Kalman: July 1 Bruins moves may have been Sweeney’s best

Matt Kalman
May 15, 2019 - 2:33 pm

A lot of attention lately has been focused, rightfully so, on the two players Bruins general manager Don Sweeney acquired in the leadup to the NHL trade deadline Feb. 25, Marcus Johansson and Charlie Coyle.

Coyle came in a few days earlier than the deadline from Minnesota for Ryan Donato and a draft pick, and he has 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 16 games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Johansson, who came from New Jersey for two draft picks on deadline day, has found a home as Coyle’s left wing and has nine points (three goals, six assists) in 14 postseason games.

Sweeney’s smartest moves, however, may have come July 1 with the opening of free agency. In one fell swoop, he signed Joakim Nordstrom and Chris Wagner to increase Boston’s fourth-line skating and versatility, and inked Jaroslav Halak to participate in a more-equal crease-share with Tuukka Rask.

Where would the Bruins be without their fourth line that coach Bruce Cassidy treats as though it’s a top-nine line? Where would they be without a rested Rask in these playoffs?

Certainly not one win shy of the Stanley Cup final, which is where they find themselves after winning Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final Tuesday behind the play of Rask and the fourth line of Nordstrom, Sean Kuraly and Wagner.

Sweeney’s plan for the fourth line hit its share of bumps at the start of the season. Injuries to top-nine players and ineffective play from some of Boston’s prospects forced Nordstrom and Kuraly to play higher up on the depth chart. Each of the three players struggled to find his game. All three found themselves out of the lineup at some point in the season, as did Noel Acciari and David Backes, who dropped down to play with his straight-line, blue-collar brethren a time or two.

The fourth line hit its stride in mid-December, when Cassidy shifted Kuraly to left wing, put Acciari in the middle and Wagner on his natural right side while Nordstrom was still moonlighting as a top-six wing. From that point on there were several variations of the fourth line, with its members still forced to play up in the lineup on occasion, but every night Cassidy could expect the same grind-it-out performance and trust the line to play against anyone, freeing up David Krejci’s line and even sometimes Patrice Bergeron’s line from having difficult defensive assignments.

It’s amazing that for a little more than the salary Tim Schaller got to leave Boston for Vancouver ($1.9 million per for two season), Sweeney got Wagner and Nordstrom (combined $2.25 million per over two seasons). When Wagner and Nordstrom were struggling early in the season and the Bruins claimed Jamil Smith off waivers from Dallas, the peanut gallery clamored that Sweeney had overpaid for bottom-six forwards that he could get for free. Except Sweeney knew, through the hard work of his pro scouts, that the players he signed would come through and be so much more than just fourth-line players or solid citizens in the dressing room. You have to identify players that can play several roles, and those aren’t often found on the waiver wire. Not to mention spending $1 million here or there on bottom-six players is well worth it when you identify the right ones. It’s when you get into the overpays, like the $3 million per season the Canucks gave Jay Beagle, that you bury yourself in salary-cap jail.

Even if Wagner, who injured his left arm blocking a shot late in Game 3 against Carolina, doesn’t play another game this season, he was a successful signing. And Sweeney’s ability to find the right amount of talent and depth for the fourth line means Acciari’s waiting in the wings to take Wagner’s spot.

Similarly, Sweeney signed Halak for $250,000 more than departing backup goalie Anton Khudobin because the GM obviously didn’t trust Khudobin to handle the 1A role as well. The Bruins might’ve brought back Khudobin at say $2 million, but once the price rose it was worth going a little higher and getting Halak, a former No. 1, for $2.75 million. The Bruins finished third in the NHL in goals allowed per game, Halak made 37 starts to Rask’s 45, and now Rask is having a postseason for the ages with a .939 save percentage.

Cynics may point to Sweeney’s other NHL move on July 1, signing defenseman John Moore for five years at $2.75 million, as a red mark on what was an otherwise successful day. But Moore served his purpose and helped get the Bruins through their rash of injuries, when he missed a handful of games with injury but much of the rest of Boston’s top eight were out longer. Moore’s cap hit is the same Adam McQuaid was making prior to his trade to New York – an easily tradeable contract that’s also reasonable for someone relegated to a bottom-pair role.

Obviously there’s no telling how we’d be looking back at July 1 right now had John Tavares turned down the Toronto money and given in to Sweeney, Cassidy and Cam Neely’s pleas to come to Boston. You can’t tell me though, as great as Krejci has been in these playoffs and in past postseasons, that a Bergeron-Tavares 1-2 punch at the top of the Bruins forward depth chart wouldn’t be having at least as much success as the current Bruins.

And so after the Bruins missed out on Tavares and Ilya Kovalchuk, they were denied a home run on July 1. As it turned out, hitting a couple doubles and singles had a similar impact and Sweeney came through in the clutch. Now Boston’s five wins from the Stanley Cup.

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