By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
As recently as this past Monday – according to SportsLine.com – the Bruins were tied for third with the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals, the Nashville Predators – who are just one year removed from the Finals – and the Winnipeg Jets at 10/1 to hoist Lord Stanley’s coveted challis next June.
The trouble is, the two teams ahead of them based the current odds, are the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning, two division rivals whom the B’s will have to get past just to get to the Conference Finals. The former of which the B’s barely got by in a seven-game series in the opening round of the playoffs last season, and the latter dismissed them in the second-round four games to one, which was not even as close as the lopsided score would indicate.
While general manager Don Sweeney swung and missed on the most coveted free agents in the NHL this summer – 35-year-old question mark Ilya Kovalchuk and former New York Islanders superstar John Tavares – the Leafs bagged Tavares, and the Bolts are still being rumored to be in the mix to trade for disgruntled Ottawa Senators superb defenseman Erik Karlsson.
Meanwhile, the Bruins brass has seemed content to stick with developing the kids, instead of making a strong play for the likes of the Columbus Blue Jackets forward Artemi Panarin, who would no doubt bolster the biggest hole in their lineup entering the season – secondary scoring.
It was painfully obvious during the beat down that Tampa Bay delivered to this past spring to the rebounding B’s squad that head coach Bruce Cassidy’s club is top heavy when it comes reliable talent that can put the puck in the twine. Late-season addition Ryan Donato shined in his 12-game audition before the playoffs – he had nine points (5 goals, 4 assists) – but he was a non-factor in the postseason, dressing for only three games and posting a minus two without appearing on the scoresheet offensively.
With trade deadline deal Rick Nash – who has a well-deserved reputation for disappearing in the playoffs – looking less likely by the day to return to the team, Sweeney seems to be pinning his hopes on his youngsters even more for this upcoming season.
When discussing Tavares’ decision to sign with his favorite childhood team in Toronto and whether he had another target for a second line scoring winger, the Bruins GM once again focused on the pipeline of players they have in the system.
“Potentially, we have some strong internal candidates,” said Sweeney on July 1st. “I think Danton Heinen deserves an opportunity; I think Ryan Donato deserves an opportunity. We have other players that we’re going to take a look at. I think, in bringing Joakim [Nordstrom] and Chris [Wagner], we certainly addressed in being very target specific about what the bottom part of our lineup is able to do and taking away minutes and situational minutes, penalty kill minutes.
“These are two guys that are very depth in those areas of the ice. They both skate really well – physicality piece. Noel [Acciari] is a player that ran through some injuries. The way he plays, Chris can slide over there; he’s a three-position player. So, again, being target-specific on some of the needs that we had that we felt that we were potentially losing with some players, as I was going through some negotiations there, that we needed to replace.”
And while replacing bottom six forwards like Riley Nash – whose career 41 point year led to an overpayment by Columbus (3 years, $8.25 million contract) – might be nice, little was done to add to a team that was considered a contender in the East entering this summer.
Being optimistic is one thing, but sticking to the status quo may just be a step back for the overachieving Bruins.
To expect players like Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen to repeat their performances – or exceed them, as it seems Sweeney thinks they can – is a big ask. Not to mention to have young, unproven players like Anders Bjork, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, or even Donato to fill the role as a second line scorer on a true Stanley Cup contending team is a pretty big reach.
Should the Bruins regress from their breakout season of a year ago – and given the fact that key contributors like Zdeno Chara (40), Patrice Bergeron (33), David Krejci (32), Tuukka Rask (31) and Brad Marchand (30) are aging quickly – the decision to rely on the unproven prospects in their system while their chief competitors in the division are upgrading, may be one that Sweeney might regret come next April.
Building from within is always a good plan. However, when you play in a hard salary cap league, and you are seemingly so close to competing for a championship, sometimes it is better to sell high on prospects instead of holding on to future hopes.