Though something significant may still shake loose, the Boston Bruins seem content with letting their youth-flag fly heading into the 2017-18 season. The team had been criticized in recent years for burying or sheltering young talent in favor of steady, yet mediocre, veteran talent and that trend is destined to come to an end this season.
Anders Bjork, Danton Heinen, Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, Jake DeBrusk and Peter Cehlarik have a combined 20 games of NHL experience. They’ve also combined for zero goals. All look to have bright futures ahead of them, but the future is officially now in Boston; are they ready for 82 games of NHL competition?
Kevan Miller and Adam McQuaid both have injury histories consistent with their style of play. Do Paul Postma, Matt Grzelcyk and Rob O’Gara constitute sufficient depth? Are Jakub Zboril or Jeremy Lauzon capable of being this year’s Brandon Carlo?
Anton Khudobin played Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde last season; which version shows up for the preseason? Have Zane McIntyre or Malcolm Subban made significant strides in their game to supplant Khudobin should he falter?
Even if the answer to any of these questions is a resounding “no,” there’s no need to panic. Championships are not won in July, October nor December. Boston’s core will be good enough to keep the team in the playoff hunt up to the trade deadline. And when the deadline arrives, a bevy of rental options should exist for a Bruins club blessed with cap space and a cornucopia of prospects.
The Vegas Golden Knights will be bad next season, perhaps historically so. Despite the NHL’s efforts to help its 31st franchise be as competitive as possible from the get-go, McPhee loaded up on bad or expiring contracts, often bypassing superior talent, all in the name of draft picks.
James Neal, Jonathan Marchessault and David Perron are all Golden Knights. They can play left wing and are on expiring contracts. Exactly what Boston needs for their second line.
Neal has spent nine seasons in the NHL and has eclipsed 20 goals in every one of them. The six-foot-one, 221-pound power forward would look like Nathan Horton reincarnate alongside David Krejci; precisely the kind of big-bodied winger the Krejci-David Pastrnak combination needs.
Marchessault exploded for 30 goals last year in his first full NHL season. The shifty playmaker can play center as well as wing, increasing his value. Just 26 years old and still on the upswing, he’s less likely to be sold-off than Neal or Perron.
Speaking of Perron, the 29-year-old is more of the Drew Stafford variety; a depth scorer who is capable of playing up and down the lineup. He’s not the player he once was but still managed 46 points with the St. Louis Blues last season.
Outside of Vegas, Philadelphia’s Valtteri Filppula is an intriguing option for Boston’s third-line center position. The 31-year-old is a quality two-way pivot, whose left-handedness would pay huge dividends on the faceoff dot for a team overloaded with right-handed centers.
Should the team wade into dangerous waters by trading within the division, both Evander Kane and Radim Vrbata could end years of speculation by finally donning the Black & Gold.
Though the 2018 market for defensemen isn’t quite as flush or useful to Boston, a market does exist.
Tobias Enstrom of the Winnipeg Jets is in the final year of his 5-year, $28.75 million contract. The 33-year-old’s numbers have declined in recent seasons, but he’s still an intelligent, swift-skating defenseman who can push the pace while logging big minutes. He’d be an excellent fit alongside a bigger, physical defenseman such as Brandon Carlo or Kevan Miller.
The organization is trending upward, but one playoff appearance in six seasons suggests Winnipeg is more likely to be sellers than contenders once the deadline rolls around.
The New York Islanders figure to be a playoff bubble team in 2017-18. They also have a plethora of defensemen, of whom only former Bruins Johnny Boychuk and Dennis Seidenberg are on the “wrong” side of 30.
Thomas Hickey will be playing out the final year of his deal, and could be a deadline target for Boston even if the Islanders aren’t “sellers.” GM Garth Snow could be inclined to deal from a position of strength to bolster his forwards who largely underwhelmed last season.
We go back to the inevitable fire-sale in Vegas for our final defenseman of note. Brayden McNabb’s $1.7 million salary would seamlessly fit under the Bruins’ cap. The six-foot-four, 215-pound left-hander doesn’t bring elite offensive instincts to the table but serves as a solid shutdown defender alongside the rover-types.
He could slot in alongside Charlie McAvoy while eating into Zdeno Chara’s time on the penalty kill, helping to keep the 40-year-old fresh down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Though Vegas won’t be able to help the Bruins here, there will be a solid market for backup goaltenders at affordable rates.
The Colorado Avalanche, like Vegas, will be bad. As such, they’ll likely be looking to unload Jonathan Bernier for futures at the deadline. Bernier has a career .915 save percentage and his $2.75 million cap hit wouldn’t be an issue.
After a stellar campaign backing up Henrik Lundquist in New York, Antti Raanta is taking over the Coyotes’ net. The 28-year-old pending UFA may be a part of their long-term plans, but should he regress under the weight of full-time duties or simply be outplayed by pending RFA Louis Domingue he would add considerable depth and talent at the position.
Former B’s goaltender Chad Johnson continues to bounce around the league, this time making his second stop in Buffalo. He filled in admirably last season for a struggling Brian Elliott in Calgary, even supplanting him as the starter at one point. He and his $2.5 million cap hit are unlikely to finish the season in Buffalo, where the rebuild is still under way.
Best of Both Worlds
A useful crop of pending UFAs set to be available at the trade deadline provides the Bruins with an excellent opportunity to have their cake and eat it too.
They can go into the upcoming season intent on giving their prospects a shot to earn and keep roster spots. The core remains strong enough to keep the club in contention while the youngsters find their game at the NHL level. Ideally, they do just that, enabling Boston to compete while retaining assets, picks and cap space.
Should they not provide Boston with the desired impact or solutions, the team and fans alike can take solace in the knowledge that holes in their middle six forward lines, questionable left-handed depth on defense and even goaltending depth are all issues that can be addressed at the trade deadline, and for a moderate cost.