BRIGHTON, Mass – Don Sweeney certainly didn’t go the Boston Celtics route and promise anything resembling fireworks when NHL free agency opens at noontime on Saturday.
Instead, the Bruins general manager predicted the B’s would be mostly quiet as opposed to the last couple of off-seasons when they were among the biggest spendthrifts with large free agent deals for Matt Beleskey and David Backes. In hindsight, both signings were overpaying at premium rates for a bottom-6 grinder in Beleskey, and for an aging workhorse in the 32-year-old Backes. The big, strong Backes is a born leader and a necessary physical presence on the roster, but he will also be hard-pressed to maintain his level of play throughout the life of a five-year contract that’s about two years too long. So Sweeney will instead be content to wait it out in “patient mode,” seeking a good deal that fits Boston’s needs, and blends in well with their salary cap structure.
“We’ve been in this market the last couple of years, and I’m in a patient mode. I think we’ve positioned ourselves with the strength of our prospects and commitment to our prospects that we feel excited about that,” said Sweeney. “Development camp is coming up next week and I’m really looking forward to seeing where some of our players are at. So, to answer your question, supply and demand usually dictate when you have to jump [into the free agent pool].
“The ultimate goal is to continue to improve our team. Picking the team on July 1 is probably not what we’re going to do. We’ve got some players that are going to come in and challenge for some spots and some opportunity, and we feel they’re ready to do that. We made the decision obviously in qualifying all of our players that we felt would come back and add to the strength and depth of our hockey club. There’s a couple of areas that we have been looking at and to continue to add to the depth and improve the club. I’ve certainly been in a lot of trade conversations with clubs looking at our prospects and swapping in that manner, so I’ll continue to do that. That doesn’t necessarily happen today or tomorrow; that can happen throughout, and it happens and players have changed teams.”
The Bruins certainly kicked the tires on Minnesota’s tandem of Marco Scandella and Jason Pominville before they were ultimately dealt to Buffalo, but the sense is that Jonas Brodin is the Minny D-man that Boston really wanted. Instead, Sweeney and Co. continue to search for a left-shot defenseman for their top-4 and join several other teams including Tampa Bay and Montreal in their league-wide scouring for such a player.
The Bruins may also take a look at top-6 left wing options for David Krejci, but the expectation is one of Anders Bjork, Jake DeBrusk or Danton Heinen could “pop” during training camp. If not then the B’s can revisit that need during the season ahead of next season’s trade deadline just as they did this past spring with Drew Stafford.
The B’s hope to pair off Zdeno Chara and Brandon Carlo in the grand 2017-18 scheme as a shutdown duo, and then find a left-shot defenseman to pair with 19-year-old Charlie McAvoy in a mobile, up-tempo defensive duo. Certainly they could swing Kevan Miller over to the left side after he got his feet wet on his weak side last season, and Torey Krug remains a possibility for more top-4 duty if they need more time in-season to find the player they’re looking for.
Sweeney stressed that the Bruins are “comfortable” with the right side of their defense on the NHL roster, and would only be looking for a right-shot defenseman in a depth capacity in case injuries hit Boston hard. In essence and completely unsurprisingly, that means the Black and Gold are not going to be invested in the Kevin Shattenkirk sweepstakes. Instead they will be honed in on a left-shot solution that could bridge them to a time when Jakub Zboril and Jeremy Lauzon are ready for NHL duty. Sweeney didn’t want to discount potential NHL chances for Matt Grzelcyk or Robbie O’Gara either, but the Bruins would be wise to get another frontline left side D-man considering that their only truly legitimate top-4 guy on the left side is a 40-year-old Chara.
“We’d like to continue to explore [outside options] or have one of our lefties step up, yes. The answer to that is yes, we have been exploring,” said Sweeney. “I don’t know whether or not it’s going to come to fruition here in the next day and a half, but we also know that both [Rob] O’Gara and [Matt] Grzelcyk have played [NHL] games. Tommy Cross has played games. We have guys internally that would like the opportunity to see if they can take that stop and play. Again, we feel very comfortable [with the current group] on the right side.”
So where does this leave the Bruins?
Certainly they will be interested and ready to discuss any options when/if young, left-handed defenseman like Noah Hanifin become available on the trade market. It remains to be seen if a theoretical package surrounding next year’s first-round pick, Ryan Spooner and perhaps a prospect like Zboril would be enough to get something like that done. But there are also short-term free agent options like Dmitry Kulikov, Trevor Daley and Michael Del Zotto on the market starting at noontime. Kulikov, in particular, makes sense given his youth, potential affordable price tag coming off a down year in Buffalo and Boston’s previous trade interest in him when he was a member of the Florida Panthers.
The Bruins have upwards of $14 million in salary cap space, so price isn’t going to be a problem even if 21-year-old David Pastrnak is going to eat up almost half of those reserves when he eventually signs a long-term extension.
But whatever it is might not be an immediate solution for the Black and Gold as Sweeney moves into “patient mode” for the first time as Bruins GM during the free agent frenzy period, and simply waits for the right solution to present itself to the organization.
Cannonballing into the overpriced free agent pool hasn’t exactly worked for the B’s in the last three years, so they’re going to try a different approach this July with an ascending hockey club that’s got a foothold after last spring’s playoff appearance. Only time will tell if it’s the right call, but it certainly plays into Sweeney’s strengths to opt for the drafting and development over the quick fixes in free agency.