Bruins’ Mismanagement of Salary Cap By Sweeney Proving Costly

When free agency officially opened on July 13, it was a mad dash by general managers (GMs) to try and sign some of the big names on the market. One of those teams that were quiet and it came as no surprise was the Boston Bruins. Entering free agency, they had just $2.3 million available to try and improve the roster. To open up more cap space, GM Don Sweeney could have made some trades to free up more money, but he chose not to do so.

There were buyout options, but again, Sweeney did not decide to buy out anyone on his roster. Instead, he watched as some big names that were available get scooped up by other teams or return to their current teams. As is the case with every summer around free agency, they were linked to some names that could help secure roster depth for not only the 2022-23 season, but also the future. In reality, it never seemed like they were ever going to be in on those players.

Prior to free agency beginning, Sweeney did make a trade by sending Erik Haula to the New Jersey Devils for forward Pavel Zacha, who was a restricted free agent (RFA), but someone that Sweeney recently locked up. They were not in on many free agents, and the biggest reason why is because Sweeney hand-tied his own hands tight by mismanaging the Bruins’ cap space over the last couple of seasons.

Bruins Spent Big in 2021 Free Agent Class

Entering free agency in 2021, Sweeney had a lot of money to spend and he went out and spent it. He handed out a combined $44.85 million in contracts to forwards Haula, Tomas Nosek, and Nick Foligno. Defensemen Derek Forbort was also brought in, along with goalie Linus Ullmark. That does not include bringing back Taylor Hall and Mike Reilly, who were both acquired at the trade deadline in deals for the end of the regular-season push and playoffs. If you include them, the overall total of money dished out was $77.85 million to seven free agents, plus Hall and Reilly.

Don Sweeney Bruins
Don Sweeney, Boston Bruins GM (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Out of all the deals handed out last summer, the one that looks like the biggest bust is Foligno. He was signed to a two-year, $7.6 million contract with an average annual value (AAV) of $3.8 million. For $3.8 million in 2021-22, the Bruins got two goals and 11 assists in 64 games with a plus/minus of minus-13. He started out on the third line, but found himself on the fourth line, averaging 12:28 of ice time a night, by far the lowest of his 15-year career of 50 games or more played in any single season. For the second year in a row, the Bruins and new coach Jim Montgomery will get a 34-year-old veteran for $3.8 million. That’s a tough sell on anyone, never mind a first-year coach.

Related: Bruins Hiring of Montgomery Checks All the Boxes for Sweeney

Haula had more value last season and was really an unsung hero in the second half of the season when he solidified the second-line center position between Hall and David Pastrnak. He finished with 18 goals and 26 assists with a career-high plus-19, which played a major role in raising his trade value to be moved to the Devils.

Forbort struggled at the beginning of his first season in Boston, but he got better as the season sent along and became a valuable penalty-killer. He is locked up for another two seasons with a $3 million AAV. Nosek settled in right where he was expected to as the fourth-line center and rarely left that spot. He is carrying a $1.75 million AAV for the upcoming season.

The biggest contract handed out to a newcomer last summer was to Ullmark in the net. He got a four-year, $20 million contract and he split the time with Jeremy Swayman between the pipes. In the future, it’s likely that Swayman gets the nod over Ullmark as the full-time goalie, and having a backup goalie with a $5 million AAV is tying up a lot of money.

Linus Ullmark Boston Bruins
Linus Ullmark, Boston Bruins (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Charlie Coyle is another deal that is tied up with a lot of money. After being acquired from the Minnesota Wild at the 2019 trade deadline, he played a big part on the Bruins’ third line in the playoffs that keyed a run to the Stanley Cup Final. He was given a six-year, $31.5 million extension in November of 2019. After struggling at the beginning of last season as the second-line center, he dropped down to the third-line in January and played better in a role suited for him. Having your third-line center making $5.25 million a season is not ideal. Reilly was brought back on a three-year, $9 million contract and he struggled mightily at points last season and so much so, that he found himself on the outside looking in when Hampus Lindholm was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks. Boston has an overload of left-shot blueliners heading into next season and trading off Reilly could have freed up $3 million.

Bruins Had Limited Cap Space at the Wrong Time

The first day of free agency was bonkers. There was a lot of talent that switched teams for a lot of money. It almost makes you wish the Bruins had the cap space they had in 2021 to throw around all kinds of money. In the Atlantic Division alone, the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings added significant pieces and the case could be made that they are ready to pass the Bruins in the standings.

Leading into free agency, Sweeney had acknowledged that the Bruins are a cap team and would be quiet in free agency.

“There’s no question that financially, from a cap perspective, we are tight and so are several other teams. The difference is that we have a full roster – minus the injured players that we’ll start on the sidelines – so we’ve got the bulk of our roster in place. I’m certainly trying to look to make some changes to our roster; that may or may not happen, but I’m going to explore that – have been exploring it.”

Don Sweeney

Three moves made by Sweeney on Aug. 8 were moves that have been expected for some time. Captain Patrice Bergeron agreed to come back on a one-year, $2.5 million contract with another $2.5 million possible in incentives. David Krejci re-signed with Boston after leaving for the 2021-22 season to play in his home country of the Czech Republic, but agreed to a $1 million contract for 2022-23 and like Bergeron, with $2 million in incentives. Then later in the day, Zacha agreed to a $3.5 million one-year deal to avoid arbitration. All those moves leave the Bruins over the cap, but they have until the beginning of the season to get below. There are still some free agents available like Nazem Kadri and Evan Rodrigues that would be big additions to Boston, but again, there’s no room with money tied up with other players less likely to make an impact.

Are the Bruins a Stanley Cup contender? That remains to be seen, but they could not add more significant additions because of limited cap space. Their hands were tied by being a cap team and watching everyone else around them in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference get better, while they appear to be running it back with basically the same roster in place from last season. There are still two months until the 2022-23 season begins, but the lack of moves because of a tight cap might not be good enough to find themselves in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If they don’t, it can be pointed to the last few seasons and bad contracts given out by Sweeney

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