Thoughts and shots on the Bruins as we creep closer to the Feb. 25 NHL trade deadline . . .
■ The Bruins, on track for their third straight playoff appearance after a two-year DNQ funk, do not profile as an easy out this spring.
They get quality defense and goaltending on most nights (third-fewest goals per game allowed in the league). They can win the tight ones (14-4-8 in one-goal games, tied for fifth-most wins).
They have four proven, productive lead dogs among their top six forwards. Coach Bruce Cassidy has four quality fourth-line types who can check scoring lines and kill penalties while chipping in the odd goal.
Boston should be a tough matchup for someone, especially if young wingers Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, and Peter Cehlarik raise their profiles.
But are the Bruins a true Stanley Cup contender, in an Eastern Conference dominated by Tampa Bay, which seems to have everything a top team should?
Has Toronto’s addition of defenseman Jake Muzzin given the Leafs an edge in what would probably be a coin-flip playoff series with Boston?
Could the Capitals or Islanders bump out the Bruins with their physicality?
With six games before the deadline, management doesn’t know. General manager Don Sweeney and team president Cam Neely said Sunday in a chat with season ticket-holders that they hope to add a piece to solve their most pressing need.
The Bruins rely on David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci for most of their offense, from a numbers and play-driving standpoint. The dropoff in point production is steep from the top four of Pastrnak (66 points), Marchand (65), Bergeron (51), and Krejci (43). It is getting late to assume those forwards next on the list — DeBrusk (19) and Heinen (16) — or Cehlarik (4 points in a 10-game audition) and David Backes (13) will provide enough secondary scoring to lift Boston in a tight playoff series.
“I wish I could grab Harry Potter’s wand, for crying out loud, tap you on the head, and you’d tell me exactly who I need to trade for,” Sweeney told a fan at the annual State of the Bruins event at TD Garden.
■ Another forward addition, be it a top-six winger or third-line center, would help Cassidy keep his best forwards’ minutes reasonable. Marchand is averaging 19:50 a night, ranking 32nd among NHL forwards. Neither he nor Pastrnak (19:02), Bergeron (18:54), nor Krejci (17:47) are being run into the ground, even though all four are power-play stalwarts, and Marchand and Bergeron are Boston’s top penalty-killers.
A well-rounded game and a scoring touch is a must for any addition. Of the bottom-half teams in five-on-five goal production, only St. Louis (16th), Minnesota (23rd), Boston (27th), and Dallas (28th) were in playoff position as of Monday.
“The Achilles’ heel,” Sweeney called his team’s lack of even-strength pop. “We’ve been wondering what our team looked like with some balance, when it’s healthy. We can still use a little boost in that area.”
■ The league is faster and more offense-focused, but goal prevention remains a prerequisite to winning. Each of the top-10 teams in average goals allowed were in playoff positions as of Monday. The Bruins were third (2.55), and in five-on-five goals against, they were second only to the Islanders. The Bruins are not looking to mess with that side of things, so any addition would be required to be passable defensively.
■ Sweeney praised Cassidy for his willingness to bring along young players, rather than demand more veteran help. Cassidy has relied on sophomores Heinen, Cehlarik, and DeBrusk for secondary scoring. Rookie Trent Frederic is the latest center to take the wheel of the third line. Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork (injured), and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson are in the minors for seasoning.
Asked Sunday before puck drop against the Avalanche if he felt the need for a deadline piece, Cassidy was measured in his comments. He noted that he didn’t want to be disrespectful to the group in place. But he didn’t duck the question.
“Yes, there’s times we seem to fall a goal short,” Cassidy said. “So we could use that extra punch.
“Third-line center, I do believe, we’ve been looking at different options in there all year. To have a consistent guy in there every night would probably make it easier on everybody.
“So, yes, there’s days it looks like we could use a piece. But other days we play very well with the group we have.
“That’s going to be their call. I’m not skirting the question. I think that’s kind of up to Donnie to go out and see what’s available, and what the cost is, and then make the appropriate call. You can always use depth. If he can make our lineup better, I’m all for it.”
■ After surrendering last year’s first-round pick in the Rick Nash deadline deal, should Sweeney pay another steep price? If he’s dead set on keeping his first-rounder, the Bruins are well-stocked with quality prospects.
There is an argument for standing pat, and letting this roster cook for another year.
After the trade deadline — probably for months after — Sweeney will continue to try and find reasonable ground for contract extensions with RFAs-to-be Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Donato, and Heinen. Not easy calls, though Boston appears to be in a better cap situation than its Atlantic Division rivals.
Tampa has to pay Brayden Point (seventh in scoring as of Monday) this summer, and in two years, megabucks extensions for Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, and Yanni Gourde will change the dynamic. Similarly tough choices will have to be made in Toronto. This could be the deepest Leafs team of the Auston Matthews-John Tavares era, with Matthews’s $11.634 million deal kicking in next year, and Mitch Marner (potentially a $10 million man), Kasperi Kapanen, and Andreas Johnsson up for raises.
Boston has stars Bergeron, Marchand, and Pastrnak all signed to cap hits below $7 million. Though Bergeron (33), Krejci (32), and Marchand (30) are not young, they should have a few more years left of elite play, as Pastrnak (22) and McAvoy (21) reach their prime. If he’s not up for paying rental prices, Sweeney’s summer moves will have that mix in mind.
■ In pregame comments Sunday, Cassidy was self-critical about his usage of his third line, which has yet to find an identity. Is it a checking line, a scoring line, a young line, a veteran line?
“I’m as much at fault as anybody,” he said.
The Bruins have gone with vets such as Backes and Joakim Nordstrom between a traditional checking center in Sean Kuraly. They’ve used young skill, in Donato, Forsbacka Karlsson, and Heinen.
“Looked like for stretches they were good,” Cassidy said of the latter group. “Then we go on the road, they get exposed a little bit. Maybe I didn’t trust them enough.”
■ Sweeney said he recently had a conversation with DeBrusk, in particular, about ending his sophomore slump. The onus is on DeBrusk (14-5—19 in 47 games) to find more pitches than a fastball.
“They watched you score goals against Toronto last year in the playoffs,” Sweeney recalled telling DeBrusk. “They understand your speed and straight-line ability. This is a humbling league. How you prepare each and every day to get better is really important.”
■ Responding to a fan’s query, Neely pointed to Matt Grzelcyk as a pleasant surprise of the season.
“His poise back there for a young defenseman has been impressive,” Neely said, calling his first pass out of the zone “spectacular.” Answering the same question, Sweeney gave kudos to Pastrnak for his emerging leadership.
■ Entering Tuesday’s contest against Chicago, the Bruins have won four of five (4-0-1). They have posted winning streaks of five games and four games, but the longest losing streak has been three. In last year’s 50-win season, the Bruins lost four in a row at one point, but they strung together winning streaks of six, five (twice), and four (twice).
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports.