It doesn't sound or look like the Boston Bruins have much of a plan to replace Patrice Bergeron whenever the veteran center decides to retire.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, that time could come as early as this offseason.
Bergeron said earlier this week he needs more time before deciding whether he'll return to the Bruins for the 2022-23 season. He's 36 years old, just finished his 18th season with the franchise and his contract is about to expire. Even if Bergeron does return for the upcoming season, the end of his career probably isn't far away.
Obviously, it's enormously difficult to replace a first-ballot Hall of Fame caliber player such as Bergeron. But after listening to Bruins general Don Sweeney's end-of-season press conference Wednesday, it's painfully obvious the team isn't ready -- not even close -- for the post-Bergeron era, whenever it begins.
"We are going to give Patrice as much time as he needs," Sweeney told reporters. "You could look at plans B and C and such, but let’s be honest, you don’t replace that type of player and what he means to our organization. That might take years to replace that player in that sense. We do have to give him all the latitude in the world to make the best decision for he and his family. We’ll do that. He’s given us indications that he’s not going to hold us up in that sense in terms of what we might have to do subsequent to him making a decision. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think there’s a timetable on it.”
How would Sweeney replace Bergeron when the time comes?
“Again, it might be years in the making in terms of you draft a player like that, develop a player like that, and you count your blessings every day," Sweeney said. "That’s ultimately what it comes down to, to be perfectly honest. That’s how it generally happens for most organizations. When you have an iconic player, a player who's going to enter the Hall of Fame, that’s generally how it transpires. It will be no different probably for the Boston Bruins to find the next type -- I don't know if there'll be another (Bergeron)."
It'll be "years in the making" because Sweeney and the team as a whole have been unable to draft and develop centers for a long time. And there's little to no evidence to suggest that trend will change anytime soon.
Sweeney has made eight first-round picks as general manager. Only two of those selections were centers, and one of them was Trent Frederic, who always projected as a good third-line center -- aka not the kind of guy you select late in Round 1.
The other center was Johnny Beecher, who the B's selected in the first round in 2019 and is arguably the organization's top prospect at the position. Beecher disappointed at the University of Michigan over the last three years, and he scored just six goals in 34 games for the Wolverines this past season. Ten of his teammates scored more goals than him in 2021-22.
Expectations have been high for 2017 second-round pick Jack Studnicka, but his inability to crack the NHL lineup on a full-time basis over the last three years is concerning. Barring an unexpected turnaround, it would be surprising if Studnicka ever blossomed into a top-six center in Boston.
Finding a top-six center in the draft could prove difficult for the Bruins in the next few years beyond just scouting the right guy. The B's don't possess an ideal amount of draft capital, either. They don't have their own first-, third- or fifth-round picks in the 2022 NHL Draft. The team also traded away its 2023 and 2024 second-rounders in recent deals.
The Bruins' inability to draft and develop centers has forced them to dip into free agency or the trade market to fill out the third and fourth lines, and then to replace David Krejci on the second line when he left the franchise last offseason. Erik Haula ended up being the No. 2 center in Krejci's absence. Haula is a nice player and had a strong second half of the regular season, but he's not a legit No. 2 center on a title contender. Neither is Charlie Coyle, who's signed for the next four seasons with a $5.25 million salary cap hit as a No. 3 center.
So, not only is there no future star center in the pipeline, there's no viable bridge option, either.
Again, replacing a player like Bergeron is extraordinarily difficult. But the Bruins have made that task far harder than it needed to be by drafting so poorly. The lackluster drafting forces the team to give up draft picks at the trade deadline to add the necessary depth to win in the playoffs. And the lack of picks makes it harder to win in the draft. It's a vicious cycle that doesn't end.
The Bruins had a decade to find someone capable of filling a top-six center role for the post-Bergeron and post-Krejci era, and they've produced nothing in that regard.
If Bergeron does retire this summer, the Bruins' top-two centers are Haula and Coyle. Good luck getting anywhere near the Stanley Cup Final with that tandem.