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Trade Linus Ullmark? Bruins must consider these key questions first

In Sports
February 26, 2024

Trade Linus Ullmark? Bruins must consider these key questions first originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The March 8 NHL trade deadline is getting closer and closer and the Boston Bruins still haven’t made a move to upgrade their roster for the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Given the Bruins’ lack of draft capital, quality prospects and salary cap space (just $57,500 in room, per CapFriendly), they likely will need to trade a player from their NHL roster in order to acquire a meaningful player, like Calgary Flames defenseman Noah Hanifin for example.

One way to open up cap space is trading goalie Linus Ullmark, who has a $5 million cap hit through next season.

“One thing about Boston, I think they’re looking for a center, I think they’re looking for a defenseman,” Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman said on Friday’s episode of the 32 Thoughts podcast. “They don’t have picks. I had a few people point out to me, the Bruins actually have players they can move. Now, there’s a lot of whispers about Ullmark. I’m really careful about this at this time of year, because a lot of it becomes almost circumstantial evidence. … Teams out there do believe that the Bruins are trying to upgrade their roster.

“And all you have to do is look at what they are capable of and say it’s not coming out of the draft. Do they really want to deal their top prospects, some of whom have already played in the NHL? I don’t think so. So, if they want to make changes, it probably has to come off their roster, and that’s why I think people are looking at Ullmark.

“Now, I don’t think it’s impossible. He has some control. But the whole thing is, if the Bruins are trying to win the Stanley Cup, then why would you subtract from one of your greatest strengths? The only thing I can think of there is if they get something so good that they just feel they have to do it. But I’d be very curious to see what that would be.”

Ullmark and Jeremy Swayman represent the league’s top goalie tandem. Ullmark won the Vezina Trophy last season and they combined to win the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed. They are playing at a similarly impressive level this season (more on that in the section below). The goalie rotation strategy used by head coach Jim Montgomery has gone very well.

There are many pros and cons to an Ullmark trade, and several key questions have to be considered before making that kind of move. Here’s a breakdown of the most pertinent questions surrounding this possibility.

Does it make sense to weaken the team’s biggest strength?

The Bruins would not be where they are in the standings without the excellent play of their goaltending. It has been their biggest strength all season. The numbers tell the story, as you can see in the chart below.

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One of the most glaring weaknesses for the Bruins is giving up too many scoring chances around their net, aka the high-danger area. They rank 26th in high-danger shot attempts allowed, per Natural Stat Trick. That’s pretty awful. However, they rank fourth in high-danger goals allowed. This means Swayman and Ullmark are constantly bailing out their teammates’ lack of execution, focus and defensive coverage around the net. Ullmark’s .844 high-danger save percentage ranks No. 7 in the league.

Even in games where the Bruins have allowed a bunch of goals, including last week’s 6-5 overtime win against the Oilers, the goaltending has been crucial. Swayman made a ton of great saves in that game against the league’s most skilled offense.

Despite all these stats, it does make some sense to trade Ullmark if you’re able to get a top-four defenseman or the assets to acquire a top-four defenseman in return. The blue line is a major point of weakness for Boston right now. Hampus Lindholm and Matt Grzelcyk are banged up. Derek Forbort is struggling on the ice, especially on the penalty kill. The PK overall ranks 26th since the holiday break ended Dec. 27. That’s a decent-sized sample of bad penalty killing. Struggles on the penalty kill were a major factor in why the B’s blew a 3-1 series lead against the Panthers last season. If this area isn’t fixed, a repeat could happen in Round 1 this year.

The Bruins also need another scoring punch up front. Jake DeBrusk is pretty inconsistent. He has one goal in his last 13 games. Morgan Geekie has scored twice in his last 21 games. Outside of Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, there’s not a ton of reliable depth on the wings. And if the Bruins don’t figure out how to defend the front of the net better and/or be more effective on the penalty kill, they’ll need to score their way to victories in the spring.

You could make a strong case that having two No. 1 goalies is a luxury, especially for a team that needs help on the blue line and could use another middle-six goal scorer. But what kind of return might Ullmark get you? More on that below.

What would be the return?

A lot of fans, and even some media people, want the Bruins to trade Ullmark. The trade Ullmark crowd almost never says what they’d expect Boston to get in return, though.

If you think the Bruins are getting a top-six center in exchange for Ullmark, you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed.

The reality is we rarely see in-season trades involving goalies of Ullmark’s caliber. The last time a team acquired a goalie before the trade deadline and gave up a first-round pick as part of the deal happened in 2014. The Sabres sent 2010 Vezina Trophy winner Ryan Miller and Steve Ott to the Blues for a 2015 first-round pick, Jaroslav Halak, Chris Stewart, William Carrier and a 2016 conditional third-round pick.

If the Bruins could get a second-round pick and a good prospect for Ullmark, that kind of deal would be worth considering. But how many teams are going to give up a good defenseman or center in a deal for Ullmark? Probably not many.

Linus Ullmark

Linus Ullmark has one more season left on his contract with a $5 million cap hit.

Which teams need a goalie?

The Edmonton Oilers, New Jersey Devils, Carolina Hurricanes, Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche are five playoff-caliber teams that could use a goaltending upgrade.

The Oilers have played much better over the last two months, and Stuart Skinner has helped lead that resurgence. The Hurricanes are a legit contender in the East and sit in second in the Metropolitan Division. They rank 27th in save percentage and absolutely could use an upgrade in net. But why would the B’s trade Ullmark to one of their conference rivals, who they might face in the playoffs?

The Kings would be an interesting spot for Ullmark. L.A. is tied with the Oilers for third in the Pacific Division. The Kings are back in the playoff race with a 7-2-1 record in their last 10 games, including a win over Ullmark and the Bruins earlier this month. If the Bruins were to trade Ullmark, sending him out West would be ideal. The Kings also have lots of young players/prospects throughout their organization. They don’t have a second-, third- or fifth-round pick in the 2024 draft to trade, though, but they do own all their picks after 2024.

The Devils have needed a goalie all season and have been linked to Flames star Jacob Markstrom in trade rumors. But the Devils are five points behind the Flyers for a Metro playoff spot and seven points behind the second wild card in the East. You could make a case that the Devils would be best served not making a huge goalie move in-season and waiting until the draft instead.

You’d imagine the teams that would be most incentivized to make an in-season trade for a top goalie would be in or near a playoff spot right now. Why would a struggling team trade for Ullmark when there’s a good chance he’ll win games and ruin their draft lottery odds? There are good teams that need to get better in net, but how many of them are willing to give up quality assets for Ullmark?

The salary cap could be a hurdle for these teams, too. Just 15 of the league’s 31 other teams have $5 million or more in cap space right now. Ullmark’s $5 million cap hit isn’t massive, but it wouldn’t be super easy for a lot of teams to acquire, either.

It also should be noted that Ullmark has some control over the process Ullmark has a no-trade clause in his contract that allows him to submit a 16-team no-trade list, per CapFriendly. This gives Ullmark the ability to decline a trade to more than half of the 31 other teams.

Are too many goalies available?

ESPN’s Emily Kaplan posted a trade deadline story last Friday that provided an interesting update on the goalie market and how many good players at the position might be available.

“The goalie market is simmering, though I still don’t think all of the goalie-needy teams are going to end up with goaltending insurance at the deadline,” Kaplan wrote. “For example, the Oilers seem comfortable riding it out with Stuart Skinner, shifting their focus to impact forwards and defensemen. The Montreal Canadiens seem poised to move Jake Allen.

“I’ve heard the Nashville Predators could trade Juuse Saros. The time to strike on a Saros deal might be now, as top Preds prospect Yaroslav Askarov is tearing it up in the AHL (.920 save percentage, 2.12 GAA and 4 shutouts in 27 games).”

She mentioned Marc-Andre Fleury as a potential trade candidate later in the story, even if it’s unlikely to happen. Kaplan also noted that a Markstrom-to-the-Devils trade was “close” earlier this month but fell through.

If Markstrom, Allen, Saros and potentially Fleury could be available for the right price, how does that impact the Bruins if they are willing to move Ullmark? If teams looking for a goalie have a lot of quality options, that could drive the price down.

Are we sure Swayman is ready to be a No. 1 goalie?

Swayman is the future in net for Boston, but is he ready to be the undisputed No. 1 netminder for the franchise right now? He has never played more than 41 games in a regular season. He has just eight games of playoff experience with a .901 save percentage in those matchups. Sure, it’s a pretty small postseason sample size, but we still have no idea whether he can rise to the occasion in April, May or June.

Swayman has played awesome in his short career with the Bruins. He ranked fourth in save percentage and GAA last season, and he’s playing like a top 10 goalie this year as well. He’s really good. But can he play a full-season workload and perform at the same level? And if yes, will he have enough gas in the tank for a lengthy playoff run? The answer to all of those questions could very well be yes, but we haven’t seen it yet, so it would definitely be a risk on the Bruins’ part.

And what if Swayman gets injured? Instead of a Vezina-caliber goalie like Ullmark stepping in, the Bruins might need to turn to Brandon Bussi, who is a talented prospect but has zero NHL experience and just 66 games of AHL experience.

If the Bruins traded Ullmark in the offseason, they’d have enough time to get a veteran backup to go with Swayman before the 2024-25 campaign begins.

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