Bruins

Bruins teetering on the edge of disaster

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Bruins teetering on the edge of disaster

BOSTON -- Even the most optimistic Bruins fan had to know that the month of November was going to be a struggle.

The B's faced a stretch of 12 games against eight teams that made the playoffs last year, and they were doing so with a raft of damaging injuries and a considerable amount of youth in the lineup. And even the four opponents that didn't make the playoffs last year -- the Golden Knights, Kings and Devils, in particular -- are off to very strong starts this season. 

It had trouble written all over, and November has turned into exactly that for the B’s after a 4-1 loss to the Maple Leafs on Saturday night at TD Garden. They're now on a three-game losing streak and have lost six of their last eight. In addition, they're a putrid 0-3-3 against Eastern Conference teams they’re competing with for a playoff spot.

“You know, it’s early to [play] the ‘What-If’ game, but . . . you want to win against the teams you’re going to be fighting for down the road for playoff position,” said Bruce Cassidy. “That’s our goal, so I’m not going to hide from that. Any points are good for us, and the division games mean more, no doubt. We let some get away [in Saturday's 4-1 loss], and actually [on Friday night], you know. If we close that out, it’s a .500 weekend. So that’s a tough one.”

The home loss against the Leafs was particularly frustrating as they outshot Toronto by a 39-24 margin but were 0-for-4 on the power play -- which is operating without David Krejci, Ryan Spooner and David Backes -- dropping them to 2-for-21 with the man advantage in the month of November. But that wasn't the sole reason for the loss. Shutdown defender Brandon Carlo was the culprit behind three of the four goals allowed, and Tuukka Rask once again couldn’t come up with a big save in Boston’s biggest time of need.

The way they lost was clearly frustrating for the Bruins, and that was the insult added to the injury of getting swept in a home-and-home series to their rivals in Toronto, which is playing without its own best player in Auston Matthews. The Bruins are trying to put on a brave face and it's true that they’ve been in just about every thus far this season from a competitive standpoint, but it’s clear the weight of all the missing players is beginning to drag them down.

“We’ve done a good job of making sure that we’re in every game so far and we’ve had a chance to win hockey games, and we’ve clawed our way back,” said Torey Krug. “We’ve had some tough starts but we never give up and that’s a good characteristic to have. It would be nice to start flipping the script there and play with the lead and for a whole 60 minutes and lead the game. But it’s not going to look like that when you’re missing a lot of key players. We’ll just have to keep going.”

Of the biggest concern is the picture in the Eastern Conference as the Bruins are sliding down the standings. The Bruins are now 14th out of 16 teams in the East and a full four points out of a playoff spot with the Thanksgiving marker only a couple of weeks away. The only teams below the Bruins in the Eastern Conference standings are the perennially bad Buffalo Sabres and the permanently adrift Florida Panthers.

That should be a clear message that what the Bruins are doing right now isn’t good enough, even with the built-in excuses. Sure, the B’s have some games in hand against most of the other teams, but they aren’t of much value if they lose them. That’s the situation right now as the Bruins ready to embark on a West Coast road trip that could push them deeper into the depths of the standings.

“I’m not nervous," said Rask. "I think you gotta look at the positives. We haven’t played bad hockey. You know, there’s been bad 5-10 minutes, but it hasn’t been work ethic or nothing like that. You know, we’ve been making plays and battling hard out there. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue. You know, we’ve been here before. We just have to dig deeper and win some road games, it’s definitely not going to be an easy road trip.”

The numbers aren’t really debatable at this point. If the Bruins aren’t in a playoff spot by Thanksgiving, history shows they have about a 25 percent chance of making the postseason. If they’re more than five points out of a spot on Turkey Day, they're in deep, deep trouble.

It’s beginning to feel more and more like the “deep, deep trouble” thing might be a reality for the Bruins, and they’re going to need to do some spectacular things in the next couple of weeks to get out of it.

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Which prospects should the B's be willing to give up at the deadline?

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Which prospects should the B's be willing to give up at the deadline?

Looking at it from the long term view, the Boston Bruins are in a fantastic position at this point in time.

They’re a point behind the Tampa Bay Lightning for the NHL’s top spot, they have a group at the NHL level that’s an ideal combination of proven, veteran Cup winners and talented, enthusiastic young players ready to make their mark.

The Bruins also have a wealth of young prospects below the NHL level working their way to Boston whether it’s former first round picks like Jakub Zboril or Zach Senyshyn just a step away in Providence, or college hockey players like Ryan Donato or Trent Frederic that form the next wave of youngsters. The simple fact of the matter with the Black and Gold is that there isn’t going to be room for every single prospect at the NHL level, and that goes doubly so for a deep, talented group like the Bruins. Another simple NHL fact is that teams have to give up something to get something around the trade deadline, and that means the B’s are going to have to part with something of quality if they want to land a potential big fish like Ryan McDonagh or Rick Nash, or perhaps even a medium-sized fish like Michael Grabner.

Whether it’s again dealing with the Rangers, or the Edmonton Oilers for Patrick Maroon, or the Vancouver Canucks for Thomas Vanek, the GMs around the league are also well aware of the wealth of prospects within the Bruins organization. And they’re looking to land some of them in any potential deals with the Black and Gold. The Rangers, in particular, want NHL-ready prospects to quickly reload their roster, but that’s what all of these teams are looking for in potential rental deals, or trades for players like McDonagh with more term on the contract.

So the million dollar question is what the Bruins should be willing to part with in those types of deals. GMs will certainly ask about Charlie McAvoy, Jake DeBrusk, Danton Heinen and Brandon Carlo at the NHL level as all four players are midway through their entry level contracts, and have already established themselves as considerable NHL players. McAvoy, DeBrusk and Heinen should all be completely off the table in any of the deals the Bruins could be expected to make, and the expectation is that Don Sweeney isn’t going to deal any of them. Those three players are already tightly woven within the fabric of the team, and subtracting them from the roster would substantially worsen the team both in the short term and the long term.

Carlo is perhaps in a little bit of a different story in that the 21-year-old could be a viable trade piece if it was in something like the McDonagh deal, where the Bruins were going to be able to substantially upgrade their defensemen situation. Still, the Bruins aren’t very deep organizationally when it comes to right shot defensemen, and dealing a young, promising righty like Carlo for a lefty like McDonagh would only further complicate that situation.

That's above and beyond the fact that a clever, experienced GM like Jeff Gorton is going to attempt to maximize his return for a big asset like McDonagh, and attempt to get a package featuring two young NHL players (Carlo and either DeBrusk or Heinen) and a pick in exchange for New York's captain. 

The bottom line: of the four established NHL players mostly likely to be coveted by other NHL GMs in trade talks, stay-at-home defenseman Carlo is the only that should be seriously considered as a trade piece.

In the same vein, the most viable Bruins prospect up front that could be moved in the right deal is Anders Bjork. The 21-year-old Bjork has four goals and 12 points in 30 games for the Bruins this season while jumping from Notre Dame straight to the NHL, and is currently injured with an upper body injury suffered last month. He’s shown great skating speed, good hockey IQ and the offensive creativity needed to be a top-6 forward, and has been considered the same class of forward prospect as Heinen and DeBrusk.

It’s still entirely possible that Bjork becomes the best of all three players when it’s all said and done, but it’s also clear Heinen and DeBrusk have hopped over him on the organizational depth chart as this season has played out.

More importantly, Bjork, if traded, could be replaced rather immediately in the B’s talent pipeline by forward Ryan Donato after his impressive five-goal performance for Team USA at the Winter Olympics in South Korea. That’s how it works for an organization like the Bruins where draft and development has become a success story. Some prospects make it to the NHL level and supplant veterans while keeping the salary cap from becoming an issue, some prospects perhaps don’t live up to the hype and other prospects are used as trade assets to address roster needs at the NHL level when things like the trade deadline come to the fore.

The real challenge for Sweeney over the next few days will be deciding which ones like Robbie O’Gara can be utilized in trades to support the NHL team, and which ones like McAvoy, DeBrusk and Heinen should be absolutely untouchable right now.

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What we learned: B's own the third, Chara's still go it

What we learned: B's own the third, Chara's still go it

Here’s what we learned from the Bruins' 3-2 comeback win in over the Oilers on Tuesday night in Edmonton.

1) The Bruins continue to be a dominant force in the third period.


That's a testament to their superior conditioning this season and the way they use their depth to overwhelm opponents in a 60-minute game. The Bruins scored their three goals in the third period to come all the way back from a two-goal deficit and have now outscored opponents 68-38 in the third this season in a jaw-dropping statistic. Basically, the Bruins are a plus-30 in goal differential at the time it matters most. They outshot the Oilers 14-6 in those final 20 minutes and continued pouring it on after they’d hit a couple of posts and missed some golden scoring chances earlier in the game. Some of that was certainly a testament to their resolve and character as they just keep on coming even when they’re getting a little frustrated by the game’s circumstances. Still, some of it is also about a clear time in the game where the Bruins have owned just about all their opponents this season. The third period is theirs.

2) Noel Acciari is finally looking healthy and back to form on the fourth line.


Acciari went through a 10-game scoreless drought and wasn’t playing up to his usual physical standards while he was playing through a lower-body injury in January. Acciari sat out for a couple of weeks to rest the injury, came back midway through February and in the past couple of games is finally back to the hard-hitting, hard-charging factor on the energy line (two hits and a couple of takeaways in his 13 minutes of ice time) that can actually provide a little offense. Acciari’s wraparound goal in the third period was important, too, as he spearheaded the three-goal outburst in the final 20 minutes. The Rhode Island kid now has seven goals on the season and has a legit chance of hitting double-digits this year if he can remain healthy down the stretch, which will always be a challenge given his no-holds-barred style.

3) It’s time to stop fooling around with the trades for left-shot D-men and sign Zdeno Chara to a contract extension.


Chara was immense shutting down Connor McDavid and holding him to two shots and continues to play excellent shutdown defense the past month against some of the top scoring stars in the league. Who can forget the way he completely smothered Auston Matthews in Toronto’s last trip to Boston as the B's gear up for another meeting with the Leafs on Saturday night? Chara has been an excellent warrior, leader and sort of an on-ice coach for the young D-men on the Bruins this season. He’s done everything that Boston has asked of him. Before making a blockbuster trade for a Ryan McDonagh or any other left side D-men that could ostensibly be seen as a long-term replacement for the Bruins captain, they should take care of things with Chara and try to get him locked down ahead of the playoffs. Nobody suspects it’s going to be an issue for the player in any way, shape or form and clearly, a contract year has brought out the best in a player who's a team-best plus-26 on the season. But I don’t think there’s that much more for Chara to prove about their still being gas left in the tank. It’s a reasonable assumption that he can play to this level next season at 41 as well. Certainly, he’s going to have his rough moments when the Bruins play 16 games in March and the playoff grind will always be a challenge for a 40-year-old, but Chara has already proven that Tom Brady isn’t the only 40-year-old ageless wonder still doing his thing in Boston these days.

Plus


*Bruce Cassidy deserves plenty of credit for switching out Riley Nash and David Krejci in the third period while still trailing. That proved to be the impetus behind the B's final two goals. Nash fed a crashing Matt Grzelcyk for the tying strike with his new linemates, and then Danton Heinen fed Krejci for the winner to put the B’s on top for good. Those are masterful adjustments from the B’s coaching staff.

*Chara played 22:39 of ice time while completely shutting down McDavid, had five shots on net and five blocked shots in a yeoman’s effort on the second night of back-to-backs. You know, 40-year-old players aren’t supposed to be able to do that stuff. Impressive,

*David Backes won a key one-on-one battle with Drake Caggiula along the side boards to set up Krejci’s goal, had five shots on net and was a stalwart, physical beast for the Bruins against a pretty rough-and-tumble Oilers crew.

Minus


*No shots on net in 13:22 for Milan Lucic. He did have six registered hits, but he wasn’t noticeable at all in a game where you’d expect the motor to still be running high.

*The same can be said for Patrick Maroon, who had a shot on net and a hit along with a minus-1 rating in 17:23 of ice time for the Oilers. If that was an audition to be a member of the Bruins, he didn’t really do a heck of a lot to impress them after killing them the past few years.

*One shot on net in 13:43 of ice time for Ryan Spooner, who was dropped to the third line with Nash in the third period. The Oilers might be a tough match-up for Spooner given their size and strength, but he’s got to find a way to be effective against those teams down the stretch.

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