Friday January 22nd, 2016

It's taken a few years, but Loui Eriksson is finally showing everyone why the Bruins keyed in on him in the infamous Tyler Seguin trade. The 30-year-old winger has been one of the team's best and most consistent players this season. He has 15 goals and 23 assists through 46 games, putting him on pace for 68 points, which would be his best total since 2011-12.

All things considered, it's been his best season in black and gold. Not bad timing for a player headed for unrestricted free agency this summer.

Eriksson's play has Boston in a tough spot. Do they re-sign him, believing he can provide this type of brilliant, two-way play for the next few years? Or do they believe this season is an outlier, that he's really the sub-50 point producer he's been since the lockout?

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It's unlikely that they're in the hunt for an Eastern Conference playoff spot without him so, for now, it looks like team is working on a new deal. “We’ve been in discussions with Loui and the first priority will be to try and get him signed,” GM Don Sweeney said on the team's pre-game show Thursday night. “We value Loui as a player. We love what he brings to our hockey club, and we’d like to be able to keep him.”

But the team is only willing to go so far.

“Obviously he’s a player entering a UFA market,” Sweeney said. “He’s trying to gauge what [ offers] may be [out there], and we’re trying to do the same...If [a deal] doesn’t take shape . . . obviously [we] have to do due diligence and explore whether or not we can continue to improve our team.”

In other words, Eriksson could be on the market before long.

But what's the best move for the B's: trade him or keep him?

There's no easy answer, beyond acknowledging that Sweeney can't allow him to walk for nothing on July 1. Fair or not, the Seguin connection would make that a disastrous result.

They could sign Eriksson with an eye on making a deep playoff push this year, but it would take a serious commitment, something in the area of five years and $30 million. For a team that dumped Dougie Hamilton and Milan Lucic last summer to steer itself out of cap hell, that's a dangerous move. That not only would push the Bruins right back up against the ceiling, but it would challenge the legitimacy of Sweeney's entire plan.

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The other option is to shop him sign ahead of the Feb. 29 deadline. A defensively responsible player with scoring touch could be the final piece that puts a contender over the top, and there would be more than one bidder for his services. The return could be significant. He's not going to bring back immediate help (the B's would love to add a reliable, top-four defenseman), but he could bring the sort of assets that might help them land that player over the summer.

And that's the way the Bruins should approach this. Ideally they'd keep Eriksson on a mid-range, reasonable contract, something in the range of four years and $20 million. But that's not going to happen.

Time to dig out that For Sale sign.

Here are nine other players who will require tough keep him/trade him decisions over the next few weeks:

Eric Staal: On the surface, this might be the toughest call of the bunch. The Hurricanes, thanks to some terrific coaching, a dedication to defense and a decidedly mediocre field find themselves just three points back in the race for a wild card spot. For a team seven seasons removed from its last trip to the postseason, that might be seen as a cue to strengthen the roster, if only to reward their long-suffering fans. So why even consider cashing in their No. 1 center? Because it's the only responsible move. Staal may be a franchise icon, but at 31 he's in sharp decline, a non-factor more nights then not. His 28 points this season have been equaled by third line center Viktor Rask, who plays about two and a half minutes less per night and is making about 10 cents on the dollar compared to Staal. So unless he makes the drastic decision to take a significant pay cut--and is willing to accept a lesser role moving forward--it's time to cut ties and bank some assets for their rebuild-on-the-fly.

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Dustin Byfuglien: It's never easy to give up on an impactful player like Byfuglien, especially with a wild card spot still in reach. But at 30 he's already played his best hockey. Committing a minimum of five years and $35 million to that type of player, especially given the depth the Jets have on right D, is a poor allocation of resources. Look for the Jets to make a splash before the deadline by moving the thundering defender.

Kyle Okposo: The Isles aren't in a rebuild, but they aren't exactly contenders, either. That makes for a tough call on Okposo. The 27-year-old is an established top-six winger who can chip in 20-plus goals and bring a degree of physicality. That's a valuable commodity...and probably someone who will make more in free agency then he'll get from Garth Snow. There's going to be a temptation to keep him around. New York hasn't won a playoff series in 23 years and moving a player like this will come off as throwing in the towel. But this team's best days are still a bit further down the road, and they can't afford to let an asset like Okposo walk for nothing.

James Reimer: Reimer has made it clear he'd like to stay in Toronto, and based on his numbers--he leads the league in save percentage (.937) and even-strength save percentage (.955), along with several other esoteric stats--you might think they'd like to keep him. And at the right price, they would. But given where this team is in its rebuild, it makes sense to explore the market for a goaltender who would be bona fide No. 1 option for a playoff-contending club. If they can find a partner willing to give up a first rounder, a fair ask for a player with his impact potential, they'd have to consider it. Then, if he decides he'd like to come back to Toronto over the summer after weighing his options in free agency, they can try to work a deal. He won't come cheap, though. Five years at $30 million is his likely ask.

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Kris Russell:  He's a good fit in the room, he's an elite shot blocker and he had a terrific run in the 2015 postseason, so it's no surprise that the Flames were trying to re-sign the veteran blueliner as recently as this month. The question is, at what cost? Russell is not a viable top-four defender long-term in Calgary, so paying him like one doesn't make sense. Ideally, he'd take a hometown discount, but with free agency beckoning there's no reason for him to do that. Considering the demand for reliable defenders this time of year, he might draw a second-rounder plus a sweetener. The Flames can't pass that up.

Steven Stamkos: The Lightning are healthy, and finally playing like the team that fell just two wins shy of the Stanley Cup last spring. Unless someone blows off the doors with a can't-resist offer, Steve Yzerman is best served by staying the course. Treat Stamkos like a no-cost deadline acquisition, not a potential UFA defector, and appreciate what he can bring to the table as the Bolts take another shot at the title.

Radim Vrbata: The Canucks are holding down one of the Pacific's three playoff spots--thanks largely to a league-high 11 loser points--but the way they're going lately (6-2-2 in their past 10), suggests they have a good chance to stay in the mix down the stretch. So why is cashing in Vrbata, their third-leading goal scorer, the only play here? Easy. Vancouver will have 15 forwards on hand when Brandon Sutter returns, so someone's coming out of the lineup. And since this team has committed to getting ice time for next-gen forwards like Bo Horvat, Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen, it's not going to be them. Vrbata's not going to be re-signed, so dealing him is the only option.

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David Backes: Word is the 31-year-old, who is coming off a contract that paid him $4.5 million per, is looking for a deal that mirrors the six-year, $41.25 million extension Anaheim gave Ryan Kesler last summer. Neither that term nor those dollars are likely to appeal to GM Doug Armstrong. But the Blues, after years of playoff frustration, are a team in win-now mode and the big-bodied center gives them a better chance to do that than whatever picks and prospects might come back to St. Louis in a trade. Much like the Stamkos situation in Tampa, it makes sense for the Blues to play the hand they've got even if it means losing him for nothing this summer.

Jiri Hudler: The Flames have a solid core of young talent that will require significant financial commitments over the next few years. Hudler's not part of that group, so there's no sense in holding on to him, even if it diminishes their chances to return to the playoffs this year. His scoring is well off last year's pace however, so it wouldn't be a surprise if GM Brad Treliving tried to package Hudler with Russell to get the best possible return from a contender, much like Toronto did last year with Mike Santorelli and Cody Franson.

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