The Bruins have hit the rough patch in their season that's been predicted from the very start. They have four wins in the last 15 games spanning the months of December and January, and both the Maple Leafs (six points) and Lightning (seven points) have closed to within 10 points of the Black and Gold in the Atlantic Division.
The Bruins aren't getting much scoring out of players beyond the Perfection Line, and they aren't closing out teams with leads in the third period. They also can't win an overtime or shootout game to save their lives either with 11 shootout/overtime losses, most of them coming over the last month where they've posted the 4-6-5 record.
Undoubtedly Bruins fans are freaking out and losing their minds, so now seems like a great time for a Hagg Bag mailbag. Here are real questions from real fans using the #HaggBag hash tag on twitter, messages sent to my NBCS Facebook fan page and emails sent to my firstname.lastname@example.org email account.
Now on to the bag:
I've seen enough. This team needs a wake-up call. I think at this point, you need to trade one of the underachievers. They should go out and get some grit. This team needs help now. I don't know who they should (or could) trade or who it would be for. But watching this team through this losing patch of hockey, it's clear they need something.
JH: I agree, Ben. I would really like to see a hard-hitting bruiser on the fourth line that can drop the gloves, intimidate and get the team engaged in some of these games against non-playoff teams that they seem to be sleepwalking through.
Sean Kuraly was excellent as a fourth-line center last season, but it feels to me like he doesn't want to play that role anymore. Joakim Nordstrom is a nice depth player on an NHL roster and he does little things well, and Chris Wagner is a hustler and a hard-hitting, physical player even though he's not the biggest guy in the world.
They're all nice players. But I think the Bruins need more than nice, at this point. They need a tough, mean SOB on their roster and they don't have it right now.
Kyle Clifford could certainly be that guy in the last year of his contract with the Kings. He's 28 years old, on track for 10 goals and 20 points this season and is a tough guy at 6-foot-2, 205-pounds. Maybe you could even get a package of Clifford and Toffoli if you were willing to wait until a little later in the season, or you could make in-roads with the Kings by making a deal for Clifford now and setting things up for Toffoli later.
Either way, the Bruins sorely need a guy like Clifford to make other teams fear them again and to step up and protect their superstar players with Kevan Miller not looking like he's anywhere close to returning, and both David Backes or Brett Ritchie not really filling that role right now either.
It seems to me that Zdeno Chara has become incredibly immobile on D. He loses every race to a puck, often doesn't come out of the corners with the puck. He still clears the net-front well, but I think he has become a liability on D. Are we looking at his final year?
--Big Wally (@BostonWest80111)
JH: I don't think so. We're still talking about a 42-year-old defenseman that's averaging 21:21 of ice time, is second on the Bruins with a plus-17 and is still arguably the best penalty killer in the entire NHL.
Is he a speed skater that's going to win races? No. That's not his game. It's about breaking up plays, using his long stick and reach along with his size and strength and blocking shots while clearing bodies in front. He still does that very effectively on most nights while setting a tone for work ethic, professionalism and he still stands as the biggest, baddest Bruins player on the roster. Teams take even more liberties against the B's when Chara is out of the lineup.
Are there nights these days where he looks like a 42-year-old playing in an incredibly fast, skilled NHL full of 20-year-olds? Certainly, it happens from time to time, but that doesn't mean Chara isn't very effective most of the time, and now he's playing on a reduced cap hit as well. So I don't agree at all.
The Bruins are lacking character players. If Marchand and Pasta get injured, look out. We will drop even further in the standings and will be fighting for a wild card spot. Perhaps an early exit is what is needed. We can't be putting a bandage on fundamental issues: An aging core group, lack of character players, and lack of skill players (Pasta being the exception). Time for Sweeney to swing a successful trade that will have long term benefits. $7.25M for Krejci, $6M for Backes....time to trade ‘em both and package Heinen and DeBrusk with them!
JH: I agree that it's time for guys like Jake DeBrusk and Danton Heinen to step up into complete, consistent players.
It's also time for Charlie McAvoy to become the dominant No. 1 defenseman that he's capable of being rather than the guy that still doesn't have a goal after the halfway mark of the regular season. I'll give McAvoy credit for embracing the important parts of being a defensemen, things like blocking shots and holding the other team's best players in check.
But McAvoy will only be paid big bucks if he can also put up points and kick start offense as well. I think the lack of top drawer offensive production and playmaking by McAvoy this season has also played a role in the B's struggling to generate offense as of late.
But Heinen is on pace for 12 goals and 29 points this season, and DeBrusk is pacing to fall short of last season's 27 goals scored. Both have to be looked at as disappointing in the first half of the year, and that should be clear by Bruce Cassidy benching each of them in the last few weeks.
The Bruins aren't going to trade David Krejci this season, though, with a team that's leading the Atlantic Division and coming off a berth in the Stanley Cup Final. I know they could definitely use some help for this year's team, but I also think a little perspective for everybody in Bruins National wouldn't be a bad thing either.
Who is your favorite character in the new Star Wars movies?
--Daniel McHoliday Cheer (@McGarrMentions)
JH: Definitely Babu Frik. How could you not like that character? But I thought all of the new characters introduced in The Rise of Skywalker were really interesting, good choices. That's another one of the differences, in my opinion, with this movie and the The Last Jedi.
Holdo? Rose Tico? Whatever the heck Benicio Del Toro was doing? I didn't find any one of them particularly interesting from what was on the page, or what happened in the performance. The way Holdo went out was pretty cool, I suppose. But other than that I thought they were earnestly bland, or too esoteric, in a way that all the new characters in the latest movie were not.
Backes is a 6 million cap hit wasting upstairs most nights now. Bruins short on Top 6 players. Why would Sweeney waste more cap on Ritchie and Lindholm knowing this?
--Michael Reel (@MichaelReel8)
JH: Both Lindholm and Ritchie are veteran minimum kind of players. They combined for $1.85 million in cap space for this season. That is next to nothing, so it's really not a cap consideration for either.
In fact, you could make the argument Sweeney was forced to bring in cheap players like Ritchie and Lindholm because he's paying the price for overpaying for an aging Backes that's clearly no longer able to produce to the level he's being paid.
If you think about it, if the Bruins had signed a younger, better player to the contract they signed Backes to four years ago, they probably wouldn't even have a top-6 problem right now. The big reason they haven't had anybody to permanently fill the spot on Krejci's right side is because they had planned on Backes being that guy when they signed him to a big free-agent deal.
All of their top-6 woes right now amount to Backes being a dud of a free agent signing, and the Bruins whiffing on the first round of the NHL Draft when they should have come away with Mat Barzal, Kyle Connor, Travis Konecny or Brock Boeser. The combination of those two things continues to haunt the Bruins.
We should package up Kevan Miller so we can get something in return, Gotta free up some caps space somewhere.
--David Bond (via Facebook message)
JH: Kevan Miller has played a grand total of two games since the beginning of last April and he continues to not even be able to skate after experiencing a setback that required "a procedure" to address his kneecap situation. The hope is that he can get on the ice and contribute for a Bruins team that could use his toughness and tough-guy mentality on the ice.
But it sure feels like his career might be in jeopardy after twice injuring the same kneecap over the last calendar year.
In other words, there is no way anybody is trading for a player like Miller that might not even be able to get back onto the ice. With the player on the wrong side of 30 years old and in the last year of his contract with the Bruins, Miller could be facing his hockey mortality.
Read your piece today; [Chris] Kreider or [Kyle] Palmieri would be brilliant. Time for Heinen to go somewhere else; it's just not working here anymore. That said, it looks bad right now.
JH: It looks bad right now, but I don't think this will last. They are coming off their busiest month of the season in December, and they have been exposed as a team that's really struggling in overtime and the shootout. They also look very one-dimensional offensively with too much reliance on the Perfection Line and their power play.
They will start playing better and even after everything that's happened, they still have a six-point lead in the division. What Don Sweeney needs to do is make a Marcus Johansson-type deal again this season to bring more offense and playmaking to the mix.
Ideally, it would be Kreider because the Bruins could use his size and finishing ability around the net (on pace for 24 goals and 52 points), and his willingness to play a little nasty from time to time as well. Everybody that I've spoken with around the B's organization likes Kreider's game and he checks many of the boxes for B's brass (local kid, college hockey player etc.), and Sweeney has a budding trade history with the Rangers in recent years as well. So I'd keep an eye on him when it comes to the Black and Gold.
Think it's time for a reset with the B's? First, before getting hosed in desperation moves via trades, send a message to team and call up a number of younger Providence Bruins kids. I'd rather lose with longer looks at future Bruins- Frederic, Senyshyn, Studnicka, Lauzon, and Zboril in the mix before giving them away- than most of the team being iced now!
JH: I love the old school mentality, Ron, but that's not really the way things are handled at the NHL level these days.
I'm not against Jack Studnicka being brought up again at some point to bring a spark to the team. He's got 14 goals and 26 points in 38 games for the P-Bruins in his first pro season. But he's also a minus-2 as well, and that might speak to a 20-year-old that still needs a little more seasoning at being a two-way player before he's ready to handle the NHL.
Aside from Studnicka, though, the rest of the guys you mentioned aren't doing enough to be difference-makers at the NHL level. They need guys like Heinen and DeBrusk to be better, or they should start featuring Anders Bjork in a bigger role to see if he can provide elevated play. I think Bjork has been better than both of those other guys for the balance of this season with his speed, his competitiveness from shift-to-shift and his overall efforts at consistency.
That might be someplace where the Bruins can send a message to the young veterans that are underperforming, and reward a player in Bjork that's clearly taken to the coaching advice he's been getting.
Here is a proposed solution to address B's needs for toughness and scoring. Heinen, Lauzon (or Zboril), Moore, and Ritchie $6.5 million in salary and a 3rd to LA for Toffoli and Clifford (who by all accounts is a great teammate) $6.2 million in salary. May even be a bit of an overpay but most if not all of the players leaving would not be protected in the expansion draft in 2021.
JH: I think the salary cap numbers might work, DJ, and I even like the combination of Toffoli and Clifford to address most of Boston's needs with one shot.
But why am I making this trade if I'm Los Angeles? There isn't a ton of value to Lauzon, Zboril or Ritchie, and Heinen or Moore as your main trade piece isn't going to move the needle very much. I would guess you'd need to give up a first or a second round pick along with a third rounder, and you'd probably need to include a mid-level prospect like Trent Frederic as well.
If the Bruins don't do something now the 1st place Bruins will not make the playoffs. Also, their core elite players are getting older so it's all or nothing now.
Don Sweeney & Cam Neely -- make a few moves and get some elite available scorers before the trade deadline like Kyle Palmieri and Chris Kreider etc. Whatever u have to do like trade Heinen, prospects or draft picks do it because last year it's a shame they fell one game short.
--Eric Americo (via Facebook message)
JH: The natives are getting restless. It sure sounds like a lot of Bruins fans want Danton Heinen gone. Who knows? They may get their wish.
My hunch would be that it might be DeBrusk that gets moved in a big trade if any of the young veterans were to be moved, though, because he's got value, he's going to be a lot more experienced starting next season and many are wonder if he's ever going to be more of a dimensional player than simply a goal-scorer.
I always felt like DeBrusk was more of a third line talent at the NHL level and maybe that's what we're beginning to see from a player that doesn't have the all-around game or consistency he probably needs to have at this point. DeBrusk would also bring back a good, quality return in trade, but dealing him would also simply, and unfortunately, create another hole upfront that the B's have to fill. It might be more about the contract he's going to be able to demand in the offseason after scoring 27 goals last season.
What I've seen out of the Bruins the last month is a lot of games they are getting outworked, this is why they're giving away points against lousy teams. With their lack of secondary scoring the Bruins have to be the hardest-working team each night or they will continue to struggle.
JH: I agree, Terry, The Bruins are not deep enough in the talent department to coast and I think we've seen that over the last month. They built up a huge lead in the division and have basically assured themselves of a playoff spot at this early point in the season. My prediction is we'll start seeing that urgency come back now for the B's with Toronto and Tampa Bay both closing the gap on the B's and finally playing to their top level.
It's also about playing a very busy schedule in December that sapped their legs and energy levels. I think you will see them start to get the energy and work ethic back now that they have the bye week and NHL All-Star weekend coming up this month. If not, then they will be passed by the Maple Leafs and the Lightning and they will have plenty to answer for in the second half of the season.
I'm not ready to go there yet because I think they needed a kick in the pants, and this surge by the Maple Leafs since firing Mike Babcock might be the best thing for them.
Is Marchand playing too tame right now? It seems like the Bruins play better when he's irritating opponents and getting under their skin. #HaggBag
--Bruins Cup Quest 2020 (@richg6567)
JH: Marchand's issue is that he has two goals in his last 18 games and is a minus-2 over that span as well. He needs to kick it up a notch just like everybody else, but I don't think he needs to do it by spearing guys in the groin or slew-footing anybody. I think the agitating level goes down when a player's energy level isn't there and that was the way it was for everybody over the last month.
I'd expect to see a spirited Marchand in the rest of January. He should have a chip on his shoulder after getting snubbed for the All-Star team. Why not take it out on the rest of the NHL?