Their COVID-19 issues seemingly behind them (fingers, masks, and test kits crossed) and a roster free of significant injuries, the Bruins arrived in San Jose, Calif., Friday night “as healthy as we’ve been all year” in the words of coach Bruce Cassidy.
Now, with only three weeks to go before the NHL’s March 21 trade deadline, the question remains if that lineup full of good health is enough to be a strong Stanley Cup contender.
Answer: Probably not.
Which is also to say the Bruins are a lot like every other team not based in Florida. Nitpicks aside, from here it looks like the Panthers and Lightning have the best shot at winning, along with maybe the Avalanche.
It would be easier to get excited about the Avalanche if they, like the Sharks so often did in the Joe Thornton-Patrick Marleau era, didn’t so often fall short of expectations in recent years. True, past record doesn’t predict future performance, but tell that to Sharks fans, who this spring might see Jumbo Joe finally hoist the Cup, as an extra with the Panthers.
The Bruins still look vulnerable at defense, particularly the left side, where there remains the question of who best to partner with franchise No. 1 Charlie McAvoy. The six-game trip, with stop No. 2 in San Jose on Saturday night, started with Mike Reilly as McAvoy’s running mate.
Reilly, acquired prior to last year’s deadline, has shown flashes, some of the those earning him a night or two in the press box. He’s simply not a top-pairing D-man, and trying to find one typically is an exercise best performed in the summer free agent market rather than with the clock ticking down to 3 p.m. on deadline day.
Of all the names being bandied about in recent weeks, the best back line fixes allegedly up for grabs look like the Coyotes’ Jakob Chychrun (a left shot) and the Stars’ John Klingberg (right shot). Both fit easily into most any team’s top four, and the 6-foot-2 inch, 220-pound Chychrun could be an ideal partner with McAvoy.
Chychrun, about to turn 24, is young, solid, and all the more attractive because of his contract status (three more years at a reasonable $4.6 million cap hit). His production has been modest amid yet another dreadful Coyotes season, but he logged a career best 18-23—41 with them last season.
This deadline hunt for a left-shot D-man should sound familiar. Then-general manager Peter Chiarelli, convinced he needed more on the back end in the spring of 2011, landed veteran Tomas Kaberle from Toronto for the Cup push. The general thinking (hand up here) was that Kaberle would really juice up the power play, along with providing steady minutes to bolster the top four, relieve pressure on team captain Zdeno Chara on the No. 1 pairing.
Well, shazam, the Bruins won the Cup but did so despite the boo-boo-prone Kaberle, though he at least chipped in 11 assists in 25 playoff games.
The Bruins gladly let Kaberle walk a couple of weeks later in free agency, the Hurricanes quick to hand him a three-year deal with a $4.25 millions cap hit. After only 29 games, the Hurricanes were equally eager to unload him on Montreal, where he played his final 53 NHL games before the Canadiens bought out the final year of his deal in June 2013, just 24 months after his name was chiseled into the Cup with the Bruins.
The price tag to acquire Kaberle was high: ex-Bruins first-rounder Joe Colborne and the No. 30 pick in the 2011 draft, later flipped from the Maple Leafs to the Ducks, who chose speedy Swedish winger Rickard Rakell (rumored on the trade block now). All for a 33-year-old has-been that was Kaberle.
The price will be at least that to acquire Chychrun. Perhaps GM Don Sweeney could persuade the Coyotes to take a flier on Jake DeBrusk — the odds are better now than a week ago — but it will take more, in large part because of Chychrun’s age and the term remaining on his deal. The Coyotes could target top defense prospect Mason Lohrei (Ohio State’s No. 2 scorer this season) or, say, Brandon Carlo, extremely attractive because he has five years left on his deal with a $4.1 million cap hit.
Klingberg is a proven offensive standout but older (to turn 30 over the summer) and a right shot. He wouldn’t be the easy plug-in like Chychrun and has no term left on his deal. Whatever Sweeney were to give up, there’s the risk that Klingberg would walk away in July.
Unlike most years, the Bruins do not have to bolster their secondary scoring. The more scorers the better, of course, but with David Pastrnak shifted away from Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, it’s an offense with enough balance and depth to compete for the Cup. They’ll score. The question remains, can the back line keep goals off the scoreboard?
A LOT GOING ON
Playoff time in Russia’s KHL
Amid a shaken Europe, the Russian-based KHL will open its playoffs Tuesday, after deciding prior to Olympic play that continuing its regular season would push the playoffs out too late, in turn denying many of its players from honoring commitments to various national teams for World Championship play.
The KHL’s first-round Gagarin Cup matchups in the East include No. 4 Ak Bars Kazan facing No. 5 Avangard Omsk.
Ex-Bruins defenseman Steven Kampfer, who suited up for the United States at the Beijing Games, led Ak Bars defensemen in scoring this season with 11-19—30 in 46 games.
Avangard’s Peter Cehlarik, once a promising Bruins prospect, scored the shootout winner for Slovakia that bumped the United States out of the Games — and led to a bronze medal, Slovakia’s first time on the Olympic podium.
Look for a number of NHL teams to ink late-in-the-season deals with KHL players in the coming weeks. Some of those KHLers might be conflicted whether to sign here or follow their path to the Worlds, but they also must consider that some of those jobs on the international stage will be offered to players on the 24 NHL rosters who will be out of the playoffs by the time the Worlds begin May 13 in Finland (Tampere and Helsinki).
On Thursday, in the immediate aftermath of Vladimir Putin’s military forces invading Ukraine, KHL Jokerit, based in Finland, opted out of Gagarin play. Finland and Russia have, let’s say, a complicated history. Jokerit, the No. 2 seed in the KHL West, was to play Moscow-based Spartak in Round 1.
Ex-Oilers great, and Hockey Hall of Famer, Jari Kurri is chairman of Jokerit’s board of directors. “In accordance with the rules of the KHL, we had a dialogue and were able to announce the decision just now,” said Kurri in a release. “The world is in a very difficult situation. We sympathize with those who are suffering under the circumstances. We hope that a solution will be found soon.”
Bravo, Jokerit. As the weekend approached, word around Helsinki was that Jokerit may opt out of the KHL completely for next season and return to the Finnish Elite League. The club entered KHL play in 2014.
Taking a chance on Friars’ Callahan
Providence Friars blue liner Mike Callahan, his rights acquired last week by the Bruins in a swap with the Coyotes, technically can sign anywhere in the NHL as a free agent this August now that he’s about to finish his fourth NCAA season.
But the Bruins made the deal — yielding only a seventh-round pick in the 2024 draft — with the firm belief they can sign him soon after the Friars wrap their season. Despite Callahan originally being a fifth-round pick, the Bruins now view the 6-2, 205-pounder as a bona-fide NHL prospect rather than, say, a late-round project.
“He’s played a big role in a really good school,” said GM Don Sweeney, lauding a program in which Callahan has filled a captain’s role for three years. “They’re highly competitive and he’s been a part of that process. It’s never linear, in terms of where a guy’s picked — it can depend how big they are, their growth. I think we had good familiarity with him and took a chance.”
Callahan, from Franklin (home of Peter Laviolette, once a 6-2, 205-pound blue line prospect), played four seasons at Roxbury Latin and two USHL seasons prior to joining Providence.
He delivered a career best 5-23—28 in his sophomore season and entered weekend play 3-11—14 this season.
“A really good two-way player,” said Sweeney. “Heady. He plays second-unit power play, primarily penalty killing, has length in his transition game. Overall, he’s smart, a leader as a captain . . . probably a little bit in the style of [Urho] Vaakanainen in that sense, a two-way guy that can move pucks, and we’ll see where we go. He’s excited about the development part of it.”
A blue line comparable to keep in mind here: Pittsburgh’s John Marino, from North Easton. He signed with the Penguins after his third season (2018-19) at Harvard, but only after the Oilers swapped his rights. Originally a sixth-round pick (No. 154), Marino transitioned directly to the Penguins lineup out of their September 2019 training camp and now, in his third NHL season, is logging nearly 21 minutes a night on a talented back line.
Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy was head coach at AHL Providence when Torey Krug reported there as a 21-year-old, signing with Boston as a free agent after three seasons at Michigan State. Callahan will be 23 in September.
“What Torey had was a confidence in himself,” recalled Cassidy, who had Krug for 63 games before shipping him to Boston for the playoffs. “I don’t want to say overconfidence, but I don’t think he knew how difficult it is to play in the American Hockey League. He figured that out. He came to realize, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get going down here before I go to the next step.’ And he did, because he has the skill level, the determination, all those things.”
College players in general, noted Cassidy, arrive in their early or sometimes mid-20s. The maturity factor typically gives them an edge over, say, a player 2-3 years younger, fresh from junior hockey.
“They’re further along, physically, so maybe the time marinating, so to speak, in the AHL doesn’t have to be as long,” Cassidy said.
Boldy making an early statement
Yet another local lad, the Wild’s Matt Boldy (Milford), is the rare NHL rookie delivering at nearly a point-per-game pace, albeit after not making his debut until Jan. 6 in Boston.
The ex-Boston College left winger entered weekend play with a 8-8—16 line in 17 games, a 0.94 points-per-game pace that ranked him third on the Wild, behind only superstar sophomore Kirill Kaprizov (1.32) and Mats Zuccarello (1.27).
Dean Evason, in his second season as the Wild bench boss, partnered Boldy right from the start with Kevin Fiala and Frederick Gaudreau, and the trio has remained intact.
Boldy packed up last spring after two seasons at BC and signed a two-year, entry-level deal (average $881,000), one that now has him poised for huge pay raise as an RFA next summer. He picked up his first hat trick Feb. 14 in a 7-4 smackdown of the Red Wings.
Ovechkin a man of few words
Reporters on the Capitals beat Thursday morning requested to talk to Alex Ovechkin, who for years has been an unabashed Vladimir Putin booster, but the great Ovie remained silent.
Reporters were left with the impression that Ovechkin eventually would have something to say to the North American press. His family, including parents, wife, and children, were in Russia at the time the Russian dictator ordered his “military action.”
“My guess,” tweeted The Athletic’s Tarik El-Bashir, a veteran on the Capitals beat, “is that he wants to be concise when he speaks.”
No doubt. What’s Russian for “Whoops, guess I backed the wrong horse?”
Ovechkin did indeed address the media Friday, and he was careful to make only a passing reference to Putin, referring to him only as “my president.” Otherwise, he termed the turmoil as a “hard situation” that is “not in my hands.”
“I hope soon it’s going to be over,” he added, “and it’s going to be peace in the whole world.”
All in all, not the slightest repudiation of Putin or his dictatorial ways.
One year ago Sunday the Bruins plucked Jarred Tinordi off waivers from Nashville. Let that serve as the annual reminder, as the March 21 trade deadline approaches, that it’s impossible to have too many defensemen tucked away in the warehouse come playoff time. Currently with AHL Hartford, Tinordi signed a two-year UFA deal ($900,000 guarantee) with the Rangers in the offseason . . . Sad news for Russian-born left winger Rodion Amirov, Toronto’s top pick (No. 15) in the 2020 draft, diagnosed recently with a brain tumor. Playing his third season with KHL Salavat Yulaev, Amirov is undergoing treatment in Germany, where he continues to skate 2-3 times a week and keep up his conditioning. He spent time with the Maple Leafs late last season as a taxi-squadder . . . Ex-BC pivot Colin White, sidelined all season after banging up a shoulder in preseason play, was finally headed back into the Senators’ lineup Saturday night. White has yet to be a prolific scorer in the NHL, but his experience in the middle might have helped stabilize a young offense and made the Senators more of a threat this season. White, who required shoulder surgery after a collision with Toronto center David Kampf, had the procedure performed by Massachusetts General Hospital surgeon Tom Holovacs . . . Ex-Bruins captain Zdeno Chara on Thursday night logged career game No. 1,652, the most by any NHL defenseman, eclipsing the mark held by Chris Chelios. It also momentarily tied Big Z with fellow ex-Bruin Mark Recchi at No. 7 on the all-time list. Chara rarely gets challenged anymore, but he threw down in career bout No. 76 Thursday with Sharks winger Jeffrey Viel, who was born Jan. 28, 1997, less than 10 months before Chara made his NHL debut with the Islanders. Viel, by the way, played his junior hockey at Acadie-Bathurst, where Patrice Bergeron also played . . . The Senators have been goal-starved for much of February. In one three-game stretch, they suffered back-to-back shutouts vs. the Penguins and Bruins, and followed with a 4-1 loss to the Capitals . . . Your faithful puck chronicler had a short rideshare jaunt in Seattle with an Albanian-born driver at the wheel. “Been here eight years,” he said, noting he lived his first three years in Queens, N.Y., before moving to Seattle. “Like it better in Seattle, but both good places. I love America, best country in the world.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.