Bruins

Cassidy: Heinen 'fighting it a bit' in rookie's first real slump

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Cassidy: Heinen 'fighting it a bit' in rookie's first real slump

BRIGHTON, Mass – As the rigors of the 82-game regular season wear on and the late-season schedule for the Bruins, in particular, takes its toll, it’s not surprising that some of Boston’s younger players are struggling to maintain consistency.

One of those players is Danton Heinen, 22, who has been excellent all season as a third-line scoring winger who plays a 200-foot game and brought consistency with him in his rookie NHL season. Heinen has just one point in his past nine games and has seen his ice time drop to below 13 minutes the past couple of games. Heinen was skipped over for a few shifts in the middle of the 4-3 overtime win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night in order to double-shift Brad Marchand. Bruce Cassidy said that was in recognition that they may need to throttle down on Heinen’s usage just a little bit.

“[It] looks like Danton is fighting it a bit right now. We’ve talked about some of our younger guys [with] peaks and valleys, and he’s in one of those ruts that we’re trying to help him through yet still win hockey games,” said Cassidy. “[You] send your message and try to play Brad a little more to get him going. The first period, we got into some penalty trouble. He took one. So, at the end of the day, those are coaches’ decisions, and you hope the player is better off for it in the long run.

“Sometimes they work; sometimes they don’t. We’ll always keep talking to Danton. He’s a good, solid player for us. But right now, he is slogging his way through this time of the year. We need to get his energy level up. Some of that might be less playing time, etc. There are different avenues, and [against Carolina] that’s one of them we chose.”

Clearly, it’s something that Heinen is going to have to work through and the hard work hasn’t changed his compete level, even as he wasn’t able to generate any shots on net in the past two games. It’s simply a rookie wall of sports that Heinen is going to have to bust through, and he’ll need to do it with a different center now that Riley Nash is filling in for an injured Patrice Bergeron on the top line. Newly acquired Tommy Wingels centered Heinen and David Backes Tuesday night. 

It’s not going to get any easier as the schedule keeps ramping up for the Bruins in the final six weeks of their season, but Heinen is too good of an offensive catalyst, too hard of a worker and too smart of a player to not regain things well ahead of the playoffs that await 21 regular season games down the road.

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NHL Power Rankings: Bruins, Lightning a clear top two

NHL Power Rankings: Bruins, Lightning a clear top two

It took nearly five months into the regular season for it to happen, but the Bruins and Lightning have separated from everybody else in the NHL.

The two Atlantic Division powerhouses are just one point apart in the division, but they are both more than five points ahead of everybody else in the league. That includes a Pittsburgh team that’s been hot recently and a Washington club that’s back to their deep, dangerous selves after taking a season off last year after celebrating their Stanley Cup title.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

The Lightning have won 11 games in a row and lost two regulation games since Christmas, and they are finally living up to the massive potential within their roster. And now they’ve added the speedy, gritty Blake Coleman in an impressive deal to make them even tougher to play against.

Through it all, the Bruins have managed to stay on top of Tampa Bay, and keep one step ahead of them. That’s just as impressive as the Lightning’s scorching hot run over the last two months.

Click here for this week's NHL Power Rankings:

Bruins needs are no secret ahead of NHL trade deadline

Bruins needs are no secret ahead of NHL trade deadline

There are few secrets about the Bruins or the strengths and weaknesses that face them heading into the stretch run and Stanley Cup Playoffs that follow.

The Bruins rely on the NHL’s best line — the Perfection Line — superior special teams play, and the NHL’s top goaltending duo along with a strong defensemen group for their winning formula, and it’s proven plenty good enough during the regular season in recent years. The B’s currently sit at an NHL-best 86 points on the season and have a six-point lead on everybody else in the NHL aside from their hard-charging divisional rivals in Tampa Bay.

The Bruins have won nine of their last 10 games after a ragged stretch of play in December/January and have been rolling since the NHL All-Star break while understandably feeling good about their game right now.

LIVE stream the Celtics all season and get the latest news and analysis on all of your teams from NBC Sports Boston by downloading the My Teams App.

“We’re taking a lot more value in [the defensive] part of the game, and some of it is getting the balance in the lines so that they’re fresh, getting everyone involved,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I think most of our minutes now you’ll see, our forwards are typically at the least amount is 10 minutes sometimes for the lower guys if they’re not killing too many penalties, so I think that helps everyone stay in the game as well.”

When the Bruins are going well as they are right now, they are getting balanced play from their roster. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case and it’s something that gets exposed when they play high-quality competition.

The weaknesses on the Bruins roster are equally clear and easy to diagnose because it’s been the same old thing for the last handful of years.

The Bruins have tried multiple times to acquire top-6 wingers who can produce offense, whether it’s been band-aid deadline solutions like Marcus Johansson and Drew Stafford, or a stab at an attempted long-term fix when they traded for Rangers power forward Rick Nash. They couldn’t predict the abrupt, concussion-influenced retirement from the NHL for Nash following a few months in Black and Gold, and so a top-6 winger continues to be Don Sweeney’s "white whale" on the Bruins roster.

Once the playoffs begin and the Bruins face deeper, bigger and stronger defensive groups, the prolific Perfection Line routinely goes through stretches where they are held in check by opponents. It’s a prominent factor when the Bruins lost to the Lightning in the second round two years ago, and one of the prime reasons the B’s fell in seven games to the St. Louis Blues last June in the Stanley Cup Final.

When it happens, the Bruins become almost completely reliant on their power play to provide offensive punch while the other forward lines haven’t been able to effectively fill the scoring void.

The only way that’s going to change is for the Bruins to bring in a top-6 forward who can play the role of game-breaker and finish off the offensive chances set up by linemates David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. The Bruins need another forward line that can put a scare in opponents offensively and they simply don’t have it consistently right now, just as they haven’t had it in the last handful of seasons.  

With names like Tyler Toffoli, Blake Coleman and Jason Zucker now off the trade deadline board, the Bruins are down to some of their top big-name trade choices in Chris Kreider, Kyle Palmieri and Josh Anderson.

Kreider would be the optimal choice because of his skating speed, consistency and the size and occasional mean streak that the Bruins could surely use among their top-6 group. But there are options out there provided Sweeney doesn’t get hung up waiting for Kreider to be made available to teams.

The other need for the Bruins at this point?

With Kevan Miller out for the entire season to this point with a fractured kneecap that sidelined him for last spring’s entire Stanley Cup Final run as well, the Bruins are a little light on the back end. The B’s could use a big, strong, hardnosed and physical defenseman capable of holding other teams accountable and doling out physical punishment in the D-zone.

The Bruins may have found an in-house solution in 22-year-old Jeremy Lauzon, who most recently served a two-game suspension for drilling Derek Stepan with a big, high hit against the side boards in a home win over the Coyotes. But that particular roster need is the reason they were linked to defenseman Brenden Dillon in trade rumors before he was eventually shipped from the San Jose Sharks to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday for a couple draft picks.

It’s also less than ideal to rely on a rookie like Lauzon as a rugged, grizzled enforcer on the back end when it comes to playoff time. That’s something else to consider when Don Sweeney goes shopping over the next five days ahead of the Feb. 24 trade deadline, a date that’s quickly becoming anticlimactic given all the trades getting consummated well ahead of time.

Sweeney knows the team’s greatest needs, he’s on the clock and the pressure is on the Bruins general manager to adequately address them ahead of next Monday’s deadline.