By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s not fair to Bruins GM Don Sweeney to say he cost his team a Stanley Cup. If he got more than one garbage-time goal at even strength out of his top line, perhaps they’re the ones hoisting the greatest trophy in sports on Wednesday night. And that would’ve been due in large part to acquiring Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson at the trade deadline.
But the Blues also made a trade, and they did it last summer. And it won them the Stanley Cup, because their big piece was eventual Conn Smythe trophy winner Ryan O’Reilly.
St. Louis acquired O’Reilly from the Buffalo Sabres last July 1, the first day of free agency, in exchange for 2016 first-round pick Tage Thompson, veteran forwards Vladimir Sobotka (ex-Bruin) and Patrik Berglund, a 2019 first-round pick, and a 2021 second-round pick. It was a hefty price to pay, but O’Reilly turned out to be invaluable.
O’Reilly went and took the Conn Smythe right out from under Tuukka Rask, and the Stanley Cup from the Bruins, by being the best player on the ice over the final four games of the Cup Final. He scored in the final four games in a row, getting the all-important first goal in their wins in Games 4, 5, and 7. He also scored the game-winner in the third period of Game 4, dominated at the faceoff dot (54.5 percent in the series), and constantly pushed around the Bruins’ defensemen, even the ones bigger than him. He played his usual strong two-way game better than Patrice Bergeron or anyone else on the B’s.
The Blues identified their need for a three-zone top-six center in the offseason, addressed it, and it won them a championship. The Bruins came up short in part because they never found a true consistent top-six right wing, which was an issue as soon as it became apparent that Rick Nash wasn’t returning.
Sweeney very nearly put the Bruins over the top with his deadline additions. But when he’s forced to play Karson Kuhlman as his second-line RW with his season on the line in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, it’s a sure sign that he still didn’t do enough. He gambled on internal options to fulfill the role over going bold like Blues GM Doug Armstrong. It cost Sweeney in the end.
Mark Stone may not have been realistic as a deadline acquisition, and he would have been expensive. But as a bona fide No. 1 RW at this level, he may have won the Bruins a championship had they found a way to rent him for a few months. The reality, however, is this issue existed last summer. It was never adequately addressed.
Is Sweeney going to make the bold move this time? The question is whether he’s willing to part with a first and a second, plus two veterans, plus one out of defenseman Urho Vaakanainen and center Trent Frederic. That’s the kind of package it’s going to take in order to get the RW or D that would have the chance to make a similar impact to O’Reilly’s on the Blues.
It would be hard to believe that Sweeney would bring back the same exact lineup as this past season. In the last three playoff runs, the reinvented Bruins have run into big blue lines that suppressed their top line with their size and systems. This means two things: big defensemen still win in the NHL and the Bruins can stand to get bigger on the back end, and their forwards also could stand to bulk up or add skill players with more size than what they have.
The NHL is still trending more toward speed and skill. But in the past two seasons, the Blues and Capitals have proven that you don’t have to sacrifice size to get it – particularly the Caps. That doesn’t mean the Bruins need Alex Ovechkin. But they could certainly stand to get taller.
Compare that to St. Louis, who knew they needed to replace the departed Paul Stastny and get deeper at center behind Brayden Schenn. It turns out they got an even better player than both of them. But Schenn and O’Reilly proved to be quite the combo for the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final.
Had the Bruins foreseen their biggest issues and added a true top-six winger or another big defenseman on the left side, the Cup Final may have been different. Their road to the Stanley Cup is certainly going to be different next year – meaning more difficult. If they want to get that second Cup with this veteran core, it’s time for Sweeney to make the kind of audacious move that the GM who just beat his team made a year ago.
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.