Let’s be clear about this: The first 45 games of the Bruins season weren’t a mirage. Despite a stunning third-period collapse against the San Jose Sharks, the Black and Gold are for real when it comes to Stanley Cup contention.
The B’s have bucket loads of eye-catching skill, defensive tenacity, superior goaltending, chemistry within the room that most hockey coaches dream of and a pinch of playoff experience following last season’s seven-game donnybrook with the Montreal Canadiens.
But — after a stretch of games against battle-hardened and playoff-caliber opponents following the All-Star break — the Bruins are clearly missing or wanting in a few key areas as the intensity heightens amidst the NHL’s stretch run.
The Bruins roster is dotted with some true hockey bruisers like 6-foot-9, 255-pound behemoth Zdeno Chara and 6-foot-4, 220-pound Milan Lucic, along with respectable middleweights like Shawn Thornton, Mark Stuart and Aaron Ward. But there’s an obvious size problem along Boston’s front line.
Lucic, Thornton, Blake Wheeler and Byron Bitz are the only front line forwards eclipsing the 200-pound mark, and the lack of overall size and strength are exposed a bit when the going gets rough against big, physical teams like the New Jersey Devils, the Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers … and, yes, the Jumbo Joe Thornton-led Sharks.
It’s something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli, and it’s been made a priority with less than a month to go until the March 4 NHL trade deadline.
Size looms large — no pun intended — during the months of April and May, and the B’s brass is well aware of that.
A grouping of oversized forwards and battleship-sized defensemen can simply bang and scrape and ride smaller centers like Marc Savard and David Krejci over the course of a long playoff series, and begin to wear skill players while crashing the net and moving bodies out of the key areas around the scoring zones.
“I think we’ve got some size, and that we can compete against (bigger teams) like that, but I think in the low cycle both defensively and offensively over time — and during a series — (the size) will wear you down,” said Chiarelli. “If we can get bigger it’s something that we’d like to do.
“We’ve added Byron Bitz in a fourth-line role, and he’s a big body who bangs and is good off the wall. I think that’s important. I don’t want to give up skill, but I think that type of game is important going into the playoffs.”
Bitz has been a useful call-up from Providence, and has certainly added to Boston’s overall physicality during his time in the Hub, but playoff experience along with that size can’t be discounted once things get dialed up in the “tournament.”
With that in mind, now is the time for the Bruins to target their prized possession on the trade market and make their move. With Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez facing free agency and both Phil Kessel and Krejci approaching restricted free agency status in a year that looks as if the salary cap will either plateau or dip slightly, the Bruins could look very differently as soon as next season.
That gives Chiarelli and Co. a small window to put together a roster built for an extended playoff run this season while also keeping an eye on the Black and Gold reload for next season and beyond.
“We’ve targeted a couple types of players, but we also have to balance the fact that we have pretty good chemistry along with the fact that we have a pretty good team,” said Chiarelli. “It’s my job to recognize certain windows in a team’s performance over the course of time, especially in this day and age when those windows can come and go pretty quickly. It’s my job to try and keep that window open if I think there is one, or to try and get to that window. I would say that we’re hovering in and around that window. I’d say that we’re balancing a lot of things.
“On the one hand you don’t like to give up assets, but on the other hand you’ve got to give up things sometimes to get over the top,” added Chiarelli. “The playoffs are a different story, so you’ve got to put a lot into the mix.”
Now isn’t the time to hem and haw about price tags or the value of future draft picks to an organization that is overrun with young talent and “Peach Fuzz” power play artists — as Jack Edwards might call them.
The time has come to release the trigger on the trade market and do whatever needs to be done to secure the likes of Keith Tkachuk, Erik Cole, Doug Weight, Nik Antropov or Chris Neil.
Each player is in the final year of his contract, and will reach free agency at the end of this season. Each player is a left-handed shot — with the exception of the gritty, grimy, perfect-for-a-playoff-series Neil. And all of them give the Bruins a little bit more of the size they’re going to need up front to deal with the Beasts in the East.
It’s a matter of who best fits in with the rest of the team and who represents the best value relative to the price tag, but the B’s need more of what each of these skaters possesses.
With Ryder out of the lineup until early March and Petteri Nokelainen down and out with a nasty eye injury, now is the perfect time to add the complimentary piece to the B’s lineup and give them ample time to integrate themselves in the lineup and potentially energize a sagging power play that clearly needs a spark.
Here are some plusses and minuses on several of the names heard in recent trade talks with the B’s.
Keith Tkachuk: The St. Louis Blues are dead last in the Western Conference with 50 points but are still hanging around for a potential eighth playoff spots in a wacky year out West. But the 6-foot-2, 231-pound prototypical power forward is exactly what the Bruins are searching for. Sources close to the 36-year-old have said that Boston is his top preference if he is dealt, and it’s no surprise given his background growing up in Medford and playing hockey at Malden Catholic and Boston University. Tkachuk has 11 power play goals and plays a physical game, and — despite some faint concerns that his attitude in an abysmal situation with the Blues could carry over to Boston — would have no choice but to conform in a dressing room where guys like Marc Savard, Zdeno Chara and Shawn Thornton have established real leadership. Tkachuk would answer many of the questions the Bruins have along their roster headed into the spring season. The one stumbling block could be if Tkachuk were to wrap a contract extension demand into his willingness to waive his no trade clause.
Erik Cole: Cole has rebounded from a slow start with the Oil and has 12 goals along with a host of playoff experience from his Stanley Cup-winning season with the Carolina Hurricanes. While he’s not quite as physically big or as prolific a power play threat as Tkachuk, the 6-foot-2, 205-pounder would readily fit into Claude Julien’s system of reliable two-way play and gritty extra effort. Cole is considered a physical player, and has a knack for drawing penalties. The negatives: Cole has scored one goal in his last 12 games, is a -5 during that time and registered a season-low 11:53 of playing time against the Canadiens last Wednesday night. That, my friends, is a player trending downward. The upside: his price would be more affordable in the form of a draft pick or peripheral player.
Doug Weight: The 38-year-old has 20 overall power play points for the Islanders this season and already knows the drill about being a late season, playoff-run rental player after getting dealt to the Hurricanes in 2005-06 en route to their successful Stanley Cup run and to the Anaheim Ducks last season. While the Blues and the Oilers are still kicking around playoff aspirations in the Wild, Wild West, Weight is available now with a floundering Isles team that is going nowhere fast. Weight is a solid 5-foot-11 and 200-pounds, but doesn’t play as big as Tkachuk or Cole.
Nik Antropov: Toronto GM Brian Burke has already made it clear that the 6-foot-6, 230-pounder is available if and when teams come calling with a fair price, and the 28-year-old would seem to be a perfect fit given his imposing size and offensive skills. Antropov potted 26 goals last season — including 12 on the power play — but doesn’t play nearly as big as his size would indicate and doesn’t display with a great deal of consistency. Burke has already said he wouldn’t be signing Antropov at the end of the season, so he will be dealt and could give the Bruins a very different look along Boston’s front line given his physical gifts. Antropov is an intriguing possibility, but Chiarelli is said to not be the biggest fan of the big winger’s game.
Chris Neil: Given the injuries and clear lack of a real agitator/villain on the B’s roster come playoff time, a player like Neil could be very attractive if Boston decides they’re looking for the ultimate complimentary piece for a playoff run. Neil is dirty, mean and nasty and would give the Bruins a whole different element than they currently have on a very talented and tough roster. Every playoff team armed for a long run through the NHL’s Stanley Cup gauntlet could use a player like Neil. The scrapping Neil is currently out with a leg laceration injury, but should be back before the trade deadline.
Chris Pronger: The big defenseman is included because his name has popped up so much recently, and because his acquisition gives Bruins fans daydreams of a nightmare blueline corps including both Pronger and Chara. A Pronger trade would cause many B’s fans to clear off June dates for a Stanley Cup rolling rally through the streets of Boston, but it’s a bad idea on almost every long term planning level. Pronger is signed for $6.25 million this season and next season, and would be a huge contractual nut to crack on a team that’s already headed for salary cap headaches (Thomas, Krejci, Kessel) this offseason. The notion that a player earning $6.25 million could be dealt off after this year’s playoff run in this economy — with an uncertain salary cap situation going forward — is laughable.
Joe Haggerty covers the Bruins for WEEI.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.