By Kevin Flanagan
BSD Bruins Senior Staff Writer
With the NHL trade deadline two weeks away, Bruins general manager Don Sweeney finds himself in an interesting spot. The B’s are currently the hottest team in the league – and have been for nearly three months – and talk is now swirling around that his club could become a favorite to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals this spring.
The rapid progression of the team’s rebuild has taken many – including the Bruins brass and coaching staff – by surprise, and the foundation of the resurgence has been the emergence of young talent throughout the roster, and the cohesiveness that has been built by head coach Bruce Cassidy. Their depth and unity have become the club’s calling card, and by tinkering with that, Sweeney runs the risk that he could essentially take away his team’s greatest strength.
When asked recently about possible moves that could be made at the deadline, the B’s first-year bench boss said, “We can always get better. That’s essentially up to Donnie to decide what’s available and what’s not, but there’s always going to be areas of improvement. I’m happy with our club. I love our guy’s togetherness, and the fact that they pull for one another. We’ve won a lot of hockey games with some different guys in and out of the lineup.”
He added, “We’ll probably get a little bit more of a test as the degree of difficulty goes up on the schedule. We can better assess [possible areas of improvement]. The long and short of it is, I love my team. I love the way they compete. And you can always get better.”
Of course, that is what you would expect a head coach to say about his club, especially one whose team is 19-2-4 in their last 25 games. Nevertheless, there is a good argument to be made that standing pat would benefit the Bruins more than any move that may be available to them, by sending the message to the already tight dressing room that the B’s brass believes in the players that currently occupy it.
However, in Sweeney’s three-plus seasons as the Bruins GM, he has a history of making deals at the deadline, even if they haven’t been greatly significant.
In 2016 – with a team that really had no business making the playoffs – Sweeney sent a second round and fourth-round pick to the New Jersey Devils for forward Lee Stempniak, and a third and a fifth-round pick to the Carolina Hurricanes for defenseman John-Michael Liles. The moves, of course, were moot as the B’s were eliminated from the playoff on the final day of the season by the Ottawa Senators at home in TD Garden by the embarrassing score of 6-1.
Last year, he made a much lesser move, sending a condition sixth-round selection to the Winnipeg Jets for former Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford. And even though the revitalized B’s under then interim head coach Cassidy would make the playoffs, Stafford played a minor role in the six-game first-round loss to the Sens.
On paper, it could be argued that there may be upgrades that might make his team better. However, the team that Sweeney built wasn’t expected to make a strong Cup push this early, and by going all in at this year’s deadline, he risks doing what he said he would never do – “sprinkle” the Bruins young talent around the league via poor trade choices.
Sweeney’s club almost miraculously seems to be on the verge of opening a new window of opportunity to become a perennial Stanley Cup contender just three years after their previous window was slammed shut prematurely, largely due to the mismanagement of the B’s prior general manager Peter Chiarelli. He must weigh the value of going for it now and risking his club’s future with the benefits his young team could reap by dancing with the kids who brought them here entering the NHL’s second season.
Up front, the Bruins have the best in hockey with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. Since David Krejci has returned to health, Ryan Spooner seems to have found a home at right wing with him and rookie Jake DeBrusk.
David Backes is finally beginning to thrive in his second season in Boston along side center Riley Nash and yet another first-year contributor Danton Heinen. Not only has the Bruins third line become their second best defensively; Heinen is fourth on the team in points with 38. And in Sean Kuraly, Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari, Cassidy has a tenacious trio that can save him from putting excessive wear and tear on his top nine forwards in tight games.
Similar things can be said about the B’s defense, as well. While it was considered a weakness entering the season, the emergence of rookies Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk have helped solidify a once shaky blue line as the season has progressed. And the only argument you can use to add to this group, is the redundancy that you have with players like Tory Krug and Grzelcyk, along with Adam McQuaid and Kevan Miller.
However, seeing how the defense was decimated headed into the playoffs last year, dealing any of them could be something Sweeney could soon regret.
The bottom line is, Sweeney’s rebuild is just beginning to blossom. Why would he want to run the risk of casting away his affordable – and talented – assets for a rental that may or may not help you in the playoffs?
Certainly, there is risk involved in standing pat, but for Sweeney and his rebuilt Bruins, that risk is far less than overpaying at the trade deadline for something you simply may not need.