Entering his sixth offseason of his tenure as the general manager of the Boston Bruins, Don Sweeney has his work cut out for him. This team is at a crossroads, and, as a result, the 2020 free-agency period and Entry Draft will be crucial in determining just which path the club takes.
The Bruins roster is essentially divided currently into two starkly opposite components: the aging veteran core that is quickly watching its chances of winning another Stanley Cup dwindle, and a stable of young players who have shown flashes of promise, but have often frustrated head coach Bruce Cassidy.
It is up to Sweeney to bridge that gap if the team is to see any real success in the next few seasons. But, there are a myriad of challenges standing in his way.
Let’s start with what we know. A solid contingent of both veteran players and emerging talent is under contract for next season, including forwards Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, Charlie Coyle, Anders Bjork, Sean Kuraly, Ondrej Kase, and Chris Wagner, and defensemen Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Connor Clifton, and Jeremy Lauzon.
Both goaltenders, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, also have deals in place for the 2020-21 season, which will most likely be played entirely in 2021. Prospect Dan Vladar, who took the spot as backup when Halak moved up to the top netminder spot in Rask’s absence during the 2020 playoffs, also inked an extension.
To Be Determined
This offseason, however, is much more about who is not on that list. Probably the most notable name omitted is Torey Krug, an offensive-minded defenseman who will be an unrestricted free agent. Recent comments by Krug and Sweeney appear to indicate that the Michigan native will probably not be a Bruin when the new season begins.
Also, you can add long-time captain Zdeno Chara and hometown guy Matt Grzelcyk to the list of defensemen who will be looking for a contract when free agency begins. Grzelcyk will be a restricted free agent.
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Although there have long been rumblings that Grzelcyk is among the odds-on favorites to be exposed for the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft following the 2020-21 season, the chances are good that he will at the very least receive a qualifying offer from the Bruins to remain in Boston one more season. With the return of two key D-men up in the air, that is good news for the near term.
Chara, of course, is a different story. The captain will turn 44 on March 18. He has expressed his desire to keep playing, and comments made by the Bruins brass recently make it sound as though there is at least some interest in keeping him in Boston. However, if he does get another presumably one-year deal, his on-ice role promises to be significantly diminished. That will leave the team with an open position on the first defensive pairing.
Up front, only Jake DeBrusk and Joakim Nordstrom’s contracts expire this year. DeBrusk has played three seasons alongside Krejci, giving him a good deal of familiarity with the veteran center. Still, despite displaying a ton of speed, scoring ability and star potential, he has been largely inconsistent.
Rumors were circulating Thursday afternoon that DeBrusk is being marketed for a potential trade, with the Carolina Hurricanes supposedly interested. Of course, numerous trade scenarios are being proposed right now, so there may or may not be any truth to these reports.
In addition, there reportedly may be some interest on Sweeney’s front in acquiring the mega-talented Oliver Ekman-Larsson from the Arizona Coyotes. If that move can be made, it would certainly go a long way toward improve the Bruins’ defense.
That being said, Ekman-Larsson will not come cheaply. Even if Krug goes elsewhere, another top player or two would almost certainly have to be dealt in return to cover the $8.25 million cap hit from Ekman-Larsson’s contract that runs through the 2026-27 season.
In addition to DeBrusk, forward Anders Bjork’s name has been a popular one on the trade rumor circuit of late. Bjork received a three-year contract extension worth $4.8 million in late July, but that doesn’t mean his spot in Boston has been solidified. Bjork frequently drew the ire of Cassidy in the latter part of the 2019-20 season, and his time on ice suffered as a result.
For his part, Nordstrom is poised to be an unrestricted free agent. Given the fact that he has been a solid part of a high-energy fourth line during his time in Boston and that he was arguably one of the team’s top playoff performers, he may be looking for, and find a team willing to provide, a higher-priced contract than the Bruins are usually willing to pay for fourth liners.
Another huge question mark coming into the offseason is whether or not Rask will be willing to return to the ice. He has left the team a few times in the past to deal with family issues, including opting out during the first round of the 2020 playoffs.
Rask has hinted at possible retirement in recent months. Sweeney and Bruins president Cam Neely seem to expect to see the Finnish netminder back between the pipes in 2021. However, it seems fair to wonder how committed he is at this point in his career.
Halak filled in for Rask to the best of his ability in the playoffs, but he looked more like a very good backup than a serious candidate for the top job. Vladar has played well in the AHL and ECHL, but has next-to-no NHL experience. It will be interesting to see if the Bruins look outside the organization for a goalie or try to further develop one of the three or four stellar prospects already in the system.
Compounding these personnel issues is the fact that Sweeney does not have a ton of picks to play with in next month’s draft. Most importantly, he traded the team’s 2020 first-round pick to the Anaheim Ducks as part of the deal that brought Kase to Boston and relieved the burden of a large chunk of David Backes’ contract.
The Bruins also have no fourth-round pick, as that was traded to the New Jersey Devils in the February 2019 Marcus Johansson deal. If Sweeney is hoping to use draft picks to fill some needs, he doesn’t really currently have the firepower to go after a big-name player.
The Bruins need a few more Coyles and McAvoys on their roster if they are honestly committed to winning the Stanley Cup in the next few seasons. Sweeney will need to use all of the tricks in his bag to bring in the right talent to bolster the aging core and lead the fledgling young stars.
It can be done, but under the circumstances, finding, and paying for the right difference-makers certainly will not be easy. Bruins fans can expect to see a roster shake-up unfold in the next month or so. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.