The Bruins’ most urgent current and future need is a top-four defenseman.
It is not a vacancy that is possible to address at the trade deadline. Such players, in short supply to begin with, sometimes become available in June, when draft picks are at their highest demand. The Bruins learned this the hard way with Dougie Hamilton last summer. Rentals such as Loui Eriksson are not good enough to bring back long-term defensemen like Hamilton.
It’s possible that with two first-round picks in June and a bundle of prospects they have accumulated, the Bruins will have enough to land the defenseman they desire (Minnesota’s Matt Dumba would be a candidate) prior to the draft. They could have increased their odds of acquiring such an asset by trading Eriksson for additional futures.
This is how Winnipeg and Carolina operated with Andrew Ladd and Eric Staal. The Jets received a 2016 first-round pick and Marko Dano from the Blackhawks. The Hurricanes netted second-rounders in 2016 and 2017 and Aleksi Saarela from the Rangers.
The returns coming across general manager Don Sweeney’s desk, however, were not good enough to send Eriksson out and diminish the current roster — one that, unlike Winnipeg and Carolina, is still in a playoff chase.
“If the deal wasn’t going to be right, we were going to maintain our position,” Sweeney said. “If you look around the league, I don’t think any team currently in a playoff position traded a player of Loui’s magnitude. I think one first-rounder was exchanged. It had to be right.”
Instead, Sweeney dipped into his precious pile of picks to bring back rentals of his own. The Bruins ceded four selections for Lee Stempniak (fourth in 2016, second in 2017) and John-Michael Liles (third in 2016, fifth in 2017). Both players are unrestricted and should walk after this season.
So will Eriksson, unless they come to an unlikely pre-July 1 agreement on a long-term deal the Bruins were wary of giving him prior to the trade deadline. It is now in Eriksson’s best interest to hit July 1 to gauge how his prospects improve when the market increases from one bidder to 29.
The Bruins are a better team for the rest of the season by keeping Eriksson and adding Stempniak and Liles. They should make the playoffs. They could win a round or two.
But the additions do not make them better than Washington or Tampa Bay, the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. For proof of that, the Bruins and their opponents have 63 games worth of data that show their defensive deficiencies, unreliable right-wing play, and fourth-line puck-chasing. The Bruins are worse long term because of the loss of picks — the ones they ceded for Stempniak and Liles and the ones they didn’t claim for Eriksson.
“I think we’ve maintained a very, very strong position with two first-rounders and a second this current season, as well as the prospects we think so highly of,” Sweeney said. “Moving this organization forward, being able to implement several of those players as early as next year and certainly in the coming years, to surround what I think is a very admirable core group that’s led us to where we are today.”
This season was always going to be a mulligan for Sweeney. He traded Milan Lucic and Hamilton for futures. Lucic had to go to clear salary. Hamilton wanted out. This left the Bruins shorthanded, but still dangerous enough to engage in a dogfight for a playoff spot. Eriksson, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, and Tuukka Rask are just that good.
Sweeney’s best maneuver is to take advantage of the one-year honeymoon by accumulating maximum future assets and turning them into a long-term, Hamilton-replacing piece. It will stabilize the blue line, strengthen the perimeter in front of Rask, and help prepare for life without Chara.
Customers expect to watch — and pay big money for the privilege — a team contend for Stanley Cups, not just fight to get into the tournament.
Such a transaction is still possible. But by holding onto Eriksson, Sweeney decreased his odds of chasing big game. The alternative is to wait for blue-line prospects such as Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon, Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk, Matt Benning, and Rob O’Gara to acclimate to the NHL. None can be considered a sure thing, and certainly not by 2016-17. It may be the only way the Bruins upgrade the defense.
“They’re difficult to acquire,” Sweeney said of young NHL defensemen. “The best avenue is likely to draft, develop, and maintain that, and be in position where you can extend that contract when you’re in a cap situation. I think we’ve now put ourselves in a position where we can do that at the appropriate time.”
Sweeney is right. Drafting and developing defensemen is the most effective method for team-building. But it takes time. The Bruins can’t afford to wait, not with so much gray in their leaders’ beards and so much of their season ticket-holders’ cash at risk.
If defensive reinforcements do not arrive in June, it’s hard to project the Bruins as taking a big step next year. Colin Miller could develop into a top-four defenseman and power-play triggerman. Joe Morrow could tighten up defensively, process the game better, and apply his skating and skill to good use. Zach Trotman could become a more dependable defensive defenseman. Such projections belong more in the wishful-thinking than sure-thing category.
The Bruins cannot afford to enter 2016-17 with a defense similar to this one. It would be an injustice to the players and Claude Julien. Even one of the league’s smartest coaches cannot smooth over a blue line that has cornered the market on third-pairing defensemen.
Trading Eriksson would have been an important step in ensuring a blue-line upgrade. Now, such improvements are not so much of a guarantee.
Follow Fluto Shinzawa on Twitter at @GlobeFluto