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.
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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.