The Boston Bruins entered wait and see mode after the NHL postponed Saturday’s contest with the Buffalo Sabres and Tuesday’s scheduled tilt with the East Division-leading New York Islanders. The trade rumor mill, however, hasn’t slowed down one bit in this unique season.
Bruce Cassidy’s squad sits in a decent playoff position. They entered Wednesday four points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for third place in the East and two points ahead of the fifth-place Flyers. They’ll have a handful of games in hand on the rest of the division — with seven more tilts scheduled with the lowly Sabres — whenever they step on the ice again, perhaps as soon as Thursday for their scheduled matchup with the Islanders at TD Garden.
Yet, they’re once again in desperate need of scoring help. Their ongoing issues in 5v5 scoring and secondary goal production carried over into another season. Don Sweeney’s attempts at acquiring a top-six winger either lived short of expectations (a la Rick Nash in 2018) or wound up not fulfilling the need of a second line wing (like Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson anchoring a solid third line in 2019).
Last year, the Bruins opted to land depth pieces in Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase from Anaheim. Neither lived up to initial expectations, but Ritchie has provided the Bruins with some solid production on the second and third lines after a disappointing postseason effort.
There’s no way around it this time for Sweeney. He has to go bold with his trade deadline approach. The Bruins don’t have an extended window of opportunities to win another Stanley Cup with their four remaining members from the 2011 squad: Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
Sweeney and company would like nothing more than to land a bonafide top-six winger for Krejci before he’s scheduled to hit the free-agent market. The injuries on the back-end — mainly to Jeremy Lauzon, Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller — may prompt Sweeney to look for additional defensive upgrades.
As an important trade deadline awaits, here are six targets that Sweeney should pursue between now and April 12.
Mattias Ekholm, D
The first name on this list finds himself as the top defensive commodity on the market.
Sportsnet’s Elliotte Freidman reported the Bruins’ rumored interest in the two-way Swedish blue-liner during his 31 thoughts podcast last week. Sweeney would need to put forth an enticing package, for a solid, top-four blue-liner with valuable postseason experience, including a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2017.
Mattias Ekholm provides a rare bright spot for a transitioning Nashville squad. The veteran is only one of five players on the right side of the plus/minus category with a team-leading plus-6 rating. He’s a minutes eater, averaging 22:46 per night, including a team-leading 2:59 of shorthanded time on ice per game.
Above all else, Ekholm’s 5v5 presence stands out. Though the Preds, like the Bruins, sit near the bottom of the league at 5v5 scoring, they’ve outscored their opponents 18-12 when Ekholm touches the ice in said scenario. Ekholm’s nine 5v5 points rank second on the team behind Filip Forsberg and his four 5v5 goals place him tied for third — with Colton Sissons — behind Forsberg and Calle Jarnkok.
He may not fit the bill in terms of lighting the lamp consistently compared to some of the other names on the list. But Ekholm would give the Bruins a valuable left-shot blue-liner to skate with either Charlie McAvoy or a healthy Carlo, with the added caveat of a solid 5v5 performer.
Ekholm comes at a reasonable cap hit of $3.75 million through the 2021-22 campaign. The Bruins would have a solid top-four left shot anchor for a good season and a half before Ekholm earns a raise.
Four of the forwards on this list specifically fit the team’s needs. But adding Ekholm — and a prominent second-line winger — would only improve Boston’s chances of another deep playoff run.
Conor Garland, RW
A week after his segment surrounding Ekholm, Friedman returned with another nugget surrounding a local product in his most recent 31 thoughts podcast.
Conor Garland progressed into a formidable top-six option in three seasons with the Arizona Coyotes. With 25 points (9 goals, 16 assists) in 31 games, the Scituate-born forward should surpass his career-high point totals (39) from a year ago. Eighteen of Garland’s 25 points came in 5v5 play as well.
He isn’t a physical specimen, standing at 5-foot-10-inches and 165 lbs. But Garland, playing the final year of his entry-level contract with a $775,000 cap hit, fits the Bruins’ needs to a T. At age 25, Garland could center himself in Boston’s future plans.
Friedman noted that the Coyotes need to replenish their system. They don’t have a first or third-round selection in the upcoming Entry Draft. Parting ways with Garland could land them some prospects, draft picks or NHL-ready players. The price for acquiring Garland wouldn’t be as steep compared to other names on the list.
Kyle Palmieri, RW
A familiar name and a perennial Bruins killer finds himself on the list for the second straight season.
Kyle Palmieri tallied 20 or more goals for the Devils each year since he arrived from Anaheim in the 2015-16 campaign. That’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment considering the seemingly never-ending rebuilding effort on a Devils’ offensive system still stuck in the dead-puck era.
His production has dipped a bit since last season. For the first time in his career — be it with Anaheim or New Jersey — opponents have outscored Palmieri’s squad in 5v5 situations. The Devils have scored 11 and allowed 16 5v5 goals with Palmieri on the ice.
Surely, he’d provide an upgrade even in a down-season. A new destination could help Palmieri find his groove again in the final year of his contract.
Any potential rental player provides a risk of course. Sweeney would need to put forth an enticing package for Palmieri and his $4.65 million cap hit. The Devils’ asking return may not be as steep as Nashville’s inquiries interest in an Ekholm or Subban package.
Rickard Rakell, LW
The Bruins and Ducks have some familiarity trading with one another at last year’s trade deadline. Sweeney may not have as many available options to choose from this time around after acquiring Ritchie and Kase last year.
One option, in particular, is worth looking at. Injuries halted Rickard Rakell’s production a little bit following a nice career year in 2016-17 where he tallied 69 points (33 goals, 36 assists) in 77 games. His speed and two-way skillset would give Cassidy plenty of flexbility with his lineup.
For a two-year period — from 2015-16 to 2016-17 — Rakell found himself amongst the top 15 goal scorers. His 67 goals in 148 games were good for 13th during that stretch, trailing David Pastrnak by a mere two tallies.
Pastrnak blossomed into a bona-fide goal scorer since. Rakell provided glimpses of previous success during a transitional period in Anaheim.
The Bruins wouldn’t have to break the bank to fit Rakell under the cap. The Swede has a $3.79 million cap hit through the 2021-22 campaign. A change of scenery, and a reunion with Ritchie and Kase, could prove beneficial in Rakell’s search for consistency.
Taylor Hall, LW
The talented top overall pick in 2010 finally earned his due during his Hart Trophy campaign with the Devils in 2017-18. Even with his solid numbers (579 career points in 657 games), Hall’s career hasn’t been all that illustrious.
The Arizona Coyotes took a chance on Hall after acquiring him from the Devils last season. The Coyotes made the postseason bubble in Edmonton and earned a qualifying round upset win over the Nashville Predators before falling to the Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
After notching six points in those nine playoff games, Hall expected a big payday after hitting the open market. He earned an $8 million deal, albeit for one season with the Sabres. His personal gamble hasn’t paid off in Buffalo, tallying a mere two goals and 16 assists in 30 games.
The 30-year-old isn’t necessarily past his prime. His reputation, however, took significant hits over his 11-year career. That may persuade GMs to avoid talking to Buffalo about Hall’s availability.
The Bruins could’ve inked Hall to a deal in the off-season. Now they’d have to relinquish draft picks, prospects and perhaps a player or two on Boston’s roster to acquire Hall.
There may be a plus side here for Hall. He’d be welcomed with open arms in the tight-knit Boston locker room. He’d likely skate with Krejci providing him with a crafty and stable centerman on the second line.
This would be quite risky for Sweeney asking for Hall as he’ll hit the open market for the second straight offseason. Hall could blossom if he enters the most ideal scenario of his career. Yet, the move could also backfire similarly to Nash’s arrival a few years ago.
Jack Eichel, C
We save the best for last — or in this case the least likely for last.
The Eichel trade rumors gained significant traction as the seemingly never-ending rebuild in Buffalo hit rock bottom. The Chelmsford-born forward and former Boston University standout sits third on the Sabres with 18 points (2 goals, 16 assists) despite missing Buffalo’s last nine games with a neck injury.
What would the Sabres want in return for Eichel and his $10 million cap hit? Well, any package with the Bruins involving either McAvoy or Pastrnak — as previously rumored — won’t move the needle at all for Sweeney. Surely the Bruins would need to include top prospects, a young NHL roster player like Jake DeBrusk, Jack Studnicka, or Trent Frederic, and multiple draft picks — including more than one first-round selection — for starters. Even then, Sweeney would have to ask Sabres GM Kevyn Adams to take on some of Eichel’s cap hit for the duration of his deal through the 2025-26 season.
This shouldn’t stop Sweeney from pursuing Eichel. Perhaps his asking price will drop a tad if he remains in Buffalo after the trade deadline.
Surely, Eichel would provide the Bruins a much-needed lift on the top-six if he were traded to his hometown team. For now, he remains a pipedream.
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