When next we see the Bruins, facing off against the Capitals Feb. 11 at TD Garden, the March 3 NHL trade deadline will be only a touch under three weeks away.
If general manager Don Sweeney is in a shopping mood — likely so, given his history, including last year’s acquisition of defenseman Hampus Lindholm — then the No. 1 target could be adding some toughness to the backline.
Amid the bountiful success this season, including their league-best mark of 39-7-5, it has been easy to forget that the Bruins still haven’t found a replacement for Kevan Miller’s snake-in-the-boot blend of snarl and grit behind the blue line.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a concern,” team president Cam Neely said on Wednesday while watching his club’s morning workout in Toronto. “It’s more, like, what do we feel we need to help us advance … four [playoff] rounds, potentially seven games a round, you want to plan for anything that can happen, right?”
Had Miller’s equal been in the lineup last May, the Hurricanes might have expected a rough ride around the rink after Andrei Svechnikov delivered the hit that sent Lindholm to Palookaville in Game 2. Which isn’t to say that the Bruins would have been guaranteed safe passage into Round 2, but some of that patented Miller-like pushback might at least have provided a spark that was woefully absent for the Bruins in all four games they played (and lost) at Carolina.
“It would be a nice element to have,” noted Neely, “but we’re not saying we absolutely have to have it.”
Over the 51 games with Jim Montgomery in charge of the bench, it appears the Bruins thus far have solved the scoring issue that cropped up yet again in last year’s playoffs. The bugaboo then, as in years past, was the Black and Gold’s inability to establish inside ice in the offensive zone, to wring out that tough goal. Their Grade A scoring chances were few, their finishes even fewer.
Montgomery, in charge of the Atlantic Division bench this weekend at the All-Star festivities in Sunrise, Fla., has teased out scoring from all over the ice, including, of late, the defensemen. Derek Forbort and Brandon Carlo added to the blue liners’ success Wednesday night, each contributing a goal in the 5-2 win over the Maple Leafs. Strictly from a goal-scoring standpoint, it’s the most confident the Bruins have been with the puck in the half-century that has passed since the Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins days. These Bruins might not score at will or in the same bushel basket abundance as Phil Esposito, John Bucyk, Orr, et al. of long ago, but they have scored more than any other team in the Original 32, while also allowing the fewest goals.
They hit the break with a plus-82 goal differential, vastly outdistancing the Stars, who are the runners-up at plus-41.
“We have to get better,” Montgomery said as the club packed up in Toronto. “And I know we will get better because of the professionalism and the work ethic that’s in that locker room.”
That said, every club can use more scoring, and Sweeney might consider adding some pop off the wing. The hottest rumor headed into the break had Sweeney kicking tires on speedy Red Wings center Dylan Larkin, who is on target to be an unrestricted free agent in July (similar to David Pastrnak).
With Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci still in residence as centers 1 and 1A, Larkin, if brought aboard, would slot in as a left-shooting wing. His presence would knock Craig Smith permanently out of the top six.
Larkin will turn 27 in July. Like Bo Horvat, the center recently dished from Vancouver to the Islanders, he’d be an ideal long-term signing, positioned to move into vacancies created one day soon by Bergeron and Krejci. The return for Detroit? A package that most likely would include Jake DeBrusk, due back in the lineup from injury when the Bruins return against the Capitals.
Sweeney then would be left to weigh the inherent risk of messing with a winning team’s chemistry. He didn’t have that concern a year ago, ahead of the Lindholm acquisition. It was clear the back end, still getting over the loss of Torey Krug to the Blues, desperately needed a top-four upgrade.
It’s not clear this time that his Bruins need a top-six forward, simply because goal scoring has been so plentiful, but Sweeney could be enticed if it were to mean landing a scorer who can help now and also serve as a prime piece in the life-after-Bergeron-and-Krejci jigsaw puzzle.
There is also a sleeper to consider: Ohio State defenseman Mason Lohrei. He soon will wrap up his sophomore season. Neely noted this week, when asked if he felt Lohrei’s game was NHL-ready, said he felt the prospect first would need some time with AHL Providence.
Sound familiar? In 2017, a 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy wrapped up his sophomore season at BU, turned pro with Providence, then graduated after four AHL games to the Bruins varsity for the start of that year’s playoffs.
Lohrei, who turned 22 in January, is big (6 feet 4 inches, 210 pounds) and likes to jump into the play — he’s the No. 3 scorer for the Buckeyes this season with a line of 1-19–20. He wouldn’t fill that Miller void for grit and swagger, but Lohrei could add even more of an offensive dynamic than we’ve seen back there of late.
Maybe another Miller isn’t the answer. Maybe this is the year when more scoring puts an end to the questions.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.