Bruins NHL trade deadline priority: Defenseman or forward?

Hampus Lindholm entered training camp as the Boston Bruins’ No. 2 defenseman behind Charlie McAvoy. Matt Grzelcyk projected to lock down his shot-denying top-pairing spot on McAvoy’s left side. Derek Forbort was supposed to be the left side’s third-pairing strongman and first-wave penalty killer. Jakub Zboril had his sights set on being the No. 7 defenseman.

None of it has gone as planned.

Lindholm is on injured reserve. The 30-year-old was unavailable for the eighth straight time in Tuesday’s 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Before his injury, Lindholm was not playing to the 2022-23 standard that placed him fourth in Norris Trophy voting.

Grzelcyk has been injured three times. It may explain why he is a negative possession player for the first time in his career. Grzelcyk is unrestricted at year’s end. He has not discussed an extension with his hometown team. 

Matt Grzelcyk is an unrestricted free agent after this season. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Forbort has played himself out of the lineup because of injury and performance. The 32-year-old was a healthy scratch Tuesday for the fourth time in the past five games. He is also unrestricted after this season.

Zboril failed to make the roster out of camp. The 2015 first-rounder went unclaimed on waivers twice. His contract is expiring. The 27-year-old’s NHL career may be over. 

All of this is to make one thing clear: The Bruins’ trade deadline priority is improving the left side of the defense. 

The Bruins defended well against the turbocharged Oilers. They limited Connor McDavid and company to 1.39 expected five-on-five goals, according to Natural Stat Trick. But that was the Bruins’ lowest rate since Feb. 15 (1.29 xGA against the Seattle Kraken). They hadn’t kept an opponent off the five-on-five board since Feb. 8 against the Vancouver Canucks. They held the Toronto Maple Leafs to one five-on-five goal the previous night.

“I thought we did a really good job limiting their chances,” Montgomery said. “Last two games, I think we’ve played the two highest-scoring teams per game in the league. So I’m happy about the way we checked them. Happy about the way we’re staying above pucks, not giving up odd-man rushes.”

How long the Bruins can ride Grzelcyk, Mason Lohrei and Parker Wotherspoon remains to be seen.

Montgomery classified Lindholm’s return as close. The Bruins will be delighted to have him back. Lohrei, recalled from Providence following Lindholm’s exit, is a 23-year-old rookie. As such, he’s subject to peaks and valleys in the defensive zone. Lohrei has a bright three-zone future. The Bruins would be reluctant to move him before the deadline.

Wotherspoon, signed as an unrestricted free agent, has been an excellent value addition. But the 26-year-old has never played a playoff game.

So as much as the Bruins need help up front, defense is their biggest need. The question is how to address it. 

Norwood’s Noah Hanifin, No. 3 on The Athletic’s trade board, is the top-ranked left-shot defenseman. Hanifin is on an expiring contract with a $4.95 million average annual value. The Bruins project to have future cap space to extend Hanifin. The trick would be meeting the Calgary Flames’ ask.

Trading Linus Ullmark and his $5 million average annual value, most likely for futures, would give the Bruins the assets and cap space to execute a blue-line acquisition. It is not a straightforward transaction. 

The Bruins would have to be confident that Jeremy Swayman is ready to be the postseason workhorse. Swayman stopped 32 of 33 shots in Monday’s 4-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s his turn to start against the Leafs again on Thursday. Swayman would be the likely Game 1 starter pending a Bruins-Leafs Round 1 showdown.

The Bruins would also have to find a team that fits Ullmark’s liking. The Devils, according to The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun, have targeted Ullmark as a possibility if they cannot acquire Jacob Markstrom. Ullmark has partial no-trade protection. Joakim Persson, Ullmark’s agent, declined to answer whether the Devils are on Ullmark’s no-trade list.

The Florida Panthers improved their attack on Wednesday by acquiring Vladimir Tarasenko from the Ottawa Senators. The Panthers could be a second-round opponent for the Bruins. Florida was already a dangerous offensive team. 

Blue-line assistance is now even more necessary.

(Photo of Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

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