The Rangers are still deciding whether they want to deal Chris Kreider. If they don’t, the Bruins should force their hand.
This isn’t a call for general manager Don Sweeney to sell the entire farm for Kreider, the top winger available in advance of the Feb. 24 NHL trade deadline. This is where we are, though: Sweeney should add to this veteran group, which came 60 minutes from the Stanley Cup last year. He should not do so by tweaking or tinkering. He should make a major upgrade.
Wait, to this roster? This Presidents’ Trophy contender? This group, which has been no lower than fifth in the NHL’s overall standings since mid-October, and this past week overtook the Capitals for first?
Yes. They deserve it.
Sure, the Bruins are a good bet to win the Atlantic Division. Sure, anything can happen from mid-April to June. And sure, this is a tight-knit group that might find it has what it takes. But fortifying the structure of this aging core, and taking stress off the phenomenal top line and power play, while adding a premier piece that might extend the run of some foundational veterans, is the right call.
The Bruins need a mid-aged, top-six winger such as Kreider, even if it means shipping out their first-round pick, something Sweeney said he regretted doing in 2018 when he and Rangers GM Jeff Gorton struck a deal for Rick Nash. He shouldn’t be afraid to include a young roster player, since that will be part of the ask.
As good as Jake DeBrusk (23), Danton Heinen (24), or Anders Bjork (23) could be, Kreider (28) offers a mix of maturity, physicality, and pace that would fit with David Krejci better than any of those three.
The Bruins were tied for 11th in scoring at five-on-five entering Saturday (115 goals), but their expected goals — a measure of shot quality — was fifth-worst, according to Natural Stat Trick. They generated the eighth-fewest scoring chances at five aside. They need a play-driver, a chance-generator, a strong finisher who gets inside. A power forward.
This guy is all of that.
Kreider, who was third in the All-Star fastest skater contest, points his GPS toward the slot and floors it. At 6 feet 3 inches and 216 pounds, he has no issue playing demolition derby on the way there. He has a quick release, which delivered 28 goals and 50-plus points in two of the previous three seasons (with 20-18—38 through 52 games this season, he could hit both marks again).
He’s adept at tipping shots in the net-front spot on the power play, where DeBrusk and Heinen have been alternating this season. And yes, he’s from Boxford (and Masconomet High, Phillips Andover, and Boston College).
The Rangers, who drafted him 19th in 2009, could keep building around Kreider, star Artemi Panarin, top center Mika Zibanejad, blue liner Jacob Trouba, and skilled rookies Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox. Their young goaltending looks promising.
Kreider could even become captain. But he will have to wait for a Cup run. The 12th-place Rangers would need to go about 21-7-2 their last 30 games to reach 98 points, the East’s wild-card cutoff in 2019. Unless “Igor Shesterkin” is Russian for “Jordan Binnington,” this is not their year.
The Capitals and Blues have skill to match the Bruins. Both like to rattle bones come playoff time, and both could add. The Blues, tops in the West without injured sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, could get him back to start their title defense.
The East is a monster, though. The Lightning have jumped from 22nd overall at Christmas to third. The rugged Islanders, if they add a scorer, will be more of a threat. Despite their injuries, the Penguins are very much in it. Likewise, the Blue Jackets, left for dead last offseason.
The Bruins with Kreider could be the favorite when the calendar flips to April.
To keep Kreider longer than June, the Bruins would likely have to let Torey Krug walk. Either would tie up about $7 million in salary. Sweeney & Co. would have to trust that Matt Grzelcyk can become a steady power-play quarterback, considering Krug’s spectacular acumen in that role. They’d also have to believe that Kreider, rather than Krug, will more easily handle NHL life in his mid-30s, when wheels begin to rust.
Those choices would be more happily considered in the afterglow of the second Cup of the Patrice Bergeron-Zdeno Chara era.
It would hurt to deal DeBrusk, who like Bjork is a pending restricted free agent (Heinen is under contract for one more year at $2.8 million). DeBrusk’s 27 goals last year portend a future of finishing. His teammates love him. But they would see that Kreider’s gifts are more significant.
There are more budget-friendly options. The Kings’ Tyler Toffoli is a right wing in the mold of Michael Ryder: Average speed, willing shooter, and he currently wears No. 73. (No word on his ability to make glove saves, but he does have a 2014 Cup ring.)
Columbus’s Josh Anderson, a 25-year-old pending restricted free agent, is big (6-3, 222) and mean, but hasn’t played since Dec. 14 (busted shoulder). Like Tarasenko in St. Louis, he recently returned to practice; neither would cost a first-rounder or a top prospect.
An interesting name with term: Speedy, creative Anaheim winger Ondrej Kase. A Czech junior teammate of David Pastrnak ’s, Kase, 24, has another year left at $2.6 million. Concussion and shoulder issues have dogged him since he scored 20 goals in 66 games two years ago. Intriguing young player, but on the lighter side, seemingly a bit redundant in a middle six stocked with those types.
Then there’s Ilya Kovalchuk, 36, the old hand. He has delivered 5-6—11 in 14 games in Montreal, but if the Bruins didn’t want him for the league minimum last month, why would they surrender assets now?
Sweeney should aim higher. He should be just as bold as he was two years ago, before Nash’s concussion issues turned that blockbuster deal into a dud. He should be confident, knowing that he has the resources to find and develop NHL players no matter where the Bruins pick.
It may be more prudent to keep DeBrusk and the pups, spend middle-round picks on a Toffoli type, and hope things shake out. Shove prudence aside. It is time to go win a Cup. It is time to make the Rangers an offer they can’t refuse.
TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE
Kuhlman keeps tabs on mother
In the time of wood sticks, players used to rush off the bus and to the payphone to check in with loved ones at home.
These days, Karson Kuhlman is grateful for FaceTime, which has helped the Bruins rookie connect with his mother across the pond. She is recovering from serious injuries suffered in a car accident outside London on Dec. 9.
“Getting better every day,” said the enthusiastic right winger from Esko, Minn. “Going in the right direction, for sure. Hasn’t been any setbacks at all. Her spirit’s been good.”
Jennifer Kuhlman, assigned to Mildenhall air base in Suffolk, England, for the US Air National Guard, was driving a car that was hit by a truck. She had multiple operations to fix her broken foot, pelvis, and other serious internal injuries. Her son checks in regularly via video.
“That helps so much,” said Kuhlman, who has a 1-4—5 line in seven games since returning from a three-month layoff (broken leg). “I never realized how nice of a tool that is. You don’t know until you need to use it.”
On a GoFundMe page established by family friends, which had raised $15,010 as of Friday — Jennifer wrote that her foot and pelvis were nearly healed. She has been working from home, and expected to soon begin walking without aid. She is covered by Great Britain’s National Health Service system, with help from the campaign.
“She’s in good hands, for sure,” her son said, adding that he planned to visit her after the season.
Dean Kuhlman, Karson’s father, retired last spring from the Air National Guard, and moved with Jennifer last summer to begin her two-year stint at RAF Mildenhall, some 65 miles northeast of London.
SAVING THEIR SEASON
Leafs finally gethelp in the net
The Maple Leafs, in a dogfight for a wild card, finally got a second goalie.
With four forwards gobbling $40 million of cap space, Toronto tried to get by with bargain backups from Building 19. But ex-Bruin Michael Hutchinson (.886 save percentage) and Kasimir Kaskisuo (.842) were not good stuff cheap, and the Leafs fell out of the wild card after All-Star Frederik Andersen ’s neck injury last Monday. He’ll be out through the weekend, at least.
Here to save the day: Jack Campbell, the former Dallas prospect (11th overall, 2010) toiling in Tinseltown. The 28-year-old Michigander hasn’t parlayed his pedigree into a starting spot, but the Leafs (who gained rental winger Kyle Clifford in the deal, giving up Trevor Moore and two mid-round picks) will need him to hold the fort. A postseason DNQ would be a disaster for Toronto, which expected a long-awaited Cup, not a scrap with Florida, Columbus, Philadelphia, and the Islanders for seats at the table. Sitting out would mean a harsh review of GM Kyle “We Can and We Will” Dubas, who paid John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, and William Nylander and robbed elsewhere, namely the net and defense.
Ageless Ovechkin on a record streak
As the Bruins were tussling with the Capitals for the Presidents’ Trophy, Alex Ovechkin was muscling aside David Pastrnak for the Rocket Richard.
Ovechkin got to 40 goals first, popping off for 14 in his last seven games, including three hat tricks.
Should be quite a race between Ovi, Auston Matthews (scored his 40th on Friday), and Pasta (stuck on 38 entering Saturday): Two brilliant young snipers, ages 23 and 22, respectively, and the 34-year-old who, to this eye, is the greatest goal scorer this league has ever seen.
He might have access to the advanced one-piece weaponry of today, but the advances in goaltending have muzzled rifles like never before. Ovechkin has averaged 47 goals in his 15-year career, the bulk of which has come in one of the NHL’s lowest-scoring eras (the 2010s).
He was at 698 goals entering Friday, eighth all time, with Mike Gartner (708) and Phil Esposito (717) next in line. Wayne Gretzky’s record (894) could fall, should Ovechkin keep firing for the next five years.
The GM who drafted him in Washington, George McPhee, believes he will.
“He’ll be able to play for a while,” said McPhee, now Vegas president of hockey ops. “If there comes a day he has to be pushed down the lineup a little bit, that’s OK.
“First of all, he’s a big man (6-3, 240). Doesn’t miss games. Durability is a big part of being a star and having a great career. The guy never seems to break down. It’s amazing. He doesn’t get hurt very often, and if he does, he plays through it. There aren’t many guys that work harder.
“From Day One, he was very hungry to score.”
Should Bruins alter OT strategy?
The Bruins, leading the league in shootout (7) and overtime losses (12), left Chicago happy on Wednesday thanks to defenseman Charlie McAvoy, whose first of the season was an OT winnah.
They’ve been shaky enough in 3 on 3, though, and brutal in shootouts (0-7, four goals in 30 tries). So here’s another wicked smaht idea: Why not shake it up and use three forwards?
Not just any: Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak, who make free-flowing possession hockey an art form. Few, if any, lines have their talent and chemistry.
“Just roll all three of them out there?” McAvoy said. “That’s wild.”
Not for Bruce Cassidy, who said he would try three forwards in his AHL sandbox in Providence, “when we stunk at [3 on 3],” played a non-divisional opponent, or had a glut of offense-challenged blue liners. He doesn’t have that problem in Boston, with mobile rearguards McAvoy, Krug, Grzelcyk, Brandon Carlo, and John Moore. And, of course, the stakes are higher, which leads to more curbing of a coach’s wilder ideas.
But he has toyed with it, he acknowledged.
As long as it didn’t take away from his ice time, Krug would love to see it.
“I think Bergy’s responsible enough to anchor that down,” he said. “He does a lot of that anyway when I’m on the ice with him and Marchy, when I’m looking for a quick transition play. It would be interesting, for sure. I don’t understand why you wouldn’t try it. But I want to be out there with them . . .”
Fair. So how about this: In the final moments of OT, in the right scenario, pull the goalie . . .
“I’ve thought about that,” Krug said. “We have full possession of the puck and the other team’s extremely tired — we don’t want to go to a shootout anyway, we suck at shootouts — so pull the goalie and try a 4-on-3 play. If it doesn’t happen, try to change on the fly.
“And we’re going to lose in a shootout, so . . .”
Krug thinks Cassidy would consider that, but “it’s probably too risky.” A team that pulls its goalie in overtime (outside of a delayed penalty situation) and gives up an empty-net goal loses the one point usually earned from an OT/shootout loss.
Emblematic of the issues in Buffalo, headed for an NHL-high ninth straight playoff DNQ: Thursday against Detroit, top-line winger Sam Reinhart logged a 1 minute, 42 second shift at the end of the first period, tried to dangle the entire Red Wings defense as the clock ran down, and had no legs to backcheck as Dylan Larkin scored with one second left for a 2-0 lead. The building was sparse as Detroit sealed its 13th win in 55 games . . . Marcus Johansson, whom the Bruins let walk for two years and $9 million, had two goals in his last 39 games entering Saturday . . . Don’t expect Dustin Byfuglien, a season-long holdout in Winnipeg, to return this season. Teams will want to see him work out this summer . . . Before McAvoy scored Wednesday, he was one of 181 players without a goal (of 850 to suit up at least once). No one had more ice time (23:10), shots (75) or assists (19).
FaceTime is an essential tool for many NHLers, particularly those with young children. “It’s changed my perspective on how I view road trips,” said Krug, whose wife, Melanie, gave birth to their first child, daughter Saylor, in June. “In the past I was kind of excited to get out and maybe go to dinners with my teammates, and I still am, but it’s disappointing to be away from my daughter and my wife for extended periods of time. I can’t imagine having a kid and not being able to see her face every time I call home. Very lucky to have that technology.” Anyone used a payphone lately?