Don Sweeney is in a bind.
NHL general managers, especially ones in the thick of a playoff race in a season that many (including this columnist) would be a clear step backwards as the Boston Bruins are, don’t like to operate from a disadvantage. Yet, as we are less than 24 hours from the NHL’s annual trade deadline frenzy, that’s exactly where the B’s GM and key decision maker finds himself.
On the one hand, forward Loui Eriksson is precisely the kind of player you win with in the modern NHL. His 23 goals and counting only begin to the tell the story of an experienced winger who is an integral part of Boston’s puck possession game and brings leadership and respect to the room as a quiet professional.
On the other, his $4.3M AAV cap hit has been one of the league’s bargains for the past four years, and as a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent at age 31, he’s positioned to cash in on one last contract that will bring him both term and value on the open market. He knows it. Sweeney knows it. His agent, JP Barry, most certainly knows it. There will be very little in the way of hometown discounts on any extension he signs with Boston, because all parties know that if he rides it out, some sucker GM with cap space to burn will eagerly give him what he’s worth on the open market at or around July 1.
Why call the GM a sucker? Well, because that’s what many of them are. When a team has cap space, many of them burn through that wiggle room like a college student through their parents’ credit card limit. Spending upwards of $6M on a player who is on the wrong side of 30 and who is a very good complementary player, but not a core guy you do everything in your power to keep is a risky move that often times has more of a down side than a clear benefit. Eriksson could be an outlier- the rare player who gets better with age and manages to avoid any more concussions that could cost him the rest of his career. More on that later.
But if you’re the Boston Bruins, given the state they’ve found themselves in since winning the President’s Trophy in 2014, can you really afford to take that chance?
There is no question that Eriksson on the 2015-16 B’s makes them a better team than they would be without him. But how much better, and how much more of a prayer do they have at winning the Stanley Cup now and in the next few years if they allocate those cap dollars to Eriksson instead of seriously shoring up the blue line is the six million dollar question.
The dominoes are falling- Stan Bowman, the three Stanley Cup ring-wearing GM of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, seems intent on adding a fourth. In the span of 72 hours, he’s gone out and added veteran forwards Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, and Tomas “Flash” Fleischmann along with defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, surrendering picks and a couple of young players in Marko Dano (to Winnipeg for Ladd) and Phillip Danault and a cap hit/bad fit in veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who goes back to the L.A. Kings for Ehrhoff. The ‘Hawks also added former Bruin Matt Fraser in the Ladd deal, so when it comes to depth, the Windy City Winners are at a zombie apocalypse-level of protection up front. The scary thing is- Bowman might not be finished shoring up his club on the back end.
Elsewhere in the West, the other contending clubs will have to adapt or die in response to Chicago’s shots across the bow. Bob Murray and his Anaheim Ducks are back with a vengeance after they began the season with a dormant offense that has awakened with a roar and now has opponents fleeing in abject terror. Murray has a plethora of defensemen that he can dangle to get forward help back with. Could 2013 third overall pick Jonathan Drouin be SoCal-bound for someone like Sami Vatanen? Tampa GM Steve Yzerman has said he wants immediate help back, mainly in the form of a talented right-shooting defenseman with some retainability (read: not a rental). Drouin has been a monumental disappointment to date, but you have to admit- the thought of plugging him in with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry must have Murray (and Bruce Boudreau) licking their chops. Those offensive issues early on? Might be a thing of the past if Drouin ends up on that roster and starts realizing his immense potential.
The Kings are…well…the Kings. They’re already a dangerously lethal group- all they have to do is get into the playoffs. You just know that Dean Lombardi will find a way to slide in and acquire some difference-making player under the wire like he did two years ago with Marian Gaborik. We’ll have fun waiting to see what he does. Scuderi’s a nice start, but more is coming.
This leaves the Doug Armstrong-led St. Louis Blues. They looked unstoppable early on, but have taken some hits with injuries and can’t match their nemesis Blackhawks on paper if the season ended today. Luckily, they got star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo back today in a much-needed win over the sinking Carolina Hurricanes (who dealt captain and franchise face Eric Staal to the Rangers today for a prospect and a pair of second-round picks and looked like a rudderless ship for it) and he provided a multi-point game with five blocked shots to go with, as Jake Allen shook off a couple of early goals. This took place just after the ‘Hawks gave all of us perhaps a glimpse of what will come in early June when Chicago defeated the Washington Capitals at the United Center.
Does anyone in St. Louis think the Blues have a prayer against those guys without some key adds? I’ll hang up and listen to your answer off the air.
But seriously, folks- it’s absurd to think that Armstrong and the Blues aren’t sweating right now. The clock is ticking…Alexander Steen is out for several weeks if not longer, and who’s to say how effective he’ll be when he gets back? A Brian Elliott injury forced them to trade for an experienced backup (I almost said capable- but even that might be a stretch) in Anders Nilsson from Edmonton. One guy the Blues could definitely benefit from adding is Eriksson. The question is- are the Blues serious about competing for Lord Stanley *this* year or are they willing to go through another early exit and disappointing spring and long offseason? (EDIT- The Blues are tight against the cap and that’s limiting Armstrong’s freedom of maneuver for sure, but the best in the biz find ways to get creative…see Bowman, Stan. I don’t think Blues fans will be in much of a forgiving mood if that’s the excuse trotted out after another postseason dud, but that’s just me.)
With that in mind, here are some current scenarios revolving around Eriksson. One thing is certain: by this time tomorrow, we’ll know that he’s still on the Boston roster. Or he won’t be. For everything in between, get ready for the final hours of the Loui watch.
Why Eriksson will be traded: Sweeney is smart enough to be playing long ball. As a former NHL defender with more than 1,000 career games at the highest level, he understands the importance of a strong defense and he undoubtedly knows that Boston’s current group on ‘D’ is nowhere near what is needed to contend.
Those who insist that Eriksson must be traded for immediate help or the move is not worth it are missing the larger picture, and that is- trades involving prime, No. 1 or 2 defensemen in season are pretty rare (note- I said “prime” so beware jumping in to remind me of the Dion Phaneuf deal- he’s essentially cooked and will make Ottawa rue the day they took on his albatross contract). Boston can set a longer game play into motion by dealing Eriksson now for the kinds of assets that can be packaged into a more realistic summer trade for a defenseman when cap and personnel issues will force other GMs to come to the table more readily. But right now, with so much parity in the league and teams looking to finish strong no matter the situation, it doesn’t make sense for a team to flip Boston a primetime defender for Eriksson, because the teams that want him desire to add his production and experience to their lineups while not weakening the roster elsewhere.
The B’s need too much help up and down the roster to roll the dice and risk keeping him only to recoup maybe a 5th or 6th pick for him before the draft if he stays. Even if they make the playoffs, the B’s will be hard-pressed to get out of the East with the lineup they currently have. Sure- Claude Julien and the players deserve a lot of credit for fighting their way into the midst of the postseason derby when expectations coming in were so modest. But at this stage- is whatever Eriksson is going to contribute going to be worth it in the long run?
That’s the tough call Sweeney and his staff have to make.
Why Eriksson will not be traded: The coaches and players have a great deal of respect for Eriksson and what he brings to the table. It’s easy to say to just trade him by people without skin in the game, by fans who get to sit back and observe and make pointed critiques of the team’s chances and shortcomings, but none of whom really see behind the curtain or understand what he contributes to the effort.
Sweeney unfortunately has to bear the cross of a preceding GM who was known for his loyalty in overpaying veteran players who were already beginning the downward slides of their careers. That scar tissue is what creates a charged environment by the team’s supporters who don’t want to see Eriksson stay through the stretch run only to see the Bruins (assuming they don’t collapse in a tough March schedule) bow out of the playoffs and then get his big payday in July with just a latter-round pick to show for it if Sweeney can send him to a club that wants exclusive negotiation rights through 11:59 p.m. on June 30, 2016.
The thing is- the game isn’t played by robots. Real people often have a harder time making such clinical, dispassionate decisions. Eriksson’s 23 goals represent the second-best production on the team and what help Brad Marchand to the damage he’s done because opposing coaches have to respect Boston’s top two lines. Remove Loui from the equation and regardless of who you replace him with, you’re creating an easier matchup play for the other guys. Beyond that, Eriksson handles the puck smartly, goes to the net and plays about as good a 200-foot game as any of the top forwards in the league. The Bruins know that trading him means a step backwards for their roster. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially with all the scrapping and effort the team has put into getting them to this point.
Although the pragmatists don’t want to hear it, hasn’t this club earned the right to get a shot with their best foot forward? If other teams aren’t willing to pony up, then why should the B’s just make it fait accompli that Eriksson be dealt for whatever they can get?
And then of course, if Sweeney thinks that he can sign Eriksson to an extension that won’t cripple the team going forward and retain him for the next 4-5 years, then perhaps it’s not as bad a risk as so many perceive. After all- at 31, Eriksson is at the age that the NHL first allowed players to be unrestricted free agents before the 2004 lockout. It’s a mixed bag of results when you go back through the years and look at how big-name UFAs performed after 31, but there are worse moves the Bruins could make than investing in a player they know, trust, and respect.
Conclusion: Your guess is as good as mine. I’m not going to speculate on players or rumors beyond what I’ve written here. I don’t have any significant leads at this time, and those of you who know me understand that’s not really my shtick.
I will be here to break it down when the deadline comes and goes at 3 p.m. tomorrow. We can expect the Bruins will do something, but what that something is…well, that’s all part of the excitement, isn’t it?
And on that note- let’s see how the team does against Tampa Bay, shall we?
Postscript: Well, we sure saw how the Bruins did against the ‘Bolts: a 4-1 loss after taking a 1-0 lead. Another decisive defeat at home to drop the B’s three games under .500. Good teams just don’t do that, folks. And that’s why, I can’t for the life of me, see the trade deadline coming and going tomorrow without Eriksson being moved for assets that will help get the Bruins on track for the long haul. It’s a balancing act to give the club a shot at playoffs and maybe winning a round or two and conceding that this group just doesn’t have it, but that’s what the team is paying the GM for. The prediction here? Eriksson is gone to the Western Conference for more of a futures return, Sweeney will make a separate trade or two to bring some veteran talent in, but the real shoring up of this team will happen in the offseason.