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Now more than ever, help must be on the way

Something's gotta give.

Such is the feeling around the Bruins these days. The product sagging toward also-ran anonymity again, and the general manager on record as being, shall we say, something less than enamored, the NHL's local entry has reached the point where a trade looks: (a) likely; (b) necessary; and (c) possibly the only prescription that shakes the struggling squad from its Twelfth-Month Funk.


"I've been looking," said general manager Mike O'Connell, emphatically acknowledging the possible need for a deal. "If they aren't responding, I'll have to do something."

The stroke after 11:59 this evening, the NHL will impose its annual holiday trade embargo. If O'Connell hasn't swapped a body or two by midnight, then everyone stays in place until at least Dec. 27. The league's rank and file no longer live in fear of waking up Christmas morning to find a one-way ticket out of town wrapped neatly under the tree.

O'Connell last week began to express his frustrations over the near top-to-bottom failings of the Boston lineup. Last night, prior to the 5-0 whitewash by the Flames on Causeway Street, the recent string of travails reached 2-4-5-1 over the last dozen games. Following a tie here with the Senators Dec. 8, they were looking forward to a four-game road trip to revivify their game, but they returned home with a lackluster 1-1-2-0 mark for their week on the road.

"Not a complete 60 minutes," said O'Connell, asked if he saw encouragement in the trip's last two games, a 3-2 win at Ottawa and a 1-1 tie in Montreal. "You know, bad penalties . . . but in fairness, you go around the league, you don't see many 60-minute efforts."

Based on the last 32 games, the spot in most need of help would be the defense. Most wanted: a power-play quarterback.

But there are only so many Brad Parks to find when a season is already rolling along. O'Connell went out at last season's March trade deadline and picked up Ian Moran and Dan McGillis, both of whom have been valuable contributors to the blue line. However, when Bryan Berard turned down a two-year offer for a guaranteed $3.5 million, it created a void in the Boston attack that has yet to be filled.

"I don't know," said O'Connell, asked if he felt the greatest need is on the backline. "The group we have, if they play consistently, I think we're OK."

Something is missing. O'Connell knows it and acknowledges it. He only has to look as far as newcomer Doug Doull and returnee Ted Donato to know he's right.

"Not enough players come with that enthusiasm -- that's what I'm getting at," said O'Connell, referring to the effervescent and quick-to-boil Doull. "And look at the way Teddy's playing, it's like every day he's up here is sacred to him. That's the way you'd like your whole team to play."

A trade doesn't guarantee that a package of passion, or even a proficient point man, will be delivered to Causeway Street. It takes only an evening with a remote clicker in hand, and a contract with NHL Center Ice, to realize that emotion is in short supply around the Original 30.

But just when you think blood-and-guts hockey has gone the way of your granddad's all-leather Tacks, someone with Doull's gumption shows up and reminds us all that there are still a few skaters out there who would charge headfirst through a runaway Zamboni just to get their shot at the Show.

One drag on passion around Causeway Street could be the decidedly stingy way the Bruins have gone about approaching their payroll with next summer's labor fight looming. Hoping that a salary cap is in the offing, management has committed less than $9 million in payroll for next season. No one is running their business leaner to the bone than the cost-conscious Bruins, an approach that management believes is not only prudent but necessary, just in case the Lords of the Boards can wrench a salary cap -- cost certainty, in the league's dictionary -- out of the players' union.

However, one must wonder if too many unrestricted free agents make, in part, for too little passion. At the moment, both Mike Knuble and Glen Murray, the wingers on the No. 1 line, are free to leave as of July 1. Ditto for Brian Rolston. Ditto for McGillis and Felix Potvin. The Bruins, in fact, lead the league with a dozen players poised to become UFAs next summer.

It could be that employees, not knowing where they will work next season, or not knowing if they will work next season, find it difficult to pledge their allegiance to the spoked-B.

"I don't know . . . I don't see why that would be the case," said O'Connell, Boston's 2004-05 salary commitment some $56 million less than what the Rangers have obligated for next season. "Maybe . . . but I think history has shown that players at the end of their contract usually play harder."

Whatever the reason, extra effort has not been a Boston trademark this season. The fans want more. Management does, too. O'Connell said he doubts he'll make a deal before tonight's embargo is imposed, but he ponders a team without passion and continues to phone his fellow GMs.

If the answer isn't within, perhaps it's out there, somewhere.

Does the GM feel an urgency to make a deal?

"I don't know," he said.

Is O'Connell mad?

"I don't know . . . I don't know what I am," the frustration evident in O'Connell's voice, despite his ever-present smile. "I'd say disappointed maybe -- disappointed that we haven't strung anything together since the start of the year."

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