By Mike Miccoli, Boston Bruins correspondent
With a bleak 2012 free agent class and the re-signings of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell and Chris Kelly, it’s likely that the Boston Bruins may not be active players in free agency. The team’s limited needs paired with their cap space will most likely restrict what they can and can’t do come July 1. It’s a storyline that should play out similarly to offseasons of the past for the Bruins where minor moves are made to address smaller needs. For general manager Peter Chiarelli, it’s obvious that the team’s impeccable chemistry and strong prospect pool are more important than searching for free agents to fill gaps.
A brief look at the Bruins’ projected roster for the 2012-13 season doesn’t reveal many openings. In fact, the Bruins could take the ice tomorrow with the players already signed and boast a lineup that doesn’t look much different on paper than the 2011-12 team–sans Tim Thomas, of course. It’s all but guaranteed that the Bruins will spend close to the cap this year and since they’re already near the ceiling, there’s a good possibility that this offseason will be just like the one before it: pretty quiet.
The Bruins currently have 12 active forwards with NHL experience signed for next season, good enough for four, fully functional lines. There are certainly question marks, one being the health of Nathan Horton as a first-line winger and the other being whether Jordan Caron is ready to step into a full-time role as a third-line winger. Still, Benoit Pouliot remains unsigned as a restricted free agent who is coming off a season with 16 goals and 16 assists and could be a possibility for the team.
Factor in plenty of new prospects who could vie for a spot such as Ryan Spooner and Jared Knight, who will almost certainly be with the Providence Bruins, and recently-signed Chris Bourque who was acquired for Zach Hamill, and you could see why there may be a logjam of offensive depth for Boston.
It’s a similar situation with the defensive corps as five Bruins’ defenders (Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid) are signed for 2012-13. Dougie Hamilton is expected to crack the lineup, but there are also players like Torey Krug, Matt Bartowski and Andrew Bodnarchuk who have all gotten a chance on the Bruins blue-line at one point last season.
As for goaltending? Restricted free agent and presumable starter Tuukka Rask remains unsigned.
However, the team still has a hole or two that could be filled. Boston could use a legitimate scoring threat for the third-line and a defenseman to round out their bottom pairing. There are some consequences that could arise from this, too.
An upgrade would be preferred as Pouliot, who had flashes of brilliance last season, was too inconsistent while Caron suffered from a similar distinction. If the Bruins were to sign a free agent, they would realistically only have $3 or $4 million to devote to signings to remain a cap-friendly team with room to make adjustments, if necessary. Obviously, the signing of Rask would effect that number.
An offensive signing could also signal the end of being an everyday player for Caron, the potential release or trading of Pouliot’s rights and a more difficult task for younger players to enter into the lineup for the 2012-13 season.
On defense, Krug, Bartowski and Bodnarchuk should all potentially start the season in the AHL with the Providence Bruins. It’s almost certain that Hamilton will be in Boston, but the transition to the NHL from juniors doesn’t guarantee that the rookie’s stellar play will carry over immediately. A veteran, stay-at-home defenseman could suit the Bruins’ needs while Hamilton adjusts. That player could even be Greg Zanon, if the Bruins decide to re-sign the late-season acquisition. A free agent signing of a defenseman shouldn’t be a major one, since he’d essentially be splitting playing time with Hamilton.
It will be critical for Chiarelli to monitor the cap space and his options wisely for the 2012-13 season. We won’t even get into the dilemma the Bruins could face next year when the contracts of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand and Andrew Ference expire.