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Boston Bruins continue to baffle with blue line protections

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 17: Boston Bruins right defenseman Kevan Miller (86) confers with Boston Bruins defenseman Joe Morrow (45) before a face off during Game 3 of a first round NHL playoff game between the Boston Bruins and the Ottawa Senators on April 17, 2017, at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Senators defeated the Bruins 4-3 (OT). (Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)
Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

There were plenty of surprises when the NHL’s expansion draft protection lists came out Sunday morning. For Boston Bruins fans, that came in the form of the team’s defensive protections.

Teams were given the choice to protect either a split of seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie, or eight total skaters and a goalie.

A team could, in theory, protect five defensemen and three forwards (as the New York Islanders chose to do), or split the list four and four, but the best way to protect a forward-heavy team was to expose all but three defensemen and hold on to seven centers and wingers.

That’s what Boston did, to little surprise. With Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and David Pastrnak all in need of protecting, it made more sense to expose a higher number of defensemen and hold on to some of the team’s supplementary offense.

While that part made sense, one of the three defensemen Boston chose to protect was a bit curious.

Zdeno Chara was a given. The veteran captain sees his salary fall to just $4 million next season, and he’s saddled with a no-movement clause anyway. Even if Boston wanted to move his services out, it would only come under his permission. With plenty of heavy minutes left in his powerful game, it would be foolish to offer him up for free.

The other obvious protection was Torey Krug, and Boston made the right call there. As one of the best power-play defensemen in the system, it’s laughable to even consider that Boston would have exposed him.

After that, Boston had two young defensemen — Colin Miller and Joe Morrow — to consider, along with two bigger, grittier contracts in Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid.

Colin Miller seemed like a good choice to be protected, with plenty of promise to his game after arriving in the Milan Lucic trade. If he wasn’t the third slot, McQuaid seemed like a good bet. Boston loves his physical game and gritty presence, and he’s capable of, if not necessarily best suited for, logging heavy minutes when needed.

Instead, general manager Don Sweeney gave Kevan Miller immunity. The little clarity he’d gained in the vision of his team’s future after multiple baffling moves in the past few years, was clouded with that one stroke.

Boston now offers McQuaid, Colin Miller, Morrow and veteran free agent John-Michael Liles as options on the blue line for the Vegas Golden Knights to snag. That’s a long list of NHL-caliber defensemen, if maybe not top-tier ones, for Vegas to choose from.

It’s entirely possible that Sweeney made this move to lure the Golden Knights away from his unprotected goaltender, Malcolm Subban.

Almost no mock drafts have Vegas selecting the 2012 first-round pick as either their starter or their backup, but a few have mused about the possibility of him getting picked up for a third goaltender position.

At the NHL level, Subban has failed to thrive thus far. He currently sits on a .727 career save percentage across his first two games — an admittedly small sample size, but it’s not the encouraging numbers the Bruins were hoping for. Still, the team needs organizational depth. Tuukka Rask has missed time for illness in each of the last few seasons, and current backup Anton Khudobin has fallen short of expectations for the Atlantic Division club.

For that reason alone, Boston may have wanted to keep Subban in the system, and dangling guys like McQuaid and Colin Miller may be how they do so.

There’s also the possibility that the Bruins have already started to work something out with Vegas. They aren’t currently on the list of teams reported to have a deal in place with the Golden Knights, but nothing is out of the realm of possibility.

Assuming nothing is in place with Vegas, though, Boston’s decision is questionable.

Some seem unsurprised by it, given the fact that Kevan Miller has a similar deal to McQuaid’s and is a year younger.

That fails to take into account that Colin Miller has proven to be significantly better. He’s younger, he’ll likely be cheaper, and his RFA status is a lot more flexible than the three years left Boston has to pay Kevan Miller $2.5 million a season.

As is suggested by Dominic Galamini’s quick comparison charts, the only area where K. Miller has a significant advantage over his counterpart is in ice time. Even accounting for the potential downslide of the younger Miller’s numbers when he’s less sheltered, it’s hard to imagine that the team protected the more valuable player.

Sweeney has come under fire in recent seasons for questionable move after questionable move. Every time he makes a smart call, he follows it up with something that negates his previous good work. He’ll trade for three first-round picks then select reach players. He’ll walk away from aging veterans like Greg Campbell and Daniel Paille only to add Zac Rinaldo.

Sweeney deserves credit for his revitalization of the team’s blue line over the last few summers. Drafting Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy in 2015 and 2016 added tremendous promise to the team’s future, while the acquisition of Colin Miller in addition to a first-round pick and goaltender Martin Jones was a brilliant coup of a well-thought-of Kings prospect.

As with each of his good decisions, though, he just threw this one away by exposing one of the team’s young players.

Maybe there’s a plan, but for now, it’s another move made by the general manager that just doesn’t make sense.

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