By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
Rick Nash is 33 years old and the Bruins paid a steep price to acquire him Sunday.
That’s not a reason to grind your teeth and bang your head against the wall; it’s a reason to celebrate.
By soaring into the top six in the NHL overall standings, the Bruins have skipped a step or two in their reboot. What should have been another bridge year has become a golden opportunity to at least reach the League final four. So general manager Don Sweeney decided to do what GMs in his position have done since the creation of the trade deadline: he decided to go for it.
Rather than lamenting the price Sweeney paid for a rental and worrying that the Bruins won’t have enough organizational depth when we’re all flying around in Jetsons cars, fans should be thanking Sweeney. The GM is rewarding their emotional and monetary investment in this team by mortgaging a small piece of the Bruins’ future for a legitimate shot on this year’s Stanley Cup.
Thirty-three is beyond what’s been established as a prime for players of Nash’s ilk. But the Bruins aren’t signing him to a six-year contract extension, they’re adding him to a deep, talented lineup hoping they can squeeze two to three months of vintage Rick Nash out of him.
There are so many reasons why he’ll succeed with the Bruins. His versatility and commitment to a two-way game will allow him to play on any of the top three lines, although it’s expected he’ll start out to the right of left wing Jake DeBrusk and center David Krejci in the spot vacated by the departed Ryan Spooner.
If Nash works out on Krejci’s line, he’ll have less defensive responsibility because more often than not coach Bruce Cassidy has leaned on his third or fourth line to take on the tough defensive matchups when Patrice Bergeron’s line hasn’t been available. That would mean more offensive zone starts for Krejci’s line. Although Nash had the benefit of those with New York, he hasn’t played with a center the caliber of Krejci (sorry Mike Zibanejad) with the Rangers for a while.
Nash isn’t coming here as the savior. He probably won’t play on the first power play because Danton Heinen can seamlessly fill into Spooner’s old spot. On the second power play, Nash could take some ice time from DeBrusk, allowing the rookie to be extra energized for his 5-on-5 shifts.
Nash can be regular on penalty kill or take a lesser role and conserve his energy because the Bruins have so many established killers. And that leads to the twist in Nash’s addition. Although he’ll be under pressure to make an impact worthy of what the Bruins gave up to acquire him, Nash shouldn’t feel too much heat. At worst, he’ll struggle and the Bruins’ depth will still carry them however far they were going to go in the postseason with the lineup they had before the trade. At best he’s jolted by the upgrade in the talent around him, the winning attitude of his peers and the chance to challenge for the Cup for the first time since the Rangers went to the finals in 2014.
Nash has 15 goals in 77 career playoff games, and many blame him for the Rangers coming up short in 2014 because he scored just three goals. Obviously, he has something to prove in terms of being a postseason player, but every playoff team, every playoff season, is different. The matchups, the linemates, injuries – they all have an effect and it’s unfair to decide Nash won’t contribute to the Bruins this spring because of what he did with the Rangers.
As for the price, we know what Ryan Spooner is and he may hit his stride with the Rangers or elsewhere and become a 20-goal scorer or 70-point producers. He did well to play tougher this year as a wing and utilized his speed much better. But we saw what the playoffs did to him last season when he wound up in the press box. Like Nash, Spooner could’ve had a big postseason this season to make up for past failure, but would you rather trust the guy with a track record of wilting under pressure or the guy known for going to the dirty areas and playing a strong 200-foot game (not to mention 289 career NHL goals).
With Bergeron and Krejci around, Spooner was never going to find his real niche here. The Bruins were unlikely to pay Spooner what he’s worth as a restricted free agent this summer. In that way, he was already a rental.
Ryan Lindgren might become a top-four defenseman, but the Bruins are loaded at that position from Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon on down. They lost a first-round pick but have shown an ability to draft well in the later rounds and to lure college free agents. Their cupboard is still quite full and they’re still in a position to have talent coming up in the years ahead or to make another trade before the 3 p.m. deadline on Monday.
If a top-four defenseman was the Bruins’ top need this season, their second was a second-line right wing. Barring another deal, they’ve decided to plug their defense problem with quantity rather than quality. They currently have nine defensemen in the NHL.
But they’ve addressed need No. 2 by securing the services of one of the top two or three veteran rental players available. Even if the Bruins don’t raise the Cup in June, they deserve credit for showing they are committed to winning in the present, as much if not more, than selling a rosy future to their customers.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.