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Bruins facing a critical decision with Loui Eriksson

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This is Loui Eriksson’s last shot at a big contract — will the Bruins pay up?
This is Loui Eriksson’s last shot at a big contract — will the Bruins pay up?USA Today Sports

Many teams would like to acquire Loui Eriksson. The Wild, more than others, would like to nab Eriksson, according to one general manager.

Minnesota was in on Ryan Johansen before the Blue Jackets sent the center to Nashville for Seth Jones. The Wild are one of the teams considering Tampa Bay's Jonathan Drouin.

Nashville paid a high cost for landing Johansen. Drouin's suitor will be in the same category. The price would not be as high for Eriksson because of his pending unrestricted status.

Eriksson can create offense, which is something the Wild (averaging 2.49 goals through 47 games, No. 19 in the NHL) need in bunches. Whether Eriksson will be available for the Wild and other teams remains in question.

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The Bruins have other UFAs-to-be, such as Kevan Miller and Max Talbot. Torey Krug, Brett Connolly, Zach Trotman, Colin Miller, Joe Morrow, and Landon Ferraro will belong to the restricted category as of July 1. On the same day, Brad Marchand will officially have one year remaining on his contract. He will be due a raise, and the Bruins would be wise to give him one earlier rather than later.

But of all the pending decisions that are piling up on Boston general manager Don Sweeney's desk, Eriksson's future remains the biggest. It is the most complicated transaction Sweeney is facing, one that will have a domino effect on moves to follow.

"Loui is having a tremendous year for us," Sweeney said. "He's an important player for us, as he would be, really, for any of the 29 other teams. If I field a call on him or anybody else, that may or may not fit for them. I have to balance that. We like to keep good players."

Neither Sweeney nor coach Claude Julien believes Eriksson's current value is up for debate. The 30-year-old has been one of the team's four best forwards along with Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci.

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On Thursday against Vancouver, Eriksson started on Krejci's left side. He finished the night on Krejci's right after Matt Beleskey returned to the left flank. When Krejci was absent because of an upper-body injury, Ryan Spooner filled in well on the second line. Eriksson's presence on Spooner's right side did not hurt.

Loui Eriksson stats
Games G A Plus-Minus Avg. TOI
This season 46 15 23 10 19:33
Career 689 197 282 56 18:18
SOURCE: Pro-Hockey-Reference.com

"It doesn't matter who he plays with," Julien said. "He plays the same game and you know he can produce. For Ryan, that was probably a little bit of a comfort zone for him, knowing he had somebody that could help him out in tough situations and probably cover up for him at times."

Through 46 games, Eriksson had 15 goals and 23 assists for 38 points, second on the team behind Bergeron. He was averaging 19:32 of ice time, third most among forwards after Krejci and Bergeron.

The Bruins have thought about creating a behemoth first line with Marchand, Bergeron, and Eriksson. But they have deemed Eriksson's versatility and reliability more necessary elsewhere.

Eriksson is one of the regular penalty killers. On the power play, he has scored a team-high eight goals while absorbing punishment in the net-front area. When penalty killers have blanketed Bergeron in the middle, Eriksson has served as a critical outlet for Spooner on the right side of the goal line.

Every team would like to have Eriksson on its roster. And keeping Eriksson is no guarantee for the Bruins. This is the wing's final shot at a long-term payday. Eriksson, via agent J.P. Barry, will be seeking a maximum payout, both in term and salary.

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The Bruins believe they have room to re-sign Eriksson. Next year, they will likely say goodbye to Talbot, Chris Kelly, Kevan Miller, and Jonas Gustavsson. They will be free of the $2.75 million in salary retained from trading Milan Lucic. They are not projected to carry an overage penalty like the approximate $969,000 they are carrying for exceeding last year's cap.

These savings will give them plenty of cash to pay Eriksson the salary — he would be justified in asking for $6 million annually — he wants on an extension.

The question is term. If Sweeney can't sell his colleagues in hockey operations on the logic of re-upping Eriksson, it will be because the wing asks for more years than the Bruins are willing to cede.

Eriksson has excellent hockey sense. He is as good with his stick as any player in the league. But it will do his employer no good if his wheels don't put him in place to maximize his assets.

So as they did with Lucic, they will wheel Eriksson for assets prior to the Feb. 29 trade deadline before letting him walk. The concern is whether they can improve by trading the all-around wing. The Bruins are in a playoff position and are likely to stay among the East's top eight with the current roster.

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Their outlook will take a hit, however, if Eriksson goes elsewhere. Fellow right wings Jimmy Hayes, Connolly, and David Pastrnak are far from the sure things that Eriksson is every game. The first-round pick and prospect that Eriksson could net will not help the Bruins in their playoff push.

If the Bruins decide that trading Eriksson is the better alternative, coupling the wing with one of their two first-round picks could be a possibility. By bundling the two, the Bruins could bring back a roster player instead of futures. If so, they would be best served targeting a buyer that intends to hire Eriksson as more than a rented gun.

The Wild have Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba. Both would be in the Bruins' crosshairs. Brodin is 22 and under contract through 2021. Dumba, 21, is restricted after this season.

But the Wild, according to the GM who knows of their interest in Eriksson, consider him a rental. Even if the Bruins include either their own first-rounder or San Jose's, it would not be enough for the Wild to send back one of their defensemen.

For the Bruins to use Eriksson as a trade chip for a young defenseman, they would have to look elsewhere or make their package even sweeter.

It's hard to get good, smart, all-around wings. It's even harder to get a young defenseman.

Delay can pay off on the power play

One reason behind the Bruins' 4-1 road win over Montreal on Tuesday was the penalty kill. The Canadiens went on the power play five times. They shot blanks on every occasion. The Bruins did a good job of negating one of Montreal's go-to entries: the delay.

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"On the delay, you always get pushed back and you're basically standing still at the blue line when their guy is coming at you with speed," said Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. "It's up to the whole group to be covering all lanes and trying to push them to one side.

"Once you decide to push them to one side, you don't let them come across to enter easy. No matter what, you always want to try to have them dump the puck. Then you can go in the battle and interrupt their flow.

"It's about filling lanes and trying to force them into an area you want them to go to. Then hope for the best."

It's a maneuver that most teams, including the Bruins, like to use on the power play to gain the zone. The man-up unit advances through center ice with speed and keeps one attacker behind the formation. After taking a drop pass in the neutral zone, the trailer rushes the puck over the blue line, ideally against penalty killers at a standstill.

When executed correctly, the delay puts the shorthanded team at a disadvantage. The penalty killers have to respect the speed of the initial approach. A tight gap against the first rush becomes slack once the attackers pull off the drop. It's hard for killers to reset the gap when the trailer approaches with a secondary burst of speed.

Killers are also in danger of taking another penalty, a hook or a hold, to slow the next wave.

"As soon as they drop it, then all four of us are stopped, for the most part," said Landon Ferraro. "They're coming with a ton of speed. It's hard to stay up at the line."

Against the Canadiens, the Bruins did a good job of preventing the drop from taking place. For that to happen, teams have to send one of their penalty-killing forwards deeper instead of spreading four across the line.

It can be dangerous to have a forward caught up the ice. But it's a risk worth taking if the forward knows he can seal off the drop. Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand are very good at reading the delay, positioning themselves between the puck carrier and the trailer, and taking the calculated risk to take the drop away.

But there are times when teams pull off the drop. That's when the Bruins emphasize keeping the approach contained to one side of the ice. Even if they're standing still, killers can handle the speed and still force a dump-in. If the trailer skates to one sector and moves the puck to another, that's when the PK can suffer system failure against the delay.

"If they get it across, they get to an area where they can walk it in and have control," Seidenberg said. "The main thing is to try and force the dump."

Price’s absence crushes Montreal

In 22 games since the start of December, the Canadiens are 5-16-1. The team that couldn't lose at the start of the season (nine straight wins) can't find a way to record 2 points. Yet on Thursday, GM Marc Bergevin declared coach Michel Therrien and his assistants to be safe for the rest of the season, even if the team lost every remaining game.

"I'm in charge of all hockey operations," Bergevin said. "All the critique should be directed at me. I'm the guy that provided the players. I'm the guy that put this team together. It's on me and me only."

It was the only thing Bergevin could say. Two things have been behind the Canadiens' tumble down the Eastern Conference standings, and neither has to do with the coaching.

The Canadiens have had terrible luck. And they've been without one of the best players in the league.

It is no coincidence that goaltender Carey Price has not played one minute during the Canadiens' downfall. Last season, Price affected his team's outcome more than any other player for his respective club. Price turned losses into wins. Mike Condon, Ben Scrivens, and Dustin Tokarski have not been able to replicate Price's magic.

"To replace Carey Price is impossible," Bergevin said. "Ben and Mike have done great jobs. But they're not Carey Price. It's reality. It's a fact. There are no No. 1 goalies out there. They're not available. Period. The end."

Price was a literal game-saver last year. The Canadiens spent most of the season chasing the puck instead of controlling it.

It's a different story this year. Through 47 games, the Canadiens were the No. 4 possession team in the league during five-on-five play. There have been stretches in which they've dictated the pace. The Bruins learned this for the entire Winter Classic and the second period of Tuesday's game.

In the latter, the Canadiens drilled the Bruins for 16 shots in the second period while allowing only seven. Tuukka Rask stole a handful of goals from the Canadiens. It wasn't an aberration. During this 22-game segment, the Canadiens have been outpossessed just four times in five-on-five play. While their goaltending has let them down, opposing puck-stoppers have not done Montreal any favors.

Two months is a large sample size. But so is an entire season. Last season, Calgary's timely scoring and good luck overcame an 82-game segment of playing with fire. This season, the Flames haven't been as lucky, and they're paying for it in the standings.

Price may miss another month. That's a long time for the Canadiens to depend on Condon and Scrivens. But it's also long enough for Montreal's luck to change. Here's betting it will.

Drouin isn’t helping himself

Jonathan Drouin has appeared in 19 games for the Lightning this season.
Jonathan Drouin has appeared in 19 games for the Lightning this season.Chris O'Meara

Someday, when he's older and more mature, Jonathan Drouin will look back at his behavior as a 20-year-old and wonder why he was so foolish. Youth is the only explanation why Drouin, after playing in seven AHL games for Syracuse, declared that an eighth was not in his future. "Scouts are at every single game assessing players," Lightning GM Steve Yzerman said in a news conference Thursday, one day after suspending Drouin indefinitely. "If a player wants to be traded, the best thing is to go out and play well to help your cause." Yzerman, following the Detroit model set by GM Ken Holland, has emphasized patience in development. He ticked off names such as Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov, Vladislav Namestnikov, Nikita Nesterov, Andrej Sustr, and Andrei Vasilevskiy as examples of former prospects who endured AHL stints and healthy scratches while growing into NHL players. "I like to think we're doing a pretty good job at bringing these young kids along," Yzerman said. "We're going to stick with that plan." None of those players enjoyed sitting out or playing in the minors. But they did it, and now they and the Lightning are better off for it. Drouin is younger and more talented than all of them. It's hard to understand why he was in such a rush.

GMs waiting on Jets’ Byfuglien

The Canadian exchange rate, hovering around 70 cents to the US dollar, is the primary reason teams believe the Jets will make Dustin Byfuglien available. The UFA-to-be can command more money on July 1 from American clubs than he could in an extension with Winnipeg. Byfuglien will turn 31 on March 27, which makes him a long-term risk. But Big Buff is a freak of nature and a difference-making defenseman who can play wing if necessary. Teams would not hesitate to give Byfuglien $7 million annually. Winnipeg already has committed big bucks to Tyler Myers, while Jacob Trouba (restricted) will be due a raise.

Loose pucks

It was nice to see old friend Daniel Paille turn a 31-game AHL stretch into a two-way deal with the Rangers, who signed the ex-Bruin to help out their penalty kill, which was ranked No. 25 (78.9 percent) through 46 games. Paille had a goal and three assists for Rockford, Chicago's AHL affiliate . . . The Canucks reentered the top eight in the West with their 4-2 win over the Bruins Thursday. They will be better when Henrik Sedin, Brandon Sutter, and Dan Hamhuis recover from injuries. Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom have been good in goal. But realistically, the Canucks would not last long in the playoffs. They need to get younger, and that means trading assets such as Radim Vrbata (UFA after this season) for picks . . . The fan vote is open for the Hobey Baker Award at hobeybaker.com. Michigan Tech graduate John Scott, sadly, is not an option.

No stopping these stoppers

Closing in on 100 years of NHL history, it's rare these days for someone to become the first player to accomplish something, but the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist did just that last week. He's the first goaltender to open his career with 11 straight seasons of at least 20 victories. He's also just the third goalie to have at least 11 such seasons consecutively. A comparison of how those three players, all Vezina Trophy winners, fared during their streaks:


Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.