The simple fact is that the Bruins' standing in their own division has worsened to this point in the summer and it might get even worse over the next weeks and months even as the B’s minimally improved as a team.
The Bruins are better than they were at the end of the playoffs by virtue of the additions of backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak and defenseman John Moore and landing a legit top-six impact winger would make it a more drastic improvement to their roster makeover.
Still, there’s no denying that the Maple Leafs have pushed closer to Stanley Cup contender status with the addition of free-agent superstar John Tavares, and could really get there if they can ever acquire, or develop, a No. 1 defenseman. Regardless of their standing league-wide, the Leafs are clearly much improved from the team that the Bruins barely eked by in seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
Then there’s the Tampa Bay Lightning, who dispatched the Bruins in five games in the second round and are now getting close to landing Erik Karlsson, which would give them Victor Hedman, Karlsson, Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman to start with on their back end. That puts them far ahead of a Bruins team they already dispatched if they can pull off the improbable and get Karlsson and make them a legit contender for the term “NHL super team.”
The thought of Hedman and Karlsson in the same Tampa D-corps conjures up memories of Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer dominating with the Anaheim Ducks and would immediately vault them into Cup favorites. So, there’s a realistic scenario for next season where the Bruins could be the third best team in the NHL and still wind up the third best team in the Atlantic Division with a first-round playoff date of doom against the Lightning.
So what are the Black and Gold to do about this?
Well, what they shouldn’t do is rashly try to join the arms race that Tampa and Toronto have escalated this summer.
Certainly, Bruins GM Don Sweeney should keep pushing talks forward to acquire a top-six offensive impact player whether it’s Jeff Skinner, Artemi Panarin or somebody off the beaten path that hasn’t been readily discussed. But that’s all part of the offseason plan already in place and would include trading chips that the B’s have already reconciled with giving up in the right trade whether it's Torey Krug, a prospect such as Anders Bjork or another high draft pick after dealing their first-rounder last spring.
What the Bruins should not do is alter the plan to try and hit a home run trade to match Tavares or Karlsson.
What the Bruins should not do, under any circumstances, is think about trading Charlie McAvoy or Jake DeBrusk, who could be in the Bruins organization for the next ten years. It might even mean (though it wouldn't be ideal) not landing their top-six target ahead of the season and instead getting a look at their young players before making an impact move during the season.
The B’s don’t need a panic move or a reactionary transaction simply designed to keep up with Toronto and Tampa. Those kinds of motives behind trades or free-agent signings almost always backfire on the team that’s getting desperate.
“You’re juggling a few things [during the offseason], but you get through. You have contingency plans. All our staff, and I’m grateful for them, everybody worked hard [at the open of free agency], and all of the plans and all of the situations we had, the ownership was certainly supportive of what we are trying to accomplish,” said Sweeney. “Hopefully we move forward as a better team.”
It’s clear that the Lightning are loading up to win this season and then GM Steve Yzerman will have to answer the difficult questions later, like “how in the hell will Tampa afford Karlsson’s next contract where he wants $11 million per year?”
The Bruins are still building and doing it the right way. They posted a 112-point season while pushing Tampa Bay in the regular season, and they got some very valuable postseason experience for their young guys while winning a Game 7. Right now, the Bruins are an intriguing mix of young (20-year-old McAvoy) and old (Zdeno Chara will be 42 this season) that should absolutely be a playoff team and should be one of the contenders in an Eastern Conference that’s going to pack some punch next season.
The structure that Cam Neely and Sweeney are building in Boston could see the B's consistently competitive for the next 10 years with McAvoy and David Pastrnak leading the way. The Bruins just need to stick to the plan rather than getting overwhelmed by Toronto/Tampa’s shock and awe show this summer. By all accounts, that’s exactly what the Bruins are doing right now even as the road has clearly grown more treacherous and difficult for the Black and Gold next season.
Sometimes sticking to the plan can grow difficult when all manner of things are happening all around you, but that’s exactly what the Bruins should do even as their closest rivals are taking big home-run swings.