The Boston Bruins' blue line took a hit in the offseason when Torey Krug departed for the St. Louis Blues in free agency. Fast forward a few months and the B's haven't replaced him with another top-four defenseman.
The blue line remains an area of weakness for Boston as the 2020-21 NHL season approaches. The regular season is scheduled to begin Jan. 13, and right now the Bruins are going into the new campaign without the ideal amount of talent, depth or experience on the blue line.
So it wasn't too surprising that when Bruins president Cam Neely was asked about trade activity and the free agent market potentially picking up now that we have a season start date, he noted that the team could look to add on the back end.
"Well I think now that everybody's kind of seen what the schedule is and when the start is, things may pick up a little bit," Neely said on a Zoom call with reporters Monday afternoon. "Some teams are still a little bit pushed up against the cap and will probably have to do something. There was no real rush, I don't think they had a feeling that they had to do anything anytime soon, but now we have an actual start date, things may change.
"I still think we’d like to still explore our back end a little bit. Even though we feel we've got some guys that can step in, it's just a matter of the experience piece that everybody likes, but you don't get experience until you play. I think you’re never really satisfied with your lineup, so I mean I'm sure Don [Sweeney] is still looking at potentially tweaking or adding, but we'll see what happens the next couple of weeks here.
Neely mentioned earlier in the call the Bruins have some younger defensemen that the team wants to evaluate and see if they're ready for a regular role at the NHL level.
This group of players likely includes 2015 first-round pick Jakub Zboril, 2017 first-round pick Urho Vaakanainen, prospect Jack Ahcan and others. Younger players already on the NHL roster, including Matt Grzelcyk and Jeremy Lauzon, also will be battling for more ice time in Krug's absence.
Adding a veteran to the mix would be ideal for the Bruins. Experience very much matters on the blue line, even more so in a shortened season when there are fewer games, less practice time and mistakes have a greater impact. A poor start will be tougher to overcome in a 56-game season compared to a normal 82-game campaign. Let's not forget Boston will be in a new "East" division with four of the league's top seven teams from last season. The competition will be fierce.
Some of these younger defensemen could step up and play an important role. Vaakanainen, for example, has an impressive two-way skill set. But it still makes sense for the Bruins to find a little more experience for the blue line.
So, who could they target from the outside? The best remaining free agent defensemen are Sami Vatanen, Ron Hainsey and Travis Hamonic. Bruins captain Zdeno Chara is still a free agent, too, and when asked about the 43-year-old defenseman's status, Neely said "Well, we still have to flush that out. You know I think Zee was waiting to see what the schedule looked like, how it may impact his decision, so we’re still flushing that out."
If Chara doesn't come back, the best option among free agents is Vatanen. He's a good skater, a quality playmaker and could contribute to the power play. He's an offensive-minded defenseman with 51 games of playoff experience.
The Bruins also could make a trade for a top-four defenseman, but their prospect pool isn't loaded with high-end talent. They'd probably have to give up NHL talent in a trade of that caliber. Trades also might be harder to make this season due to many teams, including the B's, having limited salary cap space.
The best-case scenario for the Bruins on the blue line is one of the younger defensemen shines on the third pairing and the team only needs to add a veteran for depth at the trade deadline. If that doesn't happen, the Bruins will need to determine whether sacrificing quality trade assets for a top-four defenseman makes sense given the team's current window to contend for championships.