Bruins on Boylston: What can, should, and will the B’s do at the trade deadline?


Illustration by Moe Wang

The Boston Bruins are the NHL’s best team with a 39-8-5 record.

By Leo Kagan, Assistant Sports Editor

For Boston Bruins fans, the trade deadline should be one of the most exciting times of the year. 

Apart from the playoffs, in fact, nothing should be more exciting: a few tense weeks leading to a few hours when fortunes change hands, draft picks are shipped off for elite players, and Stanley Cup-contending teams add the finishing touches to superior rosters. The draft is for rebuilding teams and even free agency isn’t that fun—not when you watch your general manager hand over a $36 million contract to an average top-six winger.

So in theory, the trade deadline should be the most exciting time of the year for fans of true contenders—but in the salary cap world of the NHL, what should happen isn’t always what does happen. 

Teams are pressed so tight to the league’s $82.5 million salary cap that even quality Bruins, like right winger Craig Smith and defenseman Mike Reilly, passed through waivers unclaimed because of their hefty cap hits. 

Such is the case at the trade deadline this season: although teams have separated into the usual tiers of buyers—those teams willing to trade future assets away for immediate reinforcements—and sellers—those teams trading away any semi-valuable players in exchange for those future assets—the salary cap poses a hard limit on the types of trades teams can actually execute come March 3. 

The Bruins fit the buyer archetype to a tee: all-in for a deep playoff run and among the league’s best teams—the very best right now. Theoretically, they should be pawning off every prospect and draft pick they have to bolster every position in their lineup, but the reality is the Bruins don’t have the flexibility to do so. 

So as we approach the trade deadline, let’s take an honest assessment of the Bruins’ options, ambitions, and reality. 

What can they do?

Right now, the answer is nothing. 

Left winger Jake DeBrusk was placed on Long Term Injured Reserve after injuring his leg during the Winter Classic on Jan. 2. The Bruins have some flexibility while he recovers—they can exceed the cap by DeBrusk’s $4 million annual salary. 

However, DeBrusk is expected to return before the playoffs, when teams are no longer required to abide by the cap. Once the winger is reactivated, the B’s will lose any LTIR flexibility, and will need to become compliant with the cap again. 

In short, any trades the Bruins execute must involve sending out as much salary as they take on. This leaves two options for the B’s, and neither of them are particularly palatable. 

Option one is to trade a current roster player for a player of a slightly higher caliber—the types of “hockey trades” that older GMs espouse with a twinge of nostalgia. For the Bruins, it might mean swapping a top-six winger like DeBrusk for another skilled player like Detroit Red Wings winger Tyler Bertuzzi. 

However, this option doesn’t make much sense for the Bruins. There is a case to be made that Bertuzzi doesn’t represent a significant upgrade on DeBrusk—or any upgrade at all given his injury-riddled 2022-23 campaign—so why mess with team chemistry by swapping out an established, drafted-and-developed player like DeBrusk with an unknown like Bertuzzi, who might not mesh as well with the team? 

Option two would be to clear salary cap space by dealing a less valuable player with an overinflated cap hit, and luckily enough, the Bruins have two such players in Smith and Reilly. Unfortunately, as evidenced by their passing through waivers earlier in the season, nobody is lining up for their services at their current cap hits. 

Both players have struggled this season, falling out of the lineup at various points—Reilly is currently playing in the AHL with the Providence Bruins. In order to move either player, the B’s would have to attach a draft pick or prospect to entice a potential trade partner to take on either player’s contract. For an organization with so few prospects as is, trading more future assets is not ideal

In whatever manner the Bruins proceed, they will be hampered by their cap situation—the question is how they’ll be able to dance around it

What should they do?

For all the challenges the cap imposes on the Bruins, the team should still seek upgrades. No team has won the Stanley Cup in the last decade without some kind of trade deadline acquisition

For the Bruins, upgrades may seem unnecessary; after all, which aspects of a league-leading team needs improvement? But the NHL playoffs are unkind when it comes to injuries. The Bruins certainly don’t want to finish the season as the league’s best team just to go down early in the playoffs due to lack of depth

For the Bruins, depth at all three positions is paramount. At forward, the Bruins could use another quality middle-six winger—ideally one that can play the middle as well. Though Trent Frederic has developed a more consistent game this season, a true Stanley Cup contender might slide the 24-year-old to the fourth line in favor of a more proven option like St. Louis Blues center Ivan Barbashev. 

On defense, the Bruins have looked solid all year long, but the d-corps also haven’t lost many man-games to injury. The seventh defenseman right now is either Anton Stralman or Jakub Zboril—though Reilly could return to the NHL lineup if he isn’t dealt before the deadline. But a more experienced and reliable seventh defenseman couldn’t hurt; perhaps Chicago Blackhawks blue-liner Jack Johnson—who won the Stanley Cup last spring playing low-maintenance minutes for the Colorado Avalanche—is available

Even in the net, where the Bruins boast what is quite possibly the league’s strongest goaltending tandem in Linus Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman, the team could use an additional depth option. Right now Keith Kinkaid is the next man up, but he’s played only 17 NHL games over the last four seasons combined. A younger, more capable goalie wouldn’t be a bad idea

What will they do?

To any Bruins fans hoping for a swing-for-the-fences type trade like the Hampus Lindholm acquisition at the 2022 deadline, you should probably settle your expectations

The Bruins simply don’t have the cap space, the need, or frankly the assets to pull off another such deal. Even a move with an eye toward the future—like trading for and extending Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin—is unlikely. Having a tremendous talent like Larkin waiting in the wings when veteran centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci retire would be a major boon, but the Bruins cap situation for this year and the next necessitates more conservative moves

Barbashev and Johnson are reasonable targets—as are Montreal Canadiens defenseman Joel Edmunson, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Luke Schenn, Arizona Coyotes center Nick Bjugstad, and Blackhawks center Max Domi. All have modest cap hits and would slot lower in the Bruins’ lineup

It’s not the most exciting news, but such is the reality of a salary-cap NHL. Fans can take solace in the fact that the juggernaut Bruins might not be exciting around the trade deadline, but if all goes well, they’ll be mighty exciting come playoff time.