2018 Offseason Preview: Boston Bruins

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Boston Bruins and their outlook for the summer.

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The Boston Bruins are ahead of schedule. They weren’t supposed to finish 2nd in the Atlantic Division this season according to most experts. They weren’t supposed to get 50 wins or 112 points, but the 50-20-12 record 2017-18 Bruins made it all the way to the Second Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games.

Boston won Game 1.

Then it all came to a screeching halt, the Bruins lost four straight and were eliminated.

But fear not, for Bruce Cassidy‘s system is working and General Manager Don Sweeney has a plan. They weren’t supposed to be this good, this soon, but it all fits the bill of winning the Cup within Cassidy’s first three years at a time when Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen and Co. emerge as the future core behind Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Zdeno Chara.

For the entire roster, it was just one more lesson in experience. The postseason is an entirely different animal from regular season action.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Sweeney traded away Boston’s first round pick in the 2018 Draft to the New York Rangers as part of the Ryan SpoonerRick Nash blockbuster trade prior to the deadline in February.

Since then, the Bruins GM has indicated he’d like to get in on the deep first round action if he can, amid speculation that Boston is in the running for Ilya Kovalchuk, David Backes could be traded and more.

Pending free agents

Boston has almost $7.500 million in cap space available currently with the cap ceiling expected to rise perhaps by as much as $4.000 or $5.000 million, Sweeney still cannot afford to hand out long term contracts with a lot of value willy-nilly.

He did, however, just re-sign defender Matt Grzelcyk to a cap friendly two-year, $2.800 million ($1.400 million AAV) extension late last week and no it does not mean that Torey Krug is going to be traded. Signing 2017 first round pick, Urho Vaakanainen to his maximum term, maximum value entry-level contract doesn’t mean Krug is gone either– let alone that Vaakanainen will be on the NHL roster this October.

The Finnish blueliner has to really earn a spot on the Bruins defense this fall. Otherwise things are just going as planned with Vaakanainen’s development and he’ll be fine in Providence (AHL) for a season (at most).

Pending-UFAs Brian Gionta, 39, Kenny Agostino, 26, and Paul Postma, 29, already know they won’t be back in black-and-gold next season, leaving Riley Nash, 29, Tommy Wingels, 30, Rick Nash, 34, and Tim Schaller, 27 as the only pending UFA skaters on the NHL roster (ignoring Austin Czarnik, 25, and the fact that Agostino and Postma were with the Providence Bruins before season’s end, though all three– Czarnik, Agostino and Postma– played with Boston in relief appearances).

Sweeney is in the hunt for Kovalchuk and if it comes down to it, he’ll either sign the 35-year-old scorer looking to rejoin the NHL after a five-year journey to the KHL or re-sign 34-year-old Rick Nash– provided the 34-year-old Nash is still on the market.

It’s a bit of a standoff for the services of a sniper. One that’s almost guaranteed (Kovalchuk) and the other that had a small, injured, sample size already in a Bruins uniform (Nash).

The other Nash, Riley Nash, could get a pay raise elsewhere if the numbers don’t work out in Boston and I’ve already hinted at why *shameless self plug*.

Boston needs a second line winger. Whether it’s Rick Nash or Ilya Kovalchuk doesn’t matter. There’s already a youth movement going on and Mark Recchi played until he was 43 on the Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup champion roster.

Don’t worry about one player– who’s still contributing– getting old. Worry about entire rosters.

Outside of Boston’s core (Bergeron’s turning 33 this July), Sweeney’s roster is filled to the brim with youth.

Wingels could see another go-around on the Bruins fourth line if Sweeney deals Backes’s $6.000 million cap hit elsewhere and brings back Schaller. The latter forward (Schaller) had his best career season with 12 goals and 10 assists (22 points) in 82 games played, while Wingels contributed with grit and the occasional surprise goal on the fourth line.

What’s more important for Boston’s fourth line skaters is the return of pending-RFA, Sean Kuraly.

The 25-year-old center could play on the third line at times, despite only notching 6-8–14 totals in his first full season of NHL action (75 games). Despite his offensive shortcomings, the Bruins shouldn’t give up on Kuraly with guys like Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Trent Frederic breathing down his neck for a bottom-6 forward role on the 2018-19 squad.

Kuraly had two clutch goals in the short-lived 12-game 2018 postseason run.

Pending UFA-defender, Nick Holden, 31, is as good as gone as the rental blueliner was acquired as an insurance policy for a deep run that didn’t come to fruition.

Sweeney won’t have to do much this offseason. Find a second line winger, work on bringing some key glue guys back (if possible) and re-sign or sign a new backup goaltender.

You’ll notice “find another top-4 defender” isn’t included in this list. A healthy Brandon Carlo shakes things up in the 2018 postseason. More experience under McAvoy’s reign or the insertion of Jeremy Lauzon or Jakub Zboril on the blueline can make a difference too.

Boston doesn’t have to rush and overpay for the services of a top-4 blueliner– unless they have John Carlson or the like in mind.

That’s right, Anton Khudobin, 32, is a pending-UFA.

While Khudobin held down the fort in October and early November, the backup goalie is not a starter. He loves Boston and the city, rightfully, loves him back for his best performance in goals against average (2.56) and save percentage (.913) in 31 games played since his 2013-14 campaign with the Carolina Hurricanes (a 2.30 GAA and .926 SV% in 36 games played).

There isn’t a huge goalie market, which could do favors for Khudobin if he’s looking for a healthy pay raise, but for Sweeney and the Bruins means he might have to fork something up to retain the services of his backup or acquire a new one.

Then again, Zane McIntyre and Dan Vladar have a healthy competition in the system for the backup role to starting goaltender, Tuukka Rask, 31, and his $7.000 million cap hit through the 2020-21 season.

Rask posted a 2.36 GAA and .917 SV% in 54 games played this season with a 34-14-5 record. He had his third-straight 30-plus win season and was right in the sweet spot for number of games played as a starter (he was four appearances shy of matching his 58-game appearance in 2013-14 with the Bruins– the same season Boston won its 2nd President’s Trophy in franchise history).

Now, as for why the Bruins would look to move Backes (I’m sure you’ve been wondering), it’s a simple game of math. Freeing up $6.000 million in cap space makes signing Kovalchuk or John Tavares more attractive, while also leaving an open door for maybe re-signing glue guys like Riley Nash and Tim Schaller.

And no, Boston won’t bring Milan Lucic back for a second stint with the organization like they did with Glen Murray years ago. Sweeney’s looking to rid the organization of a bad $6.000 million contract, not trying to add one in the form of an Edmonton Oiler’s forward who had his worst season since the lockout shortened 2012-13 season and his injury shortened 50 game season in 2009-10.

Plus, Boston still has Matt Beleskey ($1.900 million, retained salary) on the books through the end of 2018-19, Dennis Seidenberg‘s $1.167 million cap hit through 2019-20 (thanks to a buyout) and Jimmy Hayes‘s $866,667 cap hit through the end of 2018-19 (another buyout) on the books.

Waiting a year to then buyout Backes’s remaining contract isn’t an option either, for the record.

It’s either find a trading partner or live with the consequences.

And no, just trading David Krejci without taking care of Backes at some point doesn’t fix things either. That’d actually hurt the team in its roster depth. Krejci is your surefire second line center (unless Tavares comes into the equation), which is not something Backes could handle at this point in his career.

Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:

Justin Hickman (RFA), Chris Breen (UFA), Colby Cave (RFA), Tommy Cross (UFA), Austin Czarnik (UFA), and Anton Blidh (RFA)