The NHL trade deadline arrives a week from Monday, making these upcoming days Don Sweeney’s sixth dip into the 11th-hour trade pool since taking over as Bruins general manager in 2015.
If past performance offers any guidance, Dealin’ Don is virtually certain to make a move or two, likely again with an eye on acquiring . . . wait for it . . . help up front.
It’s the annual “Hey brother, spare me a forward” deadline, a spring rite as true around here as morning drizzle and tulips sprouting in the Public Garden. The Bruins, particularly challenged to score at even strength, could use help filling the net — as could the vast majority of the two dozen or so teams that went into the weekend believing they have a shot at the Stanley Cup.
This is a different situation for Sweeney, particularly compared with the last three deadlines when his Bruins were, in fact, bona fide contenders. He added critical pieces up front each time and was at his best in ’19 when picking off Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson. Both played key roles in a thrilling run that proved to be 15/16th′s successful.
This time around, the Bruins are even more desperate for scoring and their back end, where they felt Zdeno Chara could be but a late-inning mop-up artist, is riddled with holes, particularly on the left side that Big Z patrolled.
As the weekend approached, the Bruins looked spent, were without traction, by far the worst they’ve looked and produced in Bruce Cassidy’s four-year tenure behind the bench. From a spectator’s standpoint, the product has been a painful watch, a sad irony given that TD Garden finally opened up to fans just as the product sent them running for the exits.
The ’21 Bruins are not a serious contender, and picking up, say, the equivalent of last year’s gets — Ondrej Kase and Nick Ritchie — won’t make the difference. Some of that is age, some of it injury, some of it lack of NHL-ready kids hustled into the lineup, and some of it, understandably, outright fatigue. After Saturday’s matinee with the visiting Penguins, the embattled Bruins still had 22 games to play over the next 40 days. And then . . . right into the playoffs, after maybe a 48-hour rest. Bundle that all up — lack of traction, injury, fatigue, too many WannaBs — and it’s not a case for fixing by adding a body or two over the next week. Not unless the fix is, say, Connor McDavid or Victor Hedman.
True, the picture could improve to some degree if, or once, Tuukka Rask and Jake DeBrusk and maybe Kase return and provide a late kick. The same is true for Sean Kuraly, who had a hope of returning this weekend after his two-week COVID-19 pause. But given their time away, and time needed to build back, and the intensity of play at this time of year, it feels more like a kick too far, or too late.
In his five prior deadlines at the stick, Sweeney made 10 deals, eight of those to acquire forwards. Two of those, Kase and Ritchie, arrived last February, only to see the NHL close up shop in March for the better part of five months.
A year-plus later, the injured Kase remains an unknown commodity (19 games/5 assists, including his time in the playoff bubble), and is perhaps damaged beyond repair. Ritchie’s main value appears to be as a net-front doorman, best fitted to provide some touch on power-play duty. He entered weekend play with 10 goals, half on the man-advantage.
What we know for sure is that the ’21 Bruins don’t score enough. They have been particularly challenged five on five, and their power play, among the league’s most robust the opening weeks, has been extraordinarily ordinary since mid-February, even with David Pastrnak aboard as one of the game’s premier trigger men.
Indicative of their five-on-five issues: Pastrnak, as the weekend approached, had scored only five times since Feb. 25 (17 games) and only two of those were at even strength. He needs to deliver more. Same as the other 11 forwards who dress each night, but it’s all the more glaring because of his profile as one of the game’s elite scorers.
The offense, as plotted in the summer in the wake of the Kase-Ritchie deals, had David Krejci centering DeBrusk and Kase. That never materialized. Kase exited early in the second game of the season and DeBrusk has been in and out of the lineup, and often has struggled when he has played.
Sweeney might opt to hope DeBrusk, Kuraly, and Kase will be enough up front and focus instead on the back end, where his past deadline deals added only John-Michael Liles (‘16) and Nick Holden (’18). Both were spare parts. The need this time is greater, a D-man who can play in the top four and log 20 minutes a night.
The best back-line body believed to be in play is Mattias Ekholm, but that rumor dates to when everyone felt Nashville wouldn’t make the playoff cut. As of Friday, the Predators owned the No. 4 spot in the Central. A left-shot D-man, Ekholm still has a year to go at a $3.75 million cap hit. If the Predators were shopping, he’d be precisely the guy the Bruins would be trying to acquire. Meanwhile, if he is moved, it’s likely for the standard package of player, pick, and prospect — not an asset package the Bruins can afford.
One week to go, folks, and Sweeney is in a weird predicament: His team not good enough to think a bold deadline play can make a difference, and its play of late so uninspiring that it could finish a postseason DNQ for the first time since 2016, when pickups Lee Stempniak and Liles didn’t prove the difference.
Don Sweeney’s deadline trades
2016 — Hurricanes defenseman John-Michael Liles for Anthony Camara, 2016 third-round pick and 2017 fifth-round pick.
2016 — Devils forward Lee Stempniak for 2016 fourth-round pick and 2017 second-round pick.
2017 — Jets forward Drew Stafford for 2017 sixth-round pick.
2018 — Rangers forward Rick Nash for Ryan Lindgren, Ryan Spooner, Matt Beleskey, 2018 first-round pick, and 2019 seventh-round pick.
2018 — Rangers defenseman Nick Holden for Rob O’Gara and 2018 third-round pick.
2018 — Blackhawks forward Tommy Wingels for 2019 fifth-round pick.
2019 — Wild forward Charlie Coyle for Ryan Donato and 2019 fifth-round pick.
2019 — Devils forward Marcus Johansson for 2019 second-round pick and 2020 fourth-round pick.
2020 — Ducks forward Ondrej Kase for Axel Andersson, David Backes, and 2020 first-round pick.
2020 — Ducks forward Nick Ritchie for Danton Heinen.
Appreciating the golden moments
USA Hockey on Wednesday named Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman and Wild GM Bill Guerin to build Uncle Sam’s squad for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. Bowman was named GM and Guerin, the ex-Bruins winger, his assistant.
Guerin, who grew up in Wilbraham, recalled that he was a 9-year-old, watching TV in the family room, when the Yanks won their 1980 gold medal at Lake Placid. Bowman was only 5, and watched, he said, while sitting on his grandma’s lap.
“I didn’t realize how big of a moment it was,” recalled Guerin, now 50, and ably steering the Wild back toward the playoffs. “But I did understand that the US won and it was huge, and it really lit a fire in me to want to do that someday, if there was ever chance I could play in the Olympics.”
Guerin, who was picked No. 5 overall by the Devils in 1989, was a sophomore at Boston College when Lou Lamoriello called him at The Heights. The Devils GM wanted to know, if he had his pick, would Guerin want to report to the Devils the following season or sign on first to play with the Yanks at the ’92 Games in Albertville, France.
“I told him I’d wait and play in the Olympics,” said Guerin. “Because it was always such a goal of mine and something I felt passionately about — I was just lucky enough to be in a couple of them. That Miracle on Ice [in ’80] just lit a fire under me.”
Guerin suited up for the Yanks in ’92, and then, years later as an established NHLer, at the Games in Salt Lake City ’02 and Torino ’06. It’s not always the biggest games, he said, that stand out as vivid memories, recalling the joy of just being in the dining hall, intermingling with athletes from all over the world — some of whom knew they had no shot at a medal, but were there eager to compete as their country’s best.
“You know, they’re a downhill skier from a country that doesn’t have it as a traditional sport, or something like that,” he said. “Everybody just goes, it’s a great venue for that, and it just brings you back to why you play sports. It’s just a really, really unique experience.”
In ’02, Guerin was a member of the US team that faced Canada for the gold medal at Salt Lake.
“Before warm-ups,” he remembered, “you could hear people chanting, ‘USA! USA!’ while we were putting our skates on — that was an amazing feeling and something I’ll never forget.”
If the NHL, IOC, and IIHF don’t all get on the same page in the next few months, the 2022 Winter Games will be the second straight without NHL players. If so, both Bowman and Guerin likely will shift to support roles, with USA Hockey charged to shape a roster of amateurs and minor pros.
In part, the unresolved issues is why Bowman said Wednesday that naming a coaching staff is not imminent. The Yanks want to have a staff headed by an NHL coach, likely with NHL assistants, and none of those coaches would be available if the top pros aren’t going to Beijing.
The USA roster, with NHLers aboard, stands to be its best in history, with first-timers aboard such as Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, and Charlie McAvoy. Then the issue, reminded Guerin, becomes some elite players having to adjust to lesser roles, often with lesser ice time. All for the cause.
“There definitely has to be a buy-in factor,” he said. “The one tricky thing is, everyone that’s going to be on this team is going to be a star on their current NHL team. And you have to assume roles, and it’s our job and the coaches’ job to keep everyone happy and make sure there is great buy-in.”
Plugged in to Bruins’ lack of energy
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, his squad desperate to regain a foothold in the NHL East standings, noted in recent days how much an energy line can change the tenor of how an entire team plays.
A little crash-and-bang moxie can go a long way. To that end, said Cassidy, it typically takes more than one guy on the line to bang the cymbals.
“I think you’ve got to get the other two guys [on a line] to say, for instance if you’re the left winger, ‘Throw it in the right D’s corner and I’m gonna go get a hit here and then you follow me in, and let’s just make sure we have a good high forward,’ ” said Cassidy. “Yes, they should be discussing it and then feed off each other.”
The last line here to do that effectively, game in and game out, was the Tim Schaller-Sean Kuraly-Noel Acciari trio, a.k.a. the Trench Connection. Kuraly, if he can build back to full strength after his protracted COVID-19 pause, could lead that attack again but needs wingers with the same ethos.
Chris Wagner, a scratch of late, can play with that jam. So, too, can Trent Frederic and perhaps Karson Kuhlman. It takes more than a single grind line to shake a funk like the Bruins have been in, but it can be a place to start. Also, if the trade market isn’t offering options with better pedigree, a player with requisite gumption could be someone GM Don Sweeney targets this coming week
One of Bobby Schmautz’s last twirls with the Bruins was their first stop ever in Quebec City, Nov. 20, 1979, a night hyped more than usual because Robbie Ftorek, ex-Needham High star, was in the Nordiques’ lineup. Come game’s end, Schmautz had a deep 20-stitch gash carved through his upper lip, compliments of Ftorek’s stick. Postgame, an irate Schmautzie had his patented googly glare going as he carped to the media: “Cheap shot to the mouth!” he declared. The inimitable Schmautz, who helped the Bruins make it to three Cup Finals across seven seasons, died last Sunday at his home in Arizona. He was 76. Some two weeks after the game in Quebec City, GM Harry Sinden sent the crafty right winger to the Oilers, who later that season shipped him to Don Cherry’s Colorado Rockies . . . The Flyers this past week found no takers when they placed ex-Union College defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere on waivers. He has never been a defensive stalwart, but “Ghost” has produced points (65 in 2017-18, ranking No. 4 among all defensemen). The return of soft goaltending on Broad Street this year only accentuated his back-line deficiencies. His price (two more years at $4.5 million cap hit) make him a tough move. He’ll turn 28 later this month. If he can find the right fit for a coach, and join a deep enough D corps, he could be an asset. Otherwise, he looks like a July buyout and a return to the NHL next season on a minimum deal or a makeover tour in Europe . . . Ex-Bruins prospect Ryan Donato has perked up slightly in San Jose (35 games/18 points) but still isn’t delivering as projected. Lately he has been skating left wing on a trio with fellow Yanks Dylan Gambrell and John Leonard, the ex-UMass Minuteman. Donato, who turns 25 April 9, is on an expiring RFA deal that carries a $1.9 million cap . . . No telling how COVID-19 could alter the schedule, but Milan Lucic is on track to play his 1,000th game next weekend, with his Flames taking on his hometown Vancouver Canucks. Looch was among the first moves Sweeney made as GM, shipping him to Los Angeles in June 2015. His offensive output now minuscule, Lucic has two more years remaining with a $6 million cap hit. The Oilers contribute $750,000 each year to the cause . . . Wednesday was a heck of a day to be an ex-BC goalie. Within hours of each other, Thatcher Demko accepted a five-year/$25 million extension with the Canucks, and Spencer Knight inked a rookie deal with Florida that could bring him $7.5 million over three years, albeit with less than $500,000 of it guaranteed. Demko left The Heights in 2016 after his junior year. Knight, the 13th pick in the 2019 draft, is departing Yorkville after two seasons.