kase is a natural right, shot right wing. That will prevent the Bruins from having to put the weight of their second line on Karson Kuhlman, or force Anders Bjork or Danton Heinen to play their off wing, which has been a fill-in ask from Bruce Cassidy, but not something the B’s bench boss has ever seemed overly enamored with.
“Ultimately, you’ve got to put him on your own team to see how he fits in,” Sweeney admitted. “We believe that he can complement, we have centers, we have guys that have played on opposite sides of the ice. At times, Bruce [Cassidy] is satisfied, other times he’s frustrated. So I think the more we can add to our group, which is what we’ve tried to do – add to our group – and allow the depth of our hockey club to hopefully be a strength, that’s what we worked to adjust with adding Ondrej.”
Kase will join the Bruins when they return to Boston on Monday.