Peter Chiarelli did not trade his first-round pick. The only roster player the Bruins general manager moved Monday was Jordan Caron, who was a healthy scratch for 20 games while dressing for 11. Chiarelli acquired Brett Connolly, a 22-year-old right wing who will be under the organization’s control for three more seasons after this one.
Chiarelli did not dismiss any core players. He refrained from major surgery on the roster. Chiarelli did not act like an executive desperate to remain employed.
This means one thing: Chiarelli and his colleagues in hockey operations believe the Bruins can make a run if they qualify for the playoffs.
“They’ve been through a lot of adversity,” Chiarelli said of his group. “I think the young players have grown. They’ll still make mistakes, but they’ve grown and will continue to grow. I think we’re a good team.”
Chiarelli entered the trade-deadline period with his job on the line. Nothing has changed. He’s out, along with coach Claude Julien, if the team he built does not play beyond Game No. 82. They could be seeking work even if the Bruins make it in and stumble early.
Chiarelli didn’t enter the deadline in a position of strength. The Bruins are up against the cap. They didn’t have as many trade chips as other teams.
A GM with second thoughts, both about his lineup and his employment, would not have hesitated to sacrifice his first-rounder. Chiarelli chased Antoine Vermette, one of his former players in Ottawa. But he retreated when Arizona counterpart Don Maloney demanded a first-rounder.
Chicago traded its first-round pick to land Vermette. There were other teams that parted with their firsts: Tampa Bay (to Philadelphia for Braydon Coburn), the Rangers (their 2016 first-rounder to Arizona for Keith Yandle), Los Angeles (to Carolina for Andrej Sekera), and Nashville (to Toronto for Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli).
Chiarelli plans to climb onto the podium in June at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., to announce the first-round pick he refused to let go. That’s because he doesn’t believe he’s built a team that will be golfing next month.
Chiarelli thinks Connolly will become a top-six wing, just as the Lightning believed when they drafted him sixth overall in 2010. Connolly has a higher offensive ceiling than Vermette, Chris Stewart, and Erik Cole, the older and less gifted rental alternatives.
The 6-foot-2-inch, 181-pounder isn’t a rough-and-tumble right wing like Jarome Iginla. He doesn’t skate like the Road Runner. He is more like Bobby Ryan and Justin Williams. He’s a smart, slippery player who scores off his quick release more than puck-pounding rawness and by finding soft spots in defensive coverage.
Connolly has 18 career NHL goals. Twelve of them have come in 2014-15, which has been a breakout season for the fourth-year pro. Connolly has most recently skated on Tampa’s third line with Valtteri Filppula and Cedric Paquette. He played just 11:21 in Tampa’s 4-3 loss to Florida Sunday. He will get more than that in Boston.
“I see a top-six forward,” Chiarelli said. “If you look at all his goals, he’s a shooter first. He’s a net-front guy. He’ll go to get goals at the top of the blue. He’s a rangy guy. He makes plays, but he’s a shoot-first guy. I really like his release. He’s young and he’s growing. He’s going to be a top-six player.”
Most teams don’t let good young players like Connolly get away. But the Lightning have drafted well. Nikita Kucherov (23-31—54), Tampa’s second-round pick in 2011, climbed over Connolly on the depth chart. With Connolly set to be a restricted free agent after this season, the Lightning could afford to let him go for futures.
Connolly will take the pressure off David Pastrnak, the 18-year-old pushed into a top-six role. Connolly is skilled enough to ride with David Krejci when the center returns from a partial MCL tear in his left knee.
The question is whether Connolly and Max Talbot, the return from Colorado for Caron, will be enough to keep the puck from going the wrong way. The Bruins’ defensive belt, down Johnny Boychuk and Kevan Miller, remains unbuckled. They are only a few injuries away from having their pants fall down.
Chiarelli didn’t move any picks or prospects, such as Malcolm Subban or Matt Grzelcyk, for blue-line help. This was risky. Their immediate reinforcements are Zach Trotman, Joe Morrow, and David Warsofsky. None of them qualifies as reassuring. It is unknown whether Dennis Seidenberg will find his game.
“It’s no revelation that our D, by losing Boychuk and losing Miller, our D is not the same as what it was,” Chiarelli said. “Having said that, it gives these other guys an opportunity to play. We felt that’s the direction we should go in.”
The Bruins knew that upgrading the defense would be difficult at the deadline. This is a hard system for newbies to grasp. Andrej Meszaros, Corey Potter, Wade Redden, Greg Zanon, Mike Mottau, and Tomas Kaberle learned this the hard way.
Chiarelli believes that things change in the playoffs. Experience matters. So does goaltending. The Bruins have both. Those qualities, along with luck, can override defensive shortcomings that play out in a sample size as large as the regular season.
The blue line will be easier to address in the offseason. It will be one of many pieces of business. Connolly’s acquisition could expand the trade market to include Loui Eriksson, who has one year remaining on his deal at $4.25 million annually.
Trading Eriksson could be one of several offseason moves. Connolly will need a new contract. So will Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, and Reilly Smith.
Chiarelli intends to conduct this business. That’s because he’s confident in his group.