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Eriksson, defense remain questions at halfway mark

January 13, 2016, 12:51 AM ET [22 Comments]
Ty Anderson
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41 games into the year, the legitimate halfway point of their season, and the Boston Bruins are (probably) where you thought they would be. Fourth place in the Atlantic Division, in a wild card spot in the East, and just four points away from second place in the division. And a single point from sixth.

So what do we know about this club at the midway point?

Well, if they remain this way from now ‘til the end of the season (21-15-5, 47 points), they’ll finish the year with a 42-30-10 mark. That’d be good for 94 points, two points fewer than what they finished with in a non-playoff 2014-15 season. In defense of that hypothetical total, it just might be enough to make the playoffs in a remarkably average Eastern Conference. This could ring a bell to what the East was like in the 2009-10 season, when the B’s made the playoffs as the sixth seed with 91 points.

The biggest problem standing in their way of this benchmark (or higher) is their knack for shooting themselves in the foot and losing points they should have earned. Monday’s defeat in New York, a game in which the Bruins gave up the go-ahead goal with just 102 seconds left in the third (and never tied it back up), was just the latest example of leaving points on the table. They can’t do that as their own schedule gets tougher while their challengers in the East playoff picture find their footing.

Boston’s biggest weapon, of course, has been their league-best power play. It’s clicked at a 28.1 percent success rate. It’s even better than a Washington power play that features, y’know, the game’s best goal-scorer in Alexander Ovechkin. Where most of the success has come from has been their top unit featuring the club’s top three centermen (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Ryan Spooner), winger Loui Eriksson at the front of the net, and Torey Krug manning the point opposite Krejci.

And it’s Eriksson that’s been the revelation for the Black and Gold’s man advantage.

Although he doesn’t have the build of your typical rugged, net-front presence, No. 21 has been every bit of that for the Bruins. As crazy as it sounds, it’s Eriksson’s physical features (I ask you, with 100 percent seriousness, has anybody looked better with a mustache?), soft (and polite) demeanor in postgame interviews -- even if the B’s get their heads kicked in -- and home country that seem to discredit him as a ‘tough player’ when in reality, Eriksson takes all the physical abuse a net-front guy does and still finds the time and space to bury rebounds and second-chance opportunities.

Eriksson’s tough in a way that’s not measured by fights and hits. And that’s more than OK.

What the Bruins do with Eriksson, though, remains a huge question mark the club will have to address.

Eriksson, in the final year of a team-friendly contract that comes with a $4.25 million cap-hit, is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The 30-year-old, Boston’s second-best two-way winger next to Brad Marchand and capable of playing both the left and right side without much of a drop off in his overall play, is also paced for his first 60-plus point season since 2011-12. (Yes, he could get paid.)

But Eriksson likes Boston. He likes playing in Boston, he enjoys the city, and from all indications, he certainly has intentions of staying in the Hub. So long as the Bruins want him here.

And that is the big question that will need to be address before the NHL Trade Deadline.

If the Bruins do not view Eriksson as somebody in their long-term plans, it would make the most sense to simply deal him off to the highest bidder, regardless of your situation in the playoff race. The Bruins were burned by not doing this with last year’s pending free agent, Carl Soderberg, and had to settle on moving him (his negotiation rights, actually) for a late-round draft choice alone in June.

Eriksson would bring in a haul for the Bruins, too, there’s no doubt about that.

Still, I don’t move No. 21. This is a player I make a legitimate effort to re-sign, for that matter.

General manager Don Sweeney is wary of repeating the mistakes made by his former boss, Peter Chiarelli, and putting the Black and Gold back into cap-hell. But next summer, the cap is expected to go up, and the Bruins will have money coming off the books on top of Eriksson’s expiring contract with Chris Kelly’s $3 million off the cap along with the nearly $3 million in retained salary from the Milan Lucic trade. Aside from Eriksson, the club’s heavy lifting comes with an extension for puckmoving defenseman Torey Krug. It’s the next year the Bruins have concerns with, as Brad Marchand is set for a raise, along with promising forward David Pastrnak.

Even so, there should be enough money in the B’s bank for a player like Eriksson, simply because you don’t have anybody in your system capable of replacing what he does for your club.

You’ve liked the contributions of offseason imports Matt Beleskey and Jimmy Hayes, but neither of them come with the three-zone pedigree of Eriksson, nor do they seem to make the seamless transition from line-to-line that Eriksson, at least from a consistency standpoint. Frankly, I don’t think there’s a single winger in the Boston organization that can step into Eriksson’s role -- switching from left to right, right to left, and left to right, logging heavy minutes in all situations, and still put up 60 points if healthy -- nor do I think you’ll find it for less on the open market.

Realistically, the Bruins have two options when it comes to the Eriksson situation: Make a legitimate effort to re-sign Eriksson to a long-term deal (which from my understanding is something that they definitely will do) or move him for a big return at the deadline. It’s as easy and as complicated as that.

You have to wonder what the B’s plans when it comes to the Deadline as a whole, actually.

It’s clear that the Bruins still need a defenseman -- and I refuse to believe that Dustin Byfuglien is that guy and I don’t think you even have the pieces that would entice Winnipeg over a team like Florida or anybody else for that matter -- but maybe the Bruins need another scorer, too. A high-end defenseman and another scorer? Gee, I just described the needs of literally every contender.

If Krejci returns and is .. well .. Krejci, then the Bruins’ need for an additional scorer goes down. If not, the B’s are in a situation similar to where they were a year ago, and a project like the one they invested in with two second-rounders sent to Tampa Bay for high-upside winger Brett Connolly last deadline becomes a more feasible (or likely) target for a Boston roster operating with a half-in, half-out mindset.

On Connolly, it’s fair to still wonder what the B’s have in No. 14. He has just one goal in his last 30 games played. And aside from an eight-game stretch from late October into early November that came with four goals and seven points, points in general have been tough to come by the British Columbia native. But then you watch shifts like the one he had in NY on Monday that came with sustained pressure, attacking zone time, and one hell of a crossbar ringer, and you see the promise.

But turning that promise into production is proving to be a massively difficult task.
Now, back to the defense.

It needs an upgrade. And I’m talking about more than an ‘Adam McQuaid healthy and back in action’ type of upgrade. You’re witnessing a huge workload for Zdeno Chara 40 games into the year and that is just not ideal. He’ll be 39 years old in March, and the Bruins have been honest about lessening Chara’s overall workload so that he’s a bit fresher come playoff time, so I mean, do the math. There needs to be another capable guy back there to handle big minutes and not completely fail. Kevan Miller is not that guy. That’s abundantly clear to just about everybody -- ‘cept for the coaching staff -- halfway into the year. This is not to suggest that Miller is a bad NHL player. It’s just that he’s not built for the top-pair minutes and crunch-time role the Bruins want to push him into.

Again, Byfuglien has been the popular name. But he’s not realistic. Maybe this is finally the year the Bruins make a serious push for Keith Yandle, though he’s now in New York. Or maybe Colorado’s Tyson Barrie has become the ultimate wish-list guy for Boston’s front office.

Or maybe the Bruins continue to groom their younger defenders -- Colin Miller (who’s quietly having an excellent season), Joe Morrow, and Zach Trotman -- into full-time NHLers. But on a roster with eight defensemen, you have to find opportunities for these players to prove something besides the fact that they can dress themselves in a suit and tie. Banishing them to the press box as your seventh and eighth defensemen on a nightly basis does not aid their development. This isn’t a superteam that gives them the ‘Watch how these guys play and then you’ll be good’ benefit like Dougie Hamilton had in his rookie season back in 2013. This team isn’t even close to that squad.

At a certain point, you have to figure out what it is you have with these guys.

Hell, 41 games into the season, you have to figure out what you have with this entire roster.

Ty Anderson has been covering the National Hockey League for HockeyBuzz.com since 2010, has been a member of the Pro Hockey Writers Association's Boston Chapter since 2013, and can be contacted on Twitter, or emailed at Ty.AndersonHB[at]gmail.com.
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