The Bruins are rarely players in the furious wheeling and dealing before the trade deadline because they're usually too cautious or too penurious to make a splashy move. Not this year. On March 3, six days before the deadline, Boston beat out the Maple Leafs and the Devils in the bidding for Sergei Gonchar, the top defenseman on the market, obtaining him from the Capitals for prospect Shaone Morrisonn and first-and second-round picks in the June draft. Less than 24 hours later general manager Mike O'Connell struck another deal with Washington, grabbing shifty second-line center Michael Nylander for a second-round pick in 2006.
Perhaps even more shocking than making two important personnel moves in March was the fact that the once bashful Bruins also had a backup deal for Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch in place. "We didn't want to lose out," assistant G.M. Jeff Gorton says of landing a quality blueliner. "We had to keep Leetch alive in case we didn't get Gonchar."
Why the sudden change in Boston's philosophy? In an unprecedented predeadline rush for stars, every Eastern Conference contender added a major weapon, and the Bruins (32-16-14-7 at week's end, fifth in the conference) couldn't afford to be left behind. The Flyers got center Alexei Zhamnov, the Senators landed right wing Peter Bondra, and the Maple Leafs acquired Leetch within hours after whiffing on Gonchar. Says Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock, "There is more offensive depth [in the East] than I have ever seen."
Several teams improved themselves over the last few weeks, but the Bruins outdid everyone else. O'Connell first discussed a Gonchar trade with Washington G.M. George McPhee in December. Earlier in the season Boston had also been in the market for a goalie, but thanks to the stellar play of rookie netminder Andrew Raycroft, O'Connell was able to shore up two other areas of concern instead—a sputtering power play and a lack of offensive spark on the back end.
The 29-year-old Gonchar solves both problems. He was the league's top-scoring defenseman with 51 points through Sunday, and few backliners are as adept at moving the puck and jumping into the offensive zone behind the play. Paired with the stay-at-home Sean O'Donnell and playing mostly behind the top line centered by Joe Thornton, Gonchar made his mark with Boston immediately, scoring a power-play goal in a 3-1 win over the Rangers last Thursday. Two days later he scored again in a 2-2 tie with the Thrashers.
With Nylander, 31, a versatile playmaker who's still coming into form after missing most of the season with a broken right leg, added to the power play as well, the Bruins suddenly have a potentially explosive unit.
Nylander's contract expires after the season, and he may move on, but the Bruins are looking to lock up Gonchar with a long-term deal. He will be a restricted free agent and would earn significantly more than his current $3.6 million salary in arbitration. Such a commitment by Boston in an uncertain labor climate would be the most radical departure yet for a normally frugal franchise.