Take a look at the teams remaining in the playoffs, and you’ll notice one similarity: they bought. Nearly every team in the conference finals this year made significant acquisitions prior to or during the 2019-2020 regular season that are paying dividends at crunch time.
You simply only need to look back to the series that was against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that committed to winning by making meaningful moves this past season:
- Blake Coleman has been a hitting machine in these playoffs with 56 in 13 games, while scoring some very timely goals, and turned out to be a fancystats monster on a team designed to take advantage of it.
- Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bagosian have not just logged a decent amount of minutes, but also added an invaluable veteran presence on the back-end.
- Mega-pests Barclay Goodrow and Pat Maroon have contributed to the Bolts’ playoff success as well, by adding size and grit (something that was sorely lacking in last year’s match-up against the Columbus Blue Jackets).
As mentioned earlier, this commonality between the teams that remain in the NHL playoffs goes beyond just the lightning.
Let’s look at a couple more examples of pre-season or deadline acquisitions made by current (or recently departed) playoff teams (stats as of Sept 2):
- Vegas Golden Knights - Robin Lehner (.918 SV%, 2.08 GAA, 2 SO)
- New York Islanders - Jean-Gabriel Pageau (7 goals, 2 assists in 14 games)
- Vancouver Canucks - Tyler Toffoli (2 goals, 2 assists in 5 games)
- Dallas Stars - Joe Pavelski (8 goals, 3 assists in 14 games), Corey Perry (2 goals, 4 assists in 14 games)
- Colorado Avalanche - Nazem Kadri (8 goals, 8 assists in 13 games), Andre Burakovsky (6 goals, 8 assists in 13 games), Joonas Donskoi (3 goals, 3 assists in 9 games)
And now let’s have a look at the Bruins’ key acquisitions and their performance in the playoffs:
- Nick Ritchie (1 goal in 8 games)
- Ondrej Kase (4 assists in 11 games)
While there is so much that goes into making a trade or free agent signing in the NHL (salary cap, high trade prices, no-movement clauses, etc.), the Bruins appeared to have had the cap space and assets to make a big splash at the deadline.
And while getting rid of Backes’ contract was a bit of a miracle, the moves Don Sweeney made to make the Bruins better and ultimately propel another Cup run, didn’t work out.
Let’s delve a bit deeper:
In his very short time as a Boston Bruin, Nick Ritchie has certainly been a polarizing figure.
It started with the actual deal to bring Ritchie to Boston in exchange for Danton Heinen, one that had Bruins’ fans split on their approval. Some thought Ritchie was exactly what Bruins were missing (size, grit, agression, etc.), while others thought Heinen’s offensive potential outweighed the attributes Ritchie brought.
Fast-forward to the playoffs, and it became clear to many that Ritchie lacked the foot-speed to play against a fast and highly-skilled Carolina Hurricanes team, thus he watched the last three games of that series from the press box.
Then came the Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that seemingly bulked up intentionally for the rigors of the NHL playoffs, and it looked like the perfect time for Ritchie to inject his physical presence into the Bruins lineup.
Overall, he kind of just...didn’t, unless it was in an undisciplined manner.
To Ritchie’s credit, he did score in the series and was there to stand up for his teammates.
However, costly penalties and a general lack of production are probably what will linger in people’s minds about Ritchie’s contribution to Boston’s exit from the playoffs.
On February 21st, the Boston Bruins traded their 1st-round pick, David Backes, and Axel Andersson for the man who was supposed to finally provide David Krejci with the goal-scoring RW he’s been missing over the last few years.
Unfortunately, Kase’s start with the Bruins didn’t exactly go smoothly.
After missing several games with “flu-like symptoms,’” (he’d been almost certainly concussed previously), Kase was barely noticeable in his regular season appearances, putting up just one assist in six games. For a guy who was suffering from a few nagging injuries, the break from hockey was probably exactly what he needed to have a fresh start for Boston in the playoffs.
And it seemed the rest paid off in the first round, as Kase put up three assists vs. the Canes!
Unfortunately, his play from that round did not carry over to the second round: Kase had a total of 0 points against the Lightning, and apparently fell into Cassidy’s dog house, as his TOI seemed to be cut in Games 1 and 4.
This is hardly the impact Bruins fans were hoping for, especially since the price of Kase at the deadline was similar to other players who have had significant impacts in the qualifying and playoff rounds.
While the individual performances of Kase and Ritchie were less than stellar, their lack of impact played a much larger role in the Bruins’ loss to Tampa. Both were brought in to create stability on the 2nd and 3rd lines, something that had been missing all year, and neither did so.
As a result the Bruins couldn’t score against the Bolts, or stop Tampa from doing so.
But can Kase’s and Ritchie’s disappointing post-seasons and the Bruins’ exit from the playoffs really be blamed on Sweeney?
Don Sweeney and his staff are responsible for scouting and evaluating trade targets around the league and making the best possible transactions to improve the Boston Bruins. Despite having the speed and apparent skills to be an impact player in the NHL, Ondrej Kase hasn’t proven himself to be a top-6 forward in the NHL in his short career.
Likewise, Nick Ritchie has not even come close to playing up to being the 10th-overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. An evaluation of both these players’ career trajectories should have been enough for Sweeney to take a pass on both, and to find alternate trade targets that would improve the Bruins chances of playoff success.
While Don Sweeney made some great moves the previous season that helped the Bruins make it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, including bringing in Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson, this season is not the only time Sweeney has struck out at the deadline.
2018’s acquisitions of Rick Nash, Tommy Wingels, Nick Holden and Brian Gionta were costly failures, and the deals he made at the 2016 and 2017 trade deadlines weren’t much better, bringing in Drew Stafford (2017) and J.M Liles and Lee Stempniak (2016).
Should the Bruins fire Don Sweeney?
No, of course they shouldn’t. Let’s not get crazy here.
However, going forward, Sweeney will definitely be under the microscope, especially with some major decisions needing to be made for the 2020-2021 season. The most obvious one is the future of Torey Krug, which appears to be up in the air, with little progress having been made on a contract extension.
In addition, players like Jake DeBrusk, Zdeno Chara, Joakim Nordstrom, and Matt Grzelcyk also need new contracts to play for Boston next season. Another issue the Sweeney and the Bruins will need to address in the coming seasons is the age of the team.
The B’s will be among the league’s older teams next season, so at some point, you can’t keep mortgaging top draft picks to try to win in the present. Sweeney’s moves for the future will be just as important as the moves he makes to give this team’s core one more shot at the Cup, and it’s hard to balance “win now” with “prepare for the future.” I guess that’s why they get paid the big bucks.