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Bruins must shop before they drop

Phil Kessel has speed to burn - and also may have some currency in the trade market. Phil Kessel has speed to burn - and also may have some currency in the trade market. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / December 25, 2007

Patrice Bergeron, sidelined since Oct. 27, could be back in a Bruins sweater in about 4-6 weeks. But that's no guarantee. The recovery timeline on a Grade 3 concussion is as inconsistent and maddening as the symptoms themselves. For those of us with leaky basements, it's akin to predicting what day that last rivulet of water will dry up.

Andrew Alberts has a bad head, too, and the Bruins' medical personnel have yet to figure out the source of his symptoms. The last big lick he took was Nov. 26 in Philadelphia, his left temple pounded into the boards by Flyers winger Scott Hartnell. Alberts returned the next game but has been unable to suit up for four straight because of recurring headaches.

Alberts is living Bergeron's kind of life, even if doctors can't say for sure that the third-year blue liner suffered a concussion. Head injuries are nothing but headaches - and that's if you're lucky.

And the list goes on and on:

Aaron Ward (fractured left foot) could be out through January.

Glen Murray (hip flexor) might be out a couple of more games, but hips and groins are the fits and starts of the hockey industry. Murray is also 35 years old, putting him in an age group that adds gray areas to all injuries.

Bobby Allen, sidelined earlier in the month by back spasms, couldn't straighten up enough to play Sunday in a 4-2 loss to the Penguins.

Mix in Manny Fernandez's lost season (knee surgery), and the Bruins at the moment have $18 million in salary out of the lineup. That's more than one-third of the league's salary cap of $50.3 million.

Which brings us to the 1-4-1 slump the Bruins carried into their brief holiday respite. With so much top talent out of the lineup, could more be expected? Not really, even if solid citizens such as defenseman Andrew Ference spent time after Sunday's loss to discount the "walking wounded" factor.

To put it all off to injury, said Ference "would be a cop-out."

Even if Bergeron is the club's No. 1A center, as well as its undeclared future captain. Even if Murray, when his stick is alive, is the offensively-challenged squad's closest facsimile to a sniper. Even if Alberts plays a valued hitting game, one that he has reworked and made even more effective this season. And even if Ward brings such a stabilizing influence to a defensive corps that has played well beyond the sum of its parts most of the season.

Let's not forget, even when they were winning with some regularity back in November (7-4-2), the Bruins survived by the thinnest of margins, namely the netminding of Tim Thomas and the adherence to a simple but smart defensive system implemented by first-year coach Claude Julien. It was all the more impressive given that Bergeron, their most talented blend of offense and defense up front, wasn't around for any of it.

Truth is, no matter how brave and honorable a front they want to maintain, the Bruins can't win on a consistent basis in the face of so many injuries. They are simply not good enough, especially on offense, having produced only 12 goals the last six games. Their fortunes of November may make that hard to accept, but 1-4-1 is a fair reflection of a team that, remember, banked only 76 points last season and finished with a second straight postseason DNQ.

"Not time to be hanging our heads," Julien told his bedraggled squad following the loss at the Igloo.

Stick to the system, Julien reminded them, because night to night, it's their best chance of winning. He is right, and Julien is paid, in part, to keep the esprit de corps buoyant in times like these. But in the quiet of the dressing room after the loss in Pittsburgh, the sullen looks on so many faces also provided a reflection of the obvious: The Bruins need help, lots of it, and they need it now.

If the injured list doesn't give up a couple of its hobbled hostages, and if general manager Peter Chiarelli can't work a little trade magic in very short order, then the unraveling of the last two weeks promptly will land the Bruins right where they were this time last season - angled decidedly toward postseason oblivion.

It was clear by the first week of January last season, after a 1-3-1 crawl out of the holiday break, that trouble was upon them. Chiarelli, in his first year on the Causeway watch, was painfully slow to react, and it wasn't until Feb. 10, after he finally gave up all hope of extending Brad Stuart's stay in the Hub of Hockey, that the GM finally pulled off a deal of some weight: Stuart and Wayne Primeau to Calgary for Chuck Kobasew and Ference.

All well and good, but also all too late. In the six-plus weeks after the holiday break, the Bruins went 6-12-2. Season fini.

The troubles of the last two weeks have not sunk a season, but they have, without question, placed Chiarelli in the tightest squeeze of his Boston tenure. He cannot risk this slide lasting another 2-4 weeks.

But what does he have to give? That's where it gets even trickier. Several of Chiarelli's high-priced veterans - including Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard, and Marco Sturm - come with "no-trade" provisions. And right now, in part because of their big tickets, the only one in that lot who would draw real interest is Savard. He can't go anywhere unless he asks out, and without him, frankly, there is no offense.

Murray, on the books for $4.1 million this season and next, won't attract anyone with his stick dormant and his hip hurting. He's here, and he has to score. End . . . of . . . story. And if he doesn't? End . . . of . . . story.

Ultimately, it may come down to kids, and how willing the Bruins are to give up future promise for present production. There will be bidders for Phil Kessel, who was benched after two periods Sunday, his game noticeably lacking edge and dimension in this, his second NHL season. Goalie prospect Tuukka Rask and improving blue liner Mark Stuart also will bring bids, but they likely would be more difficult to sacrifice than Kessel, whose speed, though alluring, in some ways is holding him back from discovering what else he can do out there. Julien, like Dave Lewis last season, is beginning to realize it.

Kessel was the No. 5 pick in the 2006 draft. Five years earlier, Stanislav Chistov was taken fifth overall by the Anaheim Ducks, who dealt him last year to the Bruins. He wasn't totally useless, but he wasn't much more. Today, Chistov is back in Russia, another once-prime prospect gone bust. Kessel has more to offer, because of his speed and a knack around the net during shootouts. But he must show the coaching staff that he's willing to be smarter and work harder, especially in the dirtier areas of the ice.

And, as always, there is P.J. Axelsson. The versatile and ever-diligent winger, who popped in a 1-0 lead that held up through the first period in Pittsburgh, forever will draw bids. He is also an economical cap hit ($1.85 million). If there is nothing else out there that makes sense, Chiarelli may have to move Axelsson, who likely could bring a No. 4-5 defenseman.

All in all, uneasy times on Causeway Street, where the mantra this year was to ice a team that was tougher to play against than last year's soft-serve bunch. And while they have been far better thus far at keeping pucks out of their net (94 goals against), they've been equally challenged at putting pucks into the other net (94 goals for).

One goal lost for every goal gained - a very difficult way to make it back to the playoffs.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com

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