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NHL trade targets: Four physical players Bruins could pursue before deadline

NHL trade targets: Four physical players Bruins could pursue before deadline

The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 24, so there's a little more than a month for the Boston Bruins and other contenders to make roster upgrades for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Bruins enter the weekend leading the Atlantic Division and rank among the top Stanley Cup contenders in the league. Despite having a deep roster loaded with postseason experience, the Bruins could certainly use a little more physicality in their lineup, particularly up front. The playoffs often are a grind, where the game slows down and physical play can really wear on players over a seven-game series.

With that theme in mind, here are four players the Bruins could target before the trade deadline to upgrade their physicality (All salary information via Cap Friendly, advanced stats via Natural Stat Trick).

Chris Kreider, LW, New York Rangers
2019-20 stats
: 46 GP, 16 G, 15 A, 111 SOG
Contract: $4.625 million salary cap hit, UFA after 2019-20, modified no-trade clause

Kreider, in many ways, is the ideal target for the Bruins ahead of the trade deadline. He's a skilled offensive player, he plays a power forward kind of game, and he's a Massachusetts-born player who played at Boston College. Kreider has great hands, good speed, and plenty of effective dangles in front of the net. He's also not afraid to go to the dirty areas around the crease for rebound goals and to set screens. His offensive talents would upgrade Boston's power play, too.

The Rangers are six points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and must soon decide if they'll become sellers at the trade deadline. Kreider is able to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and if there's a chance New York could lose him, it makes sense to deal him to a contender. Kreider would give the Bruins' top-six or third line an injection of speed, offensive skill and impressive size (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds).

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Miles Wood, LW, New Jersey Devils
2019-20 stats
: 46 GP, 7 G, 9 A, 94 SOG
Contract: $2.75 million cap hit through 2021-22

Wood is not a rental and signed through the 2021-22 campaign. The 24-year-old forward is capable of scoring between 25 and 30 points over a full season, while also throwing his weight around with a power forward-style of play. The best attribute of Wood's game is his fantastic speed, which would give the Bruins' bottom-six additional energy and another dimension for opponents to tackle.

Craig Smith, C, Nashville Predators
2019-20 stats
: 46 GP, 10 G, 10 A, 123 SOG
Contract: $4.25 million cap hit, UFA after 2019-20

Smith would add depth down the middle for the Bruins and give them a physical player who loves battling in front of the net. The 30-year-old center has 10 goals this season, and eight of them have come in the last 14 games. Smith has played his entire nine-year career in Nashville, but if the Predators don't feel like they can (or want to) re-sign him as a free agent this summer, getting some value for him ahead of the trade deadline would be the smart move. The Predators enter Friday six points out of the second wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference standings.

Josh Manson, D, Anaheim Ducks
2019-20 stats
: 28 GP, 1 G, 4 A, 39 SOG
Contract: $4.1 million cap hit through 2021-22, also a modified no-trade clause

How tough is Manson? Well, he fought Milan Lucic during the preseason in 2015, a few weeks before his first full season with the Ducks.

Manson isn't going to provide a ton of offensive production, but his teams have established puck possession at a high rate most of his career. In four of his five pro seasons the Ducks have earned a Corsi-For percentage above 50 at even strength, and in the 2019-20 campaign, Anaheim has a plus-28 edge in shot attempts, a plus-10 advantage in shots on goal and a plus-15 margin in scoring chances at 5-on-5 when Manson has been on the ice. 

The 28-year-old defenseman also is fully capable of logging 20-plus minutes per night. He has experience filling a top-four role for Anaheim, but he probably would be a third-pairing defenseman on Boston's blue line. Manson's willingness to block shots and go into the corner to fight for pucks also would make him a valuable penalty killer for the B's. He's averaged 2:10 of shorthanded ice time per game for the Ducks this season.

The Ducks have the worst record in the Western Conference entering Friday. They should be sellers ahead of the deadline. Manson is not a rental, however, and he's on a pretty manageable contract for a 28-year-old defenseman. There's no rush to trade him from Anaheim's perspective, but he definitely is a good target for contenders that want to toughen up their blueline.

Side note: Manson already has an idea of Boston's hockey culture from his three seasons playing for Northeastern University.

Haggerty: Bruins take good first step toward re-discovering identity

New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

New additions Nick Ritchie, Ondrej Kase prove they'll help Bruins

BOSTON — Both newly traded players got into the Bruins lineup on Thursday night against the Dallas Stars, and it looked pretty darn encouraging for the Black and Gold with the new pieces fitting nicely with the rest of the lineup.

Hulking left winger Nick Ritchie scored his first goal in a Bruins uniform amidst a two-point effort and Ondrej Kase showed speed and skill along with a decent two-way game while finishing with two shots on net in 15:16 of ice time.

Both wingers showed instant chemistry with David Krejci on the second line in the 4-3 win at TD Garden, and Ritchie showed smooth hands for a big man playing the give-and-go game with David Pastrnak on the game-winner in the third period.

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There were some that believed the Bruins' moves at the trade deadline were as much about opening salary cap space as they were about actually improving the team, but Ritchie particularly showed he’s got some game in a win that pushed the B’s to a seven-point lead in the division over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think Nick [Ritchie] was much better than the other night, a little more into the game,” said Bruce Cassidy on Ritchie, who was okay in his B’s debut on Tuesday after flying cross-country from California to hop into the lineup. “[The] puck was finding him. We knew that would happen. I just thought it was unfair the other night.

“You fly in, it’s a lot of newness going on. He’s had a couple of days to acclimate a little bit. Listen, I’m not going to say he’s going to get two points every night, but he’ll probably be somewhere in between there and that’s what we expect out of him. [He’s] a bigger body, especially in this type of game I thought. They’re a heavy team, they finish checks and you’ve got to work to get to the net. I thought he did a real good job with that.”

The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder showed exactly what he’ll bring to the table and, perhaps more importantly, displayed the skill to hang in a top-6 role after teaming up with Pastrnak on the scoring play in the third period. There will be more opportunities for the big winger to throw his weight around and really set a physical tone once he begins getting comfortable in Boston, but there’s every reason to think he’s exactly the kind of player Boston needed going into the trade deadline.

Certainly, Ritchie was more noticeable in one win on Thursday night than Danton Heinen had been in the last few months of a season where his subtle qualities didn’t exactly amount to anything significant on the ice.

“It was good. It was nice to score. It was nice to win,” said Ritchie. “My energy levels were higher and I definitely felt better with my legs. I definitely played a better game and the team played better as well. It was just a simple shot, but whenever it goes in, it obviously feels really good.

“Early on [as a line] we played a lot together and we had some good shifts, and we really got in on the fore-check. It was good.”

As for Kase, he showed on his very first shift of the game that he’s got speed to burn on the second line and flashed some slick offensive instincts as things went along. It didn’t add to any offensive production with Krejci in his first game back from injury, but it’s also the first time Kase has played at all since early February with a suspected concussion.

So now it’s about the Bruins keeping the right winger healthy and letting him build up his game in Boston.

“[Nick] Ritchie with [David] Krejci, I think could go somewhere as long as they have some chemistry, as long as there’s some pace on the other side. That could be Ondrej [Kase], if we drop Pasta [David Pastrnak] down at times,” said Cassidy. “But as long as there’s some pace [from the right wing]. I’ll look at pairs. [Jake] DeBrusk, [Charlie] Coyle, I think, like I said, I like the way they’ve played together [on the third line]. Even Anders [Bjork] when he’s over there. I thought our fourth line was contributing again tonight. Unfortunately, Wags [Chris Wagner] got hurt there in that scuffle, but I thought they did a good job as well.”

Clearly the forward combinations are in flux as a passive Anders Bjork spent most of the second period nailed to the Bruins bench, and the fourth line may be switched around now that Wagner is banged up with an upper body injury.

But Ritchie showed he’s got the talent to fill the Bruins' need for a big, physical winger with some skill and Kase gave indications he’ll be a player who can create some 5-on-5 offense for a B’s team that doesn’t do enough of that in crunch time.

For those with questions about how much improvement the Bruins made with their deadline moves, the win over the Stars showed strong indications that Ritchie and Kase are both going to play roles in making the Bruins a tougher group to defend in the postseason.

Why winning NHL Presidents' Trophy may not be in Bruins' best interest

Why winning NHL Presidents' Trophy may not be in Bruins' best interest

First, a disclaimer: The Boston Bruins should try to win their remaining games. The better your team is playing, the better it is for everyone in the dressing room.

But if the Tampa Bay Lightning overtake the Bruins in the Atlantic Division and secure the Presidents' Trophy for the NHL's best record?

Well ... that wouldn't be the worst development.

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Here's the first reason: Whether you're superstitious or not, the Presidents' Trophy has been a death knell for its recipients. The last club to finish with the NHL's best regular-season record and win the Stanley Cup was the Chicago Blackhawks (at the Bruins' expense) in 2013.

Here's how the next six Presidents' Trophy winners fared:

2014 Bruins: Lost in second round
2015 New York Rangers: Lost in Eastern Conference Final
2016 Washington Capitals: Lost in second round
2017 Capitals: Lost in second round
2018 Nashville Predators: Lost in second round
2019 Lightning: Lost in first round

Since the NHL adopted its current playoff format for the 2013-14 season, only one Presidents' Trophy winner has made it out of the second round. The Columbus Blue Jackets swept the Lightning clean out of the first round in 2019.

There's more than just bad karma at play here. In the current format, each division winner plays a Wild Card team in the first round, while the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in each division face off.

Guess how many division winners beat their Wild Card opponents in last year's playoffs? Zero.

That's a bit of an aberration, but it's not far from the norm in the topsy-turvy Stanley Cup Playoffs. Aside from the 2013 Blackhawks, the 2018 Capitals are the only other team in the last 12 years to win the Stanley Cup after winning their division (and they had the Eastern Conference's third-best record).

Playoff trends aside, there's a more simple reason why Boston shouldn't mind losing out on the Presidents' Trophy.

If the playoffs started now, the Bruins would face the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have won both of their matchups with Boston this season -- including a 3-0 shutout on Jan. 14 -- and took the B's to six games in the second round last year.

If the Bruins slip to the No. 2 seed in the Atlantic, they'll likely face the Toronto Maple Leafs -- who haven't beaten Boston in a playoff series since 1959.

Bruce Cassidy's club currently stands seven points clear of the Lightning (92 to 85) with 17 games remaining. The St. Louis Blues (86 points) and Capitals (84) points also are in the Presidents' Trophy conversation.

The B's want to be playing well entering the postseason, and finishing with the NHL's best record obviously would be proof of that. If they happen to take their foot off the gas, though, they could wind up in better position to win the Cup race.