It’s encouraging to hear that Don Sweeney isn’t under any illusions about where the Boston Bruins stand right now.
The Bruins general manager understandably broke down the second round series against Tampa through the filter of Boston at less than full strength with the departure of Tuukka Rask. Those were the same things we heard from other Bruins folks over the last week as if fickle puck bounces were the difference in not being able to win more than one game vs. the Lightning in a seven-game playoff series.
Sweeney also mentioned how things might have been different if the Bruins had won the two overtime games, and maybe that is true.
But it’s also obvious in watching the B’s fall to the divisional rival Lightning twice in the last three postseasons – and in just five games each time – that there needs to be some significant adjustments made with Boston’s roster if they hope to get a different outcome the next time they come face-to-face with Tampa Bay. To not admit as much would be akin to banging your head against the wall while hoping there will be a different result other than a brain-splitting headache.
“We’re going to explore ways to improve our club between now and [the Oct. 9 start of free agency] and see what transpires. We’re looking to make some changes in our group. I feel very good about the overall organization where we are and how competitive we are. But I’m not doing my job if I’m not looking to improve our hockey club on a daily basis, without being dissatisfied,” said Sweeney.
“I know our group needs to be pushed and have hopefully some internal growth with some players that are coming up on waivers. They have to have an opportunity to make our hockey club. Otherwise, we [have to] make hard decisions.”
Clearly, one of those hard decisions will be with respect to Torey Krug. In a perfect world they would love to retain the 29-year-old offensive defenseman, but it sure doesn’t feel like they are in a good salary cap place to sign him to a big money, long term deal.
Let’s assume that Krug is a goner that will sign for something in the neighborhood of $7-8 million per season elsewhere unless the Bruins clear major space off their cap. If the Bruins intended to give that kind of money to a free agent defenseman then a chase for pending UFA Alex Pietrangelo would make a lot more sense given the investment involved. But that’s a hockey story for another day.
So then what is Sweeney referencing when he mentions “making some changes”?
Clearly some of it is about Trent Frederic and Jack Studnicka pushing at the NHL level next season to bring equal parts size, strength and skill to the Boston lineup. Sweeney mentioned Zach Senyshyn as well, but this humble hockey writer will believe it when he sees it with that player.
Studnicka looked like he belonged jumping into Boston’s lineup against Tampa Bay in the playoff bubble, and it appears that he’ll provide production, energy and young legs at center or on the wing next season.
Frederic could bring similar versatility while adding size, strength and a mean streak that Nick Ritchie couldn’t quite summon effectively during his time in the lineup.
But where will the Bruins open up NHL roster space for these players?
It will be from areas of abundance on the NHL roster. The Bruins have plenty of young winger candidates in Studnicka, Frederic, Anders Bjork and Ondrej Kase, and they have a player in Jake DeBrusk due for a considerable raise this offseason. DeBrusk has averaged 20 goals per season in his three NHL campaigns and he’s got 14 goals in 49 playoff games, which is even an uptick in goal-scoring when it comes to the postseason.
But against the Lightning in those two postseason showdowns, DeBrusk has a grand total of two points and is a minus-5 in the 10 playoff games. What good is DeBrusk as a goal-scorer if he can’t get inside the Lightning defenders when it matters most at playoff time, especially considering that the B’s will need to get through Tampa just about every year as a divisional rival?
The 23-year-old left wing is going to end up getting something in the $4-5 million range for his second contract, and might just be at his peak value in terms of trade discussions. That’s an interesting development with a Bruins club that’s got a number of good, young wingers at the NHL and AHL level.
DeBrusk might just become a trade chip given his overall value, given the demand for him as a young goal-scoring winger and given the inconsistency he’s never quite grown out of during his first three years in Boston.
There’s also the center position where Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Charlie Coyle have given the Bruins strength, production and excellent two-way play down the middle over the last couple of seasons. But it also appears that Studnicka is going to be ready to play very quickly and would be best suited to be a top-9 center at the NHL level.
Could the Bruins explore dealing Krejci in the final year of his contract to clear the $7.25 million cap hit off the books while getting younger and more explosive down the middle after everybody looked slow and tired against the Lightning? The 34-year-old playmaking center is entering the final year of his deal and can be dealt to half the teams across the NHL given his contract’s no-trade language. Krejci showed once again during the playoffs that he could still help a team good enough to reach the postseason, but it also appears the writing is on the wall that he’s approaching his final year in Boston either way.
Watching the Bruins look older, slower and not nearly as deep or well-rounded in their playoff series against Tampa Bay, the solution should be to start cracking up the older core group while they can still get value for veteran players.
It certainly sounded like Sweeney was weighing significant roster moves while considering the young players needed to step up and produce if a seismic move or two does come down with the NHL roster.
“I don’t know what transactions may or may not take place for our hockey club, or any others. Obviously, there are trades that have happened even while the playoffs are going on, which is again very unique to everybody. There’s been plenty of talk of teams trying to move pieces around and players to improve their own clubs. We’re going to do the exact same thing. Having conversations, I’m pretty aware of how teams are valuing players on our roster,” said Sweeney.
“I have to look at it and say ‘okay, does that mean we have the internal growth available to fill that spot? Anytime you look at moving players in and out, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul in the situation. We have to understand that.
“Where we have depth in our organization and where we’re trying to improve is an area that we have to understand. There is always exposure and risk associated with that. Generally, you know your own players better than anybody else’s but you’re trying to learn what the other player can bring to the table and where they fit. We did that at the deadline. It worked in the Carolina series and it didn’t work in the Lightning series perhaps as an organization. We didn’t play our best hockey and we weren’t at full strength. It’s really incumbent upon me as a manager to improve our club. It’s on me to explore every opportunity we have to improve [the hockey club]. There are certain players I certainly want to avoid [moving] because they are part of what we are trying to accomplish right now, and in the future. We’ll try to do that, but I have to explore to continue to improve our club.”
Sweeney’s comments were far from an ironclad guarantee he’s keeping the core group together, and instead sound like a realist’s look at what happened over the last few weeks against the rival Lightning.
The Bruins need some changes moving forward as they run headlong into the offseason, and it sure sounds like Sweeney is poised to make some.