General Manager Don Sweeney has 12 hockey games to decide whether or not to treat the 2018-19 Boston Bruins like Stanley Cup contenders.
Feb. 25 is the National Hockey League’s trade deadline, and three questions that followed the Bruins into the season remain unanswered.
• Who will center the third line? (Minnesota’s Charlie Coyle and St. Louis’ Braden Schenn are the topic of trade talk.)
• Who will skate right wing with David Krejci? (Peter Cehlarik made an immediate impact opposite Jake DeBrusk, but can the rookie sustain it?)
• Is there a defenseman besides soon-to-be-42-year-old Zdeno Chara who can match up on the left side against top-six forwards? (John Moore was signed long term with such a role in mind, but was a healthy scratch in recent games.)
Here’s a bigger one: Have the Bruins shown the mettle and maturity to warrant the kind of move that Sweeney made a year ago when he dealt his first-round draft pick to the Rangers for Rick Nash?
At the time, the Bruins were rolling toward only the 10th 50-win campaign in franchise history, so Sweeney took a swing.
That Nash sustained a concussion and ultimately chose retirement is irrelevant. There is inherent risk with any high-end player acquisition, so bad luck should not steal any of team’s chutzpah.
Nor should memories be so short.
Upon his recent dismissal in Edmonton, erstwhile Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has been made into a social-media pinata, and some Boston fans have gone so far as to chastise his 2011 deadline trade of Blake Wheeler.
At age 24, Wheeler’s production had regressed (11-16-27 in 58 GP despite averaging 15:02 per game), and a team looking to make a run at the Cup needed to accent its grit so the 2004 fifth overall pick to the Coyotes (Chiarelli signed him in 2008 as a free agent out of the University of Minnesota) was shipped to the Thrashers (Jets) with defenseman Mark Stuart for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik.
If you recall, it was Peverley who stepped up to Boston’s top line when Nathan Horton was literally knocked out of the Cup final early in Game 3 on a late hit by Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome.
Eight years later, Wheeler is a hulk of a hockey player, a superstar power forward with 9-52-61 totals in 48 games and captain of a 31-15-2, division leader. When the puck dropped at TD Garden on Tuesday, big No. 26 offered Sweeney a high-definition snapshot of what it looks like when a team has the horses to compete in May. So will his Winnipeg teammates.
Last season’s 50-20-12 finish seduced Boston management into sending New York its first-round draft pick, only to be ragdolled by the Tampa Bay Lightning in a five-game, second-round playoff ouster.
With injuries taking big bites out of core players’ seasons, 2018-19 hasn’t been nearly as pretty, and with Montreal and Buffalo crowding an already improving division, a playoff spot is no guarantee.
Pile on with a Winter Classic win and the parallels to what went on with the Bruins a decade ago are striking.
Just like it did when Claude Julien was coaching young players named Wheeler, Krejci and Phil Kessel, winning came so easily it distorted the view of the mountain. The Bruins got a better view of the climb the next year, and that’s what they’re going through now. The aforementioned are all in their 30s, and two of the other three play for other teams.
Assuming they hold onto their playoff spot, the Bruins will be better for the hard miles. The sting of the 2018 postseason and the plight of Nash are still fresh in mind as the Bruins consider their options. And the Lightning (league-leading 37-10-2), a likely second-round playoff opponent, look like an even tougher out this year.
Meantime, Sweeney and his management team have had another crucial year to evaluate and are in a better position to decide which young players the Bruins cannot afford to lose and if there is a deal they won’t regret regardless of what happens from here on out.