Haggerty: Road just got tougher for everyone in the East

Haggerty: Road just got tougher for everyone in the East

BRIGHTON, Mass. – The reality coming out of the NHL trade deadline is that the Eastern Conference got a little more treacherous for everybody involved.

Each of the top teams in the East, outside of the Washington Capitals, improved ahead of the Monday afternoon deadline with significant upgrades designed to make them that much more difficult to deal with come springtime. The rich got richer, the tough got a little tougher and roster weaknesses were addressed by GMs who correctly feel that the Eastern Conference is completely wide open this season.

At the top of the list is the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who became the prohibitive favorites in the East after landing Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh and gritty, speedy J.T. Miller in a mega-deal with the Blueshirts. Add that to a Tampa mega-team that already includes Nikita Kucherov, Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and a host of others, and that's a prohibitive "paper" favorite in the East.  

Certainly, the Bruins were in discussions on the rugged, battle-proven McDonagh, but in the end, they weren’t going to disrupt a roster that’s been the best in the league the past three months.

Giving up Jake DeBrusk and Brandon Carlo simply wasn't going to be an option for a Bruins team that still view draft and development as a priority toward building something sustained and special.

“We all are in the business to try to improve our team either right now or maybe next year. So, there are 31 teams that are jockeying this time of the year. We knew where the marketplace was for the players that moved [at the deadline], and we had the intention to try and improve our team,” said Bruins GM Don Sweeney. “I think we’ve done that. We’ve addressed some of the things. Could we have done better? Well, that is to be determined.

“Team chemistry is important. We are trying to build something for winning now and winning in the future, and we weren’t going to deviate from that. I don’t think we have. No disrespect to the players that have left our organization because we wish them well, but we have chartered a course that we are not going to deviate from. I think we have improved our hockey club, and I expect us to be a very strong team coming down the stretch.”

Instead of paying premiums at the last minute, the Bruins acted ahead of time and landed power forward Rick Nash, the premier winger on the trade market as a big-bodied complement to David Krejci, and shored up a young, rookie-laden roster with veterans at every position by getting Nick Holden, Brian Gionta and Tommy Wingels. The depth will be important with the Bruins kicking off a stretch where they’ll play 24 games in 44 days to end the regular season and injuries will certainly factor in as the attrition adds up late in the year.

The veteran depth players are also insurance in case any of the five to six rookies the Bruins play on a nightly basis experience some rough patches with the intensity ramping up at the end of the season. Clearly, the goal is for the young B’s players to experience and thrive in the stretch run and postseason, but it certainly doesn’t hurt for a team Cup aspirations to have a backup plan.

“I think that is something we were pretty aware of. They’re going through some of these things. We learned from that last year when some of the guys were going through their first playoff experiences. David Pastrnak is a great example of that. We made a move this year to really integrate some of the younger players and credit to them [for playing well],” said Sweeney. “But it’s a long schedule, and they’re going through that for the first time. I think some of the guys that have been there can help them continue to wade through that. We fully expect to keep them.

“Brandon [Carlo] sat out the other night, but, again, he can come back into the lineup and re-insert himself pretty quickly, and other guys may need a breather or not depending on their play. It’s always about the performance. But I think you’re right in the fact that having some veteran players around that have been through this will help guide them down the right path.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just the Bruins that have upgraded while supplanting Ryan Spooner with Nash on their second-line right wing. The reigning back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins got a bona-fide playoff performer in Derick Brassard as their third-line center, the Maple Leafs brought on pesky Tomas Plekanec as a player that has bugged Krejci his entire career as a member of the Montreal Canadiens and the surging Philadelphia Flyers got needed goalie help with the addition of Petr Mrazek.

Even the New Jersey Devils got some solid veteran upgrades by landing both Michael Grabner and Patrick Maroon for some extra oomph at the forward spots.

That’s not even going back to the biggest move of them all in Tampa Bay, where brilliant GM Steve Yzerman landed his big fish with the McDonagh deal that went down to the deadline. So, the good news for the Bruins and the rest of the Eastern Conference is that just about every GM can look in the mirror and correctly state that they improved their team.

The bad news is that the Tampa Bay has been the best team in the NHL all season and their bold deadline moves possibly widened the gap between them and the rest of the East. The Bruins will get their chance to see how they stack up with three meetings against the Lightning in their final 22 games of the season that could very well determine who gets the No. 1 seed in the East. Still, there were no real Eastern Conference “winners” when it comes to this season’s trade deadline because the road just got a lot tougher for everybody involved with clear roster upgrades as far as the eye can see.  


Anderson: Feeling good about the Bruins chances to sign Ilya Kovalchuk

Anderson: Feeling good about the Bruins chances to sign Ilya Kovalchuk

Appearing Friday morning on Toucher & Rich, 98.5 The Sports Hub's Ty Anderson spoke about the Bruins' chances at signing former NHL All-Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk, saying he thinks they might have a leg up on other teams due to their cap space.

Kovalchuk, 35, was regarded as one of the NHL's premier scorers for much of his tenure with the Atlanta Thrashers and New Jersey Devils, before returning to his native Russia in the summer of 2013 to play in the KHL full-time. He most recently won a Gold Medal with the makeshift "Olympic Athletes from Russia" team at the 2018 Winter Olympics men's ice hockey tournament.

Candidates for the Bruins' top pick in the 2018 NHL draft

Candidates for the Bruins' top pick in the 2018 NHL draft

It’s difficult enough to project players to be taken in the first round of an NHL Draft, so it gets really dicey when that’s extended to the second round and beyond. But the Bruins will have to wait until the 57th overall pick before taking a player next weekend at the NHL draft in Dallas after shipping their first-round pick to the New York Rangers in exchange for Rick Nash at the trade deadline. 

So the B's will have to rely on their scouting legwork and research they’ve put into their group of targeted prospects once their pick comes up at the end of the second round. But the second round has been pretty good to the Bruins as of late: Brandon Carlo, Ryan Donato, and Ryan Spooner were all second round picks that have turned into NHL regulars after being selected by the B’s over the last 10 years.

Still, the last regular NHL player to be developed after being the 57th overall pick in the draft was William Carrier, who was drafted by St. Louis in the second round of the 2013 draft before later developing into an energy player for the Buffalo Sabres and Vegas Golden Knights. Here are a few players to give you an idea of what the Bruins will be looking at as draft possibilities when they step to the podium to make their second-round pick next weekend in Dallas. . .

Oskar Back – center (Farjestads): The 6-foot-2, 192-pound center has the size and tools that you look for in a frontline center and posted 10 goals and 32 points in 38 games for his Swedish junior team this past season. The Bruins already have a wave of young center prospects in Trent Frederic, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Jack Studnicka, but you can never have too much depth or quality down the middle of your lineup. Back didn’t score in a 14-game audition in the Swedish Elite League last season, but just the fact that he was there for that many games says something about his game and the high ceiling for his hockey talent. His overall performance doesn’t scream out anything dynamic offensively, but the reports indicate he’s smart, strong along the boards and makes his teammates better when he’s out on the ice. He’d be a pretty safe pick at the 57th spot, but given his size/strength and the intangibles in his game, it certainly sounds like there’s some serious NHL potential there even if he doesn’t turn out to be a top-6 center. Why the Bruins would select Back: They certainly value prospects coming out of Sweden and he checks off many boxes at the point that the Bruins will be selecting at the very end of the second round. Why the Bruins wouldn’t select Back: He sounds like another potential third line center in an organization where they’ve already got a couple of those guys in Trent Frederic and Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson.   

Aidan Dudas – center/right wing (Owen Sound): The 5-foot-7, 165-pound Dudas is the kind of player that seems to be finding a lot of success at the NHL level these days. He’s extremely undersized, but he’s also fast, creative and highly productive offensively. The Bruins have already passed on a couple of these type players in the draft having bypassed both Alex DeBrincat and Kailer Yamamoto in recent years, and perhaps they’ll make up for that by zeroing in on Dudas. The right-shooting center-wing finished his draft season with 31 goals and 65 points in 68 games for the Owen Sound Attack, and really elevated his draft stock this year after a quiet rookie season in the OHL. The fact he also busted out for a pair of goals and three points in the CHL Top Prospects Game against the best and brightest of his peers also showed that size and strength levels will play beyond junior hockey. His blistering shot and release are probably his most NHL-ready attributes and certainly could carry him a long way. Why the Bruins would select Dudas: You can never have enough speed and skill, and Dudas has both of those things in large amounts even if he doesn’t have the prototypical size to go along with it. Plus the kid is from Parry Sound, and things worked out pretty well for the Bruins the last time they took the best player from that area. Why the Bruins wouldn’t select Dudas: They’ve passed on smaller skill players like DeBrincat and Yamamoto before, so they certainly could do it again as they’re already size and strength-challenged a bit on the wing. 

Kevin Bahl – defenseman (Ottawa): The 6-foot-6, 230-pound Bahl is one of the biggest players in this year’s draft and has consistently been a winner and among the best shutdown D-men of his age group throughout his amateur hockey career. Bahl is intimidating at his size and strength level, using his stick very well for a younger player and also skates pretty smoothly despite his massive frame. He hasn’t shown much offense at all to this point in his career and may be a fairly one-dimensional shutdown defenseman at the NHL level. Still, there is room for those kinds of players at Bahl’s size. The one thing that seems to be an issue for Bahl at this point in his career is his willingness to throw his weight around and play a more physical game. That’s something he’s going to need to do if he’s going to consistently play at the NHL level without much offensive skill. For the Bruins, it’s certainly a good value pick if you can get an accomplished, mammoth shutdown D-man at the end of the second round. Why the Bruins would select Bahl: With Zdeno Chara turning 42 years old this upcoming season, the idea of drafting a huge, left-shot shutdown defenseman is pretty sound logic. Bahl has been a winner throughout his career as well, and the Bruins value those kinds of players. Why the Bruins wouldn’t select Bahl: They already have Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon and Urho Vaakanainen in the system, and may not want to use their top selection in this draft on another left shot D-man. We’ll see.   

Justin Almeida – center (Moose Jaw): The 5-foot-10, 163-pound Almeida didn’t look like he was going to be much of a high-end draft prospect headed into this season, and then he absolutely exploded for the Moose Jaw Warriors this year. Almeida used his speed and high-end scoring ability to rack up 43 goals and 98 points in 72 games this season before piling up another six goals and 13 points in 14 playoff games for Moose Jaw. He’s obviously a bit of a project given his current size and he’s only got the one dominant season on his resume after being a bit of an underachiever earlier in his junior career, but it’s hard to ignore the kind of production and dominance he showed as a center/left wing this season in the WHL. Why the Bruins would select Almeida: The skills are there and if he’d done a bit more consistently, he’d probably be talked about as a possible first-round selection even though he’s already 19 years old. Why the Bruins wouldn’t select Almeida: He was a bit of an underachiever prior to his one excellent season, so it’s difficult to gauge what exactly he’s going to be at the next level where he projected as a bottom-6 prospect prior to this season. 

Stanislav Demin – defenseman (Wenatchee): The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Demin was extremely productive in the BCHL with nine goals and 45 points in 57 games for the Wenatchee Wild. The California native is the highest-rated prospect coming out of the BCHL and had a strong playoff as well for the Wild. He’s committed to the University of Denver in the fall and could be a good, long-range defenseman prospect that the Bruins could let develop at the college ranks for a bit. The size and skill level is good as is the skating game for a solid D-man that’s only real question is going to be the competition level he faced in the BCHL. Why the Bruins would select Demin: He’s good value at the end of the second round as he looks and sounds like a prospect that could turn into a very useful and productive NHL player. Why the Bruins wouldn’t select Demin: They’ve taken a defenseman with their top pick in each of the last three drafts and might decide to go in a different direction this time around, though it shouldn’t really matter if he’s the best player available.  

Liam Foudy – center/left wing (London): The 6-foot, 161-pound Foudy was a player that really bumped up his profile in the second half of the OHL season after getting a bigger role with the London Knights. Foudy finished with 24 goals and 40 points in 65 games for the Knights and showed good skating ability to go along with a pretty good shot and solid offensive instincts. Clearly, Foudy is a player that needs to get stronger and a team will really have to project with the player they see in front of them right now. All that being said he could turn into a very good pick if he develops into a monster for the Knights next season as he gains strengths and matures while in a bigger role with the Knights. Why the Bruins would select Foudy: They could be getting in on the ground floor with an extremely talented player just as they did with the Jack Studnicka pick a year ago, and the second half of this past junior season could just be the tip of the iceberg. Why the Bruins won’t select Foudy: There will be more polished or finished prospects available to the Bruins when they select 57th overall, and they may not be looking to roll the dice with their top pick in the draft. Based on last year’s season in London, Foudy certainly seems to be on the right track.  

Jay O’Brien – center (Thayer Academy): You’ve got to have a local kid among the hopefuls for the Bruins, right? The Hingham native and Thayer Academy star dominated at the prep school level this season and has been developing right in the Bruins’ backyard under the watchful eye of Thayer head coach and former NHL standout Tony Amonte. The 6-foot, 174-pound O’Brien finished with 43 goals and a whopping 80 points in 30 games for Thayer, and has dipped his toes on other teams just to show he can play at those levels. O’Brien is committed to Providence College for next season and will be in a good spot playing for a Nate Leaman-led program that’s produced a number of Bruins players over the last few seasons. In a lot of ways, O’Brien is similar to Ryan Donato when he was drafted by the Bruins in the second round a few years back given his size and scoring abilities. So it wouldn’t be a shock if Boston calls his name should he still be available with the 57th overall pick. Why the Bruins would select O’Brien: He’s the best available local prospect, he’s going to a Hockey East school and he’s already got ties to the Bruins given a relationship he has with Ryan Donato. He makes a lot of sense. Why the Bruins wouldn’t select: There are always the questions about lack of competition from a prep player like O’Brien, but he’s clearly got the goods if he’s all lined up for Hockey East next season.