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Bruins should target a Rick Nash upgrade in free agency

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Unfortunately for the Boston Bruins, Rick Nash was … well, Rick Nash during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Fair or not, the typical narrative stuck. Nash generated a mountain of scoring chances (39 shots on goal in just 12 games), but connected on precious few, finishing with three goals and two assists for five points. It says a lot about his career-long playoff woes that his 7.7 shooting percentage during this run was actually a bit better than his career mark of six percent.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Nash is far from the only player outside of the first line (Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak) who fell short of the mark, but he stands out as being a guy who’s unlikely to return considering his expiring contract. Whether they bounce back or not, guys like David Krejci and David Backes are locked down through 2020-21.

[Lightning eliminate Bruins in Game 5]

Ultimately, Bruins GM Don Sweeney should look to free agency and ask himself: “Who can give us a little more than Rick Nash and other depth players?”

An unclear window

The Bruins deserve a ton of credit for drafting and developing some real gems in Pastrnak, Jake DeBrusk, and Charlie McAvoy. Even so, the Bruins are powered by some players whose windows of dominance could start to close. Brad Marchand will turn 30 on May 11. Krejci and Bergeron are both 32. Backes is 34. Zdeno Chara is still somehow a top pairing defenseman at 41.

Some aging curve questions are scary, and doubling down with a free agent can be really scary. That said, you never know when your window will close as a contender; the Bruins would be wise to take their best shots over the next season or two.

Intriguing wingers

The Bruins could very well get a younger version of Nash in some free agents who bring some size and skill to the table.

There’s a decent chance that Evander Kane will not hit the market, but if he does, the Bruins could conceivably be a good fit considering all of the veterans they have on hand. Kane isn’t the only interesting option, either.

James van Riemsdyk stands out as one of the more interesting fits. While there’s some risk that JVR could be the next Bobby Ryan (a consistent 20+ goal guy who was once cheap who could then sign an albatross deal), but the American winger has shown that he can score, even when he’s receiving minimal ice time. That said, van Riemsdyk is already 29 and hasn’t always been the most prolific playoff point producer, either.

Like Kane with the Sharks, it’s unclear if James Neal or David Perron will be back with the Vegas Golden Knights, but both are interesting considerations for Boston. Neal could add even more snarl to a lineup that already includes Backes and Marchand, not to mention his ability to score goals with remarkable consistency. Perron, meanwhile, would be the slicker option, and possibly the cheaper one?

Centers

Let’s get this out of the way first: any team with a shot at John Tavares should do what it takes to make it happen, even if it calls for creative trades. The Bruins are no exception, though it’s tough to image Tavares wearing the spoked B.

Another tough-to-imagine scenario: the return of Joe Thornton. That would be fun, though, wouldn’t it?

Now, the Nash example calls more for winger comparisons, but who’s to say that the Bruins wouldn’t dip into the market for a mid-level center? Such a gameplan could be fruitful if management believes that Krejci could be liberated by a Claude Giroux-style move to the wing, or more advantageous matchups as a third-line center. Among other ideas.

Paul Stastny would be intriguing.

He’s not the sexiest scorer, but Stastny is a strong two-way player. It’s tough to imagine the Jets being able to afford re-signing him considering that they’re going to have to give big raises to Connor Hellebuyck, Jacob Trouba, and Patrik Laine going forward. There’s quite a bit of risk with Stastny being 32, but he makes some stylistic sense, too.

The funniest idea

Hey, Leo Komarov is a pending UFA, and he obviously has chemistry with Marchand …

(Ideally) cheaper options

Generally speaking, NHL teams are better off exploiting the bargain bin instead of taking big swings. The Bruins have seen that firsthand, as the Backes deal is one they’d almost certainly want to take back. Many of the above ideas are expressed while realizing that, eventually, those contracts will probably be a headache.

Boston may instead be better off going short-term or cheaper, possibly with more than one signing.

Patrick Maroon‘s value should be interesting to follow. Will a team overpay for a big guy who can score a bit, or will his solid work with New Jersey go under the radar?

The Bruins might be better off going after Maroon or fellow short-time Devil Michael Grabner. Thomas Vanek is another interesting consideration. While he’s become a notably one-dimensional player, Vanek showed that he can really boost a team’s offense. In a specialist role, Vanek might excel, and the Bruins should keep an eye on him if the market is tepid.

***

Look, players usually hit free agency in the NHL for a reason. These are players who, for whatever reason, end up being deemed expendable.

The Bruins and other teams must look at free agency as finding the cherry on top, rather than some cure-all. Rick Nash fell short of that mark, but maybe one of these options could make the difference?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning bounce Bruins from playoffs in five games

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The Tampa Bay Lightning will play for a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.

The Lightning earned a 3-1 decision in Game 5 on Sunday afternoon against the Boston Bruins, sending the Bruins into hibernation mode after taking the series 4-1.

The series will be largely defined by what the line of Brayden Point, Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson were able to accomplish after Tampa’s top line of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and J.T. Miller took a back seat.

Point scored his third goal of the series to erase David Krejci‘s first-period tally, slotting home after making a patient play around Tuukka Rask.

Point, who finished with seven points in the series, helped the Lightning rebound from their 6-2 Game 1 defeat with a four-point night, a performance that one could argue was a turning point in the series. The Lightning cruised from there, allowing eight goals during their four-game winning streak.

Point’s time-on-ice jumped by over two minutes from Game 1 to Game 5, and it was well-deserved.

Contributions from Tampa’s top line weren’t as relevant as they were against the New Jersey Devils. Kucherov had 10 points in that series but just two points in the second round. Stamkos had a pivotal goal in Game 4 to force overtime, but had only an empty-netter otherwise.

Miller made his presence felt in Game 5, first by knocking David Backes out of the game with a crushing hit in the second period, and then minutes later, offering up the go-ahead goal that stood as the game-winner.

Boston, meanwhile, couldn’t find much in the way of scoring outside of Game 1.

Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak combined four just four goals over the final four games of the series and secondary scoring from the Bruins was virtually non-existent, ultimately spelling the end to Boston’s season.

The Lightning now waits for the winner between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington leads the series 3-2 after a 6-3 win on Saturday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Crushing hit forces Bruins’ Backes from Game 5

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Boston Bruins forward David Backes won’t return to Sunday’s Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning after a big hit in the second period.

Backes was stood up by Tampa forward J.T. Miller at the Lightning blue line as Backes was trying to get the puck into the zone.

The hit seemed to stiffen up Backes as he fell to the ice, where he laid for several minutes before having to be helped off it by two Bruins and then helped down the tunnel by members of Boston’s training staff.

There was no penalty called on the play. Miller scored the go-ahead goal later in the period and the Bruins trail 2-1 in the third period with their playoff lives on the line.

Backes is no stranger to the concussion.

He was concussed on this hit by William Carrier:

And there was the Brent Seabrook hit:


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Bruins’ Donato, Predators’ Tolvanen begin playoffs as scratches

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Hype won’t always protect you from being a healthy scratch.

When it comes to some prominent late-season additions to potential Stanley Cup contenders, a spot in the lineup isn’t guaranteed. That’s something Ryan Donato is experiencing with the Boston Bruins, and the same can be said of prized Nashville Predators prospect Eeli Tolvanen. While NHL coaches are prone to throwing fastballs, it sure looks like those two young scorers will sit out Game 1 for their respective teams.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Donato the bigger surprise?

NBC Sports Boston’s Joe Haggerty reports that Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy confirmed that Donato won’t be in the lineup, with Brian Gionta and Nick Holden also being out.

Donato probably has more reason to be irritated by the snub than Tolvanen. For one thing, Donato’s a little older at 22 (Tolvanen is just 18, he’s turning 19 on April 22). Donato’s already shown serious potential by scoring nine points in 12 games despite sometimes-limited ice time.

Also, Riley Nash is unable to play against the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight, so one might argue that the Bruins could find a spot for Donato. Take a look at the B’s projected bottom two lines, via Haggerty:

Danton Heinen / Noel Acciari / David Backes
Tim Schaller / Sean Kuraly / Tommy Wingels

Overall, the Bruins deserve a lot of credit for diving in feet-first with young players. They didn’t hesitate to put Charlie McAvoy in a prominent role right off the bat during last season’s playoffs, and guys like Heinen have been given opportunities to prove themselves.

Maybe this is a bit of a correction in that area, especially since the Bruins will face a team that can really exploit mistakes in the high-powered Maple Leafs. (Of course, the natural counterpoint is that you’d want more firepower on the ice to out-gun Toronto, in which case Donato would make a ton of sense).

For what it’s worth, Donato seemed to take a healthy attitude toward a healthy scratch, according to what he told Rich Thompson of the Boston Herald.

“I’m just going to keep working hard, and whenever they need me and my number is called, I’ll be ready to go,” Donato said. “I don’t really take it as an insult. I’ll just take it that the team has been good all year.”

Tolvanen a work in progress

While Donato’s been scoring at an impressive rate, things haven’t “clicked” yet for Tolvanen in the NHL.

The young Finn failed to score a goal or an assist through three regular-season games before getting scratched during the final two contests. Tolvanen’s only logged 36:20 of ice time so far at this level, generating his three shots on goal in his third game. In his first two contests, he didn’t even get a puck on net. To little surprise, his possession stats have been putrid over that tiny sample.

Tolvanen has only been with the Predators since late March, and this Nashville team was loaded without him. Consider that Scott Hartnell and a Calle Jarnkrok joined Tolvanen as potential scratches for Game 1 (though it’s worth noting that it seems like Jarnkrok is a little banged-up). Do note that, while Donato’s confirmed to be out, there’s an outside chance Tolvanen does play. It just seems improbable.

[Morning Skate: how will Predators deal with Nathan MacKinnon?]

In an ideal world, Tolvanen would have been able to gain more traction before the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs began, but considering the fact that they lost Ryan Johansen and Kevin Fiala during last year’s run, Nashville can attest that injuries could open the door for the 30th pick of the 2017 NHL Draft.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the playoffs,” Peter Laviolette said, according to the Tennessean’s Adam Vignan. “If anything, last year proves that more than ever. … We’re probably going to need everybody.”

***

These aren’t the easiest calls regarding Donato and Tolvanen. These aren’t just rookies vying for time; these are players who haven’t been with the Bruins and Predators for very long.

Still, the fears of them making mistakes against attacking opponents like the Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche could be countered by the perks of getting more talent on the ice. Ultimately, their coaches will probably end up deploying them, especially if each squad enjoys deep playoff runs.

Thursday’s schedule

Lightning vs. Devils, 7 p.m. ET – NHL Network
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs, 7 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Capitals vs. Blue Jackets, 7:30 p.m. ET – USA
Predators vs. Avalanche, 9:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Ducks vs. Sharks, 10:30 p.m. ET – USA

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.