There’s an even bigger dilemma for the Bruins right now than where to place Chris Kelly in the lineup and which “puck-moving defensemen” to close a deal for in the trade market.
Without the benefit of a crystal ball, general manager Peter Chiarelli and his staff have to predict how valuable Toronto’s first-round pick is going to be come June considering the Maple Leafs’ sudden surge back into the playoff picture — which came partly at the Bruins’ expense Tuesday and continued last night with a 2-1 regulation win over Buffalo.
The Leafs moved into 25th place in the overall NHL standings, which would place Toronto’s pick at No. 6 overall if the season ended today and the lottery didn’t cause a change in the draft order. They’re also just six points out of eighth in the Eastern Conference.
The parity (or is it parody) of the NHL is such that getting a feel for how any team will perform over the entirety of the schedule is impossible. Just when it looked like the Bruins were going to battle it out with Philadelphia and Tampa Bay for the top seed in the East, they dropped three in a row and four out of five.
North of the border, Toronto looked like it had a one-way ticket to the lottery, especially once general manager Brian Burke became a seller by dishing off Francois Beauchemin and Kris Versteeg in trades over a five-day period. The only problem, as far as the Bruins are concerned, is it seems every time the Leafs make room for some of their farmhands to replace veterans in the lineup, they play better.
Sometimes when a team trades a couple vets and infuses a couple youngsters, it can have this type of positive effect. The notion that maybe the team’s not going to try to make a playoff push takes the heat off and the team plays better — and suddenly finds itself back in the race. In addition to the pressure relief, the younger players feel that they’re auditioning for a permanent place in the NHL, so they work a little harder than the shipped-out veterans, who were coasting on the strengths of their multi-year contract and filled-up bank account.
Burke has publicly stated he’s not giving up. The Beauchemin deal kind of proved that, as he got back veteran high-priced forward Joffrey Lupul. The veteran has had a solid effect on linemate Phil Kessel, who scored a third goal in two nights against Buffalo, and could continue to regain his once-formidable scoring touch. Meanwhile, you look at the NHL standings and it’s pretty clear Colorado is about ready to fold up, and you have to wonder how long Florida, St. Louis and Columbus can keep convinced they’re in their respective races. Those teams can at least go into seller’s mode and look toward making their first-round pick as high as possible.
The Leafs’ goal is not only make a playoff run, but prevent the Bruins from again landing a draft jewel. Even if the Leafs did start to mail it in, it looks like they’re going to be hard-pressed to out-lose some other franchises that already have the envelopes sealed and stamped.
In the week since Chiarelli told WEEI he would consider trading Toronto’s pick, it has lost a heavy amount of value. For a guy who wants to see his team take the step from high-end status to elite level, the only move here is to get rid of that pick and get a player that will shake up the Bruins’ dressing room and on-ice performance. Even a rental player — albeit one that Chiarelli believes he has a responsible chance to re-sign — has to be on the radar with this draft pick slipping down the draft chart by the day.
This last couple days could be a brief burst of excitement out of the Leafs, and they could drop right back down and put that pick in top five over the final 2 1/2 months of the season. But there are too many factors hinting at Toronto’s play going the other way. The Leafs probably won’t make the playoffs, but they’ll win just enough to ruin the Bruins’ plans of adding another franchise-caliber player.
Chiarelli might not have been actively shopping that first-round pick a week ago, but he should start pressing hard to get it off his hands before it’s too late.