The Bruins are not an elite team. They have soft spots on defense and right wing.
But they are not unlike five of the seven other clubs pushing for playoff status in the Eastern Conference. Every team has deficiencies save for Washington and Tampa Bay. Ill health could bring the Capitals back down to the rest of the pack, just like injuries could slow the Lightning’s return to the top of the conference.
In that way, it is Don Sweeney’s responsibility to reinforce the Bruins for a playoff run. Save for Washington and Tampa, they are just as equipped — Tuukka Rask and Patrice Bergeron being their heaviest artillery — to go as deep as any of their rivals if they qualify for the postseason.
Their situation is the primary reason the anticipated Loui Eriksson trade will be tricky.
During Claude Julien’s time, the coach has never faced the possibility of a late-winter sprint with a diminished roster. The Bruins have always been active about addressing their would-be free agents before the trade deadline forced them into action.
There is no doubt that trading Eriksson will make the Bruins weaker. This is not the direction teams with playoffs dreams prefer to trend.
Eriksson is the one right wing who has earned Julien’s trust. The Bruins would have to find not just a second-line replacement, but another penalty killer and a net-front/goal-line presence on the No. 1 power-play unit. The latter will be especially difficult to find. No left-shot forward on the roster has Eriksson’s man-up skill set.
Under normal circumstances, Sweeney could command a first-round pick and prospect for Eriksson. Futures, however, do not serve Julien, not when he’s had Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic, and Johnny Boychuk moved from his toolbox within the last 16 months without varsity returns.
Even if the Bruins packaged one of their two 2016 first-rounders with Eriksson, the return would not net their preferred asset: a young top-four defenseman such as Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin (currently out 3-6 weeks with a broken foot), or Sami Vatanen.
One outcome could be sending Eriksson out for a defenseman with term left on his contract, especially to a team looking to clear salary.
There are questionable terms of blue-line employment all around the league, with Dion Phaneuf (seven years, $49 million) and Dan Girardi (six years, $33 million) the pyrite standards. No team would be equipped to assume those contracts, not without sweeteners such as picks, prospects, and retained salary.
There are contracts with less taint, but still odorous enough to prompt organizations to wash their hands of them for good. Some teams, especially the Canadian ones dealing with the exchange rate problem, wouldn’t mind resetting their budgets by taking on Eriksson’s expiring contract and letting him walk on July 1.
■ Winnipeg — The Jets have their own UFA decisions to make on Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd. Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele will be restricted. The latter two aren’t going anywhere except to the bank to cash their soon-to-be elevated paychecks. If the Jets add to their payroll by re-upping Byfuglien (the bidding starts at $7 million annually), they might have to shed salary on defense. Toby Enstrom (signed through 2018 at $5.75 million annually, according to www.generalfanager.com), could be a casualty. Through 49 games, the 31-year-old (1-9—10) was averaging a career-low 19:43 of ice time. The left-shot Enstrom can still play despite his reduced workload. He can skate, move the puck, and process the game. It’s doubtful Eriksson’s expiring contract would be enough to pick Enstrom out of Winnipeg. If the Jets make Enstrom available, the Bruins would not be the only team in the bidding.
■ Columbus — The Blue Jackets will be in cap trouble. The only contract leaving their books after this season is Rene Bourque’s $3,333,333. That’s not enough to offset the raises due to RFAs-to-be Seth Jones and Ryan Murray, their future No. 1 defensive pairing. Jones will command a mammoth payday. Reports are excellent on first-rounder Zach Werenski, the University of Michigan freshman defenseman. The Jackets also have to re-up promising burly winger Boone Jenner. Columbus is due for a greening on defense. They have Fedor Tyutin (2018, $4.5 million) and Jack Johnson (2018, $4,357,142). Johnson is three years younger, plays more, and faces tougher competition. The small-market Jackets are desperate to send money out the door.
■ Anaheim — The Ducks have two very good young defensemen up at season’s end: Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm. GM Bob Murray could get a haul for either. Or he could re-up them by moving Kevin Bieksa (2018, $4 million) and cutting ties with pending UFAs David Perron, Shawn Horcoff, and Chris Stewart. Bieksa, 34, has been quiet but steady as a first-year Duck. Bieksa is a right-shot stay-at-homer, of which the Bruins already have three in Adam McQuaid, Kevan Miller, and Zach Trotman.
■ Calgary — The Flames returned from the All-Star break 10 points out of a playoff spot. Their chances of qualifying are slim. They can initiate their rebuild by trading Dennis Wideman (2017, $5.25 million) back to his old team. Dougie Hamilton should be ready for top-four minutes next season. GM Brad Treliving will have to look in his couch to dig up every last penny to re-sign Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, their foundational pieces at forward. Wideman has two goals and 17 assists while logging 21:03 of ice time per game. The wrinkle is his 20-game suspension for belting linesman Don Henderson. Unless Wideman succeeds with his appeal, he wouldn’t be eligible to play until mid-March. By then, it might be too late.
■ Ottawa — Not only do the Senators consider themselves a small-market team, they’re also subject to the exchange rate. They’ll have to set aside a good amount of cash for Mike Hoffman, who will be looking for at least the $3.5 million annually that teammate Mark Stone landed last year. Up-and-coming right-shot defenseman Cody Ceci is also leaving his entry-level contract. This leaves the Senators seeking someone to take Jared Cowen (2017, $3.1 million). It’s unlikely the Bruins find an intradivision match with the Senators. Eriksson would help the Senators make another late-season push. The last time that happened, the Bruins missed the playoffs and things went cuckoo.
The Bruins want to make a hockey deal to make the playoffs, but not one that handcuffs them for future seasons. Trading Eriksson for a defenseman with existing term would not be ideal. But they are not eliminating this option from their playbook.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Reimer better than he looks
The primetime UFAs will be Dustin Byfuglien, Milan Lucic, and Steven Stamkos. Given their ages and skill sets, they will be the most prized free agents if they remain unsigned July 1.
The most interesting UFA-to-be to watch will be James Reimer. He has always produced mixed opinions.
The Toronto goalie is becoming unrestricted at the right time. Reimer’s primary competition will be Cam Ward, Karri Ramo, and Jhonas Enroth. That’s not much of a battle. Reimer is the class of the bunch.
Through 25 appearances, the 27-year-old Reimer was 9-8-6 with a 2.13 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. Reimer had the second-best save percentage in the league among goalies who had played in 20 or more games, trailing only Michal Neuvirth (.933). According to www.war-on-ice.com, Reimer’s high-danger save percentage was .908, better than established aces such as Cory Schneider (.903), Corey Crawford (.886), and Braden Holtby (.861). A goalie who turns quality scoring chances into stops is worth a lot more cash than the $2.3 million Reimer is earning annually.
In that way, the Leafs would be smart to re-up Reimer. They have become an organization that emphasizes data. But Reimer has always been a goalie whose performance on the eye test has not been as good as on a spreadsheet. He doesn’t move around the net smoothly. Other goalies control their rebounds better. He has not made reverse VH, the modern technique used to seal the strong-side post, a go-to move.
Garret Sparks, Toronto’s AHL goalie, could be ready to push for a varsity job next season. The Leafs also have the issue of Jonathan Bernier, the fading goalie with one year remaining on his contract at $4.15 million.
If the Leafs consider an inexpensive goalie a better alternative than doubling Reimer’s pay, he will have options elsewhere. He could be reunited with former Leafs GM Brian Burke in Calgary. The Hurricanes, who are not expected to re-sign Ward, could also be interested.
Man-to-man gains popularity
Torey Krug has noticed opponents using man-to-man defensive-zone coverage more than in his first two full seasons. He doesn’t mind the shift.
“I like playing against it,” said the Bruins defenseman. “It gives me more mobility at the blue line. It forces the forward covering me up top to cover me down low as well if I end up going down low. Forwards aren’t very comfortable doing that.”
Man-to-man, which Krug played at Michigan State, is easier for players to grasp. It’s straightforward to pick a man and stay with him. With good communication, switches, when necessary, should be seamless.
It’s easier to reduce scoring chances in the slot. In theory, an attacker looking to gun a shot from the prime real estate between the circles should have a defender reducing his time and space. Nobody should be left open if man-to-man is employed properly.
But as Krug noted, man-to-man becomes trickier when opponents rotate aggressively. Active defensemen such as Krug draw forwards down low, which is not where they’re used to playing. When attacking defensemen press down the wings, behind the goal line, and in front of the net, forwards should be rotating high to cover. This is when seams in coverage can develop when defending defensemen, usually positioned down low, have to move high to stay with their forwards.
The Bruins do not believe man-to-man is the right system for their defending purposes. Even though their collapsing zone requires more thought and communication, they think the layers it produces are more effective in preventing chances from taking place.
“Sometimes, it makes it easier to digest,” Krug said of playing man-to-man. “But personally, I like what we do better. When you’re doing it and everyone’s on the same page, it’s really tough to beat.”
The trick, however, is the time and care the Bruins’ zone approach requires. It’s not an easy system to pick up. Krug recalled that adjusting from his college system did not take place rapidly.
“It took me a while,” he said. “Here, we play a little bit of a zone where you’re not supposed to wander out very far. I felt like at first, I was wandering away because I was chasing the guy. I’d see a third man high for the other team, and I’d wander away toward him. That leaves the net wide open. A lot of wandering, that’s for sure.”
Appeal sure to be illuminating
On Wednesday, shortly after the NHL issued its 20-game suspension, the NHLPA announced its decision to appeal Dennis Wideman’s punishment. This is a good thing, mostly because of the explanation Gary Bettman will declare upon hearing the appeal. The commissioner has produced insightful, well-written decisions following previous appeals by Shawn Thornton and Patrick Kaleta. Wideman’s appeal should lend more clarity on some of the critical aspects of the ruling, including the confirmation that the ex-Bruin suffered a concussion before he dropped Henderson with a cross-check from behind.
Keeping an eye on goaltenders
An area where organizations continue to add intelligence is in the goaltending department. One team recently hired a goalie coach for viewings on internal and external puck-stoppers, both pro and amateur. The coach will be deployed for any scenario — if the team is considering a trade, signing a free agent, or drafting a prospect. The thinking is that the goalie coach’s expertise will improve the team’s collection of data. Most scouting departments are missing goalie-specific eyes. The position has become so technical that traditional scouts don’t have the training to spot techniques and habits in the way that goalie coaches can see.
Rangers playing shorthanded
The fading Rangers took another hit on Wednesday when they learned Kevin Klein will be out indefinitely because of a broken thumb. At the time of his injury, Klein was playing the second most on the team (20:01 per game) after captain Ryan McDonagh (23:04). Traditionally, the Rangers have been aggressive at acquiring help before the deadline. Klein’s injury will test their defense even more. But GM Jeff Gorton has to put an end to shipping out picks and prospects. This June, the Rangers will be without a first-round pick for the fourth straight year. Last March, they ceded their first-rounder, along with top prospect Anthony Duclair, to Arizona for Keith Yandle. In retrospect, the package was too rich. Yandle is most likely headed to free agency.
Rinne could use some help
The Predators are struggling to stay among the West’s top eight, even after the infusion of Ryan Johansen’s point-per-game pace. The Predators were all over the place in Thursday’s 6-3 loss to Philadelphia. The Flyers had multiple odd-man rushes because of the Predators’ turnstile play up the ice. Pekka Rinne didn’t have much of a chance on any of the goals. But the Predators signed Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract because he had a history of turning goals into saves. Rinne has done little of the sort this season. Through 43 starts, Rinne was 19-17-7 with a 2.51 GAA and a dreadful .903 save percentage. Rinne is under contract for three more seasons. No team can afford to invest 13 percent of the maximum permissible cap amount in replacement-level goaltending. It’s especially troublesome for a small-market club such as the Predators. Offense has traditionally been Nashville’s soft spot. Now it’s goaltending.
As usual, Boston College and Boston University will fight for the Beanpot on Monday. The big stage will be a good opportunity for scouts to gain more intelligence on BU defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The 18-year-old McAvoy could be the second defenseman drafted this year after Jakob Chychrun. The right-shot McAvoy is a big, smooth-moving, three-zone blue liner. Meanwhile, this could be BC goalie Thatcher Demko’s last run at the Beanpot. The junior is proving he’s ready for the next step. If Demko goes pro next year, he could be the No. 1 goalie in Utica, Vancouver’s AHL affiliate . . . One of the squishy phrases in Rule 40.2, regarding physical abuse of officials: intent to injure. Further clarification defines it as “any physical force which a player knew or should have known could reasonably be expected to cause injury.” That doesn’t mean the same thing as intent.
He gave Eagles wings
Part of Jerry York’s coaching legacy will be his 1,000-plus career victories at the collegiate level. Another will be the long list of players he helped usher from Boston College to the NHL. So many players, in fact, you can make an entire game roster — slotted below based on their NHL achievements — and still not include several players.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.