BOSTON (CBS) – It took 366 days for Bruins general manager Don Sweeney to make a trade, and it was one that he couldn’t lose.
Sweeney swapped a conditional sixth-round draft pick in 2018 to the Winnipeg Jets for 31-year-old forward Drew Stafford, who has four goals in 40 games this season and hasn’t scored in his past nine games. Sure it might seem as though Sweeney was salvaging some junk, but keep in mind Jimmy Hayes, who has two goals in 48 games, became the Bruins’ third-line right wing after Bruce Cassidy began working miracles from behind the bench.
The conditional pick can only be upgraded as high as a fourth-round pick and is contingent on Stafford playing in a certain percentage of games and the Bruins winning a round of the playoffs. If the Bruins make the playoffs, never mind win a round, and Stafford contributes more than a piece of lint to the effort, they’ll gladly sacrifice a better draft pick after missing the playoffs the past two seasons.
Sweeney is on a roll. He made the coaching change of the century from Claude Julien to Cassidy, who’s 7-1-0 since taking over Feb. 7. And now Sweeney adds a forward with a little size who only has to score one goal in place of Hayes in the lineup to make the Bruins break even. Two goals from Stafford and the Bruins might become an ’80s-caliber offensive juggernaut, especially if the rest of the team keeps scoring on the pace it has since the coaching change.
No one could blame Sweeney for not diving deeper into the rental market based on the prices, the Bruins’ current status (even Sweeney can’t believe the “Bruce juice” is going to make the Bruins an elite team come playoff time) and the high marks the Bruins’ prospects pool seems to be getting from all corners of the scouting and pundit communities.
“I’m very happy with how our team has responded here and I think that adding to the group continues to send a message that the group has played well and it’s a nice response and it’s not a big surprise that our core players are leading that charge,” Sweeney said after he completed one of the 18 trades completed Wednesday. “They want to win and they want to feel like they’re being supported. So that’s what the task was at this particular time without taking away from or breaking down … what we want to do now and going forward.”
There were rumors the Bruins were pursuing backup goaltender help. Sweeney said he had some talks. Giving up anything of value for a Jaroslav Halak or similar would’ve been silly considering Anton Khudobin’s improved play since Cassidy allowed the goaltender to play more than once a month. The Bruins could’ve upgraded their left-handed defense situation and allowed Kevan Miller to move back to his natural right side on a full-time basis. No trades materialized to make that happen, and Sweeney noted that John-Michael Liles could become a factor and Miller could continue to switch back and forth over the final 19 games of the season.
“Our D has played well and I hope they continue to be healthy and play well,” Sweeney said. “I’m not going to shy away from the fact that I explored situations that might help our team and will continue to do so. But I think our D has played well.”
Sweeney made a conscious effort not to react to what the Bruins’ closest competition in the race for a playoff spot did. Montreal added Dwight King, Steve Ott and Jordie Benn for size. The Bruins don’t play the Canadiens again this season. Ottawa, which has three games left against the Bruins, added Alex Burrows (for a prized prospect) and Viktor Stalberg (yawn). Florida brought in Thomas Vanek, so watch out when the Bruins play the Panthers on April 1. Vanek has scored 31 of his 331 NHL goals against the Bruins.
But none of the Atlantic Division or wild-card foes made an Earth-shattering deal and there are plenty of playoff spots to go around. Just by going 7-1 in their past eight the Bruins have put themselves in a position where they should make the playoffs.
Regardless of where the Bruins finish this season, the decision making for Sweeney will never be as easy as it was Wednesday. His trade track record is still shady, with Zac Rinaldo for a third round pick still making people’s eyes bleed, and Hayes probably ticketed for the press box once Stafford gets up to speed. Sweeney’s first free agent acquisition Matt Beleskey will probably be right alongside Hayes for much of the stretch run barring injuries. The Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic trades will only be deemed a success based on how the three 2015 first-round picks turn out.
Sometime soon Sweeney is going to have to decide the future is the present and he’s going to have to wheel and deal a bit. Not all of the prospects the Bruins have collected will pan out and some will have to be dealt to make up for a deficiency, even if they meet their potential. No one’s going to trade for a failed prospect.
“Well I hope we’re running away with where our team would be and putting chips in the middle of the table to take a run. That’s what we’re trying to build for,” Sweeney said. “We’ve remained a competitive team. I thought we’d remain a competitive team. And I think we’re going to be a good team with the young players we have and those young players will determine when we’re going to do that.”
Actually, it’ll be Sweeney who determines when it’s time to become aggressive. For now the ultimate goal is modest — make the playoffs. The Cassidy bump looks like enough to get the Bruins there. The ultimate goal beyond this season is to challenge for the Stanley Cup and to do that Sweeney’s transactions will have to be more astute than his earliest maneuvers.
The trade for Stafford was a walkover, but a win’s a win. The Bruins hope it was the start of Sweeney’s winning streak.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.