The NHL trade deadline for the 2021-22 season is five weeks away. There is plenty of time between now and then for the 32 NHL team front offices to make decisions as to whether or not they are going to be buyers or sellers. One of those teams is the Boston Bruins where general manager Don Sweeney has plenty of decisions to make before March 21.
Boston is holding onto the final Eastern Conference wild card spot and in reality, they have very little chance of getting into the top 3 of the Atlantic Division, where the Florida Panthers, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Toronto Maple Leafs have all but locked up the three spots. Yes, there is plenty of hockey left in the season and they are six points behind the Maple Leafs in the division, but the Black and Gold should be more worried about holding off the Detroit Red Wings or any other team below them in the standings that get hot. With that said, Sweeney must look hard at what he should do at the trade deadline.
Are the Bruins Truly Stanley Cup Contenders?
That is the biggest question that Sweeney needs to answer. In the last week, veteran goalie Tuukka Rask retired, Brad Marchand received a six-game suspension for his actions against Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry and Patrice Bergeron is sidelined with an injury following a collision with Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, which knocked Bergeron on his back, with his head hitting the boards. The Black and Gold have gone 1-1 in the absence of their leaders, losing 6-0 to the Carolina Hurricanes, currently second in the Metropolitan Division, and a 2-0 win over the struggling Ottawa Senators.
There is a lot there that needs to be taken into consideration. Marchand, who leads the Bruins in assists and points, is out until Feb. 24 when the Bruins begin a West Coast road trip against the Seattle Kraken. Bergeron, out indefinitely, is third on the team in points and second in assists. Losing two of your top three point leaders and two-thirds of your first line is a daunting task to try and survive in the next week. Losing Rask is not a surprise and Boston should be good in goal with a Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman tandem.
In the big picture, can the Bruins compete with and have a chance to beat the Lightning, Panthers, Maple Leafs, Hurricanes, Penguins, New York Rangers, and Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference. That is a lot to try and get through just to reach the Stanley Cup Final. Yes, they have had some success against some of those teams this season, but is Boston going to be able to win four out of seven games in a series against those teams three times?
What Are the Bruins Biggest Needs?
It is well-known that the Bruins are in need of a second-line center and left-shot defensemen. The argument could be made that another right wing is needed for offensive production and some toughness somewhere on the roster, whether it’s on defense or with a forward. Trent Frederic, who has been out with an injury since Jan. 10, can fill some of that void, but more toughness would be a welcomed addition to coach Bruce Cassidy’s lineup.
First priority would be a second-line center for not only this season, but in the future with questions surrounding whether or not Bergeron returns after this season. As we are finding out with Bergeron sidelined with an injury, the Black and Gold’s center depth without the captain is very suspect at best. Erik Haula, centering the top line in Bergeron’s absence, has played well on the second line with Cassidy’s new realigned lines in January, but in reality, he’s a bottom-six center. Charlie Coyle earned the spot of out of training camp, but again, like Haula, he’s better when he’s centering the third line.
Jack Studnicka has been given an opportunity with Bergeron sidelined and the 22-year-old has performed well. Has he performed well enough to be the second-line center? Time will tell, but thinking he can slide into the first-line center spot next season to replace Bergeron is a tough ask at this point. Tomas Nosek, another bottom-six forward signed last offseason is just that, a bottom-six center, and asking him to play above that consistently is a really big ask.
There is also a glaring need on defense for the Bruins, mainly a left-shot blueliner. The left-side of Matt Grzelcyk, Mike Reilly, and Derek Forbort could use an addition. Prospect Urho Vaakanainen, who is out injured with an upper-body injury sustained on Feb. 1 against the Kraken, has played well and is seen as a future defenseman in Boston. Jakub Zboril is another defenseman that played well this season, but his season ended on Dec. 2 against the Nashville Predators with a knee injury.
Dallas Stars right-shot defensemen John Klingberg could be had in a trade, but at what cost to the Bruins? Mortgaging the future for a player that could walk at the end of the season seems like an investment that Sweeney has to really think about be he makes it.
Related: Bruins Could Really Use the Stars’ Klingberg
After David Pastrnak, the Bruins have not exactly got any offensive production from their right wings. Craig Smith has been a disappointment in his year-and-a-half in Boston, while the bottom-six has not done well. How bad is it? The argument could be made that Oskar Steen, who was sent down to the Providence Bruins in the American Hockey League (AHL) on Friday, has been maybe their most productive right wing after Pastrnak and Smith? If so, then that tells you where they currently stand at the right wing position.
What Are the Bruins Willing to Deal?
That is going to be the biggest question that faces Sweeney. How much of the future is he willing to trade by March 21 to improve the roster. During his tenure as GM, Sweeney has not exactly hit it out of the ballpark in drafting and has not really built up the prospect system to where a team would be willing to make a deal.
From the 2015 draft class, Brandon Carlo, and Jake DeBrusk are still making an impact on the current roster, as is Charlie McAvoy from the 2016 class. The 2017 class includes Jeremy Swayman that has been making an impact, with Vaakanaienen and Studnicka working their way into the lineup at different times. It has been stated many times and should be again, the 2015 draft is one where when the Bruins core players retire or move on, is going to be what pushes the organization back a bit. Three first-round picks at No’s 13, 14, and 15 had the franchise set up for the future, but we all know by now how that turned out to be a big miss.
When figuring out what he is going to do leading up to and at the trade deadline, Sweeney needs to sit back and figure out if this team is worth investing in and how much to invest in. If he thinks that his team has a realistic shot at winning a Stanley Cup, then how much is he willing to give up to improve the chances? If not and he feels that adding a piece or two, then at what cost?
Certainly, Studnicka, Vaakanainen, and even Steen could draw some interest. DeBrusk has already requested a trade back in November and Sweeney has and is taking his time because the Bruins need him in Marchand’s absence, as well as Sweeney not getting what he feels is a good enough deal in return. After those names, then some players off the current NHL roster could be used, but who would teams be interested in? My guess is, not many.
Related: Bruins Untouchable Prospects for 2022 Trade Deadline
The Bruins are stuck in the middle of mediocrity again, like they were through the first three months of the season. They currently hold the eighth and final Eastern Conference wild card spot, but right now it feels like they are going to be hanging on by a slim margin for the rest of the season. The Red Wings are seven points back as the closest team within striking distance, while the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders could find themselves within striking distance should the Black and Gold continue to struggle without Bergeron and Marchand in the lineup.
Several Questions Need to Be Answered
Sweeney, whose contract is up following this season as GM, has a month to decide what he is going to do and how much of a buyer the Bruins will be between now and March 21. The end is coming for Bergeron and Marchand soon enough as well as it did for Rask. How much youth is the Boston GM going to be willing to part with and how many draft picks, if any would he part with? He has shipped the Bruins first-round pick in recent drafts, but that was to upgrade a roster that was in a better position to win a championship than this one. Time will tell over the next month what the Bruins are and will do. Right now, selling the farm for a rental player or some NHL-ready prospects does not seem like the move to make.