Are the Bruins Heading Into Red Wings Territory?

( Photo Credit: Adam Glanzman / Getty Images )

By: Nathan Anderson | Follow me on Twitter @ndrsn27

As the NHL trade deadline approaches on April 12th, 2021, Don Sweeney and the Bruins management will be tasked with a difficult decision. With the Bruins sitting in fourth place in the Mass Mutual East Division, they are not exactly frontrunners as they were last season when they won the President’s Trophy. They also do not have their eyes set on one of the top five picks in next year’s draft, however, which leaves them kind of stuck in the middle in terms of planning for the future of the club. As I see it, the front office has three options in front of them.

Option 1: Trade for a rental

This would be the classic “We’re one piece away from being a real contender” move. The Bruins could go after an older player to try and strengthen the lineup to make a run at winning the Stanley Cup now while presumably giving up a younger option and sacrificing the rights to any future potential that player might have. I’ve heard Kyle Palmieri’s name being thrown around, and I even traded for him in my NHL 21 franchise mode myself. I don’t know if he solves the problems the Bruins are having, though. He would be a great two-way option and maybe provide some offense, but I think the Bruins need a bonafide sniper to play on David Krejci’s right-wing.

It feels like we’ve been asking for it for a while, but who was the last one the Bruins had that actually panned out? I would say maybe Jarome Iginla back in 2013/14 who put together a nice 30 goal season1. I don’t love this option because the Bruins already have a rather weak pipeline of prospects to work with once the core of the team moves on. Sure, there are some bright spots, but is it going to be enough to compete for a championship in five years? I personally don’t think so.

Option 2: Sell for prospects

This is essentially the opposite of option one. Typically reserved for teams that are already out of playoff contention, the seller mentality lets a team trade out useful players in exchange for young talent they think will develop in the years to come. The Bruins definitely have some assets that other teams would want. The names Tuukka Rask, Patrice Bergeron, Krejci, and Brad Marchand, come to mind specifically. I don’t think moving those guys would be the right move either. All four of those guys are core Bruins that were around for their 2011 Stanley Cup and the runs in 2013 and 2019.

I would like to see all four retire with the Bruins, but whether that happens, we’ll find out at another time. That’s the sentimental reason. On a more practical note, the Bruins are in a playoff spot right now and still could make a run in the playoffs if they can get solid defense and goaltending with just a little bit more secondary scoring. Selling off the team’s assets right now would be giving up and potentially closing the window on any chance of winning another title with those guys.

Option 3: Do nothing…at least nothing big

I hate to say it, but I think this might be where the Bruins have to fall this season. They might have to just go into the playoffs with the team they’ve got and see how far it can get them. Maybe they can add a piece somewhere, but I don’t think they’ll be able to get anything of substance without giving up a good prospect, and right now, the B’s don’t exactly have a surplus of those. Matthew Zator of hockeywriters.com ranks the Boston farm system 28th in the league, and I can’t disagree too much. At the same time, though, I don’t think the Bruins should move on from their core four, and I don’t think they plan to. There still could be a year that lines up just right for the black and gold (like 2019…), and they can make a run deep into the playoffs. Right now, though, I think the team is stuck in between contender and lottery team.

So what’s the problem?

With those options laid out now, I want to discuss the real concern of this article. I can’t help but ask myself: “are the Bruins about to go full-on Red Wings?”. By this, I am referring to the Red Wings incredible 25 season playoff streak, which now has transformed into a four-year drought. The Red Wings held on to their core players for as long as they possibly could and milked every ounce of playoff success they could get out of those guys. As a result, they got their 25-year streak and four Stanley Cups. The Bruins similarly also have a core of guys that are getting older every year, just like any other person. Unlike the Wings, though, the Bruins have not had as much playoff success, only winning the one Stanley Cup in 2011 and losing in the finals in ’13 and ’19. 

I mention the Red Wings because, after their back-to-back cup appearances in ’08 and ’09, they really didn’t come all that close to winning another Cup but kept making trades for rentals and doing everything they could to keep their streak going. They traded for Erik Cole and Marek Zidlicky in 2015 (36 and 38 at the time) and David Legwand in 2014 (33 at the time). All three players had substantial NHL careers, but in those trades, Detroit gave up Calle Jarnkrok and Mattias Janmark, both of whom are very serviceable players in the league still while the three players the Red Wings acquired are long gone.

Obviously, every trade has its drawbacks, and it’s easy to use hindsight to judge them. The reason I bring these trades up is because the Red Wings playoff streak ended after the 2015/16 season, and the Wings didn’t win a playoff series in 2014, 2015, or 2016. All those trades did essentially helped the Red Wings continue their playoff streak and miss out on a chance at a lottery pick that could have helped their franchise in the future. This is the trap I don’t want the Bruins to fall into.

This may seem like a very pessimistic article, but I assure you I’m not trying to bash on the current roster or the team’s future. I’m simply a Bruins fan that has poured my heart and soul into the team for the last 17 or so years of my life. If we look at the last ten years or so, the Bruins are a pretty boom or bust team in the playoffs. They had the Stanley Cup win in 2011 and losses in 2013 and 2019. Other than those years, the Bruins made the playoffs five times and didn’t get past the second round3. Two of the last three years, the B’s have faced the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round and have lost those series a combined eight games to two. I also think any Bruins fan would be lying to themselves if they said we have a brighter future than the Bolts as well.

If we think realistically, the 2019 cup run was probably an outlier. The Bruins didn’t have to face Tampa and probably should’ve won the cup that year but got beat up by a Blues team that simply wanted it more. Other than that, have the Bruins showed any signs of really competing for a championship lately? I would argue that they haven’t. For that reason, I’m reluctant to support the idea of a rental piece to make a run.

I am not convinced that the Bruins are one piece away from a Cup contender, and I don’t even know if they have the pieces available to make a trade like that happen without completely sacrificing the future (like the Red Wings). I think as Boston sports fans, we can get greedy sometimes and set our expectations at championship or bust. It just doesn’t work like that, folks. I know we’ve been spoiled for the last 20 years, trust me. It doesn’t always work like that, though.

Are the Bruins making bad trades?

As mentioned earlier, I would love for the Bruins to make a deep run at another championship with this core group of guys. I just don’t know if this is the right year. Maybe all the cards fall into place, and they make a run like 2019. I wouldn’t count on it, though. If we take a look at some of the recent trades the Bruins have made at the deadline, I think the management is trending in a direction I like. Going back about five years, I think the B’s were trending towards that dangerous area I’ll call the Red Wings zone. Acquiring guys like Lee Stempniak (2016), John-Michael Liles (2016), Drew Stafford (2017), and Nick Holden (2018) were all moves that really didn’t help the organization in any substantial way, and the Bruins gave up draft picks in each of those trades.

The Bruins also traded for Rick Nash in 2018, giving up three players and two draft picks for a guy who ended his career after that season. There were some injury issues there, but he also was 33. Even if he stayed heathy, he didn’t have that much left in the tank. Just three days before acquiring Nash, the Bruins traded away Frank Vatrano, who has gone on to become a pretty solid 20 goal scorer for the Panthers4. Again, hindsight bias is very real, and if the Bruins had gone on to win the cup in any of those years, I’m not sitting here talking about those trades in this article. The reality though, is that the Bruins did nothing in any of those years and seemed well on their way to the previously named “Red Wings zone”.

Turning it around

I think the last two seasons have been much better in that regard. In 2019 the team traded for Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, giving up an aggregate package of Ryan Donato and three draft picks ranging from the second to fifth round4. I think that’s a pretty decent move considering Donato’s struggles with the Boston system, and at the time, Coyle was 26 and Johansson was 28. It would have been nice to be able to bring Johansson back the next year, but keeping Coyle around makes that deal worth it, in my opinion. They also went to game 7 of the Cup Finals that year, and I think that trade only helped.

Last season (2020), the Bruins made two trades with the Anaheim Ducks, acquiring Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase for Danton Heinen, David Backes, prospect Axel Andersson, and a first-round pick4. Unfortunately, the Kase side of that deal has kind of played out in the worst possible way for the Bruins. It remains to be seen if Kase will ever play in the NHL again due to some concussion problems, but I think at the time, it was a good wager betting on a 24-year-old who had demonstrated flashes of ridiculous skill. I also like the move to get Nick Ritchie, another 24-year-old who has a big body and can play the Bruins style of hockey. This also showed to me that the Bruins were trying to learn from their mistakes after getting beat up by the Blues the year before.

What I’m trying to say (in an admittedly long-winded way) is that I would urge fellow Bruins fans to be cautious when begging the Bruins management to make a move for a goal scorer or a top four defenseman. There is a pretty good chance, in my opinion, that the guys lacing up the skates every night this season could turn into an excellent team led by an older Bergeron, Krejci, and Marchand in a couple of years. Keep in mind that Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, and David Pastrnak still have at least a couple of years of improvement, hopefully, and I think this team could be dangerous.

I don’t know if they’re dangerous right now. If you want results now, then maybe a rental is your preferred move. Just be careful what you ask for, though, because a rental plus an early playoff exit is a good recipe for some tough years down the road. For me, I’m ok with taking it easy at the deadline this year, trying to make a surprising run (it is hockey after all, who knows what can happen), and trying to pick up a key free agent that can sign a multi-year deal in the offseason. Of course, I want to watch the Bruins raise the cup again, but the last thing I want is to be in a race for the first overall pick instead of the playoffs.

1 https://www.hockey-reference.com/players/i/iginlja01.html   

2http://www.nhltradetracker.com/user/trade_list_by_team/Detroit_Red_Wings/2

3https://www.hockey-reference.com/teams/BOS/history.html

4http://www.nhltradetracker.com/user/trade_list_by_team/Boston_Bruins/1

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