BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins believe they have a realistic chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
It's possible they could become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998 to win consecutive titles, but there's plenty of work to be done before that can become reality.
The Bruins have 28 games remaining in the 2011-12 regular season. After Tuesday's 3-0 loss to the Eastern Conference's top-ranked team, the New York Rangers, the Bruins sit nine points behind in second place.
The NHL trade deadline is looming and Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli continues to do his due diligence. He's handled the salary cap well and there's plenty of room to make additions to the club if he deems it necessary.
"I'm fairly active, it's just that there's not a lot going on," Chiarelli said. "There are a lot of teams still in it. You've heard me say that every year it seems, but it seems that every year there's more teams that are in it, it's a closer race. There are teams that may be a ways out, but they don't want to disappoint their fan base -- and I don't blame them -- by trading players, good players. And there are a lot of players that are locked up."
Chiarelli said he has all the names of potential unrestricted free agents on his board, but it's not a real big list. There are other big names on the trade market that could interest Chiarelli and the Bruins, but even if something jumps out at him, the GM will be cautious. He would rather take a hands-off approach and not mess with the team's chemistry, which is the same as it was when the Bruins hoisted the Cup last spring in Vancouver.
"That's probably my priority when I look to add something," he said. "I do want to add something, and I'd like to help the team. I'd like to add to our depth. But that's a priority. It's a fine balance with chemistry and you have to be careful."
A reason the Bruins could be in the market for a forward is the unknown status of Nathan Horton, who remains sidelined with a concussion he suffered on Jan. 22 at Philadelphia. He missed his eighth game Tuesday night and will not join the Bruins on their upcoming six-game road trip. Without Horton in the lineup, the team's top line, with holdovers Milan Lucic and David Krejci, hasn't been as productive.
Chiarelli said he's not approaching the deadline with the notion that Horton will be out for an extended amount of time.
"I expect him to be back. He's progressing, and I would think he'd be back," Chiarelli said. "In the back of my head, it's that he may be something that we have to replace, but I would expect him to be back. But we look at players and say, 'Hey, maybe this player could add to our depth, but maybe he'd have to play a certain spot, too,' like Horton's spot."
Exactly one year ago Wednesday, Chiarelli acquired Chris Kelly. The Bruins then added Rich Peverley and Tomas Kaberle at the deadline to make the team complete for the stretch run and into the playoffs.
Chiarelli would like to accomplish the same thing this season without sacrificing team chemistry and unity.
"I've been quite expressive in saying that we want to add, we don't want to subtract, so the players don't really have anything to fear," Chiarelli said. "But things could change. So I think, from that perspective, they've always had a peace of mind. We demand performance, and we want to try and repeat."
On the ice and in the locker room, there's always a bit of tension as the deadline approaches. The current Bruins roster should not concern itself with what Chiarelli is trying to do to improve the team.
"As a player, you understand that it's every GM's goal to improve heading into the playoffs," Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. "Every GM, every coach, every team wants to get better and that's the goal. We'll see what happens, but as players we can't control that. We've got to focus on what we do on the ice and play our best."
A month ago, Chiarelli said he wanted to lock up as many of the team's unrestricted free agents as possible. The remaining UFAs include Kelly, Shawn Thornton, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille and Joe Corvo. With the exception of Corvo, the others were key members of the Stanley Cup-winning team in 2011 and all have said they would like to remain in Boston.
"Winning the Cup, you tend to fall in love with your players, and I think you have to be careful," Chiarelli said. "You see all the intangibles in a long playoff run, so you tend to monetize that. It's something that I've tried to stay away from and will continue to try to stay away from. But the team did win us a Cup, and I'm going to try to sign as many guys as I can."
That could also be a challenge for Chiarelli.
In the meantime, the Bruins need to find a way to string some wins together. Boston has not won back-to-back games in more than a month since posting victories against the Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens on Jan. 10 and 12.
"For the team we have, it's not good enough," Chara said after Tuesday's loss. "We've got to get out of it. It's not like we've lost five or six games in a row. We need to put some wins together and find that feeling again when we were rolling."
On Tuesday night, the Bruins boarded their charter flight to Montreal, where they will start a six-game, 11-day road trip, beginning Wednesday night against the Canadiens. Boston then will travel to Winnipeg, Minnesota, St. Louis, Buffalo and Ottawa.
Almost exactly a season ago, the Bruins posted a 6-0-0 record during a similar road trip; they're hoping for the same result.
"You would hope so," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "Now whether that happens or not, it's going to be up to us to make it happen. If you come back and haven't righted the ship, it probably wasn't what you needed. I'd like to see us find our game in the next six games on the road and come back having found our identity again."
When the Bruins return home to host the Senators on Feb. 28, the trade deadline will have passed by one day. The team could be a bit different, but no matter what happens, Chiarelli is hoping the team will be better.
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.