Cam Neely doesn't anticipate the Bruins being very busy during NHL free agency, and that should be a very good thing.
"We'll see what transpires over the course of the offseason, but I don't envision [a busy free-agent period]," the Bruins' president responded when asked if general manager Don Sweeney would be busy when free agency begins on July 1. "We have to take a hard look at our roster and see if we can add. It doesn't necessarily have to be a veteran player. Maybe it's a younger player with some experience rather than a player with no NHL experience, but we do have some players in Providence at the pro level that we're looking to see as well. Are they ready to contribute at the NHL level?
"We've had an opportunity to see what we have coming up, and maybe it gives us an opportunity with those prospects to add somewhere else [via trade]. It's in a sense where we're getting a young [NHL] player but with some experience, we may have the assets to be able to do that."
It will be a prudent departure from the last two seasons, when the B's signed high-profile forwards Matt Beleskey and David Backes to five-year contracts for pretty good chunks of money. The two met team needs in the areas of size, strength and grit at the time of their signings, but Boston received mixed results from both.
Beleskey had a good first season, but -- due to his conditioning, and a knee injury -- he trailed off last year to the point where he was a healthy scratch for three of the Bruins' six playoff games.
Backes was pretty good in a top-6 role in his first season with the B's, and played some of his best hockey during the playoffs. But he also had nights during the regular season where he was a big, plodding winger who wasn't much of a factor physically or offensively, and, at age 32, it stands to reason there will be more, not less, of those kinds of games going forward. Clearly, Backes has excellent leadership characteristics and his toughness is something the Bruins badly needed, but the $6 million-a-year price tag feels like it's going to be problematic.
"David had a hard time adjusting," said Neely. "He mentioned that at the end of the year that it was more of a challenge to come to a new city and a new team and get to know 22 to 24 other players. That took a while for him to get adjusted."
Overall, however, Neely defends the Backes signing.
"I feel like David is really built for the type of playoff hockey you have to have and play to go deep," Neely said. "I feel he's a great leader. He's helped the young kids a ton. If he can pick up a little bit of a step in his game, which he's going to work on in the offseason, I think that's going to be beneficial for him and us. But, I like his physicality. I like the fact that he'll stand front of the net and pay the price to be there. I think offensive-wise, we got kind of what we expected from him. Would we like a little more? Yeah. But, all the things that he brings, I thought that whole package was a welcome addition."
Both Backes and Beleskey, however, should serve as warnings to Neely and Sweeney as they attempt to strengthen an young, exciting team with a bright future ahead. The best weapons in Boston's quest to become "a deeper, more talented team" won't be found in free agency, where there are imperfect fits at premium prices. The Bruins should avoid being big players in free agency, whether it's a left winger for David Krejci or a top-4 defenseman on the left side.
Instead it sounds like the Bruins are leaning toward trades, and that's an encouraging development for a team that shouldn't overpay for anything right now. Both Kevin Shattenkirk and Karl Alzner are set to receive massive contracts as the best two free-agent D-men on the market, and names like Ron Hainsey, Dmitry Kulikov, Andrei Markov, Kris Russell and Michael Del Zotto shouldn't inspire the B's to go running for their checkbook.
Instead the Bruins should wait for things to settle down with the expansion draft and free agency, then utilize some of their treasure trove of prospects to swap for a left winger like Gabriel Landeskog or a left-side defenseman like Cam Fowler.
It looks like the Bruins are curbing the instinct to overpay in free agency as they did with Beleskey and Backes. That's another step in the right direction for a Black and Gold group that may be starting to get it.