We’d been hearing that the Bruins were one of the teams in on Taylor Hall for weeks (years if you go back to when New Jersey was ready to move him, and also when Arizona was thinking of becoming a seller).
So it’s unlikely general manager Don Sweeney’s late Sunday/early Monday trade to acquire Hall and depth forward Curtis Lazar from Buffalo for Anders Bjork and a second-round pick — with Buffalo reportedly retaining 50 percent of Hall’s $8 million cap hit — was a response to Boston’s embarrassing 8-1 loss to Washington on Sunday night.
But Sweeney clearly needed to change the focus of the conversation, from both his team’s lenient effort against the Capitals and the ongoing issues they’ve had scoring 5-on-5 even when fully healthy. More importantly, he had to answer questions from both his veteran core and his fan base about what he was doing to make sure the window to compete for the Stanley Cup remained open at least a crack.
And his answer was distinct: let’s give it one more shot while David Krejci and Tuukka Rask (hopefully healthy enough to play later this week) are still wearing Bruins sweaters, and while Patrice Bergeron can still claim a spot among the top three or four all-around centers in the league (he will turn 36 this summer, after all).
So Sweeney made two deals on Trade Deadline Eve.
In a move that served as chicken fingers to what turned into a steak dinner, the Bruins also dealt a third-round pick to pick up veteran defenseman Mike Reilly from Ottawa. The journeyman puck-mover brings a little more size and experience to a corps decimated by injury. If the Bruins get fully healthy for the playoffs, he’ll be an option over Jeremy Lauzon or Jakub Zboril. For now, he’ll be a cork in the bucket for a Bruins defense corps that can’t endure more efforts like Sunday’s.
It remains to be seen whether even a fully healthy Bruins defense corps will have enough of the right elements to get them deep in the postseason, particularly in a year when they know they’re going to have to go through some combination of Washington, Pittsburgh, and the New York Islanders just to reach the league semifinals. They’re going to need speed and size, savvy and smarts.
Sweeney, though, obviously thinks he has the D corps to accomplish the Bruins’ goals. The Bruins are capped out even after Buffalo’s salary retention, so any deal to upgrade the defense between now and 3 p.m. Monday has to move money out, meaning a high-priced D will require a high-priced player moving on.
Instead of helping the defense, Sweeney decided to address the hole on the wing that’s seemingly been there for years and grew bigger with every regression Jake DeBrusk and Bjork sustained. Sweeney took a different approach in 2019, adding Charlie Coyle and Marcus Johansson. Instead of Johansson playing in the top six, he and Coyle formed two-thirds of a strong third line that helped push Boston to the Cup final. Krejci was left with a rotating cast, including the likes of then-rookie Karson Kuhlman and even the shadow of what was once David Backes. Sweeney’s 2020 dealings brought in Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase, neither of whom were able to fit the bill before Tampa Bay sent Boston on its way in the second round of the playoffs.
With Hall added to a top-six that should also include the recently resurgent Craig Smith, coach Bruce Cassidy suddenly has no fewer than six legitimate high-end NHL forwards, while he still has enough depth to build a respectable third line around Coyle, starting with DeBrusk and a revitalized Ritchie.
Regardless of what you think of Hall, and regardless of what your gut tells you about his shooting percentage — seventh-worst in the NHL since 2013-14 — and his two-goal performance in Buffalo, you have to admit this is the type of trade you’ve been wanting Sweeney to make ever since Boston’s early departure from the Toronto bubble.
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Even if Hall can’t scrub the Sabres off of him and winds up producing like Jaromir Jagr did for Boston in 2013, this trade had to be made. If Sweeney wasn’t going to be able to improve the defense, he had to add someone that could help the Bruins outscore their defensive deficiencies. Once the Sabres didn’t demand a first-round pick or a player from Boston’s lineup, Sweeney had to just shake hands with his Sabres counterpart Kevyn Adams and say “take whatever else you want.”
Taylor Hall might be a Bruin for two months, four months, or it maybe longer if he re-signs. It doesn’t matter.
Sweeney’s mandate has always been to give the core, 10 years removed from winning the Cup, at least a fighting chance to play for it one more time. The Bruins might prove to be more than one Hall away from doing that, but they were going to waste another year of their core players’ careers without making this type of move.
Sweeney has responded to the challenge, now it’s up to the players to reward him for his efforts.