The Boston Bruins have completed a handful of transactions since NHL free agency opened on Oct. 9. They re-signed Kevan Miller on the first day and added Craig Smith a day later. Then Wednesday, Boston announced it signed Jakub Zboril on a two-year contract and signed two-way deals with Callum Booth and Greg McKegg.
Meh? None of those particularly move the needle for a franchise searching for answers after a second-round playoff exit. Smith is the biggest name, but he’s never scored more than 25 goals in a season. It’s more of a depth play.
The Bruins didn’t nab their top target Taylor Hall after he signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Sabres, nor did they make a move for Oliver Ekman-Larsson now that he’s staying with the Arizona Coyotes. Torey Krug left for the St. Louis Blues after he and the Bruins couldn’t find common ground on a deal.
Boston may be turning its sights toward former Florida Panther Mike Hoffman. TSN’s Frank Seravalli mentioned the Bruins as a potential destination for the 27-goal scorer on Insider Trading on Tuesday. Hoffman’s value should land between $5.5 million and $6.5 million for a one-year deal, Seravalli said, so something of a Taylor Hall-lite. But the Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators could also be in play for the 30-year-old winger along with the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks, Seravalli said.
Free agency can be a fickle slot machine, as Boston has discovered. What if this is it for the Bruins?
If the Bruins don’t land Hoffman or any of the other top-tier available free agents, they’re still left with the core that reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2019 and won last year’s Presidents’ Trophy. 17 players remain from both squads, so Boston is still stocked with playoff experience.
Eight of the team’s top nine scorers return. The only one departing is Krug. Granted, some of Boston’s top players might miss the early part of the season after the team confirmed offseason surgeries for Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and defenseman Charlie McAvoy.
McAvoy had a right knee arthroscopy on Sept. 8. He expects to be back by the start of next season, the team said.
Marchand’s sports hernia was repaired on Sept. 14 and Pastrnak underwent a right hip arthroscopy and labral repair two days later. They likely won’t be available when the next NHL season kicks off, reportedly on Jan. 1, 2021.
Marchand is expected to miss five months, while Pastrnak, the NHL’s co-leading goal scorer, should be out four months, according to the Bruins. Those timelines push their return a month to two months into next season. Will Boston have the depth to keep pace during the absence of its top two scorers?
It puts more pressure on Patrice Bergeron to be a No. 1 option, and David Krejci and Charlie Coyle will need to assume larger roles.
There’s also the goalie conundrum. Tuukka Rask constantly feels like a Rorschach test for Bruins fans. They see what they want in him: either a Stanley-Cup-winning Venezia contender or someone who immediately needs the hook for Jaroslav Halak.
The talent is still there, it’ll be a matter of surviving the early season absences and finishing better.
Other Free-Agent Targets
Say the Bruins miss out on Hoffman, for the sake of argument. Who does that leave for Boston to fill its needs?
Start with their own free agents. Long-time captain Zdeno Chara has said he wants to continue to play and continue to play in Boston.
“I’m committed to the Boston Bruins. I’m committed to the Boston fans and the City of Boston. I think I expressed that a number of times. I’m excited about the future of this team. We are gonna do whatever we can to win another Stanley Cup,” he told NHL.com.
That would be a stabilizing force and show good will, leaving fourth-line wing Joakim Nordstrom as an unrestricted free agent and restricted free agents Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk and Karson Kuhlman. Retaining depth should be a priority for Boston, but the Bruins should also try and shore up the firepower they’ll be missing.
They have a little over $10 million in cap space with DeBrusk and Grzelcyk still to add. That might not leave a ton of room to improve. Hoffman would make a nice bridge – he can be a top-end weapon during Marchand and Pastrnak’s absences and would slot well lower down the depth chart as a weapon punching above his weight once they return.
Boston could also pilfer other Florida Panthers like Evgenii Dadonov or Erik Haula. Mikael Granlund or Anthony Duclair is also worth a look. Do something. The division is improving, and you can’t run it back without your two lead dogs at the start.
Should the current trend continue, and Boston simply view free agency for the sidelines, the Bruins may lean more on their farm system at the start of next season.
Top prospect Jack Studnicka played two games in the NHL last year and amassed 49 points in 60 AHL games. Next year would be a great time for the former second-round pick to make the leap to the big club full time.
Trent Frederic and Urho Vaakanainen also logged NHL minutes in 2019-20. Pencil them into bigger roles next season both before and after Marchand and Pastrnak return.
They both split time between Boston and Providence over the previous two seasons. It’s high time the first round picks stuck around.
Boston has the depth both on its active roster and organizationally to weather short absences from Marchand and Pastrnak. The situation becomes thorny if either misses more than a few months. The Bruins expect to contend for the Stanley Cup and will need their full arsenal to make that a reality.
Retaining their core should remain their priority, but Boston can’t ignore the potential of outside help. Start with a big run at Hoffman, and hope for swift recoveries.