Frustration in 2022 can be defined in a four word phrase: Boston winter sports teams.
The Bruins, much like the Celtics, are in an unenviable position. Neither team is considered elite in the NHL or NBA, yet both are having above average seasons. The problem? One day they look like world beaters, and the next, they look like lost puppy dogs.
Similarly, the Bruins soon will face the same critical part of their season as the Celtics did just a few weeks ago: the trade deadline. And the B’s must now also decide if they will be sellers or buyers come deadline day.
For the first few months of the season, the Celtics struggled mightily. They had no identity and many questioned if it was time to break up the team. As the calendar turned to January, play became more consistent, and togetherness became a theme. They had turned a corner, and a nine game win streak was soon to follow. The Celtics suddenly thrust themselves into a team looking like they were built for a deep playoff run. As a result, the C’s decided to add to their roster rather than subtract.
With a nice mix of veterans and young players, will the Bruins follow the same trajectory as the Celtics? Do they decide to make one last run at a Stanley Cup and buy talent as the deadline approaches, or do they consider breaking up the core, selling off pieces, and signal the beginnings of a rebuild? It’s an incredibly difficult place in which to be, but by March 21 we will know if they go full throttle, or jump ship. An argument can be made for both.
When you reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, which the Bruins will, anything can happen. That’s the beauty of hockey. The team can get hot, you get a goalie who suddenly stands on his head, or maybe even get a ridiculous run of puck luck. In hockey, unlike other sports, you just never know. So if general manager Don Sweeney and team president Cam Neely choose to give Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak one more kick at the can, you can’t fault them. However, if they look within themselves and conclude this is the time to sell high and bring in younger pieces for the next great Bruins team, that reasoning also exists.
The Bruins going all in would require two things leading up to the deadline, and it’s not complicated. Trade for a solid defenseman and a Top 6 forward, preferably a center. Simple right? Not so fast. Numerous things would have to fall into place, and Sweeney would need to part with high draft picks and young players to acquire either. But the need for a big and talented body on the blue line is clear. Charlie McAvoy has been everything and more for the team, a franchise player who has established himself as the centerpiece of the defense. But he plays A LOT of minutes and needs help via a guy who can come in behind him, take some pressure off, and help lead that unit. Brandon Carlo, Matt Gryzlek, Derek Forbort, Mike Reilly, and 23-year-old Urho Vaakanainen have been solid, but have shown stretches of inconsistent play. Going out and getting a Nick Leddy from Detroit, a Colin Miller from Buffalo, or a John Klingberg from Dallas would go a long way in shoring up the defensive core in front of Jeremy Swayman. Assets you must lose to get players like these is unknown. But Sweeney will need to get creative if he wants to bring in someone for the top two pairings.
When it comes to attacking the zone, and putting pucks on net, Sweeney must acquire a forward to integrate into his top two lines. There simply hasn’t been enough secondary scoring. Head coach Bruce Cassidy has tinkered with these lines as of late, separating the perfection line of Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak for the first time as head coach. Taylor Hall, Craig Smith, and Charlie Coyle have mostly formed line No. 2. Marchand and Pastrnak have been the team’s leading scorers all season, each relied upon at times to carry the load. But they can’t be counted on every night in the playoffs. They need help. Sweeney doesn’t need to go out and obtain the second coming of Sidney Crosby, but he does need to find a player who knows how to score, has playoff experience, and fits in with this existing group. To reference the 2011 Championship group, a Nathan Horton or Michael Ryder type would be ideal as players who can put the puck in the net at just the right time.
Taylor Hall pointed out this week that he feels the team no longer wins games 6-5 or 5-4. He said most victories have been low scoring, resulting in 3-2 and 2-1 outcomes. He was right. Relying solely on your goaltender to take you all the way isn’t a recipe for success. Scoring depth is a weakness, and an addition is a necessity if they want to make a deep cup run. Players to target would include the Flyers Claude Giroux, Canucks centerman J.T. Miller, or the BlueJackets winger Max Domi. Giroux and Miller would likely cost the most, but adding players who score 20-25 goals a season is exactly what might put this team over the top. With the departure of David Krejci in the offseason, and Bergeron hinting at retirement, the center position needs a reboot. Trade for Miller and you have him locked up for another year or maybe even convince him to sign an extension. It will cost more, but he’s a proven scorer and at 28-years-old will fill a huge need. Trading for Giroux will likely cost slightly less because he’s an unrestricted free agent after the season. But getting either player in addition to a solid defenseman, automatically puts you in the Cup contention conversation.
Suppose management decides the rebuild is upon us? First and foremost, it will hit the passionate and dedicated Bruins fanbase hard. Selling pieces would most likely require starting with captain, and all around star Bergeron. Bergy has a lot of miles on those hockey legs, has thought about retirement, and has a significant concussion history. But he’s a perennial Selke candidate, dominate face-off man, puck controller, fan favorite, and clear team leader. Losing him would signal an end to this era of Bruins hockey. Perhaps the truest professional off the ice Boston has ever seen, a Bergeron exit would sting. Don’t see Sweeney pulling that trigger and Bergeron would have to give the green light, but if he does, the organization would certainly try to send him to a true Cup contender for one last legitimate shot at a ring.
Selling your captain means you’re prepared to push many more chips in the middle. Players on the bargaining table would include Pastranak, Coyle, Smith, Reilly, Lazar, Foligno and Haula. To go all in on a rebuild, Sweeney would also have to consider trading someone like Taylor Hall. The former league MVP has looked slow, lost, and unmotivated during long stretches of the season. Changing scenery for Hall might be good for both sides, while also bringing a few chips back Sweeney’s way. Then there’s Pastrnak. Trading a high profile scorer like Pastrnak would likely net a huge return. Pastrnak is signed for only one more year, and could walk after 2023. He has struggled in playoffs past. But his ability to score at will and carry a team, is something another contending club would highly covet, and something that would bring back talented young pieces for the future.
Rebuilding doesn’t mean everyone is gone. Keep three core players. McAvoy, Marchand, and Swayman. McAvoy isn’t going anywhere, and shouldn’t. He’s your top D man for many years to come, and likely the next captain. Marchand certainly brings baggage as evidenced most recently by his six game suspension, however, he is one the league’s best players. A lethal scoring weapon who’s signed for three more years at just over $6 million dollars per year, has one of the best team contracts in the NHL. Moving him doesn’t make sense. Like McAvoy, Swayman is young, talented, cheap, and a player who could mind Boston’s net for the next 10 years. He’ll eventually take over number one goalie status when the team inevitably finds a trade partner for Linus Ullmark. Keep this trio, hold them tight, and don’t let go. Build around them, do it intelligently, and the next Cup contender in Boston could be here sooner than you think.
This could go either way. It will likely come down to how the team is playing in the handful of games leading up to the deadline, just as it did with the Celtics. Bruins fans should accept either fate. The head says now is the time to sell, and begin building for the future. But the gut says Sweeney won’t be able to resist trying to make one more run and you can’t really blame him. Stanley Cup playoffs are special. So settle in, and grab your popcorn. Boston could once again have two winter teams fighting for your playoff attention.