Chapter Five- What Could Have Been (2019)
The Boston Bruins almost had back-to-back 50-win seasons under Bruce Cassidy if it weren’t for an all too familiar Atlantic Division foe.
In 2017-18, the Bruins racked up 50 wins as part of their 50-20-12 record overall. In 2018-19, Boston was sitting at 49 regular season victories when they entered their final game of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 6th.
The Bolts beat the B’s, 6-3, and picked up their all-time record tying 62nd win in the regular season— tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most wins by any National Hockey League team in a season in the process. Boston finished 2nd in the Atlantic Division with a 49-24-9 record and 107 points to Tampa’s 62-16-4 record and 128 points on route to winning the 2018-19 Presidents’ Trophy.
Detroit at least made the 1996 Western Conference Final before the Colorado Avalanche eliminated them in six games. Colorado then swept the Florida Panthers in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final for their first ring in franchise history.
The Lightning were swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2019 First Round in part because of the moves Blue Jackets General Manager, Jarmo Kekäläinen, made leading up to the 2019 trade deadline.
Whereas Kekäläinen bought in bulk for a last-ditch effort with pending-unrestricted free agents, Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin to try to convince to stick around by making the franchise’s first deep playoff run a reality, Bruins General Manager, Don Sweeney, only made two moves prior to and including on Feb. 25, 2019.
Boston once again dismantled the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the 2019 First Round— this time completing a series comeback after the Maple Leafs led 3-2 entering Game 6.
Fun fact, Toronto actually led the series 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 before the Bruins won Games 2, 4, 6 and 7— topping the Leafs, 5-1, in what was Toronto’s least convincing Game 7 appearance in their three efforts against the Bruins in the 2010s (2013, 2018 and 2019).
The B’s had home ice in the First Round and secured home ice advantage for the rest of the playoffs thanks to the Blue Jackets eliminating Tampa and Colorado knocking out the Calgary Flames in five games that same round.
Columbus faced Boston in the 2019 Second Round, paving the way for the Bruins to end up in the 2019 Eastern Conference Final after eliminating the Blue Jackets in six games.
Of course, the Bruins then swept the Carolina Hurricanes and advanced to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, where they then went all the way to a first of its kind at TD Garden— Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
It did not go as planned.
Boston’s depth scoring touch that they had found in the likes of Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson evaporated as did the Bruins’ top-six scoring production in the worst possible moment.
The St. Louis Blues skated off with the Stanley Cup in a, 4-1, Game 7 victory in Boston.
On April 15, 2015, the Bruins fired Peter Chiarelli four years after he put the finishing touches on the 2011 Stanley Cup winning roster at the first sign of cracks in the foundation when the team fell flat down the stretch in 2014-15 and missed the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
On May 20, 2015, Boston hired Sweeney and introduced him at a press conference in which he laid out a “three-year plan” back to Stanley Cup contention, but missed the postseason in his first year with the Bruins’ front office in 2015-16.
Boston made small steps in 2016-17, losing to the Ottawa Senators in six games in the 2017 First Round and losing every home playoff game in the series loss.
Sweeney chased a big deal at the trade deadline that looked like it could have finally given David Krejci a winger that he desperately needed to make the 2017-18 roster that much better, but the team went up against the Lightning in the 2018 Second Round and were ousted after five games.
Three years into Sweeney’s plan and the Bruins were yet to make it back to the Final. Until they did. In his fourth year as General Manager.
The only problem was that they didn’t win.
They won the 2019 trade deadline by far in return on investment when it mattered most, but they couldn’t fit the final piece of the puzzle where it needed to go in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
Entering 2018-19, Sweeney had his work cut out for him.
His bottom-six forwards and influx of youth continued to gain experience and develop into the full-time NHL players that they had become— giving Sweeney the flexibility to let Riley Nash and Tim Schaller seek pay raises elsewhere.
Rick Nash was gone too, though the Bruins left the door open to a return if his health would allow. Post concussive symptoms haunted him for the 2018-19 NHL calendar and beyond, however, forcing him to retire on Jan. 11, 2019, rather than attempt a comeback.
Brian Gionta, Tommy Wingels, Nick Holden, Austin Czarnik, Paul Postma and Kenny Agostino went elsewhere too— whether it was to another team, Europe, the KHL or retirement.
Boston’s backup goaltender in 2017-18, Anton Khudobin, got a little pay raise with the Dallas Stars on a two-year deal worth $2.500 million on July 1, 2018. He signed an extension with the Stars for another three years on Oct. 9, 2020, carrying a $3.333 million cap hit in that span.
In his two stints with the B’s, Khudobin had a 1.00 goals-against average and a .978 save percentage in one game (1-0-0) in 2011-12, before debuting as a full-time NHL backup the following season in 2012-13, amassing a 9-4-1 record in 14 games played to go with one shutout, a 2.32 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage in that span.
After making his way around the Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks from 2013-16, Khudobin landed back in Boston for 2016-18, putting up a 7-6-1 record with a 2.64 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage while battling injury in 16 games in 2016-17, then following things up with a solid 16-6-7 outing in 31 games, one shutout, a 2.56 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage in 2017-18.
Sweeney felt as though the Bruins could thrive with the services of another veteran goaltender that had a bit more of a successful track record as a starter turned backup than Khudobin over the years due to age and the ever-increasing competition for the position with the fewest jobs around the league.
His first big addition to the team for 2018-19, came in the crease by signing Jaroslav Halak to a two-year deal worth $2.750 million per season.
Halak made his league debut with the Montréal Canadiens in the 2006-07 season, then became the backup goaltender to Carey Price’s reign in 2008-09, before having his first shot at being an NHL starter in 2009-10.
He was later traded to the St. Louis Blues prior to the 2010-11 season, where he won his first William M. Jennings Trophy the following year in 2011-12, and wasn’t traded again until the Blues acquired Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres in a package deal in the 2013-14 season.
Halak refused to play in Buffalo, so he was flipped to the Washington Capitals where he finished the season before signing as the starting goaltender for the New York Islanders on a four-year deal for 2014-15, and sticking around on Long Island until he joined the Bruins on July 1, 2018, after what was perhaps his worst effort as a netminder in the league.
In 2017-18, with New York, Halak had a 20-26-6 record in 54 games, one shutout, a 3.19 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage, but in a reduced role as Boston’s backup in 2018-19, Halak excelled in 40 games— amassing a 22-11-4 record, five shutouts, a 2.34 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage in that span.
He followed things up with an 18-6-6 record (2.39 goals-against average, .919 save percentage and three shutouts) in 31 games in 2019-20, won his second William M. Jennings Trophy— this time with Tuukka Rask— and earned a one-year extension for 2020-21.
In his final year in Boston, Halak had a 9-6-4 record in 19 games with two shutouts, a 2.53 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage before a young goaltender named, Jeremy Swayman, made his NHL debut and outplayed Halak for the backup role down the stretch and into the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But back in 2018-19, signing Halak rather than extending Khudobin angered the fans.
They soon came around to No. 41 in black and gold, though.
Among Boston’s skaters, Danton Heinen and Jake DeBrusk were entering their sophomore seasons and remained track to being top-nine forwards at the worst and second line wingers alongside Krejci at best as was the plan for the very first game of the season in Washington, D.C.
Anders Bjork, meanwhile, would return from a shoulder injury that limited him to 4-8—12 totals in 30 games in 2017-18— if he could crack the lineup in the first place with Ryan Donato, Sean Kuraly, David Backes, Noel Acciari and newcomers Joakim Nordström and Chris Wagner ahead of him on the depth charts for the season opener.
Bjork would make his season debut on the fourth line in the second game of the 2018-19 calendar in Buffalo after the Bruins were shutout, 7-0, at Capital One Arena on Oct. 3, 2018.
After three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, Nordström brought his 2015 Stanley Cup winning pedigree to Boston’s fourth line while in a bit of a career decline.
He had 24 points (10 goals, 14 assists) in 71 games in his first full NHL season in 2015-16, which coincided with his first year in Carolina, then notched 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 82 games in 2016-17, before falling to 2-5—7 totals in 75 games for the Hurricanes in 2017-18.
On July 1, 2018, Nordström signed a two-year contract with the Bruins worth $1.000 million per season.
He bounced back with 7-5—12 totals in 70 games and contributed a few clutch goals in the 2019 postseason—amassing eight points (three goals, five assists) in 23 playoff games as Boston ended up losing in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
The following season with the B’s he had 4-3—7 totals in 48 games before the COVID-19 pandemic cut the 2019-20 regular season short.
In 13 playoff games in 2020, Nordström had two assists.
He left Boston for the Calgary Flames via free agency on Oct. 19, 2020, and had seven points in 44 games before joining a team in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for 2021-22.
Wagner— a Walpole, Massachusetts native— joined the Bruins on July 1, 2018, signing a two-year deal worth $1.250 million per season and going on to establish a career-high in points (19) in 2018-19, having scored a career-high 12 goals and tallying seven assists in 76 games in his first year with Boston after 7-9—16 totals in 79 games between the Anaheim Ducks and New York Islanders the year prior.
Of course, after the 2019-20 season, Wagner was offered a three-year extension with a $1.350 million cap hit per season, though after 2-3—5 totals in 41 games in 2020-21, he began the 2021-22 season with the Providence Bruins (AHL).
Sweeney made one other significant signing on July 1, 2018, by locking up defender, John Moore, to a five-year contract worth $2.750 million per season through 2022-23.
In 2018-19, Moore was utilized as a top-six defender, amassing 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 61 games from the blue line— missing about a quarter of the season due to injury after playing in 81 games for the New Jersey Devils in 2017-18, and recording 7-11—18 totals in that span.
In 2019-20, Moore was limited to just 24 games due to injuries and his diminished use as a seventh defender. He had two goals and one assist (three points) before appearing in five games the following season— notching two assists in 2020-21.
He’s been mired between the NHL and AHL in 2021-22— when he’s been healthy— having played in seven games for Boston (one assist) and only 11 games for Providence (one goal, five assists).
But Moore’s strongest performance in a Bruins uniform came when the Bruins needed him most while Zdeno Chara missed Game 4 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Final on the road at PNC Arena, in which Rask had a, 4-0, shutout to sweep Carolina and advance to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.
Whereas Schaller and Nash had a combined $4.650 million cap hit elsewhere (in reality, only $1.900 million for Schaller in Vancouver and $2.750 million for Nash in Columbus), Sweeney saved a pretty penny on replacement level players in Nordström and Wagner at a combined $2.250 million cap hit.
Anytime you can save $2.400 million on fourth line forwards and penalty killers, you have to do it— then immediately cough up an additional $350,000 on a defender that’s played 97 games four years into his five-year contract with your team.
But this isn’t about all of Sweeney’s moves in free agency, really, if not just to point out how skilled the Bruins General Manager is at anything below, say, a $3.000 million cap hit usually.
This is the long winded way of saying that, despite all of their development at the NHL level from 2017-18 to 2018-19, Boston still needed a winger for Krejci, a legitimate third line center when Sean Kuraly performed better on the fourth line between Noel Acciari and Nordström or Wagner on any given night and, perhaps, one more additional forward to round out the top-nine.
After doing that, Sweeney could have something spectacular on his hands if Cassidy could guide the roster from behind the bench to be their very best on the ice and the team was starting to heat up as February arrived.
Earlier in the year, however, Sweeney— again— made a move that angered Bruins fans by trading fan favorite, veteran defender, Adam McQuaid to the New York Rangers for Steven Kampfer, a 2019 4th round pick (99th overall, later flipped to Minnesota, then Carolina— Cade Webber) and a conditional 2019 7th round pick (192nd overall, Jake Schmaltz).
McQuaid, of course, had become expendable as an overpaid seventh defender with the signing of Moore for the same bottom-pairing role as McQuaid when healthy and as long as Kevan Miller was out of the lineup instead of McQuaid due to injury.
No. 54 in black and gold appeared in less than half of the games in 2017-18, due to several injuries and only had 1-3—4 totals in 38 games as a result whereas he was normally good enough for about 10 points in at least 2/3 of a regular season.
McQuaid had to play in at least 25 games in 2018-19, or be traded by the Rangers at any point in the year for the B’s to receive the 2019 7th round pick.
New York, of course, later sent McQuaid back to the team that originally drafted him in the 2nd round (55th overall) of the 2005 NHL Draft— the Columbus Blue Jackets— at the 2019 trade deadline on Feb. 25th.
In return, the Rangers acquired Julius Bergman, a 2019 4th round pick (112th overall, Hunter Skinner) and a 2019 7th round pick (205th overall, Eric Ciccolini).
Back in Boston before the season began, however, Kampfer was settling into his second stint with the club and would be positioned as the first callup from Providence in the event that a Boston defender went down with an injury.
One trade down, three more to go for the 2018-19 calendar and only one them was actually at the 2019 trade deadline itself for Sweeney.
On Jan. 11, 2019, the Bruins made a minor trade with the Ottawa Senators, swapping Cody Goloubef for Paul Carey after Boston had initially signed Goloubef on July 1, 2018.
Carey played in two games as a utility forward in the event of injury or the last game of the season when the team could perform no better than 2nd in the Atlantic Division, then played in one more game for Boston in 2019-20, in a similar nature.
As the calendar flipped to February, the trade calls began picking up.
Meanwhile, after amassing 5-4—9 totals in 12 games in 2017-18, Donato’s first full-time foray into the NHL was going a little bit sideways in his development.
The 22-year-old forward had six goals and three assists (nine points) for Boston in 34 games by Feb. 20th and after turning heads in his three years at Harvard University, as well as due to his scoring prowess for Team USA in the 2018 Winter Games, Donato had become expendable if the Bruins could land the right piece and sell high on Donato’s potential.
Sweeney would have to live with the fact that they might be trading away an overnight sensation that Boston simply didn’t have the patience for or couldn’t develop, but he had to weigh the fact that the Bruins’ aging core meant they needed a reliable center to provide insurmountable depth on the third line as David Backes deteriorated and was better off as a winger on the fourth line or not in the lineup at all.
Despite this, Backes still provided value if anyone went down with an injury and contributed vital leadership skills in the dressing room as Boston combatted the grueling part of any regular season schedule— filled with fewer days off in-between and long, West Coast, road trips before the postseason.
The Minnesota Wild, meanwhile, were shopping Charlie Coyle and others as the team looking to overhaul their lineup while sitting well outside the wild card cutoff looking in.
Then-Wild General Manager, Paul Fenton, was looking to make a splash and ship out some veterans for youth, speed and skill.
Donato provided a perfect chance for Minnesota to utilize his skills as a spry forward barely entering his prime and give him the space to develop with more ice time and coaching that Boston couldn’t balance with so many others ahead or directly behind in the depth charts.
On Feb. 20, 2019, Sweeney pulled off a trade that altered the course of Boston’s franchise history— if only in a less earth-shattering way than, say, trading Phil Esposito to the Rangers in the 1970s.
The Bruins acquired Coyle for Donato and a conditional 2019 5th round pick—swapping two Massachusetts natives for one another, while setting the framework for keeping Coyle in Boston long-term when the time would come for an extension after the 2019-20 season.
In short, Coyle’s presence in Boston solidified the emphasis on finding a true first and/or second line center when Patrice Bergeron and Krejci were out of the picture without sacrificing complete depth down the middle in the eventual transition years (you know, like right around present day).
The Bruins had lost Colby Cave via waivers to the Edmonton Oilers about a month before Coyle’s acquisition, making it all the more important to solidify your bottom-six centers in the event of an injury.
In the meantime, the conditional 5th round pick sent to the Wild would upgrade to a 2019 4th round pick (originally belonging to the Rangers, previously mentioned in the McQuaid trade) after the Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs and advanced to the 2019 Second Round.
Sweeney’s fast thinking before the deadline took one of the top available names off the board and addressed a need in Boston’s lineup without breaking the bank.
In 60 games with the Wild before the trade, Coyle had 10-18—28 totals. In 21 games with Boston immediately after the deal, he had 2-4—6 totals, but it’s not about what he did for the remainder of the regular season as he adjusted to new schemes with his new team.
It’s about his playoff performance in 2019.
If “playoff Krejci” is a thing, then “playoff Coyle” was his understudy in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs as Coyle put up 16 points (nine goals, seven assists) in 24 games—including a game-winning overtime goal in Game 1 of Boston’s Second Round matchup against Columbus.
This is where it’s worth mentioning that in the leadup to the 2019 trade deadline and on Feb. 25, 2019, itself, the Blue Jackets stocked up on some of the other big names available that winter, including Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel in separate trades a day apart with the Senators on Feb. 22nd and 23rd, as well as Keith Kinkaid from New Jersey and McQuaid from the Rangers on the day of the deadline.
Sure, Derick Brassard was passed around from Pittsburgh to Florida to Colorado that month, Kevin Hayes went from the Rangers to Winnipeg, Gystav Nyquist went from Detroit to San Jose, Mats Zuccarello was sent to Dallas from the Rangers and Carl Hagelin went from Los Angeles to Washington that month or at the deadline, but nobody really remembers what happened outside of Columbus and Ottawa as the two teams were the most active.
The Sens traded Mark Stone and Tobias Lindberg to the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 25th for Oscar Lindberg, Erik Brännström and a 2020 2nd round pick (originally belonging to Dallas, 61st overall— Egor Sokolov) before Sweeney worked his one and only deadline deal that same day.
Sweeney traded a 2019 2nd round pick (61st overall, Nikita Okhotyuk) and a 2020 4th round pick (120th overall) to the Devils for Marcus Johansson.
New Jersey retained 40% (about $1.833 million) of Johansson’s salary, meaning that he only cost the Bruins $2.750 million against the salary cap as a pending-unrestricted free agent at season’s end.
Johansson’s career began as the 24th overall pick of the Washington Capitals in the 2009 NHL Draft before making his league debut in the 2010-11 season.
Usually a 40-point scorer, Johansson had a career-year in 2016-17, with Washington, setting career-highs in goals (24), assists (34) and points (58) in 82 games before he was traded in the offseason as the Capitals couldn’t afford to him as a then-restricted free agent.
In parts of two seasons with New Jersey, Johansson had 17 goals and 24 assists (41 points) in 77 games from 2017-19, while battling injury.
He’d end up with another concussion after only a few games with Boston after the deadline and finished the 2018-19 regular season with 1-2—3 totals in 10 games for the Bruins down the stretch.
In the playoffs, however, Johansson bounced back with 4-7—11 totals in 22 games from a possession dominant third line with Coyle at center and Johansson and Heinen on the wings.
Unfortunately for Boston, Johnasson was still too good of a player to not make market value in the waters of free agency and signed a two-year deal worth $4.500 million per season with the Sabres on July 6, 2019, after the Bruins exhausted all options to cling to the only No. 90 uniform in franchise history.
After one season in Buffalo and a dismal 30 points (nine goals, 21 asissts) in 60 games, Johansson was traded to the Wild for Eric Staal on Sept. 16, 2020, where he went on to amass 6-8—14 totals in 36 games in the 56-game condensed 2020-21 regular season due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
More recently, on Aug. 6, 2021, Johansson agreed to a one-year deal worth $1.500 million with the Seattle Kraken, where, at the time of this writing, he has six goals and 17 assists (23 points) in 50 games.
While Boston’s first two lines encountered scoring problems in the majority of the 2019 Second Round matchup with Columbus, the Bruins’ third line and goaltender bailed the team out again and again.
The third line performed in Game 7 against Toronto, all throughout the Second Round against Columbus and came in handy during the 2019 Eastern Conference Final against Carolina.
Their success would be squandered in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final by the Blues as St. Louis added Michael Del Zotto to their defense at the 2019 trade deadline.
Though Coyle had a goal in Game 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final, for instance, Carl Gunnarsson’s overtime game-winning goal ended up tying the series 1-1 and giving St. Louis an edge in momentum on the road, where the Bruins would drop Games 2, 5 and 7 on home ice.
But had Sweeney not learned that he needed to stay aggressive leading up to the trade deadline and the arms race with the Blue Jackets that ensued and ultimately led to the surprise collapse of the Lightning in the First Round, Boston likely wouldn’t have even sniffed a 2019 Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Instead, it could’ve been history repeating itself in the Second Round against Tampa.
As history would have it anyway again in 2020, after a global pandemic shifted the entire paradigm for one odd shortened regular season and inflated postseason inside a bubble.
Indeed, there were dark times ahead for the world and the Bruins as the luster of the 2019 trade deadline began to wear off— coinciding with an aging core, though you might not have expected any signs of transitional trouble when Chara signed a one-year, $2.000 million extension on March 23, 2019, to remain in Boston for another season in 2019-20.
For now, though, we’re left to wonder what could have been in 2019.