Thoughts on Dennis Wideman, loss to Leafs and Loui (Loui) Eriksson

The NHL dropped the hammer on Dennis Wideman, giving him 20 games of unpaid vacation for his cross-check of NHL linesman Don Henderson on January 27. I won’t rehash the incident here- it is well-documented and there is plenty of room to debate how sound of mind he was when the incident occurred, but the bottom line is that the league had to do this.

Had to.

Physical abuse of officials cannot ever be tolerated in any form. Equivocating in the form of accepting that Wideman was loopy (and allegedly concussed) after a big hit immediately prior is a slippery slope that no league can afford in this day and age. Even if the NHL wanted to cut the player a break, it opens the door for any player to physically engage the on-ice officials and be able to claim a precedent for leniency.

No, the NHL got this one right. Wideman and the NHLPA are well within their rights to appeal and if Gary Bettman wants to take the mitigating circumstances into account, that is up to him. The rule of law here is critical and leaves no room for selective application of the rules, so Wideman got the book thrown at him and rightfully so. What happens from here on in is anyone’s guess, but he’s eligible to return on March 11, some two weeks after the trade deadline.

That leads me to my next point.

If recent rumors are to be believed, the B’s might have dodged a bullet with Wideman’s lengthy suspension. Several sources to include Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, recently discussed the team’s interest in bringing Wideman back to the Bruins given the team’s struggles on defense. Wideman played in Boston from late in the 2006-07 season through the end of 2009-10, before he was part of the package dealt to the Florida Panthers for Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell in June, 2010.

While in the Black and Gold, Wideman was an effective if polarizing and uneven player for the team. He posted a career year in 2008-09 with 50 points (until he eclipsed that mark last season with a 15-goal, 56-point campaign with the Flames). This season, Wideman was well off that pace with just two goals and 19 points in 48 games at the time of his suspension. He was in effect,  continuing his career trend of following his best years with numbers well short of those marks. In stops with Boston, Washington and Calgary, Wideman alternately had seasons with very good offensive output followed by barely mediocre campaigns. His most recent stint with the Flames is no exception.

While Wideman to Boston would have given the team a more experienced defender to play more minutes and do some good work on the power play, his lack of foot speed, and advancing age (he’ll be 33 next month) in conjunction with his $5+ million cap hit would have limited Boston’s options going forward.

It would be one thing if Wideman was in his prime, but on the wrong side of 30 and never the most fleet-of-foot defender to begin with, his presence might have constituted a slight upgrade on what the B’s can currently field, but he’s more of an offensive contributor than a defensive stalwart, which is what the team needs more than anything right now from the blue line. Unless the Flames were retaining salary in the deal with Boston (rumored to involve mid-round pick and/or prospect), the move made little sense for Boston, who would likely be saddled with a bottom-3 defender with diminishing returns and a high cap hit for what he brings.

If Don Sweeney was in fact preparing to bring Wideman back into the fold, then count me in as someone who feels the suspension was a blessing in disguise. It’s a short-term minimal upgrade, but limits the GM’s options when trying to do the critical roster building in the next 1-2 years that will determine if the B’s can get back into contention or solidify their status as an also-ran.

This is why the loss the other night to the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s cellar dwellers, was so confounding.

When David Krejci popped home his 12th goal of the season early in the 3rd period, the B’s were up by two goals and positioned to cruise to the finish with another two points in hand. Unfortunately, the Leafs didn’t get the memo and battled back, winning the game in overtime on a P.A. Parenteau power play goal after Boston frittered away its 3-1 lead.

This was a game the Bruins could have had. Should have had. Too often last season, we saw them surrender points to teams lower than them in the standings and it caught up to them in the final weekend when they were on the outside looking in. The B’s had their chances to beat Toronto decisively, and wasted a two-goal game from Brad Marchand, whose blistering goal-scoring pace has been a treat to watch. You’d like to have seen Tuukka Rask make just one save in there on Toronto’s last three shots that went in, but its hard to fault the goaltender too much on seeing-eye redirections and perfect puck luck that the Leafs translated into success. In the end, poor puck management was far more costly for the Bruins than Rask’s inability to deny Toronto’s comeback, but allowing come-from-behind wins to the other guys has been the most profoundly negative story of Boston’s season thus far.

It marked the seventh time this year Boston has blown a two-goal lead (and it’s only February for goodness sake), and underscores why lateral moves like Wideman aren’t worth it.

Frustrated fans (and they’re right to be angry, believe me) want a change and want one now, but unless it’s something that can address Boston’s shortcomings in the short and longer term, then I would submit to you that it is better for Sweeney and Co. to ride it out.

We knew very well coming into the season that Boston’s collective defense was not a strength. What has been a pleasant surprise has been the way the forwards have collectively fared, though the production itself has been largely top-heavy of late, with not enough production on the lower lines. However, even with the uptick in offense, the defense was an identified concern coming into the 2015-16 season. Whether you staunchly believe that Sweeney could (and should) have done something to address the flaws at that position last offseason, or feel that getting out from under the cap crush was the first priority and that rolling the dice with some of the younger players in the system was worth trying, the reality is- it is now February and we know that this group is not a playoff-caliber defense. I went over that in more detail in a previous post, so I won’t revisit and pick at a scab many of you are already well aware exists.

The problem with the “do something now” mentality is that it leads to short-sighted transactions like a trade for Dennis Wideman, who would have likely cost the team assets that would be better allocated elsewhere, or it feeds this idea that there is a surplus of fine talent at the defense position just waiting to be picked up. The first point isn’t going to fix the team’s woes, and the second is becoming more and more of an unintended consequence of the NHL’s move to impose cost certainty (a salary cap) 11 years ago. It was a different league back then and hockey trades for talent were far more prevalent because there weren’t a lot of complex rules and constraints on a club’s salary structure and the return on investment that has become more and more important over the past decade.

Nowadays, teams recognize pretty early the importance of the skilled defenseman in the modern NHL and lock them up long-term before the possibility of getting them via free agency is there. Unless, of course, they trade them (see: Hamilton, Douglas) first. Today’s reality is a stark one if you’re Don Sweeney: there simply isn’t much out there to be had if you need to truly bolster your blueline for the present and future. And, if there is a GM out there willing to even talk about moving such a prized asset, the cost will be astronomical. It is a seller’s market and with the parity the NHL currently enjoys, there aren’t many teams looking to unload anyone right now.

This leads me to Loui Eriksson

If we accept that a. this Boston Bruins team simply isn’t that good- they perhaps make the 2016 playoffs as a fringe club in a wildcard spot and then subsequently bow out to those better teams above them in the seeding and that b. Eriksson is pretty bound and determined to leverage what he can as an unrestricted free agent this summer, then it stands to reason that the Bruins should move on from him and get what they can at the deadline.

Now, given how well he’s played, the good news is- such a return stands to be a pretty fine one for the B’s. The bad news: any contender looking to add someone like Eriksson will be happy to part with futures, but good look getting any NHL roster/prime potential talent back in return. The whole idea of trading for a soon-to-be UFA like Eriksson is to add him to the very good group you *already* have- not robbing Peter to pay Paul by giving up a key contributor from your lineup at a different position. That’s just not how it works.

Loui has been a team player and good guy since the B’s acquired him nearly three years ago. Alas, Tyler Seguin became one of the real forces in the NHL, while Eriksson has largely continued his steady, effective play. That has led to his getting the short shrift in Boston, though there is no shortage of real students of the game out there who recognize what Eriksson brings to the table and appreciate him for it.

Having said all of that, it would be one thing if the Bruins were contenders and they held onto Eriksson to make that one last run, then lost him to free agency in July. The Bruins aren’t that team. So, at some point, unless they’re willing to re-up him, which, as he turns 31, is probably not the best idea to commit to term and dollars he’ll likely get on the open market, means he has to go.

At this point, I think the Bruins are better off taking their lumps- resisting the urge to pay a premium for a mediocre return in the here and now, and ultimately build up more of a war chest of assets that can allow Sweeney to make some more aggressive moves down the line to absorb the going rate for a true, difference-making and cost-effective defender with some longer term retainability.

Dennis Wideman was not that player, so his suspension becomes exhibit A for the case that sometimes the best trades are the ones you don’t make. And, I would submit to you- any player a team offers up before the trade deadline is not likely to be that guy either. Boston needs not panic, but do the best they can with tweaks and then make a more concerted effort to address the real holes in the lineup this summer. Trying to plug them now will cost a fortune, and in the case of a player like Eriksson, he’s not likely to bring the kind of return that fans are clamoring for.

This is why you saw a trade like the one between Columbus and Nashville in an even-Steven deal with Ryan Johansen and Seth Jones. Both teams got young, high-upside players, neither of whom were finding success in their respective systems. No package of picks and prospects would have enticed either GM into moving prized assets and former top-5 picks in 2010 and 2013- it had to be a roster for roster swap of established NHL players needing a change of scenery. So, unless Bruins fans are prepared to lose someone like David Pastrnak for a defenseman with similar promise, dreaming up scenarios involving Eriksson isn’t going to get it done, and be prepared to be disappointed at the deadline- don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In a perfect world, the Bruins could go out tomorrow and make their team better. The reality is- the world of the modern NHL is far from perfect, and in it, you can certainly make things a whole lot worse before they get any better.

If Sweeney and his staff somehow find a way to get that impact two-way defenseman who could be a future mainstay in the Boston lineup between now and the end of February, then lock him up to an extension now, because that’s the kind of move that flies in the face of the established handicaps that most of the other GMs are dealing with as they try to improve their hockey clubs.

 

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