It wouldn’t shock anybody if the Boston Bruins’ path to this season's NHL trade deadline looks a lot like last season's.
Last year the Bruins executed a deal for third line center Charlie Coyle a week prior to the deadline to address a long-term roster issue, and then dealt for rental winger Marcus Johansson on deadline day when a number of other trade scenarios fell by the wayside.
This season, Don Sweeney once again struck early by landing Anaheim right winger Ondrej Kase while freeing up salary cap space by dumping David Backes' contract on the Ducks. With deadline day upon us and all transactions due by 3 p.m. ET on Monday afternoon, the Bruins still need a goal-scorer to provide secondary offense.
The Bruins can’t simply hope that teams like the Penguins, Capitals and Lightning will once again lose in the first round of the playoffs as they did last postseason. The sneaking suspicion is that the B’s don’t have enough firepower up and down the lineup to beat the deeper, bigger and stronger groups like those in Washington and Tampa Bay, particularly after those clubs beefed up their rosters by adding Ilya Kovalchuk and Brenden Dillon and Blake Coleman and Zach Bogosian, respectively.
The Bruins say they are in it to win it and need to show that by adding something substantial to this group ahead of Monday’s deadline, who's going to be a difference-maker.
“I was looking at players that hopefully would fall into that category, that would continue to grow, complement our group,” said Don Sweeney, referencing the Kase deal with Anaheim that went down on Friday afternoon. “Because we’re in it to win, there’s no question we’re in it to win like everybody else. But we don’t know where those opportunities lie and moving forward we’d like a player that you can move forward with.”
The Bruins remain in the running for big-ticket wingers like New York’s Chris Kreider and New Jersey’s Kyle Palmieri because those are the two biggest impact players when it comes to a top-6 spot for a contender. But here’s the rub: After dealing their 2020 first round pick to the Ducks in the Kase trade, the Bruins don’t have the ammunition to put up the same kind of trade package as Colorado, St. Louis or other suitors looking to augment their forward group with the big targets.
Perhaps there is another, more creative way to engineer a deal, but that’s going to be up to Sweeney’s group to find an offer that would undoubtedly need to include a top prospect like Jon Beecher, Urho Vaakanainen or Jack Studnicka, and also potentially include NHL roster considerations like Danton Heinen, Anders Bjork or John Moore. The Bruins general manager has resisted completely raiding his prospect cupboard over the past five years, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change after already shipping out a first-rounder and Axel Andersson in the Kase trade.
There is a secondary market for rental players that Boston successfully hit with Johansson last season, and it’s got some intriguing names. Kovalchuk is gone from that list, but there is a big name in B’s history that may wind up available over the next 24 hours: Joe Thornton, who was selected first overall for the B’s all the way back in 1997.
Jumbo Joe has only four goals and 27 points in 61 games this season for the Sharks, but the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Thornton would immediately bring size and an offensive dynamic to the B’s group up front.
Thornton has only played for the Bruins and the Sharks in his 22-year NHL career, and it would be an amazing story if he were to come full circle landing back with the Bruins for a playoff run this spring. It would be arguably the most comfortable landing spot for Thornton, given that he played five-plus years with Sweeney, spent a couple of seasons with a teenage Patrice Bergeron and has former Bruins teammates like Ray Bourque and Andrew Raycroft who are frequently around the hockey club these days.
The actual fit on Boston’s roster wouldn’t be a perfect given that Thornton has been a center throughout his career, but how much of an adjustment would it be for either A) Thornton to move to the wing or B) Charlie Coyle or Sean Kuraly moved off the middle to make way for the future Hall of Famer?
If it’s not Kreider or Palmieri, the bottom line for the Bruins is that any trade isn’t going to be a perfect fit in terms of the player coming back. A player like Brandon Saad would include plenty of contract baggage with a $6 million cap hit for this year and next, and a gritty two-way center like Jean-Gabriel Pageau isn't exactly what the Bruins need on their NHL roster for a possible Cup run.
There are other possible rental players like Florida’s Mike Hoffman or Detroit’s Andreas Athanasiou who might make a lot of sense, but it all depends on asking price and availability for players that may not entirely move the needle for Boston.
Instead bigger, stronger wingers like Wayne Simmonds and Josh Anderson would be the exact type of players the Bruins need as top-6 power forwards with offensive pop, even if they are both at ends of the age (Simmonds is over the hill) and career spectrum (Anderson is on the rise, but also having a rough, injured-plagued season with one goal) at this point.
The bottom line for the Bruins and Sweeney is this: They will be looking to swing another deal on Monday ahead of the deadline to go along with the Kase trade, and there should be no shortage of candidates for the Bruins to choose from as they get closer to deadline time tomorrow afternoon with a group leading the NHL in points right now.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of the NHL trade deadline. This Monday at 2:30 p.m., stream the 2020 NHL Trade Deadline Show on the MyTeams app and on NBCSportsBoston.com.