It would be a surprise to no one that the Boston Bruins’ brass are out watching other teams. While the Bruins are still clinging to a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division, currently tied with the Ottawa Senators for second with 52 points, that position is only temporary. The Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs, just two points behind, have six games in hand on Boston. They are currently doing battle with each other, which could result in a three-way tie with a Toronto win, a drop to third in the division with a Senators win, or the worst-case scenario, a Leafs OT-win in which both results would occur. Regardless, the Bruins are not going to be able to hang on to their spot long with the way they have been playing. Boston has lost three straight, including shutouts by the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Islanders and a crushing 6-5 shootout defeat to the Detroit Redwings wherein they blew two three-goal leads. The Bruins have only won six of their last sixteen games and those six wins have come against four teams that are struggling as much or more than they are: the Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, Florida Panthers (twice), and Buffalo Sabres (twice). Beyond just wins and losses, there are rumors about coach Claude Julien, reported turmoil in the front office surrounding president Cam Neely, injuries on defense to Kevan and Colin Miller, a 16-game goal-less streak for early-season superstar David Pastrnak, and ongoing issues with line chemistry. The Bruins need a shake-up to save their season, and everyone knows it.
So, when Minnesota Wild beat writer Michael Russo reported that Bruins GM Don Sweeney was on the press box list at tonight’s game, with the Wild hosting the Anaheim Ducks, it came as no surprise. Both teams are known for their immense lack of talented depth on defense, something that Boston would definitely be interested in. While the team has been shut out three times this month, their scoring has actually been trending upward. Patrice Bergeron has begun to shake off his early struggles, Frank Vatrano has been a shot in the arm since his return from injury, and Brad Marchand and Torey Krug have remained on fire. The recent return of Matt Beleskey should help to add some scoring and balance out the forward lines (much-needed), while the AHL’s Providence Bruins, who won 9-1 tonight, have been explosive and could potentially offer support up front. That’s not to say that the Bruins, who will have about $17MM in cap space by the time the NHL Trade Deadline rolls around, won’t still look to add an impending free agent forward with some finish, but despite appearances, the offense should be able to figure itself out in the short-term. The defense is a different story. While the Bruins are loaded with defensive talent in the system, none of it is on its way this year and maybe not next year either, and the Bruins need some help now. Krug has four goals and 25 assists, but has also had his issues in his own end. His pair mate Adam McQuaid has had a nice bounce-back season, but offers little in the way of puck movement and offense. Same goes for the top pairing of Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo, who have been one of the better shutdown duos in the league this season, but are slowing down as a 39-year-old and a rookie respectively. John-Michael Liles, an impending free agent, has just recently returned from injury and has yet to make a major difference. Colin Miller, though he has upside, was in and out of the lineup even before his injury, and Kevan Miller, also injured, is likely better suited as an extra man. The Bruins need a legitimate top-four defenseman for this year and for the near future, and both the Wild and Ducks provide intriguing trade partners.
As it stands right now, Anaheim and Minnesota are both guaranteed to lose a top-four caliber defenseman in the upcoming NHL Expansion Draft, if the Vegas Golden Knights choose to select that player. A team can either protect seven forwards and three defenseman or eight skaters total, allowing them to protect a fourth defenseman. Neither situation works out particularly well for either team. The Ducks will be forced to protect veteran Kevin Bieksa, due to his no-movement clause, and will likely choose to protect young cornerstone blue liners Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, and Cam Fowler as well, even if it means leaving a promising forward like Jakob Silfverberg exposed. However, Vegas could choose to instead take another good young defenseman in Josh Manson or potentially Simon Depres. Similarly, the Wild too are expected to protect four defenseman, selecting from Ryan Suter (a veritable lock), Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, and Matt Dumba. One way or another, one of those d-men will be exposed and almost certainly scooped up by the Golden Knights. So, with both teams fighting for position atop the Western Conference and with their eye on a Stanley Cup, Anaheim and Minnesota also have to be thinking about trading a defenseman. They would much rather get something in a trade rather than nothing in the draft, even if that means dealing away talent in a Cup-contender season. Armed with a deep prospect system and quality forwards they may willing to part with, such as David Krejci, Ryan Spooner, and Jimmy Hayes, the Bruins would be an interesting suitor for either team. With Don Sweeney in attendance, watching two teams that are facing a difficult situation and may feel like pressured to make a move, an important shake-up trade could be on the horizon in Boston. Could it be the revitalized Fowler? The youngster Dumba? A more Bruin-like player like Scandella or Manson? Only time will tell, but the connection between the Bruins and these defense-deep teams will be something to keep an eye on as we head toward the Trade Deadline in just over a month.