By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com
It took less than 24 hours, but the Boston Bruins are no longer operating from a position of strength.
The anything-but-fun started with the Lightning's acquisition of Blake Coleman from the New Jerseys on Sunday in exchange for a conditional first-round pick in either 2020 or 2021 depending on how the Canucks finish the season in or outside the playoff picture, and 2019 first-round pick Nolan Foote. The Bruins (and Colorado Avalanche) were among those also interested in the 5-foot-11 Coleman, who is signed through 2020-21 at an affordable $1.8 million.
Monday didn't get any better for Boston, either, as the Canucks made a move for the Kings' Tyler Toffoli. The Canucks parted with four pieces in exchange for the 27-year-old wing, including a 2020 second-round pick and 2018 third-round pick (and current Northeastern forward) Tyler Madden. An undeniably natural fit for the Bruins as a right-shot right wing, Toffoli was allegedly in the B's hip pocket this deadline season, too. Until he wasn't.
The one-two of those punches and prices certainly had to leave Don Sweeney grimacing a bit more than usual.
But this has likely been established as the painful and largely unavoidable path for the Bruins this deadline, as they may have been completely screwed by the team chasing them (and at an otherworldly pace) in the Atlantic.
While it wasn't the first move of deadline season, the Bolts certainly set the deadline week market with their move for Coleman, and it was nothing short of brilliant. Knowing Boston has been in a year-long, wait-it-out pursuit of a boost on the wings, the Lightning used their obvious negotiating advantages (an extra first-round pick and a loaded core up front) to beat Boston and add exactly that from positions of strength while also making everyone's eyes pop at the sticker price.
If you're Tampa and in an obvious win-now window that's only getting smaller, acquiring Coleman -- a player capable of playing all three forward positions, with the 67th-most goals in hockey since the start of the 2018-19 season, and the 30th-most even-strength goals per 60 minutes among all NHL regular forwards over that same timeframe -- for players you wouldn't see for three years is a move you do 11 times out of 10. (It's also the perfect kind of move to make when in the midst of a stretch that had included 22 wins in your last 25 games along with a franchise-record win streak.)
With Coleman in tow, the Lightning nabbed a player many considered a second-tier option at a price that seemed reserved for the crown jewels like New York's Chris Kreider, the Devils' Kyle Palmieri, and maybe even the Jackets' Josh Anderson. That's not good for a team like the Bruins. I mean, you're talking about a winger who can slot just about anywhere in Tampa's middle-six and make them a three-line monster. Again, that's not good for the Bruins. And the Bruins, meanwhile, are still looking for that second-line stabilizer to David Krejci's right, and maybe even a lockdown No. 6 on the right side of their defense. Need I say it again?
But it's really about the aforementioned 'window' when talking about the Bruins and Lightning.
The titans of the Atlantic for the last three years, the Bruins and Lightning are both operating on borrowed time. Minor forms of Cap Hell have come for both teams this season -- the Lightning jettisoned J.T. Miller to Vancouver for draft picks at the 2019 NHL Draft while the Bruins added cheap depth via free agency and have been forced to manage their daily cap to absurd degrees in an effort to pinch every last penny available to them at the deadline -- and it's only going to get worse.
For the Lightning, that 'getting worse' comes in the form of a 2020 summer outlook that currently has them slated to operate with just $6.2 million in available cap space, and with just three defensemen signed to NHL contracts and breakout star Anthony Cirelli in need of a new deal. 2020 will also see goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy's cap hit jump from $3.5 million to $9.5 million, too. Cuts are absolutely coming Tampa's way, and this is looking like their last true kick at the can with this core. A core that is still trying to deliver Tampa their first championship since 2004, and one that's experience junk-kick after junk-kick, with a Cup loss to the Blackhawks in 2015 and third-round losses to the eventual champions in both 2016 and 2018.
The Lightning are the new Capitals, basically, and if 2020 won't be their version of Washington's 2018, will it ever come? This is a real question facing a franchise that's been a model of (regular season) success for over half a decade.
In Boston, meanwhile, 'getting worse' means another year of wear-and-tear on their top talents; Krejci turns 34 by Game 7 of the first round, Patrice Bergeron turns 35 in the summer, Tuukka Rask will enter the postseason as a 33-year-old goaltender, Brad Marchand will turn 32 in May, and their captain turns 43 next month. These players are playing some of the best hockey of their entire careers, so panicking about Father Time is largely pointless. But you always wonder if and when they'll begin to slip off due to injuries or the natural regression that comes in a game that's only getting younger and faster every year. Krejci has joked that he doesn't even know what that means, but it has a history of sneaking up on everybody.
The B's could also go through some cap woes of their own this summer, as pending unrestricted free agent Torey Krug and seocnd-line winger Jake DeBrusk are two players in need of new deals, while the team also needs to make a decision on backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The David Backes situation, which could get solved by the trade deadline, also hangs over this club should he remain on the Boston books beyond Feb. 24 and force the Bruins to consider their other options. They currently have $18 million and change to address these issues (and some others) while also keeping an eye on upgrading the team, particularly when it comes to their six-year quest for right-wing help.
Things are getting tight for both juggernauts -- and with a second-round crash course on deck for these rivals (super-cool playoff format you got there) -- and the Lightning smiled and happily pushed their chips to the middle of the table.
This isn't unfamiliar terrain for these foes.
In fact, the Bruins actually did this when they were chasing after the Lightning in 2018.
Making the first move, the Bruins tried to tell the Lightning (and the rest of the field) that they were all in with their move for Rangers winger Rick Nash. In his attempt to strike first, Don Sweeney bit the bullet and traded a first-round pick, along with four other assets, to elevate the Black and Gold to the same level as the Bolts. But the Lightning came through with a counterstrike just one day later with their move to add defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The move paid off for Tampa, too, as the Lightning made quick work of the Bruins in round two, largely thanks to their defense's ability to silence Boston's top six.
Two years later, the roles have reversed, and Sweeney is now in the position where he needs to deliver the move that counteracts the Lightning's obvious bid to usurp the Bruins as the Atlantic's top power.
But he'll have to do it in a market set by the Lightning.
And with their already-limited options in a definite seller's market growing more expensive by the day.