The narrative that goes with the Boston Bruins’ trading Johnny Boychuk to the New York Islanders is that the team simply had no choice; there were cap issues, and as a result the player’s out. It’s a narrative that’s been repeated in a lot of places, and it's one that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli implied in the aftermath of the deal.
“This was really hard to do,” he said in a press conference broadcast on the team’s official site. “There’s an element of business to it, an element of hockey, and we tried to get ahead of it a little bit. He was upset, I was upset; I’m still upset.”
The reality, of course, is that the Bruins did have a choice. As CapGeek explains in its indispensable guide to long-term injured reserve, Boston has the choice between putting $4.0 million man Marc Savard on long-term injured reserve before the start of the season or stashing him there after opening day.
There are some cap benefits to putting him there later, but Boston had the option to stick him on LTIR now, which would have allowed them to comply with the salary cap and retain Boychuk.
The argument in favour of keeping Boychuk is simply that the Bruins are a legitimate contender, and more than that, the team's a legitimate contender in danger of seeing its window close.
Franchise defenceman Zdeno Chara turns 38 before the start of the playoffs. No. 1 centre Patrice Bergeron has a long and ugly injury history, and despite an awe-inspiring pain threshold, his next concussion could very well be his last as an NHL player.
There’s a time for careful and precise asset management, and there’s a time to go for it all because a team only gets so many opportunities. Dealing a pending unrestricted free agent for draft picks falls under the former description, and it is emphatically not the course of action Boston should be taking.
Why did the Bruins do it? Chiarelli pretty obviously seems to be gambling that there will be good defencemen available at the trade deadline:
This deal was born out of a couple of things. One, our cap situation. Two, as I said, trying to be proactive on team planning. I look at this globally; this may be one in a series of two or three steps throughout the course of the year. I wish I could do everything at once. We were involved in some deals for players… unfortunately this is the kind of step that comes first.
That statement is purposely vague, but it does hint at a course of action. By dealing Boychuk for picks now, Boston gives itself the maximum amount of cap flexibility, resolves its defensive logjam and gives it a chance to assess young players on the blue line in more significant minutes. At the same time, the team accrues assets for a big move in March to replace its departed defenceman.
The trouble is that often Boychuk-like defencemen simply aren’t available.
Reviewing the NHL’s trade tracker, not a single player of Boychuk’s caliber moved during the season in 2013-14. Third-pairing types can be found in abundance, but the only guy close to Boychuk in reputation is Andrew MacDonald, whose underlying numbers suggest him as both the league’s most overrated defenceman and as a guy who won’t be helping a team win games.
This isn’t a cataclysmic move for the Bruins, who still boast a relatively deep defence corps and will no doubt finish high in the Eastern Conference standings once again. It does give them some additional cap flexibility. They might luck out and be able to land a legitimate top-three guy at the trade deadline.
But it does reveal a chasm between the way Boston’s management is thinking and the way it should be thinking. The Bruins are a good, even great team, but the clock is ticking on their status as such and could strike midnight at any point.
This is the time to be urgently putting together the best roster that can possibly be assembled under the NHL salary cap, a time in which every move should be focused on helping the team win the 2015 Stanley Cup. It’s really not the time to be auditioning youth and collecting draft picks for trade opportunities that may never come.
It’s an understandable move. But that doesn’t make it right.