By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
It has been over a week since the hottest commodity to hit free agency in the salary cap era – former New York Islanders franchise center John Tavares – announced that he was taking his talents to his hometown of Toronto to play for the long-suffering Leafs. Having already been spurned by Ilya Kovalchuk – the 35-year-old returning NHL’er received a three-year deal from the Los Angeles Kings, a term the Bruins wisely refused to match – B’s general manager Don Sweeney had to know that his chances of landing the 29-year-old former first-round pick from the Isles was a longshot, at best.
With the Leafs pocketing the top prize of the summer, and the Tampa Bay Lightning – who clearly outclassed the Bruins in five games in the second round of the playoffs last spring – in the midst of the Erik Karlsson sweepstakes, this leaves the Black and Gold playing catch up as camp looms just some eight weeks away.
Both of these developments in what was already a top-heavy division before free agency started, is leading some to wonder whether Sweeney will begin to feel the heat as the dog days of summer quickly lead to September.
“The Atlantic Division has an invisible force field after the top three teams: the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. One of those teams has made an enormous roster upgrade this summer. The other is reportedly attempting to do the same. And one team counts a rugged bottom-pair blueliner as its biggest acquisition,” writes Larkin.
While he rightly notes Toronto’s struggles on defense, “The Toronto Maple Leafs are far from a perfect team. They were the most porous of any squad to make the playoffs last season, allowing a whopping 33.9 shots per game in the regular season.” He goes on to detail just how the depth down the middle will not only help Toronto’s offense; it will help offset the struggles they faced on their backend last season.
“The Leafs are a strong bet to lead the NHL in goals after ranking fourth last season, and with their puck control up the middle from Tavares, Auston Matthews and Nazem Kadri, it stands to reason they’ll allow fewer shot attempts this coming season. Tavares will help there when he’s on the ice, and should the subtraction of old-school Roman Polak from the defense corps. So a team that led the Boston Bruins in the third period of Game 7 in Round 1 of the playoffs adds arguably one of the top 10 players in the sport.”
When it to how the Bruins currently match up with the Bolts, Larkin was just as blunt. “The Bolts were even better than the Leafs last season and rank up there with the Winnipeg Jets for the NHL’s best collection of all-around star power at every position. Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point up front. Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh and potentially Karlsson on defense. Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy in net. And this collection of talent was good enough to outclass the Bruins in five games in Round 2 of the playoffs – before acquiring Karlsson. Even if the Karlsson trade falls through, its stands to reason the Bruins need to improve their roster to catch up to the team that disposed of them rather easily.”
What is evident – and is clearly the prevailing opinion in the hockey world – is that in order to bring the Bruins back inline with the contenders in the East – is that Sweeney will have to do something that he has yet to prove he has the skills to do as an NHL executive.
Execute a productive pure hockey trade.
Sure, the Bruins have the internal depth to go into the regular season and be in the running for not only a playoff spot, but at least have a sniff at the Atlantic Division title. They – to the surprise of many – did it a year early last season, and there is no reason to believe that given the ups and downs of an 82-game grind they couldn’t do it again.
That being said – as they discovered when they were handily dismissed by the much more physical Lightning squad last spring – playoff hockey is a different animal. And so isn’t deal-making at the trade deadline.
If Sweeney hopes to add that top six left shot defenseman or a larger bodied right wing who knows how to find the back of the net to play with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk, he needs to do it while teams have an eye towards the future and not a desire to lopsidedly win a deal at the deadline.
It may be summertime, but the living shouldn’t be easy right now for the Bruins brass. What they fail to do in the remaining weeks before camp opens on September 7th at Warrior Ice Arena in Brighton, will likely cost them dearly at the end of February next year, if they truly hope to be a Stanley Cup contender next June.