What Should Have Been On The Boston Bruins Christmas List

Elias Lindholm pointing Noah Hanifin to Boston? Getty Images via TSN.CA

It’s the holiday season. What better time to evaluate what the Boston Bruins need to finish the year with the best chance to win the Stanley Cup? With almost three months of the season now in the past, it has given every NHL team some time to evaluate their roster. The Bruins have areas of need like every other team; for those who have followed them, it will be no surprise the Bruins are lacking in top two-line center and wing depth, physicality, and defensive depth.

With an anticipated increase in the salary cap next year, Don Sweeney is using this as a bridge year by signing several players to one-year contracts. Combining those with other players on their last year of longer-term contracts, Jake DeBrusk, James Van Riemsdyk, Danton Heinen, Milan Lucic, Matt Grzelcyk, Derek Forbort, and Kevin Shattenkirk are all unrestricted free agents as of July 1, 2024. Having traded away several draft picks in previous seasons to acquire rentals for Stanley Cup runs, the Bruins only have eight of their fourteen original picks for 2024 and 2025 left and are missing rounds one through three in 2024, plus round two in 2025. Despite later picks in most drafts and trading away assets, the prospect pool has grown over the past few years.

Pavel Zacha was moved from left wing to center this season and has performed well. Going into the December 27th game against Buffalo, he was in a three-way tie for third place in scoring. His chemistry with leading scorer David Pastrnak is evident; he’s a responsible defensive player and third in faceoff percentage amongst centers on the team. Charlie Coyle has moved from 3C to 2C this season and has stepped up his game. He’s tied with Zacha in points, albeit with three more games played. He’s been the steady defensive player he’s always been and is just ahead of Zacha in faceoff percentage. Given the retirements of long-time number-one centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, a drop-off in center play was expected. The Bruins’ faceoff win percentage has dropped from second last year to thirteenth this season. The playmaking ability isn’t where it needs to be, limiting players like Jake DeBrusk, who need a strong pivot. The Bruins need a clear NHL-level number-one center.

What was expected to be a strength for the Bruins this season in solid goaltending and defense hasn’t turned out that way. The goaltending from both Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman has been outstanding. The defense, however, has been plagued by injury, missing Charlie McAvoy, Matt Grzelcyk, and Derek Forbort for extended periods. This has led to Mason Lohrei playing in Boston when he’s not yet ready. I don’t think anyone expected to see Ian Mitchell regularly, perhaps to be used as a replacement for someone on a rest day. I didn’t expect to see Parker Wotherspoon unless I was watching Providence play. Poor defensive play has cost the Bruins games this year, especially late in games and in the inability to clear the puck out of the defending zone.

Physicality is something anyone familiar with the “Big Bad Bruins” wouldn’t expect to be lacking, but it has been for some time. It has hurt the Bruins come playoffs every year, when games tend to be more physical, and it’s a war of attrition. As painful as it is to look back on, The Blues pushed the Bruins around in 2019 to win their first Stanley Cup, and while not the deciding factor, helped contribute to the first-round defeat against the Florida Panthers to end the 2022-23 season. Milan Lucic was signed to help in this area, but his four games might be the last of this year.

Many names have been considered as trade targets for the Bruins. Noah Hanifin, defenseman for the Calgary Flames, comes up frequently. He’s a good player with local connections, as he’s from Boston and played for Boston College. His teammate, Elias Lindholm, is under consideration for a potential upgrade at the center. Other names bandied about include Nikita Zadorov, Radko Gudas, and Pat Maroon for physicality, Tyson Barrie and Tony DeAngelo for offense from the blue line, and strangely, Tyler Johnson from the Chicago Blackhawks at center. Johnson is available, but at age 33, 5’8″, and after two years of injuries, without even considering the cost to acquire or to pay, he’s not an upgrade.

Zadorov would bring some offense but mostly a physical presence and penalty minutes. After being traded to the Canucks, it’s doubtful he’s coming to Boston. Gudas has a full no-trade clause in the contract he signed this year in Anaheim; would it be waived? Maroon can take Lucic’s role, only makes $800,000, and is a free agent after this year, but he is also 35 and has a sixteen-team no-trade clause.   Barrie is a power play specialist, and DeAngelo has too much baggage. Despite the lack of offense from the defense this year, I would pass on both.      

Hanifin and Lindholm are upgrades and potentially available as they are both free agents coming July 1 and are on a non-playoff team. In looking at others, former Bruin Frank Vatrano is an exciting name. The East Longmeadow, MA, and UMass product is having an excellent season for Anaheim, another team with little hope of making the playoffs. Frank is a “shoot first, ask questions later” player. He’s typically in the 15-20 goals a year range but is currently at fifteen. At twenty-nine, he might not be considered part of the future. I’m not sure the Bruins could win a bidding war for him. Chris Tanev is another unrestricted free agent for the Calgary Flames at the end of this season, but the RIT alumnus is a puck-moving defenseman and is not physical. Tomas Hertl of San Jose would be a nice fill for the number one center position but is much too expensive for the Bruins. The Bruins could try to target two of Seattle’s left defensemen: Jamie Oleksiak and Brian Dumoulin. The Kraken are having a disappointing start to their season after doing so well in 2022-23. Oleksiak, 31, who spent a season at Northeastern, is a big 6’7″, 255-pound defenseman making 4.6M for two more years. Dumoulin has local ties, as he’s from Biddeford, Maine, and attended Boston College. Brian is also a Stanley Cup winner, having won in Pittsburgh. At 32, perhaps he’d like to end his defensive defenseman career in Boston; he’s making 3.15M and has one year left on his contract. Given the Winnipeg Jets’ success, I doubt they would part with another defensive defenseman in Brenden Dillon. Matt Dumba is the last of the Western Conference defensemen I’d consider. The former Minnesota Wild defenseman is now with the Arizona Coyotes on a one-year, 3.9M deal. He would bring physicality with an edge from right defense.

I consciously decided not to spend too much time reviewing Eastern Conference trade possibilities. Most teams do not want to trade inside their conference as they will play against the players they exchange more often. I looked only at teams that appear destined not to make the playoffs. Surprisingly, both Buffalo and Ottawa have had a disappointing start. I see more possibilities with Buffalo, but I am only aware of two trades between these teams in their history. Jordan Greenway brings size as a physical presence to the left wing and is a former Boston University player. Victor Olafsson appears to be underused this season for Buffalo. The last name I will mention is a name discussed in the past:  Jacob Chychrun of the Ottawa Senators. He’s a proven offensive defenseman who is also responsible defensively. Ottawa gave up a lot to get him; I don’t see him getting moved without the Senators getting a large package.         

The Bruins have several obstacles to overcome to acquire any of their Christmas list players. They are tight against the salary cap, so if they acquire a player, they must return a contract and possibly more to the other team. Boston has already traded many draft picks away, leaving them with no picks in the upcoming draft for rounds one through three. Players the Bruins might consider using in a trade package are not producing, namely Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk, and Derek Forbort. It will hurt them long-term if they end up trading prospects such as Fabian Lysell, Brett Harrison, or Georgii Merkulov. 

I foresee a lot of frustrated Bruins fans calling for Don Sweeney to be fired. The Bruins no longer have the assets to add to the team and will likely see their trade targets traded to other contenders. Given the team they currently have, I do not consider them serious Stanley Cup contenders, so I would rather see Sweeney prepare for the future than continue to chase after rentals in an attempt to pursue a Stanley Cup. That time passed when they lost game seven to the Panthers in the playoffs to end 2022-23.

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