Dougie Hamilton, Tyler Seguin and the Boston Bruins: A Study in Scarlet Letters
How did a franchise trade a number one center and a top-flight defenseman before either of them turned 23? The Boston Bruins found a way.
In September 2014, Torey Krug and Reilly Smith were restricted free agents (RFAs) on the President's Trophy-holding Boston Bruins. Both players were looking ready to sign deals that reflected their production and future upside. Smith's 20 goals and Krug's 42-point rookie season were two of the brightest spots for a team desperate to prove that trading Tyler Seguin the previous summer had been a justifiable decision in the wake of Seguin's fabulous 84-point year in Dallas.
Much to the NHLPA's chagrin, the Bruins would sign both Krug and Smith to identical $1.4 million one-year deals towards the back end of training camp. The sweetheart deals were (it is generally accepted) a result of the Bruins' begging their young stars to wait a year for their paydays, as the Bruins were tight up against the salary cap--a situation that would eventually result in the Johnny Boychuk trade--and they simply didn't have the room to give their two young players the deals Krug and Smith initially felt they deserved. In March 2015, both players received big raises. Smith got two years with a $3.43 million average salary, and Krug signed another one-year deal for an eerily similar $3.4 million, this despite the fact that both players' production had dropped from the previous year.
By the way, there was another set of negotiations looming for the upcoming summer. Here's a rather noteworthy bit at the end of an article announcing the Krug/Smith extensions back in March:
Also on the business side, Chiarelli admitted he has not discussed a contract extension yet with defenseman Dougie Hamilton. The 21-year-old blueliner becomes a restricted free agent this summer and the Bruins will certainly give him a long-term deal.
Well, that brings us up to the present. Don Sweeney (and surely Cam Neely to some extent) chose to abandon contract negotiations with Hamilton and trade him to Calgary for three draft picks. Boston hoped to flip those picks in order to move up and grab Noah Hanifin early in the first round, thereby proving that they could dump Hamilton in the process of gaining another young defenseman who would better fit within their cap constraints. You know by now that everything ended up coming apart on that front, though. When all was said and done, even the three consecutive first-round selections Boston was left with ended up being used for players that didn't all make sense, none moreso than when Mathew Barzal was passed over in favor of Zach Senyshyn.
But how Boston chooses to rebuild their team is their own tragic business; it's the dismantling that bears scrutiny, and we all know how the Bruins and their city's media deal with such scrutiny after shipping out a great young player in a trade that didn't seem like it ever had to happen:
As it was, the Hamilton deal didn’t look good — but may have had a secondary cause.
"It was surprising," said one NHL assistant GM. "It’s obvious there’s something going on that we don’t know about. From what I’ve heard behind the scenes, his teammates don’t like him. I heard he’s a loner and sort of an uppity kid, and that his teammates don’t like him and it was unanimous."
In that context, the deal makes more sense. Sources also said Hamilton exerted some control in the process, letting it be known which teams he would sign with and which he wouldn’t — maybe including Arizona, with which the B’s tried to trade up for the No. 3 pick.
Dallas Stars fans will be the last ones to complain about the fickleness of Bruins' management when it comes to overreacting at the expense of retaining their young stars (or superstars, if we're being honest). As Greg Wyshynski reminds us, the Bruins have certainly used this same smear tactic before:
One imagines the Dallas Stars center might have some sage advice on how to handle the door slamming you on the backside as a bus rolls over you, which is what happened when the Boston Bruins traded Seguin in 2013. The tales of partying, criticism of his work ethic and other forms of character assassination sprung forth from unnamed sources and were passed along in the media. Hell, even a Fourth of July party he had on the day of his trade was scrutinized. How dare you have a party on the day everyone has a party!
Again, the Seguin trade absolutely never had to happen, but the Bruins needed a scapegoat for their loss to Chicago in the Final--because goodness knows losing a six-game series is absolutely inexcusable and not at all the result of some bad luck--and denigrating the popular young Star-to-be offered a way to both deflect immediate criticism of the team and provide a new crop of players who could reinforce the character traits that management so clearly valued above actual production. And they were proven right in their character estimation, if nothing else, as Reilly Smith would later sacrifice his significant leverage after a 20-goal season in order to take that $1.4 million dollars for the good of the team. It didn't help them in the end, as the Bruins still ended up missing the playoffs, but Smith's significant raise this season is a pretty obvious thank-you note to a player who subordinated his 2014 dollars to the wishes of a team badly mismanaged into salary cap hell. In other words, the Bruins convinced Torey Krug and Reilly Smith to pay for management's mistakes, and it still resulted in a wasted season.
The Dougie Hamilton trade is all the more mystifying for its haphazard process, as many GMs weren't even aware that Hamilton was on the trade block at all. In fact, the Bruins ended up trading Milan Lucic to Los Angeles for another mid-first-round pick (and a pretty decent defense prospect in Colin Miller), so they surely could have still offered at least an inital package to Arizona (or perhaps Colorado) in an effort to move up before dumping Hamilton for Calgary's picks as well. But it all became a moot point because management guessed at their ability to trade up, then dealt a franchise cornerstone based on that guess only to discover that between Dons Maloney and Sweeney, the only one insipid enough to give away an elite player on June 26th was already being paid by Boston.
There is surely a point at which a player's character deficiencies (real or imagined) trump their production and force the team to move on. Slava Voynov and Sean Avery are two stark examples, albeit for vastly different reasons. The Bruins though, have opted to become so thin-skinned a franchise that they simply "must" get rid of a player when he doesn't conform to the team's image or accede to the team's contract demands regardless of the player's actual and immense value. Dougie Hamilton was asking for something like Alex Pietrangelo money because he was well-aware of the fact that Dougie Hamilton is as valuable an asset as Alex Pietrangelo. The Bruins ardently refused to take the Dallas Stars/John Klingberg route of confidently extending their most coveted player despite two-and-a-half seasons of seeing what they had, and it ended up forcing them into a corner where they would have to pay the "uppity" player what he was actually worth once he reached RFA status. Claude Julien predictably didn't like this:
"The players, and I guess the organization...everybody is within their rights with the way the CBA is. But to me as a coach, I find it very unfortunate that players that have played maybe three years in the league all of a sudden are looking to be up there [in salary] with the top eight players," said Julien. "I preferred the other way where they worked their way up over the years and had service and everything else.
Certainly any team official would subscribe to a similar belief. The players have some leverage, and they know how to use it. Teams can bet on a player one way or the other with long-term deals early on, but they are being forced to make that bet a bit sooner when it comes to high-potential kids. What Julien seems to forget is this one time in 2012 when the Bruins bet correctly and paid a young player big bucks after only two seasons in the league. That contract is still one of the best in hockey for the team paying it, as you well know. And really, how is $5.75 million over six years for a winger/center like Seguin all that different from $7 million for a six-foot-five-inch defenseman like Hamilton who does almost everything really, really well? Like, "best defenseman on the team" really well?
To use another example from Stars history, there was Jamie Benn in 2013. He was coming off of a fantastic season full of personal bests and an All-Star Game accuracy shooting title, and he ended up missing a few games in an already-short season while he and his agent abstained from a few games in the season while they pushed for a deal that reflected Benn's worth to some extent. At no point during that time did management ever leak anything disparaging about Benn or express disappointment at his demands. Rather, the Stars (helmed by Nieuwendyk at the time) were patient and focused on the long-term goal, and the five-year deal they eventually signed Benn to stands right alongside Seguin's as one of the team-friendliest contracts in the league today.
After last season's work to get under the cap, the Bruins should have been keenly aware of just how crucial cap management and young asset retention is to a team's long-term success, but even after firing the GM that traded Tyler Seguin, management still appears to be acting about a logically as a jilted high school ex on prom night. If that's truly representative of the Boston Bruins methodology, maybe the team did the best thing for Dougie Hamilton after all. I'm sure Tyler Seguin would say so.