Chapter Six- Pause and Reflect (2020)
The Boston Bruins sought to avenge their Game 7 loss in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final to the St. Louis Blues by getting off on the right foot for 2019-20.
The Bruins showed no signs of a Stanley Cup Final appearance hangover as they picked up where they left off in their dominant regular season form and even beat St. Louis in their first trip back to Boston since raising the Cup at TD Garden.
Much of the 2018-19 cast remained on the team, despite Noel Acciari and Marcus Johansson pricing themselves out of the Boston market given Don Sweeney’s reluctance to offer both significant money and term to bottom-six forwards either via an extension or in free agency.
Acciari was undrafted out of Providence College when the Bruins initially signed him to a two-year entry-level contract on June 3, 2015, worth $792,500 per season. He made his National Hockey League debut in 2015-16, and had one assist in 19 games.
The following year, Acciari had 2-3—5 totals in Boston in 29 games and worked his way into a fourth line role heading into 2017-18, when he had 10 goals and one assist (11 points) in 60 games in the first year of a two-year extension worth $725,000 per season.
After 14 points (six goals, eight assists) in 72 games with the Bruins in 2018-19, Acciari could fetch a decent raise for his skillset among the bottom-six on any NHL roster and Sweeney wasn’t about to hand out a contract worth more than $1.300 million per season to a fourth liner when Sean Kuraly and Chris Wagner had cap hits of $1.275 million and $1.250 million respectively.
Kuraly and Wagner could probably yield 20 points each and a replacement level forward could signed in Acciari’s place if someone from the Providence Bruins (AHL) wasn’t ready for full-time NHL action in a minor role.
As a result, Acciari signed a three-year deal worth $1.667 million with the Florida Panthers on July 1, 2019, and went on to amass a career-high 20 goals in 66 games prior to the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic which cut the regular season short in 2019-20.
He’s since had just 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 41 games last season and has been limited to 1-3—4 totals in 10 games in 2021-22, due to injury.
Johansson, as mentioned before in the last chapter, had arrived in Boston in a trade with the New Jersey Devils for the stretch run in 2019.
Since New Jersey retained 40% of his salary for the Bruins to complete the deal it meant that he wouldn’t likely return to the Bruins after their 2019 Stanley Cup Final appearance given the fact that he wasn’t in a position where he’d have to take a discount.
He already was a discount.
Johansson was still in his prime and looking to bounce back from a concussion that sidelined him in part of his tenure with the B’s before the postseason began.
He joined the Buffalo Sabres on a two-year deal worth $4.500 million per season and had 9-21—30 totals in 60 games with the Sabres in 2019-20 before he was traded to the Minnesota Wild for Eric Staal.
In Minnesota, his production dropped to 14 points in 36 games— missing 20 games in the condensed 56-game regular season due to the ongoing pandemic.
Johansson signed a one-year contract worth $1.500 million with the Seattle Kraken on Aug. 6, 2021, and has 6-17—23 totals in 51 games entering Sunday.
To replace Acciari and Johansson, as well as Lee Stempniak— who had returned to Boston on Feb. 24, 2019, on a one-year deal to finish the 2018-19 season as a depth forward in two games before being reassigned to Providence, then announced his retirement on Oct. 1, 2019, after 14 NHL seasons— Sweeney signed Brett Ritchie, Pär Lindholm and Brendan Gaunce on July 1, 2019.
Ritchie was given a one-year, $1.000 million contract after a decline in production from 24 points in 78 games with the Dallas Stars in 2016-17, to 14 points in 71 games in 2017-18 and finally six points (four goals, two assists) in 53 games with the Stars in 2018-19.
Though he scored the first goal of the season for Boston in a, 2-1, win in Dallas, he wouldn’t last more than 27 games with the Bruins and had 2-4—6 totals before the 2020 trade deadline.
Ritchie then signed a one-year deal with the Calgary Flames on Jan. 17, 2021, worth $700,000 and earned a one-year extension at $900,000 on July 15, 2021, after he had eight points (four goals, four assists) in 32 games in 2020-21.
So far in 2021-22, he’s had one goal in 30 games.
Lindholm signed a two-year deal worth $850,000 after recording 13 points in 65 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets in 2018-19.
A native of Kusmark, Sweden, his professional hockey playing days began in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) and its second-tier HockeyAllsvenskan from 2009-18, prior to joining the Leafs.
After 12 points (one goal, 11 assists) in 61 games with Toronto, Lindholm was dealt to the Jets for Nic Petan on Feb. 25, 2019, before finishing the season with one assist in four games with Winnipeg.
In 40 games with Boston in the first year of his two-year deal, he had 3-3—6 totals as he was in and out of the lineup among bottom-six forwards.
He then played in one game in 2020-21, before mutually terminating his contract with the Bruins and returning to the SHL for the remainder of the year before joining a team in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) for 2021-22.
Sweeney was 0-for-2 at addressing replacement level needs for 2019-20.
He was 0-for-3 if you considered Brendan Gaunce to be a potential fourth liner, though his one-year, two-way contract for 2019-20 would indicate otherwise. In one game for Boston that season as an emergency recall, Gaunce had one assist.
Maxime Lagacé filled a roll in Providence as a goaltender on a one-year, $700,000 contract, while Alex Petrovic earned a one-year, two-way deal worth $700,000 at the NHL level out of training camp on Sept. 26, 2019.
He spent the season in the AHL as well, however.
Boston was mostly the same as they were in 2018-19 as they went through 2019-20— only this time they were ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the division standings, conference and entire league.
Nevertheless, Sweeney would have to do something to stay ahead of the competition as the 2020 trade deadline got closer and the push to the playoffs got underway.
Jack Campbell was dealt from the Los Angeles Kings to the Toronto Maple Leafs as part of a trade on Feb. 5, 2020, in one of the first big moves as the calendar flipped from January to February— marking less than a month from the trade deadline.
The Pittsburgh Penguins added Jason Zucker in a trade with the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 10th.
Neither of those trades would’ve remotely been on Boston’s radar as Sweeney could’ve used a top-nine forward with some experience, still in his prime and could either carry speed into the attacking zone or be a playmaker to Charlie Coyle and… …whoever would also be on the third line as Anders Bjork and Danton Heinen each provided some trade value, though it soon became clear that one was being shopped more than the other.
Bjork was only 23 at the time to Heinen’s then-24 years of age and was in the midst of his first “full” season experience having had his 2017-18 and 2018-19 campaigns cut short by injuries at 30 and 20 games, respectively.
Heinen, meanwhile, made his league debut with Boston in 2016-17, but wouldn’t record his first point until his ninth career NHL game as the 2017-18 season got underway.
In 77 games in his first full season, Heinen impressed with 16-31—47 totals.
He then experienced a bit of a sophomore slump with only 34 points (11 goals, 23 assists) in 77 games in 2018-19, but remained a dominant puck possession force to be reckoned with in the offensive zone.
In 58 games with Boston in 2019-20, however, he only had 7-15—22 totals and wasn’t as confident with or without the puck from night-to-night.
The Bruins had seen a young player burst onto the scene before— whether in a short stint or over the course of a season— then sputter and stall in their development only a year or two later, rendering themselves as an expendable asset for an otherwise surefire roster component (Ryan Donato to Minnesota for Coyle in 2019) or draft pick (Frank Vatrano to Florida for a 3rd round pick in 2018).
Conversely, they had played against a young player that burst onto the scene with a highlight reel goal while falling and shooting with one hand, showed promise and had a lot of speed.
If Sweeney was wise, he would’ve phoned the New Jersey Devils and offered just about anything for the up-and-coming hot ticket item to add to anyone’s top-nine forward wish list, Blake Coleman.
Instead, the Lightning traded Nolan Foote and a conditional 2020 1st round pick (originally belonging to Vancouver, 20th overall—Shakir Mukhamadullin) to New Jersey for Coleman on Feb. 16, 2020— eight days before the 2020 trade deadline.
The market suddenly sprang to life as a result of Tampa’s insistence on avenging their 2019 First Round series exit in four games against the Columbus Blue Jackets and give themselves their best chance at winning their second Stanley Cup ring in franchise history.
Boston felt confident enough in their own group, though they had shown cracks in the bottom-six and could always use an extra body or two in the event of injury.
Or maybe the Bruins had made an offer, but Tampa’s was just too good to pass up.
Surely the Devils would’ve taken anything that included a 1st round pick?
After all, the B’s packaged their 2020 1st round pick in a trade later in the month. You know, after another viable option fell through Sweeney’s fingers as the Vancouver Canucks acquired Tyler Toffoli from the Los Angeles Kings a day after Coleman went to the Lightning.
On defense, Alec Martinez looked like an attractive, but expensive, upgrade for any potential suitor. He was traded by the Kings to the Vegas Golden Knights on Feb. 19, 2020.
Finally, on Feb. 21st, Sweeney made his first move in an attempt to play catch up to Tampa in the Atlantic Division arms race.
The Bruins packaged David Backes, Axel Andersson and their 2020 1st round pick with 25% of Backes’ salary retained ($1.500 million) in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks for Ondrej Kaše.
Backes had 38 points in 74 games in his first season with Boston (2016-17) as a 32-year-old.
The following year, he dropped to 33 points in 57 games while battling diverticulitis among other ailments as a 33-year-old in 2017-18. In 2018-19, Backes fell to just 20 points in 70 games— serving as a healthy scratch some nights.
In just 16 games with the Bruins in 2019-20, Backes had one goal and two assists (three points). He cleared waivers, but did not report to Providence during the season.
Now he was off to join the Ducks with a $3.425 million cap hit instead of the $6.000 million tag he carried per season when he signed a five-year deal with Boston on July 1, 2016.
Backes spent parts of two seasons with Anaheim in 2019-20 and 2020-21, amassing 3-4—7 totals in 21 games before playing his final NHL game on the road in St. Louis where his career began as the Blues’ 2nd round pick (62nd overall) in 2003, before making his league debut in 2006-07.
Andersson, meanwhile, was your run-of-the-mill defensive prospect that was playing over in Sweden until he spent one season with the Québec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) Moncton Wildcats in 2019-20.
His 2020-21 season began in Sweden before he ventured out to San Diego to make his AHL debut with the Gulls and record 2-3—5 totals from the blue line in 17 games.
As of Sunday, he had 3-5—8 totals in 28 games in 2021-22 with San Diego.
Kaše, meanwhile, was just 24-years-old, had an uncanny ability to move the puck from end-to-end as a forward and showed signs of offensive potential— having toyed with the 40-point ceiling in 2017-18, but falling short with 38 points (20 goals, 18 assists) in 66 games in his sophomore season.
Concussions were about the only thing that could stop Kaše’s return to form as his 2018-19 campaign was limited to 20 points (11 goals, nine assists) in 30 games.
But in 49 games with Anaheim at the time of the trade, Kaše was almost back to his usual self, amassing 7-16—23 totals before Boston came calling.
Though Sweeney didn’t land Coleman, he did land a top-nine forward signed through 2020-21, as Kaše’s three-year contract worth $2.600 million per season that he signed on Aug. 15, 2018, didn’t expire until after 2020-21.
In his first six games with Boston, he recorded one assist. Then the COVID-19 pandemic cut the regular season short and the B’s wound up losing in the 2020 Second Round to the Lightning later in August.
Tampa hadn’t just stopped at acquiring Coleman back at the trade deadline in February.
Meanwhile, Kaše’s 2020-21 season was curtailed by a concussion in the second game of the year in New Jersey. He made another appearance in the penultimate game of the condensed 56-game regular season schedule and was knocked out of contention with another traumatic brain injury.
Kaše’s tenure in Boston totaled nine regular season games in parts of two seasons before he signed a one-year deal worth $1.250 million with Toronto for 2021-22.
In 50 games with the Leafs, he’s resurrected his scoring prowess with 14-13—27 totals. Then Matt Duchene of the Nashville Predators caught him with an errant elbow in the neutral zone going up ice.
Kaše’s status on Sunday remained unknown, but those in attendance at Scotiabank Arena Saturday night could see quite clearly what was a player in trouble as he stumbled off the ice with an upper body injury.
Montréal traded Ilya Kovalchuk to the Washington Capitals on Feb. 23rd, then the deadline came around on Feb. 24th and the Colorado Avalanche added Vladislav Namestnikov and the New York Islanders acquired Jean-Gabriel Pageau from the Ottawa Senators as Ottawa unloaded a pair of players off the bat and the Islanders signed Pageau to a long-term extension to get things going that afternoon.
Pageau would’ve been a prime target for Sweeney if he was able to pull off some sort of miracle.
Vincent Trocheck packed his bags for the Carolina Hurricanes in a four-for-one swap with the Florida Panthers and that other team in Florida, the Tampa Bay Lightning, surely overpaid for Barclay Goodrow, right?
The Bolts traded Anthony Greco and a 2020 1st round pick (31st overall, Ozzy Wiesblatt) to the San Jose Sharks for Goodrow and a 2020 3rd round pick (originally belonging to Philadelphia, 85th overall—Maxim Groshev).
Goodrow and Coleman surrounded Yanni Gourde in Tampa and fortified one of the most dominant top-nine forward groups since the dominant Detroit Red Wings rosters of the 1990s— going on to defeat the Dallas Stars in six games in the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in the Edmonton bubble later that September.
The Bruins, meanwhile, back on Feb. 24, 2020, acquired Nick Ritchie— brother of Brett Ritchie, who they had reassigned to Providence earlier in the season— for grit, sandpaper and poorly timed bad penalties from Anaheim in exchange for Heinen.
Like Kaše, Ritchie was signed through 2020-21.
His penalties in Boston’s 2020 Second Round exit in five games against the eventual Stanley Cup winning Lightning tell you all you need to know about whether or not Sweeney’s 2020 trade deadline was a success or not.
Either Boston misidentified who would be the best players to acquire by the deadline or they simply failed in their negotiations and resorted to some semblance of a backup plan.
In any case, Ritchie had one goal and one assist (two points) in seven games down the stretch with the Bruins in 2019-20, after amassing 8-11—19 totals in 41 games for the Ducks.
His second season with Boston saw some playing time alongside David Krejci— who had lamented the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs exit as the end of an era.
Ritchie scored a career-high 15 goals and had 26 points in 56 games with the Bruins in 2020-21— winning NESN’s Seventh Player Award as voted on by the fans in the process.
Boston opted not to re-sign him and he, too, joined the Leafs on a one-year deal for 2021-22, before being reassigned to the Toronto Marlies (AHL) and subsequently traded to the Arizona Coyotes with a conditional 2025 2nd round pick for Ryan Dzingel and Ilya Lyubushkin on Feb. 19, 2022.
In his Toronto tenure, Ritchie had 2-7—9 totals in 33 games. He has 5-2—7 totals in 11 games for Arizona thus far.
Heinen, meanwhile, had just four points (three goals, one assist) in nine games with the Ducks down the stretch, before putting up 7-7—14 totals in 43 games the following year. He signed a one-year, $1.100 million contract with the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 29, 2021, and has bounced back with 13-11—24 totals in 57 games with Pittsburgh this season.
Back after the 2020 trade deadline, the world was about to change.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a global pandemic.
On March 12, 2020, the NHL paused its season, following suit with the other major North American professional sports leagues for nearly five months.
Boston won the 2019-20 Presidents’ Trophy when the league declared the regular season over on May 26th.
The Bruins went 44-14-12 in 70 games played in 2019-20 and were the only team to reach the 100-point plateau as a result.
Boston, Tampa, Washington and Philadelphia were the top-four teams in points percentage in the Eastern Conference and participated in a Round Robin tournament that summer in the Toronto playoff bubble to determine the 1-4 seeds in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs while the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifier was going on.
Philadelphia finished with the best record (3-0-0), followed by Tampa (2-1-0), Washington (1-1-1) and Boston (0-3-0), who had gone from the top team to the fourth seed in the blink of an eye.
The Bruins eliminated Carolina in five games in the First Round, but goaltender, Tuukka Rask, left the postseason bubble after Game 2 after his daughter made an emergency trip to a hospital back in Boston.
Rask leaving wasn’t the reason why the rest of the team went on to lose in five games to Tampa in the Second Round.
Injuries, a lack of discipline, a lack of depth and not blowing the other teams out of the water at the 2020 trade deadline as the Lightning had done cost the Bruins a chance at avenging their 2018 series loss to the Bolts and seeing what else might have happened afterwards.
For the second year in a row, the Bruins were left to wonder what could have been, but they weren’t the only ones asking that question as the entire world was in the midst of a pandemic and people around the globe wondered the same question— only for numerous other reasons.