2020-21 was a rough year for the Boston Bruins’ defensive unit. Everyone not named Connor Clifton missed significant time with injuries, prospects like Jakub Zboril and Urho Vaakanainen disappointed, and the unit’s lack of depth was exposed in the playoffs. On top of that, a lot of loose ends need to be tied up this offseason to gear the Bruins up for another playoff run.
Mike Reilly will need to be re-signed. Brandon Carlo is a restricted free agent and will probably come back, but his problem with head injuries is a growing concern. The Bruins will need someone reliable who can step into his top-four spot, if he goes down again. Jeremy Lauzon isn’t going to cut it. Plus, with Kevan Miller and Jarred Tinordi potentially on their way out, the defensive depth chart could suddenly become razor-thin.
The Bruins’ front office is fully aware of this and has expressed its desire to pursue some defensemen (particularly on the left side, according to Bruins President Cam Neely). But more important than left or right, they need guys who can stay healthy, have proven themselves in the playoffs, and in a perfect world, won’t cost them too much. Two names immediately come to mind, and one other unlikely player could be a fit in Boston as well.
Jamie Oleksiak is the ideal free agency target for the Bruins this year. He’s not the defenseman that the Dallas Stars thought he would be when they drafted him 14th overall in 2011, but he has grown into a reliable, physical player – just what the Bruins need on the back end.
There’s a lot to like about Oleksiak. He showed some offensive prowess this year, scoring six goals and 14 points in 56 games. Boston’s defense was devoid of scoring outside of Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk, so this is a huge need. He also played a full regular season, which is something none of the Bruins’ defensemen can say.
Boston got pushed around on the back end in the playoffs, especially after Miller and Carlo got injured. At 6-foot-7 and 255 pounds, Oleksiak can be the solution to this problem. He’s not shy about hitting or dropping the gloves with the opposing team’s biggest player but doesn’t throw his body around with reckless abandon. He uses his size the right way, much like Zdeno Chara.
With that being said, Oleksiak has been overlooked this offseason, with other big-name blueliners like Alec Martinez and Dougie Hamilton getting most of the attention. Boston faithful are coming around, though. He fits the mold of the defenseman every team should want on its second or third pairing: big, versatile, healthy, and relatively cheap. His cap hit was $2.137 million last season, and it would be awesome if the Bruins could nab him for a similar price.
The relationship between Vince Dunn and the St. Louis Blues has been sour since the middle of the 2020-21 regular season. Many teams, including the Bruins, were rumored to have contacted the Blues about him before the trade deadline, but no one was willing to pay a first-round pick for him. Now that Dunn is a restricted free agent, it seems certain that he will take his talents elsewhere this summer, and Boston is still in the mix.
He suffered an upper-body injury on April 24 and missed the rest of the season, but it doesn’t look all that concerning in the long run. Before the injury, Dunn had a clean bill of health and was a consistent top-four defenseman for the Blues. He had 20 points in 43 games and also played a significant role in helping St. Louis win the Stanley Cup in 2019. He has everything that’s currently missing from the Bruins’ blue line.
The main concern here is Dunn’s status as a restricted free agent. The Blues demanded a first-round pick for him in trade talks, so it stands to reason that they will match any lowball offers in free agency. Boston might have to overpay for him, but it’d be worth it if they can address a major need. A top four of McAvoy-Grzelcyk and Carlo-Dunn would be among the best defensive cores in hockey.
The New York Rangers have a lot of free agents to worry about re-signing this offseason, and Brendan Smith is low on the list. He and the Rangers never really clicked. With a new coaching staff coming in and multiple defensive prospects preparing to see their first professional experience, the aging defenseman will likely seek employment elsewhere.
So why would the Bruins want to sign him? I can think of a few good reasons. For starters, he won’t demand nearly as much money as the Rangers gave him. They impulsively overpaid him after his promising play in 2016-17, and he never lived up to the big paycheck. However, he took a step in the right direction in 2020-21.
Smith was a good role this year, all things considered. He tied his career-high with five goals and played 16:50 per game, the most since 2017-18. He also showed some leadership qualities in playing alongside both Keandre Miller and Jacob Trouba at different points in the season. All in all, we saw some of his best hockey since the 2017 playoffs.
This wouldn’t be the most exciting acquisition, and he probably isn’t any team’s first choice. But he has matured, he’s in better shape than in years past, and he has more to offer on the offensive end than the likes of Jarred Tinordi or Connor Clifton. The Bruins can realistically pick him up for one or two seasons, with a yearly cap hit in the 1 to 1.5 million range. That’s a fair price to pay for a serviceable third-pair defenseman with some scoring ability.
Blue Line Should Be Among Bruins’ Top Priorities
When Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug left in 2020, the immediate question about this Bruins team became its defensive depth or lack thereof. That question was never answered, and the Bruins paid for it by getting exposed on the back end against the New York Islanders in the second round. They need to solve this issue to remain Stanley Cup contenders.
First on the list of priorities will be inking Taylor Hall to a long-term deal and bringing back David Krejci. After that, next on the list should be fortifying their blue line. Bring back Reilly and Carlo, and add some new pieces. There are a lot of names to choose from this offseason, but the physical Oleksiak, the versatile Dunn, and the veteran Smith would best serve Boston’s needs while allowing them to maintain the rest of the roster.
All three of them have proven that they can play at a high level under the spotlight of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and all three can be signed for a fair price. Once free agency officially begins on July 28, Boston should waste no time in going after these players.
I cover the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Fan of all things New England sports.