By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – The Bruins have played 47 games, but the All-Star break is still typically seen as an unofficial midpoint of the season.
In the first half we learned that our modest expectations of the Bruins were way off, as they battled their way to third in the NHL standings with 66 points and hold games in hand on Tampa Bay and Vegas above them. The Bruins will open the post-All-Star portion of their schedule at home against Anaheim on Tuesday with their 18-game point streak on the line.
Here are a few quick thoughts before the Bruins get back into action:
*The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 26 and general manager Don Sweeney doesn’t have to be too active. No one would blame him for keeping the current team together and hoping that if there are injuries or players drop off there’s enough in the farm system to fill in down the stretch and in the playoffs.
But Sweeney has to be tempted to be more aggressive than he has at past deadlines. The league is wide open right and the right addition could make the Bruins an even more formidable postseason foe.
The view from here is the Bruins’ needs are a top-six wing (preferably a right one) and a top-four defenseman (preferably a left one). The latter is always going to be hard to come by and would probably be too costly for a rental. The former is a more obtainable target, with several teams looking to part with forwards they’re not going to re-sign.
Larry Brooks at the New York Post reported over the weekend that the New York Rangers are ready to open up shop and re-supply their draft pick and prospect coffers rather than attempt to go all-in for a playoff spot. Rick Nash headlines the Rangers’ list of rentals and would look nice next to David Krejci on the Bruins’ second line. But there’s a wing that might better fit the bill for the Bruins – Michael Grabner.
The 30-year-old has followed up his 27-goal performance from last season with 21 goals in 49 games this season. Always known for his incredible speed, Grabner has emerged as one of the better finishers in the League. This season playing with Jake DeBrusk, Anders Bjork and, most recently, Ryan Spooner, has proven that Krejci doesn’t need the traditional power forwards on his flanks; the center can work with speedsters. This is probably more because of the way the game has changed than anything. The playoffs may be a difference beast, but if you look around the League most teams are built on speed and the old requirement that teams load up on grit for a long postseason run may no longer apply.
Grabner comes with a negligible salary-cap hit (me makes $1.65 million this season) and will probably be too expensive for a re-sign in the summer. But the Bruins should have enough in terms of draft picks and prospects to woo the Rangers. The Bruins have done well drafting the past couple years and they’re always in the mix for the best college free agents, so they shouldn’t be shy about parting with some of their future.
Spooner has done well since moving to right wing but he’s not the type of goal scorer that could put the Bruins over the top. A Spooner shift back to center in a reconfigured bottom six would make the Bruins a much bigger postseason threat, especially if a scorer like Grabner was in the mix.
Two years ago Sweeney bought at the deadline and brought in Lee Stempniak and John-Michael Liles because he thought he owed it to that team to make a run for a playoff spot. A team that’s earned 66 points in 47 games definitely deserves a boost from an addition, and it should be something from a higher shelf than where the Bruins got Stempniak and Liles.
*The Ottawa goal that went off his skate last Thursday aside, Adam McQuaid has fit seamlessly back into the Bruins’ lineup after missing 36 games. And his return couldn’t have come at a better time because of Charlie McAvoy’s situation.
Now the Bruins are sitting pretty in terms of depth on their back end, assuming McAvoy comes back at full strength in a the projected about of time. Sweeney could stand pat and figure that he won’t need nine or 10 defensemen like he did last spring, so there’s enough on the roster and at Providence to survive. Or if the price is right for a defenseman with some term after this season (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Ryan McDonagh), the Bruins could dangle a roster player in addition to futures if the trading partner needs an NHL veteran with term for their lineup.
*Without taking any credit away from the Bruins’ coaching staff and players during their remarkable first half, one has to wonder if (like Vegas) the Bruins were able to use low expectations to their advantage. Their ability to rebound from giving up the first goal so and overcome multiple-goal deficits in other games proved they played every night without fear. Now that they’re near the top of the league, outside expectations on the Bruins will be raised and opponents will be more apt to treat games against the Bruins like playoff games. It’ll be interesting to see how this young team responds, especially if Sweeney decides not to alter the roster.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.