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For the Boston Bruins, the current season has been a far cry from last season’s Eastern-Conference-winning effort and the expectations that accompanied such a feat. Winless at the TD Garden in 2010, the Bruins have lost eight in a row and ten of their last eleven, with that sole win coming in a shootout. The team has plummeted in the standings, going from fifth place to twelfth place over the course of a few days. They have scored fewer goals (131) than any other team in the league, including the last-place Edmonton Oilers (141). Injuries have riddled the team all season long, creating a lack of consistency and chemistry, while trades and late-season signings have failed to produce results.
As far as the schedule goes, the team will regroup after the Olympic break for a seven-game road trip, with another nine to be played on the road, while only returning to the Garden for twelve tilts. None of these hindrances have contributed to the Stanley-Cup-winning formula most prognosticators believed the team had at the beginning of the season.
Despite all of this, though, the Bruins are only two points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand. Only five points separates the sixth- and thirteenth-place teams in the conference, while a three-way tiebreaker is used to separate eighth, ninth, and tenth place. As a result, the Bruins could still very well play more than 82 games this season.
However, the next month leading up to the NHL’s March 3rd trade deadline will be critical in determining how the team finishes the season. Here are three potential steps, ranked by urgency, the Bruins need to take to awaken themselves into the playoff contenders they have the potential to be.
Boston General Manager Peter Chiarelli has repeated that the remaining games before the Olympic break begins (February 15 for the Bruins) will determine whether he’s a buyer or seller at the trade deadline. That is an acceptable and appropriate attitude for the front office to have, but only in private. Saying it over and over again to the media will eventually make it to the locker room, which is the last place Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien want it to be.
It’s clear that the Bruins have, for the most part, lacked the heart, determination, and character to win this year. Hearing that the brass is on the fence about the season isn’t going to instill confidence in an already apathetic locker room. The team needs to hear that they can win, should win, and will win.
Tim Thomas had a career-year last season, with a Vezina Trophy to prove it. No one can argue with that or the fact that the Bruins decision to reward him with a four-year contract worth $20 million at the end of the campaign was appropriate. However, Chiarelli needs to get his money back from Harvard University if he doesn’t know that the $5 million per annum spent on Thomas is a sunk cost, meaning that how much he’s paying Thomas shouldn’t influence how Chiarelli handles Thomas because the money has already been deducted from the season’s salary. As a result, Chiarelli should instruct Julien to start backup goalie Tuukka Rask in his place.
There are plenty of reasons to start Rask ahead of Thomas. For starters, the Bruins score more goals and allow fewer goals when Rask is in net. While Thomas’s 2.52 GAA is within the top twenty in the league, Rask’s 2.15 is third in the league. Their save percentages are just over one one-hundredth apart, but Rask is sixth in the league and Thomas is 17th. Rask also has a winning record (10-7-2) and Thomas doesn’t (13-15-7). Just throwing that little fact out there for you to chew on, Julien. Think about it for a bit.
Want more? Seven of those nine total losses for Rask came when he didn’t start consecutive games. The last time Rask started consecutive games was in mid-December when the Bruins completely shutdown Phil Kessel in a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs following a 7-2 beating of the same Toronto team. Before that? A six-game stretch in November during which the Bruins went 4-1-1. Give the feisty Finn consecutive games in net and tallies will start to appear in the win column.
This is the most obvious, most talked about, and most necessary step the worst offense in the league needs to take if they want to participate in the playoffs, never mind the Stanley Cup Finals. In the games center Marc Savard has been healthy enough to participate in, he has had no one to pass off to on his right wing and cannot turn to his left wing, since Milan Lucic is not the scorer Phil Kessel was. The recent signing of Miroslav Satan has failed to remedy the situation, but the hockey gods were merciful by making him so cheap at only $700,000. As a result, the Bruins are still looking for someone who can bury the puck in the back of the net.
The most desirable player to trade for is Ilya Kovalchuk, the soon-to-be-unrestricted-free-agent of the Atlanta Thrashers who has posted two 50-goal seasons in seven years he’s spent in the NHL. A line of Lucic-Savard-Kovalchuk sounds near unstoppable, but is a combination unlikely to occur. The Thrashers know that Kovalchuk is the most sought-after player this year and will command a high price for him; they are reportedly seeking a top-six forward, top-four defenseman, and either a high draft pick or highly touted prospect. The Bruins could potentially package Michael Ryder, whom the Bruins are looking to sell according to TSN.ca, Dennis Wideman, and their first-round draft pick, but it’s unlikely the Thrashers will bite on a deal involving Ryder. Replacing Ryder in the deal with Blake Wheeler or David Krejci is simply too high of a price for the B’s to pay. The most recent rumors suggest that the Bruins are out of the Kovalchuk sweepstakes completely.
Beyond Kovalchuk, who is rumored to be seeking a ten-year, $11.2 million-per-year contract after this season, there is still plenty of talent to select from, especially from teams like the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, who are all-but-mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. From Carolina, why not Ray Whitney, the team’s leading scorer with 41 points in 53 games? Currently on pace for a 24-goal season, Whitney is also impressive on the power play, something with which the Bruins desperately need help. The sole wrinkle with a deal for Whitney is his no-trade clause, which he is reportedly only willing to waive if he is offered a three-year extension by his new club. There’s hope in Columbus, though, with two potential scorers to scavenge: Kristian Huselius, who has 10 points in his last eight games, putting him on pace for a 23-goal season, and R.J. Umberger, who has 18 goals on the season. Any one of these three players would be an excellent addition and potentially the adrenaline the Bruins need to jumpstart their offense, all at a much more affordable price than Kovalchuk.
As more teams begin to drop out of the playoff race, more options will become available to Chiarelli. Of note are the Anaheim Ducks, who are borderline playoff contenders in the Western Conference. Their trade with the Maple Leafs (mainly J.S. Giguere for Jason Blake and Vesa Toskala) suggests that they’re open to shake-ups and with the contracts of Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu ending after the season, they may become big sellers.
The Bruins have their work cut out for them on and off of the ice. If they want is as badly as the billboards say they do, they should have no problem returning to top form. Big changes will need to occur before the playoffs become a reality for the team, though, but at least they’re obvious changes.