Bruins

Haggerty: Sweeney's moves already paying off

Haggerty: Sweeney's moves already paying off

BOSTON – The moves that Bruins GM Don Sweeney made at the NHL trade deadline are already paying winning dividends for the Black and Gold.

The Bruins got very strong performances from new guys Rick Nash and Tommy Wingels and used goals from each of those newly acquired forwards to eventually take a 4-3 overtime decision over the Carolina Hurricanes at TD Garden. It was 20-year-old defenseman Charlie McAvoy that provided the final difference-maker in the extra session, but it was the two new Bruins who led the way playing with energy, enthusiasm, skill and the kind of hard-nosed adrenaline that their sagging teammates needed more of down the stretch.

Nash showed the offense when he scored his first goal as a member of the Bruins, and his 800th NHL point, on a nifty David Krejci pass to him wide open in front of the net, but the 6-foot-4 winger also showed his 200-foot game when he saved a goal in the first period sweeping a puck away from the crease with Tuukka Rask out of position. It was part of a game-high five shots on net for Nash while forging some very good chemistry with Krejci and Jake DeBrusk just two games into their triple partnership.

All the while, Nash was also showing that he’ll win battles along the walls and play some pretty effective two-way hockey in all zones while being perhaps the perfect complement for Krejci.

“[There was] definitely some good chemistry there. I thought the first game we spent the whole game in the other team’s zone and [on Tuesday] I thought two periods were good – the second period we kind of turned it over a bit,” said Nash. “But it’s been good, and I feel like we can only get better.”  

It’s remarkable just how much chemistry that second line has shown in just two games together and it brought the best out of both Nash (10 shots on net in two games) and an energetic DeBrusk (two assists and a plus-3 vs. Carolina) in the win over the Hurricanes.

“[Nash] clearly, he attacks defensemen. He’s a big man, so he backs people off," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "It’s going to allow Jake some room to get to the net. I thought Jake had lots of juice tonight. He was really flying out there and made some plays on the puck and going to the net. He looked like a smaller version of Rick Nash tonight, to be honest with you. That will make [Krejci], obviously, better because he likes to bring people with him and find the guys with speed.

"[Nash] helped that line, I thought, a lot tonight. It looked good to me. I don’t know from your point – I thought they seemed to have some chemistry, which is what we’re looking for, so hopefully, that continues as they play more together.”

Wingels, the other trade deadline piece, certainly might not have quite the same “wow factor” as Nash, but the 29-year-old was every bit as effective in the come-from-behind win. Wingels scored the tying goal in the second on a sniper shot from the face-off circle and set up the pivotal Riley Nash goal just ahead of the first intermission when he disrupted a Carolina play with a dogged, unyielding fore-check in front of the Hurricanes.

Not only did he have the hard-edged work ethic to win the one-on-one battle in front of the net, but then he had the veteran presence to know that Riley Nash was right behind him ready to make a play with the puck. It can’t be underestimated how much easier it is for the Bruins when a Wingels, a solid NHL veteran, enters the lineup when the B’s have to be without Patrice Bergeron for a time with injury.

That was certainly the plan for Sweeney when he shored up his young, talented roster with qualified veteran backups at every position - Wingels at center, Gionta on either wing and Nick Holden on the back end - in case of rookie inconsistencies down the stretch or possible injuries, which have already begun to crop up.  

Now, those break-glass-in-case-of-emergency plans are already coming into play and working in Boston’s favor.

“[Wingels] was very good. Lots of energy, physical, obviously contributed offensively and played positional as well,” said Cassidy. “Sometimes, you have to go back and watch the game again to see reload or if you’re taking someone else’s position or covering. [You ask] how are your layers, but from bench-level, looked like he was just a smart, hard player. [It was] nice to see him get on the board early for us.”

That aforementioned burst of Wingels' speed turned the puck over in front of the Carolina net and the newest Bruin was able to drop a pass back to a dangling Nash as he maneuvered around Scott Darling on his way to scoring Boston’s second goal. That timely score gave the B's a ton of momentum headed into the second period and helped build the Bruins up to the eventual come-from-behind win.

“They’re both experienced players in the league, and I think they’re good people that want to help the team win, so that’s part of it. I’d have to talk to them; I don’t think there’s any animosity of how they ended up here,” said Cassidy. “We wanted them and they can help a good team be better, so I think that’s part of it, as well. Like anybody you go to a new job, you want to [make a] good first impression. I think that’s human nature, and they’ve done that.”

Clearly, there is a long way to go toward formalizing thoughts on what the Bruins did at the trade deadline and there will be any number of ways to break things down given some of the big names that changed teams around the league.

But the early returns for the Black and Gold and for Sweeney are excellent. Nash and Wingels already contributed heavily to an important win that ended a two-game losing streak and the new guys are only scratching the surface of what they can do once things really start to take a turn for the playoffs a couple of months from now.  

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

MORE BRUINS OFFSEASON

Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

MORE FROM JOE HAGGERTY

Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

NBC SPORTS BOSTON SCHEDULE