Will The Real Boston Bruins Please Stay Standing?

It would be entirely forgivable if Boston Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli misjudges the upcoming NHL trade deadline. For the past couple of months, it has been difficult to judge whether the Bruins are a sleeping giant waiting for everything to come together to be the contender most anticipated they would be before the season started, or whether they are simply a team that lacks depth and balance.

A playoff berth has not been secured, and yet many would still mark the 2013/2014 President Trophy winners as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

The past weekend’s contests struck a blow for the later. Despite being denied two centers (David Krejci and Gregory Campbell) through injury and with starting goaltender Tuukka Rask dealing with illness, the Bruins secured back-to-back comfortable victories relying on organizational depth and based first and foremost on the foundation of strong team defense. Boston finished February winning three of their last four games and opening up a four-point cushion for the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern conference.

The problem is that the period of success was preceded by six straight losses. During that span, the Bruins were outscored 26-13 and looked to be in disarray. Just about every aspect of a team that has been known for reliable three-zone hockey over the past four or five seasons seemed to be wrong. All of that has come back over the last week; from Tuukka Rask, to three good defensive pairings, to four-line deep forward corps, the Bruins looked every bit a playoff team that any top seed would want to avoid.

Monday’s trade deadline will be a test for Chiarelli. This is clearly a team that could use veteran depth, but he also has a number of expiring contracts to contemplate and some cap magic to work both now and also ahead of the 2015/16 season.

He went “all-in” ahead of the 13/14 campaign trading Tyler Seguin, while adding Jarome Iginla, Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith. At previous points in his career, he has shown patience and a willingness to stand pat if the right deal is not on the table. However, there might be a little added pressure this time around as numerous reports have suggested that a failure to reach the postseason could cost the GM his job.  

The story for much of the season has been injuries to the team’s key players. Blue liner Zdeno Chara missed a stretch of 19 games from mid-October to mid-December. It’s difficult to quantify Chara’s full impact when it comes to the Bruins. He is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate, but more than that, his shutdown presence and the sheer amount of ice time he is capable of playing have allowed Chiarelli and head coach Claude Julien to construct a roster and a system with Chara at its core. The 37-year old is also the team’s captain and he leads its gritty, hard-working and physical identity. He hasn’t missed more than five games in a season since arriving in Boston in 2006. Even beyond the 19 games that he was absent from, Chara was slow to return to full game fitness and has never quite fully established himself as a dominant shutdown force this season.

The other major injury concerns have been Krejci. The team’s best offensive player and a key part of the team’s leading duo down the middle (Patrice Bergeron is the other), Krejci has been in and out of the lineup all season and often visibly struggling during his time in the lineup. Last week it was announced that he would miss 4-6 weeks with a partially torn MCL. Optimistically, he’ll be back in time for most of the stretch drive, but realistically, he could well miss all but the last couple weeks of the regular season.

His injury creates an even greater predicament for Chiarelli. Without Krejci, this team is missing a key part of its top six, power-play and also an important leader on the team. The 28-year old had 49 points in 47 games during Boston’s two recent runs to the Stanley Cup finals, leading the postseason in scoring each time. The Bruins aren’t likely to cause any upsets without a fully healthy David Krejci.

Still, the Bruins have managed to win three out of four since the loss of their top center. In fact, the lineup has really come together since Krejci was sidelined. Bergeron-Marchand-Smith and Soderberg-Eriksson-Paille have been effective combinations, while Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak have joined Milan Lucic as the trio that has arguably been Boston’s most dangerous offensively. Pastrnak has one goal and three assists, Spooner has a goal (the overtime winner against the Devils) and two assists, and Lucic has a pair of goals and an assist.

Throw in the fact that Brian Ferlin has done a pretty decent job on the team’s fourth line alongside Chris Kelly, and that Dennis Seidenberg and Matt Bartkowski have managed to play a couple of games without looking terrible, and Chiarelli might be forgiven for thinking that this year’s Bruins still have a chance to come together – maybe they could even avenge last spring’s loss to the Montreal Canadiens.

Of course, trade deadline acquisitions usually come at a steep price and Chiarelli won’t want to sabotage the team’s potential competitiveness next season.

There’s just something not quite right about this version of Julien’s Bruins. They rank 10th in the league in goals against per game (still pretty good) conceding 2.50 on average, but it’s their worst performance in that category since the coach’s first season in 2007/08, when the team grabbed the eighth seed in the Eastern conference conceding 2.62 GA/G ranking them 11th in the league.

That 07/08 roster needed Glen Metropolit to act as the team’s second line center for much of the campaign. It played with grit, determination and heart to beat most expectations by reaching the postseason at all. They got the most out of what they had, and for the most part, that has been the mantra of Julien-led teams, even if they endured a couple of postseason disappointments before that 2011 Cup win.

Another characteristic of recent Boston teams is the ability to score first and to then hold on to that lead and close out games. They’ve regularly ranked in the top 10 in that category. Last season they won 84% of games after scoring first (they won a lot of games full stop). That has dropped to winning just 67% of the time when scoring first so far in 14/15. During their recent losing run, the Bruins gave up a 3-0 lead against the Calgary Flames, and even the victory against New Jersey on Friday only came in overtime after Boston had allowed a 2-0 advantage to slip.

A lack of speed was highlighted as a potential problem for this roster heading into the season. Perhaps Chara has just lost a step or two, or perhaps Julien’s message isn’t reaching his players anymore. Perhaps it has just been an odd year for this franchise. Chiarelli faces some challenges as he attempts to assess this roster. He’ll be hoping that the real Bruins are the team that has been as consistent as any other in the NHL over the past seven seasons, and he’ll be hoping that those Boston Bruins stand up and stay standing for the rest of what has been a tumultuous season for this organization.

By the time the Bruins next play, at home against Calgary on Thursday, Chiarelli will have made his judgment on this team and the trade market.