By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Boston Bruins have had a relatively quiet offseason thus far, shoring up their depth on the bottom of the roster. At best, you’re looking at lateral moves. It’s impossible to tell whether their replacements for the departed Riley Nash, Anton Khudobin, Tim Schaller, and Nick Holden will represent any kind of improvements, especially if those guys end up being replaced internally.
Meanwhile, their top rivals in the Atlantic Division have made major long-term moves – and may not be done. The Toronto Maple Leafs became the big winners of the offseason after they signed hometown kid John Tavares to a seven-year deal. It’s a move that, after doling out a likely extension for Auston Matthews, will give the Leafs one of the best 1-2 center punches in the NHL for nearly a decade. Only Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh could claim to be a better duo. Toronto will also need to find a way to sign their young wingers to keep the current team together for more than one season, but man oh man what a forward group they’ll have next fall.
And in Tampa, the Lightning now have Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, and Tyler Johnson signed through at least the next five seasons. They’re already going to have to clear some cap space if they also want to sign Nikita Kucherov and/or Brayden Point to long-term deal, but for the time being, Tampa remains the ultimate hurdle for the Bruins to overcome if they want to break through to even the Eastern Conference Finals.
As for the Bruins, Don Sweeney has already hinted that they may end up staying the course with their internal prospects and fill their most gaping roster holes (top-4 defenseman, No. 3 center) with pieces already in the system. It may ultimately work out, but will it be enough to keep pace with the significantly improved Leafs and still-massively talented Lightning? Or do they need to make a big move of their own to even be considered in the class of those two clubs?
Which brings us to the curious case of Erik Karlsson, the Ottawa Senators’ franchise defenseman who could very well be on the move for a trade package that could choke an elephant. It’s rare that a player of Karlsson’s caliber hits the market, yet here we are. He’s been the subject of discussion in recent days about how badly the Bruins need to get him to make the defensive upgrade they needed.
Make no mistake, Karlsson would instantly elevate the Bruins’ defense corps to one of the most dangerous in the league. He’s a point-per-game offensive force on the blue line, one of the best skaters in the league, and has also improved his defensive game in recent years, mainly by blocking a lot of shots. His ability to “play defense” by keeping the puck away from the opposition would make the Bruce Cassidy Bruins as electric as ever.
It’s worth considering for the Bruins, just because of Karlsson’s elite talent. But it’s also not an ideal fit for the B’s defense. They’d suddenly be severely tilted in favor of the right side, when their true need is a left-shot defenseman that they can park next to either Brandon Carlo or Charlie McAvoy. Karlsson also wouldn’t exactly be the perfect option if your goal is to improve defensively in an effort to slow down the offensive attacks in Toronto and Tampa, although he makes up for his relative lack of size with his shot-blocking and puck-moving. So it’s fair to wonder whether it would be worth giving up what it may take to bring Karlsson to Boston.
The worst part, though, is that Karlsson could possibly be headed to … Tampa???
A pair of new reports on Thursday suggest that Karlsson is somehow a possibility for the Lightning. And if Tampa got him without moving Hedman, McDonagh, or Anton Stralman, their defense would go from elite to pretty much unfair. First, Senators beat writer Don Brennan tweeted that a source of a source believes Karlsson will be traded to Tampa. That flimsy-sounding report has a bit more credence to it now that TSN’s Travis Yost tweeted that teams are being engaged as third parties in a trade to “make the salaries work.”
The Lightning have about $4.4 million in cap space, so they will most certainly need to dump salary just to make Karlsson’s current deal ($7.5 million) work for next season. Candidates to move off the roster would be Ondrej Palat ($5.3 million), Alex Killorn ($4.45 million), and defenseman Braydon Coburn ($3.7 million). Top defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev would pretty much be a must-have in any deal. Perhaps Brayden Point as well.
But if it means bringing in Karlsson? Which should make the Lightning the new Stanley Cup favorites if they got him? It’s a package well worth hauling off, and one that should frustrate anyone rooting for the Bruins to improve.
And that’s not necessarily because the Bruins absolutely have to get Karlsson and no one else. It’s just that if a team in Tampa’s position can pull off a trade like that, then there’s little excuse for Sweeney not to make something similar happen – or at least make an effort.
The B’s still have a deep cache of prospects and young talent who have begun making their marks on the NHL. Charlie McAvoy may be untouchable at this point, and Jake DeBrusk is close to that status. But they still have a wealth of young forwards like Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Trent Frederic, Jack Studnicka, (deeep breath) Zach Senyshyn, Peter Cehlarik, and Anton Blidh. On the blue line, they await the sooner-than-later arrival of at least one out of Urho Vaakanainen, Jakub Zboril, and Jeremy Lauzon.
Not all of these players are going to pan out. And even if the Bruins somehow batted 1.000, there’s not enough room on the roster or the cap to keep all of them.
Essentially, a move needs to be made – especially if they want to contend with Tampa and/or Toronto over the course of the remaining window that they have with Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron still playing at a high level. It appears that they’re not really making that kind of effort with Karlsson, which is surely disappointing to many people, but also understandable when you look at the Bruins’ grand design. As ridiculous as it may sound to dismiss a player like Karlsson, they already have their No. 1 right-shot defenseman.
But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t at least look elsewhere for a defenseman that at least has the kind of talent that can make him a legitimate top-pairing blue liner on the left side. If they’re not simply going to wait for Vaakanainen or Zboril to emerge as McAvoy’s long-term partner, then they’ll need to swing something big sooner rather than later. Could they check in with the Calgary Flames to see if Mark Giordano is available? Would the Nashville Predators consider a hefty package to send Roman Josi up north? Maybe Sweeney could have a make-good on the uneven-looking 2015 draft class and push to pry Zach Werenski from Columbus?
Don’t tell me those moves are ridiculous or impossible. Karlsson might end up in Tampa. At this point, anything is possible.
Assuming such a major move isn’t going to happen … is it realistic to believe that 2-3 more of the Bruins’ young prospects will emerge as game-changing talents as soon as next season? Donato looks to have 30-goal potential with his howitzer of a shot. Bjork has untapped potential after missing most of last season with a shoulder injury. And even McAvoy hasn’t approached his full potential yet, certainly not offensively.
But if the Bruins are serious about contending for the Cup over the next 3-5 years, then standing pat might arguably be an even bigger risk than making a swing-for-the-fences kind of deal to bring in a more established top-end talent. If they truly want to keep up with the great improvements made in Tampa and Toronto over the past year, and give themselves a better shot of advancing past the second round of the playoffs, then it’s reasonable to demand a similarly seismic move on Causeway Street.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.