The Bruins went out and filled some empty boots late Sunday night. Taylor Hall. Curtis Lazar. Mike Reilly.
They may or may not be the best three guys to suit his club’s needs right now, but give general manager Don Sweeney credit. His shopping list going into the weekend read: 1. Top six forward. 2. Bottom six forward. 3. Second- or third-pairing defenseman.
In a very crowded, fast-moving, pressurized NHL marketplace, Sweeney delivered. He grabbed what he could, addressed the roster holes, paid a modest price — Anders Bjork and a couple of draft picks — and at least put his team on sounder footing than where it stood after it got the vulcanized rubber kicked out it, 8-1, Sunday night by the Capitals.
All of this, with 17 games left to play in the regular season, must be tagged with an asterisk. Though prudent pickups, none of these three is the equivalent of Sweeney landing Rick Nash, the biggest catch at the time, at the deadline in 2018.
Had it not been for the concussion Nash sustained just days after arriving, which ultimately delivered him to retirement, the big right winger might have lifted the Bruins all the way to a Cup title. They came within one win a year later, with Nash by then parked in a front porch rocker, cutting coupons and his abundant blessings of good health.
Of Sweeney’s three weekend additions, Hall certainly has the game, speed, and pedigree to deliver the biggest payoff. At age 29, he is 11 years removed from being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and only three removed from being named the NHL MVP for his 2017-18 season (39-54—93) with the Devils.
An interesting note about that MVP season: the 6-foot-1, 205-pound left winger, under the tutelage of John Hynes (now bench boss in Nashville), for the first time in his career was positioned as the half-wall disher on the power play. His confidence grew, and he, along with a man-advantage that included the likes of Kyle Palmieri, Nico Hischier, and Jesper Bratt helped the Devils become a surprising playoff entry.
“A great year … the stars aligned … I was the focal point of a power play that did really well,” Hall recalled Monday, a tone of experience and frustration evident in voice. “We really seemed to jell together and the stars aligned — our team started off 11-1, or something along those lines. We were able to build confidence and just ride it from there.”
But as Hall quickly noted in his late-morning zoom presser, that’s not the kind of juice coursing through his veins right now. Three seasons later, across 135 games, he has tallied 108 points with three different clubs (New Jersey, Arizona, and Buffalo). His three-month stay with the Sabres this season was absolutely abysmal (2-17—19 and -21 in 37 games).
Hall is healthy, so he does not arrive as damaged goods (see: Al Iafrate), but he clearly has a near-shattered ego, which can be a tough recovery for a player counted on to deliver points, especially if the Bruins find themselves in a dogfight for the No. 4 spot in the NHL East.
“Unfortunately right now, I’m not the most confident hockey player,” he said. “Throughout this year there has been a lot of struggles, and obviously goal scoring has been probably the biggest one. I’ve got to find a little bit of that part of my game back. I don’t think it’s completely lost, or anything like that … but I’m not expecting to come to Boston and score 93 points again. I want to be part of a winning team ….
“…. I still believe a lot in myself as a hockey player — I still believe I have a lot of athleticism and a lot of speed and I hope I can add to the team with those traits.”
Lazar, who was in Buffalo with Hall, is a bit of an unproven Chris Kelly, someone who, in theory, can provide a boost at center or wing on the bottom six, play higher up in the lineup in a pinch. Kelly, far more accomplished when he arrived here from Ottawa in Feb. 2011, perfected that role and was a big part of the Bruins winning the Cup four months later.
Lazar has some moxie in his game, some good trouble, and the sleepy bottom six needs that bit of feistiness right now.
“I pride myself in taking the body,” said Lazar, who could be facing his ex-Sabres teammates a handful of times before season’s end. “I wish that team all the best. They have a very bright future … saying that, I look forward to sticking it to ‘em.”
Reilly arrives amid a cold and broken mess on the Bruins back line. Injured regulars Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and Matt Grzelcyk all were missing Sunday night, along with Kevan Miller, who needed rest for his surgically-repaired kneecap. Coach Bruce Cassidy went with six guys from Blueline Holdings Account Temps against the Capitals and the results were as expected.
Reilly has played 244 NHL games, 90 for the Canadiens (“I loved those games with Boston”), and should deliver upward of 20 dependable minutes and help move the puck. He can also stand up straight and take fluids right now, which is the first step for the ailing defense corps. He will be the 13th defenseman to suit up for the Bruins this season.
“He’s been in an elevated role with Ottawa,” noted Sweeney. “And there’s been growth in his game — both in a competitive standpoint and also overall in matching and playing against higher-level opponents that he saw in Montreal.”
All three players, noted Sweeney, were motivated enough to jump in cars and drive to Boston Monday — roughly 450-mile treks from Buffalo and Ottawa. The GM appreciated their enthusiasm. Hall and Reilly are expected to play Tuesday vs. the Sabres, while Lazar might need a couple of days to get over a niggling injury.
So, gentlemen, start your engines. It has been a rough ride here for the last couple of months. No one reasonably can expect you to make all the difference, but you were the best fits at a modest price at a crucial time. Let’s see what you can do.