With Anders Bjork being felled Tuesday evening by a Francois Beauchemin crosscheck, the Boston Bruins suddenly find themselves relatively thin at a position that was firing on all cylinders roughly one week ago.
Things were running so smoothly in Boston that Bjork and Peter Cehlarik were down on the farm in Providence, taking time with their development, soaking up the sunshine and strengthening their roots; a luxury afforded to them by the success and can’t-miss play of the parent club.
The duo were seen as Boston’s aces in the hole; young, capable insurance policies should the club require additional depth or a scoring boost to its top nine down the stretch and into the playoffs. Ostensibly, they were in-house deadline rentals, with two-way contracts to boot.
With their focus still largely on the future in spite of this season’s success, president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney were in a position of strength as the trade deadline approached — the two could wait for the right deal at the right price to subtly augment and bolster the club (a la Drew Stafford last season), or they could refrain from making an additional altogether should the price or landscape not be to their liking.
As the calendar flips to February however, Boston’s plans could be susceptible to change.
Boston’s Depth Being Tested
Brad Marchand’s suspension led to the recall of Bjork, which led to the 21-year-old’s untimely injury just one week later. Cehlarik has been called up in the wake of Bjork’s injury, thereby burning through both of Boston’s aforementioned young and capable insurance policies. Cehlarik himself has struggled to stay on the ice this season, missing one month with a leg injury after missing the majority of training camp with a shoulder ailment.
Noel Acciari has missed two games and counting. Though David Backes appears to have avoided any long-term complications stemming from Nick Ritchie’s high hit in Tuesday’s contest, it was nevertheless a scary moment and a reminder of how quickly things can change in this sport.
In a span of eight days, the Bruins went from having too many capable bodies to warrant the inclusion of a young-stud like Bjork on its roster to featuring Frank Vatrano in a top nine role at the end of a contest in which they were trailing. And I have yet to mention the fact that Charlie McAvoy, arguably the team’s best all-around defenseman at just 20-years old, suddenly needed to undergo a surgical procedure on his heart and has missed three games (and counting).
Life comes at you fast.
Marchand will return on Feb. 7, and will likely be no worse for wear — he’s rust-proof. Backes will likely be in the lineup Thursday with a clean bill of health and his former team in town. McAvoy’s initial prognosis was a two-week layoff, meaning he’ll likely return next week. Noel Acciari is listed as day to day.
This is all good news, all things considered. But losing so many key contributors in such a short period of time should be a healthy reminder for the Boston front office that a team can never be too deep, that injuries will occur and that teams with “legitimate contender” attached to their name deserve the reward of management buying-in and supplementing the roster if and where need be.
Weighing the Future Versus the Present
Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.
Ignoring or overlooking Boston’s exciting and ripe-for-the-picking opportunity in the here-and-now because of the promise of better days in the future is a risky proposition; one that could be very regrettable in hindsight.
There’s no denying that Boston’s bevy of young talent both on roster and in the pipeline is exciting. Encouraging. It certainly deserves careful tending and attention and should be largely kept intact. By no means am I suggesting this team go all-in and start throwing around prospects and picks for an assortment of high-priced rentals.
However, standing-pat and attempting to hang on to everyone is closer to hoarding than good management. The Bruins have made 22 draft selections under Sweeney, with half of them coming in the first two rounds.
The opportunity has presented itself for Boston to begin cashing-in on its organizational depth to supplement the first contender they’ve iced in four years
Recent History Sheds Light
Take a glance at the Ottawa Senators, for example. Last season they were one goal away from the Stanley Cup Final. This season, they have the third-worst record in the NHL, are about to host a fire-sale and suddenly seem like long-shots to retain captain and star Erik Karlsson’s services.
This is not a team that was absolutely gutted by free agency. The few players who were lost or traded were replaced by comparable or even better/younger talents. With very few exceptions, this season’s squad is virtually identical to last season’s and yet the results could not be more different.
Some years a team simply has the mojo — in others, they do not.
Perhaps next year is the year that Father Time finally catches up to Zdeno Chara. Maybe a member of Boston’s juggernaut top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand or David Pastrnak endures a season-ending injury. Perhaps Charlie McAvoy requires a more invasive follow-up procedure, or Tuukka Rask’s play drops off. Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen, Matt Grzelcyk and the titular Bjork could all succumb to the very-real sophomore slump. David Backes will be another year older…
There’s no way of knowing what the future holds. But a firm and total commitment to the future at the expense of the present could prove just as detrimental to the Bruins as an instance of buyer’s remorse.
This team is capable of big things; it would be a shame if one injury and frugality masquerading as responsibility kept them from realizing their potential.
Making a (Small) Splash At Deadline
Elliot Friedman has reported that rival GM’s have been notified that the Bruins will not part with their top prospects, which is encouraging to hear. But having made 22 selections over the last three seasons it stands to reason that future picks (or mid-tier prospects, for that matter) should very much be in play. That plan will likely take them out of the running for many of the big fish, but that doesn’t mean Boston can’t hit a home run at the deadline.
Evander Kane, James van Riemsdyk and possibly even Mike Hoffman are likely off the table. The three are all currently employed by division foes (making things additionally complicated) and figure to command quite a market. Hoffman’s remaining term (one season beyond the current) and three-consecutive 25-plus goal campaigns are certainly enticing, but the Bruins are unlikely to outbid the competition, especially given the divisional affiliation.
Vegas’ James Neal and David Perron would both be excellent fits in the middle of Boston’s lineup, but with the Golden Knights on an unprecedented run it will take a significant overpayment to convince GM George McPhee to sell with his team in first place. No thank you.
Vancouver’s Thomas Vanek is once again on the trade block. Once again, the Bruins are suggested as a potential landing spot (4:57 of video). Frankly, the Bruins could do a lot worse than sending a conditional third-round pick and B-prospect (his price last season with similar stats) to acquire Vanek. Currently second amongst Vancouver scorers and on-pace for nearly 60-points, the Austrian UFA-to-be would provide a scoring jolt for Boston at both five-on-five and on the power play.
He’ll never be mistaken for Patrice Bergeron as it pertains to his defensive play, but he’s not the glaring liability many paint him to be. Furthermore, his prorated salary of $2 million would be a non-factor in negotiations.
Like I said, the Bruins could do a lot worse than this player at that price.
Grabner a Perfect Fit?
Why settle for the older-model Austrian when his younger, faster counterpart is also reportedly on the market? Plus, if the Bruins ever actually traded for Vanek we would no longer be able to enjoy the yearly “Vanek to Boston” rumors, and that would be unfortunate.
Through 49 games, Michael Grabner has scored more goals (21) than David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, Anze Kopitar and Jamie Benn. His expiring contract is paying him just $1.65 million this season; an even easier fit than Vanek’s. And unlike Vanek, Grabner can absolutely fly. Easily one of the NHL’s fastest skaters, the 30-year-old’s acquisition would only enhance Boston’s ability to play with speed. Greasy-fast speed:
He can play either wing, excels on the penalty kill and could fit at any of the four wing spots within the middle of Boston’s lineup.
On pace for 35 goals, his acquisition won’t come cheaply. The conditional second-round pick used to acquire Jaromir Jagr back in 2013 (which became a first-round selection upon Boston’s appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals) could be a useful comparable. Perhaps an additional mid-round pick or B-prospect would be required.
Michael Grabner could bring the Bruins exactly what they need for a fraction of the going rate for the stars and darlings of the upcoming trade deadline. If a trip to the Finals costs the Bruins the 30th or 31st pick in the upcoming draft, so be it. Boston has the pipeline to withstand far more.
It’s been a rough campaign for Frank Vatrano, who’s miscast as a fourth-line fill-in and is lacking the confidence/ability to adequately contribute from Boston’s top nine.
With Edmonton spinning their tires in the oil sands of Alberta, UFAs to-be Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu figure to be on the move by February 26. Either would represent a solid depth addition for a team that likely would prefer to not be relying on Vatrano to step into their lineup during the playoffs.
And make no mistake: Injuries will take place. The 13th forward will be called upon.
Like Vanek, Maroon has played his best hockey against the Black and Gold. It’s possible those good vibes and juju transfer over while adorning the colors himself. Furthermore, with the Bruins once again being pushed around by the Anaheim Ducks Tuesday night, it’s possible that a little extra beef for the playoffs wouldn’t be a terrible thing.
Letestu’s experience, versatility (able to play all three forward positions) and face-off ability would make for an excellent fourth-line insurance policy.
Should the Bruins decide to travel a similar route as last season with Drew Stafford, either would bolster Boston’s depth for an agreeable price. Maybe Peter Chiarelli would be interested in Vatrano, the last player he signed as GM of the Bruins.
Boston’s Appropriate Approach
Somewhere between last season’s approach and swinging for the fences would likely do the most good for this year’s edition of the Bruins. Last season, a playoff appearance was the goal, with the hopes of maybe winning a round or two. The team was more or less just happy to be there after two-consecutive playoff misses. They were certainly not considered a legitimate contender and therefore were not inclined to spend like one.
Don’t these Bruins deserve more? They’ve gone 23-3-4 over their last 30 games, including the second-best points streak in franchise history. And sure, that may suggest on the surface that this team is capable of winning the Cup without any additions. But injuries occur. So do suspensions. And out-of-nowhere medical procedures too. First-year players can wilt under the intensity and scrutiny of the playoffs…
If you’re concerned or worried about who sits in the wake of a roster addition, I’d like to remind you that then-rookie Tyler Seguin was scratched for twelve of his team’s 25 playoff games in the run to the 2011 Finals, while then-rookie Dougie Hamilton was scratched for 15 of 22 in the run to the 2013 Finals. But both were eventually needed, because injuries occur.
The 2014 run saw no such depth or “enviable problem.” That team was forced to dress Matt Fraser and Justin Florek for multiple games and lost in the second round.
It’d be a shame if these Bruins came up short because they didn’t account for the occurrences which inevitably happen to every team during the playoffs.
This team doesn’t need help, at least not yet. But they will eventually. And beyond “need,” they’ve displayed enough aptitude, fortitude and legitimacy to justify sacrificing a sliver of an uncertain future for a large serving of stability and depth in the here and now.
They’ve earned as much.
Despite being New England’s Son (hailing from the Great State of Connecticut), Joe currently resides in Los Angeles, California. One of his earliest memories is of the Bruins losing in the 1990 Stanley Cup Finals, setting up a lifetime of crushing disappointments. He feels genuine sadness for those without a passion to rival his unwavering love for the greatest game on earth.