The trade deadline is still more than a week away, but Friday saw a flurry of trades that significantly impacted the balance of power in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Bruins, firmly ensconced in a playoff position, made the biggest moves, shoring up their blueline and forward corps. However, the Atlanta Thrashers, barely staying above water in the race for the postseason, may have sacrificed one of their best forwards to add some more balance between their front and back end. And in the process, they may have scuttled their already slim playoff hopes.
The Thrashers' deal with Boston saw them ship off center Rich Peverley and defensive prospect Boris Valabik in exchange for winger Blake Wheeler and defenseman Mark Stuart. It's a trade made with one eye on the present but the bigger focus is on the future. Rick Dudley must know that he has reduced the his team's chances of making the playoffs this season, but viewed in the context of a building team the acquisition of Wheeler in particular is a strong acquisition.
The fifth overall draft pick in 2004 by the Phoenix Coyotes, Wheeler stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 205 pounds and has been roughly a 20-goal scorer since entering the league with Boston. He has been a reliable scorer at even strength this season, where 25 of his 27 points have come. But the real hope here is that Wheeler follows the development path of other big forwards like Todd Bertuzzi, John LeClair and Dustin Penner, all of whom were late bloomers.
LeClair's path was not a typical one for an NHL forward, but it closely resembles Wheeler's to date. Wheeler, like LeClair, is a graduate of a long apprenticeship in the U.S. college system. LeClair scored just over 40 points per season at the ages of 23 and 24, notching 19 goals both times. Playing in a less offensive era, Wheeler managed just under 40 points last season and is on pace for the same this season. (His goal scoring, at 18 goals last season and a projected 16 in 2010-11, is also a match.)
At 25, LeClair was dealt to Philadelphia and overnight transformed himself into a 50-goal scorer; only a shortened 1994-95 season kept him from six consecutive seasons of 40-plus goals. Bertuzzi and Penner likewise only emerged as top-shelf NHL forwards at the age of 25 or later.
The most difficult part of the story is, of course, that almost magical transformation from "decent 24-year old" to "elite NHL scorer," and there is no guarantee Wheeler will take that leap. Based on the career curves of other players with similar physical gifts, though, it is an intriguing gamble.
Stuart is less intriguing for what he provides in terms of talent than for what he may allow the Thrashers to do in the days to come. When able to crack the lineup, the 26-year-old Stuart has been a third-pairing defenseman for the Bruins. After a promising season in 2008-09 (five goals, 12 assists, plus-20 in 82 games), Stuart has struggled to remain relevant and is not a clear upgrade to Atlanta's third defensive pairing. It may imply that the Thrashers plan to move a defenseman before the trade deadline -- perhaps Ron Hainsey, who has been rumored to be available, or a pending unrestricted free agent like Brent Sopel. Stuart is also a pending free agent and for the rest of the season he will essentially be auditioning for a job in 2011-12. Maybe the Thrashers will benefit from his desire to make a good impression.
For the Bruins, the transactions signal a team that believes itself capable of winning the Stanley Cup this year and go a long way toward ensuring they hang on to their position ahead of the Montreal Canadiens for the Northeast Division title.
Combining the trades with Atlanta and Toronto, the Bruins have added Tomas Kaberle, Peverley and prospect Boris Valabik at the expense of Wheeler, Stuart, prospect Joe Colborne and draft picks.
The biggest thing Kaberle adds is another option for the man advantage. The Bruins have done OK in that regard, as their power play ranks 14th in the NHL, but "OK" doesn't generally equate with playoff success. While it is true that Toronto has had an ineffective power play this season, Kaberle has not been part of the problem; he has 22 points in those situations. Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the top two blueliners on the Bruins' power play, have just 22 points combined, and no other defenseman has more than three. Beyond that, Kaberle has been effective on Toronto's second even-strength pairing, and that is the role he should assume in Boston as well.
Peverley is bound to get second billing, but his importance should not be understated. Undrafted and cracking the NHL after starting in the ECHL, Peverley did not come into his own until he was claimed on waivers by the Thrashers. Since then he's been a quality player. In 2010-11, Peverley assumed the mantle of Mr. Everything for Atlanta, playing in all situations and being matched against the opposition's finest players. He has a stellar 55.5-percent success rate in the faceoff circle and plays in all situations.
The move to Boston is likely to be a win both for Peverley personally and the Bruins as a team. Peverley is miscast as a first-line center but behind Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci he should be a major asset thanks to his two-way game. Additionally, Peverley's 262 defensive zone faceoffs at 5-on-5 are more than any player on the Bruins' roster, and could free up Bergeron (Boston's go-to defensive center) to take on a more offensive role.
Valabik will likely not be a factor this season, although it is possible he will be down the road. The imposing 6-7 defenseman has often been compared to Chara, but at 25 he is well back of where Chara was at the same age (just 80 NHL games as opposed to Chara's 306). Yet, Chara's offensive touch didn't manifest itself until he was 25, and both defensemen and big players have elongated development curves. As it stands, he is a capable reserve defenseman who has some chance at being a late bloomer.
Boston has made major strides with these moves, identifying areas of weakness and strengthening them without giving up anything overly essential. They may come to regret sending away Wheeler, but the additions of Kaberle and Peverley have helped set them up for a major run at the Cup. In Atlanta, they have not blatantly thrown in the towel but the loss of Peverley opens a major hole in a depth chart that was already weak down the middle; it is difficult to see how they will manage to stay afloat. Once again, Thrashers fans are forced to look to the future.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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