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Three Bruins storylines to watch as 2024 NHL trade deadline approaches

Three Bruins storylines to watch as 2024 NHL trade deadline approaches originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Boston Bruins are in a slump right now.

They enter Monday afternoon's game with the Dallas Stars having lost four consecutive games. It's also the final matchup of a seven-game homestand that has seen the Bruins post a 1-3-2 record so far.

The Bruins had a great chance to end their losing streak Saturday. They led 3-1 in the second period and 4-3 late in the third period before losing 5-4 in overtime to the Los Angeles Kings.

“We added to our problems today,” Bruins coach Jim Montgomery told reporters after the loss to the Kings. “We had breakdowns that shouldn’t be happening within our structure, and then also just game management. You gotta close out a game. You’re up twice in the third period and we don’t close it out. And then in the overtime, our power play’s gotta put it away. We didn’t.”

A lack of positive results during this stretch has resulted in the Bruins' lead atop the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division standings disappearing. The Florida Panthers, who have won five consecutive games and nine of their last 10, lead the B's by one point in the division.

The Bruins lost four straight games in December, and they responded after the holiday break with four consecutive wins. They were helped by a soft schedule coming out of the holiday break. The same scenario doesn't exist this time. After playing a very good Stars team Monday, the Bruins hit the road for six of their next seven games, including a Western Canada trip that features matchups versus the Edmonton Oilers and league-leading Vancouver Canucks.

It's painfully obvious the Bruins need help before the March 8 NHL trade deadline. But a lack of high-end trade assets will make it difficult for general manager Don Sweeney to pull off substantial moves.

Here are three key Bruins storylines to watch over the next few weeks leading into the trade deadline.

Can the penalty kill be fixed?

We've talked about the penalty kill several times in recent weeks, but the fact of the matter is this unit still hasn't shown any improvement. The Bruins have a 74 percent success rate on the PK since the holiday break ended Dec. 27, which ranks 28th in the league over that span. All four teams below them are out of a playoff spot.

Boston's penalty kill has allowed a goal in five of its six games (six goals total) during this homestand. The Kings scored a power-play goal Saturday that evened the score at four with 1:35 remaining in regulation. Derek Forbort's weak clearance attempt along the boards was picked up by the Kings. Drew Doughty's shot from the point was tipped past Linus Ullmark by Anze Kopitar, who was all alone in front of the net.

Forbort had a rough game and has struggled for much of the homestand. He's been one of the Bruins' best penalty killers since the team signed him ahead of the 2021-22 campaign, but that hasn't been the case recently. Maybe he's still dealing with a nagging groin injury. He's missed 25 of the Bruins' 55 games this season due to injuries.

Forbort's on-ice struggles and durability concerns need to make acquiring a defenseman a top priority for Sweeney before the trade deadline. The B's don't need a Noah Hanifin-type -- although that would be ideal -- but a veteran, physical d-man who can kill penalties, clear traffic from the front of the net, and play tough defensive minutes would be a huge addition to this roster.

Penalty killing is too important to the Bruins' success, especially in the playoffs (remember how bad the PK was at the end of the Florida series last season?) to continue past the trade deadline with this same group.

Internal reinforcements?

Let's face it: The Bruins have little to trade. They don't pick in the 2024 NHL Draft until the fourth round. They don't own a second- or fourth-round pick in the 2025 draft. The B's have traded five of their last seven first-round picks (including 2024). Boston's prospect pool ranks 30th out of 32 teams, per The Athletic's latest ranking, and lacks high-end talent.

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Complicating matters for Sweeney is a lack of salary cap space. The Bruins have just $87,500 in salary cap space right now, per CapFriendly. Seriously, that's not a typo.

Making moves is going to be difficult for all the reasons in the sentences above. Therefore, reinforcements might have to come from within. And luckily for the B's, they have some intriguing players on the Providence Bruins worthy of a look.

Anthony Richard is one option. He was called up last week and scored his first career goal in Saturday's loss to the Kings.

There are a couple other players in Providence who should be given an extended look in Boston. One of them is Fabian Lysell -- arguably the B's top prospect. Lysell has tallied 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) in his last 21 games for the P-Bruins, including a four-assist performance Jan. 26. He has tremendous offensive skill and plays with speed. He also plays on the wing, which is an area the Bruins need more goals from. They can't rely too heavily on David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand to provide offense on the wing.

The Bruins have called up six forwards from Providence this season. Lysell has not been one of them. It makes little sense. They need someone with his scoring talent in the lineup.

Georgii Merkulov got a brief stint in Boston earlier in the season. He deserves another one. He's a versatile, gifted offensive player.

If Lysell and/or Merkulov came up to Boston and played well, not only would that help the Bruins on the ice, it could increase their trade value as well.

Can the bottom-six forwards find some consistency?

The Bruins need more from their top players, especially Jake DeBrusk, who hasn't scored a 5-on-5 goal in his last nine games. We can be pretty confident Pastrnak, Marchand and Charlie Coyle will show up come playoff time. Therefore, this team ultimately will sink or swim -- at least from an offensive standpoint -- based on whether its role players can provide valuable scoring depth in the playoffs.

The bottom-six forwards have gone through stretches this season where they contribute to the offense at a good rate, but it hasn't been consistent enough. One of the few positive signs from this homestand has been the play of James van Riemsdyk, who has five points (three goals, two assists) in six games this month, including a three-point performance Saturday with a pair of goals.

Van Riemsdyk is streaky, though. Before this hot start to February, he scored twice in 12 January games and once in 12 December games.

Danton Heinen has been fantastic this season and outproduced his contract by a wide margin, but he has one point on this six-game homestand. Morgan Geekie has scored only once in his last 17 games. Jakub Lauko has two goals in 40 games overall. Oskar Steen played in four of the first six games of the homestand and failed to tally a single point. He was waived Sunday.

Trent Frederic is having a really good season offensively -- his second under head coach Jim Montgomery. He's also one of the toughest players on the team and someone who often tries to spark the group with a fight. But Frederic has become too important offensively to take on that role. Losing him for five minutes is a real setback. If the Bruins can acquire a veteran before the trade deadline who can take on those duties, it would be beneficial to Frederic and the team overall.

The Bruins need another middle-six forward, preferably someone who can provide an offensive spark on the third line and maybe the second power-play unit, too. If the B's aren't going to give Lysell a chance for that role, they should make a move before the trade deadline.